In the 13th century, a Chinese man named Song Ci wrote down what became the first texts on forensic science. In the 21st Century, a Spanish writer named Antonio Garrido, wanted to write a book based on Song Ci’s life. Unfortunately, Garrido couldn’t uncover enough details about the Chinese man so he had to forget about writing a biography. He instead decided he might be able to write a historical novel based on Song Ci’s achievements. And why not make it a mystery novel, he thought. Well, he thought right.

While studying to become an assistant to judge Feng, a highly-respected magistrate, Ci attracts attention with his intelligence, his observation skills, and his ability to ‘read’ corpses; the Imperial Court then puts him in charge of finding the author of a series of vicious and brutal murders. When three more victims are found dismembered, Ci realises that more than one person might be involved, and that the motive could come from an old feud. More important, can Ci solve the case before becoming a suspect…or worse, before being the next dismembered victim?

I’m not a huge fan of historical novels (I prefer history books and biographies) and I’m even less a fan of the historical mystery genre. It’s not that I don’t enjoy reading them (I do sometimes), and I certainly recognise there are many good writers who do it successfully and that there’s a huge market out there for the genre; but I just never have the impulse to look for them at the bookstore. Let’s just say that I probably prefer my mysteries and crime novels to take place in the 20th and 21st centuries, even the ones that fall into the historical genre.

Reading about murder investigations in Ancient Greece, Victorian England, Medieval Italy, and other long ago times just doesn’t do it for me. I like my investigators, detectives, cops, and PIs to live in a world I can relate to, even if I haven’t lived before the ‘60s (the 1960s, of course, thank you). There are exceptions, sure, like Umberto Eco’s The Name of The Rose, Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (this one is 1896, not that far) and I’m sure a few more that I can’t remember right now.

Because of my indifference for historical mysteries, when I receive one such book in the mail it usually ends up on my too-many-books-not-enough-time pile, the one I keep on a bookshelf far from my desk, in my office, giving these books a false sense that they’re going to be read one day. They sometimes are; but mostly, the pile just grows. When I received Antonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader, Vegas bookies would have put its chances of being read at around 75 to 1. Or even worse. What defied the odds is that the few books I’ve read about China have always captivated me. Which is why when I read on the info sheet: “1206, Tsong Dynasty. Eastern China. Inspired by the origins of forensic science, it follows Song Ci’s from gravedigger to deciphering corpses” I was hooked. When I started reading the book, I fell in and only got out at the last page, entirely satisfied.

Garrido has done his research well when it comes to the time and place but without overwhelming the story with too many details; I often forgot that it was happening in 1206 because the characters simply took over the story and ran ahead, taking the narrative and twisting and turning with it at each new development. One or two characters aside, all of them were defined with detailed aspects and motivation; almost all can be suspected of murder at one point or another, which makes it a compelling tale that I highly recommend; even if, like me, you don’t often read historical yarns.

THE CORPSE READER by Antonio Garrido 
(translator: Thomas Bunstead, from El lector de Cadaveres)

Rating: 4 thumbprints

As a bonus, you can learn more about the real Song Ci by reading Antonio Garrido’s interesting essay at the end of the book.