Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Corpse Reader Crosses Genres to Deliver

Inspired by Song Cí, the first CSI
I don't read many mysteries. As a genre, they usually don't have enough "draw" for me; I look for more than is offered in most run-of-the-mill who-dunnits. But The Corpse Reader, a novel about the dawn of forensic science in China, first written in Spanish (and then translated into Japanese and Dutch, among other languages) sounded like it would appeal on more than one level.

As I read it, I kept seeing parallels to other historical mysteries: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Blooding by Joseph Wambaugh, The Coffee Trader by David Liss, and an intense tale of the search for a Soviet-era serial killer that so far as I know is only available as a movie: Evilenko or Citizen X.

It seems to me that Garrido has merged religious ambience (as with Eco's novel), nascent forensic investigations (like both Eco's and Wambaugh's novels), a Byzantine bureaucracy (like Soviet Russia from the two movies), and a clumsy, nearly unlikeable, disaster-ridden protagonist (as with Liss's coffee trader), to spin an engrossing, challenging story.

The author has put a lot of thought and research into The Corpse Reader, but it doesn't read that way. It is only when you dig into the end-papers of the novel, read the author's notes and his discussion of terms, that you realize that echoes from The Name of the Rose are no circumstance. While in the midst of Garrido's tale, however, you only feel the pull of the story. What will happen to young Ci Song? Will he survive his trials at the Tsong Emperor's court? Can he solve the mystery?

And that's the triumph of this fiction-from-fact, that who killed the corpses Ci reads becomes much less important than finding out how Ci will discover the truth. I'm glad I gave it a chance to impress me.