Every great detective must have his loyal disciple, and Ox is that to Master Li. Master Li combines the traits of Nero Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes, with his wit, knowledge, and love of food, while Ox strongly resembles Dr. Watson in his strength, courage, and loyalty. Master Li’s recourse to strong drink in excess when he is bored (that is to say, between cases) is an obvious parallel to Holmes’s cocaine habit. Another connection to Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective is the fact that Ox’s ignorance, like that of the assistant to any great fictional detective, permits the author to explain everything that needs explaining. This hoary trick has been used by many, but Barry Hughart adds another: a Roman critic named Quintus Flaccus the Fourth. Flaccus writes to Ox to critique his writing and feels obligated to explain things for his barbarian readers.
Master Li and Ox are not merely copies of two of fiction’s great detectives; they are well-developed characters with many distinctive traits, including Master Li’s love of cheap wine and Ox’s classically Chinese appreciation of natural beauty. In addition, although both Sherlock Holmes and Master Li investigated many cases of supposed supernatural events, Holmes debunked all of his. Many cases of the supernatural solved by Master Li proved to be genuine.
Hughart is a superb writer. His first lines are masterful, and his opening scenes are bizarre. For example, at the beginning of Eight Skilled Gentlemen, the imperial executioner is trying to set the record for the most consecutive one-stroke executions with a sword. Nevertheless, the stories are somewhat formulaic. In all three...
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