Someone summarized this as "an oriental Holmes and Watson plunked down in an Indiana Jones movie". I'm happy with this description and could already stop there. Ancient sage and scholar "with a slight flaw in his character" Master Li would be the Holmes, and his previous client, now assistant, strong peasant Number Ten Ox, who also narrates the story, would be Watson.
"I wasn't sure that any autopsy could be delightful, but I didn't care. The old fire had returned to Master Li's eyes, and I felt like a warhorse who was being called back into battle."
Both investigate a mystery of a killed monk and a stolen manuscript from his library in old China. They live in a "China that never was", surrounded by partly invented Chinese gods, would-be gods, ghouls, ghosts, witches, and similar mythological creatures. This time, they even navigate through the several layers of hell, presenting a lovely homage to Dante's Inferno.
They sometimes have to adapt to imperial court rules, but more often are up to their own in the country side, jumping from one action heavy adventure to the next torture chamber just like Indiana Jones would do. Just like that famous movie series, it doesn't take itself serious at all, throwing wildly comical scenes around.
One-Eyed Wong and his beloved wife, Fat Fu, have worked very hard to earn the reputation of running the worse wineshop in all of China. The notoriety gives them a clientele that is the envy of the empire.
Many readers won't have heard about this author or book: Barry Hughart only wrote three novels, all of them between 1984 and 1991. This novel's predecessor is Bridge of Stones which won the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award for best fantasy. In fact, that first book was even better than this one, and I beg you to read it first. Sadly, I have no review up for it on this blog.
Hughart escapes strict genre categorizations, but stays formulaic in his storytelling expertise, meeting reader expectations while drawing the reading ever more into the bizarre, twisting plot. He weaves an incredible amount of cultural details in such a short novel.
Please, don't miss this mesmerizing, brilliantly narrated classic!