The Corpse Reader by Antonio Garrido came to my attention thanks to a blurb I saw on Booklist: “CSI: Song Dynasty”. Having read Guy Gavriel Kay’s excellent River of Stars relatively recently (my review, author interview), I was eager for more stories set in the Song Dynasty, and this story about Song Cí, the 13th Century pioneer of forensic pathology, sounded perfect. To be clear: The Corpse Reader is a historical novel, rather than the fantasy-based-on-history “quarter turn to the fantastic” fiction Guy Gavriel Kay writes, but I’ve been trying to read more historical fiction lately so I decided to give it a try.
From the publisher:
After his grandfather dies, avid scholar and budding forensic investigator Cí Song begrudgingly gives up his studies to help his family. But when another tragedy strikes, he’s forced to run and is also deemed a fugitive.
Dishonored, he has no choice but to accept work as a lowly gravedigger, a position that allows him to sharpen his corpse-reading skills. Soon, he can deduce whether a person killed himself—or was murdered.
The Corpse Reader is a classic example of “great concept, poor execution.” I admire the idea: setting a semi-fictional biography of a (to most people at least) obscure scientist who lived 800 years ago and on the other side of the world would usually be a recipe for failure, but the fact that this scientist is a forensic pathologist (think: autopsies of murder victims) makes it immediately relevant and familiar to modern readers. It’s a stroke of genius, and it could have been very good.
After all, to make things even more interesting, the idea of forensics in this specific period was practically unheard of. Confucian precepts forbade cutting into bodies, even for most medical procedures. For criminal investigators, arts and literature were considered more valuable skills than medical knowledge. It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary the ideas of Cí Song were.
Unfortunately Antonio Garrido relies too heavily on the exotic, historical setting. The plot of the novel is a rickety structure full of incredible coincidences and transparent setups. There’s sometimes no discernible reason for certain events and character choices, aside from the fact that the author needs to move people from A to B to set up later twists or confrontations. I don’t want to make a list of these to avoid spoilers, but truly, at one point this got so bad I almost gave up on the book right then and there.
The plot also has an odd, seesaw-like quality. Something horrible happens. Then things look up. Then something horrible happens again. Then the situation improves again, until… and so on and so forth. The main character experiences so many reversals of fortune that it, eventually, becomes tiresome and predictable: life’s getting better for poor Cí Song, so I’m sure something terrible is about to—oh, there it is.
Another issue with the novel is the treatment of its historical basis. Don’t get me wrong: Garrido obviously did an amazing amount of research into the late (Southern) Song Dynasty. The book is full of interesting historical facts and cultural references. The bibliography included in the back of the book is impressive. I’m not an expert on this period at all, but much of what Garrido does here seems to be accurate to my layman’s eyes.
The issue lies in the lack of historical perspective Garrido adds to the setting. The period (early 13th Century, Ningzong’s reign) is presented as-is, without giving the reader much of an idea of what came before and how it shaped the times portrayed here. I may have been spoiled by Guy Gavriel Kay here, because his recent novel River of Stars invests so much richness and emotion into a similar period (approx. 70-80 years earlier actually). As I argued in my review of River of Stars, one of its strengths is the sense of historical loss it evokes, especially compared with the period portrayed in his earlier novel Under Heaven. The shadow of a more glorious history hangs over everything that happens in River of Stars.
By contrast, Garrido offers an incredibly static picture of history. This becomes most blatantly clear when, late in the novel, someone in The Corpse Reader summarizes events River of Stars will recognize. From Chapter 27:
“Ever since then, we’ve been in conflict with those damned Yurchen. We still haven’t managed to kick them out, and now it’s us paying tribute to those barbarians! Thanks to them, our territories have been about halved. They’re even occupying the old capital. All because we’re a peaceful people–which is precisely the problem! Now we regret not having a proper army!” He slammed his fist down on the volume.
Again, I may be spoiled by Guy Gavriel Kay here, but compare the sense of richness and melancholy that he managed to inject into a similar contrast between two periods in China’s history. In The Corpse Reader, the complex tapestry of China’s history is reduced to a cartoon. It’s exotic and unfamiliar, which will hit the spot for some readers, but it’s also empty and lifeless. (Note: Garrido also refers to Yue Fei, the character Kay’s Ren Daiyan was based on, as well as to Li Bai, the poet who was the inspiration for Under Heaven’s Sima Zian.)
So. Take the historical setting away and you have a clunky, poorly paced plot full of improbable coincidences. Take the plot away and you have a historical setting that’s well-researched but lifeless. What’s left is an admittedly interesting look at a historical aspect of criminology I was entirely unfamiliar with. Then again, even that isn’t unique now historical whodunits are a dime a dozen. It looks like there even used to be a TV drama based on this same character’s life. While Antonio Garrido’s The Corpse Reader scratched my itch for more fiction set in historical China, I can’t recommend it.