Plot: it is the year 676, and Judge Dee is magistrate in Pei-Chow, in northern China. It is cold and there are domestic problems; also, a girl has disappeared, and her relatives are pestering the Judge to trace her. Then, a merchant's wife is found, headless, and another murder follows soon after. Soon three cases overlap: the headless corpse, the disappeared girl, and the bath-house murder. Mysteries are hidden under a blanket of snow, love develops in an unexpected quarter, and another death is very personal.
This story is set towards the end of the internal chronology of the series - after his Lan-Fang postings (Maze murders, Phantom of the Temple) and before the final two (Willow pattern, Murder in Canton).
My opinion: this book was written in 1958, in Beirut during van Gulik's posting there - at the time of the civil war. The early pages I thought were a bit disjointed, and I found this book more difficult to get to grips with than usual; but after a couple of chapters I was immersed in the atmosphere I like, Judge Dee dealing with complicated cases, both magisterial and personal.
The research is impeccable - van Gulik was an oriental scholar - but more than that, he draws us into a world, like Conan Doyle does with the Sherlock Holmes stories. It may not be high literature, but it is a world I come back to time and again, and it always gives me pleasure.
In an afterword van Gulik says that he started writing these books for (and in) Chinese, with a much larger cast, but toned it down in the Western translations, as we poor Europeans cannot keep track of too many players! It can feel like that, at times, but not in this book. Later books in the series had even fewer characters, more like twelve.