June Hur’s 2022 The Red Palace is a stand-alone mystery novel.
Hyeon is the child of a high-ranked official and his peasant mistress; she cannot be legally acknowledged. Her prospects in 18th century Joseon-dynasty Korea would seem to be limited. But she’s bright and hard-working and has managed to train as a nurse. She’s even achieved a position as a palace nurse.
Posts of honor can be perilous.
She is ordered to help physician Nanshin minister to the ailing crown prince. Imagine her surprise when the patient turns out to be eunuch Im rather than the prince. The whole charade appears to have been orchestrated to create an official record that the crown prince was living in the palace rather than haring off somewhere else.
Now Hyeon knows too much. Not only that, she’s easily disposable. Her death would attract no attention. She is all too aware of her vulnerability. She keeps silent and tries to avoid notice.
Until her mentor, nurse Jeongsu, is accused of murdering Lady Ahnbi. The accusation is meritless, motivated only by Commander Song’s lust for revenge on a nurse he blames for the deaths of his wife and child.
Hyeon is convinced that Jeongsu is innocent. However, it’s only a matter of time before Song tortures a confession out of Jeongsu. Hyeon must offer Song an even more promising culprit.
Could it be the crown prince? Anonymous posters have appeared, blaming him for the murder. Hyeon knows he has fled the palace; she knows he has murdered a woman in the past. Could he be the murderer?
And if he is the guilty party, will Hyeon and her ally Police Inspector Seo Eojin survive accusing the man who is a heartbeat away from ruling Joseon?
Another book featuring terrible parenting!
Allowing senior officials to scapegoat innocent people in the name of political expediency, without any regard to guilt, doesn’t seem to be an effective way to limit murders. Nor does this help secure the empire. It’s a good thing for Joseon that it doesn’t have territorially ambitious neighbours or this sort of institutionalized corruption could well have had tragic results.
The crown prince character is clearly inspired by Crown Prince Sado (1735 – 1762). Sado, also known as Crown Prince Jangheon, was a quirky royal who had a troubled relationship with his father. To what extent Sado was a deranged killer or simply the loser of a high-stakes political squabble is a matter of some debate. That said, it seems clear that he was guilty of a murder or two. His father had him put to death in an ugly way: Sado was locked in a chest without food or water, where he eventually died.
This story’s crown prince, like Sado, is homicidal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he is guilty of this particular murder.
Nurse Hyeon has the most astonishing ability to be where she needs to be to overhear important conversations and to discover important clues (like the crown prince’s absence on the night of the murder). Of course this is the author pushing the plot where she wants it to go, but it’s not out of character for Hyeon. She’s motivated and relentless in her quest to protect her beloved mentor, which leads her to lurk in places that any prudent peasant would avoid.
The author leaves room for the continuing adventures of nurse Hyeon and police inspector Seo Eojin — I’d watch the series! But this book works as a stand-alone. It’s a skillfully written, self-contained short novel which offers a satisfying resolution1.
1: I am happy that the author did not opt for what would have been a perfectly believable ending, in which the authorities decide that the facts of the murder are politically inconvenient and off-handedly execute the nurse and the inspector to shut them up.