We open the Classic Mysteries vault this week to travel back in time nearly 1400 years, to the seventh century and ancient Imperial China of the T'ang Dynasty. That world is carefully reconstructed for us in a series of classic historical mysteries by the Dutch author Hans Van Gulik, whose detective is based on a real historical figure - Judge Dee, a village magistrate (and later, an official in the imperial court), who lived from 630AD to 700. Among Van Gulik's mysteries, my favorite is a book called Necklace and Calabash. Here's an edited version of my podcast review:
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Robert Hans Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat and a serious student of oriental languages and literature. During World War II, Van Gulik translated a classic and ancient Chinese mystery, called Dee Goong An, which recounted some fictional cases solved by Judge Dee, a real magistrate who lived during the T'ang Dynasty, during the seventh century. He published the English translation as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee.
Encouraged by the success of this book, Van Gulik decided to write a series of new stories featuring Judge Dee. Eventually, there were sixteen novels. Most followed a traditional Chinese format, combining three cases into a single interwoven mystery. Van Gulik deliberately wrote his mysteries as if he were writing during the Ming Era, nearly a millennium after the T'ang Dynasty. But, particularly to western eyes, he offers a fascinating picture of what life might have been like in ancient China.
Necklace and Calabash was the next-to-last of the Judge Dee books to appear, but the events described in it are set in the middle of the Judge’s career, when he was a village magistrate in the fictional district of Poo-Yang. While returning home to his district, the Judge makes a stop in the small village of Rivertown. The town is very close to the Water Palace, the summer residence of the emperor’s favorite daughter, the Third Princess.
Judge Dee hopes for a chance to relax and do some fishing. But he is quickly pressed into service, first by Rivertown’s military administrators, and soon by the Third Princess herself. A valuable necklace has been stolen, and it appears that the theft is somehow part of a large and malevolent conspiracy.
On the way to solving the mystery, Judge Dee also finds himself drawn into two other cases – the murder of the cashier at a local inn, and the apparent elopement of the innkeeper’s wife. Again, many traditional Chinese detective stories are put together this way, with the detective solving three mysteries simultaneously.
But, to my mind, Necklace and Calabash – unlike some of the other Judge Dee stories – does a particularly good job at interweaving the three mysteries. And I think that for western readers, Necklace and Calabash will appear much closer to the kind of mystery fiction we are used to seeing.
In many of the other Judge Dee stories, the Judge is assisted by a retinue of regular characters who serve as his assistants. In Necklace and Calabash, he is operating on his own, away from his home, without his regulars. This gives Van Gulik the chance to bring in some other characters. In particular, we are given a Taoist monk, Master Gourd, first encountered by the judge at the beginning of the novel, who will play a very major role in the story – even, at one point, saving the judge’s life. When we first meet him, he appears to mistake Judge Dee for a doctor. So, when the Judge asks him about the calabash strapped to the saddle of his donkey, the old man answers:
“’Emptiness, sir. Just emptiness. More valuable than any potion you might carry in yours, Doctor! No offence meant, of course. Emptiness is more important than fullness. You may choose the finest clay for making a beautiful jar, but without its emptiness that jar would be of no use. And however ornate you make a door or window, without their emptiness they could not be used.’ He drove his donkey on with a click of his tongue, then added, as an afterthought, ‘They call me Master Gourd.’”
There are other characters who also stand out. There is Fern, the innkeeper’s niece, who also helps Judge Dee with his investigations. There is the local military commander, an army captain who has worked with Judge Dee before. And there is the Third Princess herself. When she is first mentioned, Judge Dee observes,
“She was the Emperor’s favourite daughter, said to be exceedingly beautiful. The Emperor granted her every wish, but apparently she was not the spoilt palace-doll one might expect, but a very intelligent, level-headed young woman who took a deep interest in the arts and sciences. Various prominent young courtiers had been mentioned as future imperial sons-in-law, but the Emperor had always postponed a decision.”
Judge Dee’s observations will prove to be quite accurate.
There is not very much of a “fair play” puzzle in this mystery. We are told that in the traditional Chinese detective story, the question of “who done it” is less important than we are used to. However, the mysteries in this story are fairly intricate and well thought out, and there are elements which will puzzle and delight. It’s worth noting that in traditional Chinese stories, there is often a heavy supernatural element. While there is some of that present in Necklace and Calabash, it is hardly overwhelming, and the supernatural plays only a very small role in the ultimate solution.
There is plenty of action here – enough, certainly, to tire out the Judge – and the writing overall is quite good. Necklace and Calabash has always been my favorite among the Judge Dee stories. For a mystery with a fairly gruesome plot, it is pretty upbeat – much more so than some of Van Gulik’s other books.
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Van Gulik's books have remained in print and I strongly recommend the whole series in general - and Necklace and Calabash in particular. If you want to listen to the original podcast, you may do so by clicking here.
Next week: Killer Dolphin, by Ngaio Marsh.