I want to return today to the marvelous Judge Dee mysteries written by Robert van Gulik. Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat, an expert and a scholar in Chinese history. He began his writing career by translating a Chinese detective story, published in the English-speaking world as "The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee." At the conclusion of that book, he challenged other Western writers to try their hands at creating a classic Chinese mystery. When nobody took up his challenge, Van Gulik decided to do it himself, and he turned out fifteen more Judge Dee novels plus a book of short stories. They are all set in T'ang era China, nearly 1400 years ago - and they are fascinating, both for their historical perspective on Ancient China and for their finely-crafted mysteries. One of my favorites, The Chinese Lake Murders, was the subject of an early review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. Here's what I had to say (edited, as usual, to update where needed):
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In seventh century China, the murder of a beautiful courtesan in a small mountain village not far from the Chinese capital proves to be the key to an intricate puzzle that threatens the very existence of the Chinese empire. Robert Van Gulik’s detective Judge Dee investigates The Chinese Lake Murders.
All of the Judge Dee mysteries are set in seventh century imperial China. They are based on a historical character, Judge Dee, an official who served the T’ang dynasty, and who lived roughly from 630 to 700 A. D. Van Gulik was fascinated by the Chinese detective story, a form of popular literature which flourished in China. While his stories all take place during Judge Dee’s lifetime, Van Gulik writes them as if they had been written hundreds of years later, during the Ming dynasty; indeed, many of the original stories about Judge Dee which Van Gulik used as a basis for his character date from the Ming period.
In writing his stories, van Gulik tried to follow the format of the classic Chinese detective story, although he made many concessions to modern western tastes. In traditional stories, for example, the detective frequently was guided to his solution by supernatural means. That might be a nice feature for the otherwise-stumped mystery story writer, but it would hardly be acceptable to most mystery audiences today. So Judge Dee, for the most part, although a devout Confucian, largely avoids the pitfalls of consulting supernatural forces in van Gulik’s stories.
The traditional Chinese story usually wove several mysteries together into one, and van Gulik’s novels follow that pattern. In most of the novels, Judge Dee solves three mysteries simultaneously, and the cases are usually interwoven. Certainly that’s the case in The Chinese Lake Murders.
Early in his career, Judge Dee is assigned as the district magistrate to the mountain village of Han-yuan, about sixty miles from what was then the Chinese capital. The district magistrate was central to the administration of imperial China. He was the ultimate civilian authority in the town, acting as judge as well as detective. He reported to a prefect, responsible for several districts, who, in turn, reported to the central government. The district magistrate was held responsible for knowing everything about his town and its people.
Soon after his arrival in the village, Judge Dee attends a party aboard a flower boat cruising the waters of the village’s dark and mysterious lake. He meets a lovely courtesan who startles him by warning him that she must speak to him urgently about a conspiracy. We are hardly surprised when she is murdered almost immediately thereafter, before she has any chance to explain her warning.
As the judge investigates, he is also called upon to solve the mystery surrounding the death of a young bride and the disappearance of her body. And he is drawn into the curious behavior of an elderly statesman who appears to be selling off most of his property at a loss.
All of the cases eventually prove to be interrelated, and they do lead the judge to discover a deep and dangerous conspiracy that threatens the stability of the empire itself. With the help of his assistants, Judge Dee eventually does solve all the problems before him – and the solutions are quite satisfyingly ingenious.
It is worth talking for a moment about the very beginning of the novel. Van Gulik frequently opened his earlier works with the reflections of some unidentified gentleman of a much later time, usually the Ming dynasty, reflecting back on the earlier events which we are about to witness. That is the case in The Chinese Lake Murders, when we are treated to an odd and rather terrifying ghost story, hinting at dark passions in the events surrounding the mysterious lake at Han-yuan. Only at the very end of the book is the connection explained – again, in a quite satisfying conclusion to the novel.
Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who spent most of his diplomatic career in Japan and China. He was an accomplished linguist. In fact, the first Judge Dee mystery was actually his translation of an old Chinese manuscript. But “The Chinese Lake Murders” and all the other Judge Dee stories were all van Gulik’s own creation, although based on the historical Judge Dee as well as on his character as revealed in many popular Chinese stories.
Reading these mysteries gives us an insight, through the eyes of an accomplished scholar, of much of the culture of Imperial China – together with many of its flaws. But beyond that, the Judge Dee mysteries are quite good and stand alone as fine examples of the art of the detective story. The Chinese Lake Murders is a fine and very enjoyable introduction to the work of Robert van Gulik. Many of the stories, including this one, remain in print, and should be available through your usual source for mysteries.
You can listen to the original podcast review by clicking here.
Next week: The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett.