A fascinating Chinese detective novel

Chinese detective novelRobert van Gulik’s series of 16 Judge Dee mysteries are set in China sometime during the era of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). They’re grounded in his intensive scholarly study of ancient Chinese detective stories, some of which he has translated into English. The Chinese Maze Murders was the first novel in the series.


The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee #1) by Robert van Gulik

@@@@ (4 out of 5)


The book’s historical basis

In a postscript to the book, Van Gulik explains that the character of Judge Dee is loosely based on a Chinese magistrate who achieved fame as a detective some hundreds of years before the Ming Dynasty. Judge Dee was a favorite protagonist in detective novels written for hundreds of years thereafter. He also explains that “In most Chinese detective novels the magistrate is engaged in solving three or more totally different cases at the same time.”

Many mysteries in a Chinese detective novel

In The Chinese Maze Murders, there are six interwoven mysteries that Judge (magistrate) Dee must solve with the help of his four trusted lieutenants. However, the judge himself recognizes only “three real cases. First, General Ding’s murder [in a locked room]. Second, the case Yoo versus Yoo [over an inheritance]. Third, the disappearance of [blacksmith] Fang’s daughter. [The other three] must be viewed as local background. They are separate issues and have nothing to do with the substance of our three cases.” Nonetheless, every one of the six cases posed a puzzling mystery.

Oh, and by the way, there are two additional problems confronting Judge Dee and his colleagues: a criminal has seized power in the border town where Judge Dee has been assigned and is terrorizing the populace, and a conspiracy is afoot to enable the hostile “barbarian” tribes to invade and plunder the town. In other words, The Chinese Maze Murders is unlike any present-day detective novel. No contemporary writer of detective fiction would attempt to maneuver through so many plots and subplots in a single volume. But Van Gulik pulls it off.

Assessing the book as literature

Van Gulik’s depiction of the customs and the criminal justice system of ancient China is fascinating. As a mystery story, it’s less successful, if only because Judge Dee proves to be impossibly discerning, combining the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the combat skills of a Special Forces officer. The author’s writing is also annoying at times. The book is laced with typos and hard-to-explain grammatical errors, and Van Gulik has the exasperating habit of placing an exclamation mark after almost every sentence uttered by Judge Dee.

About the author

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch novelist, diplomat, and musician who authored 16 Judge Dee novels after translating an 18th century Chinese detective novel on which he based the series.

For additional reading

For a taste of a contemporary Chinese detective novel, you might take a look at Death Notice by Zhou Haohui—A detective novel by one of “China’s top three suspense authors”. Please note, however, that I don’t recommend the book.

You might also enjoy my posts:

For an abundance of great mystery stories, go to Top 20 suspenseful detective novels (plus 200 more). And if you’re looking for exciting historical novels, check out Top 10 historical mysteries and thrillers reviewed here (plus 100 others).

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