on 7 May 1999
This is much more than a most exciting detective story with different complicated crimes being brilliantly solved. It is also a fascinating glance at the ancient China - a guided tour into the Oriental way of thinking. Written with amazing credibility and expertise, the Judge Dee stories (especially this novel and "The Chinese Bell Murders") are perfectly suited for people with little pre-knowledge who want to learn to understand the Chinese.
I can't find a single flaw about this book. It's plain brilliant.
on 4 April 2009
Judge Dee is loosely based on an actual historical ancient Chinese figure, wonderfully brought to life by Gulik. As Gulik was an avid sinologist as well as diplomat and writer, he is uniquely poised to present us with every-day life in ancient China. It is this detailed knowledge of Chinese history that permeates his stories and gives them their unique flavour, and also the reason why ever since I first discovered Judge Dee, I have managed to buy all of Gulik's Judge Dee books.
Judge Dee stories are written in a way that resembles traditional Chinese conventions. Therefore, the "detective" (i.e. Judge Dee, in fact a magistrate in ancient China), deals with three different crimes in any book. These may somehow connect, but they may just as well be completely unrelated. Gulig's notes help further immerse the reader in the exotic atmosphere of ancient China.
The book is written in the familiar Gulig way, with the Judge solving these mysteries using his uncanny powers of observation and deduction, much like a modern sleuth would. However, adding to the mix Gulig's effortlessly convincing representation of ancient China and his easily-read prose, makes this another great Judge Dee book.
Highly recommended to anyone, whether a Judge Dee novice or a fan.
on 16 August 2010
The previous novel in Judge Dee series is "The Chinese Bell Murders", the next one is "The Chinese Nail Murders". It's not necessary to read the novels in correct sequence, but I recommend that you don't start the lecture of the Judge Dee series with this book. That is because this novel is set in a border region which is in some important ways different from China proper. You will be able to understand and appreciate this better if you have read one or two other novels first. You are recommended to start with "Gold Murders" which is the first one in the series, or "Bell Murders" which is so very good.
As all Judge Dee novels, this one begins with the judge, his family and assistants arriving at their new location in which he will remain the representative of the imperial government for the next couple of years. His every-day job consists mainly of solving crimes and settling legal disputes.
While most Western detective novels are extremely unimaginative (the whole plot moves around one crime which is almost always murder, as if other crimes didn't exist), Judge Dee (logically) has to simultaneously solve several crimes that bear no connection to each other. Therefore, several plot lines move parallelly and the judge has to plan how to divide his resources and which actions to take in which order.
Judge Dee is helped by his four faithful assistants who follow him from district to district. They have different skills and help the Judge with advice and fulfill tasks that are considered unworthy of a magistrate. Since the Chinese customs (not to mention factors like political intrigues and a threat of barbarian attacks) don't enable a criminal research with such straightforward methods as we are used to, you'll see some actions planned with devilish Oriental cunning - from the criminal as well as from the law enforcement's side.
What I so admire about Mr. Van Gulik is that his characters are totally credible. They don't apologise to 20th century American readers for not being politically correct. They act and talk and think just the way I am ready to believe the ancient Chinese did. When a witness is reluctant to speak, the judge has him whipped, because that's what he's supposed to do according to the law that is valid in that time and place. Judge Dee and his assistants don't go about bemoaning the horrible fate of the poor girls sold into brothels, and dreaming about times when women will have equal rights. No, they consider it normal. They just see to it that the brothel-keepers obey the law, and have no mercy with the ones who don't. Occasionally, we get an educational monologue by Judge Dee about how and why the Ancient Chinese society is the best there could ever be, and even though I personally might disagree, that's exactly the right thing for that kind of a character to say in this kind of a book.
Therefore, the Judge Dee novels are so much more than just crime stories. They are a thrilling, fascinating, exhilarating inside view of the ways Oriental people lived and thought and related to each other. James Clavell is great but he doesn't come even close to this.
Another thing I admire is Mr. Van Gulik's mastery of English, which is even more remarkable because it's not his native language. He masterfully makes his characters speak formally of informally, as is required in one or another situation. He also takes great care to explain the meaning of his characters' actions according to Chinese customs. What's truly unique in this book is the way Mr. Van Gulik explains everything Chinese in the English language. The authors who are native English speakers so love to show off their knowledge of foreign language. If they know three Russian words, they somehow find a way to use those in their novel, and the readers, also native English speakers, are awestruck with the author's linguistic competence. So, it's next to impossible to find a novel on China without quite a few Chinese terms, and everyone considers it natural. After all, many things and concepts of China are just so foreign to us that it's next to impossible to find translations for them. Well, the Dutch author Mr. Van Gulik who not only writes in English but is also pretty damn competent in Chinese has find a way to write about China without no Chinese terms whatsoever. He makes his characters speak the common English language. He names Chinese things with English words ("boxing" instead of "Kung Fu"). He has even translated women's first names into English. That has the effect that when you read his books, you feel not like an outsider looking at the Chinese world, but actually like being inside the Chinese world. That is admirable, far more than I can express with words.
For the conclusion, let me give you one style example from p 61:
"Ma Joong bent over in his saddle and asked the steward in a conversational tone:
"Have you ever seen how in the army they flog a criminal slowly to death with a thin rattan? It usually takes about six hours."
The bewildered steward respectfully replied that he had not yet had that advantage."
The book: Judge Dee and his team are moved to a new area: Lan-fang on the NW border, and with a strong Uigur population. When they arrive the tribunal is almost derilict, as a local tyrant runs the town for profit. While trying to deal with this predicament, the Judge is also confonted with the murder (in a locked room, of course) of a retired General; with a family feud over a testament, with clues in a painting; and with a missing girl. And the Uigur threat is increasing...
The writer: Robert van Gulik was an Orientalist and diplomat; he wrote this book in 1956 (but in the internal chronology of the series it falls between Poets and Murder, and the Phantom of the Temple). His wife, Shui Shifang, was the daughter of a former Imperial Mandarin. He wrote the Judge Dee stories (based on the historical Dee Jen-djieh, 630-700) because he felt that there was not enough Eastern detective fiction; and also to amuse himself!
My opinion: I love these books because of their wonderful atmosphere, underpinned by a deep knowledge by the writer of both the history of the country and its literature. This is the very first Judge Dee story van Gulik wrote (in fact it was published in Japanese in 1951 and in Chinese in 1953), and it is a very good one. Atmospheric, full of good detective work and puzzles, tense and mysterious. Re-readable, too - I think this has been my fifth read, and I'm keeping it for more! Great books.
on 18 March 2013
Having successfully translated and had published a 400 year-old Chinese detective story, highly respected diplomat, linguist, and sinologist Robert van Gulik searched in vain for a successor. The problem was that none of the surviving Chinese detective manuscripts were really suitable for modern Oriental or Western readers. So van Gulik decided to write a detective story himself, but based on plots from the ancient Chinese manuscripts. Planning more than one novel, he decided to have as 'his detective' the celebrated, and real, Tang magistrate Judge Dee, who lived from 630-700 A.D. With great skill the author wove a coherent fictional tale around the judge and his assistants, located in a fictional city, using fictional Chinese plots created hundreds of years ago. The first book in the Dee series, The Chinese Maze Murders features several grisly murders, a locked room mystery, and a very authentic sub-plot of treason involving a local warlord, and Turkic barbarian invaders. Probably the most grisly aspect of the novel, however, is the detailed description of ancient Chinese punishment of the evil-doer. Setting the standard for all his subsequent novels, van Gulik includes a detailed historical context and the whole is couched in a seemingly very realistic portrayal of every aspect of period China. To avoid the novel seeming like a history lesson, van Gulik gives his characters dialogue appropriate to the time of publication without at all detracting from the period feel of the book. If you enjoy a good read you will enjoy this - if you have the slightest interest in ancient China - you will love it!
on 11 June 2014
Van Gulik's versions of Ming Dynasty tales of Tang Dynasty legal venerables are charming and compulsive reading. But why do they cost so much on Kindle and why aren't all the books available in that handy form? Judge Dee is an engaging protagonist so bite the bullet and pay the inexplicable extra. We are reading descriptions of Ming rather than Tang China, as was the case with the original Chinese models, but for those of us who hardly know the difference it is quite fascinating. No lawyers, no jury, torture was permitted and prisoners had to confess, yet justice appears largely to have prevailed as the enduring legends of Die Renjie would testify. Van Gulik's versions are written to be accessible to a Western audience and I plan, eventually, to read them all. I am spreading it out over time to prolong the pleasure.
on 10 May 2012
This is a good read, as Judge Dee stories always are. This one is set in Lan-fan, in the far west of China, where China merges into the steppes of Central Asia. An exotic setting! The reader will encounter the usual plethora of deftly drawn characters. There are some excellent dramatic episodes and scenes. Van Gulik was at the height of his powers when he wrote this. At close to 300 pages, it is one of his longer novels
on 30 December 2013
The Judge has to deal with a killer who tortures their victims.
A hidden clue in the picture of a maze and a murder in a sealed room.
It will have you wondering right up to the conclusion.
One of the best.
on 1 March 2015
Excellent novel set in historic China. Gives a real sense of the times without lecturing the reader.
I hope the other 4 titles in this series will soon be available (Gold, Lake, Bell & Nail Murders(
on 20 June 2014
always enjoy, historical friend, pleased to re read, delighted to find Judge Dee on Kindle and have now re read them all - nostalgia !