The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) by Robert Van Gulik

In China, 663 AD, in the town of Peng-Lai, Judge Dee is tasked with unmasking the murder of his predecessor. But investigating a murder in ancient China is never easy. At the same time, Dee finds himself searching for his missing clerk and a bride, newly married to a local shipowner.

And there’s a tiger stalking the jungle, a monk’s body is found in the wrong grave, and the ghost of Dee’s predecessor is haunting the scene of his murder. With his closest adviser and two newly recruited ex-outlaws, is Dee putting his own life at risk?

After Robert Van Gulik discovered an eighteenth century Chinese crime novel Di Gong An, he translated it and then decided to write his own novels featuring the central character Judge Dee. He deliberately mimicked the style of the original. The notable aspect is the idea that there are three strands to the tale, which may or may not resolve into a single tale. Although the third of the Dee tales written by Van Gulik, this is chronologically the first of them (apart from the original novel) relating how Dee obtains his post.

Others rate this series highly, so, given that I needed a pre-1800 setting for one of the last books in the Just The Facts, Ma’am challenge, I thought I’d give it a go. I’ll be honest… I’m not quite sure what the attraction is here.

Yes, it’s different, and the setting is fascinating, but there are snatches of modern dialogue that felt out of place – apparently, this may be echoed from the original tale, but it still felt a bit weird. The different culture and system of beliefs, though, give the story a depth of flavour that can be missing from some historical tales.

Plotwise, though, there are a number of aspects of the mystery that end up just being told to Dee, rather than him discovering them, which I found frustrating. This isn’t a fairly clued mystery, it’s more Holmesian, and it does break two rules from Knox’s Decalogue – admittedly, it would have been hard to dodge the “no chinaman” rule, but there’s another one too…

I’m not saying I won’t return to Judge Dee – there is a lot of potential in the character – but I found this one a bit lacking, I’m afraid.

Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHEN – pre-1800

5 comments

  1. I read scads of Van Gulik back in the late 70s early 80s. Obviously I liked them, but it is helpful to know the stages Van Gulik moved through. The first few books use older Chinese books as sources, and these books had magical happenings. This was an early book, the first original novel by composition. Later vG hewed closer to western conventions. In the last few books there is a falling off.
    The best single book is probably The Red Pavilion. Another favourite was the Chinese Nail Murders. The Haunted Monastery is short and fun. It has also been filmed rather successfully for TV.

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  2. I think you’re way off in your estimate of Judge Dee. I’ve read (and re-read) them all. I have lots of friends who think that this writer and his character deserve a bigger audience. My gripe is the wholly undeserved praise for John Dickson Carr, who is boring, booooooooriiiiinnnnng. I can’t read his books. They’re plain, unimaginative, formulaic and flat. Which just goes to show “a chaque son goute”, “de gustibus non est disputandum” and to each his own. There’s too much reliance on violence and its’ rude description in a lot of mystery writing, which attempts to substitute the lurid scenes and appalling horror for graceful, interesting descriptive narration and a puzzle. Josephine Tey and Dorothy Sayers are great examples of writers who come at the story from the point of view of the uncomprehending observer and for that are much more engaging.

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  3. Secret passages are part and parcel of Gothic literature. Historically, the original Judge Dee stories pre-date European Gothic literature but very much are in line with everything that made British, French and Italian Gothic literature what it is. You’re going to get lots of Gothic trimmings in a Judge Dee book, except in the later ones, I guess. Knowing you are not at all fond of Gothic and supernatural tinges in detective novels I’m not surprised you weren’t impressed with this unique style of mystery story that often includes ghosts (real or faked) and other fantastical elements. I love these books. THE HAUNTED MONASTARY is excellent. And there are others in the series — CHINESE NAIL… and CHINESE BELL… especially — that I clearly remember being gruesome, weirdly erotic and emotionally charged.

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