Sunday, June 25, 2017

Robert van Gulik's The Chinese Gold Murders

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat who had a very successful parallel career as a writer of the Judge Dee mystery novels. His career as a mystery writer began in the late 1940s with his translation into English (under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee) of the 18th century Chinese detective novel Dee Goong An. Van Gulik felt that Judge Dee was a character with great potential and he tried his hand at writing an original Judge Dee detective novel, The Chinese Maze Murders. Many more were to follow. The third of his original Judge Dee mysteries was The Chinese Gold Murders, published in 1959.

Van Gulik wrote his novels in English. The early Judge Dee novels appeared first in Chinese and Japanese translations but it soon became apparent that the more sensible approach was to publish the English language versions first.

Van Gulik’s idea was to retain as many of the features of the traditional Chinese detective novels (or gong'an) as possible, but presented in a way that would make them more accessible to modern readers. Judge Dee always has three cases that he must solve simultaneously. There are hints of the supernatural but these are toned down considerably. (although not eliminated altogether).

The Judge Dee stories are set in the seventh century AD during the Tang dynasty but as in  the Dee Goong An much of the detail is representative of later eras.

Judge Dee is a magistrate but his duties go beyond judging cases. He is also in charge of the investigation of crimes. He’s like a judge, a District Attorney and a police officer all at once.

The Chinese Gold Murders deals with three early cases that Judge Dee deals with after his appointment as magistrate of the town of Peng-lai. The first and most urgent case is to solve the murder of his predecessor in the magistrate’s post, who was poisoned although there seems to be have been no possible way that the poisoning could have taken place. This certainly qualifies as an impossible crime story.

He also must discover the whereabouts of a missing bride, and the whereabouts of his own chief clerk, as well as solving the puzzle of the body of a dead Buddhist monk. There’s another murder as well plus there’s a man-eating tiger to worry about. Not to mention the possibility of a major smuggling ring. And what is a Korean prostitute doing in possession of official court papers?

As always Dee can rely on the services of the indefatigable Sergeant Hoong and in this novel he acquires two very useful assistants, both former highwaymen.

The idea of three mysteries running in parallel works quite well and adds a touch of realism. Unlike 20th century amateur detectives a district magistrate like Judge Dee would not have the luxury of being able to concentrate all of his attentions on a single case. There are also possible links between the three main cases.

The solutions to some of the puzzles were apparently drawn from the extensive Chinese detective literature so if the explanation for the impossible murder might seem a little far-fetched that’s not Van Gulik’s fault. And the murder method is just about plausible, and it’s certainly ingenious.

The Chinese setting is fascinating and while the details are not always authentically of the Tang Dynasty Van Gulik did have an extensive knowledge of Chinese jurisprudence so those details can be assumed to be basically correct. 

Dee’s techniques are those you expect from a western detective - common sense, observation, interviews with suspects, examinations of the scenes of the crimes, considerations of motives and logical reasoning but they’re combined with a couple of novel methods. Judge Dee is prepared to accept hints with a supernatural (or possibly supernatural) source and he’s also willing to employ torture, torture being regarded during the Imperial period in China as a perfectly legitimate means of obtaining information. Torture was also considered to be essential for procuring a confession, it being impossible to convict someone of a crime without a confession.

The idea of a fair-play mystery was of course quite unknown in traditional Chinese detective fiction. Since that’s the feel Van Gulik is aiming for it’s hardly reasonable to complain if the story does not conform to more modern notions of fair play.

The Chinese Gold Murders is wonderfully entertaining. Highly recommended.


  1. I got off to a bad start with van Gulik and The Chinese Maze Murders, but I shall persevere and give at least the next two or three a go -- I seem to be struggling with a few accepted classics at the moment, so it's more than likely that I'm the one at fault :P

    Pleased this is suitably complex, and that it straddled the conventions of both Eastern and Western stories of this type. That's what I'm hoping for when I hear of this sort of undertaking, so perhaps it comes more to the fore as he develops as a writer. Time will tell...

    1. It's possibly not a bad idea to start with Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, his translation of the 18th century classic. It's radically different from golden age detection but it gives you an idea of the tradition he was drawing on, and of the compromises he made in his own Judge Dee stories to make them more acceptable to readers of the 1950s.

    2. Glad you liked The Chinese Gold Murders, D.

      I always loved this one because the story, as a whole, impressed me as being very Carr-ish in nature, but not everyone agrees with me on that point. What do you think?