Stuffed Crocodile

Mazes, Martians, Mead

Review: The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders
The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Judge Dee novels by Robert van Gulik are a strange beast. The author was in the Dutch diplomatic service in Asia during WWII and decided to translate an old Chinese mystery novel based on stories of the historical Judge Dee Renjie. (the Tang-era personality still is well-known in China, there have been two high-end movies and multiple TV series based on the same character within the last decade or so).
The original book, the Dee Gong An, was written by an anonymous author in 17th century Ming-dynasty China, and recounted three cases as they were solved by the main character and his assistants.
After this translation saw some success on the market van Gulik decided to try his hand on writing mysteries in the same style as the original book, which makes this book, and all of the 14 or so that followed, basically fanfiction.
Rather good fanfiction though, and some that captures ancient China in a way that it hardly has been before or after in the west. Robert van Gulik was a noted Sinologist, and he seemed to go out of his way to let his knowledge shine through, even if the structure of the novel was slightly westernized. (traditional Chinese mysteries had a Columbo-style reverse Whodunit format, where the murderer is known from the beginning).

The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier books in the series, and very closely follows the model set by the original book, but allows for some deviations. One of these is the framing narrative which has a Ming-dynasty gentleman writing down a story related by someone he met in a wineshop. Which explains why this story has the social conventions of the Ming Dynasty instead of the Tang Dynasty, and all other historical inaccuracies. (cute, but a bit bothersome; van Gulik would later fade out this part of his narrative structure, after it became more and more bothersome to use it).
It also has a slightly cumbersome beige prose format, which takes getting used to. This is a direct holdover from the original novel, which tried to related things like a true crime account/court document than a western novel. This also would be abandoned in later novels.

Judge Dee has just been assigned to the far off border province of Fan Lan when he already has to deal with a few mysteries and a political powder keg: a local strongman has taken over the city by bribery and force and killed at least one previous magistrate, a widow relates the story of a weird testament to him, a girl has disappeared, and a retired general has been murdered in his own locked study. The judge and his assistants go on doing their jobs trying to unravel these mysteries at the same time.

It is this interconnectedness of the cases which makes these novels so interesting. A judge/magistrate in ancient China often had his hands full with things and could not just leave one case lie around while he cared about the others.
And so one case might be solved, but in it’s wake leave an even bigger mystery.

In my opinion this is a perfect little gem of a book. Later books in the series varied the formula towards a more westernized form of storytelling, but in this book we have something that both provides a look at normal life in ancient China, and a good mystery story.

View all my reviews


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