Monday, October 10, 2011


Robert van Gulik’s The Chinese Maze Murders was an interesting book, but for different reasons than you might expect.

According to the author’s Postscript, he wrote the book in the style of an ancient Chinese mystery story.

The traditional detective, in this case Judge Dee, is a magistrate. The magistrate administers a town province. He is the court judge and the commanding officer of the town’s militia. He reports to higher authorities who report to higher authorities who report to higher authorities. This interlocking maze of bureaucrats is the way ancient Chinese government worked.

The magistrate solves at least three cases. In this book, these included:  (1) Solving the locked-room murder of the prominent general; (2) Finding a missing will; and (3) Locating a beautiful kidnapped woman.

When Judge Dee first comes to the town he saves the town from the tyranny of a brutal bully. Later, he saves the town from being overrun by barbarians.

As a part of his investigations, he finds clues in works of art, and he masters the mystery of the Chinese maze.

At first, the formal writing style and Judge Dee’s almost infinite wisdom make the story seem routine. There are few actual obstacles to overcome. But by the end of the story, violence reigns. There is a terrible murder. Judge Dee solves all the cases. He convicts the murderers and witnesses their executions.

The Chinese Maze Murders describes the executions in detail, something traditional Chinese mystery writing requires.

Gulik says that according to Chinese law at the time, the criminal had to confess for a judge to convict him. If the judge believes the person to be guilty, he can torture the criminal to elicit a confession.

In the midst of his investigation, Judge Dee consults a seer. This too, is a part of the tradition.

The author bases this book on at least three ancient Chinese stories adapted for this novel. As you might expect, the role of women is different in this culture than in ours. Vastly different. But the evil described is much the same as you would find today.

I found the story interesting. It was somewhat routine and tedious in the middle, and it ended more violently than I expected.

I’m glad I read this book.

I received this book as a free electronic edition from The University of Chicago Press. As I have said before, I receive one free ebook from this group each month. They send these books, not just to bloggers, but to a wide variety of individuals. A few of the books are mysteries. Most are art, biography, or history. I suppose they are hoping people will read the books and write reviews for book store pages and the like. 

Ordinarily I don’t accept free books for this blog. All the books I write about I’ve bought or borrowed from a library. I made an exception in this case.


George said...

I've read all of Robert van Gulik’s mysteries. THE CHINESE MAZE MYSTERIES is my favorite. The University of Chicago Press has very nice editions of this series. I didn't know about the free ebooks. I'll have to look into that.

Joe Barone said...

I don't know how I got on the Chicago Press list. They just sent me an email one day asking if I'd like to be on their list to get a free ebook monthly. They are all kinds of books, not fiction mostly. I download some of them and don't download others.