The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders

by Robert van Gulik

A.D. 670 Poisoned plums, a cryptic scroll picture, passionate love letters, and a hidden murderer with a penchant for torturing and killing women lead Judge Dee to the heart of the Governors garden maze and the answers to three interwoven mysteries.

What People Think about "The Chinese Maze Murders"

On the way after a long, slow, dull journey to his new post in Lan-fang, just over the next ridge, the astute magistrate Judge Dee from the Imperial capital, Chang'an (Xi'an), has four horse drawn carts , three wives , an unknown number of children, four trusted lieutenants, drivers, servants and ten highwaymen who ambush the entourage, in a small valley from the cover of a forest, below the hills of remote northwestern China, on the border with barbarian hordes who roam across the river. Getting the gates open in the frontier town takes time, it puzzles the government officials, until they learn that a tyrant has taken over this little provincial city, in the middle of nowhere by the name of Chien Mow, with a hundred of his criminal followers. But he, must start by overthrowing the brutal tyrant and begin his duties to the Chinese Empire and the Tang Dynasty, our overwhelmed judge, learns later of a plot by the barbarians, with the help from traitors inside the walls, to attack the city ...A wonderful mystery, three in fact or more to solve, Dee I have faith in, to do it...A story beautifully written, a plot which never ceases to entertain...

In this one, Van Gulik regains some of the needed pacing and action of The Chinese Gold Murders, and had me intrigued from chapter one. His loyal servants, technically 'reformed,' included a clever thief, Tao Gan, and two former highwaymen from The Chinese Gold Murders, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai. Done in semi-traditional style and based on a legendary figure, Judge Dee, these stories feel somewhat like The Brothers Grimm starring Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. Like Grimm, the story can be a bit bloody, as traditional Chinese mysteries included punishment of the villain.

It depicts Judge Dee, based on a real and most interesting person called Di Renjie, who was a magistrate in Tang China and who even served the infamous Empress Wu as a Chancellor. The depictions of Chinese life in this period appear authentic, and the characters are all very interesting.

The Chinese Maze Murders marks one of the first of 16 novels, novellas, and short-story collections in which Van Gulik, inspired by court cases and his own imagination, actually penned the plots. I can particularly recommend the first book, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and Van Gulik's own The Chinese Bell Murders, The Haunted Monastery, The Emperor's Pearl, The Red Pavilion, and the short-story collection Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories.

Robert van Gulik first wrote this in Chinese for Asian audiences, then translated it into English--actually to facilitate it being translated into Japanese before ever thinking to put this before a Western audience. One of the major differences between that model and the Western sort of mystery is that instead of one central mystery, Dee has three cases that are woven into the plot, and this allows us to roam among all classes of Chinese society of the time. Regardless, Van Gulik's novel and series has the quality of the best historical fiction: Judge Dee and the people surrounding him feel very much of their own place and time--not our own.

The Chinese Maze Murders is my absolute favourite in the Judge Dee series, which spans 17 books in all - including Van Gulik's original translation of Dee Gong An and two short story-collections. Invariably, the five books in the "main" series (The Chinese Gold, Lake, Bell, Maze and Nail Murders), are preceded by a chapter written from the viewpoint of a Ming dynasty official, merchant, or other personage, who, following a ghostly encounter of some sort, recounts one of the specific Judge Dee mysteries.

Adding political issues to be dealt with, this story kept you reading. The solutions to the criminal cases were also greatly interesting (and reading about the Chinese sources in the end made it ever more so). The foreword, postscript and Chinese sources all added interesting insight into the book.