Robert H. van Gulik Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In his brief notes explaining the origins of his collection of short stories, Judge Dee at Work (1967), Robert H. van Gulik mused on the importance of each of his three careers: As a diplomat, he dealt with matters of temporary significance; as a scholar, he confined himself to facts of permanent significance; as a mystery writer, he could be completely in control of the facts and give free play to his imagination. It is the interplay of these separate experiences that give van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels a distinct position in the genre of historical mystery novels.

Dee Goong An

A real historical figure who was politically important during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Judge Dee was more popularly remembered as a folk figure, not unlike the Robin Hood of English folk history. The first appearance in English of the famed detective-magistrate Di Renjie (630-700), was in van Gulik’s translation of an anonymous novel of the eighteenth century, Wu Zetian si da qi an, published as Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee (1949). The success of his translation led van Gulik to write his own stories. Though he drew on his scholarly background and interest in China to find stories, create accurate details, and provide illustrations, the Judge Dee stories are fictional, based on the Chinese form but adapted to Western audiences.

In his translator’s preface, van Gulik points out five distinct features of Chinese detective stories. Rather than the cumulative suspense that characterizes Western whodunits, Chinese stories introduce the criminal at the beginning, explaining the history of and the motive for the crime. The pleasure for the reader lies in the intellectual excitement of following the chase. Nor are the stories bound to the realistic: Supernatural elements abound, animals and household items give evidence in court, and the detective might pop into the netherworld for information. Other characteristics have to do with the Chinese love and patience for voluminous detail: long poems, philosophical lectures, and official documents pad the purely narrative, resulting in novels of several hundred chapters; then too, each novel may be populated with two hundred or more characters. Finally, the Chinese sense of justice demands that the punishment meted out to the criminal be described in gruesome detail, sometimes including a description of the punishment the executed criminal receives in the afterlife.

The Chinese Lake Murders

These elements are toned down considerably or eliminated entirely in the stories that van Gulik wrote. In The Chinese Lake Murders (1960), for example, the first, short chapter is a diary entry by an official who has fallen in love with the woman who is to be a murder victim. It appears to be a confession of sorts, but one that is so intensely brooding, vague, and mystical that its purport becomes clear only toward the end of the story. Van Gulik thus neatly manages to include a convention while adapting it. Similarly, Judge Dee is often confronted with tales of haunted monasteries, temples invaded by phantoms, mysterious shadowy figures flitting in deserted houses, and other supernatural elements. A sensitive person, the judge is also often overcome by an inexplicable sense of evil in certain locations, which prove to be the sites of brutal torture or murder or burial—information revealed only after the judge has determined the mysteries’ solutions. Although his assistants are sometimes spooked by tales of ghosts and spirits, van Gulik portrays his judge primarily as a rational man suspicious of tales of the supernatural, and indeed most of these otherworldly elements prove to be concoctions fashioned by the criminals for their own convenience.

The van Gulik narrative flow is interrupted only by his own maps and illustrations, which are based on but not exact reproductions of Chinese woodblock prints; though a short poem or an official account may occasionally appear, they are strictly related to the story. Van Gulik retains the characteristic of the anonymous eighteenth century Judge Dee novel in telling three separate stories that prove to be related. Though he borrowed freely from his historical research, combining stories from disparate sources, van Gulik’s considerable inventiveness and storytelling ability are evident in the way he can maintain the reader’s interest in three separate stories. The list of dramatic personae, grouping the characters by story, is provided as a guide and numbers only a dozen or so.

Although the traditional form is skillfully adapted to modern audiences, what remains completely faithful to the original Chinese detective story is the position of the detective figure, who was always a judge. In the pre-communist social structure, the district magistrate had so many responsibilities over the affairs of the citizens in his jurisdiction that his title meant “the father-and-mother official.” The term “judge” may therefore sound slightly misleading, for not only...

(The entire section is 2067 words.)