Robert H. van Gulik Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Robert H. van Gulik’s stories of Judge Dee are fine examples of the historical mystery novel, which recaptures a bygone era even as it tells a good story. Though his stories are fiction, his training as a scholar and a diplomat enabled him to draw on a vast store of historical material to enrich his mystery novels.

During his diplomatic service in Asian countries, van Gulik noted that even poor translations of Western detective stories were enthusiastically received by Japanese and Chinese readers, so he decided to demonstrate the strong tradition of Chinese detective stories that already existed. He started with a translation of an anonymous eighteenth century novel about Judge Dee, then went on to write several more of his own. He originally wrote them in English, then translated some for serial publication in Japanese journals. Western audiences found them so interesting that he decided to continue writing in English, and he translated his own work. He was thus responsible for introducing the classical Chinese detective story to the West, while the minutiae of the novels and his scholarly notes appended to the novels provide glimpses of the ancient Chinese way of life.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Hausladen, Gary. Places for Dead Bodies. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. This study of the settings of mystery and detective novels includes a section on van Gulik’s representation and use of seventh century China.

King, Nina. Crimes of the Scene: A Mystery Novel Guide for the International Traveler. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Another reading of setting in detective fiction that analyzes van Gulik’s representation of China.

Lach, Donald F. Introduction to The Chinese Gold Murders, by Robert H. van Gulik. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977. This introduction to a reissue of van Gulik’s fourth original Judge Dee tale looks back at the author’s career and his most famous character.

Mugar Memorial Library. Bibliography of Dr. R. H. van Gulik (D.Litt.). Boston: Boston University, 1968. Complete bibliography of van Gulik’s writings, published the year after his death.

Peters, Ellis. Foreword to Historical Whodunits, edited by Mike Ashley. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1997. This discussion of the subgenre by a well-known practitioner treats van Gulik’s work; the collection includes van Gulik’s “He Came with the Rain.”

Sarjeant, William Antony S. “A Detective in Seventh-Century China: Robert van Gulik and the Cases of Judge Dee.” The Armchair Detective 15, no. 4 (1982): 292-303. Overview of the Judge Dee stories and the importance of their historical setting.

Van de Wetering, Janwillem. Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work. 1987. Reprint. New York: Soho Press, 1998. Biography and critical study that gives equal time to van Gulik’s writing and the personal experiences informing that writing.