Book Review: “The Chinese Maze Murders” by Robert Van Gulik (1957)

My parents are hardcore mystery fans, so much so that I’m surprised my siblings weren’t named Agatha, Hercule, or Miss Marple. For some reason, I had never gotten into the mystery genre for novels, though mystery/suspense/thrillers are easily my favorite types of movies. When I picked up a Robert Van Gulik novel at a yard sale one year, I purchased it for its Chinese-ness, not its mystery. When I found The Chinese Maze Murders and decided to give it a whirl, I immediately fell into the story, the plot structure, and the mystery to the point where I began ordering more of Van Gulik’s novels before ever having finished this first book. 

As I made my way through the story, I also checked out Judge Dee’s page on Wikipedia to learn more of this fascinating genre. While so many aspects to its history and even current popularity in the French language were surprising, I was most intrigued by the fact that Robert Van Gulik entered this career of mystery-writing almost by accident. He had translated an ancient Judge Dee mystery from Chinese into English and Japanese and, after recognizing its success, decided to write more Judge Dee mysteries to be translated into Chinese and Japanese. It was not until these mysteries’ success in the latter languages that Van Gulik decided to publish his own English version, obviously with a happy reception. That’s an authorial scenario that not too many writers experience.

Since this particular story was the first I ever read, it greatly interested me. The intertwining of three plots, specifically, was the book’s biggest draw, for it lent to it an heir of authenticity and modernity. Real-life investigators must juggle their cases, not giving full attention to just one, as many past novels and movies seem to ignore. Within the past several decades, however, popular novels has come to include a large variety of story-lines that seem varied and yet somehow intertwine. Van Gulik accomplished this same feel very well in his Judge Dee books by giving the Judge a very full plate with multiple crimes and yet the mental capacity to solve them each in turn.

If you like mysteries, Judge Dee is your man to solve them. And if you enjoy a little ancient Chinese history, you certainly can’t go wrong with Van Gulik. He doesn’t mind getting gross in some of his cases and their descriptions, so reader beware. His artwork also tends to fit in the occasion pencil-drawn naked lady. But beyond that, his books are great. He’s worth a shot.

©2013 E.T.

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