Book Review: “The Chinese Gold Murders” by Robert Van Gulik (1979)

“Loyalty…that’s the finest thing I know of, Ma Joong!” (150).

Mysteries have never enthralled me, certainly not in the way that they have captivated my parents’ attention for as long as I can remember. But I’m proud to say that within the past few years, I turned my parents on to a little-known mystery writer with such a peculiar niche that few have ever stumbled upon him. Dutch diplomat Robert Van Gulik was a man of peculiar tastes, as Donald F. Lach conveys in his excellent introduction to this book. Van Gulik’s fascination with ancient Chinese artifacts and literature instilled in him a desire to first translate old Chinese mystery stories based upon a true-life detective, Judge Dee, and then later to create his own spell-binding tales of intrigue for an English audience.

Although The Chinese Gold Murders is not Van Gulik’s first-written Judge Dee book, it is the first story he provides in the chronology of Judge Dee’s extensive career. In fact, at the conclusion of the book (needless spoiler alert: he gets his man), Judge Dee apologizes: “A more experienced magistrate would doubtless have unraveled this case sooner, sir. But this is my first post, I am only a beginner.” In this book, Judge Dee takes up a new position as Magistrate of Peng Lai, a small port town of Korean influence along the coast of China. Here he meets for the first time his faithful brutes, Chiao Tai and Ma Joong, who serve as his deputies throughout the Judge Dee series. As Judge Dee steps into this important roll of Magistrate, his first case to solve is the murder of the man he has come to replace.

I found this mystery novel a delightful read, for it truly sends the reader back to ancient China. As Van Gulik depicts life there so long ago, he doesn’t simply describe scenes one might see on an old tapestry, and he doesn’t deliver his characters in the shining costumes of modern Chinese soaps (thank heavens). His characters seem to be flesh-and-blood people with real life problems and opinions, dirt and all, and that places me right there on the streets and waterways of Peng Lai. I hope to go back someday, in fact. I look forward to finding out what happens with Judge Dee at Work.

©2015 E.T.

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