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Mystery Monday Review – The Chinese Maze Murders

The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert Van Gulik

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


As soon as the judge, his family, his servants, and his subordinates arrive at his new post in Lan-fang, the cases begin to pile up. His predecessor has fled without so much as a greeting, a gross breach of manners in the China of the Tang era (618 – 907). The judge finds out the magistrate before his predecessor was murdered in mysterious circumstances.

Besides administrative troubles, he finds that a local tyrant dominates the village with protection rackets and strong-arm tactics. Hordes of Uighurs – barbarians or freedom-fighters, depending on one’s point of view – make battle plans and recruit Chinese as a fifth column. The messy situation worsens when a well-known ex-general is found murdered, the daughter of a blacksmith disappears and an inheritance dispute escalates.

Because the setting is seventh-century China, women are severely oppressed and therefore vulnerable to exploitation of all kinds. Also, the judge’s subordinates are allowed to beat and torture information out of witnesses. The author portrays Judge Dee as an ideal Confucian official. He resolves cases through his incorruptible spirit and benevolent intelligence.

In an afterward, van Gulik openly says that the ideas for the criminal cases come straight from old literary sources, which he then wove together. The progress of the narrative is that of the western detective novel. All the characters play clear parts. The account follows that of a police procedural with a shocking crime followed by careful questioning and following clues. The lengthy reveal and ingenious engines of murder will call to mind mysteries of the 1920s.

Van Gulik’s writing style is a bit simple and uneven. His pages look like Lee Child’s: lists of single sentences, no paragraphs that might scare the reader who reads only in extreme circumstances. The author’s own illustrations can be safely regarded as amateurish and featuring too many topless females. For some readers it might seem like the writer likes dwelling on gruesome violence a little too much. It will depend on the individual reader if the downsides outweigh the intriguing atmosphere and unfamiliar setting of this unique historical mystery.

I myself have a couple more Judge Dee mysteries in the to-be-read stack and I will take the time to read them. But I have no plan to read all 17 of the Judge Dee collections.





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