Monday, October 15, 2012

The Chinese Bell Murders

The Chinese Bell Murders, by Robert van Gulik

This has been my book to take to the gym for the past few weeks and I've enjoyed it very much.  Robert van Gulik wrote several of these stories in the 50s; he lived in China and was expert on the culture and literature, and he wanted to imitate Ming Dynasty stories for a Western audience.  They became quite popular, so let's take a look.

Literate Chinese citizens of the 17th century enjoyed detective stories as much as we do.  Stories generally featured a local magistrate as the detective; the magistrate is the judge of a city and its environs, and it would be his job to figure out a crime.  He would have a team of trusted sergeants to help him.  A detective story would have three or more crimes as plot strands woven together; it would end with justice meted out in public and other conventions met. 

Judge Dee was a legendary star of detective stories.  He was a real judge in the 7th century T'ang Dynasty, and stories grew up around him.  By the 17th century he was a favorite detective--like Sherlock Holmes.  Stories about him were not set in the distant past but in the writers' present.

Van Gulik used all of these elements to write mysteries that satisfied traditional requirements and introduced Westerners to a realistic description of Chinese life during the 17th century.  The Chinese Bell Murders has three mysteries: the rape and murder of a young woman, a suspiciously luxurious Buddhist monastery,* and an old blood feud between two families.  Judge Dee solves them all and metes out justice accordingly, while still being a nicely-drawn human character.

He also illustrated the stories with his own pictures based on Chinese woodcuts.  They are very nice illustrations, and somehow manage to look both traditionally Chinese and just a teeny bit like British line drawings too (they reminded me of the WWII-era Henrietta books' drawings!).

*Buddhist monks were frequent villains, or at least lazy wastrels, in the detective stories.  The traditionally-minded Confucianist officials who read and wrote these tales looked upon the newer religion as a suspicious interloper.


Eva said...

I find this terribly intriguing, esp since I've had such luck w Pearl Buck's novels (as opposed to many of the actual Chinese authors I've read, which I've had difficult connecting with/found distasteful/etc.). Putting it on my TBR list!

Chinoiseries said...

Oh Robert van Gulik! I adore his Judge Dee books, read them in Dutch when I was in my teens. Glad to see another fan of his books :)
I vaguely remember his grandson (or another member of his family) retiring from teaching at my university only a few years ago. That van Gulik was a Japan specialist though, so I never took classes with him.

Will you be reading more of Judge Dee?

Jean said...

How neat that you know them! The library has several of them, so I will happily read more. Too bad they are in hardback and thus not good gym reading material.