All in a Maze

"Four things belong to a judge: to hear courteously, to answer wisely, to consider soberly and to decide impartially."
- Socrates 
Late last month, I posted a review of Judge Dee at Work (1967), a collection of eight, historical detective stories situated in Imperial China of the 7th century, which were penned by the late Robert H. van Gulik – a Dutch diplomat and fervent sinologist.

I had read the stories from that volume before, but they reminded me there were a few novels from the series I had yet to read. So I elevated one of them to the top of my to-be-read pile and the only surprising part about picking this particular title is why I hadn't read it before.

The Dutch and English-language editions of The Chinese Maze Murders (1956) were preceded by publications in Chinese and Japanese, which were released in 1951 and 1953. 

Needless to say, the chronology of when and where the Judge Dee novels were written/published can be Confucius confusing, but The Chinese Maze Murders is one of the earlier novels – which did its part in establishing the series and helped popularizing historical mysteries in the process.

The Chinese Maze Murders has Judge Dee arriving in Lan-fang, "a far-away district on the Northwestern border," and, as "a border town," had "to reckon with sudden attacks from the barbarian hordes of the western plains." However, the less than heartwarming and disrespectful reception the new magistrate and his entourage receive proved that the town had already fallen from within.

Lan-fang is under the thumb of a self-styled tyrant, named Chien Mow, who usurped power in the district a decade ago and the only magistrate who dared to go up against him ended up on the riverbank – "his throat cut from ear to ear." As a consequence, the court is in abeyance. So the first course of action for the new magistrate is disposing of "this miserable local tyrant" and reestablish a rule of law, which occupies a large swath of the first half of the story, but it's fun to read how a small, outnumbered group of people outsmarted a small-time despot.

It's not entirely comparable to the scheme Nero Wolfe hatched in Rex Stout's The Doorbell Rang (1965), in order to outwit a corrupt FBI, but the comparison suggested itself to me when reading it.

There are, however, other matters that Judge Dee finds of "absorbing interest" and prefers to concentrate on "two most interesting problems," which are "the ambiguous last will of old Governor Yoo" and the "murder of General Ding that is announced in advanced" – who holed himself up in his hermitically sealed library in his well protected, barricaded home. Hey, I told you it was kind of weird that I hadn't read this one before!

Well, the governor's last will is drawn up in a painting depicting a fantasy landscape and it's included among Van Gulik's illustrations. However, this plot-thread is thin, but dyed scarlet red and run through practically all of the other cases – which makes it difficult to comment upon without giving away too much. Luckily, there's also a murder in a locked room.

The Queen's Blessing
General Ding had "fought a victorious battle against barbarians across the northern border," but felt "unexpectedly compelled to resign" after returning to the capital and retired to Lan-fang. A month before Judge Dee arrivals he began "to notice that suspicious looking men" loitering in the neighborhood and began to wall himself up in his home. You have to take that last part somewhat literally. The gates of the general's mansion are "locked and barred day and night" and "walled up all doors and windows of his library save one." The one remaining door "has only one key," which the general always kept with him.

All of these safety measures proved insufficient in keeping an assassin from entering the sealed library and jab a small, peculiar looking dagger with a poison-daubed blade in the general’s throat.

Van Gulik noted in his postscript that The Case of the Sealed Room "was suggested by an anecdote concerning Yen Shih-fan," who was "a notoriously wicked statesman of the Ming period who died in 1565 AD," which gives some historical credence to a type of locked room-method that's always difficult to pull off without leaving the reader disappointed – especially the spoiled ones such as yours truly.

I mention this here not because I was disappointed about the method, but it felt terribly out-of-place in 7th century China. But, hey, who am I to argue with Van Gulik? He was the expert. The only problem I had, plot-wise, was that's next to impossible to deduce or even guess how it was done and the murderer was better hidden than you'd expect. I figured the murderer had left poison in the room, before the general locked himself in, and the small, poisonous blade was stuck in him after the door was broken down as a red herring that was to draw attention away from the actual poisoning-method. Well, I was wrong.

Anyhow, I think Paul Doherty would nod approvingly at the murderer's motive and army background of the killing, which are plot-elements that regularly turn up in his work.

These are just a handful of the problems thrown in Judge Dee's face upon his arrival in Lan-fang, which also involve a missing girl, barbarians and high treason. Most of these problems seem to eventually lead to an overgrown "country estate at the foot of a mountain" with "an old, dark house surrounded by a dense forrest" and has the titular maze – which is "bordered by thick undergrowth and large boulders" that "form an impenetrable wall."

As I said at the beginning of this post, The Chinese Maze Murders packs a lot of plot and storylines in this single, novel-length story, which is both a strength and a weakness. You're unlikely to get bored with this book, because there's always something happening or turning up – right up to the end when some of the culprits find themselves on the execution grounds about to pay for their crimes. On the other hand, there's so much happening that, plot-wise, the book misses the finesse and grace of some the later, tighter plotted-and written novels – such as The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) and Necklace and Calabash (1967).

Either way, fans of the Judge Dee series and historical fiction won't be disappointed by this entry in the series.

On final, semi-related note: I have tagged nearly 200 blog-posts as a locked room mystery. I see a commemorative filler-post in the not so distant future about this two-hundredth locked room post!


  1. Last year I read a half dozen of these and enjoyed every one of them. I think this may have been the next in line but then, as so often happens, I got sidetracked by other things. But this and another are in the TBR bookcase, and I'll have to move it onto the top shelf.

    1. I'm more than familiar with being sidetracked, because it happens with a certain regularity to me. Anyhow, I hope you'll find the round of Judge Dee novels as rewarding as the first one!

  2. I think I have this in an Italian translation somewhere but from decades ago - thanks for rekindling my interest - and congrats on the double century!

    1. If you really want to re-aquaint yourself with Judge Dee, I'd recommend starting with The Chinese Gold Murders.

      The book has everything: it functions as Dee's origin story, suggestive touches of the supernatural and a good locked room mystery with an overall plot that was a lot tighter than The Chinese Maze Murders.

  3. There's a Dutch radio play based on this book which I enjoyed. It's errr, out there, somewhere. Haven't read the original book though, so no idea how faithful it is.

    1. I guess I'll have to take a "look" at that hoorspel, but I would be much more interested in a TV-documentary titled Onder de bekoring van het Oosten, which was broadcast on Dutch TV in the mid-1990s. It's about Robert van Gulik and Rechter Tie (Judge Dee), but I have only found two snippets on YT (here and here).