Solomon in Kimono

"Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot, which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie."
- Jean Cocteau

Bertus Aafjes (1914-1993) was a Dutch poet, literati and a world traveler whose oeuvre includes several volumes of short stories and one novella length mystery featuring the venerable and sapient Judge Ooka – an 18th century magistrate who presided over Edo. It's understandable that people see him as the counterpart of Robert van Gulik, but the comparison is a superficial one. The tales about Judge Ooka are more poetical, saturated with haiku's, and seldom deal with murder or any other kind of violence. Instead, they focus on complicated disputes, moral problems and secondary crimes such as theft or blackmail. This makes Aafjes a lot closer related to Chesterton than to Van Gulik, however, they do share a literary kinship as both men drew their inspiration from the same ancient texts.

These poetical mysteries also take a new and interesting approach to the impossible problem: that of the seemingly insoluble answer. Judge Ooka doesn't investigate thefts from locked rooms or bodies found in virgin fields of snow or mud, but unties complicated Gordian knots that are presented to him in his courtroom – and coming up with a suitable solution appears to be as impossible as any of the locked rooms dreamed up by John Dickson Carr and his followers. The best example is probably the superb short story "The Case of the Indivisible Horse," in which the judge has to divide thirteen horses, between two quarrelling merchants, and the solution requires more cunning than merely threatening to chop-up the horse in equal pieces and awarding the hole horse to the one who relinquishes his rights in order to keep the animal alive. 

The Trampled Peony (1973) was his last volume of detective stories in which the historical Judge Ooka solves deviously plotted crimes and knotty problems. It's a nice overview of the series and includes nearly every type of problem encountered in his previous cases.

The Case of the Trampled Peony

The story that lends its name to this book starts with Judge Ooka at his country estate, philosophizing about nature and poetry, when he receives a distressing note from an old man whose daughter has just committed suicide – and he's convinced that someone drove her into taking her own life. It's a longer than usual story, in which the judge spends most of his time reconstructing the life of the tragic woman, who was divorced after a charge of infidelity and remarried a drunk writer, and breaks down the hidden identity of the person who's morally responsible for her hanging – based on witness testimonies, a trail of flowery haiku's and a trampled peony. The whole plot is a testament to Aafjes interest in reworking these classical sagas into a contemporary puzzle plot mysteries, even though this story is more reminiscent of Conan Doyle's iconic Sherlock Holmes stories rather than those of his literary, puzzle orientated descendants. But that's really a compliment and makes for a good opening story.

The Case of the Theft in the Tea House

Judge Ooka is visiting a tea house, to admire the life-like murals adorning the interior of the establishment, when he learns that the proprietor was robbed of several pieces of gold, silver and copper. It's obvious who the sneak thieves are, but there's not sufficient evidence to secure a conviction and force them to fork over the stolen money. The shrewd judge hatches another one of Machiavellian schemes, however, it's based on a presumption and relied too much on luck to bring the case to a good ending. Not a bad story by any means, but not up to the best of the series, either.

The Case of the Willow Tree Witness

One of the shortest stories in this collection, in which the presiding magistrate of old Edo is presented with a most singular problem: a man claims to have been robbed of a pouch of coins and the only witness is a willow tree he was praying to. Judge Ooka comes up with another off-the-wall solution to trap the pickpocket, but his pitfall only worked because he was up against an incredibly dense and slow-witted criminal. Nobody with half a brain would've fallen for that ruse!

The Case of the Red Lacquer Box

Judge Kujou of Kyoto, an old friend and rival of Judge Ooka, visits Edo to hunt down a notorious conman who fled his district, but to capture this slippery fellow he requires the help of his friend – and here he finally starts exhibiting his familiar, fox-like cunning and his vice for courtroom theatrics! This is a pleasantly told story that shows plenty of cleverness and it's always a joy to see Judge Kujou put in an appearance. 

The Case of the Bronze Water Reservoirs

The stand out story of this book, in which the architect of the shogun, who's in the process of rebuilding his burned down castle, seeks the magistrates advise concerning a pending order for several bronze water reservoirs. The bronze reservoirs will be a new fixture in the palace, but they are gigantic and the caster has never made them before and refuses to state his price until they've been cast – and the architect has good reasons to assume that he will jack up his price by saying that he used more bronze that he actually did. Remember, this is the 18th century, and there was no way they could accurately weigh these huge reservoirs and check it for themselves. What your left with is a problem that comes very close to being an impossible one, but the sly judge devised a clever stratagem that's almost on par with the one from "The Case of the Indivisible Horse." I really wish these stories were available in English because I would love to know the opinion of my fellow Connoisseurs in Crime in how far these stories can be considered as impossible ones.

The Case of the Deceived Draftee

A surprisingly boring and mediocre story. Judge Ooka is forced to waste his considerable talents to investigate an infidelity charge and a house cat is his star-witness in identifying a woman's secret lover.

The Case of the Demon at the Flower Festival

Judge Ooka has been invited to attend the annual Flower Festival, where he learns of a woman deep-sea diver, now retired, and her equally skilled daughters who are haunted by the local demon residing at the bottom of the bay. The magistrate, however, suspects a clever set-up for murder, but he's unable to prevent it and ends up saving the murderer. The story rambles on for too long and the pay-off is hardly worth the journey. There's not much of a mystery once the murder is committed and Judge Ooka saves the killer from being burned at the pyre by exploiting local superstitions – unworthy of a nearly unrivalled plotter and schemer like him.

All in all, not a bad short story collection, consisting of the usual hits and misses, but overall enjoyable enough – and makes you wish Bertus Aafjes had devoted more of his time in writing them. He penned the entire series between 1969 and 1973 and is only a blip in his literary career - that began in 1936 and ended a year before his death in 1993. 

Bertus Aafjes (1914-1993)

The Judge Ooka Mysteries:

Een ladder tegen een wolk (A Ladder Against a Cloud, 1969)
De rechter onder magnolia (The Judge Underneath the Magnolia Tree, 1969)
De koelte van een pauwenveer (The Coolness of a Peacock Feather, 1971)
De vertrapte pioenroos (The Trampled Peony, 1973)
Een lampion voor een blinde (A Lantern for the Blind, 1973; a novella length story) 

Best-of collections:

Rechter Ooka mysteries (Judge Ooka Mysteries, 1982)
De mysterieuze Rechter Ooka (The Mysterious Judge Ooka, 1986)

Query: any one interested in me revisiting the whole series and reviewing them here?


  1. Let Patricia (Patti) Abbott know that you'd like to participate in this roundelay, since she's the instigator...her blog, contracting her birthname, is Pattinase.

  2. So, is this work available in translation into English?

  3. Ha. I see you'd followed the thread to Patti's blog before I caught up to your query (and before I'd seen John's response, which my eye had skipped).

  4. Todd,

    Woefully, the Judge Ooka stories were completely overlooked by foreign publishing houses and they are rapidly descending into biblioblivion over here. The future looks really bleak for Bertus Aafjes without any new reprints for nearly three decades. :/

  5. Heh, I happened to have picked up two Ooka books this week (Een ladder tegen een wolk en Een lampion voor een blinde). Read a couple of the stories in Een ladder tegen een wolk and they were quite fun, quite similar to the (real) Judge Dee records (Parallel Cases under the Pear-tree)

  6. Oh, I read Een ladder tegen een wolk many years ago and the story I remember the best is the battle-of-wits between Ooka and a blackmailer in the courtroom, and his trap involved the Inari legend. Great stuff!

    Een lampion voor een blinde is one of my favorite stories that takes place during the Rangaku period, when the Dutch were the only Westerners allowed to set foot on Japanese soil, and Aafjes did a competent job at constructing an inverted mystery plot.

    I'm sure the stories were very much like the book you cited. Aafjes admitted, in his after word for De koelte van een pauwenveer, that those ancient texts formed the bedrock for most of his stories – and how he struggled in coming up with fair-play plots that would satisfy a demanding audience of modern detective readers. Are we a demanding lot? ;D

    Anyway, there's also non-fiction travel book from Bertus Aafjes, Mijn ogen staan scheef: zwerftochten door het land van de Mikado, which apparently includes a detailed account of his research for the Judge Ooka stories and visiting his gravesite. I'm seriously considering buying it.

  7. This author sounds interesting- not being Dutch myself, I really can't add to the discussion except to whine about publishers skipping over interesting books in favour of Twilight and The Da Vinci Code.

  8. Congratulations for this interesting blog.
    I'm curious about this book, althought I don't know the author. These mysteries sound captivating (and if Bertus Aafjes is as good as Chesterton for plot and storytelling, it is a must read). Unfortunately, he is not translated in French and I don't speak Dutch. But I found that a German translation has been made. I will try to read it.

  9. Thanks for taking an interest in my blog and for pointing out that there's a translation of his work available. I don't know which stories were translated, nor the quality of them, but hopefully they reflect almost perfectly the quality and joy of the originals – and I hope you'll enjoy reading them as much as I have.

    And I didn't say he was xactly, or as good, as Chesterton, but that the type of stories, morals and sometimes fairytale-like atmosphere makes him very closely related to him. But you'll discover that for yourself!