Judge Dee Jen-djieh is the hero of The Chinese Nail Murders. He’s a magistrate in the fictitious town of Pei-chow in the far north of China. Judge Dee must solve two gruesome murders and a sinister disappearance or risk his own head.
A Mandarin Poirot
For a detective story first published in 1950, The Chinese Nail Murders is a surprisingly fast-paced read. The plot lines entangle nicely as well with plenty of misdirection to send the reader down the wrong rabbit hole.
Judge Dee is also quite a character. He has four wives, nothing odd for the time. What’s strange about Judge Dee is that he loves his wives. But he can be pompous, too. Judge Dee reminds me of Hercule Poirot, that pigeon-toed, Belgian detective with the waxed mustache created by Agatha Christie. Like Poirot, Judge Dee is miraculously adept at solving all his cases single-handedly. And to insist on explaining it all in a long set-piece of grandstanding.
The real Judge Dee (Ti Jen-chieh) lived from AD 630-700. He was a Tang Dynasty magistrate-detective. His life story became fodder for storytellers in the Song Dynasty. These performers would wander from village to marketplace where eager audiences awaited them. That oral tradition eventually lay the foundations for the Chinese detective novel and its hero, the local magistrate.
Robert van Gulik was not a professional writer. His day job was as a diplomat for the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Van Gulik was fluent in Chinese, Japanese and various ancient Asian languages. He accordingly spent most of his working life in the Far East. His first posting was to Tokyo until the war necessitated his evacuation in 1942. From Japan, Van Gulik went to Chongqing, then the wartime capital of China, where he remained until 1945.
The Judge Dee novels were extremely popular in Van Gulik’s native country. My husband devoured all 17 novels as a boy growing up in Eindhoven. Van Gulik published his novels from 1947 to 1967, offering to many readers their first glimpse into a country hermetically sealed by the Communists.
In the introduction to my stained 1977 copy, Donald Lach describes the Confucian world of a Tang dynasty judge:
an unshakeable faith in the superiority of everything Chinese and a disdain for all foreigners, a steadfast belief in all aspects of filial piety, a matter-of-fact attitude toward torture, and an unrelenting hostility to Buddhism and Taoism.
Judge Dee is very much a product of this world view. For example, he has a particularly low opinion of Tartars (a/k/a Mongols). Here, Judge Dee interrogates a witness as to the character of the suspect Mrs. Loo.
Her father was a decent merchant, but her mother was of Tartar descent and dabbled in black magic. Her daughter had the same weird interests, she was always preparing strange potions in the kitchen, and sometimes would fall into a trance, and then say gruesome things.
The presence of Tartars in this Chinese town is no coincidence. Barbarians are forever threatening the borders of China, though where those borders lie may be a matter of contention. Here, Judge Dee’s faithful servants complain about how difficult it is to heat these northern houses.
‘Don’t forget, Sergeant,’ [the judge] said, ‘that till three years ago this tribunal was the headquarters of the Generalissimo of our Northern Army. The military always seem to need much elbow space!’
‘The Generalissimo will have plenty of that where he is now!’ Tao Gan observed. ‘Two hundred miles farther up north, right in the frozen desert!’
dwelling in the past
Donald Lach is lavish in his praise of the scholarship that underlies Van Gulik’s fiction. At the same time, he notes the irony of a wartime diplomat choosing to write about imperial China.
Although [Van Gulik] was a close student of the Ming and [Qing] dynasties, the Dutch scholar’s experiences with life in China were limited to a few brief visits and to several years’ stay during the Second World War. He idealizes the China which existed before the empire had been shaken by the disruptive influences of the West and Japan. He sees imperial China most often from the viewpoint of the Confucian gentry for whose way of life he had respect and affection.
Van Gulik lived through the 2nd Sino-Japanese War in both of the combatant countries. It’s odd then that he should choose to erase that experience from his fiction. Perhaps, as a diplomat, Van Gulik was restrained from publicizing his personal views. Or maybe Van Gulik needed to cast his gaze into the distant past when reason and order still prevailed.