Forgotten authors no. 26: Robert van Gulik

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The Independent Culture

At the start of the 20th century, authors such as Sax Rohmer (real name Arthur Ward) were penning tales of imperial adventurers battling "yellow peril" conspirators, amid a prevailing fear that the Chinese were inherently criminal. Ward was attacked for his racial stereotyping and now the novels are dismissed as absurd, colourful escapades.

Counterbalancing these stories were the erudite Judge Dee novels, created by Robert van Gulik. Born in 1910, van Gulik grew up in the Netherlands and Jakarta, before joining the foreign office to begin a lifetime of roaming the Far East. By the time he was the councillor of the Dutch embassy in Washington he was long established as an orientalist, a diplomat and expert player of the guqin, a delicate, seven-string instrument like a zither.

Although he also wrote essays and short stories, van Gulik remains best known for his Chinese mysteries. These comprise some 14 novels and short-story volumes, chronicling the career of a stern but fair-minded judge based on a real-life 7th-century Chinese detective called Di Renjie. Interestingly, the tales first found fame in oriental editions, before being translated into English in 1957.

The construction of the long novels is unusual. They take the form of several interwoven cases, and follow the traditional style (now itself forgotten) of Chinese detective stories. Despite the fact that he added elements from the much later Ming dynasty, van Gulik was greatly concerned with accuracy, and created a detailed career timeline for his main character, adding his own graceful illustrations and maps to help readers understand the judge's life.

As a magistrate, Dee was allowed up to four wives, so his personal life is complicated. What's more, several of the plot strands are based on real-life cases, and elaborate cruelties abound within them. There are headless corpses, corrupt monks, nail murders, attacks by brigands. But all these events are informed by the decency of the clear-eyed judge, whose understanding of human nature extends beyond thoughts of formal retribution. Best of all, the stories feel authentic because they are filled with simple descriptions of Chinese life, the sights and sounds of a lost time, lovingly recreated by a scholar who was immersed in the culture of the period.

The books were acclaimed at the time of publication and the first Judge Dee novel, The Chinese Maze Murders, has since been republished. The rest are harder to find.