Robert Hans van Gulik (August 9, 1910 – September 24, 1967) was a highly educated orientalist, diplomat, musician (of the guqin) and writer, best known for the Judge Dee mysteries. Van Gulik grew up in Indonesia where he was tutored in Mandarin. He joined the Dutch Foreign Service in 1935 and was stationed in various countries: Japan, China, India and Lebanon during the 1958 Civil War there. From 1965 until his death of cancer in 1967 he was ambassador to Japan.
Judge Dee (or Judge Di) is the hero of Robert van Gulik’s “Judge Dee” series. These fictional novels deal with cases in ancient China, all solved by the upright Judge Dee (note: in ancient Chinese crime stories, judges are often in the role of the detective.) The Judge Dee character is based on the historical figure Ti Jen-chieh (c. 630–c. 700), magistrate and statesman of the T’ang court. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) in China, a “folk novel” was written set in former times, but filled with anachronisms.
Van Gulik found in Dee Goong An an original tale dealing with two cases simultaneously, and, which was unusual among Chinese mystery tales, a plot that for the most part lacked an overbearing supernatural element which could alienate Western readers. He translated it into English under the title Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (first published in Tokyo in 1949). Thanks to his translation of this largely forgotten work, van Gulik became interested in Chinese detective fiction. To the translation he appended an essay on the genre in which he suggested that it was easy to imagine rewriting some of the old Chinese case histories with an eye toward modern readers. Not long afterward he himself tried his hand at creating a detective story along these lines. This became the book The Chinese Maze Murders (completed around 1950). As van Gulik thought the story would have more interest to Japanese and Chinese readers, he had it translated into Japanese by a friend (finished in 1951), and it was sold in Japan under the title Meiro-no-satsujin. With the success of the book, van Gulik produced a translation into Chinese, which was published by a Singapore book publisher in 1953. The reviews were good, and Van Gulik wrote two more books (The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Lake Murders) over the next few years, also with an eye toward Japanese and then Chinese editions. Next, Van Gulik found a publisher for English versions of the stories, and the first such version was published in 1957. Later books were written and published in English first; the translations came afterwards.
“Judge Dee” bibliography: Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, translation of the Chinese Dee Goong An (1941–1948); The Chinese Maze Murders (written 1950, published in Japanese in 1951, published in English in 1956); The Chinese Bell Murders (written 1953–1956, published 1958); The Chinese Lake Murders (written 1953–1956, published 1960); The Chinese Gold Murders (written 1956, published 1959); The Chinese Nail Murders (written 1958, published 1961); “New Year’s Eve in Lan-Fang” [1958; separately published short story in 200 copies as a New Year’s gift from van Gulik]; The Haunted Monastery (written 1958–1959, published 1961); The Red Pavilion (written 1958–1959, published 1961); The Lacquer Screen (written 1958–1959, published 1962); The Emperor’s Pearl (1963); “De Nacht van de Tijger”(1963), written in Dutch, short story, as “The Night of the Tiger” included in The Monkey and the Tiger; “Vier vingers” (1964), written in Dutch as Boekenweekgeschenk, short story, as “The Morning of the Monkey” included in The Monkey and the Tiger; The Monkey and the Tiger, two short novels (1965); The Willow Pattern (1965; Murder in Canton (1966); The Phantom of the Temple (1966); Judge Dee at Work, short stories (1967); Necklace and Calabash (1967); and Poets and Murder (1968). (Source: Excerpts from Wikipedia)
- Biographical notes (Source: Robert van Gulik: his life, his work by Janwillem van de Wetering)
- Chronology of Judge Dee Novels by Robert van Gulik
- Forgotten authors no. 26: Robert van Gulik by Christopher Fowler (Independent 8 March 2009)
- Ho-Ling’s articles on Robert van Gulick are at Where I write about detective fiction
- TomCat’s articles on Robert van Gulik are at Beneath the Stains of Time
- Kate Jackson’s articles on Robert van Gulik are at Cross-Examining Crime
- Les Blatt’s article on Robert van Gulik is at Classic Mysteries
I’ll follow TomCat’s advice who recommends 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 [the first book in the series]
From Wikipedia: The Chinese Gold Murders is a gong’an historical mystery novel written by Robert van Gulik and set in Imperial China (roughly speaking the Tang Dynasty). It is a fiction based on the real character of Judge Dee (Ti Jen-chieh or Di Renjie), a magistrate and statesman of the Tang court, who lived roughly 630–700. The book includes a map of the fictional town of Peng-lai.
Overview: In this, the second book in Robert van Gulik’s classic mystery series of ancient China, Judge Dee must look into the murder of his predecessor. His job is complicated by the simultaneous disappearance of his chief clerk and the new bride of a wealthy local shipowner. Meanwhile, a tiger is terrorizing the district, the ghost of the murdered magistrate stalks the tribunal, a prostitute has a secret message for Dee, and the body of a murdered monk is discovered to be in the wrong grave. In the end, the judge, with his deft powers of deduction, uncovers the one cause for all of these seemingly unrelated events. (Source: Harper Collins Publishers)
Book cover: First US edition. Source: Wikipedia.