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THE CHINESE NAIL MURDERS by Robert van Gulik: Book Review

I’ve been going through my book shelves recently to decide what books I want to keep and what books I want to donate to our local library.  Doing this, I’ve come across several mysteries that I read years and years ago and now remember fondly.

One of the most enjoyable series I had read were the Judge Dee mysteries by Robert van Gulik.  Judge Dee (his Chinese name was Ti Jen-chieh) was an actual personage who lived during the T’ang dynasty from A.D. 630 to 700, although van Gulik has placed the stories in the Ming period.  Donald F.  Lach, who wrote the forward to The Chinese Nail Murders, says that the judge and other magistrates were often the heroes of popular literature because of their detective ability and outstanding moral conduct.

This novel was written in 1961 and takes place midpoint in the series.  Dee was a magistrate who was assigned by the Imperial Court to various districts during his career, bringing with him several assistants whom the reader meets repeatedly over the course of the series:  Hoong Liang, Ma Joong, Chiago Tai, and Tao Gan.  The judge also has three wives and several children who travel with them, but they are very much in the background in most of the books, while Dee’s adviser and lieutenants play pivotal roles in many of the novels.

In The Chinese Nail Murders, Judge Dee has been assigned to a remote outpost on the northern edge of the Chinese Empire.  The book takes place during a snowy, brutally cold winter, and the weather plays a part in the story.

The book has a page called Dramatis Personae, as was the custom in many Golden Age mysteries.  Here it identifies the many characters in the book, an excellent idea as the names can be confusing to readers unfamiliar with Chinese names.  It’s good to know that in China, as in other Asian countries, the person’s family name comes before the individual name, as the family name is considered the more important one.

As in all the other novels in the series, the judge is confronted by several problems at the same time–a missing young woman, a decapitated body, a missing man, a death that had been declared natural by Dee’s predecessor but may not be.  On the Dramatis Personae page, the cases are given their own titles:  The Case of the Headless Corpse, The Case of the Paper Cat, and The Case of the Murdered Merchant.  The solution ties all of these mysteries together but not without the magistrate risking his career and possibly his life in an effort to find out the truth about the murdered merchant.

The most entertaining thing about this series is the way the reader is transported back to ancient China.  Details of people’s clothing, their meals, methods of transport, marriage customs, all these are beautifully detailed and explained.  The reader enters into daily life as it was more than a thousand years ago.

Van Gulik was a man of numerous accomplishments:  a linguist who spoke Dutch, Sanskrit, Chinese, English, and the language of the Blackfoot Indians of America; a calligrapher; an artist who illustrated his own books; a musician who played the Chinese lute; and a secretary in the Netherlands mission to China during World War II.

You can read more about Robert van Gulik at various web sites, including Wikipedia.

2 Responses to “THE CHINESE NAIL MURDERS by Robert van Gulik: Book Review”

  • Ann says:

    Hi:

    Thanks for stimulating my thoughts about the T’ang dynasty. I love reading a good mystery set in a historical period. I also want to comment on the inaccuracies of Wikipedia. As you know, any dope can change an accurate posting to an inaccurate one on Wikipedia. I’m sure there are other, more reliable sites to recommend. Again, thanks for your insightful comments.

  • Marilyn says:

    Hi Ann,

    I appreciate your comments. You’re right in saying that Wikipedia can be inaccurate and can’t always be trusted, but in this case the information about van Gulik is “verified” by other internet sources and by Lach’s forward to the book. I am disappointed that thus far no one has created a web site specifically for van Gulik so we would have the authoritative version of his life and career, but I feel confident that in this case Wikipedia has the facts right. But please keep your comments coming and let me know if you enjoy “The Chinese Nail Murders.”

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