Robert van Gulik was a Dutch scholar of, among other things, Oriental languages, and wrote a series of fictional detective stories, starting by following Chinese models very closely, and then moving away to a more inventive and perhaps freer idiom. So his first book of this kind, The Chinese Bell Murders, follows the original models pretty closely – so there are three stories, not one, told one after the other, with only very slight overlaps; at the end, an external view of events is offered, in this case by group of high officials in Pekin. Gulik’s knowledge of China is clearly pretty extensive, and he is clearly deeply sympathetic to the cultured Chinese Confucian gentry class and hostile to Buddhism and Taoism. The book is illustrated with his own illustrations, inspired by 16th century Chinese blockprints.
But the stories are straight judicial detection. The magistrate of the town of Poo-Yang is a real character, Judge Dee (Dee Den-djieh), who lived in the seventh century AD, under the T’ang dynasty. He achieved this position by passing a literary examination (and what could be more sensible?), and was judge and investigating officer, with a staff of sergeants and policemen. He is new in Poo-Yang, and finds that there is one simple case left outstanding by his predecessor – which, of course, turns out not to be so simple at all.
He is a fine judge and detective, although the occasional use of strong arm tactics is not in the best classic detective story tradition – but is justified by the Chinese law that does not allow punishment until the guilty party has confessed, justifying torture and intimidation. But it is all rather formulaic, and you need not fear for a moment any gory descriptions. The prose is simple – it seems vaguely Chinese, but how would I know – and I found the stories very entertaining. It is not genuine Chinese, of course, like Qiu Xiaolong's Death of a Red Heroine, but nor is it pastiche and parody like Ernest Bramah’s three Kai-Lung books, amusing and entertaining as they are. I would recommend this book to any aficionado of the murder mystery – this is an unusual variety, and one you are unlikely to have encountered elsewhere.