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Robert Van Gulik Locked Room Titles

GulikRobert Hans van Gulik (Chinese: 髙羅佩; pinyin: Gāo Luópèi) (1910 – 1967) was an orientalist, diplomat, musician (of the guqin), and writer, best known for his Judge Dee historical mysteries, the protagonist of which he borrowed from the 18th-century Chinese detective novel ‘Dee Goong An’.

Robert van Gulik was born in Zutphen, the son of a medical officer in the Dutch army of what was then called the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia). He was born in the Netherlands, but from the age of three till twelve he lived in Batavia (now Jakarta), where he was tutored in Mandarin and other languages. He went to Leiden University and obtained his PhD in 1935. His talents as a linguist suited him for a job in the Dutch Foreign Service, which he joined in 1935; and was then stationed in various countries, mostly in East Asia. 

He was in Tokyo when Japan declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, but he, along with the rest of the Allied diplomatic staff, was evacuated in 1942. He spent most of the rest of World War II as the secretary for the Dutch mission to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government in Chongqing. While in Chongqing, he married a Chinese woman, Shui Shifang, the daughter of a Qing dynasty Imperial mandarin and they had four children together.

During World War II van Gulik began translating the 18th-century detective novel ‘Dee Goong An’ into English under the title ‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’. The main character of this book, Judge Dee, was based on a real statesman and detective, Di Renjie, who lived during the 7th century Tang Dynasty (AD 600–900), though the novel includes some elements of Ming Dynasty China (AD 1300–1600).

After the war ended, he returned to the Netherlands, then worked in the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C. He returned to Japan in 1949 and stayed there for the next four years. While in Tokyo, he published his first two books, the translation of the ‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’ and a privately published book of erotic colored prints from the Ming dynasty. Later postings took him all over the world, including New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, and Beirut. 

Thanks to his translation of this largely forgotten work, van Gulik became interested in Chinese detective fiction. To this 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’ (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 this book, van Gulik produced a translation into Chinese, which was published in Singapore 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 Chinese editions. Later, van Gulik found a publisher for English versions of the stories, and the first such version was published in 1957. After this, all his books were written and published in English first; the other translations came afterwards.

Van Gulik’s intent in writing his first Judge Dee novel, as he wrote in remarks on ‘The Chinese Bell Murders’, was “to show modern Chinese and Japanese writers that their own ancient crime literature has plenty of source material for detective and mystery stories”. In 1956, he also published a translation of the ‘T’ang-yin-pi-shih’ (‘Parallel Cases from Under the Pear Tree’), a 13th-century casebook for district magistrates, which supplied several of the plots used in his novels. 

Unfortunately, his early death from cancer at The Hague in 1967, prevented him from writing more of these fascinating mysteries.

Van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries follow in the long tradition of Chinese detective fiction, intentionally preserving a number of key elements of that writing culture. Most notably, he had Judge Dee solve three different (and sometimes unrelated) cases in each book, a traditional device in Chinese mysteries. The whodunit element is also less important in the Judge Dee stories than it is in the traditional Western detective story, though still more so than in traditional Chinese detective stories. Nevertheless, van Gulik’s fiction was adapted to a Western audience, avoiding the supernatural and religious traditions of Buddhism and Daosim in favour of a more rational approach. (Edited from Wikipedia: Robert van Gulik)

Three of the 18 books in this series are locked room cases, as well as one short story. 

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Note: The only title currently available in an Audible edition is the original translation of the ‘Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee’   Book

Judge Dee Locked Room Novels

Chinese Maze GulikThe Chinese Maze Murders  (1950)
Series: Judge Dee


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Note: A retired general is murdered inside his locked library

Poisoned plums, a cryptic scroll picture, passionate love letters, and a hidden murderer with a penchant for torturing and killing women, lead Judge Dee to the heart of the Governor’s garden maze. ‘The Chinese Maze Murders’ represents Robert van Gulik’s first venture into writing mystery novels after the success of’ Dee Gong An’, his translation of an anonymous Chinese detective novel from the 18th century. ‘The Chinese Maze Murders’, contains three interwoven cases, the one which most concerns locked room fans is ‘The Sealed Room’, which tells the story of the murder of Ding Hoo-gwo, a retired general inside his own locked library. 

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Chinese GoldThe Chinese Gold Murders (1956) 
Series: Judge Dee Series


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Note: Dee’s predecessor was poisoned in his locked study

Judge Dee is the recently appointed magistrate to the miserable district of Peng-lai. His predecessor has been murdered and Judge Dee must investigate. The investigation is made more complex by the disappearance of his chief clerk, as well as the new bride of a wealthy local shipowner. Meanwhile a tiger is terrorizing the district, the ghost of the murdered magistrate is stalking members of the court, a prostitute has a secret message for Judge Dee, and the body of a murdered monk is found to have been placed in the wrong grave. What could possibly connect all these events?

The case of interest for Locked Room fans is  ‘The Case of the Murdered Magistrate’, which deals with how the previous magistrate, Wang Te-hwa, was poisoned in his study, which was locked from the inside. 

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Red PavillionThe Red Pavilion (1958)
Series: Judge Dee


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Note: Murder on Paradise Island

Judge Dee, magistrate of Poo-yang, has an unexpected meeting with the most powerful and famous courtesan on Paradise Island, Autumn Moon. A man who was known to be studying to pass the Imperial exams, dies inside a locked room. Was it suicide or was he murdered? His last week was spent in the company of Autumn Moon. Only a few hours later, she herself is found dead and Judge Dee is drawn into a web of lies and sad stories in the world of Tang Dynasty Imperial China. Three locked room murders in one!

The following note posted on Gadetection is perhaps another good assessment of this book:

“I have to quote Patrick, from the excellent blog “At the Scene of the Crime” who reviewed this book on the JDCarr forum in a one-man book-club topic: “The solution (to ‘The Red Pavilion’) is highly satisfying, and a bit more fair, I find, than that in The Chinese Gold Murders. The locked-room situation is just one part of a wonderfully elaborate plot, which taken as a whole is great. This wasn’t much of a “ghost story”, as I thought it would be at first. It’s more of an old-sins-leave-long-shadows type of tale. Either way, Van Gulik is a very talented storyteller, and his immersive style is a pure delight to read as he revives Ancient China with words alone. An excellent read!”

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Judge Dee Short Stories

Judge Dee WorkThe Red Tape Murders
Series: Judge Dee
Collection: Judge Dee at Work

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Note: Death by arrow in a locked study

Colonel Sou is mysteriously killed by an arrow while inside his locked study, and Judge Dee must uncover the method.

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Robert Van Gulik Bibliography

Locked Room 101: The Masters

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