The Lacquer Screen (1962) by Robert Van Gulik

It has been a while since I have read a Judge Dee mystery. These mysteries are set in 7th century China, during the Tang dynasty and follow Judge Dee, (who is based on a real life statesman and detective of the empire, Di Renjie,) and his retinue as they go from district to district solving cases; (sometimes he is only passing through such places, at other times he is the residing magistrate). Robert Van Gulik was a diplomatist and orientalist, who began by translating the 18th century detective tale Dee Gong An, which led to him deciding to use other Chinese cases as the basis for works of detective fiction, having encouraged others to do the same. In his detective stories the crimes used often come from such sources and he uses his knowledge of the time period well. For instance rather than there being a focus on one case, Judge Dee has to solve 2 or three at once. Brad at ahsweetmystery blog reviewed Christie’s Death Comes at the End (1944) last month and he suggested that it can be read as a typical country house murder mystery within an ancient Egyptian setting. Yet to Gulik’s credit I don’t think the same can be said of his books in that they’re not golden age mysteries put into a new setting. Instead as attested to in the notes some of the stories have, he tried to retain key elements of the original Chinese works. However, what is pointed out is that Gulik does accommodate modern reading taste by ensuring that Judge Dee favours and promotes rationality over cases having a mystical or supernatural solution.

The Lacquer Screen

The novel begins with Teng Kan, the magistrate of Wei-Ping, feeling far from well, suffering from a parched throat, blurring vision, paranoia, confusion, headaches and ringing ears. Coming into the midst of this is Judge Dee, now magistrate of Peng-Lai, who is hoping to have a few days holiday in the area incognito, accompanied with one of his lieutenants, Chiao Tai (an ex-highway man). There is some initial mystery over the wife of Teng Kan and later on her body is found by the marshes, stabbed in the chest. Shortly after this Teng Kan confesses to Judge Dee that he fears he has killed his wife in a fit of madness, a condition passed down the family line from his grandfather; a great military leader who had to retire due to stabbing his best friend in a moment of insanity. However, Judge Dee is not entirely convinced this is the case.

During all of this two more cases are interwoven into the narrative: the suspicious and perplexing suicide of Ko Chih-yuan and a case of fraud which takes Judge Dee into the local criminal underworld. The former case is deemed suspicious as Ko at a dinner party, rushes into his house due to violent stomach pains. He soon returns, running out of out of the house with a blood smeared face, only to then jump into the nearby river. His body is not found.

Judge Dee is happy disguise his identity and mix with the criminal classes to solve his cases, often playing along with their schemes to further his investigations. This may make Judge Dee seem a bit duplicitous but his execution of justice at the end of the book mitigates this to an extent. The final court scenes are invariably dramatic and engaging as this is a key area where older Chinese culture differs with Western culture, as there is no jury, prosecution or defence teams. The judge conducts the entire case, questioning witnesses and suspects to prove guilt and Judge Dee’s knowledge of human nature enables him to be successful (though in The Chinese Nail Murders (1961), he nearly jeopardises his own career and life when it seems like he was going to be unable to do this). Moreover the guilty person is also required to confess to their crimes before sentencing, even if they have to be beaten or tortured before doing so, though this time round this is not necessary. The Judge Dee mysteries are interesting to read as they reflect a very different culture and society to our own in the West. In this story in particular the lives and roles of women are shown to be starkly different to our own times.

This is an alright book, not one you passionately dislike, but not one which you passionately love either. I think some of the earlier stories such as The Chinese Maze Murders (1956), The Chinese Bell Murders (1958), The Chinese Gold Murders (1959) and The Chinese Nail Murders, are much stronger reads, especially in terms of the puzzles set and also in how engaging the characters are. Consequently I would recommend trying one of these earlier mysteries if you are new to this author. Out of the ones I have mentioned The Chinese Bell Murders is my favourite. Moreover in this book the choice of culprit in one of the cases didn’t feel that satisfying, though entirely plausible, as Judge Dee is consistent in showing the other characters how he solved the cases, but without boring the reader with long-winded explanations. The reader is able to see the evidence Judge Dee uses be it physical clues or verbal ones which meant it was easy to see how Judge Dee arrives at his conclusions. Depending on what edition of the books you get depends on how much information you receive about the links to original Chinese source material for the criminal cases in the stories. This is a definitely a feature I have enjoyed and in the case of this book the mysterious suicide of Ko came from a case recorded in Hsü Mu-his’ Ku-chin-chi-an-wei-pien (Strange Cases of Old and Modern times), which was published in 1920 in Shanghai.

Rating: 3.75/5

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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5 Responses to The Lacquer Screen (1962) by Robert Van Gulik

  1. Roger says:

    Some recent editions of the books omit Gulik’s own Chinese-style illustrations, which I think is a pity.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. lesblatt says:

    I’m very fond of the Judge Dee mysteries, and I agree with you that some of the early ones are among the best. Personally, I prefer “The Chinese Lake Murder” to “The Chinese Bell Murder,” but they are both excellent introductions to Judge Dee and his assistants. Some of the stories are quite dark – particularly “The Chinese Nail Murder” and “Murder in Canton”; “The Chinese Nail Murder” is also an excellent “impossible crime” type of story – a “howdunit” rather than “whodunit” – and they are all, in my opinion, very much worth reading. Very glad to see you enjoy them!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Favourite Historical Novels and Writers | crossexaminingcrime

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