Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders)

By Robert van Gulik

When I studied Chinese in Leyden, one of the first things they told us was to go and read all of van Gulik’s Judge Dee novels. The very first thing they told us was that two out of three students wouldn’t even make it through the first year. I always thought the first advice to be more valuable than the second advice, which I considered to be mere sententiousness. Reading a Judge Dee book is always a good idea.

  • Author: Robert van Gulik
  • Title: Fantoom in Foe-Lai (The Chinese Gold Murders)
  • Pages: 167
  • Published: 1979
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • ISBN: 90 10 02329 x

Anyway, the Judge Dee novels are that rare breed, a historical detective novel that combines accuracy, fidelity to the historical original with engaging characters and a ripping good story. It is a curious thing to contemplate that China was already replete with detective novels of a high standard when Sherlock Holmes was a mere glimmer in the eye of Conan Doyle. Robert Hans van Gulik has translated one of those original detective novels, under the title of The Poisoned Bride.

Not counting this work, there are actually two series of Judge Dee novels. The first series shows Judge Dee with his four assistants. They generally take place in Judge Dee’s own jurisdiction and often more than one murder is solved at the same time. The first and prime example of this is The Chinese Bell Murders.

The second series is perhaps less true to the Chinese example, but often better constructed and, because they are the more mature work of van Gulik, better written. Here, Judge Dee is aided by only one, or at most two assistants, and he often travels, or has already been promoted out of the post of district magistrate.

As an aside, it is important to note that the world shown in the Judge Dee novels is idealized. It is the world as the Chinese themselves thought it should have been, not the actual reality. In reality, magistrates were very big gentleman, quite unconcerned with the ordinary people. They governed, especially in later Ming and Qing times, an incredibly big area with an incredibly big population. If you read Shen Fu’s “Six Chapters from a Floating Life” diary (published in an excellent translation by Penguin), you will become aware of just how vast the gulf between theory and practice was.

Fantoom in Foe-lai, first published in English as The Chinese Gold Murders is the first Judge Dee novel in the internal chronology, although not the first written. In this book, Judge Dee sets out from the Capital with Sergeant Hoong for his first post as district magistrate. In a forest, he encounters Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, who later enter his entourage.

Judge Dee’s first priority is discovering who murdered his predecessor. No sane man would want to step in the shoes of a murdered man, a man whose ghost has been seen by the Imperial Inquisitor. But Judge Dee sees it as an excellent start.

One very interesting thing in the Judge Dee novels is to watch the development, the aging of Judge Dee himself. In this book, when he’s still in his thirties, he’s vain enough to be jealous of someone with a better beard than he has; a vanity that he will have lost completely by the time of The Chinese Nail Murders.

Judge Dee novels can be very misleading. If you read one first, and read it only one time, then the novels might seem superficial, just a little light entertainment, nothing to engage the brain. (See Martin
Wisse’s review of the same book
.) When you have read all of the canon, and have re-read key books (Necklace and Calabash, for instance), then you will suddenly be, well, enlightened, and recognize them for, indeed, great literature. Not all that is literary needs to be long, or hard to read. Sometimes great literature is great because of its simple but good writing, strong construction, and inner consistency.

In this, van Gulik has achieved the ideals of the Tang poet Bai Juyi, who famously polished his poems until an illiterate washerwoman could understand them. Great literature, in other words, is literature that is not too snobbish to tell its story to everyone. It was van
Gulik’s intention to give the (Chinese) public something better than the trashy easy-wenyan stories with which it was deluged in the forties of the past century; and he succeeded, as Bai Juyi had succeeded centuries before.

Note that it can be difficult to buy Judge Dee novels. The University of Chicago embarked on a reprint spree ten years ago, but copies are getting rare again. I’ve got all of the novels in Dutch, but only a few in English. This review was based on re-reading the novel in Dutch, although I’ve got the English original, too. Van Gulik, who lived abroad for most of his life, being ambassador to Japan and Lebanon and diplomat in China, wrote first in English. (My hero and example — I write my novels in English first, too.) There are two translations into Dutch; the first by someone else, and then a better translation by Van Gulik. Those translations tend to be slightly corrected and improved from the English versions. At least, that is my impression.

Interesting links: