Halssnoer en Kalebas

By Robert van Gulik

Necklace and Calabash is the last Judge Dee novel but one that Robert van
Gulik wrote. One year after its completion, van Gulik died of cancer, after completing Poets and Murder, the very last Judge Dee mystery. Robert van Gulik is one of those authors who show a clear progression in their work, and Necklace and Calabash is one of his best works.

  • Author: Robert van Gulik
  • Title: Halssnoer en Kalebas
  • Pages: 151
  • Published: 1984 (1967)
  • Publisher: Elsevier
  • ISBN: 90-10-0293306

Necklace and Calabash shows Judge Dee in the middle of his career suddenly elevated to the dignity of Imperial Grand Inquisitor by the Third Princess whose necklace is stolen in a complicated intrigue. Judge Dee has to solve the problem by himself since his assistents have been left behind in a village to hunt wild boar.

The book is filled with intriguing characters. Favourites of mine are of course Master Calabash, a Taoist sage, and Anemone, the cheerful and fresh maid of the inn where Judge Dee stays. But the First Eunuch is well rendered, too, in his warped ways. And there are so many others.

Of course, as one might expect, the details are perfect. No misspelled Chinese words here, and not mistakes. If you read a Judge Dee book you will have learned something about the culture of Ming dynasty China.

Necklace and Calabash shows complete artistic mastery in its structure and plotting, but also in its use of language. The version I have is the translation from the original English into Dutch by the author.

Judge Dee novels are generally quite short; less than two hundred pages, about 60.000 words, I guess. This contrasts sharply with modern thrillers that frequently try to out-do the bible. Wordcount is something that has gone up consistently over the past fifty years. Where once, when van Gulik and Wodehouse were writing, 60.000 or 70.000 words were considered enough for a novel, now publishers start getting interested only at 120.000 words. More words seldom mean more story, though. But readers who have gotten used to fatter book often think so. Likewise, more words does not mean better, fuller or completer characterisation — but just more details piled up. For someone who is used to detail overload, it can be hard to recognize the story and the characterisation in a shorter book.

A Judge Dee novel contains often three complete stories (although Necklace and Calabash only contains two interconnected stories) and characters are sketched with a bare minimum of telling detail. Mastery lies in what is not said, as Master Calabash would say.