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The Emperor's Pearl: A Judge Dee Mystery

The Emperor's Pearl: A Judge Dee Mystery

by Robert van Gulik

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It all begins on the night of the Poo-yang dragonboat races in 699 A.D.: a drummer in the leading boat collapses, and the body of a beautiful young woman turns up in a deserted country mansion.  There, Judge Dee—tribunal magistrate, inquisitor, and public avenger—steps in to investigate the murders and return order to the Tang Dynasty.   In


It all begins on the night of the Poo-yang dragonboat races in 699 A.D.: a drummer in the leading boat collapses, and the body of a beautiful young woman turns up in a deserted country mansion.  There, Judge Dee—tribunal magistrate, inquisitor, and public avenger—steps in to investigate the murders and return order to the Tang Dynasty.   In The Emperor’s Pearl, the judge discovers that these two deaths are connected by an ancient tragedy involving a near-legendary treasure stolen from the Imperial Harem one hundred years earlier. The terrifying figure of the White Lady, a river goddess enshrined on a bloodstained altar, looms in the background of the investigation. Clues are few and elusive, but under the expert hand of Robert van Gulik, this mythic jigsaw puzzle assembles itself into a taut mystery.
“If you have not yet discovered Judge Dee and his faithful Sgt. Hoong, I envy you that initial pleasure which comes from the discovery of a great detective story. For the magistrate of Poo-yang belongs in that select group of fictional detectives headed by the renowned Sherlock Holmes.”—Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times
“The title of this book and the book itself have much in common. Each is a jewel, a rare and precious find.”—Atlanta Times  

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This pair of Van Guliks, first published in 1963 and 1961, respectively, are the latest in the series of "Judge Dee Mystery" reprints. Judge Dee is a detective in ancient China, who, in the nature of Conan Doyle's and Christie's protagonists, is more cerebral than hard-boiled.

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The Emperor's Pearl

A Judge Dee Mystery

By Robert H. van Gulik

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1963 Robert H. Van Gulik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-84907-2


A tall man was lighting a stick of incense on the altar of the River Goddess.

After he had stuck it in the bronze burner, he looked up at the serene face of the life-size statue, lit by the uncertain light of the only oil-lamp that hung from the smoke-blackened rafters of the small shrine. The goddess seemed to smile, faintly.

'Yes, you may well be happy!' the man said bitterly. 'Over in your sacred grove, you took her away from me just when I was about to sprinkle you with her blood. But tonight I have chosen a new victim for you, duly prepared for sacrifice. This time I shall ...'

He checked himself and cast an anxious glance at the old priest in a tattered brown robe, sitting on the bench at the entrance of the shrine. The priest looked out over the riverbank, gaily decorated with coloured lampions, then bent again over his prayer-book. He paid not the slightest attention to the lonely visitor.

The man looked up once more at the goddess.

The wood of the statue was left plain; the sculptor had cleverly used the grain for accentuating the folds of the robe that descended from her rounded shoulders. She was sitting cross-legged on a many-petalled lotus flower, her left hand resting in her lap, the other raised in a gesture of benediction.

'You are beautiful!' the man whispered hoarsely. Staring intently at the still face above him, he went on: 'Tell me, why must all beauty be evil? Tempting man, enticing him with coy smiles and sidelong glances, then to repel him? Repel him with a contemptuous sneer, break him, then haunt him for ever afterwards ...?' He clutched at the edge of the altar, a maniacal glint in his distended eyes. 'It is right they are punished,' he muttered angrily. 'It is right that the knife is plunged in their treacherous hearts when they lie, stretched out, naked on the altar before you, right that their ...'

Suddenly he broke off, startled. He thought he had seen a frown crease the smooth forehead of the goddess, round the pearl gleaming in its centre. Then, with a sigh of relief, he wiped the perspiration from his face. It had been the shadow of a moth, flying past the oil-lamp.

He compressed his lips tightly, cast a dubious glance at the statue, and turned away. He stepped up to the old priest, engrossed in his mumbled prayers. He tapped his thin, bony shoulder.

'Can't you leave your goddess alone tonight, for once?' he asked with forced joviality. 'The dragonboat races will be starting soon. Look, they are lining up the boats already under the marble bridge!' Taking a handful of coppers from his sleeve, he resumed: 'Here, take these and have a good meal in the restaurant over there!'

The old man looked up at him with his tired, red-rimmed eyes. He did not take the coins.

'I can't leave her, sir. She is a vengeful one, she is.'

He bent his grey head again over his prayer-book.

Despite himself the man shivered. Uttering an obscene curse he brushed past the old priest and went down the flight of stone steps leading to the road along the river-bank. He would have to ride back to the city in a hurry, to be there in time for the finish of the boat race.


'That's the six I had been waiting for!' Judge Dee said with satisfaction to his First Lady. He added a domino to the complicated pattern that was forming on the square table.

His three wives made no comment; they were studying their hands. In the gathering dusk it was difficult to discern the red pips on the bamboo dominoes. The judge and his three ladies were sitting on the high platform in the stern of the official barge, moored somewhat apart from the other boats lying stem to stern along the bank of the Canal. It was the fifth day of the fifth moon, the day of the yearly Dragonboat Festival. Since early in the afternoon the citizens of Poo-yang had been streaming out of the south gate, towards the point on the Canal where the grandstand indicated that, later in the night, the dragonboats would finish the race. There their magistrate, Judge Dee, would hand out the prizes to the contending crews.

The magistrate was required only to perform that ceremony, but Judge Dee, always eager to take part in the feasts of the people entrusted to his care, had wanted to assist at the races from the beginning. Therefore he had already left the city one hour before sunset, together with his suite, carried in three palankeens. They had installed themselves on his large official barge, anchored opposite the grandstand, and there partaken of a simple dinner of rice and sweet soup, just like the several thousand citizens that were crowding the smaller craft lining both banks. After dinner they had settled down to a game of dominoes, waiting till the moon would be out and the boat races start. It was getting cooler now; sounds of singing and laughter came over the water. The garlands of lampions that decorated all the boats and barges were being lit; the smooth black water reflected their gay colours.

It was a fairy-like scene, but the four people round the domino table, engrossed in the game, paid scant attention to it. Dominoes was the favourite game in Judge Dee's household, they played it very seriously, and in a complicated form. And now they were approaching the final, decisive phase.

The Third Lady selected a domino from those set up in front of her. As she added it to the pieces on the table, she said to the two maids who were squatting by the tea-stove:

'Better light our lampions too, I can hardly see what I am doing!'

'I pass!' Judge Dee announced. He looked up annoyed as the old house steward appeared on deck and came up to the table. 'What is it now again? Has that mysterious visitor come back?'

Half an hour before, when the judge and his ladies had interrupted their game and were standing at the railing to watch the scenery, a stranger had boarded the barge. But, when the steward was going to announce him, the man had said that, on second thought, he did not want to disturb the judge.

'No, Your Honour, it is Dr Pien and Mr Kou,' the greybeard said respectfully.

'Show them up!' Judge Dee said with a sigh. Pien Kia and Kou Yuan-liang were in charge of the organization of the dragonboat race. Judge Dee knew them only by sight, they did not belong to the small circle of notables of Poo-yang whom he met regularly at official functions. Dr Pien was a well-known physician and owner of a large drug store, Mr Kou a wealthy art-collector. 'They won't be long!' he added, with a reassuring smile to his three wives.

'As long as you don't tamper with our dominoes!' the First Lady said, pouting. She and the two others turned their pieces face down, then they rose and withdrew behind the screen placed across the platform. For ladies are not allowed to meet men not connected with the household.

Judge Dee had risen also, he answered with a nod the low bows of the two solemn, tall gentlemen who had appeared on deck. They were dressed in long summer robes of thin white silk and wore black gauze caps on their heads.

'Sit down, gentlemen!' the judge said affably. 'I suppose you have come to report that all is set for the races?'

'Indeed, sir!' Dr Pien replied in his dry, precise voice. 'When Mr Kou and I left Marble Bridge just now, all nine boats had been lined up at the starting-point.'

'Did you get good crews?' Judge Dee asked, then snapped at the maid who was arranging the teacups on the table: 'Don't disturb those dominoes!'

While the judge quickly turned the pieces in the pool face down again, Dr Pien replied: 'There was even more enthusiasm than usual, sir. The twelve rowers for each boat were recruited in no time at all. There'll be a keen competition, for the crew of Number Two is composed entirely of boatmen from the Canal who are determined to beat the townspeople ! Mr Kou and I saw to it that all the men were suitably entertained with food and wine in the restaurant of Marble Bridge Village. Now they are raring to go!'

'Your boat is the favourite, Dr Pien!' Kou Yuan-liang remarked wryly. 'Mine hasn't got a chance, it's too heavy!'

'But it'll provide the historical background, Mr Kou,' the judge told him. 'I heard that your boat is an exact replica of the dragonboats used by our ancestors.'

A pleased smile crossed Kou's handsome, vivacious face. He said: 'I take part in the races mainly to see to it that the old traditions are faithfully observed.'

Judge Dee nodded. He knew that Kou had devoted a lifetime to antiquarian studies and was an ardent collector of curios. The judge reflected that he must ask Kou to show him his collection of paintings some day. He said:

'I am glad to hear that, Mr Kou. This feast has been celebrated on this date since times immemorial, everywhere in the Empire where there is a river, canal or lake. Seasonal feasts are, for our hard-working people, the only breaks in their daily toil!'

'The local people,' Dr Pien observed, 'believe that the boat races please the River Goddess, and ensure sufficient rain for the farmers and plenty of fish for the fishermen.' He fingered the black moustache that set off the pallor of his long, impassive face.

'In the olden days,' Mr Kou said, 'this feast was not so innocent, of course. The people used to make a human sacrifice after the races, killing a young man in the temple of the goddess. The "Groom of the Goddess" he was called, and the family of the victim considered that a signal honour.'

'Fortunately our enlightened government has abolished all those cruel customs centuries ago,' Judge Dee remarked.

'Old beliefs don't die easily,' Dr Pien said slowly. 'The people here still venerate the River Goddess, even though the Canal has now become much more important for fishing and shipping than the river. I remember that when, four years ago, a boat overturned during the races, and a man drowned, the local people took it as a good omen, promising a plentiful harvest in autumn.'

Kou gave the doctor an uneasy look. He put down his cup, rose and said:

'By Your Honour's leave, we'll now proceed to the grandstand and see that everything is ready for the distribution of the prizes.'

Dr Pien got up also. They took their leave with low bows.

Judge Dee's three wives quickly came out from behind the screen and resumed their seats. The Third Lady glanced at the pieces in the pool, and said eagerly:

'There aren't many left. Now for the last struggle!'

The maids brought fresh tea. Soon the four were immersed in the game. Slowly stroking his long black beard, Judge Dee calculated his chances. His last domino was a three and a blank. All the threes had come out already, but there must be one double-blank left. If that came out, he had won. "Watching the flushed faces of his wives, he was wondering idly who had that particular domino.

Suddenly there was a loud explosion near by, followed by a rattle of sharp cracks.

'Make your move!' the judge said impatiently to his Second Lady, who was sitting on his right. 'They are starting with the fireworks!'

She hesitated, patting her glossy black coiffure. Then she put a double four on the table.

'Pass!' Judge Dee said, disappointed.

'I win!' the Third Lady called out excitedly. She showed her last domino, a four and a five.

'Congratulations!' the judge exclaimed. Then he asked: 'Which of you had been saving up double-blank? I had been waiting for that confounded domino!'

'Not me!' his First and Second Lady announced as they uncovered their dominoes.

'That's strange!' Judge Dee said with a frown. 'There's only one double-blank on the table, and there's nothing left in the pool. Where can that domino have gone to?' 'It'll have dropped on the floor,' the First Lady said.

They looked under the table, then shook out their robes. But the domino did not appear.

'Perhaps the maids forgot to put it in the box,' the Second Lady said.

'Impossible!' the judge muttered crossly. 'When I took the pieces from the box before we started our game, I counted them. I always do.'

There was a hiss, followed by a sharp crack. The Canal was lit up by the shower of coloured lights that descended from the rocket.

'Look!' the First Lady exclaimed. 'What a beautiful sight!'

They quickly got up and went to stand at the railing. Rockets were being sent up now on all sides, and there was a constant rattle of fire-crackers. Then there rose a mighty roar from the crowd of spectators. The bleak, silvery light of the moon sickle had appeared in the sky. Now the race boats would leave Marble Bridge Village, a few miles down the Canal. There were some isolated cracks, then there was only a confused murmur of voices. People were eagerly discussing their bets.

'Let's make our bets too!' Judge Dee said good-humouredly. 'Every citizen, even the poorest, bets a few coppers.'

The Third Lady clapped her hands.

'I'll put fifty coppers on Number Three!' she called out. Just to show the God of Chance that I haven't forgotten him!'

'I'll put fifty on Dr Pien's boat, the favourite!' the First Lady said.

'And I'll put fifty on Kou's,' Judge Dee added. 'I believe in supporting tradition!'

They laughed and joked for some time, and thereafter had several leisurely cups of tea.

Suddenly they noticed that people were standing up in the boats, craning their heads to the bend in the Canal where, presently, the dragonboats would appear on their final lap to the finish. Judge Dee and his wives went up to the railing again. The tense atmosphere of eager expectation was beginning to get hold of them too.

Two sampans detached themselves from the mass of moored craft. They were rowed to the centre of the Canal, opposite the grandstand. The occupants anchored them there and unfurled large red flags. They were the referees.

Suddenly the sound of drums was heard far off. The still-invisible boats were now approaching the bend.

The crowd broke out in a roar of confused shouts. Boat Number Nine was rounding the bend. The long, slender craft was propelled by twelve rowers, seated two abreast. They were moving their paddles vigorously to the beats of the large kettledrum in the middle of the boat. A tall, broad-shouldered man, stripped to the waist, was beating the drum frantically with a pair of wooden clubs. The helmsman, crouching over the long rudder-oar, shouted at the rowers at the top of his voice. White foam spurted up against the raised bow, carved to resemble a dragon's head with long horns and rolling eyes.

'That's Pien's boat! I win!' the First Lady shouted.

But when the stern, shaped like a curved dragon's tail, came in sight the bow of a second boat appeared close behind it; the raised dragon's head with its distended jaws seemed intent on putting its teeth into the tail of Number Nine.

'That's Number Two, manned by the boatmen of the Canal,' Judge Dee remarked. 'They are doing their best!'

The drummer of Number Two, a small, wiry man, was beating his drum in a frenzy, shouting encouragement at the crew all the time. As the boats came closer, Number Two gained on Nine, its dragon-head now by the side of the other's tail. The sound of the drums was nearly drowned in the deafening shouts of the spectators.

Four more boats had appeared round the bend, but no one paid any attention to them, all eyes were glued to Nine and Two. The muscular arms of the rowers of Number Two moved with incredible speed, but they gained no more on Number Nine. The two boats were quite near now, Judge Dee could see the broad grin on the face of the big drummer of Number Nine. Now they were only a hundred yards from the finish. The referees lowered the red flags to mark the finishing-line.

Suddenly the big drummer of Nine checked his movement. The right club remained raised in the air. He seemed to look at it, astonished, for a moment, then he pitched forward over the drum. The rowers behind him looked up; two paddles clashed. The boat listed and slowed down. Number Nine and Two passed underneath the red flags together, but Number Two was half a boat-length ahead.

'Poor fellow collapsed.' Judge Dee began.' They shouldn't drink so much before ...' His voice was drowned in the deafening applause of the crowd. While Nine and Two were pulling up alongside the quay in front of the grandstand, the other seven dragonboats passed the finish, each greeted by the tremendous applause of the excited spectators. Fireworks started again on all sides.


Excerpted from The Emperor's Pearl by Robert H. van Gulik. Copyright © 1963 Robert H. Van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Robert van Gulik (1910–67) was a Dutch diplomat and an authority on Chinese history and culture. His many works include sixteen Judge Dee mysteries, a study of the gibbon in China, and two books on the Chinese lute.        

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