Poets and Murder: A Judge Dee Mystery

Poets and Murder: A Judge Dee Mystery

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by Robert H. van Gulik

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Judge Dee, the master detective of seventh-century China, sets out to solve a puzzling double murder and discovers complex passions lurking beneath the placid surface of academic life. A mild-mannered student is rumored to have been slain by a fox-demon, while a young dancer meets her death as she dresses to perform for the magistrate's illustrious dinner guests—


Judge Dee, the master detective of seventh-century China, sets out to solve a puzzling double murder and discovers complex passions lurking beneath the placid surface of academic life. A mild-mannered student is rumored to have been slain by a fox-demon, while a young dancer meets her death as she dresses to perform for the magistrate's illustrious dinner guests—an obese Zen monk revered for his calligraphy, a beautiful poetess accused of murder, and the past president of the imperial academy. To connect the present crimes with betrayals and adulteries from decades past, the clever judge must visit a high-class brothel and the haunted shrine of the Black Fox. From the moment the young scholar is found dead on the eve of the Autumn Festival, the pace never lets up.

"The China of old, in Mr. van Gulik's skilled hands, comes vividly alive again."—Allen J. Hubin, New York Times Book Review

"If you have not yet discovered Judge Dee, I envy you that initial pleasure. . . . For the magistrate of Poo-yang belongs in that select group headed by Sherlock Holmes."—Robert Kirsch, Los Angeles Times

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Poets and Murder

A Judge Dee Mystery

By Robert van Gulik

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1968 Robert van Gulik
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-84896-9


The obese monk, sitting cross-legged on a corner of the broad bench, silently regarded his visitor with unblinking eyes. After a while he replied in a hoarse, grating voice, 'The answer is no, I have to leave the city this afternoon.' The thick, hairy fingers of his left hand closed round the dog-eared volume on his knee.

The other, a tall man in a neat, black silk coat over a blue gown, was momentarily at a loss for words. He was tired, for he had been obliged to walk down the entire length of Temple Street. And his gruff host had not even deigned to offer him a chair. It might be just as well if this ugly, rude monk did not join the distinguished company.... He surveyed with disgust the monk's large, shaven head sunk between bulky shoulders, the swarthy face with the sagging, stubbly cheeks, the fleshy nose above the thick-lipped mouth. With his unusually big, bulging eyes, the man reminded him forcibly of a repulsive toad. The odour of stale sweat from his patched monk's robe mingled with the fragrance of Indian incense in the close air of the bare room. The visitor listened for a few moments to the drone of voices raised in prayer, over on the other side of the Temple of Subtle Insight, then he suppressed a sigh and resumed:

'Magistrate Lo will be distressed, sir. This evening there'll be a dinner in the residence, and for tomorrow night my master has planned a Mid-autumn banquet, on the Emerald Cliff.'

His host snorted. 'Magistrate Lo ought to know better! Dinner parties, forsooth! And why did he send you, his counsellor, instead of coming to see me himself, eh?'

'The Prefect is passing through here, sir. Early this morning he summoned my master to the government hostel in the West City, to take part in a conference of all the fourteen district magistrates of this Prefecture. Afterwards my master'll have to join the noon meal the Prefect is giving in the hostel.' He cleared his throat and continued apologetically, 'The feasts I mentioned, sir, are quite informal affairs, and very small. Poetic gatherings, as a matter of fact. And since you ...'

'Who are the other guests?' his host interrupted curtly.

'Well, to begin with, there's the Academician Shao, sir. Then Chang Lan-po, the Court Poet. Both arrived in the residence this morning, and ...'

'I've known them both for many years, and I know their work. So I can well do without meeting them. As to Lo's doggerel ...' He cast his visitor a baleful look and asked abruptly, 'Who else?'

'There'll be Judge Dee, sir, the magistrate of our neighbour district, Poo-yang. He was also summoned by the Prefect, and arrived here yesterday.'

The ugly monk gave a start. 'Dee of Poo-yang? Why the devil should he ...?' he began. Then he asked testily, 'You don't mean to say that he would take part in a poetical gathering? Always heard he is of a rather pedestrian turn of mind. Dull company.'

The counsellor carefully smoothed his black moustache before he replied primly:

'Being my master's friend and colleague, sir, Magistrate Dee is considered as a member of the household, and attends all parties in the residence as a matter of course.'

'You're a cautious kind of chap, aren't you?' the other scoffed. He thought for a while, puffing out his cheeks, which made him resemble a toad even more than before. Then a lopsided grin parted his sensual lips, revealing a row of brown, uneven teeth. 'Dee, eh?' He stared at his visitor with his bulging eyes, pensively rubbing his stubbly cheeks. The rasping sound grated on the neat counsellor's nerves. Lowering his eyes, the monk muttered, half to himself, 'It might be an interesting experiment, after all. Wonder what he thinks about foxes! Fellow is deuced clever, they say.' Suddenly he looked up again and croaked, 'What did you say again your name was, Counsellor? Pao or Hao or something?'

'My name is Kao, sir. Kao Fang. At your service.'

The monk peered intently past him. The counsellor looked over his shoulder, but no one had come in through the door behind him. Suddenly his host spoke up:

'All right, Mr Kao, I've changed my mind. You may tell your master that I accept his invitation.' Darting a suspicious glance at the other's impassive face, he asked sharply, 'How did Magistrate Lo know that I was staying in this temple, by the way?'

'There was a rumour that you had arrived in our city two days ago, sir. Magistrate Lo ordered me this morning to make inquiries here in Temple Street, and I was directed to this ...'

'I see. Yes, my original plan had been to come here two days ago. But I arrived only this morning, as a matter of fact. Was detained on the way. But that's no concern of yours. I shall be in Magistrate Lo's residence in time for the noon meal, Counsellor. See to it that I get vegetarian food, and a quiet, small room. Small but clean, mind you. You're excused now, Mr Kao. I have a few things to attend to here. Even a retired sexton has certain duties, you know. Burying the dead, among other things. Of the past, and of the present!' A rumbling laugh made his heavy shoulders shake. It stopped as abruptly as it had began. 'Good day!' he rasped.

Counsellor Kao bowed, his hands folded respectfully in his long sleeves. Then he turned round and left.

The obese sexton opened the dog-eared volume in his lap. It was an ancient book on soothsaying. Putting his thick forefinger on the heading of the chapter, he read aloud, 'The black fox is setting out from its hole. Take warning.' He closed the book and stared at the door with his toad-like, unblinking eyes.


'The smoked duck was excellent,' Magistrate Lo announced, folding his hands over his paunch. 'But there was too much vinegar on the pig's trotters. Too much to suit my taste, at least.'

Judge Dee leaned back in the soft upholstery of his colleague's comfortable palankeen that was carrying them from the government hostel back to the tribunal. Stroking his long black beard, the judge said:

'You may be right about the pig's trotters, Lo, but there were plenty of other delicacies, truly a sumptuous repast. And the Prefect seemed to me a capable man, with a quick grasp of current events. I found his summing-up of the results of our conference most instructive.'

Magistrate Lo suppressed a small belch, delicately covering his mouth with his podgy hand. Then he turned up the points of the tiny moustache that adorned his round face.

'Instructive, yes. Rather boring, though. Heavens, isn't it hot in here?' He pushed his winged magistrate's cap of black velvet back from his moist brow. Both he and Judge Dee wore their full ceremonial dress of green brocade, as required in the presence of the Prefect, their direct chief. It had been a crisp and cool autumn morning, but now the strong rays of the midday sun were beating on the palankeen's roof.

Lo yawned. 'Well, now that the conference is over and done with, Dee, we can turn our minds to more pleasant subjects! I have drawn up a detailed programme for the two days you'll be honouring me with your presence, elder brother! Rather a nice programme, though I say so myself!'

'I hate to impose on your hospitality, Lo! Please don't go to any trouble on my account. If I can read a bit in your fine library, I ...'

'You won't have much time for reading, my dear fellow!' Lo drew the window curtain open. The palankeen was passing through the main street. Magistrate Lo pointed at the shop fronts, gaily decorated with coloured lampions of all shapes and sizes. 'Tomorrow is the Mid-autumn Festival! We'll start celebrating this very night! With a dinner party. Small but select!'

Judge Dee smiled politely, but his colleague's mentioning the Mid-autumn Festival had given him a sudden pang of regret. More than any of the many calendar feasts this one was a household affair, presided over by one's womenfolk, and in which the children also took a large part. The judge had been looking forward to celebrating this feast in Poo-yang in the intimacy of his own family circle. But the Prefect had ordered him to stay on for two days in Chin-hwa, so as to be on hand if the Prefect, who was going back to the provincial capital the next week, should want to summon him again. Judge Dee sighed. He would have much preferred to return to Poo-yang at once, not only because of the festival, but also because a complicated case of fraud was pending in his tribunal and he wanted to attend to it personally. Because of this case he had decided to travel to Chin-hwa alone, leaving his trusted adviser Sergeant Hoong and his three lieutenants in Poo-yang so that they could gather all the data for the final indictment. 'Eh, who did you say?'

'The Academician Shao, my dear fellow! He has consented to honour my poor dwelling with his presence!'

'You don't mean the former President of the Academy? The man who until recently drafted all the more important imperial edicts?'

Magistrate Lo smiled broadly.

'Yes indeed! One of the greatest writers of our time, both in poetry and prose. Then the Court Poet, the honourable Chang Lan-po, will also be staying with us.'

'Heavens, another illustrious name! You really shouldn't call yourself an amateur, Lo! That these famous poets come to stay with you proves that you ...'

His portly colleague quickly raised his hand.

'Oh no, Dee, no such luck! Mere accident! The Academician happened to be passing through here on his way back to the capital. And Chang, having been born and bred here in Chin-hwa, has come to worship at his ancestral shrine. Now, as you know, the tribunal here, including my official residence, is a former princely summer palace; it used to belong to the notorious Ninth Prince, who planned to usurp the throne, twenty years ago. There are many separate courtyards, and nice gardens too. The two distinguished gentlemen accepted my invitation only because they thought they'd be more comfortable with me than in a hostel!'

'You're much too modest, Lo! Both Shao and Chang are men of fastidious taste, they'd never have accepted your invitation to stay with you if they hadn't been impressed by your elegant poetry. When will they arrive?'

'They should be there right now, elder brother! Told my housemaster to serve them the noon meal in the main hall, my counsellor deputizing for me as host. I think we'll be there soon.' He drew the window curtain aside. 'Heavens, what is Kao doing there?' Poking his head out of the window, he shouted at the foreman of the palankeen bearers: 'Stop!'

While the palankeen was being lowered to the ground in front of the main gate of the tribunal, Judge Dee saw through the window an uneasy group of people standing close together on the broad steps. The neat man in the black coat and blue gown he recognized as Lo's counsellor, Kao. The lean fellow, wearing a black-bordered brown jacket and trousers and a black-lacquered helmet with a long red tassel, had to be the headman of the constables. The two others seemed ordinary citizens. Three constables stood somewhat apart. They wore the same uniform as their headman, but their helmets lacked the red tassel. They had thin chains round their waists, from which dangled thumbscrews and manacles. Kao came quickly down the stairs and made a low bow in front of the palankeen window. Magistrate Lo asked curtly:

'What's up, Kao?'

'Half an hour ago the steward of Mr Meng the tea-merchant came to report a murder, sir. Mr Soong, the student who is renting the back courtyard of Meng's residence, was found with his throat cut. All his money has been stolen. Seems to have happened very early this morning, sir.'

'A murder on the eve of the festival! Of all the bad luck!' Lo muttered to Judge Dee. Then he asked Kao with a worried look, 'What about my guests?'

'His Excellency the Academician Shao arrived just after you had left, sir, followed by the Honourable Chang. I showed the gentlemen their quarters, apologizing for Your Honour's absence. Just when they were sitting down to the noon meal, Sexton Loo made his appearance. After the meal the three gentlemen retired for their siesta.'

'Good. That means that I can go at once to inspect the scene of the crime. Plenty of time to welcome my guests after the siesta. Send the headman and a couple of constables ahead on horseback, Kao. Let them see to it that nobody messes things up, eh. Did you warn the coroner?'

'Yes, sir. I also took from our files the papers relating to the victim, and to his landlord, Merchant Meng.' He pulled a sheaf of official documents from his sleeve and handed them respectfully to his chief.

'Good work! You stay here in the tribunal, Kao. See whether any important papers have come in and deal with the routine matters!' He barked at the foreman of the bearers who had been listening avidly, 'You know Mr Meng's place? Near the East Gate, you say? All right, get a move on!'

As the palankeen was being carried away, Lo laid his hand on Judge Dee's arm and said quickly:

'Hope you don't mind missing your siesta, Dee! Need your help and advice, you know. Couldn't possibly deal with a murder all alone on a full stomach. Should've gone easy on the wine. Had just that one cup too many, I fear!' He wiped the perspiration from his face and asked again with an anxious look, 'You really don't mind, do you, Dee?'

'Of course not. I'll be glad to do what I can.' The judge stroked his moustache, then added dryly, 'Especially since I'll be on the spot with you, Lo. So that you can't pull the wool over my eyes, as you did on Paradise Island recently!'

'Well, you weren't too communicative either, elder brother! Last year, I mean. When you came to snatch those two nice girls away from here!'

Judge Dee smiled bleakly.

'All right, let's say we're quits! I expect this'll be just a routine case, though. Most murders for robbery are. Let's see exactly who the victim was.'

Lo quickly pushed the sheaf of papers into his colleague's hands. 'You have a look first, elder brother! I'll just shut my eyes for a moment or two. To concentrate my thoughts, you see. It's quite a long way to the East Gate.' He pushed his cap well forward over his eyes and leaned back in the cushions with a contented sigh.

The judge drew open the window curtain on his side to get a better light to read by. Before starting, however, he bestowed a thoughtful look on the flushed face of his colleague. It would be interesting to see how Lo would go about a murder investigation. He reflected that a magistrate, not being allowed to leave his own district without express orders from the Prefect, had but rarely an opportunity to see a colleague at work. Besides, Lo was quite an unusual person. He possessed ample private means, and rumour had it that he had accepted the magistracy of Chin-hwa only because it gave him an independent official position, and opportunity for indulging in his hobbies of wine, women and poetry. Chinhwa was always a difficult post to fill, because only a magistrate with a large private income could properly keep up the palatial residence, and it was whispered in official circles that it was chiefly for that reason that Lo was maintained in the post. But Judge Dee often suspected that Lo's air of being a bon viveur, with out interest in official duties, was largely assumed and carefully cultivated, and that in fact he administered his district rather well. And just now he had been favourably impressed by his colleague's decision to proceed to the scene of the crime himself. Many a magistrate would have left the routine examination on the spot to his underlings. The judge unrolled the documents. On top was a paper giving the official particulars about the murdered student.

His full name was Soong I-wen; twenty-three years of age and unmarried. Having passed the second literary examination with honours, he had been granted a scholarship, so as to enable him to edit a section of an old dynastic history. Soong had come to Chin-hwa two weeks previously, and he had registered at once in the tribunal, applying for permission to stay one month. He had explained to Counsellor Kao that the purpose of his visit was to consult the local historical records. A few centuries before, exactly in the period Soong was studying, there had occurred a peasant revolt in Chinhwa, and Soong hoped to find additional data on that event in the old archives. The counsellor had issued a permit allowing him to consult the files in the chancery. From the list of visits appended, it appeared that Soong had passed every afternoon in the tribunal's library. That was all.


Excerpted from Poets and Murder by Robert van Gulik. Copyright © 1968 Robert 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), a Dutch diplomat and an authority on Chinese history and culture, drew his plots and literary conventions from the popular detective novels that appeared in seventeenth-century China.

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Poets and Murder (Judge Dee Series) 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Will encounter the retired to monk and the beautiful poetess going to the capital for re trial in autumn near the shrine of the fox who is patron of judges records