Written by a Dutch diplomat and scholar during the 1950s and 1960s, these lively and historically accurate mysteries have entertained a devoted following for decades. Set during the T'ang dynasty, they feature Judge Dee, a brilliant and cultured Confucian magistrate disdainful of personal luxury and corruption, who cleverly selects allies to help him navigate the royal courts, politics, and ethnic tensions in imperial China. Robert van Gulik modeled Judge Dee on a magistrate of that name who lived in the seventh century, and he drew on stories and literary conventions of Chinese mystery writing dating back to the Sung dynasty to construct his ingenious plots.
Murder in Canton takes place in the year 680, as Judge Dee, recently promoted to lord chief justice, is sent incognito to Canton to investigate the disappearance of a court censor. With the help of his trusted lieutenants Chiao Tai and Tao Gan, and that of a clever blind girl who collects crickets, Dee solves a complex puzzle of political intrigue and murder through the three separate subplots "the vanished censor," "the Smaragdine dancer," and "the Golden Bell."
An expert on the art and erotica as well as the literature, religion, and politics of China, van Gulik also provides charming illustrations to accompany his engaging and entertaining mysteries.
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Murder in Canton
A Judge Dee Mystery
By Robert van Gulik
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1966 Robert van Gulik
All rights reserved.
The two men standing at the corner of the custom-house silently watched the long, dreary waterfront. The elder's thin, angular frame was wrapped from head to feet in an old goatskin caftan. The other, a burly, handsome man in his late forties, was clad in a patched brown gown and jacket. While they were standing there, the hot, clammy mist changed into a warm drizzle that wetted the worn velvet of their black caps. The still air was very close, for although it was late in the afternoon already, there was no sign yet of a cooling evening breeze.
A dozen bare-backed coolies were unloading the foreign ship moored a little further on alongside the river quay, opposite the arched gate of the custom-house. Bent under heavy bales, they trudged down the gangway to the measure of a mournful catch-song. The four guards at the gate had pushed their spiked helmets back from their perspiring brows. Leaning heavily on their long halberds, they followed the work with bored eyes.
'Look! There goes the ship we came down the river on this morning!' the elderly man exclaimed. He pointed to the dark mass that came looming up out of the mist, beyond the masts of the other craft moored next to the foreign ship. The black war junk was being rowed with great speed to the estuary of the Pearl River, its brass gongs clanging to warn off the small boats of the river hawkers.
'Weather permitting, they'll be in Annam soon!' his broad-shouldered companion said gruffly. "There's bound to be a lot of good fighting down there. But you and I have to stay behind in this god-forsaken city, with orders to assess the situation! Hell, there's another drop running down my neck. As if this blasted humid heat isn't making me sweat enough already!'
He pulled the collar of his jacket closer round his thick boxer's neck, at the same time taking good care to conceal the coat of mail he was wearing underneath, with the golden badge of a colonel of the Imperial Guard, a round plaque consisting of two intertwined dragons. Then he asked testily, 'Do you know what it's all about, brother Tao?'
The lean man sadly shook his grey head. Tugging at the three long hairs that sprouted from the wart on his cheek, he replied slowly:
'Our boss didn't tell me a thing, brother Chiao. Must be important, though. Else he wouldn't have left the capital so suddenly, and rushed down here with us, first on horseback, then on that fast war junk. There must be trouble brewing here in Canton. Ever since our arrival this morning, I have ...'
He was interrupted by a loud splash. Two coolies had let a bale drop into the muddy strip of water between the ship and the quay. A white-turbaned figure jumped down from the deck and began to kick the coolies, shouting at them in a foreign tongue. The bored custom-guards suddenly came to life. One stepped forward and with a quick swing of his halberd let its flat side thud down on the shoulders of the cursing Arab.
'Keep off our men, you son of a dog!' the guard shouted. 'You are in China here, remember!'
The Arab gripped the hilt of the dagger in his red belt. A dozen white-gowned men jumped from the ship, and drew their long curved swords. As the coolies let their bales drop and scurried away, the four guards levelled their halberds at the cursing sailors. Suddenly iron boots resounded on the cobblestones. Twenty soldiers came marching through the gate of the custom-house. With the ease of long practice they surrounded the angry Arabs and herded them at spearpoint back towards the edge of the quay. A tall thin Arab with a beaked nose leaned over the railing of the ship, and began to harangue the sailors in a strident voice. They sheathed their swords and climbed on board again. The coolies resumed their work as if nothing had happened.
'About how many of those insolent bastards would there be in this city?' the colonel asked.
'Well, we counted four ships in port, didn't we? And two more are lying in the estuary, outward bound. Add the Arabs who've settled down ashore, and you get a couple of thousand, I'd say. And that wretched inn of yours is smack in the middle of the Moslem quarter! A fine place for getting a knife in your back at night! My hostel is nothing to crow about either, but being right outside the south gate, the guards are at least within calling distance.'
'What room have you got there?'
'The one on the corner of the second floor, which gives me a good view of the quay and the wharves, as per orders. Well, don't you think we've been hanging about here long enough? The drizzle is getting worse. Let's go and sample the stuff over there.'
He pointed to the end of the quay where a shadowy figure was lighting the red lantern of a wine-house.
'I certainly could use some!' Chiao Tai muttered. 'Never saw such a dismal place! And I can't speak the language either.'
Hurrying over the slippery cobblestones, they did not notice a shabbily dressed, bearded man, who now left the shelter of the godown further along the quay and followed them.
Arriving at the end of the quay, Chiao Tai saw that the bridge across the moat by the Kueite city gate was crowded with people. Clad in straw raincoats, they bustled along, each intent on his own business.
'Nobody takes time off for a bit of loitering here,' he grumbled.
'That's why they could make Canton the wealthiest port city of the south!' Tao Gan remarked. 'Here we are!'
He pulled the patched door-curtain aside and they entered a dim, cavernous taproom. They were met by the smell of stale garlic and salted fish. The smoking oil lamps dangling from the low rafters threw their uncertain light on a few score guests, huddling in groups of four or five round small tables. They were busily talking in undertones. No one seemed to pay the slightest attention to the two newcomers.
When the two men were seating themselves at an empty table near the window, the bearded man who had been following them came in. He went straight to the rear, to a worn wooden counter where the innkeeper was heating pewter winejugs in a basin of boiling water.
Tao Gan told the waiter in good Cantonese to bring them two large jugs. While they were waiting, Chiao Tai put his elbows on the greasy table top and glumly surveyed the guests.
'What a crowd!' he muttered after a while. 'See that awful dwarf over there? Can't understand how I missed that ugly mug when I came in!'
Tao Gan looked at the small squat man sitting all alone at the table near the door. He had a flat, swarthy face with a low, deeply furrowed brow and a broad nose. Small, deep-set eyes lowered from under ragged eyebrows. His large, hairy hands were clasped round his empty beaker.
'The only fellow of decent appearance is our neighbour!' Tao Gan whispered. 'Has the looks of a professional boxer.' He pointed with his chin at the wide-shouldered man sitting alone at the next table. He wore a neat, dark-blue gown, its black sash wound tightly round his slender waist. His heavy-lidded eyes gave his handsome, deeply tanned face a sleepy expression. He was staring into space, seemingly oblivious of his surroundings.
The slovenly waiter put two large jugs before them. Then he went back to the counter. He pointedly ignored the dwarf who was waving his empty beaker at him.
Chiao Tai took a sip, looking rather sceptical.
'Not bad at all!' he exclaimed, agreeably surprised. He emptied his beaker and added, 'Quite good, in fact!' He drank his second beaker in one long draught. Tao Gan followed his example with a happy grin.
The bearded man at the counter had been watching them all the time. He counted the beakers they drank. When he saw the two friends begin yet another round, their sixth, he started to leave the counter. Then his eye fell on the dwarf, and he checked himself. The boxer at the next table, who had been watching from the corners of his hooded eyes both the bearded man and the dwarf, now sat up straight He pensively stroked his short, neatly trimmed ring-beard.
Chiao Tai set down his empty beaker. He clapped his heavy hand on his friend's bony shoulder and said with a broad grin:
'I don't like the city, I don't like the damned hot weather, and I don't like this smelly taproom. But by heaven the wine's all right, and anyway it's good to be out on a job again. What about you, eh, brother Tao?'
'I got fed up with the capital too,' the other replied. 'Be careful, your badge is showing.'
Chiao Tai pulled the lapels of his jacket close. But the bearded man at the counter had got a glimpse of the golden badge, and his lips curved in a satisfied smile. Then his face fell again as he saw a blue-turbaned Arab with a cast in his left eye come in and join the dwarf. The bearded man turned to the counter and gave the innkeeper a sign to fill his beaker.
'Heaven knows I am not cut out for the part of a parade colonel!' Chiao Tai exclaimed, as he refilled their beakers. 'Had four years of it now, mind you! You should see the bed I'm supposed to sleep in! Silk pillows, silk coverlets, and brocade curtains! Makes me feel like a blooming whore! Know what I do, every blasted night? Take out the reed mat I keep hidden behind the bed, roll it out on the floor, and lay me down there for a good night's rest! Only bother is that every morning I have to rumple the bedding a bit, to keep up appearances for my orderlies, you see!'
He guffawed. Tao Gan joined him. In their happy mood they did not notice that their laughter sounded very loud. Conversation had come to a standstill; the guests stared in sullen silence at the door. The dwarf was talking angrily to the waiter who stood with folded arms in front of his table. The boxer watched them too, then again turned his gaze towards the man by the counter.
'As for me,' Tao Gan said with his sly grin, 'tonight I can go to sleep in peace in my attic. I won't have to first shoo away those young maidservants my house-steward keeps trotting out. The scoundrel still hopes to sell me one as a concubine some day!'
'Why don't you tell the rascal to stop that nonsense? Here, have another drink!'
'It saves money, my friend! Those wenches come to work for free, hoping to catch this wealthy old bachelor, you see!' Tao Gan emptied his beaker, then resumed, 'Fortunately you and I are not the marrying kind, brother Chiao! Unlike our friend and colleague Ma Joong!'
'Don't mention the low wretch!' Chiao Tai shouted. 'To think that after he married those twin-sisters four years ago, he has sired six boys and two girls! That's debasing into hard labour what ought to be a gentleman's pleasure! And he's afraid to come home drunk nowadays. Did you ...'
He broke off and looked astonished at the commotion by the door. The ugly dwarf and the Arab had risen. Their faces flushed and angry, they had begun to curse the waiter who was trying to shout them down. The other guests were watching the scene with impassive faces. Suddenly the Arab groped for his dagger. The dwarf quickly took his arm, and pulled him outside. The waiter grabbed the dwarf's wine-beaker and threw it after him. It smashed to pieces on the cobblestones. An approving murmur rose from the crowd.
'They don't like Arabs here,' Chiao Tai remarked.
The man at the next table turned his head.
'No, it wasn't the Arab, exactly,' he told them in good northern Chinese. 'But you are right, we don't like Arabs here either. Why should they come? They don't drink our wine, anyway. Aren't allowed to, by their creed.'
'Those black bastards miss the best things of life!' Chiao Tai said with a grin. 'Join us in a round!' As the stranger smiled and pulled his chair up to their table, Chiao Tai asked him, 'Are you from up north?'
'No, I was born and bred here in Canton. But I have travelled about a lot, and a traveller has to learn languages. I am a sea captain, you see. My name is Nee, by the way. What brought you people down here?'
'We are just passing through,' Tao Gan explained. 'We are clerks belonging to the suite of an official who is now touring the province.'
The captain gave Chiao Tai a judicious look.
'I'd have thought that you were army.'
'I used to do a bit of boxing and fencing, as a hobby,' Chiao Tai said casually. 'You interested in that too?'
'Fencing, mainly. Especially with Arab blades. Had to learn that, for I used to be on the regular run over to the Persian Gulf. There are plenty of pirates about in those waters, you know.'
'It beats me how they manage those curved blades,' Chiao Tai remarked.
'You'd be surprised,' Captain Nee said. Soon he and Chiao Tai were in animated conversation about different kinds of sword-fighting. Tao Gan listened absent-mindedly and concentrated on keeping the beakers filled. But when he heard the captain quote some technical terms in Arabic, he looked up and asked:
'You know their lingo?'
'Enough to get along. Picked up Persian too. All in the day's work!' And to Chiao Tai: 'I'd like to show you my collection of foreign swords. What about coming along for a drink at my place? I live over in the east city.'
'Tonight we're rather busy,' Chiao Tai replied. 'Could you make it tomorrow morning?'
The other darted a quick glance at the man at the counter.
'All right,' he said. 'Where are you staying?'
'At the Five Immortals' Inn, near the Moslem mosque.'
The captain started to say something, but changed his mind. He sipped his wine, then asked casually, 'Is your friend staying there too?' When Chiao Tai shook his head, the captain resumed with a shrug, 'Well, you're fully capable of looking after yourself, I dare say. I'll send a litter to fetch you, say about an hour after breakfast.'
Tao Gan paid the bill, and they took their leave of their new acquaintance. The sky had cleared; the river breeze felt pleasantly cool on their flushed faces. The quay now presented an animated scene. Hawkers had set up their night-stalls all along the waterside, lit by strings of coloured lampions. The river was dotted with torches on small boats, moored stem to stern. The breeze wafted the smell of burning firewood to them. The waterfolk were preparing their evening rice.
'Let's rent a litter,' Tao Gan said. 'It's quite a long way to the Governor's Palace.'
Chiao Tai made no reply. He had been surveying the crowd with a preoccupied face. Suddenly he asked:
'Don't you have a feeling that someone is keeping an eye on us?'
Tao Gan quickly looked over his shoulder.
'No, I don't,' he said. 'But your hunches are often right, I admit. Well, since our judge told us to report at six, we still have an hour or so. Let's do some walking, each on his own. That'll give us a better chance to see whether we are being spied upon. And I'll be able to test my memory of the city's layout at the same time.'
'All right. I'll pass by my inn and change, then cut through the Moslem quarter. If I keep to the north-east, I'll sooner or later come to the large street that leads north, won't I?'
'If you behave and keep out of trouble, that is! Do have a look at the Tower of the Water-clock on the main street, it's a famous sight. The exact time is indicated by floaters in a series of brass water vessels, put one above the other, like a flight of stairs. The water drips slowly from the higher into the lower vessels. Quite an ingenious contrivance!'
'Think I need all those gadgets for knowing the time of day?' Chiao Tai asked with a sniff. 'I go by the sun and by my thirst. And at night and on rainy days I make do with my thirst only. See you later, in the palace!'CHAPTER 2
Chiao Tai turned the corner, crossed the bridge over the moat and entered the city by the Kuei-te Gate.
As he pushed his way through the dense evening crowd, he glanced over his shoulder now and then, but no one seemed to be following him. He passed in front of the high, red-lacquered gate of the Temple of the Five Immortals, entered the first street on his left, and so reached his inn, named after the temple. It was a ramshackle building of two storeys. Over its roof he saw the top of the minaret belonging to the Moslem mosque, rising more than fifteen fathoms up in the air.
Calling out a cheerful good-night to the surly innkeeper, who sat slumped in a bamboo chair in the small lobby, Chiao Tai went straight up to his room on the second floor, at the back. It was hot and stuffy inside, for the shutters of the single window had been closed the whole day. After renting it that morning he had only stayed to put his travelling bundles on the bare plank-bed. With a curse he pushed the shutters wide open. He looked at the minaret, of which he now had a complete view.
Excerpted from Murder in Canton by Robert van Gulik. Copyright © 1966 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.
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Table of ContentsChiao Tai loses a companion
Tao Gan meets the Golden Bell
Prefect Pao presents Yau and Liang to Judge Dee
Mansur entertains his guests
A meeting at the temple fair
Chiao Tai visits the Smaragdine dancer
Tao Gan and Judge Dee
Chiao Tai converses with Captain Nee
Tao Gan disturbs a reading lady
Dananir welcomes unexpected guests
Judge Dee discusses a chess problem
A warrior's death