Saturday, September 19, 2009

"No Chinaman must figure in the story."

『古畑任三郎: ピアノ・レッスン』

"Ehm, people who are concerned whether they are disliked or not, don't worry. In such cases you usually really are disliked. But a problem are those people who don't see they are being disliked..."
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: Piano Lesson"

"No Chinaman must figure in the story". Thus says the fifth commandment for the Golden Age detective as set by Robert A. Knox. It sounds just a bit more racist than meant to, as the rule meant that the evil mysterious opium-den master Fu Manchu-like stock character Chinaman which was in popular use in cheap thrillers in Knox' time should have no place in a formal mystery novel. Of course, pretty much all the rules set by Knox were broken in several of the best mystery novels ever, so Chinamen were indeed also featured in detective novels.

One of the better known examples is the Chinese detective Charlie Chan who operates in Hawaii. I picked up a omnibus of the first 3 Chan novels (with the Worst. Cover. Ever.) at the Bookfest (which is probably the nearest we'll get in the Netherlands to a Book Off) and recently finished the first novel, The House Without a Key. The Chan books and writer Biggers are often praised for their positive portrayal of Chinese persons in literature (contrary to the practice of those days), but even then, the clutches of Orientalism are hard to escape, so instead of a evil mysterious opium-den master Fu Manchu-like stock character, we get a benevolent mysterious overly polite stock character who at least not speakies pigeon talk, but does talks the English in a way the most peculiar and quaint. Of course, we know that the Belgian Hercule Poirot has an excellent grasp on the English, but talks sometimes in broken English to let people underestimate him, but I doubt that's the case with Chan. The plot of the book was nothing special, but I did like the Hawaiian setting. 'Cause it reminds of me a quite tasty meal I had in Japan once. Twice.

A lot more entertaining are the Judge Dee books by Robert van Gulik. While different from the classic model, detective-like novels have been around in China for centuries, usually in the form of criminal court records, with the judge (who was also responsible for the prosecution...) as the detective. Van Gulik translated one of these court records, Dee Gong An ("Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee") most excellently, providing a role model for (crime) translators everywhere in my opinion. Afterwards van Gulik wrote his own mystery novels using the characters of the Dee Gong An. Set in the Tang dynasty, the books are both entertaining as (very!) informing, as van Gulik was a celebrated Sinologist and incorporated loads of interesting facts regarding the culture and judical system in the novels. Like a detailed explanation regarding the legal use of torture by judges.

Van Gulik translated another court record by the way, Tian Yin Pi Shih ("Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree"), which also makes an interesting read for people interested in the ancient Chinese judical system. 72 double cases are presented, many of them reminiscent of the judgment of Solomon. Some cases described in the book were also used by Van Gulik in his Judge Dee novels, if I remember correctly.

These kinds of court records were also available in Japan. These premodern detectives seem to be quite interesting to me as a historical source as well as narratives. I think it would actually make a great research topic somehow, sometime in the future. Far away future.

Yes, I know I still have to read Sherlock in Shanghai.


  1. Ash, I entirely agree with you about "The House Without a Key". The story's strength is the beautiful Hawaiian setting and its characters. The plot is only average at best.

    The best Charlie Chan stories, IMHO, are "Behind That Curtain" (a solid and interesting plot, like the port of missing women, and contains an early example of the dying message) and "Charlie Chan Carries On" (And Then There Were None meets Around the World in Eighty Days).

    Don't forget to put Freeman's "The Eye of Osiris" on your list! I think the book will prove to be interesting study material for anyone interested in the history of the Japanese detective story (read my pm on aniway).

  2. "The Eye of Osiris" has been in my virtual shopping cart for a while now, but I kinda forgot about it and now it's too late to order it (as it won't arrive before I go)! Guess that'll have to wait for a while now.

  3. Read "Behind That Curtain" yesterday and it was indeed a lot better than "The House Without a Key". A lot less dragging compared to the debut novel, a dying message (though this one was very basic) is always entertaining and being more focused on Chan's character helped the novel a lot. Just a shame it was set in San Franscisco and not Hawaii (though SF is a great city, I just wanted to see more of Hwaii).