Sunday, March 30, 2014


『Mysterious Eyes』 (Garnet Crow)

Don't let go of my hand
So we won't get lost again
"Mysterious Eyes" (Garnet Crow)

I write about detective fiction in any type of medium, so I have also quite a number of reviews posted under games and audio drama for example. The most surprising (to me) is still the fact I have a musical tag. Not sure whether I'll ever be able to use that again... Anyway, an audio drama today. And it's not even in Japanese!

Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories are quite famous around the world. An important factor explaining its popularity is probably the fact that van Gulik's managed to combine his expert knowledge on ancient China and its law practices with stories that are also fun to read. The character of the wise magistrate Dee was based on the actual magistrate Di (Dee) Renjie and his (slightly fictionalized) appearance in the detective novel Dee Gong An (see for a more detailed introduction to the series, this older post).

Robert van Gulik's first original book has an interesting publication history: it was actually first published in 1951 in Japan, under the title Meiro no Satsujin ("The Maze Murders"). A Chinese version followed in 1953, but the book wouldn't be published in English (the language the book was originally written in) or Dutch (van Gulik's mothertongue) until 1956: it was known as The Chinese Maze Murders in English, while it was released one year later in the Netherlands with the name of Labyrinth in Lan-Fang (which means the same in English, of course). I am not familiar with the reception history of the book, but I gather it must have been fairly popular, for a radio drama was produced for the Dutch radio waves somewhere between 1957 and 1959: Labyrinth in Lan-Fang was a play in nine half-hour parts, probably broadcast by radiostation VARA.

Labyrinth in Lan-Fang starts with judge Dee being appointed as the new magistrate of the border town of Lan-Fang, one of the strategic points of the empire in their fight against the Uyghur people. Yet not all is well in this town: the population has lost all its trust in the central govenment because of a local usurper, who managed to corrupt all previous magistrates, an Uyghur attack seems imminent and there is also 'normal' work for the magistrate: a case of a widow being cheated out of her legacy by her stepson, a secret hidden inside a painting and a large garden-maze just outside of town, a missing girl and the mysterious murder of a retired governor inside a locked room will also keep the judge busy these first few days of his appointment.

I have read my share of Judge Dee novels, but this was my first encounter with The Chinese Maze Murders / Labyrinth in Lan-Fang. And I liked it! As always, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the way Robert van Gulik manages to bring ancient China alive: from 'big' settings like how the administrative and legal system worked, to little details like daily habits, the food and objects people use, all the Judge Dee novels offer a great look in ancient China, but it never feels 'too heavy': it is perfectly possible, and fine to 'just' read these novels as is.

One of the best elements Robert van Gulik borrowed from Dee Gong An is the story-structure: the judge is always working on multiple cases at the same time (usually three), which is actually quite logically considering he's the highest authority in the district: it wouldn't make sense for him to work on one case at a time. This results in overlapping storylines, which feels quite natural: the findings of one case might be useful to the solving of another, while sometimes he has to prioritize one over another. In most of the Judge Dee novels, these seperate storylines overlap at several points, which is also the case here. In a way, these storylines crossing over make up a Chinese Maze on their own.

And a little bit of sidetracking here, but I recently found out that there are Judge Dee videogames. Well, find-the-object games. But what about a Machi/Detective Conan Marionette Symphony-esque sound novel game, where multiple, seperate storylines intersect and where the outcome of one story, is connected to another? Wouldn't that be an awesome, and fitting Judge Dee game? Just imagine, a game system like that of Marionette Symphony, with the judge, Sergeant Hoong, brawlers Ma Joong and Chiao Tai and trickster Tao Gan each contributing a little in their own way to the investigations!

But back to Labyrinth in Lan-Fang. I usually enjoy Judge Dee stories more as well-structured puzzles, rather than stories with memorable tricks or things like that and I feel the same about this story. Sure, there is a locked room murder, but I felt the solution came kinda out of nowhere. Though I have to note, I think that the storylines of the early Judge Dee novels were all based on actual court records from ancient China (again, this was van Gulik's expertise), so it seems that the trick behind the locked room in this novel was one that was actually used. Kinda creepy if you think about it (and to enter another sidetrack: I remember that a few years ago, there really was a stroller in the attic case in Japan、who was discovered in the end because someone noticed toilet paper was disappearing).

And how was Labyrinth in Lan-Fang an audio drama? The only complaint I have is the length; nine times thirty minutes is a bit too long in my opinion for one story, but besides that, I quite liked it. The combined efforts of Van Gulik's original story, the voice actors and the radio script also did a great job at keeping characters distinct from each other, something that can be quite different when your story is set in a different culture and with so many unfamiliar names. The multiple storyline structure of the Judge Dee stories can be a bit confusing, because it involves of jumping from one storyline to another, but no problems in this adaptation. Oh and I was very happy with the fact that the recording I listened was quite clean, because that isn't always the case with recordings of old radio dramas.

This month featured reviews of Japanese novels based on Chinese novels, Japanese translations of English novels, Japanese novels set in the United States and a too eager Japanese take on two American detective novels, so what better way to finish month than with a review of a Dutch audio drama based on a book originally written in English by a Dutchman, but first published in Japanese?

Original Dutch title(s): Robert van Gulik (original story), "Labyrinth in Lan-Fang"

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