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Old 09-20-2011, 12:12 AM   #1
WT Sharpe
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Discussion: The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik (spoilers)

Let's discuss the September Book Club selection, The Chinese Maze Murders by Robert van Gulik. What did you think?
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Old 09-20-2011, 07:28 AM   #2
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I enjoyed the book. I did feel a little cheated when I read the author's notes at the end and he talked about removing the supernatural element that is common in Chinese mysteries. I would have liked that, even given my Western upbringing.
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Old 09-20-2011, 01:59 PM   #3
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From the Introduction: "It should be noted that in Chinese the surname, here printed in capitals, precedes the personal name."

I like that practice. Henceforth you may all refer to me as 'Sharpe Tom'!
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Old 09-20-2011, 02:03 PM   #4
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I understand that the use of torture was necessary as a means of giving the book an air of authenticity, but I found it disturbing nonetheless. I wonder how it would play out if Judge Dee was a contemporary character rather than historical?

That being said, I loved the way the three stories were interwoven.
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Old 09-20-2011, 02:15 PM   #5
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I found the torture a bit disturbing, but I'd already been subjected to the boiling in oil references in Mo Yan's Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. I'm assuming that the afterlife and reincarnation stories have this as a fairly common theme.

I really liked the interweaving and I'm a big fan of the doubled chapter titles. They gave a nice sense of rhythm while reading.
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Old 09-20-2011, 06:10 PM   #6
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I greatly enjoyed this. The three plots have been mentioned; not only did I like how they were interwoven, I loved how van Gulik used standard devices: the locked room mystery, the hidden will, the puzzle that needed to be resolved. There’s nothing new under the sun! You add to the mysteries the dicey political situation and the philosophical issues posed by the hermit and you’ve got a fully realized world, populated by many diverse characters.

The juxtaposition of a cultured civilization with the savagery of torture was fascinating to me. Perhaps we’re not so far beyond that as we’d like to think; we just hide it better or are in a state of denial. And yet, the notion that someone couldn’t be convicted without his admission of guilt, so why not torture it out of him? is entirely off-putting.

I’m going to pose a question about van Gulik’s attitude toward women. Was he just reflecting the reality of Chinese life at that time, or perhaps, unfortunately, mid-20th century attitudes? It was interesting to me that the only mystery that wasn’t happily resolved was that of the missing women, who was tortured, then killed, by a sadistic lesbian. Was the woman more disposable than the characters in the other mysteries?
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Old 09-20-2011, 08:07 PM   #7
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...I’m going to pose a question about van Gulik’s attitude toward women. Was he just reflecting the reality of Chinese life at that time, or perhaps, unfortunately, mid-20th century attitudes? It was interesting to me that the only mystery that wasn’t happily resolved was that of the missing women, who was tortured, then killed, by a sadistic lesbian. Was the woman more disposable than the characters in the other mysteries?
That the antagonist in that tale was a sadistic lesbian is unfortunate, but then 1949 wasn't exactly known for enlightened attitudes toward women or homosexuals. That's a problem, along with blatant racism I find in many of the older novels. I try not to judge the authors by 21st century standards, however, and I hope I won't be judged too harshly by 22nd century standards.
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Old 09-20-2011, 08:38 PM   #8
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That the antagonist in that tale was a sadistic lesbian is unfortunate, but then 1949 wasn't exactly known for enlightened attitudes toward women or homosexuals. That's a problem, along with blatant racism I find in many of the older novels. I try not to judge the authors by 21st century standards, however, and I hope I won't be judged too harshly by 22nd century standards.
The flip side, of course, is why shouldn't a lesbian be sadistic, if you're going to have a sadist? Equal opportunity bad guys and all that. Our distaste says as much about us as it does about the story. Mostly I'm interested in that I couldn't decide if van Gulik was being modern or a throwback. I do think the character was fair enough within the context of the story.
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Old 09-20-2011, 09:05 PM   #9
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I have no problem with a homosexual character being shown to be the scum of the earth. Many are. The problem is when the only homosexual in the story is depicted that way. It's the same complaint that the NAACP had in the 50s. The problem wasn't that black actors were playing buffoons on TV and in films. The problem was that was practically all they played.

Still, I consider that at the time when the book was written, positive role models for homosexuals were decades away, so it doesn't bother me too much.
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Old 09-20-2011, 11:20 PM   #10
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I read absolutely nothing into the portrayal of the lesbian in the story. Yes, Chinese society didn't or hasn't exactly been st the forefront of equality issues at times, but I agree with not judging stories based on a standard that certainly didn't exist at the time.

My favourite scene was with the hermit. This line was classic:
"...Yoo still studied the Confuscianist Classics. He sent me a cartload of books out here. I found them most useful. They made excellent kindlings for my kitchen stove."
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Old 09-21-2011, 05:13 AM   #11
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A very enjoyable read for me. The way it was written reminded me a lot of the stories by Friedrich Glauser about "Sergeant Studer". The misteries seemed to have been solved by the by, as though it was really easy to find the answers, even though in reality it was not.
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Old 09-21-2011, 11:12 AM   #12
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My favourite scene was with the hermit. This line was classic:
"...Yoo still studied the Confuscianist Classics. He sent me a cartload of books out here. I found them most useful. They made excellent kindlings for my kitchen stove."
Yes, that was a great line—and unexpected!
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Old 10-05-2011, 02:07 PM   #13
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Thanks to the recent posts in this thread http://www.mobileread.com/forums/sho...=150794&page=5 for kicking me in the butt to write something about The Chinese Maze Murders. I did read it, it is just that I don't know I have anything especially insightful to add beyond what others have already said here. Anyway this is the thumbnail review I posted at Goodreads:

Quote:
This was an interesting detective story type book. I liked how it seemed to be accurately set in T'ang Dynasty China, both in how the society and officialdom was organized, and in how people spoke and behaved. The use of torture as a means of solving crimes and the harsh punishments meted out may have offended my sensibilities, but I suppose that was also an accurate representation of the setting. Some things were a bit to obvious. For example in the case of the inheritance of the widow Yoo from the first mention of the scroll painting and the maze I knew how that would turn out.
Expanding new thoughts that come to my mind based on others comments so far:

I was glad that there were no supernatural elements. I was interested in reading a mystery novel, not a fantasy book.

I thought that the women were portrayed and treated in the novel in a manner entirely consistent with reality of the setting of Chinese society at the time. With few exceptions, say royalty, women would have been treated as chattel. I did find the lesbian angle surprising, and do wonder what that said about van Gulik. On the other hand there would have been little sympathy or tolerance for a lesbian in T'ang Dynasty China.

I found the description of the executions at the end brutal, but again probably as it would have been back then. Punishment for treason by death via drawing and quartering persisted in England through the 18th century. I was interesting, and probably an accurate assessment of how wealth and social class would impact punishment, that the punishment for the traitor was commuted to a quick beheading, but the lesbian murderess was brutally flayed first.

I thought that the portrayal of the Chinese attitude towards the non-Chinese barbarians was also historically accurate. Just a people who the Chinese had a right to displace and subject.
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Old 10-12-2011, 09:42 PM   #14
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Finished!

I would like to later go back and comment on some posts here, but first I'll offer my brief review of the novel:

I liked it. I enjoyed basking in the vivid descriptions of a past era, and enjoyed it more so when I found out that the author was painstaking in his recreation of that era's stories. He has a way with simple, short descriptions with rich impact. I particularly like books with wonderful descriptions of the world inside, that happen to have a good story to go along with them, because those are the books that transport my imagination the most.

The mysteries were nice, but I think the journey and experiencing that world were the more compelling aspects of the book.

I did have an intellectually frustrating problem with one of the mysteries, however. As soon as Chien said "You" as he was dying, I thought he could be referring to the surname Yoo. So the minor frustration was the the genius judge wouldn't pick up on that immediately. But the major frustration was that this book is set in China, so I would assume it would be written as if it were a translation of Chinese language.

Because of this, I thought I must be wrong about you/Yoo since "you" would be a completely different word in the language they're "really" speaking. Of course, in the end it was written as if they were all speaking English in China and "you" did equal "Yoo". For an author who was so careful elsewhere, I found this to be glaring.


ETA - And here are some lines I particularly liked:

"The willow trees borrow their shape from the spring breeze; the rippling waves derive their grace from the autumn moon." (pages 76-78, inscribed on paper weights; I assume van Gulik borrowed this from an old author, as he freely admits he has for other poetic lines)

(Master Crane describing how he made his tea) "The water was taken from where the brook springs from the rocks. Last night I placed the tea leaves in the bud of a chrysanthemum. I took them out this morning when the flower opened in the sun. These leaves are saturated with the essence of the morning dew." (pages 160-162)

(Ma Joong: ) "She nearly knifed me during that attack on our party in the mountains. I really liked her!" (pages 222-224)

Last edited by sun surfer; 10-12-2011 at 10:04 PM.
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Old 10-12-2011, 09:50 PM   #15
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Fascinating. I was so caught up in the story that I missed the absurdity of the "You/Yoo" connection until I began reading your post. I should have caught that.

Does anyone plan to see the "Detective" Dee movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame? From the trailer and the reviews I've seen, it looks as if it takes quite a few liberties with the Judge Dee legacy.
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