The Chinese Lake Murders

BGJ 156 Summer 2011

Reviewer: Tony Atkins

ISBN 0-226-84865-5 (publisher University of Chicago Press)

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat and scholar of oriental culture who turned to writing novels to help popularise the genre of the Chinese detective novel. This novel is in the tradition of such works and it, and his other Judge Dee novels, is based on years of research and study into China and its culture. He lived in China for a few years during the War and also in Japan, so he would be familiar with the games they played.

Judge Dee is a typical Chinese detective having just been made magistrate in the town of Han-yuan in 666 AD. Chinese crimes are a bit like London buses - you wait ages for one and then three come along at once - so Dee is a bit busier than has counterpart in western fiction. Often, however, the crimes are related in some way which becomes clear at the end. Go players should be well used to dealing with Chinese names, but the style of writing is a bit old-fashioned, the book having been published in 1960.

In one of the crimes in this book, the last words of the victim to Dee are "I hope your Honor plays chess, for..." This turns out to be translation of "qi", covering all such games, as a page from an old Go manual is found on the dead body. It shows a board used in the ancient Chinese way of not playing on the edges (as the stones fall off) and is hence a 17x17 game. However there are many more white stones than black, the pattern seeming quite random, with all the black stones towards the middle of the board. Why this page bears no resemblance to an actual Go position is one of the key mysteries of the story.

Around about the page in chapter five which pictures the Go position, Judge Dee discusses the "chess" game with his officers. He mentions the 289 intersections and the 150 small round stones of each colour. He goes on to explain how to play, capture and win in three sentences. This prompts his sergeant to comment "That sounds quite simple!" Dee smiles back and wisely mentions that "a man's lifetime hardly suffices for mastering all its intricacies."

I enjoyed the book with its twists and puzzles in an ancient Chinese setting, but the Go content is not the most extensive and you have to work out that Go is what is meant by "chess". The cover illustration is from the University of Chicago Press paperback edition (a different cover can be seen on the BGA webpage of celebrities).

Last updated Mon Jan 17 2022.
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