I had read this before--decades ago as a teen and can't say even after reading it again I could say I remembered it--which is a point against it. It's a historical mystery set in China's Tang Dynasty around 700 AD and featuring Judge Dee. He's a historical figure with the kind of legendary reputation of a Sherlock Holmes as a detective. The plot is clever that way--worthy of a Conan Doyle, if not with the memorable and jaw-dropping quality of Christie. The style is rather clunky. Robert van Gulik first wrote this in Chinese for Asian audiences, then translated it into English--actually to facilitate it being translated into Japanese before ever thinking to put this before a Western audience. He was a Dutch diplomat and English would not have been his first language--not sure if that factors in. His recurring characters are likeable if not complex.
Yet despite that I'm fond of this novel and the series--enough to give it four stars. These are clever and satisfying mysteries but for me what makes these novels special is the setting. Van Gulik obviously knew and loved China and its history and culture. He served as a diplomat there and had translated classic Chinese literature. His purpose in writing <i>The Chinese Maze Murders</i> according to his forward was to create a mystery novel along the lines of classic Chinese mysteries that would appeal both to contemporary Asians and Westerners and I loved the result. One of the major differences between that model and the Western sort of mystery is that instead of one central mystery, Dee has three cases that are woven into the plot, and this allows us to roam among all classes of Chinese society of the time. Mind you, the story is deliberately anachronistic. Like his models, Van Gulik frames the story as being told by a man of the Ming Dynasty almost a thousand years later, and the details Van Gulik warns us are of that time, not of the time it is set. Regardless, Van Gulik's novel and series has the quality of the best historical fiction: Judge Dee and the people surrounding him feel very much of their own place and time--not our own. That's a lot of the fascination. And yet sometimes it seems startingly modern in unexpected ways. That's part of the fascination too.