The following is an excerpt from The Chinese Maze Murders, by Robert Van Gulik. Judge Dee is based on a historical Chinese figure.
Sergeant Hoong nodded. After a while he remarked:
“I have been wondering all along why your Honour did not proceed immediately against Woo. At first all evidence pointed strongly to his guilt.”
“At our very first meeting,” the judge answered, “Candidate Ding behaved in a suspicious way. When I and Ma Joong met him in the street, he could not conceal his consternation when I disclosed my identity. Since I have the undeserved reputation of a detector of crimes, Ding evidently thought for a moment of abandoning his plan of poisoning his father and throwing the blame on Woo. Then he decided that his scheme was flawless and that after all he could take his chance. He invited us to a tea house and dished out his story of Woo’s designs on General Ding’ life.”
“That bastard Ding fooled even me!” Ma Joong exclaimed angrily.
Judge Dee smiled and went on:
“Then the General was killed. Young Ding had not the slightest idea off what could have happened. I checked that again this morning. You saw that I suddenly produced the fatal writing brush, pointing the open end of the shaft right at Ding’s face. If it had been Ding who had tampered with that brush after the Governor had presented it to the General, Ding would certainly have betrayed himself.
As it was, Candidate Ding must have been as puzzled by this mysterious murder as we. He must have had an anxious half hour, trying to find out what had happened. Had his paramour had a hand in the killing: Was it someone who had found out about his murder plot and who would in due course ask for a substantial reward for having executed his scheme for him? Then Ding decided that his original plan of making Woo the culprit must be carried out anyway. With Woo’s guilt established, Ding need not be afraid of the real murderer intimidating or blackmailing him. Thus he came rushing in here and accused Woo. Ding, however, did not realize that the false trail he had so carefully constructed was extremely poor.”
“That is beyond me, Your Honour!” Tao Gan interrupted. “That box of poisoned plums pointed straight to Woo!”
“Too much so,” the judge replied. “It was badly overdone and moreover based on a wholly mistaken evaluation of Woo’s character. Woo is an over-clever and excitable young man of a type that, I must confess, is not very sympathetic to me. But he undoubtedly is a great artists. Such persons are usually rather vague and casual about the routine of daily life, but they show a tremendous capacity for concentration as soon as it regards things they are really interested in. If Woo chose to poison someone he would certainly never use gamboge, and never overlook such a blatant clue as his seal on the paper inside the box.”
Tao Gan nodded.
“The final proof of Woo’s innocence,” he said, “Was his willingness to eat the new plums I had put inside that box.”
“Exactly!” Judge Dee said. “However, let us keep to the chronological order of developments. When Ding had reported the murder, I immediately went to see Woo. I wanted to compare the personalities of accuser and defendant. I forthwith decided that Woo was hardly the type to commit a premeditated murder, let alone because of such a far-fetched motive as suggested by Ding.
I assumed that the actual killing had been done by a third person. I could well imagine that a man who had committed such a black crime as General Ding would have many enemies, and I took it that Ding utilized this fact for discrediting Woo. As to Ding’s reason for persecuting Woo I assumed that they were rivals in love. The recurring portrait of a girl in Woo’s paintings and Ding’s love letters convinced me that both young men were in love with the same girl.
Our discovery of the box with poisoned plums strengthened me in my conviction that Ding was scheming against Woo. I assumed as a matter of course that Ding had taken due precautions that the poison would be discovered before his father ate the plums. I reasoned that a man would never risk his father’s life in order to get rid of a rival in love.”
“Yes,” Sergeant Hoong interrupted, “I now understand why Your Honour ruled out Woo as the culprit.”
“Indeed,” Judge Dee replied, “I considered Ding as a treacherous and mean character. This prepared me for the next development, namely when I discover that Woo and Ding were not in love with the same girl. This fact reduced the connection between Woo and Ding to the latter’s false accusation. But why then had Ding accused Woo at all? The only possible answer was that Ding himself had killed his father and planned to use Woo as scapegoat.
Then I formed the theory that Ding had prepared two murder weapons. One had been actually used, but I had yet to discover it. The other was the box of poisoned plums, a second weapon that Ding held in reserve in case the first would fail to work. This being so, it was of the utmost importance to find Ding’s motive for this hideous parricide.
Could it have something to do with the girl Ding was so passionately in love with? I sent Dark Orchid back to the Ding mansion to collect more data.”
Here Judge Dee paused and slowly drank a cup of tea. Deep silence reigned in the room. Then the judge continued:
“At the same time, however, I was worrying about a curious inconsistency. Since Ding had made such elaborate preparations to ensure that his second weapon, the box of plums, would be traced to Woo, it was evident that he would have taken good care that also his first weapon pointed straight at Woo. I cudgeled my brain but failed to find in the actual murder the slightest clue pointing to Woo..
Therefore I decided to return my first theory, namely that the real killing had been done by an unknown third person, whose deed happened to coincide with Ding’s despicable poison plot. As a rule I do not like coincidences, but I had to admit that this case pointed forcibly to the fact that a coincidence had occurred.”
“It was a coincidence,” Chiao Tai remarked, “brought about by the fact which Your Honour mentioned a few moments ago, namely that General Ding had many enemies. And after all it was indeed because of the General’s betrayal of his own men, that the old Governor killed him!”
Judge Dee nodded and went on:
“This conclusion did not bring me any nearer to the solution of the actual murder, but it helped me in so far that I could now rule out both Ding and Woo as suspects. When I had discovered Ding’s motive for wishing to kill his father, that part of the case was solved.”
Sergeant Hoong interrupted:
“So that was what Your Honour meant by referring to half of the murder being clear! Your Honour had then connected Dark Orchid’s report about the General’s fourth wife having had an unsightly mole on her breast, with the reference in Ding’s poem!”
“Exactly,” Judge Dee said. “As to the other half of this case, the real killing of the General, I confess that I would probably never have solved that riddle if the old Governor had not signed his name to his deed.
The only conclusion I had arrived at was that the General must have been killed by some mechanical device, for it was absolutely impossible for the killer to have entered or left that sealed room. But I would never have discovered the secret of the writing brush. I am no match for the old Governor’s brilliant mind! You will have noticed that after the knife had left the shaft, the coils straightened out along the inside; I would not have seen them even if I had peered inside the shaft.
When during my visit to old Master Crane Robe I learned that ‘The Abode of Tranquility’ was the pen name of the old Governor, I remembered having seen that name engraved on the shaft of the brush General Ding had been writing with when he was killed. I thought of Tao Gan’s suggestion about how the blow-pipe and realized that the hollow shaft of a writing brush could serve the same purpose. The displaced candle taught me that there was some mechanical device inside the brush that was released as soon as the brush was heated. The rest was easy.”