There is seldom a better window into the life and ways of a time and place than through the study of their stories. These tales, whether written or maintained through oral tradition, are a vehicle through which the historian can travel to knowledge and understanding of a culture and a peoples unbeknownst to him in direct experience. Robert Van Gulik's The Chinese Bell Murders is just this type of story. Although written by a man of Dutch birth, the book captures the essence of the Ming mystery story, common to 16th century Chinese literature. Van Gulik spent most of his career in the far East, and thus became intrigued with the historic Judge Dee, a famous scholar-magistrate. Through Judge Dee and his escapades, Van Gulik not only demonstrates the Ming mystery model, but also provides valuable insights into aspects of Chinese culture and tradition, such as the role of the magistrate and the court, the position of women and the status of various religions and social classes in China. .
Characteristic of Ming mystery stories, the role of the detective in The Chinese Bell Murders is played by the magistrate. The magistrate is often involved in simultaneously solving three or more unrelated cases. Thus, the structuring of the novel in following judge Dee and his trustees furnishes this feature. The shrewd and wise judge masterfully solves three cases. .
The first case brought to his attention is one in which most of the residents of Poo-Yang (an imaginary city where he has just assumed the position of magistrate) have already made up their mind as to the perpetrator. It is a rape murder at Half Moon Street, where Pure Jade, a butcher's daughter is raped and strangled to death in her bedroom. Her lover, a literary student known as Candidate Wang, is accused of the crime and of having stolen her only valuable possession, a pair of gold hairpins that were a family heirloom. The judge is expected merely to exact a confession and sentence the accused.