Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Murder in the Monastery

Khigh Dhiegh as Judge Dee.
Before The Name of the Rose and Cadfael, Judge Dee--a seventh-century Chinese detective--investigated  homicide within the sacred walls of a monastery in the appropriately-titled Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders. Author Nicolas Meyer (Time After Time, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution) adapted Robert Van Gulik's mystery novel The Haunted Monastery for this unusual 1974 made-for-television movie.

During a raging storm, Judge Dee's carriage suffers a broken axle and the magistrate and his three wives seek shelter in a nearby monastery. The abbot is pleased to entertain a guest of Judge Dee's personage, especially since the Taoist monks are celebrating their order's 200th anniversary. However, the visit gets off to a disconcerting start when a shutter blows open and Judge Dee spies a man carrying a one-armed, naked woman in a room across a courtyard. When Judge Dee describes what he saw, the monastery's prior dismisses it with a tale of ghosts that appear to "sensitive" people.

Keye Luke as one of the suspects.
Later, after being entertained by a traveling troupe of actors, Dee is approached by Tsung Lee, a young man who feigns intoxication. Tsung Lee confides to Dee that the recently-deceased, previous abbot thought he was being poisoned. Dee also learns that three young women recently met untimely deaths: one committed suicide; one fell from a window, and a third died from an illness. Following a blow on the head from a shadowy figure, Judge Dee becomes convinced that evil dwells within the holy walls.

Miss Ting (Susie Elene) has a frank
discussion with Judge Dee.
As if that weren't enough, Judge Dee also has to: advise a young woman with possible lesbian feelings; seek refuge in a closet from a nosy bear; navigate the maze of hallways and pass through the monastery's "gallery of horrors" (initially intended to punish "disobedient monks"); tend to an ill wife; and recover from a very bad cold. It makes for one busy night!

In the title role, Khigh Dhiegh appears in almost every scene and holds the film together nicely. Best known as super-villain Wo Fat on the original Hawaii Five-O, Dhiegh comes across as an intelligent man fully aware of his social status (Dee is shocked to learn that he and his spouses will have to share a single room in the monastery). He shows tenderness in the scenes with his wives and convincingly wields a staff in a fight against a swordsman. He receives strong support from an almost all-Asian cast, especially Mako as his assistant and Keye Luke as retired minister from the Imperial Court that resides in the monastery.

Dee (on right) with one of his wives.
For a made-for-TV movie, the colorful costumes look expensive and the settings are impressive (it helps that the hallways are steeped in shadows). Indeed, the only significant flaw lies with the film's lack of suspects. By the time Dee reveals the identity of the murderer, there is only one likely person remaining.

Robert Van Gulik, who penned the Judge Dee mysteries, based his character on Di Renjie, a real-life magistrate of the Tang Dynasty who lived from 600 to 700. Van Gulik wrote several Judge Dee novels and short stories from 1949 to 1969.

Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders was nominated for a 1975 Edgar Award (presented by the Mystery Writers of America) for Best Television Feature or Miniseries. It was intended as a pilot for a television series. Despite its virtues, it's easy to see why a regular series never materialized. The lesbian discussion, the nature of the crimes, and Judge Dee's disposal of the killer would have challenged network censors on a regular basis in the 1970s.

Judge Dee has been portrayed by other actors: Michael Goodliffe starred in a 1969 British TV series and Andy Lau played him in 2010's Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (though it was based on the historical figure and not Van Gulik's character). Still, it's hard to imagine anyone better suited for the role than Khigh Dhiegh.


  1. A monastery is an excellent place for mystery and intrigue, especially one that is laid out in such a complex fashion that monks use maps to navigate the maze like corridors. The gallery of horrors is quite perplexing and so is a window that disappears yet is briefly seen by Judge Dee and the mystery watcher. This intriguing made for TV movie is also fascinating in that a live bear resides within the cloistered walls. This is a clever work and worth a viewer's time. Great post, Rick! I do enjoy a fun mystery!

    1. Indeed, it is a clever mystery with a great setting, Toto! I don't know many people who have seen it, but those who have are fans like the two of us.

  2. This sounds right up my alley -- I have always loved the Brother Cadfael novels and TV series, and The Name of the Rose is a favorite movie. I wonder what month in 1974 this was shown? I was probably tending to and exhausted by my new-born son, and I didn't see it! I certainly would have tuned in if I knew about it. There's just something about the great shadowy halls of a monastery.... Nice one, Rick!

  3. "All-Asian cast ..."

    Does this mean that I get to mention (as I have in other blogs) that Khigh Dhiegh was himself not Asian, but was in fact African-American, born Kenneth Dickerson?
    (Verifiable at IMDb and other sources.)

    This is worth mentioning, given the current flap about the movie Cloud Atlas, in which non-Asian actors appear in Asian roles.

    Not trying to start trouble or anything, but I think it's interesting ...

    1. Thanks, Mike. I'll make the fix in the post. Some sources say he was of English, Egyptian, and Sudanese descent. But, hey, he did speak Chinese!

  4. great film! loved the book, had to see the film - it's brilliant. shame it hasn't been released oficially on dvd, i had to watch it on a dvd rip

    1. How accurate is the book to the movie?

    2. Actually, the movie is quite faithful to the book, which I’ve recently read. I find it interesting that the more recent movies ignore his wives, but I understand that the Chinese accounts of the good Judge Dee usually do ignore his home life.