Judge Dee is a semi-fictional character based on the historical figure Di Renjie, a county magistrate and statesman of the Tang court. The character appeared in the 18th-century Chinese detective and gong’an crime novel Di Gong An. After Van Gulik found it in an antiquarian book store in Tokyo he translated the novel into English and then used the style and characters to write his own original Judge Dee historical mysteries.
The series is set in Tang Dynasty China and deals with criminal cases solved by the upright and shrewd Judge Dee. In the Chinese imperial legal system the judge was also the investigating magistrate as well as being the trial judge. Van Gulik copied some of the style of the orginal novel, the Ming dysnasty anachronisms, and retaining the historical character. Van Gulik originally intended the stories for a Chinese and Japanese audience, so there are elements in the stories that may seem out of place to western readers, like the occult elements that occassionally surface. However, he was careful in writing to create cases wherein Dee was newly appointed to a city, thereby isolating him from the existing lifestyle and enabling him to maintain an objective role in the books. Many of the old stories did not have an objective and logical detective. Van Gulik’s novels and stories made no direct reference to the original Chinese work. The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is not considered to be part of the regular Judge Dee series.
When Dee first starts out he is assisted only by his faithful clerk, Sergeant Hoong, an old family retainer. Along the way to his first appointment, in The Chinese Gold Murders, he encounters two highwaymen, like Robin Hood euphemistically called “men of the greenwood”. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, at first attempt to rob him but are so impressed with his character that they give up their criminal careers and join his retinue on the spot. A little later, in The Chinese Lake Murders, a third criminal, Tao Gan, an itinerant confidence trickster and swindler, decides to join the judges retinue. Judge Dee ends his career being promoted to the position of senior Metropolitan Judge in the capital, and his assistants finally obtain official ranks in the Army and civil service.
The publishing order and the chronological order of the 16 volumes do not sync completely and reading the cases in the order they occured in Judge Dee’s career would require some juggling. But much like the adventures of Sherlock Holmes it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the stories. What I enjoyed most (and still do, these are worth re-reading to me) about the stories were the realistic characters and the presentation of the culture. When Van Gulik began writing, the west’s ideas of Chinese culture came from Fu Manchu and the “yellow peril”. And rather than being an axiom spouting philosopher like Charlie Chan, Judge Dee is a very realistic person, a good swordsman, well educated and reflective of the knowledge that was available to a Chinese official of his day. Many of the stories were based on historic cases and The Chinese Nail Murders highlights some really interesting legal and forensic aspects of the Chinese system. I even found a case where the story featured in an academic paper on forensic medicine.
Judge Dee, naturally, is responsible for deciding sentences as well as assessing guilt or innocence, although van Gulik notes in the stories that all capital punishments must be referred to and decided by officials in the capital. Although torture was often used to induce confession, Judge Dee is portrayed as often preferring deception and confrontation to get his confession. Realistically, he is often ruthless and just as often more lenient. Chinese law required that magistrates be fair but as with any other justice system this depended on the individual, and in Dee’s cast he believed in fairness and appropraite justice.
I majored in history at univerity and my focus was China, so I have a really soft spot for these stories. There are no opium dens or pigtails, the characters stand on their own as good or bad but are in no way cardboard, and things are portrayed as they were, without analysis or concern for political correctness. That’s fine, these books are for pleasure reading and the mysteries are good. Some of the stories are better than others, but I have enjoyed all of them. For history and mystery you will get a great serving of both.
One of the benefits of deciding to blog about my favorite reading is the new finds I discover. In this case it was the French writer Frédéric Lenormand, who has written 19 new Judge Dee mysteries since 2004. He appears to be a prolific autho whose books have been translated into several languages but nor English I am sorry to say. Thanks to my grandmother, however, I can read French! It looks like I will be hunting up a nice French bookseller to send me some of his work.