Friday, February 19, 2016

Murder in Ancient China: Two Judge Dee Mysteries

Robert van Gulik (1910-1967) was a Dutch diplomat who specialized in Asian languages and cultures. He was stationed in Japan when that country declared war on the Netherlands in 1941, but was evacuated with other allied diplomats the next year. For the rest of the war he was in China, continuing as a Dutch diplomatic representative. And it was there that he married a Chinese woman.

It was also in China that he happened upon an 18th century Chinese detective novel, supposedly based on the criminal cases conducted by a judge in the Tang dynasty (600-900 A.D.) The judge lived 630-700 A.D. During World War II, Van Gulik translated the 18th century version of the 7th century stories and titled it Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. A few years later, he began to create his own Judge Dee mysteries, published from the early 1950s to the late-1960s (I first read them in paperback editions in the 1960s).

Van Gulik published the mysteries essentially as collections of short stories. Judge Dee, the magistrate who is moved around the empire every three to four years, is the lead character and lead detective. He has two faithful assistants – Sergeant Hoong, a police officer, and Ma Joong, who can only be described as a former robber who has gone straight but retains enough of his contacts and understanding of the criminal mind and activities that he proves his value to the Judge over and over again.

Judge Dee also has three wives (usually known as First Wife, Second Wife, and Third Wife) and children. And each story has a flock of characters – tradesmen, shopkeepers, poets, courtesans, nobles and other well-to-do people, beggars, soldiers, and, of course, professional criminals.

The University of Chicago Press has recently published Murder in Ancient China: Two Judge Dee Mysteries, part of the publisher’s “Chicago Shorts” series. And the ebook versions are free on Kindle.

The first story is “Murder on the Lotus Pond,” and Judge Dee is called to investigate the murder of a retired poet while at the same time investigating the theft of imperial gold bars from a courier. We expect that the two crimes will somehow be connected, and they are. The key to the solution comes from the croaking frogs in the pond next to where the victim’s body is found.

Robert van Gulik and family in 1947
The second story is “Murder on New Year’s Eve,” and Judge Dee is by himself, his family (all three wives) having traveled to visit the family of First Wife. A young boy arrives, frantically seeking the judge’s help in finding his mother and father. The only clue in the humble abode is a pool of blood.

The stories ring with authenticity. Van Gulik knew enough Chinese language, culture and history to make the stories seem real and true. Chinese justice in the Tang dynasty was not unlike medieval justice in Europe – torture was often used to interrogate witnesses. Although in Judge Dee’s case, fear of the judge was often sufficient to elicit a confession.

If you’re interested in how a Chinese magistrate / detective operated 1,500 years ago, or if if you simply like a good mystery story, Murder in Ancient China offers an intriguing read.

Illustration: Judge Dee at work.

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