Before I actually review this book, I feel it warrants some explanation of three different times which attributed to this book. During the Tang Dynasty in China, a man named Dee Gong An (630-700 AD) was a renowned magistrate (whose job encompassed detective, police, jury, and judge) and later state politician in China. During the 18th century in China, an unknown author, probably a retired magistrate himself, penned this book, describing three of the complex murder cases of Judge Dee. Then Robert Van Gulik decided to translate it into English for a western audience in the 1940s, believing it to be one of the most accessible tales in the Chinese detective genre.
Robert Van Gulik went on to write an entire series surrounding the character of Judge Dee and though this book is merely a translation, it’s sequels were entirely Van Gulik’s creation (all seventeen of them). I have yet to read them, but after reading this one, I want to read them all!
Synopsis: Judge Dee, famed magistrate of Chang-ping, sets out to solve three complex, unrelated murder cases. The road-side murder of two merchants, the mysterious death of a young man, and a deadly poisoning of a bride on her wedding night. All three draw Judge Dee and his faithful men into a complex game of cat and mouse.
I cannot praise this book enough. Not only does Van Gulik’s translation capture many of common tropes in classic Chinese novels, but the characters within this book are fascinating and the mysteries are baffling. Judge Dee is perhaps a perfect Chinese version of Sherlock Holmes, or vice-versa, since Dee is Holmes’s predecessor. I have never read a Chinese detective novel before, and know I kind of want to learn to read Chinese characters just in order to read more of these.
One of the biggest criticism I see for this book is that there are some rather harsh torture scenes. Traditionally in China, torture (beatings, for example) was used to extract information from perceived criminals. In this book, for example, one of the suspects (a young woman) is stripped to the waist and beaten with a whip on her bare back (which is shown on the front cover of the book and which I tactfully covered with “Review”). To a modern perspective, and more specifically a western perspective, a lot of people would be horrified by this. And I will admit, it bothered me a bit as well. However, I personally prefer a historical mystery to be more realistic than ideal.
So often, mysteries set in China (like Charlie Chan) completely misinterpret or willfully mislead an audience on the norms and customs of China. Whether it is how honor and respect is seen or as simple as the ways to address a magistrate, this book is filled with traditional Chinese customs.
Interestingly enough, in Van Gulik’s forward, he talks about how this book is a rarity in the Chinese detective genre of the time. Often, detective novels were not filled with tropes we in the west expect to see (realism, unawareness of the criminal’s identity, etc.). Instead, you would find out the criminal early on and then go on a cat and mouse game between the magistrate and the criminal. Also, Chinese detective novels love their mystical creatures. In western mysteries, stories are made as realistic as possible, with no magic involved. But Chinese ones include ghosts, goblins, talking animals, etc. Luckily, this book only includes a brief introduction to a ghost of one of the victims…and a weird dream.
What else can I say about this book? It is a beautiful work of literature, and well-translated.
Also, there are multiple Chinese movies surrounding the character of Judge Dee, but I am planning on watching the two starring Mark Chao (Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon 狄仁傑之神都龍王 and Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings 狄仁杰之四大天王). They look more fantasy than the book, but I’m excited to watch them. Look out for my review of the two films coming out Monday!
Have you heard of this book, or the character of Judge Dee? What is your favorite Chinese novel? Or a book set in China? Let me know your thoughts down in the comments, follow my blog for more madness and, as always,
Best wishes in your life full of adventure,