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The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

by Marilee Hong
Judge Dee Book Cover
The Celebrated
Cases of
Judge Dee Book

About five years ago at a conference, I attended a session that had a catchy title, Tao, Zen, and You... (Even the session leaders admitted, "It got you here, didn't it?") I was relieved that it proved interesting. The main idea of the session was to encourage us to read books (particularly fiction), and gain a perspective of the people and the culture of Asian countries. This also was the next best thing to visiting the countries in person. We were given a booklist categorized by country. I, of course was interested in China, and the Judge Dee murder mysteries caught my eye. When the discussion turned to these books, there was a lot of murmuring in the audience and several people's hands shot up to share more information. "They are found in the mystery sections of bookstores... If you have the whole collection of books, you are holding onto something valuable... One of the books has the chronology of all the books...They’re not easy to find."

So who is Judge Dee? In The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An) by an anonymous author and translated by Robert Hans Van Gulik, we begin to learn about him. The preface of this book discusses the characteristics of Chinese detective stories, a brief overview and analysis of Chinese law, and the background for more studies. As it turns out, Judge Dee was a real person, a famous statesmen and magistrate of the Tang dynasty. In works such as Dee Goong An, Judge Dee solves three murders independently of one another during the same time period. He was famous as a "detector of crime," and according to Van Gulik, the Chinese today consider him their "master detective," as popular as Sherlock Holmes is to us.

Robert Hans Van Gulik took this historical figure, Judge Dee, and wrote fiction in the Chinese detective style with Judge Dee as the main character. Van Gulik, a Dutch diplomat and scholar of "things Chinese," used data and incidents from old crime literature that he had translated. Reading this series of books, one will learn about the history of China during that period, Chinese law and procedure (including torture and punishment), Chinese society in general, and see illustrations interspersed throughout the books done as if from Chinese woodcuts and classical drawings. In the colophon of one of the books, Van Gulik states that "in Judge Dee's time the Chinese wore no pig-tails... Men did their long hair up in a topknot, wore caps both inside and outside the house. They didn’t smoke tobacco and opium, which were introduced into China only many centuries later." A few book titles include:   The Lacquer Screen, The Chinese Lake Murders, The Chinese Bell Murder, and The Emperor's Pearl. They can be read independently of each other; however, the challenge is to find and read the entire 15-book series. (I have 12.) Finding them can occur only when you discover which book has the chronology in it. In fact I'll tell you. it's in Judge Dee at Work. Then you can read them in their historical order. A clue:   I did not find all the books in one place or part of the country. They are thin paperbacks, sometimes concentrating on one case; others have a couple of stories within one book.

The books follow a similar pattern — the crime is committed and the reader then follows Judge Dee and his assistants as they discover how it was done and by whom. This is light and pleasurable reading. You will not be held in breathtaking suspense, but you will find yourself listening in on intriguing conversations. You'll be surprised how easily you have been taken back. Let's listen in on Judge Dee:   "I have learned from this case how important it is to study carefully our ancient handbooks of detection, Hoong. There it is stated again and again that the first step of a murder investigation is to ascertain the character, daily life and habits of the victim. And in this case it was indeed the murdered man's personality that supplied the key."

The "not so easy to find" selection of Judge Dee Mysteries may be purchased through our online associated bookstore. Select the title of your choice.

Lacquer Screen Book Cover The Lacquer Screen:   A Chinese Detective Story (A Judge Dee Mystery) The Chinese Lake Murders Book Cover The Chinese Lake Murders
The Haunted Monastery The Haunted Monastery:   A Judge Dee Mystery (Judge Dee Mystery)

The Haunted Monastery is possibly the best of the Judge Dee novels. An immensely appealing and exotic locale, a duel between Confucianism and Taoism, romance, a monstrous murderer, a damsel in distress, a dauntless hero and more atmosphere than you can shake a chopstick at. Van Gulik makes ancient China come alive, and makes us believe that the people who lived in it, no matter how alien on the surface, are more like us than not. A good read anytime...but a great read on a dark and stormy night.
Chinese Maze Murders The Chinese Maze Murders (Judge Dee Mystery) The Monkey and the Tiger The Monkey and the Tiger:   Two Chinese Detective Stories
Necklace and Calabash Book Cover Necklace and Calabash:   A Chinese Detective Story The Willow Pattern The Willow Pattern (A Judge Dee Mystery)
Chinese Nail Murders

Chinese Bell Murders

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