Written by an anonymous Chinese author and translated by Gulick.

Publication year: 1976
Format: print
Publisher: Dover Publications
Page count: 223 + translator’s prescript and postscript

Apparently, this is a translation of the first part of an 18th century Chinese manuscript. It’s a detective story but more in line with Western detective fiction than in the usual Chinese tradition. It’s loosely based on a historical regional magistrate and set during the Tang dynasty. Gulick’s prescript describes how different usual Chinese mysteries were at least at the time. While it was fascinating to read about their features, they sound very different. However, I don’t know if I would actually enjoy reading one. In the postscript he gives out his reason not to translate the latter half (it’s apparently Judge Dee’s exploits at Court and not a detective novel at all) and what alterations he made to the translation.

In the story, Judge Dee, who is a regional magistrate known for his honesty, tackles three unrelated murder cases at the same time. He usually sends his trusted minions to do the legwork of questioning or snooping around. However, occasionally he must do some questioning himself, too, undercover, of course. But mostly he deducts and questions people.

The first case is a double murder: two traveling merchants are found dead on the street. The local warden accuses a local hostel owner, Koong, of the murders because the merchants had stayed in his hostel. However, after talking with Koong, Judge Dee realizes that Koong isn’t a murderer and starts to look for another suspect. The second case the judge finds on his own: while he’s undercover looking for clues to the first case, he stumbles upon a household of two widows: one is the widowed mother to a son who died a year ago under circumstances that the judge thinks are suspicious. The son’s widow is a recluse who refuses to meet anyone and this apparently further proof of a misdeed. In the third case, a bride has seemly been poisoned during her wedding night.

Most of the time, Judge Dee calls people to his court and questions them there, under torture, if necessary. The Chinese legal system was quite different from Western ones. There are no lawyers. The judge can call witnesses if he wants. However, if the judge puts an innocent man (a woman) to death, he can be beheaded, as well. He’s also under scrutiny from the people around him. All courtly matters are public so there’s usually a large crowd of people watching everything he does, such as the questioning or examining bodies. Also, without actual forensics, Judge Dee has to rely on his wits and judge of character when questioning people.

This was a very interesting read and a fascinating glimpse into the (probably at least somewhat fictionalized) workings of ancient China and its legal system. The characters come from many different social classes, from high officials to humble workers and even outlaws. Judge Dee is feared by most of the people he questions but he’s also respected. He can, and does, torture people but thinks that he has good cause to do so.

Unlike in Western books usually, the three mysteries aren’t related to each other, except that they’re brought to Judge Dee’s attention before he can solve the first one. They’re pretty hard to crack. Some of the cases have supernatural elements, such as the ghosts of dead people and dreams which the judge can use as actual evidence. The book has also some illustrations. Three of them have been made by von Gulick and the rest are apparently ancient woodcuts.

The writing style is pretty straight-forward and easy to read. The chapters are short and point-of-view is omniscient.

Van Gulick wrote more than a few Judge Dee mysteries himself, too. I haven’t read them but now I’m wondering if they’re any good.

Advertisements