My choice of the most unusual mystery series I’ve ever read is Robert van Gulik’s Judge Dee mysteries. Robert van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat and a linguist. He studied ancient Sanskrit, the language of the Blackfoot tribe from the United States, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese. He was fascinated by China. He wrote books on the Chinese musical instruments as well as a limited edition that went to friends on Chinese sexual practices and concubines from the Ming Dynasty. He fell in love with Chinese mysteries.
Chinese mysteries have existed for over a thousand years. The longer novels started around 1600 and their greatest development came in the 18th and 19th centuries. The traditional Chinese mysteries were characterized by five things that are very different then Western mysteries. The first is that the criminal is introduced at the very beginning. In the Chinese mystery it is the detective trying to prove the criminal’s guilt that is important. The second is the use of the supernatural. It is not uncommon for ghosts to help the detective out. The third is the length of the novels, which can run to hundreds of chapters. Every detail is included in the stories. The fourth is the number of characters. The Chinese mysteries had all of the members of the families and acquaintances and could very easily run to 200 or more characters. The fifth is the fate or punishment of the criminal is given in all the gruesome detail.
The detective in the Chinese mystery is almost always the magistrate. In Chinese history anyone could take the examinations that could lead to a government position. One of the important first positions is the local magistrate. The courtroom was always open to the public and anyone could beat the gong and ask to have a wrong heard. The magistrate usually served for three years in one place and then was transferred to another place. He kept the same assistants who traveled with him. Judge Dee was actually an historical figure who lived in the T’ang dynasty from 630 – 700 A.D.
Robert van Gulik was interested in showing the world what Chinese detective stories were like but he knew he needed to adapt them to Western taste. When no one took him up on the offer to write them he wrote one of his own. He adapted an existing work to create The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An). This work followed more along the lines of traditional Chinese detective stories. The character of Judge Dee was moved to the more colorful Ming dynasty. When no one took him up on continuing the stories van Gulik decided to do so on his own. He continued the tradition of the magistrate working on more then one case at a time. He also continued with making Judge Dee a staunch follower of Confucius. In the stories the Taoist and Buddhists are usually portrayed as villainous. He also gave Judge Dee three wives, as polygamy was very popular among the upper classes. Robert van Gulik illustrated his books in a style reminiscent of Chinese wood blocks printing. The pictures are rather amateurish and he does have a thing for women that aren’t fully dressed. The pictures don’t really add to the stories but they don’t detract from them either in my opinion.
I am going to be listing the Judge Dee mysteries in the order that the story progresses rather then in the publishing order, which varies. In Chinese literature the last name precedes the first name so that is how I’ve listed them. The dramatis personae are as follows. Dee Jen-djieh is the magistrate. He is the son of an Imperial official and is considered brilliant and his career is fast paced. He has three wives and several children. Hoong Liang is referred to as the Sergeant and has been in the service of the Judge’s family since the Judge was a small child. He is Judge Dee’s confidant and takes care of the Judge. Ma Joong is a former highwayman. He had fled to the woods and a life of crime after serving with a corrupt Judge. Ma loves women and is a huge flirt. Chiao Tai is a former officer of the Chinese Army. He also fled to the “green woods” and became a highwayman after a betrayal by a fellow officer. Tao Gan is an elderly man who was a former confidence trickster. He knows all about forgery and breaking and entering. One other character that shows up in more then one book is Magistrate Lo Kwan-choong. He is a jolly man who likes where he is at and is not ambitious. He is an amateur poet and loves beautiful women. He has eight wives and numerous children. He is pretty much comic relief in the stories he appears in and I found him to be a very endearing character.
There are three books that are different from the normal series. The first is the above-mentioned Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee. I consider this book as historic value but not part of the regular books because van Gulik used these stories again when he was writing the novels.
The Monkey and the Tiger are novelettes. The Morning of the Monkey takes place early in Judge Dee’s career where the Judge solves the murder of a tramp. The Night of the Tiger takes place near the end of his career when Judge Dee is on his way to the Capital to take up his position as Lord Chief Justice. Dee finds himself taking on a band of robbers and a deceitful woman. Judge Dee at Work is a collection of short stories that takes place at various times in his career. My favorite story in this book is The Coffins of the Emperor because the solution is really unique.
The Chinese Gold Murders takes place at the beginning of Judge Dee’s career. He is on his way to his first official post. His party is accosted by Ma Joong and Chiao Tai. The Judge is able to fight them off and lectures them on redeeming their criminal ways. The two men come to see him later and ask to serve him. Yes it is corny but it was an effective plot device and gives us two very colorful characters. The predecessor of Judge Dee had been murdered and that murder had never been solved. The Judge and his assistants are plunged into plots to rebel against the Empire. They also have a missing bride to look for as well as problems in the Korean Quarter. It is a good introduction to the world of Ancient China.
The Lacquer Screen takes place as Judge Dee is returning to his district. He stops to see a magistrate and is plunged into a search for the murderer of the magistrate’s wife. We see the Judge go undercover to try and find out who is responsible. There are also interweaving stories of a mysterious death of a businessman and a dishonest banker.
The Chinese Lake Murders is one of my favorites in the series. Dee and his assistants are plunged into the world of political intrigue as they try and solve a brutal murder of a dancer. It gives a good insight into the problems of trying to keep a vast empire together. One of the things I liked about this book is that it shows the Judge Dee can make a mistake and jump to conclusions. This is the book where Judge Dee redeems Tao Gan and he becomes a member of his staff.
The Haunted Monastery is probably the best known of the books. It was made into a television movie several years ago staring the late Khigh Dheigh as Judge Dee. The Judge, his wives and Tao Gan are caught in a ferocious storm and are forced to spend the night in a Taoist monastery. While there the Judge believes he sees a woman being molested but he is assured that all he is seeing is ghosts. It is a long night for the Judge and by morning he has solved the murder of three young women and played matchmaker for two couples.
The Chinese Bell Murders deals with a rape/murder, a scam in a temple to defraud women desperate to bear sons to their husbands, and an old feud that has cost many lives. It is a complicated book but well worth reading. Judge Dee is shown as a very clever man who is not above being ruthless when he has to be. At the same time he shows an unusual compassion for an old women who has been wronged.
The Red Pavilion takes place in the ancient Chinese version of Las Vegas. It is a pleasure resort and you see the world that courtesans had to live in. Judge Dee and Ma Joong are on their way back from the capital. They plan on spending the night on Paradise Island but the Festival of the Dead is taking place and the only room available is one in which an unsolved murder took place many years ago. Judge Dee takes the room and is soon plunged into murder when a courtesan takes a fancy to him. Before he leaves he finds himself trying to solve both the new and the old murder. This book has some interesting characters in it and I liked it a lot.
The Emperor’s Pearl is another one of my favorites in the series. A boatman dies during the annual dragon boat festival. A second death occurs when the wife of a businessman is murdered while trying to buy “the emperor’s pearl.” This pearl was lost many years ago and had caused a great deal of suffering. Judge Dee again jumps to conclusions that end up hampering his solving the cases. The interweaving of stories of lust, greed, and true love make this a very unusual and touching book.
Poets and Murder takes place in Magistrate Lo’s district where the Judge is visiting. Lo brings together some of the realms finest poets including Yoo-lan a famous woman who has been tried for murder but no one is sure whether she is innocent or not. This book is unusual as there is only one real story going on that the Judge needs to solve. It definitely shows the passions that rule the upper classes.
Necklace and Calabash is usually considered the best of the Judge Dee books. Dee is taking a well-earned rest and comes to Rivertown for the fishing. The Judge meets his doppelganger, Master Gourd, on the way. This chance meeting plunges him into the world of political intrigue when the Emperor’s favorite daughter begs him to help her find a stolen necklace and prove the man she loves is innocent. This book has a fascinating look at the lives of the Royal family and the political battles that ensue in trying to keep in power. It is my favorite of the series.
The Chinese Maze Murders finds Judge Dee on the borders of China. He arrives to find out that a local tyrant has usurped the power in the town and his first job is to try and defeat him and gain control of the town for the Empire again. The Judge solves a vicious murder of a young woman, rights a wrong against a young widow and her son, and solves a locked room murder. The most interesting part of this book for me was finding out the story behind Chiao Tai’s leaving the Army and becoming a highwayman.
The Phantom of the Temple is an intriguing book. Again it is pretty much a single story. The story deals with a mysterious message found in a box, people who are not what they seem, sorcery and death. It is a very good read and will keep you engrossed.
The Chinese Nail Murders goes back to the traditional three cases being solved at the same time. The Judge is faced with the headless corpse of a merchant’s wife, a boxing Master’s death, and the suspicion of the murder of a merchant a couple of years previous. In this book Robert van Gulik goes back to the story in his first book and rewrites it for this story. The story plays better here then it did in his first book.
The Willow Pattern is one of the most unusual books in the series. Judge Dee is appointed the Administrator of the Chinese Capital during an outbreak of the plague. This book has a more historical bent to it then many of the others. You see how the old ways were before the coming of the current Emperor. You also see the almost godlike powers that are given to the Emperor and how those powers can be handed down to Magistrates like Judge Dee. The Judge needs to try and control those preying on the citizens who cannot escape from the plague like the rich and powerful can. He also needs to deal with three deaths and show the people that the Empire can care for them as well as the rich. It is a very well written book and a fascinating read.
Murder in Canton is the last book in the series. Judge Dee has been appointed Lord Chief Justice. He has been sent incognito to Canton to try and find out what happened to the Court Censor. The Judge meets his match in this book and it is not easy for him to solve the murders that occur. It is a well-written ending to an incredible series. The end of the book had me wiping away tears.
I strongly recommend this series. The stories are interesting and it gives you a glimpse of a word very unlike our own. The world of ancient China is fascinating. It is a combination of honor and cruelty. Robert van Gulik managed in these books to take us to a world that we would never have discovered on our own. It is a world you won’t easily forget.
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (hiatus)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|alternate Thu||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|