Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee - Robert Van Gulik

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee
(Dee Goong An)
Robert Van Gulik (Translator)
ISBN: 0486233375 (Amazon link)

I've been reading quite a few mysteries lately. Despite being spiced up by an exotic setting like Imperial Rome or Tokugawa Japan, they've been fairly conventional examples of the long running detective series, with the background of the hero's home life lending them an almost soap operish quality. I've been enjoyinh them, but felt like a needed a break from that style, and this novel was just the thing.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is still a genre mystery, but this time the historical setting has a more credible tone to it. This is a reprint of a 1949 translation of an C18th Chinese novel based on the cases of a famous real-life C7th district magistrate [1]. The translator's notes are fascinating in themselves, not so much for their sinological content and further reading, but for surprising idea that a western reader of just a few decades ago should need something like kung fu explained in a footnote. There's an very interesting essay on the conventions of the Chinese detective story which acts as a very long introduction, and again, it's curious that its purpose is to explain quite how unusual the current story is in terms of that particular genre. Van Gulik reasons that those qualities which make the source material unusual for a Chinese audience should make it more accessible for a Western readership. Evidently Van Gulik fell in love with the characters, as I see he's written several fully fictional sequels. I'd be interested in seeing how these compare - more titles for the shopping list.

There are actually three crimes solved in the course of this novel; the case of the double murder at dawn, the case of the strange corpse, and the case of the poisoned bride. The investigations and solutions of these crimes are interleaved throughout the novel rather than forming discrete episodes.

The double murder seems the simplest at first glance; an argument between travelling silk merchants leads to a brawl and a couple of dead bodies. Complications ensue.

The case of the strange corpse on the other hand is more obviously a mysterious case from the start; there is no obvious crime to start the investigation, other than the sudden death of a man a year ago. The case is driven primarily by the odd behaviour of his widow, and involves the Judge taking huge risks under the strict Chinese penal code - unfairly questioning a widow and exhuming a body were serious offences, with the Judge risking not only his reputation, but his life. And the life of his assistants. Gulp. Complications ensue.

The final case is a simpler affair, but involves a rather sneaky solution, in that I don't know how a reader could solve the case from clues given. A newly wed couple retire to the bed-chamber, and the bride dies during the night. From her physical appearance poison is suspected, and suspicion falls on a young scholar who'd been particularly boorish and threatening during the traditional teasing of the newly-weds before bed. Much of the interest in this case is generated by the fact that it happened in a high status household, and the young man under suspicion is also a respected scholar. This contrasts with the itinerant and village lifestyles examined in the other two cases. Complications ensue.

I hadn't expected the complications, and their solutions, to have such strong police procedural underpinnings, and the legal aspects of each case were interesting. The translator is at pains to explain the complex and strict Chinese penal code as it relates to each case. It's clearly a very sophisticated system, but its rules push the story down unexpected avenues for a Western reader. For example, each case can only be closed with a confession, which practically mandates the use of torture on stubborn suspects. I certainly didn't expect crime scene investigation or scientific autopsies to be a feature of the story, although this rigourous forensic approach contrasts strangely with the supernatural events which bolster the Judge's interpretations. Clues come in the form of spirits manifesting in graveyards, or dreams, and the fear of the supernatural can even be of use when interrogating prisoners...

The prose style does feel a little dated, with the story being related in a fairly detached omniscient viewpoint. Despite seeing everything that the Judge and his assistants do, we're not privy to their interior lives, and with the Judge in particular, it's often a mystery as to what he's thinking or feeling. This probably relates to the conventions of the source material, which came from a tradition of being read aloud for an audience. Despite this, it is well translated into very idiomatic english, especially insults, and very entertaining. There is a fair bit of humour and lively action involved when the Judge and his four assistants go undercover for example.

I really enjoyed this novel, not only for the novelty of the source material and T'ang setting, but also for the story and characters in their own right. Celebrated Case of Judge Dee was a great read, and I'm looking forward to the sequels as much more than just period curiosities. Besides, I can't resist any novel with chapter headings like, "Koong avers there is some mistake about the bodies; Judge Dee goes to sell drugs in a physician's disguise"

Highly recommended.

[1] How do I find books like this? By reading science fiction newsgroups! In particular, this recommendation came courtesy of Dorothy J Heydt and Martin Wisse if Google and I remember rightly. [2]
[2] How do I justify buying unusual recommendations sight unseen? By putting them on wish lists and getting older. Thanks for the birthday present James!

Posted: Sun - July 18, 2004 at 01:34 AM