Robert Van Gulik and Judge Dee mysteries

The Chinese Bell Murders and The Chinese Gold Murders by Robert Van Gulik.  There was a short thread recently on the Crime Thru Time yahoo group that discussed historical mysteries set in the Orient.  Laura Joh Rowland and Ingrid (I.J.) Parker both write about Japan and I’ll have the great pleasure to be reading their most recent titles in the next couple weeks.  But I believe the original author to venture into this setting was the Dutch diplomat, Robert Van Gulik.  His first book, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (sometimes known as The Famous Cases of Judge Dee), is actually a translation of a real Chinese detective story written in the 1700s.  He followed this up by writing a series of fifteen mysteries of his own in the Chinese detective novel style, all featuring the famous character of Dee, a real person, Ti Jen-chieh, who lived from 630 to 700 A.D.

Each volume introduces three, sometimes interwoven, crimes that Dee, acting as investigator and magistrate, has to solve.  As magistrate, Dee is the highest imperial official in the community with considerable powers and responsibilities.  He collects taxes, registers births, deaths, and marriages as well as running the tribunal.  Dee’s personality reflects this power as he is quite brusque, often interrupting others and barking out orders.  Van Gulik’s writing style mirrors this personality as well.  Through the use of short sentences and action verbs rather than lengthy descriptions of landscape or the internal thoughts of the characters, he creates edginess to the stories.

The Chinese Bell Murders was the first of the series to appear in the U.S. and the HarperCollins trade paperback edition that I read has an extended postscript, written by the author, which provides information on crime and the courts in China.  The only other one I’ve read so far, and which I preferred, is The Chinese Gold Murders, third in the series.  The action takes place at the beginning of Dee’s career as a magistrate and allows us to see how his relationships with his lieutenants developed.

There are a few web pages devoted to Van Gulik and the Judge Dee books with background information and recommendations for which of the novels to read.  I suggest Colin Glassey’s, Kelley Ross’, or Birger Nielsen’s.  Ross notes that “the Judge Dee stories have recently been continued by new authors. Frédéric Lenormand has published Le château du lac Tchou-an and La nuit des juges [both from Fayard publisher, Paris, 2004]. In 2006 we also now have the wonderful Tales of Judge Dee from Zhu Xiao Di [iUniverse, New York, Shanghai].”

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