Monday, April 9, 2018

Judge Dee - R.H. Van Gulik

Lately I read Judge Dee books by Robert Van Gulik and have been enjoying them a lot. Before this I only knew a Chinese judge character named Judge Bao - from some popular TV series. Only after I watched movies Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, only I knew about this Judge Dee character.

A judge in Chinese administration is responsible for registration of births, deaths, marriages; land registrations, tax collection, the hearing of civil and criminal cases and punishing criminals. In this Judge Dee books the writer focused on the criminal cases, so that is why the movie version changed  the title from 'judge' to 'detective' so the western audience can grasp the meaning easily.

Judge Dee Jen-chieh was a real historical person, lived in the Tang dynasty. He lived from 630 till 700 A.D. Later he became a minister of the Imperial Court. In Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame we could see Dee vs Empress Wu, and this was historically correct. In 692 A.D. Dee was sent to prison, accused of treason. He then petitioned the Empress, who exiled him in P'eng-tse.

In the stories, Judge Dee was helped by Sergeant Hoong Liang, and later also by his three lieutenants Ma Joong, Chiao Tai dan Tao Gan. From the Magistrate of Peng-lai, to Han-yuan, Poo-yang, Lan-fang, Pei-chow, until the capital where he became Lord Chief Justice.

The writer, a Dutch man,  took the plots from Chinese mystery stories and illustrated the books himself. He mentioned, however, that the clothes styles were taken from Ming dynasty era.

An illustration from The Chinese Maze Murders by Van Gulik
Van Gulik (1910 - 1967) entered Dutch foreign service in 1935 and later became an ambassador to Japan and Korea.

It's hard to pick a favourite book from the collection, but I was impressed with the Chinese Nail Murders, where Judge Dee was almost defeated by a woman, when his coroner could not find the sign of a murder. The Chinese Bell Murders was also as captivating, imagine finding a skeleton under a giant bell; and it was a tragic story, too.