I want to look at you running
As you search for the heaven of your dreams
With pride and without any blemish
Is it alright if I believe in you?
"Will" (Yonekura Chihiro)
I really should tidy up my books one of these weeks. Most books are easily accessible, but the times I need a book that is not accessible, well, I really need to work to retrieve it. Carefully constructed towers of books will fall, occasionally on me and it takes ages to get everything back in place. This does not seem that farfetched a scenario actually.
But to go to the topic of today. Judge Dee! Is there a need for an introduction (we always have Wiki)? Seeing I already have a neat little tag for it, means I have written about him in the past, but that concerned a slightly different topic. Namely, Dee Gong An, a 18th century Chinese detective novel, translated by Dutch orientalist / diplomat Robert van Gulik. The novel starred a fictionalized version of the magistrate Di (Dee) Renji. What was special to Dee Gong An, was that it actually resembled a Western detective novel, whereas most Chinese detective novels of the past were less about detecting, but more about bringing an ethical (and ideological) message (thus featuring an emphasis on the punishments of the criminals who went against the order of man/empire). Ghosts and spirits also made appearances as hint-giving plot devices, something that naturally does not fit with the rational Western detective model. Dee Gong An was different, but in a good way.
Tang China (when the real Di Renji lived), but contain mainly elements from the later Ming dynasty. Van Gulik also employed a certain plot-device often seen in ancient Chinese detective novels in his own Judge Dee novels: the judge is often busy with several cases (usually three) at the same time, in constrast to the Western detective who usually is concentrating on one single case. Finally, Van Gulik also made illustrations for his novels mimicking the style of ancient Chinese illustrations (which are really neat!).
Fun fact is that van Gulik wrote his stories in English first, with (his own) Dutch translations being published later. The Dutch 'translations' are actually quite fun to read in this time and age, having a sense of... dated Dutch that is less apparent in the English texts. To me, the dated Dutch kinda feels similar to the 'strange' English one sometimes sees in translations of old Chinese texts, adding a layer of 'authenticity' to the texts (in a very inappriopiate way, I admit. But hey, I can't help how I feel about texts!). And yes, this explains why I use both Dutch and English covers in this review.
Van Gulik was a celebrated Orientalist from Leiden University (which makes him my senior... I guess) and was thus an expert on the topic. It is difficult to write realistically and convicing about a different time and place, but van Gulik was one of those persons with both a talent for writing as well as excellent academic knowledge about the topic he wrote about it. Who could have been a better guide to Tang/Ming China than van Gulik? His books are thus interesting and funny detective stories set in a 'foreign' setting that nonetheless never feels strange or wrong.
Magistrates (who acted as mayor/judge/detective/jury) in ancient China were appointed to their location of occupation, changing cities once in a couple of years. Van Gulik used this for his novels, with his Judge Dee going to new places (where he meets new friends/enemies/etc.) once in a couple of stories. In this post I will discuss the stories of the Judge Dee canon set in Peng-Lai, where Judge Dee first made his name as a master-detective (the stories were not written in this order by the way).
The Chinese Gold Murders starts with Dee's very first appointment as a magistrate. The city of Peng-Lai is situated near sea, close to the Korean peninsula. Until just a few years ago, China had been at war with the Korean states and Peng-Lai is thus an important strategic point, with a military base to keep the borders in check, but also a lot of trade coming and going from Japan and Korea. Dee's appointment to this city was actually very sudden, because the position became available because the previous magistrate was murdered! He was poisoned in his (locked) library, but the official emprial inquisitor was not able to find out what happened, leaving our rookie magistrate with a huge case. But the judge is also burdened with a smuggling case and even the disappearance of one of his senior clerks, resulting in some very hectic first days as the magistrate in Peng-Lai. Oh, and there is something about the ghost of the previous magistrate haunting his old house...
This is a very entertaining story, which really shows what a great writer van Gulik was. The way he builds up his story is just fantastic: from the map to the city of Peng-Lai to the descriptions of everything that goes on in the city, everything appears alive in this novel. The descriptions of the 'underworld', the international relations with Korea, heck, even a visit to a local restaurant manages to be absolutely captivating. And like I mentioned earlier: despite the 'alien' setting, it never feels too alien for the reader. Everything feels amazingly familiar and never too orientalist foreign (though I have to admit that having read Journey to the West, Three Kingdoms, The Water Margin and The Investiture of the Gods, I might be a bit more used to the setting than most people). The locked room murder of the previous magistrate is a much more ingenous variation of a problem seen in the original Dee Gong An and really good: the problem is just that the solution of the problem definitely deserved more attention; now it is sorta mentioned as side-note (a treatment the trick really doesn't deserve!). The other cases are not as interesting on their own, but van Gulik manages to keep everyone on their toes by masterfully weaving in and out of the storylines (and also by tying up the storylines a bit). The multiple storylines also help by conveying an idea of all the things a district magistrate has to do, as compared to the Western detective who has the leisure of working on only one case. But anyway, this is really a worthwile read!
It seems that The Red Tape Murder is not very well liked, but I have to admit I have a soft spot for it. Incomplete documents force Judge Dee to visit the military base of Peng-Lai. Some days ago, a murder happened at the base, though that falls under military jurisdiction and not civil (Dee's) jurisdiction. Dee's lieutenants Ma Joong and Chiao Tai however tell him that the suspect arrested really isn't the kind of person to have commited a murder (even though he was the one in the perfect location to have commited the murder) and the judge therefore tries to find out more about the case, without upsetting the people at the base. The bureaucracy is an amusing element of the story, but the most interesting element has to be the actual murder, which features a trick so absurd and farfetched, that it actually seems plausible. It's an original trick and as I write this, I actually have to chuckle because I keep having mental images of the trick in my head. Something that has to be read.
He Came With the Rain on the other hand seems to be a well-received story that I personally don't really care for. Judge Dee happens to hear about a murdered man in a tower occupied by a deaf-mute girl in the marshes outside town. A man was caught red-handed (literally) in the marshes, but the judge is not sure whether that's the man they are looking for. The deaf-mute girl tells the judge about a demon who comes with the rain, but it seems that this is not just nonsense. The one good point of the story: information about folklore. The rest of the story just doesn't interest me. At all. Heck, I really had no recollection of this story as I was rereading this and I think I will forget it again in just a few days.
Like the other Judge Dee novels, The Laquer Screen contains three cases, but they are really deeply intertwined and they might as well be considered one big case. This is overall not as interesting a story like The Chinese Gold Murders. Sure, this book offers something different, with just one lieutenant to support the judge in a town (where he has no jurisdiction). There is a glimpse of the underworld we usually never get to see. The story of the laquer screen is also quite creepy. But there is little room for a real mystery as it has quite a small cast and with several coincidences influencing the way the story develops, it never feels as rewarding a mystery as The Chinese Gold Murders.
Of the stories set in Peng-Lai, The Chinese Gold Murders is definitely the most fun one and actually a great novel to start the series with (though it was not the first Judge Dee novel written). The other stories are fun if you're interested in the series, but not really interesting on the merit of just their plots. And I am not sure whether I will do more Judge Dee reviews in the near future, though I am definitely playing with the idea.
Hmm, in my head, I imagined this post to be quite a bit better than how it turned out to be. Ah well. I am not going to rewrite this again (long story).