The Judge Dee Mysteries

The Judge Dee mysteries by Robert Van Gulik are also all good. There’s about a dozen of them. Some of them are better than others, but they’re all very enjoyable.

Van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat in China and Japan for many years. A diligent scholar and a very imaginative writer with a gift for detail, Van Gulik adapts Chinese popular stories to the Western mystery genre.

The original Judge Dee stories were like “Columbo” — you knew who the bad guys were at the beginning and the suspense was in seeing how they got found out. Van Gulik turns that around and puts the solution at the end because that’s what most Western readers are used to.

He downplays the torturing of witnesses, an established practice in Chinese courts, but he keeps one other element unique to Chinese mysteries: the supernatural assistance that the magistrate may get from the deceased.

A provincial magistrate like Judge Dee is detective, prosecutor, defense attorney, judge and jury all rolled into one. His job is to get to the bottom of things. If he wants to know something he says so and people come to the tribunal and kneel down and knock their heads on the floor and say, “This insignificant person is named so and so, and respectfully reports etc. etc.” Not a bad way of getting things done if you ask me.

We get wonderful glimpses of life in Imperial China: “This guy sold his daugther into slavery — without paying the ‘selling your daughter into slavery’ tax, and what’s more, he was undercutting the price the government was offering for Korean war slaves.”

In another book, I forget which one, we learn about the practice of fighting with “loaded sleeves.” Chinese robes have these long sleeves that they use as pockets. Loading a sleeve with a rock or a lead ball is a variation on the old ‘pool ball in a sock’ idea. It makes a very stealthy, very deadly weapon if you know how to use it.

During the Boxer Rebellion when foreigners in China were getting massacred, a group of Roman Catholic nuns, believing all was lost, held up their hands to God. The attacking mob feared they had loaded sleeves and backed off and let them go into one of the fortified compounds — a true story attested to in the introduction.

In “The Chinese Gold Murders,” the first book, Judge Dee is on his way to his first assignment as a provincial magistrate in a province on the Korean border with his family servant Hoong Liang.

They encounter these “gentlemen of the road” — Robin Hood types — who demand their horses. Judge Dee doffs his traveling robes and starts sword fighting with one of the brigands and it’s touch and go.

Then along comes an army patrol. Judge Dee calmly identifies himself as the new magistrate and explains to the officer that he’s been traveling with his assistants and they had decided to stop and stretch their muscles and have a little fencing practice. The officer buys it and the patrol goes on its way. Then Judge Dee wants to have at it again. Is that class, or what?

The two brigands, Chao Tai and Mah Joong (not the game), recognize a classy guy when they see one and refuse to fight. Later they catch up with Judge Dee and Sergeant Hoong at a local inn and say, basically, “Hey that was a good idea you had about our being your assistants,” and he hires them, which turns out to be a really good move.

The nice thing for the reader is that Chao Tai and Mah Joong can circulate in the Chinese underworld and go to floating brothels in the harbor and places like that. Van Gulik was also a collector of Chinese erotica, and, for his time, he has some pretty spicy scenes from the seamy side of Imperial China.

Scenes that seem to be — I’m just guessing here — written by a guy who knows what he’s talking about.