Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Good morrow to you, magistrate!

For my birthday I got a couple of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. I'm reading one of them now, The Chinese Bell Murders.

Dee is loosely based on a real person, a magistrate active in the Tang Dynasty. And in fact before van Gulik he had already been subject of proto-mystery novels during the Ming Dynasty. This was a character van Gulik was obviously fond of working with.

One of the more interesting aspects of the character is how much he relishes playing the bad cop. The plot would actually be at home in any number of contemporary TV cop shows: a scholar candidate - grad student, basically - carries on an affair with the virginal daughter of a small businessman, and becomes the prime suspect when she's raped and murdered. The judge expresses a loud disgust with his behavior. It's sincere enough, but he doesn't mistake one kind of guilt for another. His sternness is real but also a tool to find the truth.


susan said...

We're really glad to know you've been enjoying Judge Dee (and his trusty assistants) in one of their earlier adventures. From what I understand they were written originally for an Oriental audience in order to remind them there was a long tradition of mysteries in their own culture so they didn't have to rely on the western novels that had become popular there (esp. in Japan, I imagine, but the Cultural Revolution in China was well underway after wwii). Van Gulik was a diplomat of the old school and very skilled at his work as well as being totally ensconced in Orientalism.

The books are an exceptional presentation of another time and place. Judge Dee, besides being a magistrate, is also a detective. He's a character of infinite dignity, propriety, and sense of status. He's educated and privileged but his deft, practised handling of the many and various levels of society in his legal profession leads the reader into a fascinating peek into ancient China. His henchmen, from a much lower level of society, balance and expand the historical reach of this series.

We have the entire set last printed by the University of Chicago Press. They're lovely editions - hopefully to be found at your library, but here just in case. Yet another almost forgotten author.

Ben said...

One thing that modern (postmodern?) readers might take issue with is the fact that torture is used to extract confessions. Now, it's specified that the magistrate will be dishonored if a suspect dies under torture, but still, it's the elephant in the room. Of course this was not just a Chinese or Eastern thing. Criminal justice in Medieval Europe was a hair-raising thing. At least Judge Dee's skills come in handy when those methods are inappropriate or aren't working.

One thing I noticed about this edition is that there's no translator listed. And indeed that seems to be right. Van Gulik either wrote this book, or at least this edition, directly into English or he translated it from his native Dutch. Considering that he must have also been fluent in Chinese, a pretty impressive picture emerges.