Mark's Reviews > Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee by Robert van Gulik
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Oct 16, 11

Read in October, 2011

I'm giving this one 5 stars not because it's the most brilliant detective novel ever, though it is quite compelling and entertaining, but because it's an astounding early-eighteenth-century Chinese detective novel, quite "modern" in lots of ways, that was written more than a century before anything we could call a "detective story" in the West, e.g. Poe's Dupin stories or Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Not only that, but, as translator Robert Hans Van Gulik tells us in his introduction, "short stories about mysterious crimes and their solution have existed in China for over a thousand years, and master-detectives have been celebrated in the tales of the public story teller and in theatrical plays for many centuries. The longer Chinese detective novel started later, about 1600," a form that often ran to a hundred chapters or more in length. This one, the Dee Goong An,, has a pretty "normal" length for a novel of 230 pages or so, but it has significant differences from our typical detective novels. For instance, the detective is a district magistrate (as, apparently, was the case with all the classic Chinese detective novels) with wide-ranging powers, including the right to torture suspects in the courtroom at his discretion. Like Sherlock Holmes, Judge Dee doesn't give all the legwork to his lieutenants and constables but puts on disguises and investigates himself. Van Gulik, a sinologist who lived much of his life in China, translated this work in the 1940s, then went on to write his own fictional versions of Judge Dee mysteries, to the tune of fifteen or so books.
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