Lisa (Harmonybites)'s Reviews > Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories

Judge Dee at Work by Robert van Gulik
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's review
Apr 22, 2010

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bookshelves: mystery, historical-fiction, short-stories, crime, fiction
Recommended for: Lovers of Historical Mysteries Interested in China

This is an enjoyable book, but I wouldn't recommend it as an introduction to van Gulik's Judge Dee mysteries. Van Gulik was raised in East Asia from early childhood and tutored in Mandarin from an early age. He served throughout Asia in the Dutch Diplomatic service and married a Chinese woman, so few people would be so ideally positioned to write works based on Chinese culture for Western audiences. As Van Gulik explains in his afterwards, Judge Dee is a real historical person who lived from A.D. 630 to 700 and contemporary "Chinese still consider him their master-detective, and his name is as popular with them as that of Sherlock Holmes is with us." I first read the Judge Dee mysteries when a friend loaned me her Dee novels, so the only book in the series I bought and own is this one, an anthology of short stories very much akin to Arthur Conan Doyle's Adventures of Sherlock Holmes stories in flavor. Purely as mysteries I don't think these match the Sherlock Holmes stories such as "The Speckled Band," nor is the character of Dee quite so strong as Holmes, and Van Gulik's style is rather creaky. One reviewer called the language "stilted" and I rather agree. But the draw here is more the depiction of Chinese culture and history during the Tang Dynasty and on those terms I find the novels offer something unique and are well worth seeking out, and even though I don't think Van Gulik is strongest in this short form, these stories do display something of the appeal of those novels. The eight short stories are fine little puzzle pieces that turn on such things as an incense clock, a pawn ticket or croaking frogs in a lotus pond and takes you through all levels of Chinese society from great generals and rich merchants to prostitutes, beggars and street performers. If you're at all curious about things Chinese, you might find these just your cup of (green) tea. Although I'd start with the first book chronologically if you can find it, The Chinese Gold Murders.
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