Mystery & Detective Week, Pt 1: Judge Dee.

This is the first of three Mystery Week posts.  We begin in China with Judge Dee.  Later in the week we go to Japan.  Our last of the series finds an old friend solving crimes and unraveling mysteries in India and Tibet.  Enjoy.


Judge Dee

Several years ago, when I was already grown up and all, I started reading Sherlock Holmes mysteries.  But I knew Holmes from way back.  When I was a little kid I remember watching the old Sherlock Holmes movies, late on Saturday nights when they would sometimes air on WTOP, a Washington, DC television channel.  Those were the (now stilted-looking, sort of cringe-making) Basil Rathbone movies.  I liked the Charlie Chan movies better, though the racial stereotypes of those old films make them pretty unwatchable now(1).  Another way my father introduced me to Sherlock Holmes was reading me “The Hound of the Baskervilles” to me when I was just, I don’t, 7 or 8 years old.  I remember this old book of Alfred Hitchcock stories for kids that my dad read to me, too.  I read and enjoyed Poe as a little kid, too.  Cool father, mine.

Anyway, before reading all the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes canon, over and over, I watched many of them while living in Japan in 1990-1991.  Back then, in the late afternoons, there was this one Japanese television channel that ran the Granada Productions (BBC) of the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, the ones starring Jeremy Brett (1933-1955) from the 1980’s.  I watched almost all of them I think.  Jeremy Brett was Sherlock Holmes.  Which drove him to madness for a time (unfair to Brett, as he was an accomplished actor capable of and having performed many roles).

So my history with mysteries goes back a way.

About two years ago a dear friend of mine introduced me to the Judge Dee Mysteries, novellas written by Dutch diplomat Robert Hans van Gulik (1910-1967).  I’ve become a big fan.  It seems that Judge Dee was, indeed, a real person. I quote here from the author’s Postscript to “The Haunted Monastery,” a favorite (“The [Taoist Monastery] Abbot, Jade Mirror, is dead after delivering an ecstatic sermon.  The monks call it a supernatural experience, but Judge Dee calls it murder.  Somewhere hidden in the tangled corridors of the monastery is the killer.” — from the back cover):

Judge Dee was a historical person who lived from A.D. 630 to 700.  In the earlier part of his career, when he was serving as magistrate in various country districts, he earned fame as a detector of crimes; and later, after he had been appointed [to the Royal] Court, he proved to be a brilliant statesman who greatly influenced the internal and foreign policies of the Tang Empire.  The adventures related here, however, are entirely fictitious, although many features were suggested by original old Chinese sources.

Along with just good reading, when you curl up with a Judge Dee mystery you’ll also learn something.  Judge Dee was a strict Confucianist and often grapples with Taoists and Buddhists, haranguing their beliefs along the way.  Van Gulik writes:

The Chinese professed three creeds, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, the last having been introduced from India in the first century A.D.  Since old Chinese detective and crime stories were written in the main by Confucian scholars, that literature evinces a pronounced partiality to Confucianism, a feature I adopted in also in my Judge Dee novels.  The characterization of Confucian and Taoist ideals given in the present novel is based on authentic Chinese texts.


I offer a couple excerpts from the Judge Dee mystery, “Necklace and Calabash,” just to give you a feel for the prose and atmosphere:

Entering the main street, he suddenly realized that his legs were stiff from the long ride, and his mouth was parched.  He went into the first tea-house he saw and ordered a large pot of tea.  Half a dozen citizens were gathered round the larger table in front of the window. . .  Sipping his tea, Judge Dee reminded himself that, since he was here in a Special [Imperial] Area subject to strict security regulations, he was required to register at the Guard’s headquarters as soon as he had arrived.  He would do that on his way to the hostels, for according to the old monk they were located a little way beyond the headquarters.  Since the cashier of the Kingfisher had been tortured and killed in such an abominable manner, everybody there would, of course, be upset.  he had better take a room at the other hostel, the Nine Clouds.                               .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         .                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          .

Me and my friends want you to know that we have nothing against you two.  We do what we are paid to do, because that’s the only way we can make our living.  The judge knew that this was the death sentence.  Low-low class scoundrels were superstitious; they always said this before killing their man, so as to prevent his ghost from haunting them afterwards and bringing them bad luck.  .  .

.  .  .   The judge turned round.  The bearded leader was coming for him, a crazed look in his one remaining eye.  He had picked up a pike, and now aimed a sweeping thrust at Judge Dee’s head.  The judge ducked and drove his sword up into the other’s breast.  As the bearded leader sank to the floor, the judge bent over and barked:

‘Who sent you!?’

The giant looked up at the judge with his one rolling eye.  His thick lips twitched.

‘How . . .’ he began.


Here’s another another Judge Dee website.  And, now, a Judge Dee movie is set for release in the U.S.:  “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.”   I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve seen it.

Please check back in a couple of days when we venture over to explore mysteries   in 1890s and 1920-30s Japan.


(1) “Positive assessors of Chan argue that he is portrayed as intelligent, benevolent and honorable — in contrast to the adverse depictions of evil or conniving Chinese then current on page and screen. Others state that Chan, despite his good qualities, reinforces certain Asian stereotypes, such as an alleged incapacity to speak fluent English and the possession of an overly tradition-bound and subservient nature. . . .” quoting the Wiki

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