Thursday, September 22, 2005

Reading Chinese detective stories

This weekend I finally finished reading the last Judge Dee detective story I was able to get my hands on. Several weeks ago I was at the Cubao branch of a Different Bookstore; As usual I was checking their collection before proceeding home. If you want to save money do not enter any kind of store just go home. I was fairly confident that I would just be killing time looking at their titles. However, just as I was about to leave I came across a table full of books that had a big red sale beside it. Curious, I looked at the books confident that I would not find anything that would rouse my interest. A couple of Umberto Eco's book , hmm...I said to myself I have read the Name of the Rose and his other works - no rush. Then my eyes scanned down to four books that were designed with several Chinese motifs and flourishes. All were written by one author, the Dutch Diplomat Robert Van Gulik. All were mystery stories.

It had been a long time since I read a mystery novel. Ever since I read Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle I was entertained by the mystery. In general there are books that you read for knowledge and then there are books you read for pleasure. And if one was lucky you would come across a book that would do both. For me, I like reading a tale where a mystery has to be solved a whodunit. I started with my mother's collection of Sherlock Holmes stories: Holmes with Watson solving a mystery for the King of Bohemia, finding the Blue Carbuncle, and many others. Then there Agatha Christies' Belgian detective Hercule Poirot and the dimunitive Ms Marple; GK Chesterton's Father Brown and Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin. There were of course others stories from Roald Dahl involving a leg of lamb and death. Umberto Eco's book The Name of the Rose is a mystery novel about a series of murder in an abbey during the time religious conflageration and his detective, Brother William of Baskerville, who was supposedly based on the English Franciscan Friar and logician William of Ockham who is responsible for the principle Occams or Ockham's razor - which in plain English states given two predictive theories, choose the simplest.

Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Father Brown and their surrogates have all found their way into cinema. As for Brother William, his role was essayed Sean Connery in the movie adaptation of the Name of the Rose.

What is it with mystery stories? Why are they so addictive? Maybe because I would like to see how the detective solves the story. Or it could be the tension between the criminal and the detective, who would outwit the other. Solution and resolution that could be it.

What is a story but a tale of how a person got from point a to point b.

The Judge Dee stories are a fresh take on the mystery story. In the first place the Chinese mystery stories are different in form from the Western mystery story. First, the main protagonist is a Judge or a Magistrate. In Imperial China the government depended heavily on magistrates; they governed every aspect of life in the city and the surrounding area for 50 miles. The magistrates collected the taxes, managed the civil records, resolved disputes and solved cases. If a crime was committed in a society they were responsible for solving, failure to solve the case would affect their advancement in the hierarchy of power. Second, a Chinese mystery story often involves the Judge solving two or three cases in one story, a judge would often be investigating more than one crime case at a time and it is not unsual that the investigation may take some time. The twists and turns in the story makes it exciting. Third, the Chinese mystery story is faithful to the prevailing judicial process in Imperial China, which allowed the limited use of torture (to be administered in public) in order to gain a confession. This was important because it was vital to get a confession from the criminal, you could not impose a sentence if the criminal confessed to the crime. Of course, torture alone was not enough and it was limited - because if a witness died under torture, it would be the judge and the tribunal who would be stripped of power and be the recipient of the same punishment. As such the judge had to out-think the suspect and the criminal in order to get to the truth. Fourth, the story always ended with the punishment of the guilty part.

Judge Dee is the main protagonist of the story and he is aided in his adventures by four assistanst. One is his old and most trusted servant Hoong Liang, whom Dee appointed as Sergeant of the Tribunal. When a judge starts his career he has to appoint four assistants who are permanently attached to him. The other members of the tribunal change when he goes to a new assignment every three years but the four remain with him. Most of the time these were people the judge trusted and it would not be uncommon for them to have checkered pasts. The remaining three assistants of Dee were Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan. The first two were former highway men (euphemistically called Brothers of the Greenwood) and the last Tao Gan was a reformed con-man and criminal. Judge Dee and his assistants through investigation, subterfuge, martial and criminal skills attempt to solve the crimes that were committed in the district.

The tales are quite interesting often involving murder, plots against the Imperial throne, smuggling and intrigue. Van Gulik interwoves each piece of the story that it keeps you interested till the resolution of each case. What is more intriguing is that Van Gulik based most of the mysteries on actual court cases he had discovered during his study of the Chinese mystery stories and perusals of ancient records. The hero of his story is a real life Judge and renowned statesman, Dee Jen- Djieh or Ti Jien-Chieh from the Tang Dynasty, who was able survive political intrigue, escape from jail and convinced the power Empress Wu to appoint the rightful heir to the throne. Van Gulik used Judge Dee and embellished his characters with traits from other figures from China, like Pao Kung or Judge Pao.

Aside from the mystery and characters from Ancient China, Van Gulik makes each story exciting because it details the activities and events of China during that time. The life in a walled city is look at, the beliefs and customs of the people are discussed, even the food served in restaurants are described fully and other things that happen in that time time is written down. And Van Gulikdoes this with an unbiased eye; giving a balanced fictional treatment of life during the Tang dynasty. This may be due to the fact that Van Gulik extensively studied Chinese culture durng his days in the Dutch diplomatic service in China and Japan; He also wanted to depart from the stereotypical Chinese characters seen in Western literature at that time. He was writing of a Chinese society before the introduction of opium.

This books are a reprint of the original books by Van Gulik. A quick check over at showed that he actually wrote more and this indicates a good commercial run for the book.

After reading the first book, I ended up buying the last three. Fortunately, the books were on sale - A Different Bookstore was selling them for half their actual price.

If you want a fresh compelling mystery story with cultural insights into Chinese culture look for these books.

Author: Robert Van Gulik (1910-1967)

A Judge Dee Detective Story: The Chinese Gold Murders
A Judge Dee Detective Story: The Chinese Lake Murders
A Judge Dee Detective Story: The Chinese Bell Murders
A Judge Dee Detective Story: The Chinese Nail Murders


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