“An Authentic Eighteenth Century Chinese Detective Novel.”
One aspect of books and reading that I don’t often consider is the extent to which storytelling is a cultural form, often arising out of long-standing tradition. Modern American writing has such an emphasis on telling a good story as well as innovation in characterization and world-building that I forget about traditional forms. The manuscript of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is the product of an extensive tradition in Chinese detective storytelling. It was discovered by a Westerner in the 1900s, then translated and published again in 1949. In the translator’s Preface, Van Gulik discusses the background of Chinese detective fiction, transitioning into novel form in the 1600s and reaching their most sophisticated forms in the 18th and 19th centuries. Interestingly, although the author is clearly extremely literate and familiar with Chinese law, he remains anonymous due to the cultural consideration of the detective novel being a ‘frivolous’ form of literature. In the Preface, Van Gulik also provides context of the story, describing the structure and roles of the local government, the process of law, and various punishments perpetrators may face. There’s also cultural considerations of the body’s disposition that come into play. Given that I have minimal knowledge of world history and 18th century Chinese culture, the context was appreciated, adding a degree of emotional empathy with the story.
Van Gulik also relates that Chinese detective novels usually retain characteristics that are more uncommon in the Western detective tradition. First, the criminal is usually known from the beginning; Van Gulik characterizes this type of read like “watching a game of chess; with all the factors known, the excitement lies in following every move… and the counter measures.” (What a concept, especially among those who campaign against ‘spoilers!’) Other considerations include a Chinese emphasis on extensive ‘digressive’ detail, including poetry, philosophical explorations and supporting documentation, and emphasis on an extensive cast of characters. Other aspects that might translate more easily for more modern readers is routine inclusion of the supernatural and additional story detail surrounding punishment at the end of the case. Van Gulik states he selected this particular story because while it meets standards within the Chinese detective fiction genre, it is also more similar to current Western tastes.
The tale begins with an innkeeper appearing before Judge Dee, protesting that the local warden is falsely accusing him of murdering two men. The men were silk traders that had stayed at his inn the night before, but were found dead next to a crossroads the next morning. It turns out the warden was soliciting a bribe from the innkeeper to make the charge disappear. The judge punishes the warden and heads to the crime scene to investigate. The bodies were left on the inn’s doorstep, so the crime scene was only partially preserved. The corpses were then brought to the court and an autopsy done–an interesting contrast to current very private autopsies! Before the case can progress very far, they run into a missing person. The judge disguises himself as a physician and heads into the market to gather information and rumors, which is where he runs into his next case.
The next case, the case of the Strange Corpse, begins after Judge Dee’s curiosity is aroused by an elderly woman’s description of her son’s death. When the judge and his assistant visit the graveyard, their suspicions are confirmed by the appearance of the man’s ghost. Unfortunately, the investigation is met with resistance by both his widow and his mother. The judge orders an exhumation, after which he proceeds to the temple to find clarity and meditate on the cases. He has a vivid dream that seems full of clues but requires interpretation. His assistant returns with a clue for the first case of the double murder. In disguise, they all head to a distant village to investigate. The assistants go to work infiltrating a local gang while the judge heads back to his official duties. The case is soon concluded, but a case involving a poisoned bride is brought before him. That case proves relatively easy for the judge to solve, allowing him to return to the Case of the Strange Corpse. More investigation and trickery is employed to solve the case.
Ultimately, I enjoyed it a great deal, despite a somewhat convoluted style of storytelling. It reminded me somewhat of watching a Shakespearean play, with numerous plots, disguises, brigands, and dream sequences. Perhaps that’s why I relentlessly fell asleep while reading. But don’t blame Judge Dee. Something about my reading experience felt more academic, perhaps because I was reading with so much background in mind rather than just being immersed in the story. I’m not complaining, however; it’s hard to be immersed when one is trying to understand form as much as meaning, and the background made the story even more enjoyable. In fact, like Shakespeare, I can understand how stories like this deepen with repeated telling. Definitely worth my time, and a shout-out to Carly for her recommendation.