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Book Review: Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An), translated by Robert van Gulik

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An)     

Author: Robert van Gulik (Translator)

Publisher: Dover Publications

American release date: June 1, 1976

Format/Genre/Length: Paperback/Detective/237 pages

Overall Personal Rating: ★★★★★

Reviewer: Julie Lynn Hayes


In the first half of the seventh century AD, during the Tang dynasty, Judge Dee (Dee Jen-djieh) is appointed magistrate of Chang-Ping.  Dee has four assistants. His chief assistant is Hoong Liang, known as Sergeant Hoong, whom he has known since he was a small boy. Two others, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai,  are of special use in the dangerous task of apprehending criminals and were once “brothers of the green woods”…that is, highway robbers. His fourth lieutenant is Tao Gan, a reformed swindler.

Those who wish to avail themselves of the tribunal when it is not currently sitting do so by striking a gong, alerting the magistrate that he is need to adjudicate. One morning this is done by Koong Wan-deh from the Six Mile Village, where he owns a hostel. According to his tale, two silk merchants stayed at his hostel overnight and left the next morning. Apparently they were robbed and murdered on their way out of town. The village warden, Pang Deh, believing that Koong had killed the two and dragged their bodies to the road to avert suspicion from himself, dragged the bodies back to the hostel and accused the hostel owner of their murder. So he hastened to the tribunal to set matters straight.

While investigating this case, Judge Dee disguises himself as a physician and heads to the town in question. In the course of selling his drugs, he is approached by an older woman with a sad tale involving the death of her son. Deciding this case needs a closer examination, Dee accompanies the woman to the house. All the while, she extols the virtues of her late son’s wife, so grief-stricken that she shuts herself up in her room for most of the day, a serious widow. Dee suspects there is more to this case than meets the eye.

A third case concerns the death of a beautiful young bride on her wedding night. The distraught father of the groom blames a young man who was present at the teasing of the couple, whose jests went too far. He accuses the young man of being jealous of the bride and thus killing her by an unknown poison.

Chinese detective stories have their own unique style, a direct result of the culture in which they were written. Many of them begin with the knowledge of who the criminal is, although that is not the case with these stories. The translator, Van Gulik, has written an introduction to the volume as well as extensive notes. I would definitely recommend you read the introduction, as it provides valuable as well as interesting insight into the stories.

These three stories intertwine, and were definitely fun to read. This is my first time reading Judge Dee, although I know a little of the character having seen two Detective Dee films (based on the same character). It is also important to note that in Chinese courts, it is not uncommon for them to torture witnesses in order to get them to confess, and such is the case here. That being said, these stories are well written as are the characters. They are very interesting, and I enjoyed figuring out the mysteries involved (sad to say I don’t believe I guessed correctly on any of them). I look forward to reading more of the series. This is a must read if you enjoy detective stories as well as stories involving Chinese culture.