Sitting in Judgment

"Guide the people by law, subdue them by punishment; they may shun crime, but will be void of shame. Guide them by example, subdue them by courtesy; they will learn shame and come to be good."
- Confucius 
Robert H. van Gulik was a diplomat, sinologist and a writer whose career highlights included being the Dutch ambassador to Japan and authoring a series of novels, short stories and a couple of novellas about Judge Dee – which popularized historical mysteries and established them as a proper sub-genre in the 1950-and 60s. 

The series is set in 7th century China, during the Tang dynasty (AD 600-700), when a lauded magistrate and statesman, by the name of Di Renjie, presided over the courts of the Imperial Governments of the time.

Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (c. 1949) is a translation of an 18th century novel, Dee Goong An, which was loosely based on some of the cases handled by Di Renjie and formed an unofficial starting point of the series. And Di Renjie was, of course, the model for Judge Dee.

The plots were constructed along the lines of the classical, Chinese detective stories, in which several, seemingly unrelated, cases are braided together, but Van Gulik threw out the supernatural agencies and replaced them with 20th century plot devices – such as a stronger emphasis on whodunit and the occasional locked room mystery.

Judge Dee at Work: Eight Chinese Detective Stories (1967) is a collection of short stories and I have read them before, but they were spread out over two different volumes. The title of the Dutch edition of Judge Dee at Work is Zes zaken voor Rechter Tie (Six Cases for Judge Dee, 1961), which didn't include "Five Auspicious Clouds" and "He Came With the Rain." They were published separately as Vijf gelukbrengende wolken (Five Auspicious Clouds, 1969) and included the novella Vier vingers (Four Fingers, 1964), which was published in The Monkey and the Tiger (1965) as The Morning of the Monkey.

This was also the first time I read a Rechter Tie book in English. So it was somewhat like rediscovering this wonderful series.

"Five Auspicious Clouds" is the first story from this collection and occurred when Judge Dee served for only a week as magistrate of Peng-lai, which is where my favorite entry in this series took place – namely the fabulous Fantoom in Foe-lai (The Chinese Gold Murders, c. 1959). Judge Dee is confronted with the apparent suicide of the wife of a notable legal-mind, but there are enough signs pointing towards murder and the extinguished, pentagon-shaped incense-clock seemed to have fixed the time of death. A good, somewhat clever story of domestic murder and notable for having found a way to use the smashed-watch-trick... in the year 633!

"The Red Tape Murder" takes place in the same coastal district as the previous story, Peng-lai, in which Van Gulik allowed Judge Dee to be drawn into a military affair and exonerate Colonel Meng of a murder-charge and solve a pesky, bureaucratic problem of a missing document – a document interestingly titled P-404. They were unable to find that page! Anyhow, the murder of Colonel Soo turns out to be an impossible crime, because the innocent Meng appears to have been the only one who could've loosened the deadly arrow, but Judge Dee finds an alternative explanation and one that's reasonable clued. I've grown quite fond of this story, but not everyone is going to like it.

Six Cases for Judge Dee
Judge Dee still presided over Peng-lai as magistrate in "He Came With the Rain" and takes place on one of the hottest, wettest days of the dog-days. A pawn-broker is found stabbed and hacked to pieces at an old, abandoned watchtower in the marches and the only witness is a deaf-mute girl – who lived in the crumbling tower. A couple of soldiers apprehended a blood-covered suspect, but, of course, Judge Dee comes to a different conclusion. This is one of those stories that should be read as a historical story and it’s character development instead of as a detective story.

"The Murder on the Lotus Pond" has a change of scenery, the district of Han-yuan, which was the backdrop for The Chinese Lake Murders (1960) and The Haunted Monastery (1961), but in this minor case an elderly poet is killed in his garden pavilion. The setting and characters are very well drawn, but it's a minor, rather forgettable case and the murderer only got caught because he/she jabbered too much.

"The Two Beggars" takes the reader to yet another district, Poo-yang, where The Chinese Bell Murders (1958) and The Emperor's Pearl (1963) took place, but Judge Dee's time as magistrate of this district also coincided with his visit to Paradise Island – recorded in The Red Pavilion (1964) and features several impossible murders. However, this short story seems to have been missed by everyone as just such a story, which begins when Judge Dee witnesses a ghostly apparition during the Feast of Lanterns. The escape of the apparition from a watched, moonlit garden, in which the "garden gate to the park outside was securely locked and barred," coincides with the discovery of a dead beggar at the bottom of a drain. The encounter in the garden is explained by itself towards the end of the story, but initial sighting gives Judge Dee a good reason to take a closer look as the supposed accidental death of the beggar and eventually discovers a murderer. A well-told and constructed story.

The following story, "The Wrong Sword," remains in the district of Poo-Yang, but Judge Dee is absent for a large portion of the investigation and leaves two of his lieutenants, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, in charge of tribunal. A case and an opportunity to prove themselves presents itself during a street performance: someone swapped a "trick sword" for a real one and that came at the expensive of a young boy's life. It’s an interesting approach to allow a troupe of Watson's investigate a flurry of potential murderers, before Judge Dee correctly arranges the gather information and evidence upon his return.

"The Coffins of the Emperor" takes place in the isolated district of Lan-fang, the location of The Chinese Maze Murders (1952) and The Phantom of the Temple (1966), which is situated on the Western border of the empire – which has become a dark and desolate place during a warring conflict with the Tartar's. Judge Dee offers his assistance to the local military leader in solving a potential case of treason and clearing yet another military officer from a murder charge, before his head rolls off his shoulder the next morning, but the main attraction of this story is dark, sickly mood of impending doom permeating the plot.

The final story of the lot, "Murder on New Year's Eve," takes place in that same desolate place, but the explanation ends both this collection and Judge Dee's run as magistrate of Fan-lang on a positive note. It's a short, touchy story and that's all that can be said about it without giving anything away.

So, all in all, Judge Dee at Work is an excellent and well-balanced collection of stories, which can be read as both detective stories or historical fiction. And that makes it hard to be disappointed if you're a fan of one or both genres, but that goes for the entire series. Recommended!

Finally, if this review appears clunky or overwritten without the usual amount of detail... well... I finished this collection nearly two weeks ago and was in the hospital at the time. So not every detail was as clear as it should be when I finally began cranking out this review, but I'm getting back on track.


  1. Thanks for the good review of the book. I shall have to find a copy to read. I believe I read a Judge Dee book years ago, but I don't remember the title. Keep up the good work.

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks, Sergio! I'm not yet entirely my old self, but I'm getting there.

  3. I wish you a speedy recovery, TomCat. Though I have to say, spending time in hospital with this short story collection is making it much more worth your while. This is one of my favorite Van Gulik books. I only hope if I ever have to stay in hospital my family brings me a good read too!

    1. Thanks, Marco! If you have to be in the hospital, why not transport your mind to ancient China and solve a couple cases with Judge Dee, right? It's the best thing you can do in such a situation.