Thursday, April 29, 2010

DEE GOONG AN, translated by Robert van Gulik

This book, and others in the series, are probably unknowingly beloved by all the purveyors of Chinese cuisine in my area, because whenever I reread one of van Gulik's novels, an overwhelming appetite for pot stickers and lo mein overtakes me.

Robert van Gulik was a Dutch diplomat who spent long periods of time in Japan and China, and even served here in DC at the Dutch Embassy. (I may have to swing by there, as a sort of pilgrimage.) He wrote several books on Chinese art and culture, but what he's best remembered for is the long-running series of mystery novels set in T'ang Dynasty China, featuring Judge Dee.

Dee was based on a real Chinese official, Di Renjie (630-700), who had a long illustrious career and eventually became one of the empire's top officials. And Dee was almost a folk hero in China, with many fictional works written about him, including this one.

DEE GOONG AN is an anonymously-written novel from the 18th century, about three fictional cases solved by Dee, and van Gulik translated it in the mid 20th. In his introduction, it's obvious he's read a number of Chinese detective novels, but found this one to be the closest to Western ideas of acceptable detective fiction. Chinese detective novels tend to ramble on and on for volumes, reveal the murderer at the beginning (viewing the puzzle as a chess game between the villain and the hero), and feature heavy supernatural content, including testimony from ghosts and household objects, even with the judge being baffled and aided by dreaded Judge of the Underworld, coming to the mortal world to claim the killer!

There is, however, enough difference in this book to make it interesting. There's three separate cases involved; in this book, they're "The Double Murder at Dawn," "The Strange Corpse," and "The Poisoned Bride." At the beginning, we're given a cast list of the people in the tribunal and of those involved in each case.

In the book, Judge Dee is the magistrate of the district of Chang-Ping, and is aided by his elderly family retainer Hoong Liang, tough guys Mah Joong and Chiao Tai, who are former outlaws, and reformed con man Tao Gan. He first has to deal with a savage double murder among traveling silk merchants. Then, while chasing clues, he stumbles upon a dysfunctional family and suspects the dead father was murdered a year before. Later, a prominent family is in an uproar when a newlywed bride dies on her wedding night, from a mysterious poison.

Some of the traditional mystery stuff we're used to is absent. The killer in the double murder case takes a little bit to identify, and then the problem after that is finding him. The killer in the family case is almost immediately identified, but the issue is figuring out how it was done. And the poisoning case takes some work to figure out the who and how.

There's an interesting entr'acte, a little dramatic scene that reflects on some of the issues in the book. And there's some supernatural content, too. Dee is led to the grave of a murder victim by a ghost, and later the corpse gives a sign that it was the victim of foul play by closing its eyes. And at one point, Dee is sleeping in a temple and has a prophetic dream which gives several clues, but it could at least partially be credited to Dee's subconscious.

And one thing that's seriously cool about this, and the other Dee's actually illustrated! There's a few reproduction plates and several others done by van Gulik in Chinese style. It really helps in visualizing the characters and their milieu. (The cover picture above is an example.)

DEE GOONG AN is fun, if a teeny bit creaky in spots. There's a couple of elements that show up in van Gulik's novels later, but otherwise it's a good read.

I'm considering rereading the entire van Gulik series, probably in chronological order, instead of publishing order (two different things). Apparently there's another French-language series about Dee, from author Frederic Lenormand, but they're not available in English. And there's a newly-written collection from author Zhu Xiao Di, that I just got, so I'll probably throw that in as well. Look for them, sporadically, in between other projects.

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