Friday, September 10, 2021

The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An) (Judge Dee #1), by Robert van Gulik (author), Norman Dietz (narrator)

Recorded Books, ISBN 9781440799204, February 2008 (original publication 1949)

Judge Dee was a 7th century Chinese magistrate and statesman, of the Tang Dynasty. His cases were recorded in the Imperial archives, but most have not survived. In the 18th century, three cases were written into an anonymous Chinese mystery novel, Dee Goong An. Mystery novels were a popular Chinese genre, but usually with a strong supernatural element that Robert van Gulik thought would be unacceptable to western readers. Dee Goong An mostly lacks that element, and in 1949, van Gulik translated it into English. After that, he wrote his own entirely fictional adventures of Judge Dee, but this book is the only place to find the historical, or believed to be historical, cases of the historical Judge Dee.

Chinese district magistrates were completely responsible for peace and order in their districts, and in the investigation of serious crimes, they acted as judge, prosecutor, and detective. In the course of investigating his cases, Dee uses deceit, disguise, divination, dreams, and also threats and torture. Chinese law required that no one could be executed without a confession, and so even a case with overwhelming evidence might require torture. On the other hand, if an accused person died under torture without confessing, the magistrate and his entire staff could be executed. So, it was a potentially risky strategy.

The three cases are a bride poisoned on her wedding night, a double murder involving two silk merchants in a small town in the district, and a murder of small shopkeeper in another small town. That last murder wasn't recognized as murder for nearly a year, until Judge Dee, investigating the case of the silk merchants, overhears a remark about the death, the widow's retreat from all social life, and the fact that her young daughter has become mute. It's this case that poses the greatest danger and the greatest challenge to Dee.

The stories are good, interesting, and well-paced, and there's added interest because these stories reflect Chinese law and Chinese custom, even with the Ming dynasty anachronisms introduced by the anonymous Chinese author. It's a very enjoyable read, or listen, and well worth your time.

I bought this audiobook.

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