Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, 1949, original English publication date
Translated by Robert Van Gulik
Mass-market paperback, 237 pages (including appendices)
Di Renjie was a real person, born in 630 and died in 700 in China. I know nothing of Chinese history, but cribbing mercilessly from Wikipedia and from the introduction to this book, Di (or "Dee") acted as a judge during his lifetime, a position in which he acted simultaneously as police officer, detective, judge, jury, and (when necessary) executioner. Held accountable by his actions towards the people by his superiors, he investigated crimes (mostly homicides), found out the perpretators, and delivered just punishments. A wildly popular celebrity, he often went in disguise in investigating these crimes, and in the eighteenth century a novel Di Gong An was published in Chinese, treating the real-life Di largely as a fictional character.
During the second world war, Robert van Gulik discovered this novel in his researches into Chinese detective novels, translated it into English for consumption by the Western world, and went on to write and publish a whole series of Dee detective novels in his later years.
All of which is preamble to say, essentially, that I think this novel has all the historical accuracy of Robin Hood or the Knights of the Round table -- in all cases, there are substantial historical inaccuracies and anachronisms involved, and the stories are mostly made up out of whole cloth. So in this case I will not be reviewing Dee as history, as I have absolutely no knowledge of that history, but simply as a novel giving insight into the perspectives of the culture in which that novel was born.
So how's the book? Pretty good, actually. Dee covers three cases in total, interconnected in time but not connected in their solutions (i.e. the crimes were committed by completely separate people for completely separate reasons -- no Chandler-esque "it was all connected" thing at the end). The first is the murder of two men who are discovered in front of a hotel. The second is a crime of passion that is abnormally unusual, given that the crime is over a year old. And the third is a bride poisoned on her wedding day.
The cases move with remarkable speed -- the author or authors of the book does a good job keeping the action tight, and ensuring that the reader is never dulled by detail. The book was originally published a century before Holmes, but to a modern reading Dee's attention to detail seems reminiscient of that famous detective, probably one of the reasons Gulik selected it for translation. However, while Holmes used scientific reasoning and attention to physical detail, Dee is more inclined to use his knowledge of psychology to intuit the truth of a crime, and then through torturing suspects until they confess, a move which is widely supported by...
Huh? Tortured? Well, yeah -- one of the things that stands out about the culture in which this novel was written is that torturing suspects in a crime on flismy pretext is an established tradition. In fact, Dee is shown as being more liberal than most -- in one of the cases, a rich noble wishes to torture information out of a young man whom Dee is pretty certain is innocent of the crime, and Dee declines to put the man to the screws (literally). As we learn in the text (and through the footnotes), Dee is responsible to his superiors in this, and if he tortures a person to extract a false confession, he himself is liable to be tortured in the exact same way he tortured the innocent. So at least there is some limiting factor on Dee's ability to run over people, although in real life I wonder how easy it would be for those falsely accused to establish their own innocence in order to make this effective.
No matter. The blase use of torture is one element in this society, and seeing how it is integrated into the otherwise ordinary detective fiction is one of the fascinating things about it to modern western readers. And, to be fair, a novel taking place around the same time period in Europe or among the Native Americans might very well contain similar uses of torture to extract confessions -- this is by no means limited to China.
Another device that differs from modern-day western detective tales is a strong reliance on dreams and ghosts and other aspects of the supernatural. Dee, seeking a break in one of the cases, sips tea and goes into a trance. In this trance, he sees a poem, which he then uses as a guideline to the case. In another of his cases, he actually sees a ghostly apparition that points him to the grave of the deceased. For the most part, these supernatural influences are used more as pointers for Dee, sort of intuitive guides, than as literal events, but the overall effect is something like if Sherlock Holmes ran across Jacob Marley's ghost while investigating a murder.
So what's the final verdict? Overall, this is a really decent mystery even outside of the context of the times, but within that context it allows us to see elements of the society in question that are fascinating. It's interesting also as an SF fan how the cultural biases and assumptions here are so easily relevant to the solutions to the mysteries -- reading books and stories from cultures not one's own is a good way of understanding one's own cultural assumptions and biases. Fans of mysteries or enthusiasts of China will probably like this one.