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Guilty Pleasures

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More often than not, a shelf of books is a statement about the person we wish to be. We carefully arrange the titles so our friends will gain a favourable impression of us, thinking that we are cultured, sensitive, politically aware or part of the rebellious avant-garde. Meanwhile, the books we really enjoy, our guilty pleasures, are hid­den from sight. It’s nice to know that not much has changed in 500 years. Apparently, scholars in Ming-dynasty China did much the same. The books on display in their studies were the Confucian clas­sics they had been forced to read to gain high positions in the civil service, while the books they really enjoyed were hidden under their mattresses. And these, quite often, were pulp detective novels.

Yes, the Chinese invented detective fiction. These stories began as folk tales told by itinerant storytellers in marketplaces or tea houses, lurid accounts of murder, lust and betrayal, whose heroes were cunning and incorruptible Tang- or Song-dynasty magistrates with names like Bao, Peng or Dee. Then, in the Ming dynasty (1368‒1644), the tales were written down, often anonymously, and published in inexpensive editions for the literati to enjoy in private.

We might not know of these stories at all if it weren’t for a schol­arly Dutch diplomat named Robert van Gulik. When Japan declared war on the Netherlands in late 1941, van Gulik was forced to flee his embassy in Tokyo for Chungking, the wartime capital of China. He took with him a small, lithographed copy of an eighteenth-century Chinese crime novel, entitled Four Important and Curious Cases in the Time of Empress Wu, and, in moments stolen between his diplomatic duties and Japanese air raids, he read the novel for amusement. However, it wasn’t until after the war, when he was posted to Washington and was exposed to American pulp detective novels, that he decided to translate the book into English.

When he was transferred back to Tokyo in 1948, van Gu

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More often than not, a shelf of books is a statement about the person we wish to be. We carefully arrange the titles so our friends will gain a favourable impression of us, thinking that we are cultured, sensitive, politically aware or part of the rebellious avant-garde. Meanwhile, the books we really enjoy, our guilty pleasures, are hid­den from sight. It’s nice to know that not much has changed in 500 years. Apparently, scholars in Ming-dynasty China did much the same. The books on display in their studies were the Confucian clas­sics they had been forced to read to gain high positions in the civil service, while the books they really enjoyed were hidden under their mattresses. And these, quite often, were pulp detective novels.

Yes, the Chinese invented detective fiction. These stories began as folk tales told by itinerant storytellers in marketplaces or tea houses, lurid accounts of murder, lust and betrayal, whose heroes were cunning and incorruptible Tang- or Song-dynasty magistrates with names like Bao, Peng or Dee. Then, in the Ming dynasty (1368‒1644), the tales were written down, often anonymously, and published in inexpensive editions for the literati to enjoy in private. We might not know of these stories at all if it weren’t for a schol­arly Dutch diplomat named Robert van Gulik. When Japan declared war on the Netherlands in late 1941, van Gulik was forced to flee his embassy in Tokyo for Chungking, the wartime capital of China. He took with him a small, lithographed copy of an eighteenth-century Chinese crime novel, entitled Four Important and Curious Cases in the Time of Empress Wu, and, in moments stolen between his diplomatic duties and Japanese air raids, he read the novel for amusement. However, it wasn’t until after the war, when he was posted to Washington and was exposed to American pulp detective novels, that he decided to translate the book into English. When he was transferred back to Tokyo in 1948, van Gulik pub­lished his translation in a small privately printed edition as Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee, noting in the afterword: ‘It might be an interesting experiment if one of our modern writers of detective stories would try his hand at composing an ancient Chinese detective story himself.’ His suggestion was directed at Chinese and Japanese authors who were then flooding the Asian markets with third-rate imitations of American crime novels. Dee Goong An was a modest success, and when no one took up the gauntlet, van Gulik decided to follow his own advice and create more Judge Dee stories. He realized that he couldn’t translate the stories just as he found them: he would have to adapt them to the tastes of a modern audi­ence. Ancient Chinese detective stories usually begin by introducing the criminal and then follow the magistrate’s progress in tracking them down, often with the help of supernatural agents or dreams rather than logic. These old books are also very long, with digressions on religious or philosophical matters, and they always end with a gruesome depiction of the criminal’s execution. A modern audience would have no patience with all this so, taking plot lines from the Chinese originals, van Gulik began to write his own stories in the modern style. One thing he did keep, however, was the Chinese prac­tice of having the magistrate solve several unrelated crimes at the same time. He felt this was a more realistic portrayal of a busy magistrate’s life than the one-mystery-per-book tradition of modern Western detective fiction. The first of these original novels was The Chinese Maze Murders (1951), published initially in Japanese and Chinese editions, and only later in English. But as it turned out it was the English-speaking world that really warmed to Judge Dee. So van Gulik’s subsequent Judge Dee books – another fourteen novels, one collection of short stories and two novellas bound as one volume – were written primar­ily for the English-speaking market. Judge Dee was a real person, a Tang-dynasty magistrate and states­man with a reputation for honesty and incorruptibility named Di Renjie, who lived from AD630 to 700, but the stories ascribed to him are entirely fictitious. Van Gulik’s Dee is a detective with a difference, for in the Chinese court system, a magistrate acted as judge, jury, prosecutor and detective. Dee is assisted by several lieutenants who follow him from post to post and so form a core of loyal and incor­ruptible assistants. In the original stories these figures were often petty criminals whom the judge had caught and reformed. In the case of Judge Dee, he is assisted by Sergeant Hoong, an old family retainer (a kind of Watson to Dee’s Holmes); Tao Gan, a former confidence man; and Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, highway bandits Dee has recruited as muscle and who serve in the novels as comic relief. And though Di Renjie was a Tang-dynasty official, van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories reflect the sixteenth-century world in which they were first written down. Another reason for translating Dee Goong An, van Gulik explains in his introduction, was to reflect a more authentic view of Chinese life. Western readers had met Chinese detectives before in Earl D. Biggers’s hero Charlie Chan and Chinese criminals in Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu, but neither of these did justice to Chinese reality. The joy of reading the Judge Dee stories lies in their portrayal of Chinese society at the time. Indeed, van Gulik did such a good job in por­traying Chinese culture that, for a while, his novels were required reading for US Foreign Service officials posted to China. If I had to pick a favourite, it would be The Haunted Monastery (1961), in which Judge Dee and his family are storm-bound in a remote Daoist monastery, and Dee must solve multiple mysteries over the course of a single night. If you like your mysteries served with a touch of the gothic, this is the one for you. However, if you are new to the Judge Dee stories, you should probably start with The Chinese Gold Murders (1959), the first chronologically, in which the 33-year-old judge travels to his first appointment in Penglai, a small coastal town in north-east Shandong province. His challenge is to solve the murder of his predecessor in a classic locked-room puzzle, but he must also locate a runaway bride and discover why the corpse of a dead monk has been found in the grave of a murdered woman. I am the first to admit that van Gulik is not a literary stylist, but I don’t read him for his prose style. I read him because the stories are fun. So why, you might ask, are they not displayed proudly on my bookshelves at home? The answer is quite simple. The cover illustra­tion on each of my old paperback editions almost invariably features a block-print image of a naked woman. At first glance, it looks as if I own a collection of antique Chinese pornography. Apparently, van Gulik’s Japanese publisher thought these racy covers were a selling feature, so he insisted that van Gulik source old prints to use as illus­trations, and where he couldn’t find suitable prints, draw his own in the Chinese style. In the process, van Gulik became quite an expert on Chinese erotica; he even published a scholarly book on the sub­ject. Fortunately for you, dear reader, the modern reprints have dispensed with the old cover illustrations and replaced them with family-friendly images – ones you wouldn’t be ashamed to display to your friends.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 74 © Ken Haigh 2022


About the contributor

Having recently retired as the director of a public library in Canada, Ken Haigh had hoped to reward himself with a long journey to some foreign land. Instead, he spent the pandemic travelling vicariously in place and time through his read­ing. His most recent book is On Foot to Canterbury.

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