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Historic historical murders

This is the book that reminded
me about Judge Dee

These days historical murder mysteries are common fare. We might not hear much about Brother Cadfael any more, though the legacy remains, but I challenge anyone who likes their mysteries with a touch of history not to like the Shardlake series. However recently, while looking for a bit of fiction on my shelves to recover from a bit too much review reading, I re-discovered Robert van Gulik.

In my teens I loved his murder mysteries set in seventh century China, featuring the remarkable Judge Dee Jen-djieh. Dee, based on a real historical character was a magistrate - a role that combined local admininstrative official, judge and CID inspector. van Gulik has an interesting style. While creative writing classes would probably reject him (he's fairly liberal with adverbs, for instance) he manages to set the scene using quite sparse description - he never gets bogged down in floweryness, yet you really do get a feel for the time and place.

I think one of the reasons these books appealed to me so much in my teens was their alien environment - it was almost more like reading a fantasy book than a historical one. The judge had huge power and authority - he could have witnesses tortured and criminals executed - yet at the same time there was a powerful balancing control. If he got it wrong, he would suffer extreme punishment.

I'll be honest, I don't know how women readers would feel about the books - mostly due to the setting rather than anything wrong with van Gulik's writing. Women in the stories are primarily daughters, wives, courtesans or prostitutes. These are very male-centred stories. But there are some strong female characters, and the approach reflects the culture of the time.

The books were written in the 1960s, but really don't feel dated. As always, on returning to one of the titles, I was drawn in and feel the urge for a bowl of noodles and pickled vegetables. Worth discovering if you don't know them. see at


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