Okay, I admit it. My reading material tends to be not only Euro-centric, but Anglo-centric. While I went through a phase of absorbing quite a bit of European folklore, I have never really read much Asian mythology or ancient texts.
That's going to change.
I recently read Wilkie Collins' Moonstone and proclaimed it not only extremely readable, but also "the first murder mystery novel." I should have said "the first English language murder mystery novel," because at the time when Moonstone was published, China had been contributing to the detective genre for centuries.
When The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (Dee Goong An) was written, likely at some point in the 18th century, its elaborate plot, elegant twists, and practiced style indicates that it was far from the first story of the genre.
According to Robert van Gulik, who translated the story in 1949, no stylistic or content changes were required to provide this incredibly entertaining read. van Gulik's translation captures the story's gentle humour, driving energy, and impressively twisty plot. Judge Dee, the main character and detective, is based on the seventh-century magistrate Di Renjie, but like Sherlock Holmes, he is a character who is larger than life. Dee, a magistrate of the Tang dynasty, is incredibly intelligent, active, and decisive. His major flaw is a tendency towards impatience--he usually ends up shouting at some point during his interrogations. Like Holmes, he has a gift for disguise, and often furthers his investigation by appearing incognito as anything from a peddler to a doctor. He is aided in his investigations by a Robin-Hood-like gang of reformed thieves and con artists who are as exceptional in their own specialties as Dee himself. The cultural similarities--and differences--are also fascinating. Judge Dee has autopsies performed, clues collected in such a way that they are not contaminated, and witnesses questioned. At the same time, one of Dee's standard techniques is torture or threat of torture, and at one point, a woman is imprisoned without evidence for months. Despite all this the story has the ebullient charm of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys story: complex clues, fantastical deceptions, and heroic actions abound.
The story starts when Judge Dee is notified of a puzzling double murder of two silk peddlers at a local inn. When he begins to investigate, it isn't long before lies, bribery, and mistaken identities turn this apparently complicated issue into a convoluted mystery. When Dee disguises himself to unravel the complex threads of the murder, he uncovers yet another potential crime: what Poirot's Hastings would call "The mysterious affair of the over-grieving widow and the mute child." Even as he tries to outwit the crafty villains of the other crimes, he is confronted with yet another myterious death: an apparently inoffensive bride poisoned on her wedding night. While each mystery is separate, they combine to create a plot of constant suspense and plenty of delightful twists.
The best part of all? As it turns out, Judge Dee's story is only one in an entire mystery subgenre: Gong-an fiction.
I'm off to go find what other fantastic stories I've been missing all these years.