The Great Detectives: Two court officials
Erle Stanley Gardner’s Doug Selby and Robert van Gulik’s Dee Jen-djieh
I’ve summarized the reason for my series of posts in part 1, found here: a group of GAD bloggers will be telling people about their favourite Great Detective and I’ve taken on a full slate of ten detectives. Well, when you read a lot, you have a lot of favourites; it was hellish to keep it to ten, and in the process of negotiating who got to write about whom, I had to relinquish the opportunity to blether on about, for instance, Miss Maud Silver. (But I know my friend Moira will do a great job.) The latest roundup of links to other bloggers’ work is found here — I will update this as I get more information.
My own Part 1 was about Perry Mason and the detective firm of Cool & Lam, both the product of the hardworking and enormously productive Erle Stanley Gardner (known here as ESG). In fact Gardner wrote about many, many series detectives and I number more than three among my favourites: for instance I talked here about Gramps Wiggins, whom I’m sorry to say was seen in only two novels. If I’m going to get ten detectives into four Tuesdays, though, I’m going to have to keep my nose to the grindstone; and so today, courtesy of the recent four-day weekend and some extra writing time, is my second look at two Great Detectives. My third favourite is District Attorney Doug Selby, about whom I get to write today, and I’ll also add a little appreciation of Dee Jen-djieh, a detective of 7th century China, whose detective stories were written by expert Sinologist Robert van Gulik.
Believe me, I feel kind of silly in linking ESG’s Doug Selby, who worked in 1940s California, with Judge Dee, who worked in the mid- to late 600s in China. Their participation in their own court systems is what links them tenuously together, but truly they have virtually nothing in common — except that the books in which they feature are very good and worth your time.
District Attorney Doug Selby
Recently I wrote about two of ESG’s series detectives; Perry Mason, the defence lawyer, and Cool & Lam, the private investigators. The third face of the triangle of judicial attention to murder cases is the state prosecutor, and that role is best filled by Doug Selby. It’s interesting to note that Perry Mason has PIs (Paul Drake) and prosecutors (Hamilton Burger) with whom to contend, and Cool & Lam are pestered by prosecutors and lawyers — each series tells a murder story from a different point of view.
But where we know virtually nothing about Perry Mason as a person, Doug Selby is a fully realized person and his personal life is centre stage in the nine volumes about him. As the series begins, with 1937’s The D.A. Calls It Murder, Selby and his associate Rex Brandon have just won election as District Attorney and Sheriff respectively in “Madison City”, California — based on the actual city of Ventura, but in those days a more rural location — on a “reform” ticket, defeating a corrupt administration. The crooked politicians are constantly maneuvering against Selby and frequently do so through their newspaper, the Blade; Selby was supported by the Clarion and works with Sylvia Martin, the local reporter, to get his story told against the Blade‘s propaganda efforts. Selby is somewhat linked to Martin romantically, but also there’s a doomed love story when, in the second volume, Selby convicts a young hell raiser in the Stapleton family and ruins them socially. Beautiful Inez, the criminal’s sister, goes off and becomes a lawyer herself in order to make Selby respect her, and this highly-charged love triangle has echoes throughout all the volumes.
Another fascinating character in the series is Alphonse Baker Carr, sleazy criminal lawyer. “A.B.C.” is Selby’s arch-enemy and rather like the anti-Perry Mason, and there’s a long storyline with A.B.C. that echoes through the final seven books of the nine. Essentially the Blade is out to get Selby and force him to resign, so that the corrupt politicians can take power again. They dog his footsteps and expose what they perceive to be his weaknesses; meanwhile, A.B.C., on the side of his criminal clients, throws up obstacles on the other side of his cases.
In the meantime, Selby and Rex Brandon, straightforward and good-natured sheriff, fight their way through unusual cases and apply old-fashioned police methods to new-fangled cases. Selby is a great character, perhaps one of ESG’s greatest successes. He’s fallible but excellent; as a mystery writer of my acquaintance once observed, the kind of person whom I’d like to have investigate my own murder. He seems very moral and upright but also very human, and finds the constant onslaught of abuse from the Blade hard to take. But his observational skills as a detective are excellent; he rather combines the functions of Paul Drake, who digs up the clues, and Perry Mason, who interprets them and forces the legal system to accept his view of them. I looked at volume #8, 1948’s The D.A. Takes A Chance, here — I recommend you read all nine in order, because the story builds to an elegant and dramatic conclusion in volume #9.
There was a single made-for-TV movie in 1970, They Call It Murder, based on book #3, The D.A. Draws a Circle. It starred Jim Hutton as Doug Selby; Hutton later went on to play Ellery Queen in the eponymous TV series. They Call It Murder is … okay, but uninspired. But the books are great work.
First of all — let’s get the spelling right. Robert van Gulik wrote before the introduction of a standardized orthography for representing Chinese in English, and his Dee (family name) Jen-djieh (personal name) would today be spelled as Ti Jen-chieh by users of the Wade-Giles script and Dí Rénjié in the most widely used system of today, Pinyin. This is important because, as some of my readers will be surprised to learn, the eminent Judge Di was a real historical person. So if you go looking for information about “Judge Dee” you’ll only be referred back to van Gulik; “Di Renjie” will get you a lot more information. (You might also look for Ti Jen-chieh and Di Renjiay.) I will call van Gulik’s character Dee and the historical personage Di.
The historical Di practiced as a district magistrate from 663 to 678, first under the direct rulership of members of the Tang Dynasty and later under the “monstrous” concubine, Lady Wu, who ruled “de facto or de jure” from 665 to 705. Lin Yutang remarked (in his biography of Lady Wu):
“Among the people he [Di] is more popularly known as the judge who invariably tracked down the criminal. As a judge who often went about in plain clothes to detect crime, he made the astounding record of always solving crime mysteries which had puzzled and frustrated other judges and magistrates.”
And so the Dutch historian van Gulik found references to Judge Di and translated a volume known loosely as Dee Goong An. This was published in English in 1949 as Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee and was the beginning of van Gulik’s many novels and short stories about Judge Dee, which he wrote from 1951 until 1968. van Gulik also translated and published a 13th century casebook for district magistrates, called T’ang-yin-pi-shih (Parallel Cases From Under The Pear Tree), from which he harvested many of the key elements of his Judge Dee plots.
So other than being a historical personage known for his detective skills, why is Judge Dee a great detective? There are a number of reasons why I enjoy his adventures very much. One is simply strangeness. I’ve remarked elsewhere that I enjoy finding out the minutiae of everyday life in 1930s England from reading Golden Age Detection novels; in the Judge Dee stories, everyday life in the second half of the 7th century in China is astonishingly different than my everyday life, and it’s fascinating to see the differences and the similarities.
One thing that van Gulik found difficult was the transition between the Chinese literary tradition and the Golden Age model. In the Chinese originals, for instance, the identity, history, and motive of the criminal is stated right up front — making them all inverted detective stories instead of whodunits. The Chinese originals frequently feature supernatural elements; ghosts, visits to the Netherworld, etc., and bizarre elements like the testimony of animals and household objects. The original stories were part of a literary tradition that embraced … well, call it a “passionate interest for detail”… and so there are many digressions, including poetry, Confucianist instruction, philosophy and religious discussions, etc. The Chinese loved novels with huge casts of related characters, and complex familial relationships; as well, they were accustomed to reading about exactly how the criminal was executed in great and gruesome detail.
So van Gulik had a great deal of work to do in order to re-cast his stories into a modality that would be acceptable to the Western audience. The testimony of animals and kitchen utensils is gone, as are most of the elements that we would see as digressions from the story line. Yes, there are supernatural elements in van Gulik — just as there are supernatural elements in John Dickson Carr. Judge Dee appears to believe in ghosts, but doesn’t rely on their testimony or allow them to do anything much more than guide him to places where actual evidence is found. Much of what Judge Dee does in his stories is detective work of a kind that would not be too bizarre to a modern audience. For instance, in The Chinese Bell Murders, he deduces that a student could not have strangled his mistress because his long fingernails “of the sort affected by the literary class” would have left marks on her throat that were not seen upon examination.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the Judge Dee stories are the courtroom scenes; 7th century China had a legal system that was far, far different than our own. Judge Dee had very nearly absolute authority within his courtroom and acts as judge, jury, defence lawyer, prosecution lawyer, and weigher of evidence all at the same time. Dee was entitled to use torture in the courtroom to elicit confessions (such as in The Chinese Nail Murders) and is sometimes required to (Chinese court procedure forbade conviction without confession) but generally, in the best Perry Mason tradition, Dee relies on careful questioning and close observation of behaviour. He’s frequently solved the case himself before it comes to court, and he runs his courtroom in order to demonstrate to the populace the guilt of the villains.
And where Perry Mason has his private eye Paul Drake, Judge Dee has a small group of investigators around him who serve as his eyes and ears in levels of society where he cannot penetrate, even while disguised. Sergeant Hoong, Ma Joong, Chiao Tai, and Tao Gan are all individuals with human qualities and failings, who have sexual and familial relationships, enjoy good food, and are constantly seeking adventure and excitement. Dee himself frequently disguises himself as a member of a lower class of society and goes out to investigate his cases; he’s occasionally required to demonstrate his mastery of sword-fighting and boxing.
As a person, Dee has many personal qualities that will be attractive to the modern audience. As a strict Confucian, he respects his ancestors; Dee regulates his household sternly but with both mercy and generosity. Dee has three wives, about whom we don’t learn much, although he acquires Third Wife in the course of one of the novels. We only know that he has three sons and a daughter from a casual mention in a short story. Dee’s relationships with his subordinates are correct but friendly; Dee is interested in the people around him and their lives, and interacts socially with many levels of society. And he’s what we might think of as a “good” judge; he cares strongly about finding the right answer and punishing the guilty. It’s frequently hard to figure out what’s going on in his mind, but it would be a pleasure and a privilege to sit down with him and discuss his cases.
I recommend that you experience van Gulik’s Judge Dee stories not in the order in which they were written, but such that you follow the chronology of Dee’s life as he moves upwards through the judicial ranks. You will find this chronology in Judge Dee at Work (1967) as a postscript.
Other authors have written stories about Judge Di; Frédéric Lenormand has written at least 18 French-language stories that have yet to be translated into English, and other novelists both Chinese and non-Chinese have speculated about the character. There are (terrible) television series, and films — notably a weird 1974 made-for-TV movie called Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, a sought-after collectible, but also three excellent recent Chinese-language productions produced and directed by Tsui Hark (2010, 2013 and 2018).
There are also other books about van Gulik, who was a fascinating polymath with many interests — his expertise in Chinese erotic drawings means that all the Judge Dee volumes have his drawings as part of the publication, and there’s always a nude woman depicted. I’m greatly indebted for a lot of this brief piece to a large and excellent volume by J. K. Van Dover, The Judge Dee Novels of R.H. van Gulik, where he traces the connection to
various modern-day detectives in a fascinating and erudite way. It truly is everything you need to know and quite a bit more to think about, and I recommend it to your attention if you can find a copy. Any unreferenced quotes in this piece are to this book, and I’m grateful to Van Dover for organizing my thoughts quickly and easily. I’ve read other material about van Gulik, including what that brilliant Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering had to say (Robert van Gulik: His Life, His Work (1987); van de Wetering also published a volume in 1997 called Judge Dee Plays His Lute, which I have yet to read); Van Dover has everything you’ll ever want, both top-level fact and deep background, and says it all best.