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The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is an 18th-century Chinese mystery novel detailing three complex cases solved by Judge Dee (also known as Ti Jen-chieh or Di Renjie), a famous stateman who lived during the Tang dynasty in the 7th century. These crimes are dubbed “Double Murder at Dawn,” “The Case of the Strange Corpse,” and “The Poisoned Bride,” respectively, and they take place in three distinct locations—the roadway, a small village, and a wealthy mansion—providing a cross-section of Chinese society. The author is anonymous but was likely was a retired statesman familiar with the system and the legal code. While a representative of the gong’an, or Chinese crime-case, genre, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee is particularly noteworthy to the Western reader for its accurate depiction of detective work, the intriguing nature of the crimes, and its vivid portrayal of Chinese customs and everyday life.
The current Dover edition from 1976 is based on the original English translation published in Tokyo in 1949 as Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee. Translator Robert Van Gulik has added an introduction as well as notes at the end, detailing his reasons for translating this particular text, such as the story’s relative brevity and small cast of characters, in addition to providing background information on the Chinese legal system, which remained virtually unchanged from its establishment around the 11th century BC to the early 20th century.
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The renowned Judge Dee is called to solve three separate murder cases simultaneously. The first one is a double murder of two individuals initially believed to be silk merchants. The judge, however, establishes that one of the victims is a local man and concludes that the missing silk merchant is the murderer.
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While hunting for the criminal far and wide, Judge Dee comes upon suspicious information about a strange corpse with protruding eyes, which prompts him to open an investigation into the death of a poor shopkeeper in a small village. The magistrate is convinced that the man’s widow is the culprit, but he has a difficult time proving his suspicions as the shopkeeper’s autopsy does not reveal any clues as to the manner of his death. In a show of piety, the judge holds a vigil at the temple and receives guidance in his dream. The clues from his dream help him locate the murderer from the first case hiding in a remote mountain village, and his men apprehend the criminal successfully. The dream also prompts him to place the widow’s house under surveillance, to discover her secret lover.
While working these two cases, Judge Dee is brought a third case. The young bride of an important and affluent local family was poisoned on her wedding night. The father-in-law accuses a friend of his son’s because of the young man’s careless jokes during the wedding celebration. Despite all evidence pointing to the bride being murdered, Judge Dee proves that the young woman’s death was an accident. The bride’s servant had inadvertently attracted an adder while boiling water for tea outside. The snake had dripped some of its venom into the water, which was then used to prepare the bride’s tea.
After discovering the reason behind the young woman’s death, the judge follows up with the shopkeeper’s murder. His men have established the existence of a secret passage connecting the widow’s room to the bedroom of a young affluent student living next door. Unable to extract a confession from the murderess, even under torture, the judge plays a trick on her and stages a scene at the jail, convincing the woman that she is facing the Judge of the Inferno and his demons. Scared out of her wits, the widow confesses to killing her husband by sticking a needle into the top of his skull. Having successfully solved all three cases, the judge proceeds to sentence the criminals and also witnesses their executions.
Word of the judge’s hard work and honesty reaches the capital, and on the day of the executions he receives a message appointing him president of the Imperial Metropolitan Court of Justice.