Judge Dee at work.
A judge must be as father and mother to the people,
Cherishing the good and loyal, helping the sick and old.
Though meting out stern punishment to every criminal,
Prevention, not correction, should be his primary aim.
A judge must brave the foaming billows of hate, deceit and doubt,
The only bridge across is straight and narrow as a rapier's edge.
He may not lose his foothold once, once pause to listen to his heart,
Heed Justice only, lodestar unfailing, though always remote and cold.
A series of Police Procedural
novels and short-stories set in Imperial China
, by Dutch diplomat and sinologist Robert van Gulik. Initially Inspired By
the 18th century Chinese novel 狄公案 (dí gōng ŕn) or Cases Of Judge Dee
, which van Gulik translated during his war service, and had published in 1949 as Celebrated Cases Of Judge Dee
It is the 7th century AD, and Tang dynasty China is the greatest power in Asia, if not the world. Peace and good order are maintained throughout the empire by a large, efficient bureaucracy of highly-educated gentleman-scholars. Dee Jen-Djieh begins his career as a District Magistrate, the lowest rung of the provincial government. Over the years, he confronts and solves mysteries ranging from conspiracies against the throne to domestic disputes, with the help of his small staff of assistants:
- Hoong Liang - An old family retainer who the Judge appoints his sergeant of the tribunal. Most often referred to as "Sergeant Hoong".
- Ma Joong - A former highwayman turned investigator. The uneducated son of a poor fisherman, in addition to his great size and strength he is a master martial artist, holding the "highest rank in boxing" (kung-fu, in modern terms). Admires strong-minded young women of common rank.
- Chiao Tai - Ma Joong's best friend. Another ex-highwayman and fellow investigator, he is a rather mysterious fellow, obviously of gentle if not noble birth, with peculiarly fatal luck in love. He is an ex-soldier who turned outlaw to pursue revenge on a superior officer who betrayed him and his men. However, when he finally catches up with his man, as a recent murder victim, he decides he wasn't worth the killing anyway.
- Tao Gan - con-man, swindler and gambler who, like his colleagues, turns over a new leaf as a member of Dee's staff.
The Judge's private life is a peaceful haven from his stressful public duties, shared with his three wives:
- The First Lady is the daughter of Dee's father's best friend, and their marriage was arranged between the two families. The Judge values her for her sophistication, intelligence, and the tact with which she runs his household.
- The Second Lady is not as highborn or well-educated as the First, but she is a handsome woman, at least in her husband's eyes, and possesses the kind of staunch, sensible character he admires.
- The Third Lady is the highly-educated daughter of Dr. Tsao Ho-Hsien, an ambitious scholar, whom Dee met in the course of the investigation described in The Chinese Gold Murders. She was abducted and raped, and subsequently her husband and father disowned her because she refused to kill herself as dictated by custom. The Judge first hired her as a companion for his ladies, and later married her at the urging of the First Lady.
The four of them get along famously and while away their evenings with endless, hard-fought games of dominos. Dee's wives are minor characters in Van Gulik's novels and short stories, but the "sequel" novels by Frédéric Lenormand (see the Fan Fiction
section below) change this by having his wives appear far more often, to the point of the First Lady being a main character.
The Judge himself is an unusually tall, powerfully built man with a long black beard, piercing eyes and considerable presence. Men, especially wrongdoers, find him intimidating, but women, sensing the sensitivity and empathy under the formidable surface, tend to trust and confide in him. Particularly attractive young women in trouble.
Judge Dee believes in the spirit of justice, rather than the letter of the law. His aim is not just to punish the wrongdoer but to reward those who do right, and ameliorate the sufferings of the victims as far as is possible. He often goes out of his way to help somebody only tangentially connected with his cases.Titles (in recommended reading order):
- The Chinese Gold Murders (1959): Judge Dee sets out to take up his first post and finds a couple of juicy murders and a missing person case waiting for him.
- Judge Dee At Work (1967): a collection of short stories including a chronology of the series. Features unrelated cases from various points of Dee's career.
- The Lacquer Screen (1964): The Judge tries to take a few days vacation incognito and finds himself solving a couple of cases of murder and embezzlement.
- The Chinese Lake Murders (1960): The mysterious death of a courtesan leads Judge Dee to a conspiracy against the Imperial throne.
- The Haunted Monastery (1961): Bad weather forces Dee and his wives to take shelter at an ominous Taoist monastery and the Judge spends a sleepless night dealing with murder, the occult and thwarted young love. This novel was adapted for television in 1974
- The Chinese Bell Murders (1958): The Judge brings an end to a generations-long vendetta between two wealthy merchant families, solves a rape-murder and ends the corrupt practices of a famous Buddhist temple.
- Necklace and Calabash (1967): In Rivertown, an Imperial Enclave, the Judge is of service to the Emperor's favorite daughter the beautiful Third Princess.
- The Red Pavilion (1964): On his way home from the Capital the Judge reluctantly spends a night at the pleasure resort of Paradise Island and finds himself drafted into a temporary appointment requiring him to solve three murders, one having taken place thirty years before!
- The Emperor's Pearl (1963): Two murders, and the River Goddess, lead the Judge to a long lost Imperial treasure.
- Poets and Murder (1968): A poetic gathering in a fellow magistrate's mansion leads to murder and the whiff of scandal in high places.
- The Chinese Maze Murders (1957): An overgrown maze at an abandoned country manor provides the key to several mysterious murders.
- The Phantom of the Temple (1966): A long abandoned Buddhist temple is the site of all sorts of strange goings on, all somehow connected with a gold robbery years before.
- The Chinese Nail Murders (1961): A particularly cunning murderess almost foils the Judge and he comes close to ending his career in disgrace.
- The Monkey And The Tiger (1965): Two separate cases at far different times in the Judge's career. The first involving a murdered tramp who isn't just a tramp. The second the murder of a young girl - but which girl? - at a lonely manor under siege by bandits.
- The Willow Pattern (1965): Judge Dee, now Lord Chief Justice of the Empire, deals with the mysterious deaths of two great nobles in a Capital racked by plague.
- Murder in Canton (1966): Judge Dee's last case takes him to the city of Canton to discover what became of a high Imperial official who vanished there without a trace.
There was a live TV adaption in 1974, as well as two movies note
in 2010 and 2013.
These stories provide examples of:
- Action Girl: Despite the fact that this is Imperial China, where Confucian ideals confine women to the home, the Judge and his lieutenants encounter Violet Liang, a Mongolian wrestler with her own dojo in The Emperor's Pearl and Bluewhite, a skilled street-fighter in The Willow Pattern. Ma Joong marries the latter.
- Affably Evil: The Big Bad Sun Ming of The Haunted Monastery, privately confesses his crimes (abduction, multiple rape and murder) to Dee, while pointing out, in the nicest possible way, that his eminence, prestige and connections at the imperial court put him beyond the reach of the law. Judge Dee, however, proves he is not beyond the reach of justice.
- Alone with the Psycho: The Judge's tendency to play a lone hand lands him in this situation more than once. In The Chinese Maze Murders, a young girl detailed to question a witness finds herself in this position, but fortunately the Judge deduces her situation in time.
- Amazon Chaser: Bluewhite's toughness and fighting ability are a large part of why Ma Joong finds her so attractive.
- Cheng Pa, the head of the Beggar's Guild is infatuated with Miss Violet, a Mongolian wrestler. It's apparently mutual, but due to Poor Communication Kills it doesn't go anywhere.
- Anachronism Stew: Although they are nominally set in the Tang era, the stories describe the China of the much later Ming dynasty. This is partly to respect the convention of original Ming-era detective novels transposing Tang characters into the cultural world of the Ming, and partly because far more is known about everyday life in the later period.
- Arranged Marriage: A normal feature of life in Dee's world. His own marriage to his senior wife was arranged by his father.
- Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence: The Taoist abbot in Haunted Monastery is believed to have done this, calling all the monks to his chamber, delivering a long speech filled with obscure references, then liberating his soul from his body. His annotated speech is later used as an instructional text in other Taoist monasteries. He had in fact been poisoned, and the speech was a delirious rambling.
- As You Know: The characters are presumably familiar with incense clocks, the Imperial government, manners in the 'Flower and Willow' world etc., but they are kind enough to give, and listen to, explanations of things they already know, for the benefit of western readers who do not.
- Authority Equals Asskicking: The judge is a swordsman, stick fighter, and pretty good at kung-fu. He can handle most villains without the assistance of his loyal lieutenants, but he is not the best fighter on his team. Chiao Tai is a superior swordsman and archer, and Ma Joong a better boxer and wrestler.
- Babies Ever After: Ma Joong marries Blue-White and her sister Coral at the end of Willow Pattern and is reported to have a family of eight in Murder in Canton just four years later.
- Badass Beard: The Judge is very proud of his full black beard, which combined with his bristling brows and piercing eyes causes more than one guilty soul to confuse him with the Judge of the Underworld.
- Badass Boast: When trapped on a floating brothel, one of the Mooks tells another to get help from the other boat. Ma Jong's response? "Call all the bastards together!"
- Badass Long Robe: This being Imperial China even the badasses wear dresses.
- Bad-Guy Bar: There is at least one of these in every city to which the Judge is assigned.
- Bad Habits: Ruffians in the Judge's 'verse like to dress themselves up as Taoist or Buddhist monks.
- Band of Brothels: The sex trade is legal and licensed in Tang China. It is the dominant trade on Paradise Island, the setting for the Red Pavilion. Unusually the guild head is portrayed sympathetically. Normally the Judge despises madams and pimps as much as he is sympathetic to the women themselves.
- Bash Brothers: There are quite a few badass teams in the series:
- At the top of the list are Ma Jong and Chiao Tai of course, oath-brothers and comrades-in-arms from their days as outlaws.
- Crab and Shrimp from The Red Pavillion are a classic big power fighter/small precision fighter team.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Shortly after their first meeting, Chiao Tai inspects the Judge's sword, the legendary Rain Dragon, and exclaims in admiration: "If it should be ordained that ever I should die by the sword, I pray that it may be this blade that is washed in my blood!" And in the last book, Murder In Canton, a villain steals Rain Dragon, and Chiao Tai is killed preventing him from killing Judge Dee with it.
- Bittersweet Ending: Murder in Canton: Chiao Tai's Heroic Sacrifice, and Tao Gan's finding a wife.
- Blindfolded Trip: In one story, the victim thinks he was taken somewhere in the mountains in a closed palanquin. Tao Gan, however, thinks it's a ruse- he thinks it more likely that they carriers simply tilted the palanquin and walked around the inner courtyard of a large house, with the occasional "Watch the cliff!" for effect.
- Blood Brothers: All three lieutenants consider themselves, and address each other, as such.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Ma Joong.
- Bottle Episode: The Haunted Monastery, compared to the other novels, takes place over an extremely compressed period of time, with a very tight cast of characters, and concerns only a single series of crimes. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is highly-regarded as an excellent jumping-on point for the series.
- Bondage Is Bad: Particularly depraved characters are fond of whipping young women.
- Born Unlucky: Hwang San feels this to be the case. One can't help but feel he has a point when the executioner's sword gets stuck in his neck during his decapitation.
- Boy Meets Girl: happens all the time to Judge Dee's lieutenants, with comedic results if it's Ma Joong or tragic ones if it's Chiao Tai.
- Brother-Sister Incest / Villainous Incest: In Murder in Canton, the Big Bad tried to force himself on his sister during his youth, citing bygone rulers who did the same to keep bloodlines pure. When she refused, he poured boiling water in her eyes while she was asleep, blinding her.
- Busman's Holiday: The Lacquer Screen and Necklace and Calabash as well. After that the Judge pretty much gives up on vacations.
- Card Sharp: Tao Gan. He is also a Short Con artist and general Trickster.
- Cassandra Truth: After bluffing a local gangster lord with an imaginary regiment of regular soldiers the Judge reassures concerned civic leaders that there is no army unit just the deserters and former highwaymen he's recruited. They don't believe him. (What is more, he predicts that this is exactly what would happen)
- The Chessmaster: Mostly averted as far as the Judge goes, but many of his opponents are chessmasters, usually defeated by their inability to foresee all possibilities. In a handful of notable case, The Chinese Bell Murders especially, the Judge does, in fact, play chessmaster, with a politico-legal plan or two.
- Chivalrous Pervert: Even Ma Joong is a little bewildered by his own motives for buying out a prostitute then handing her over to the man she prefers along with twenty silver pieces to give them a start on married life.
- Cold-Blooded Torture: In Judge Dee's world of Confucian justice, great importance is placed on obtaining confession of guilt from the accused. Even where Dee has a "water-tight case" (and remember he is investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury, all in one), he must obtain a confession in order to convict and pass sentence. Torture is applied as necessary to this end, and while Dee dislikes it, he does not hesitate to do his duty.
- Connect the Deaths: Judge Dee does this all the time. Most of his cases turn out to be linked.
- Conspicuous Gloves: In one story, a character keeps his gloves on to hide the fact that he badly injured it by touching a freshly-lacquered table after murdering a woman.
- Consummation Counterfeit: Discussed when it's mentioned that Mongol women never have to do this because all the horseback-riding they do would tear their maidenhead.
- Conveniently Precise Translation: On at least two occasions Judge Dee is able to identify the Big Bad by realizing that the last utterances of one of the mooks and The Dragon, respectively, were not after all common English words (how and you) but in fact their corresponding homonymic English transliterations of Chinese names (hao and yoo). Naturally, some Artistic License – Linguistics and the MST3K Mantra are needed to make this work, as Van Gulik himself acknowledges in his postscripts. Then again, the books have been successfully translated into several languages, and the real-life translators were able to handle these problems (occasionally by changing the characters' names); why should the Translation Convention be any dumber?
- Critical Staffing Shortage: In one story, the judge is trapped by a flood in a country estate under siege by bandits. The inhabitants bitterly note that there used to be dozens of men hired just to guard it, now they'll be lucky if they have enough rusty lances and bows to equip all the old men and women that took refuge there.
- Cryptic Conversation: A speciality of Taoist recluses like Master Gourd (Necklace and Calabash) and Master Crane Robe (The Chinese Maze Murders). The Judge is pretty darn good at it himself; his conversations with the Big Bad of The Chinese Bell Murders are a fine example of politely indirect threats.
- The Cynic: Tao Gan is, as the text puts it, "an adroit student of human nature" as a result of his former profession. Whenever discussing possible actions by suspects, Tao Gan always presents the most cynical possible interpretation of events. He's often wrong, but not always.
- Damsel in Distress: Most cases involve at least one of these.
- Damsel out of Distress: In The Chinese Lake Murders and The Willow Pattern the young ladies prove to be anything but helpless - even if they are distressed.
- Defiled Forever: Present in Judge Dee's world, but much more nuanced than you might expect. On the one hand, women are expected to remain virgins until marriage, and to commit suicide if raped, especially if they're married. On the other, Dee's own Third Lady is a rape survivor, and he fully accepts her as his wife. After leaving their "unfortunate profession" even "common prostitutes" are depicted as able to find happy marriages with "honest farmers", and high-class courtesans are seen as suitable wives even for gentleman-scholars.
- Deliberate Values Dissonance: The original Dutch writer went to great lengths accurately to depict Chinese social values and attitudes in the period:
- The routine use of torture in the judicial system, and gruesome public executions of the guilty.
- The distressing practice of selling young girls into prostitution is treated as a matter of routine, even by the girls themselves. To be fair in most cases it's shown that it was that or starvation for the whole family. However one girl, sold by her gentleman-official father to pay his drinking debts, is clearly embittered.
- The judge telling the father of a Plucky Girl to marry her off quickly, despite her being against it.
- The central place of filial piety is repeatedly displayed, especially in the crime that gets the judge angriest we see in the series: General Ting's son was having an affair with one of his father's concubines, and tried to poison him. The judge outright tells him to commit suicide.
- Downer Ending: The Chinese Nail Murders, which sees Sergeant Hoong dead in a way that could have been avoided given a few more hours' time, the Judge worked to the brink by a combination of dealing with a crafty criminal who maneuvers him into mortal peril and unfulfilled and unfulfillable love with a married woman who commits suicide after essentially admitting to a murder of her own to save him. Then he gets appointed to Chief Justice of the Empire, and quickly starts to learn that his father was right, and it's Lonely at the Top. No surprise that he starts going grey and looking his age after this one.
- Dragons Up the Yin Yang: The correct orientation of the taijitu symbol is a plot point in "The Haunted Monastery".
- Dressing as the Enemy: The Judge is only moderately convincing but his big ex-outlaw bruisers Ma Joong and Chiao Tai can easily pass. Tao Gan actually IS a barely-reformed criminal and Master of Disguise.
- Dynamic Character:
- Not so much over the course of any single book, but Judge Dee's character undeniably evolve over the course of the series: the Judge Dee of The Chinese Lake Murders never could have pulled off what the more experienced Judge Dee of The Chinese Bell Murders does. And while he remains dedicated to the absolutes of Confucian ethics, the Judge becomes painfully aware of the ambiguities and gray areas implicit in Real Life over his long years as a District Magistrate, particularly when circumstances push him to the brink in The Chinese Bell Murders.
- Also Ma Joong goes from a happy womanizer to a man looking to settle down - but having trouble finding a girl to settle down with. He finally does so in the next to last book The Willow Pattern.
- Eunuchs Are Evil: A given in the Judge's world; 'The necessary but horribly dangerous source of evil in every palace!'. And yet he clearly feels a certain respect for the Chief Eunuch in Necklace and Calabash. It's mutual. One biological eunuch is also driven mad by unfulfilled sexual lust in The Chinese Nail Murders, and he even murders Sergeant Hoong.
- Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Mo Mo-te in The Haunted Monastery presents himself as an itinerant Taoist friar, which means, of course, that he is actually a petty crook. However, he is not the criminal behind the murders, and actually came to the monastery to hunt down the one responsible for killing his sister.
- Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting: As this is Imperial China not only the Judge and his lieutenants Ma Joong and Chiao Tai know kung-fu (or "Chinese boxing" as Van Gulik calls it), but so do a number of supporting characters, both friend and foe.
- Everyone Calls Him Barkeep: The names of Dee's First and Second Ladies are never revealed. Only Third Lady, whom he met in the course of his work, is ever named, and even then we only learn her family name, not her personal name. Once married to the judge, all his wives are known simply as <ordinal number> Lady.
- Everyone Has Standards: The peasant providing the water buffalo for an execution by quartering refuses his compensation (a piece of silver) despite the fortune it represents, regarding it as unlucky.
- Exit, Pursued by a Bear: Literally in The Haunted Monastery.
- Expy: Dee is pretty much universally considered by the Chinese as their answer to Sherlock Holmes.
- Eyepatch of Power: The Imperial Marshal in Coffins of the Emperor lost an eye to an arrow in a previous battle.
- Fan Fiction: In a sense, all of van Gulik's Judge Dee stories are fan-fiction based on the original Chinese novel, but in turn they have inspired quite a lot:
- French author Frédéric Lenormand wrote eighteen more Judge Dee books (2004-2011), but these have not yet been translated into English.
- The Chinese/American author Zhu Xiaodi wrote Tales of Judge Dee (2006), set in the same time period as The Chinese Bell Murders.
- Fanservice: Robert van Gulik was a collector of Ming-era erotic art, and he illustrated his own work with line-drawings that usually include a naked lady or two. This might have been at the insistence of his publisher.
- Fantastic Foxes:
- In Poets And Murder from the original series, a girl lives in The Shrine Of The Black Fox, which is infested by foxes, and is believed to be possessed by a fox spirit. Unfortunately, she catches rabies from her foxes, goes mad, and dies horribly.
- The sequels have a Huli Jing show up (sort of): a priest explains that he was always sort of shunned because his father had been tricked into marrying a fox-woman, who turned back into a fox some time after he (the priest) was born. The judge (and everyone else) stare at him in silence for a while, because it's blindingly obvious that the wife ran off with another man, the father passing it off as the fox spirit going back to the wild.
- Fatal Attractor: Chiao Tai
- Five-Man Band: The main cast are classic examples.
- The Hero: Judge Dee, of course.
- The Lancer: Chiao Tai, though closest to Judge Dee in social class and education, is a definite contrast; brooding and abrupt where Dee is polished and urbane, unlucky in love where Dee is happily married, devoting his life to vengeance where Dee is committed to to perfect justice.
- The Big Guy: Ma Joong, in spades. He freely admits that his only use around the place is beating down dangerous people. He also takes pride in that he's extremely good at beating down dangerous people. He has elements of the Genius Bruiser however, being capable, with the help of Chiao Tai, of pulling off schemes to apprehend criminals quietly. The arrest of the Uigar chieftain Ooljin in The Chinese Maze Murders, is an example.
- The Smart Guy: Tao Gan, the best detective of the bunch next to Judge Dee, and the go-to man for complicated schemes and tricks.
- The Chick: Sergeant Hoong, the kindly old man whom everybody likes and trusts, and to whom none of the team would dream of speaking harshly, even at their truculent worst. The worst fighter of the bunch, he differs from the classic portrayal only in that the chain of command leaves him in charge when Dee is absent, and that he's male.
- Foreshadowing: Chiao Tai's death by the judge's sword is repeatedly, but subtly alluded to.
- Gargle Blaster: If 'the amber liquid' isn't strong enough there's always 'rosedew' a white liquor (probably baijiu) capable of reducing even Ma Joong to incoherence followed by unconsciousness.
- There is also mention of a Mongol feast where he was invited, whatever it was he drank left him with the worst hangover of his life.
- Good Is Not Soft: Dee is deeply committed to his moral code, while leavening it with considerable compassion, but he does not hesitate to act ruthlessly in the pursuit of law and his duty to the state. At times, he goes beyond the law in the interests of justice, particularly with villains who would otherwise use corrupt connections at the imperial court to escape.
- Graceful Ladies Like Purple: Gentlewomen and courtesans alike seem to favor shades of purple or violet for 'best'.
- Gun Struggle: Knife variant. When the judge is told a man dead of stabbing was the result of a struggle, he asks Ma Joong to confirm. He thinks it plausible, though this isn't enough to clear the suspect.
- Happily Married: A possibly unique polygamous example. The harmony of the Judge's marriage is based on his genuine love and respect for each woman and their equally genuine liking for each other. Given the Judge's tendency to get wrapped up in a case First Lady would probably lead a very lonely life if not for the Second and Third ladies.
- Historical-Domain Character: The judge himself was a Tang dynasty official.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Pretty much every prostitute except the high-class courtesans.
- Hordes from the East: Well, from the West. Several stories set on the western border involve the local tribes uprising (or threatening to).
- Horny Devils: A villainous witch in one story ( The Chinese Nail Murders) murdered her husband for failing to provide her with enough life force to absorb through coupling. She is able to sense the refined "vital essence" of a martial arts master, who has abstained from sex for many years, and uses her powers and hypnotism to seduce him against his will, draining it out of him to keep herself young, then murdering him when he threatened to reveal what she had done by poisoning his tea. Once the Judge (finally) manages to wring the truth out of her and break her spirit, the stolen life force leaves her and she ages twenty years in an instant in the sight of the whole court, leaving only a listless Empty Shell.
- In Name Only: The 2010 feature film 狄仁杰之通天帝國 (English title: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) takes the name of its central character and Tang Dynasty setting for a wuxia fantasy, that otherwise bears no resemblance to the books.
- Inspired By: Although the novels read like authentic Chinese detective novels, they mainly follow the Western mystery canons with Chinese flair. Van Gulik outlined the difference between these literary traditions in detail in the preface to his translation of Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (which itself was rather unusual for Chinese mystery stories):
- Ancient Chinese detective novels would often reveal the culprit at the beginning (as in Columbo), with the interest lying in following the development of the motive.
- Cases are almost always solved via the intervention of a Deus ex Machina in the form of a deity, spirit, or ghost that either reveals a key clue or compels a suspect to confess. Or at least a simulation thereof proffered by the Judge. Van Gulik often replaced this element with a more earthly one in adapting some classic Chinese detective plots.
- There would be practically no characterization other than describing people as they fit the contemporary stereotypes of their class and profession.
- Midway through the novels (as well as many works in other Chinese literary genres) a poem or short play having nothing to do with the story is presented as an "intermission."
- It Never Gets Any Easier: To the end of his career as a detective Judge Dee is moved by the suffering of the victims, and hates witnessing the often brutal punishments of the guilty.
- Jurisdiction Friction: The Judge must frequently deal with this when he's got a large military command in his district.
- Justice by Other Legal Means: the Judge resorts to this in The Chinese Bell Murders.
- Just One Little Mistake: On the part of the perp solves many of Judge Dee's cases for him. He's also very good at Bluffing the Murderer. Both are common to Chinese crime fiction, where a confession on the part of the witness is required before conviction of a crime, and torturing someone into a false confession can have dire consequences.
- Lampshade Hanging: Arguably a meta-example on the part of Van Gulik himself in the framing introductions to some of the books. These introductions are told from the point of view of a Ming dynasty gentleman - an Author Avatar for Van Gulik - who devotes his gentlemanly leisure time to studying the history of crime detection and jurisprudence. Invariably he has an encounter with a mysterious person or circumstance through which he learns of three cases solved by the famous Judge Dee "in antiquity" during the Tang era. The strangeness of the encounter compel him to record the cases and present them to the reader as the present work. This allows Van Gulik to lampshade the facts that a) the Ming-era novels upon which his series is based always transposed the historical characters (whether Judge Dee or some other famous magistrate) they described into the conventions and culture of the Ming era and b) that the situations into which he inserts Judge Dee are based on real or fictional cases from other sources but are largely embellished and invented.
- Large and in Charge: The Judge is somewhere around six feet tall. In the short story The Coffins Of The Emperor, he meets the Marshal of the Imperial Army, who is still taller and towers over his officers.
- Leave Behind a Pistol: Suicide is an acceptable, face-saving alternative to execution:
- In The Coffins Of The Emperor the confessed murderer is permitted to "die as an officer" by cutting his own throat.
- The Judge allows a parricide and his partner in incestuous adultery (one of his father's concubines) a chance to save the family reputation by committing suicide.
- In exchange for a list of those engaged in a conspiracy against the throne, Dee also permits the Big Bad to take "medicine" knowing perfectly well it is poison.
- Lightning Bruiser:
- Ma Joong is not only one of the largest and strongest men in China, he's also a master martial artist, holding the highest rank (ninth degree) in "boxing" (kung-fu) and quick on his feet.
- Violet Liang from The Emperor's Pearl, single-handedly cripples three armed male thugs, and drags them to Dee's tribunal, where they can't wait to confess and be locked up safely in jail.
- Locked into Strangeness: Dee himself after particularly trying events in The Chinese Nail Murders. He ends up with graying hair and prematurely aged.
- Locked Room Mystery: The Judge is faced with one of these in The Chinese Maze Murders and The Willow Pattern.
- Magnetic Hero: The Judge, definitely. Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan all decide to go straight as his assistants after their first encounter with him. He also has had some difficulty getting shut of attractive young females he's recruited as temporary assistants. Three wives are quite enough thank you!
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: The narratives remain creatively ambiguous about whether a rational explanation exists for every last strange phenomenon the Judge witnesses. See Skepticism Failure below.
- Motive Rant: The Judge hears a lot of these. Sometimes with disgust, other times with sympathy.
- Must Let Them Get Away: Judge Dee sometimes encounters criminals, as inThe Haunted Monastery and The Chinese Bell Murders, who are of such high rank, and so well connected at the imperial court, that Dee cannot touch them legally. However, he finds ways to prove that they are not beyond the reach of justice.
- Named Weapons: The Judge's sword is the ancient and legendary jian "Rain Dragon".
- Never My Fault: Hwang San from The Chinese Bell Murders. He loses a fight to Ma Joong because he makes a rookie mistake? Bad luck. His kung fu master had a beautiful daughter? What bad luck! He really had no choice but to rape her, and then had to flee for his life. He mugs a wealthy-looking merchant, kills him, and finds nothing but "worthless receipts"? Bad luck. He rapes and murders a young maiden and steals her gold hair pins (the only thing of value she had), which turn out to be cursed (and which allow the crime to be traced to him)? Bad luck.
- Nice Hat: Hats denoted status in Imperial China, so there are many, especially Judge Dee's winged cap of office.
- Tao Gan has a hat that can be turned inside out to suit different roles as part of his Master of Disguise kit.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The poetess accused of murder in Poets And Murder is essentially Yu Xuanji, the famous historical Tang Dynasty poet.
- Obfuscating Stupidity:
- In The Chinese Gold Murders, a drunken, Brilliant but Lazy poet is a lot more than he seems. By the middle of the story, Dee and his lieutenants think that he's a Diabolical Mastermind and behind all the criminal events of the book. He's not.
- Dee's colleague Lo at first glance seems a carefree man who bought his position, and spends his time on wine, women and poetry. However, on the occasion he and Dee work together the latter is impressed by Lo's competence and intuition.
- OOC Is Serious Business: Judge Dee's behavior in setting up his scheme to take down a gang-rape scam perpetuated by scoundrels posing as monks seemingly involves accepting a large bribe, buying two prostitutes and adding them to his household, and affecting sudden interest in military matters. From his First Lady to Sergeant Hoong, his household is very distressed, though Tao Gan, at least, was certain it was all a clever plan from the beginning.
- Old Retainer: Hoong Liang, who was already old when Dee was a boy and has served him all his life.
- Passed Over Promotion: The reason one of the generals in Coffins of the Emperor accuses one of his younger colleagues of treason.
- Discussed in another story, where a group of high-ranking officials are trying to find an appropriate reward for Dee's work. (They decide that a promotion would be premature, and that an official commendation would be better suited to the occasion.)
- Platonic Prostitution: The Judge never accepts anything but information - and perhaps a cup of tea - from a prostitute, and he usually repays them by buying them out of their "unfortunate profession", or arranging for their regular lover to make honest women of them. Ma Joong, on the other hand, is more than happy to ignore the platonic side, and gets the information anyway. Chiao Tai too, though his tend to end in tragic romance instead.
- Please Put Some Clothes On:
- Yu-son, a young Korean prostitute in The Chinese Gold Murders, is urged by a hot and bothered Chao Tai to not remain naked in his presence. Which she declines as she is in the mood to 'receive' him.
- A similar event happens to the judge in Necklace and Calabash. The girl later apologizes for her attempt at seduction.
- Plucky Girl: The Judge and his staff frequently encounter these. They usually serve as a love interest for Ma Joong.
- Polar Opposite Twins: Twin sisters Blue-white and Coral in The Willow Pattern. Blue-white is a tough, strong-minded, outspoken Action Girl. Coral is quieter, more subtle, and excels at music and dancing rather than fighting. They play vital, but very different, roles in the book.
- Police Brutality: By our standards anyway, is the norm in Judge Dee's court where the accused and witnesses can be beaten and tortured to make them talk. The Judge uses such means (it is pretty much required by law), but with discretion.
- Psychic Powers: Various characters dabble in the occult, a practice of which the Judge strongly disapproves, however there are indications that he himself is psychic. At least he is extraordinarily sensitive to atmosphere, often sensing evil even before he knows a crime has been committed.
- He also explains a fortune-teller's Sherlock Scan as her having limited Mind Reading abilities, like most people in her profession.
- Psycho Lesbian: The Judge is normally sympathetic to lovers, even unconventional ones, but not when their passions lead to murder.
- Public Execution: The public execution of offenders is often described in detail, because this was an important feature of the original Chinese accounts that inspired van Gulik. One that stands out as particularly grim appears in The Chinese Bell Murders, where the villain is quartered alive by having his limbs pulled apart by four water-buffalo.
- Real After All: The ending of some stories imply that there was some supernatural influence at work (and in one case, the judge is about to investigate, but decides against it, citing that These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know).
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Ma Jong and Chiao Tai are both big men, but Ma Jong is the more fight-happy one while Chiao Tai thinks more.
- Reformed Criminal: Ma Joong, Chiao Tai and Tao Gan, to varying degrees.
- Scooby-Doo Hoax: Ghost sightings in the novels are usually found to conclusively be this. van Gulik notes in the Postscripts to many novels that Judges using this to trick criminals into confessing (making them think they are speaking to the Judge of the Underworld) is common in Chinese crime fiction, but that he prefers to have the Judge show off his deductive prowess.
- Shameful Source Of Knowledge: Played for Drama in Chinese Nail Murders. The judge is facing a crime that he cannot prove (examinations of the body show no poison and no wounds), so a young woman tells him offhandedly about wives married to abusive husbands, sitting in their rooms repairing their shoes with a hammer and tiny nails, and how easy it is to drive the nail into the skull of a sleeping man... The judge has the body reexamined, finds the nail, and has the victim's wife arrested. The young woman who told him commits suicide to prevent the judge agonizing between his conscience and his duty (she admitted to murdering her husband in front of him, but she had every reason to).
- In one Fan Sequel (where the judge is looking for the head of a vast conspiracy to send troublemakers and criminals to an out-of-the-way town), a shopkeeper reports Tao Gan's shoplifting to the local judge. This turns out to be a mistake, since Dee deduces that if the shopkeeper caught Tao (a very good thief), he must be a professional himself. And if he can go and report it without caring that this automatically marks him as a criminal as well, then there is a very good chance the man he's looking for is in the town. He's right.
- Show Some Leg: In The Chinese Lake Murders, Moon Fairy, a young woman, distracts a rebel who was going to inspect the junk hold where Ma Joong and Chiao Tai were hiding by taking off her shirt and flashing her breasts at him.
- Sherlock Scan: One criminal tries this against the judge (as he's traveling incognito with Chiao Tai), explaining why the judge is not a peaceful merchant. He certainly gets a few points right, like the pair practicing stick-fighting (an activity favored by the lower class), but then he claims the judge's beard was grown to ape his local magistrate. Whoops.
- Show Within a Show: The theater play in The Chinese Gold Murders.
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Mrs. Kuo, the doctor's wife in The Chinese Nail Murders, is a remarried widow. Her first husband was a notorious Domestic Abuser, before his sudden death. Her second husband, though a hunchback, is also a sweet, supremely loyal man who loves her dearly and has helped her become a literate and educated woman with a very progressive position as a female doctor. (Male doctors are only allowed to take a woman's pulse.) She and Judge Dee, who has been separated from his beloved family for some time, also form a kind of mutually unfulfilled romance. After she ultimately kills herself to spare Dee the pain of having to arrest her for murdering the first husband, Doctor Kuo comes forward to confess, expecting to be executed so that he may loyally follow her in death. Deeply moved, Dee instead puts a recently-orphaned young girl into his care, so that he will have something to live for.
- Skepticism Failure: The Judge prides himself on not being an impious man, meaning he does not deny the existence of the supernatural, but always looks for a natural explanation first. Usually he finds one. Usually.
- Society Is to Blame: while the Judge fully realizes that Tang China is no Utopia, he never accepts this as an excuse.
- Spot of Tea: The Judge hits the teapot like Sam Spade hits the bottle. His Lieutenants prefer 'the amber liquid' (ie: wine). A cuppa "bitter tea" is even offered to witnesses and accused in court to lubricate testimony or confession.
- The Spymaster: Imperial Inquisitor Meng Kee.
- The Summation: The Judge is prone to these, usually at the insistence of his bewildered lieutenants.
- Sympathetic Murderer: The Judge occasionally encounters these, including one who means a great deal to him, but never lets them off. One killed herself to spare him from having to make that decision.
- Tattooed Crook: One of the victims in The Phantom of the Temple. According to the tattoo artist, ten coins extra would hvae gotten him the tiger's whiskers (and a different fate).
- Those Two Guys: Ma Jong and Chiao Tai, though they get more screen-time than is usual, and one story even has them witness a crime, and take immediate action while the judge is away.
- Third-Person Person: Chinese etiquette requires this in court or other formal occasions: "This person begs to report a crime."
- Three Lines Some Waiting: Most novels concern a number of crimes that are all dealt with at once, in accordance with the Chinese traditions of crime fiction. Robert van Gulik comments in the postscript to The Chinese Bell Murders that he actually prefers this to "tighter" stories, as it corresponds closer to the toils of operating a court in real life.
- Token Enemy Minority: As fits the Confucian POV of the original stories, Buddhists and Taoists are generally held in a certain amount of contempt by Dee, and a lot of stories will depict the local monastery as a Corrupt Church. However, there always seems to be at lest one good monk who is disgusted by the corrupt behavior of his fellows, if not a broad base of genuinely devout monks unaware of the scoundrels in their midst. Itinerant priests, however, are generally crooks pretending to be actual friars at best.
- Tomboy and Girly Girl: Blue-white and Coral from The Willow Pattern are a tough, outspoken fighter and a shy, discreet dancer and musician, respectively.
- Turn in Your Badge: In The Chinese Lake Murders, the judge uncovers a conspiracy to overthrow the Emperor in a town not far from the capital. The Imperial Inquisitor arrives in response to Dee's report, only to reprimand and suspend him for taking so long to uncover the plot. Dee is only reinstated because he deduces the hiding-place where the key to an encrypted list of all participants in the plot is concealed.
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The character Judge Dee is based on a the real Di Renjie (c. 630?-c. 700), and most of the plots are from actual Chinese sources, either fiction or real cases recorded for the edification of judges and coroners of the era. The forewords and afterwords of each book are as fascinating as the books, since van Gulik was a noted and respected scholar of Chinese culture. He did the illustrations, too.
- Watching the Reflection Undress: The judge's lieutenant is sent to interrogate a girl, who tells him to turn around while she's changing. He complies, and she turns around, clothes dropping to the floor. She then tells him he can turn around now, but he replies that the mirror in front of him does the job just fine. A Sexy Discretion Shot ensues.
- Why Mao Changed His Name: The books include lots of idiosyncratic romanizations of the characters' names. Curiously some names, chiefly the religious names of monks, and the names of courtesans and some other female characters are translated.
- The Worf Effect: In a non-combat situation, surprisingly enough. Investigating a monastery where women are granted children by a goddess (staffed by male monks), the judge tells Tao Gan to look for hidden passages, which he does disguised as a carpenter. Once he's satisfied there aren't any, the judge discards that theory... and it turns out there is a passage after all.
- Wounded Gazelle Gambit: Tao Gan pulls one off when followed by a suspect much larger than he is. Passing by a rack of clay jars, he upsets the whole thing onto his pursuer. When the employees come rushing out, the man claims he was attacked. They take one look at the shrimpy Tao Gan and the accuser and decide for themselves what happened. Tao Gan ends his recollection saying that he left as they were breaking a jar on the man's head.