One of the best kept secrets in the historical mystery genre is the Judge Dee series by Robert Van Gulik. I first ran across them in a little illustrated book from Scholastic, which I think came out in the sixties or seventies. (IIRC, it was in the collection of my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Romano. Which is also where I discovered Dorothy L. Sayers through a mystery collection including that Ali Baba story, but I digress.) I believe they’d extracted and/or expurgated the more child-friendly short stories from Van Gulik’s collection Judge Dee at Work. For example, one of the stories had Judge Dee investigating a small mystery discovered by one of his sons. It was a good collection. I remembered it for years, my memory jogged every once in a while by a reference to the series in a book on mysteries. But it wasn’t until I was out of college that I discovered the University of Chicago Press’ reprints of the books, and only then because the inestimable Barry Hughart credited Van Gulik as one of his predecessors.
Robert H. Van Gulik was a diplomat by trade. Like Cordwainer Smith (aka Felix Linebarger), he was more or less born into a fascination with Asia which never left him. He was also a mystery fan, and was delighted to discover that old Chinese popular literature was full of casebooks and stories of various diabolical cases solved by magistrates who were pattern cards of Confucian virtue. (Unlike the ones in martial arts novels/movies, who are always as corrupt as the Sheriff of Nottingham.) He translated one of them, Dee Goong An, as The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee, and later translated another book of cases called T’ang-yin-pi-shih as Parallel Cases from under the Pear Tree: a 13th century manual of Jurisprudence and Detection. He was hoping to unleash a wave of new Chinese and Japanese mystery novels based on the indigenous tradition, but apparently got no takers. So he decided to write a Judge Dee mystery himself. The first one was apparently published first in Japanese, but the others were in English. He continued to do diplomacy and write little papers every once in a while, but the Judge Dee mystery series made Van Gulik famous. Check out the length of this bibliography.
Judge Dee still has quite a number of fans, in a quiet way. This is a pretty good explanation why. There is definitely something to be said for good mysteries based in China’s complicated and fascinating culture. Even better, the characters are actually allowed to think and act like people of their own time. Van Gulik is also not afraid to include the occasional ghost or supernatural occurrence, without either making it either violate the confines of fantasy-mystery fair play or giving a guarantee of a Scooby Doo ending. Strange things happen in Van Gulik’s China, that’s all.
This is a good page on Di Renjie, Robert Van Gulik, and Judge Dee. Here’s a good paper considering the Judge Dee stories as science fiction. Also, here’s a good biography of Van Gulik. There are also a few gamers doing a Judge Dee campaign, as well as another group dealing with a similar but original character. (This one involved James Nicoll, which must have made it both more interesting and prone to dangerous accident.)