03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

A Chinese Sherlock Holmes

When you're ready to cuddle up with a good book over the holidays, you will find no better companion than Dee Jen-djieh, otherwise known as "Judge Dee". A historical figure from seventh century Tang dynasty China, he comes to your living room or airplane seat courtesy of one Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), a Dutch diplomat and scholar who penned a series of novels fictionalizing the exploits of what you might well think of as a Chinese Sherlock Holmes.

A stern, strict, but compassionate character, Judge Dee shares Holmes' exceptional observational acumen and powers of deductive reasoning, but rather than applying them to a British world of the recent past made familiar to readers by many other classic works of literature, Dee moves through a landscape that is a character unto itself--magical, mystical, unfamiliar, sometimes frightening, often haunting, and always compelling. Like Holmes, Dee has his sidekicks, a group of lieutenants one or more of which feature prominently in every book. Which adjutant helps him solve which case depends upon the place of Dee's employment, a variable that changes from book to book as the judge's career progresses from a low court in the capital to magistrate, top-dog-lawman status in outlying provinces, and ultimately back again to imperial service.

Van Gulik puts an afterward in each novel that explains where, if at all, he has deviated from historical fact in rendering Magistrate Dee's exploits, and also filling in gaps the reader unfamiliar with Chinese history may feel. A book written in the Ming dynasty, some 600 years after the real judge's death, inspired van Gulik's series about the historical judge. That book featured three mysteries unfolding simultaneously, and in his own Judge Dee books, van Gulik repeated that formula with enough wit, grace and insight to transcend genre fiction and create the ineffable secret world all novelists strive for and all readers crave.

These novels presage my own ">kung fu noir books in the sense that they contain action, suspense, intrigue, and some dark glimpses into the human soul, but rather than spanning the gulf between ancient and modern worlds, they are firmly set in the heyday of the Chinese emperors and bristle with delicious details. In van Gulik's stories, the magistrate of a town or district is the final authority and has the power of life and death over criminals, a power of which Judge Dee avails himself early and often. Punishments for crimes range from short stays in the local hoosegow to quick and merciful beheadings to "lingering death" in which a perpetrator of particularly heinous crimes may be literally pulled apart, slowly, by horses.

Van Gulik is a masterful plotter, and regardless of how much of what he draws on is to be found in the historical record he keeps you guessing and clapping through the unfolding of stories that have plenty of sex (the artistic plates that enliven van Gulik's pages often show courtesans bathing or with robes falling open), jealousy, perversion, cruelty, deception, assassination, torture--indeed the entire gamut of human transgressions. Traveling, occasionally in clever disguise, the judge makes mistakes just like Holmes does. Sometimes he takes a while to solve a case, other times he deduces things quickly and traps criminals into revealing themselves. The mysteries in each novel are so artfully intertwined that half the joy of the read is to be found in attempting to sort out the threads on your own and then, if you can't, watching the judge do it for you.

If you have an interest in ancient China or simply wish to better understand that country today, van Gulik's Judge Dee novels are especially attractive, but even without that dimension they are truly addicting. As with any truly great crime fiction, the fifteen-odd novels and additional short stories reveal the great and true of the human condition along with the loathsome and the petty. They render love, loyalty, devotion and sacrifice in ways that reveal much about the zenith of Chinese society and culture. The judge himself is an ardent Confucian and has no patience either for Buddhists--whom he regards as a threat to imperial order--or for Daoists, whom he holds to be superstitious, sometimes dangerous lunatics.

While I was sorry to finish each and every one, I especially enjoyed Necklace and Calabash, The Chinese Maze Murders, The Emperor's Pearl, and The Red Pavilion, although in singling those few out I long to mention The Willow Pattern and The Chinese Nail Murders and, frankly, all the rest.

The University of Chicago Press|titles&ie=&q=judge+dee&site=press_main_collectio&filter=0&output=xml_no_dtd&client=press_main_collectio&access=p&Go=Go&ip= has done a thorough reissue of these books. Once you've tried them, though, you may wish to search online for some original hardcovers, which can still be found, in good condition, at very reasonable prices.