Robert H. van Gulik’s stories of Judge Dee are fine examples of the historical mystery novel, which recaptures a bygone era even as it tells a good story. Though his stories are fiction, his training as a scholar and a diplomat enabled him to draw on a vast store of historical material to enrich his mystery novels.
During his diplomatic service in Asian countries, van Gulik noted that even poor translations of Western detective stories were enthusiastically received by Japanese and Chinese readers, so he decided to demonstrate the strong tradition of Chinese detective stories that already existed. He started with a translation of an anonymous eighteenth century novel about Judge Dee, then went on to write several more of his own. He originally wrote them in English, then translated some for serial publication in Japanese journals. Western audiences found them so interesting that he decided to continue writing in English, and he translated his own work. He was thus responsible for introducing the classical Chinese detective story to the West, while the minutiae of the novels and his scholarly notes appended to the novels provide glimpses of the ancient Chinese way of life.