The Ingenious Judge Dee is a play, adapted from the original Robert van Gulik novels, which are, according to Wikipedia, also adapted from their original Chinese counterparts from an eighteenth-century Chinese novel, all of which are allegedly adapted from a real magistrate, Di Renjie, who was born in the year 630 AD. Author Hock Tjoa has his work cut out for him!
If I've used the word “adapt” a lot, it's only because I'm trying to provide a good hook for this review. Truthfully, it's because there's a good hook in the book! Judge Dee is an interesting enough character; we learn early in the play that he's fair-minded, that he employs former criminals to investigate crimes, and that he's living in a time long before forensic technology has given him access to DNA evidence, satellite surveillance, and PRISM by the NSA. It's a time when a law enforcement official is really not beholden to the people of China, but to the officials – one of whom he ends up having to snoop around, investigating the death of a young bride!
The play is especially enjoyable in the first large chunk. The description and stage direction is strong, and the characters inhabit a cohesive world. As the drama goes on, however, a reader will have a difficult time keeping track of what they see; there's “elder” and “young” versions of many characters, along with “Mother” and “Widow” ones. The names can grow hard to keep track of. The actual description of a scene gets lost as dialogue seems to replace it; from a reader's perspective, this makes it difficult to know where the characters are. From a play director's vantage point, it's almost impossible to tell how to set up one's stage – but that's not necessarily bad.
Ultimately, it's hard to judge a play by reading it. By their very nature, plays are meant to be staged; at least in my mind, reading a play is itself an adaptation of the author's vision of how it will be portrayed. Of course, stage directors make their own little tweaks, and at least Judge Dee lets people come up with their own way of doing things! It's much like the judge, himself – admirably adaptable to his circumstances.
(reviewed 43 days after purchase)