on Feb. 18, 2014 :
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)
on Dec. 16, 2013 :
Hock G. Tjoa’s play, The Ingenious Judge Dee, is an adaptation of Robert van Gulik’s detective stories set in Imperial China and featuring Judge Dee, a district magistrate. Tjoa faithfully portrays Judge Dee as a master-detective whose vigilance, curiosity, and effective supervision of his assistants results in his solving unrelated overlapping crimes.
Tjoa’s engaging dialogue, peppered with reflections on the morals and social graces of the traditional Chinese culture, reveals the thinking of an idealized magistrate, whose responsibilities include those of prosecutor and jury. The judge’s keen intellect and critical reasoning in solving crimes brought before him, as well as those he uncovers in random encounters, highlight his superior intellect and generous spirit toward the cross-section of Chinese society
Tjoa’s play emphasizes the content of conversations over the context in which they occur. Thus, the descriptions of the settings offer little visual information about the narrative being played out, providing the reader with few, if any visual clues. Interestingly, it is the direction taken in the judge’s thoughtful conversation and purposeful questioning and the instructions he gives his assistants that color the scenes, leaving the reader to imagine the particulars of each of the settings.
Engaged in three simultaneous crimes, each with its own background, Tjoa’s cast of characters are surprisingly easy to follow. By not revealing the criminal in the beginning and providing only the material germane to the plot, Tjoa keeps the reader’s attention focused, playfully anticipating what might happen next. It is a thoroughly enjoyable play!
Susan M. Rostan
(reviewed 6 days after purchase)