The Haunted Monastery. The Lacquer Screen by Robert Van Gulik. Warner $85 each JUDGE Dee is a detective unlike any other you will meet in a crime novel. Part dandy, with glossy hair, smooth, pale skin softened by expensive ointments, part he-man, with strong muscles built up through fencing and boxing, Judge Dee is a Confucian scholar par excellence. Above all, he is the epitome of the upright official idealised in the Confucian classics. His faith in logic, reason and morality is what puts Judge Dee in conflict with society and helps him resolve these mysteries. For Judge Dee lives in seventh-century China, by which time Confucianism is battling with the alternative moral paths laid down by Taoism and Buddhism, the superstitious offshoots of which wrap the crime novels in a haze of mystery. In The Lacquer Screen, Judge Dee, while on vacation, pays his respects to the local magistrate, a man whose life has suddenly fallen apart. The magistrate's wife lies dead in the bedroom and the magistrate fears he has lost his mind and murdered her through a lapse into insanity or the pull of a strange, mystical force. In desperation, the magistrate shows Judge Dee a lacquer screen depicting the four seasons. One panel has suddenly been altered to show the man stabbing his lover, and the magistrate believes the evil force which changed the screen also made him commit the murder. Judge Dee and his lieutenant Chiao Tai disguise themselves and stay with a band of thieves to check them out. But some thieves turn out to be far more noble than figures of respect and it is Judge Dee's nose for righteousness which leads him to discover the truth. The same elements are at work in The Haunted Monastery. Judge Dee and his entourage of wives get caught in a downpour at night. They decide to stay at a monastery which turns out to be a den of iniquity where crimes of vice, conspiracy and murder have been committed behind the walls of supposed saintliness. The judge cannot help but investigate. Judge Dee was a real, historical person who lived from 630 to 700 AD, earning fame as a solver of crimes while a magistrate. Later, he was appointed to the Court and proved to be a brilliant statesman. But these crime novels, part of a series first published in the 1960s and now reissued, are fiction based on anecdotes and stories from other eras. Author Robert van Gulik, who died in 1967, was a Dutch diplomat and scholar of China. While drawing on a seventh-century historical figure to create his main protagonist, van Gulik made use of Chinese literature down the ages for plots. In particular, he drew inspiration from the popular detective novels which first appeared in 17th-century China. The result is not brilliant but the mysteries are cleverly executed and the Tang dynasty backdrop lends originality. Judge Dee is not a character who endears himself to the reader. There is something overly stern about him which keeps him aloof. For instance, he takes the narrow Confucian view that only didactic poetry is of value. But thank goodness he can still be overwhelmed by a book of emotionally effusive verses which he discovers in the course of his detective work, and which helps lead him to the truth.