Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The detective meets the Chinese studies professor

Joe Burgoon, a detective with the St. Louis County Police Cold Case Squad, called me today. It really made my day.

It wasn't a break in a case or news that would interest me as a journalist. Rather, the veteran detective was calling me in his new, unofficial capacity as a literary critic.

Joe Burgoon had just finished reading my copy of True Crimes in Eighteenth-Century China, and he was pretty jazzed about the book. He went on at some length about what he had learned reading about detective work on the other side of the Earth two centuries ago.

I myself did not finish the book before passing it to Joe, so he knew more about it than I do. I couldn't really keep up with him as he enthused about compassion in the criminal justice system described in these case histories and the system they used for investigating and prosecuting crimes in this lost world.

The book is a collection of twenty case histories, translated and annotated by Robert E. Hegel, a professor at Washington University. It came to my attention through my volunteer service on the Advisory Board for The Center for the Humanties at Wash U. We produce an annual event devoted to books published by campus authors that year, and Bob Hegel's book appeared on our list in 2009. It sounded really interesting, so I asked him for a copy, and he kindly provided one.

"My book presents a sample of crime reports from eighteenth-century China in English translation. All are capital crimes. Since all capital crimes might carry the death penalty, detailed reports of all levels of investigation had to be forwarded to the Emperor for his final decision on sentencing," Hegel writes on Rorotoko.

"Capital crimes required investigation and review at local, prefectural, provincial, and central levels of the imperial Qing period (1644-1911) administration. These reports include information about the victims and what happened to them, testimony from the accused and various witnesses, and official correspondence between judicial officials about the crimes."

The book is really interesting. As I read these detailed court records of murders and other abuses from another time and place, I kept thinking about my work as a journalist, which has brushed up against police work and court proceedings a lot recently. I really wanted to bounce the book off someone who knows detective work from the inside, in our day and age.

I asked around, and ended up with Joe Burgoon. He is retired from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and works only part time out in the County. I guess he has a little more time and inclination to read than your average copper. And, it turns out, he likes the book!

My next move is to videotape a conversation between the two men about the book and capital crimes in 18th century China, as compared to police work on the mean streets of contemporary St. Louis. My friend Aaron AuBuchon, who runs the video program at Webster University, has agreed to get one of his classes involved in the production.

First, though, I hope to be a fly on the wall as the detective and the professor meet and talk more informally - over coffee or, I would prefer, a beer.


Image is Tao Yuanming, ink on paper scroll by Min Zhen, 18th century China from Wikimedia Commons.

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