Japanese Detective Fiction

I’m writing a tiny thing about a forthcoming feminist Japanese detective novel but it hadn’t arrived yet so I read some older “defining” works of Japanese detective fiction. Seicho Matsumoto is supposedly a main influence on the contemporary female Japanese detective novelist I’m geekily refusing to disclose the name of. He brought a more social element to Japanese detective fiction — created a subgenre called shakai-ha, the “social school.” I read The Voice and Other Stories today — all of the stories originally published in Japan in the late fifties. There were some really goofy Scooby-Doo moments, where the final two pages of a story will be the solution to the story’s puzzle, elucidated at banal length by one of the main characters, e.g. “I thought that a little odd, although at the time I didn’t suspect anything. But when I reported that Mr. Machida moved to Chiba and you transferred me there, I began to get suspicious,” and so on and on and on. There were also a few moments where it was possible to see the solution long before you felt you were supposed to. But still I sucked the whole thing down in a sitting. The stories are fast and well-written and I was surprised at times by their literary self-consciousness.

seicho matsumoto

My favorite line came from “The Face.” Ryokichi Ino is on a crowded train traveling through the countryside with his pregnant girlfriend Miyako who refuses to have an abortion and whom he’s luring to the mountains to murder. She is a “hostess in a cheap bar” (as are many of the women in this book; I need to understand better the protoprostitute status of Japanese cocktail waitresses — I guess they’re call girls, but there are apparent nuances and cultural differences and allegiences I don’t really get), and they’ve been pretending they don’t know each other on the train, each for their own reasons. But then Miyako sees Ishioka, a regular customer from the bar, and she chats with him, which totally pisses off Ryokichi, who smokes and stares self-consciously out the window without saying anything. It’s taking me forever to contexualize this one line. Anyway later the scene is replayed from Ishioka’s perspective, who observe that

The peel of a mandarin orange lay at their feet, hinting at their intimacy. They must have shared an orange they had bought near Hagi.

This initially made me laugh out loud, as I imagined sitting on MUNI and trying to construe any scrap of the mounds of crap littering the bus floor as a symbol of intimacy. But ultimately I relaxed and found it kinda poetic. Later when the police ask Ishioka if Miyako was with anyone, he says, “I could tell they were together from the orange peel lying at their feet.” I love this meaningful orange peel.

edogawa rampo

I also read a few stories by Edogawa Rampo, who wrote mostly in the 1920s and 30s, and is acknowledged as the inventor of the modern Japanese detective story. If you imagine a Japanese Vincent Price saying “Edgar Allen Poe” very slowly, you will discover where Edogawa Rampo got his name. The two stories I read were scarier than Matsumoto, though scary isn’t exactly the adjective I’m looking for. They feel closer to the tradition of Poe or Doyle (whom Rampo translated) than Matsumoto; the stories are freakier and all about crazy plot twists and genius detectives, not to mention rigorous applications of deductive logic. Matsumoto’s stories give a much broader social view of the Japan in which they’re set, with lots of details — scraps of orange peel, etc — though they’re still quite “procedural.” In Rampo, the emphasis seems to be on crafting ripping yarns.

Like Matsumoto’s Scooby-Doo moments, Rampo also lets some wonderful old-timey detective fiction cliches rip. At one point, pondering the murder of an old woman by one or the other of a pair of high-school students, the District Attorney of “The Psychological Test” muses that

Here, indeed, was a conundrum worthy of the mind of a master sleuth.


[both collections are also illustrated with great anachronistic b&w illustrations, including some by “M. Kuwata, who may have done the above Batman]