Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Collection published in 2018.

By the late nineteenth century, Japanese readers had access to translations of many of Europe and America’s best mystery writers. The popularity of the genre led to Japanese writers earnestly translating their stories into Japanese, often modifying stories according to the Japanese author’s taste. The popularity of mysteries was ensured in Japan, and the enduring century-plus has seen remarkable examples of Japanese literary innovation.

This volume highlights the longevity and variety of Japan’s creative responses to the mystery genre. Some of the works are innovative because they were written by authors (or, in one case, a poet) who did not normally write mysteries. Others are innovative for their variations on standard elements of detective fiction, or for using mystery tropes to interrogate social norms or gender roles in an effort to explain the meaning of the text in its time. Several works play on technological innovations as keys to the mystery. Some of the works are meta-fictive explorations of the mystery, using detective fiction to investigate detective fiction.

Scholars, students and mystery readers alike will find this volume full of surprises.

When I was looking around for books to write about for the Japanese Literature Challenge I found inspiration in a few places. I obviously had some works that have been sat in my TBR pile for a while that benefitted from getting a little push up towards the top but I also found myself seeking out some fresh titles too. Yes, unsurprisingly this project which I undertook to reduce that backlog of books only ended up increasing it. Who could have guessed?

One of the books I stumbled onto when I was searching Amazon was this title which is a collection of Japanese short mystery stories. From the blurb I knew that the editors had picked a wide selection of authors, several of whom were not typically considered mystery writers, to show the history and diversity of the genre but to my immense frustration I couldn’t find a single review or even a simple listing of the contents. As interested as I was, I simply couldn’t justify the money at the time.

Obviously I have a copy now so what changed? Well, I happened to discover a podcast interview with the editors (linked below) in which they gave more information about the collection. This didn’t stretch to a listing of its contents but they did describe several stories in enough detail that I could be confident that there would at least be some material there that would interest me. As it happened that day was also my birthday and in a particular piece of serendipitous timing, a couple of minutes after I was done listening a gift card showed up. The next day, so did this book…

On the next page of this review I will not only provide a listing of all of the stories and a brief description of each, I will also offer some specific thoughts on them. Before I do that though let me share some thoughts about this as a collection as a whole.

The story quality is generally excellent, including several different styles of mystery fiction which brings a pleasing sense of variety. Readers should be aware though that some varities of mystery are not represented – perhaps most notably impossible crime stories – but I think given the limitations of 360 pages the editors did a fine job selecting works that show some of the breadth of the genre within Japan.

Particular highlights for me included On the Street, a clever story that I compared to an episode of Columbo in my notes and Yokomizo’s A Detective Story which is a very clever and playful work exploring the idea of a story within a story. Only a couple of stories disappointed – Stakeout, not because it is bad but because I enjoyed other stories I have read by Matsumoto far more and so this fell a little short of expectations. Also I struggled to get into Pitfall which is a script. I think here it is just a question of format – I struggled to imagine the action and suspect if I saw it performed I might well have enjoyed it more.

Each story is given a very short introduction in which the editors provide some information about the author and explain the reasons for their selection. This was useful background and helped give a strong sense of what the editors were looking to do with this project.

Overall then I have to declare that this was a very happy find and one I couldn’t wait to share with you all (particularly given it comes from a small academic press). I really appreciate the opportunity to try out so many different authors for the first time and the only negative here is that in a several cases there are no other works available yet in English translation. Let’s hope that changes as collections like this show that we have only begun to scratch the surface in terms of what is available in translation.

The Verdict: An excellent collection of works written over a span of more than a hundred years. I appreciated the editors’ focus on expanding the scope of the genre by finding authors who haven’t been widely translated before and nearly all of the stories have a strong point of interest.

Highly recommended.

Please click below for comments on the individual stories.

Story-by-Story comments

This book uses the Japanese name structure for authors where the family name is given first followed by the given name (eg. Matsumoto Seichō) and I have reproduced that in the headings below. In tagging this review however I will use the Western name structure where the given name precedes the family name to be consistent with how these authors may have been tagged elsewhere (eg. Seichō Matsumoto).

Merciless by Kuroiwa Ruikō (1889), translated by Satoru Saito

In this story – the oldest in the collection – a pair of detectives, one experienced but uneducated, the other a young devotee of western detective stories compete to solve the case of an unidentified corpse found floating in the river. Using only a small amount of evidence they each produce different explanations for the crime before we learn the truth of what happened.

I enjoyed the conceit of the competition between the two detectives who have pretty strong and distinctive personalities and I was also impressed by the detailed scientific analysis of the very little physical evidence the pair find on the body. While there are a few points in the story where the logical chain feels a little rushed, I think it cleverly explores the idea of just what can be done with science and intuition.

Pale Passion by Satō Haruo (1919), translated by Charles Exley

This short story a poet goes to see a friend to share a composition he has finished after several sleepless nights. When he arrives his friend mutters lines from Poe’s poem Annabel Lee (his last complete work) and takes him into his dark bedroom to show him what lies behind a curtain.

The introduction to this piece references the importance of Poe to Japanese writers of mystery and detective fiction and that certainly comes through here not only with the multiple quotations from the poem but the way its themes align with the ones of this. While not structured as a detective story, the situation is certainly both creepy and mysterious and I appreciate that Satō provides information but leaves the reader to piece everything together at the end. An excellent story.

On the Street by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō (1920), translated by Marc Gibeau

A man is stopped on the street by a private detective when on his way home from work. The detective tells him that he has some questions he hopes the man could clear up but the man quickly realizes that the subject of the detective’s questions is himself.

This is a really neat story – consice and really clever. It’s not exactly a detective story in that there aren’t really clues that the reader can detect or infer from but rather we see a picture being pulled together, a bit like if you were to switch on Columbo during the summing up phase of an episode. The situation is clever and the story is just the right length. A highlight of the collection for me!

A Detective Story by Yokomizo Seishi (1946), translated by Mark Silver

This is the first story in the collection from an author I have previously read – Yokomizo wrote The Honjin Murders which I read and enjoyed several months ago. In this story a group of three friends gather in a waiting room when their train is delayed by snow finding two strangers inside. Ignoring them, the trio discuss a detective story that the writer is working on that is based on a local case. He outlines the key facts, explains his own fictional solution and responds to problems the friends point out in his story.

I really liked this story which is quite playfully constructed and cleverly explores the idea of fictionalizing a real case. The scenario has some clever features, particularly when we get to the author’s explanation of how the crime was done, and I really love the way this story is resolved. In short, this is a clever story and I might suggest it is the first true detective story in the collection.

C-O-D-E by Sakaguchi Ango (1948), translated by Charles Exley

C-O-D-E is an interesting selection as it illustrates that a mystery story does not necessarily require a crime as a starting point for an investigation. In this story a man is browsing in a used bookstore when he discovers a copy of an obscure academic book that he once owned before it was burned in a fire. Buying it, he realizes that it is a copy that was bought by his friend shortly before they left to go to war. He also discovers a sheet of folded paper tucked into the book with a series of numbers written on it, starting him to wonder how this ended up inside his friend’s book.

The story is quite quiet and reflective but it does a good job of taking a small odd detail and exploring different possibilities for its meaning. I appreciated the protagonist’s sensitivity and found him easy to empathize with, particularly as the investigation progresses, and I think the ending is genuinely heartbreaking. The translators cited this as a favorite story in the podcast interview I link below and I can absolutely see why given the emotional impact it achieves.

The Yellow Lodger by Yamada Fūtarō (1953), translated by Kyoko Omori

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this story which features the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson who encounter Natsume Sōseki, a real historical figure who spent several years studying in Britain. The story concerns the unexpected disappearance of a billionaire suddenly from his home.

Sherlockians may well enjoy the way this story takes references to a case made in one of the canonical stories and expands on it though I did not feel that the characterizations, particularly that of Holmes, felt quite right. The plot however is clever enough and there are a few unexpected developments, though the comeuppance of a murderer feels rather anticlimactic.

Stakeout by Matsumoto Seichō (1955), translated by Michael Tangeman

A policeman heads into the countryside to perform a stakeout on a man suspected of being involved in the robbery and murder of a man.

Recently I bemoaned the lack of Matsumoto in English translation so this was a pleasant discovery on the table of contents, even if the work itself feels quite short. I would suggest that what it does demonstrate though is Matsumoto’s style as a writer and also his occupation with the routine of detective work. I was certainly happy to be able to read a little more of his work though I don’t think that this story necessarily offers anything particularly noteworthy beyond its general competence.

Electronic Calculator Detective by Tanikawa Shuntarō (1960), translated by Michael Tangeman

While Stakeout felt short, Electronic Calculator Detective really is at just three pages long. The story, which is a poetic work, involves a scientist who invents a calculating machine to solve murders. The story explains the consequences of this before delivering a neat sting as a conclusion.

This is another story that I find a little hard to judge. Part of the reason is that it is so short but I think it also reflects that its inclusion here feels a little tenuous. The story references criminal justice but I think it is more about humanity and its relationships to machinery. Still, it is an excellent and very quick read and I found the ending to be extremely clever in its simplicity.

Pitfall by Abe Kōbō (1960), translated by Mark Gibeau

Pitfall revolves around the discovery of a body in a mine. Written and presented as a teleplay, I personally struggled to engage with this material though I suspect it could be quite interesting if I had seen it performed.

Murderous Intent on the Kagayaki Super Express by Nishimura Kyōtarō (1989), translated by Michael Tangeman

Some time ago I read another collection of Japanese mysteries, Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen (it was just reissued in a very handsome new edition). In my review I named ‘The Kindly Blackmailer’ by Nishimura as my pick of the collection’s stories and felt that I would like to read more from him but had not been able to track any other stories down until this one.

This story is somewhat different in style and tone but it’s equally well done. The story involves a writer finding a threatening note in a portable fax machine aboard an express train. He contacts a friend who works as a detective to tell him about the discovery only to learn that the man it was sent to was killed that same day.

The editors’ introduction to the story explains that the story was selected in part because of its incorporation of this then-cutting edge technology (which they note remains in widespread use in Japan). This is used cleverly in the story, which essentially can be described as a procedural with an unbreakable alibi, feels pitched at the perfect length.

This only convinces me further that I want more Nishimura in translation please!

Roman Honeymoon by Hiraiwa Yumie (1987), translated by Michael Tangeman

Mori Kanako travels the world in her work as a tour guide while her husband, Ikenaga Sei’ichirō, is a travel journalist in spite of his inability to fly. He simply listens to her stories and bases his articles on them. A few days after returning from a trip to Paris she is approached by the police who have questions about a member of her most recent trip who died several days after returning to Japan. Hours before his death he withdrew a large sum of money from the bank which the police have been unable to find in his hotel room.

I thought this story was a lot of fun and I appreciated the way the married couple work together to come up with an explanation of what happened with Sei’ichirō making observations based on Kanako’s account of her trip. The story also features some interesting reflections on changing social roles in Japanese society at this time and while the plot is not particularly complex, I think it is convincingly told.

The Bug Crawling on the Ground by Takamura Kaoru (1993), translated by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

Shōzō used to be a policeman before an accident involving his brother-in-law brought disgrace on his wife’s family, forcing them into hard circumstances. These days he splits his time between two jobs working as a security officer at a pharmaceutical factory and at a warehouse just a couple of blocks from each other, only returning home to see his wife on Sundays. When Shōzō hears that a number of houses nearby have been broken into he becomes obsessed and keeps an eye open for prowlers when on his rounds and walking between his jobs.

The imagery of Shōzō as being like a tenacious bug is a little heavy-handed (or to put it differently, the author doesn’t seem to trust that the reader will pick up on it themselves) which is a shame because the idea is a clever one. Perhaps the least interesting part of this story is the actual crime which is pretty mundane – I was more interested in what it revealed about the main character.

I am supposed to have a copy of Takamura’s Lady Joker on the way from my local library so I will be curious to read more from her and see whether this is typical of her style.

The Zoo’s Engine by Isaka Kōtarō (2007), translated by Michael Tangeman

The final story in the collection is another informal and indirect investigation. In the story a group of friends visit a zoo over the course of several evenings and try to understand the strange behavior of a former zookeeper who returns each night. They also ponder whether there is any link between the zoo and the disappearance of a former mayor.

The story is quite readable though I would suggest readers would be advised not to expect to emerge from it with any clear answers. Here information only seems to beget more questions and there is an exploration of the idea that the questions a character may ask end up exposing their own thoughts, feelings and preoccupations. It’s an interesting idea but not, in my view, a wholly successful one.

Further Reading

This book does not seem to have been widely written about – in fact prior to purchasing my copy I wasn’t able to find a listing of the stories it contained. There is an interesting hour-long podcast discussion with the editors on the Full Contact Nerd website (and through your favorite Podcast apps).

2 thoughts on “Old Crimes, New Scenes edited by Michael Tangeman and Charles Exley

  1. I have had Dr. Charles Exley for three classes of mine. Over the last three years, he’s been my absolute favorite Professor I have ever had. He incorporated this textbook into our class very well and he makes the readings even more enjoyable. If you ever have the chance I highly suggest taking/viewing one of his classes at the University of Pittsburgh.

    Liked by 1 person

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