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.


Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto, translated by Beth Cary

Originally published in 1961 as 砂の器 (Suna no utsuwa)
English translation first published in 1989

In the wee hours of a 1960s Tokyo morning, a dead body is found under the rails of a train, and the victim’s face is so badly damaged that police have a hard time figuring out the victim’s identity. Only two clues surface: an old man, overheard talking in a distinctive accent to a young man, and the word “kameda.” Inspector Imanishi leaves his beloved bonsai and his haiku and goes off to investigate—and runs up against a blank wall. Months pass in fruitless questioning, in following up leads, until the case is closed, unsolved.

But Imanishi is dissatisfied, and a series of coincidences lead him back to the case. Why did a young woman scatter pieces of white paper out of the window of a train? Why did a bar girl leave for home right after Imanishi spoke to her? Why did an actor, on the verge of telling Imanishi something important, drop dead of a heart attack? What can a group of nouveau young artists possibly have to do with the murder of a quiet and “saintly” provincial old ex-policemen? Inspector Imanishi investigates.

Seichō Matsumoto was one of the most popular and prolific Japanese mystery authors of the postwar period, publishing more than 450 works in a 40 year period. Only a tiny fraction of that work has been translated into English however including the wonderful A Quiet Place which was released a couple of years ago. This work, Inspector Imanishi Investigates, is one of his most popular detective stories and has had several film and television adaptations.

The book begins with the discovery of a body of a man on the tracks in front of a train minutes before it should depart from the station. The man had been strangled and there was considerable damage already to the head after death. This is taken to indicate that either the murderer was acting out of extreme hatred or that they wished to disguise the identity of the corpse.

Inspector Imanishi is part of a team that is assigned to the case and they start by trying to work to identify the body. This proves much harder than anticipated however as while they are able to trace the victim to a bar, they receive little detail about him other than his being older, talking in a distinctive accent to another unidentified man and that he was heard to say the word “kameda”. After some considerable effort the case seems to have gone cold but Imanishi continues to work on it in his spare time, assembling a picture of what happened on the night of the murder.

This work can be categorized as a police procedural meaning that there is a focus on realism by attempting to reproduce the feel and flow of actual police work. In this type of fiction, detectives spend their time methodically chasing down leads and attempting to piece together information to explain events. Some stories are presented as puzzle plots by reconciling evidence and testimonies but some, such as this novel, are much broader in scope and involve trying to generate that evidence when there are close to no leads at all.

What this means in practice is that our detective, Inspector Imanishi, spends a substantial part of the novel appearing to chase dead ends. This gives the piece a much slower pace than many other types of detective story and can lead to a feeling that not much is happening, particularly given that we are over a quarter of the way into the novel before we have even identified the body, let alone found anyone to suspect of the murder. I would suggest that it reflects that for Matsumoto the interaction of case and detective, particularly the sense of responsibility felt by the detective to solve it and provide closure to the family, is as important as the specific details of that case.

Inspector Imanishi is a fairly quiet and reserved character who is presented as both thoughtful and sincere. His most distinctive characteristic is his love of writing haiku and at several points within this story we get to read his reflections on ideas and images that have inspired him rendered in such verse. This does contribute to the somewhat slow, methodical approach to storytelling we see throughout this novel but it is not just a quirky trait – rather I think it does say something about his character, his values and quite specifically on the way he percieves his role in this investigation and within society.

This trait, along with some other habits and characteristics (enjoying green tea poured over rice and raising bonsai trees), also serves to establish the character as rooted in a sense of Japanese traditionalism that will contrast with the more Western-focused outlooks expressed by several of the characters he encounters in the story. Those characters, who we encounter very early in the novel, are part of a glitzy intellectual movement that is dubbed the Nouveau Group that is portrayed as a successor movement to the Shirakaba-ha (White Birch Society), a Japanese literary movement that had sought to bring ideas from western art and culture into Japanese society in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The contrast between these two outlooks is hardly explosive nor is it really the point of the book but I feel it does produce an interesting contrast that helps define both Imanishi and the characters he is interacting with more clearly.

The other strength of this novel is its strong sense of place. While the travel in this story is not extensive, we do get to follow Imanishi as he ventures away from Tokyo into the countryside on a couple of occasions. This prompts some explorations of the different pace of life in rural Japan as well as some of the regional differences within Japan. Occasionally that can get a little technical, particularly when it comes to discussions of various accents which plays a small but important role in the plot, but I found it to be interesting and appreciated the focus on some issues I hadn’t encountered before in the translated Japanese mysteries I have read.

There are also some quite inventive ideas at play in this novel including a means of murder that I have never encountered before which does add some further interest. That certainly adds a degree of novelty to the story and helped me to understand why it stood out as a candidate for translation.

While most of the key points are clued, I think the reader is unlikely to be ahead of the detective at any point in the story both in terms of the main problem but also some of the smaller questions that are asked along the way. To give an example, there is a point where an explanation is needed for why a character returned to a particular location. It’s fascinating to follow Imanishi as he does the legwork to answer that problem but I cannot see any way the reader could have known what the answer to that was other than to make an educated guess about what the significance of that information must be.

For that reason I think that this book, while often very interesting, may disappoint those hoping to play armchair detective and match wits with the writer. Personally I enjoyed it, though not as much as A Quiet Place. Still, it is a clever procedural that, in addition to setting up a memorable crime, thoughtfully explores the changes taking place in Japanese society at the time. That, for me, makes it worth a look.

The Verdict: A very competent, if leisurely-paced, police procedural. As interesting for the issues it discusses as the case itself.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Malicious Men category as a Silver Age read.

Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen, edited by Frederic Dannay

Originally Published 1978

A newspaper receives a letter from a man claiming to have been murdered–it’s impossible but the truth is not so simple; five strangers who share the same initials are invited to spend the night in a luxury hotel but one of them is a murderer.

The 12 stories in this book will lead you through dramatic twists and unexpected turns. The legendary Ellery Queen selected these stories by award-winning Japanese authors from among many thousands published in postwar Japan. Each story features an unusual crime and a complex set of clues investigated by a diverse and colorful cast of characters that includes a calculating inspector, a tenacious journalist, and a determined scientist.

Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen is a collection of twelve short stories selected by Frederic Dannay, one half of the writing team known as Ellery Queen. In the introduction to the volume he mentions how he was approached and asked to select stories from over 2000 that were submitted.

The stories selected showcase a variety of styles and approaches while several stories feature uniquely Japanese elements or ideas. For instance, several stories blend the supernatural with mystery elements while others incorporate “erotic” moments. Some evoke the feel of a traditional puzzle mystery while others would be better described as crime stories.

I was impressed by the general standard of the stories and even the weaker stories possessed some clear point of interest that explained their inclusion. For instance I found No Proof‘s inquest structure felt a little dry while its solution seemed to be flagged far too early but I really enjoyed the idea of someone being scared to death with a cheap gorilla mask.

Several of the stories are really entertaining and imaginative. My pick of the collection is The Kindly Blackmailer in which a barber finds that a new customer intends to blackmail him for his involvement in a hit-and-run. I spent a large part of the story feeling quite puzzled by the logic of the blackmailer’s plan but all of my concerns were addressed by the end of the story and I thought the situation was pretty compelling.

I also particularly enjoyed Devil of a Boy in which a mother suspects a child in her son’s class has sadistic tendencies – some of the developments in that story are really quite clever – while Invitation from the Sea and Cry from the Cliff feature the best puzzles in the collection.

Overall I found this to be excellent value and I appreciated the opportunity to experience some writers who were completely new to me. Individual reviews of each of the short stories follow after the cut. If the idea of this collection interests you I would encourage you to check out the review at The Reader is Warned as Dan’s views of some of these are quite different from mine though we both enjoyed the collection.

Also be sure to check out that post’s comments section where there is some interesting discussion of the genesis of this volume (and that there were several further volumes produced that were never translated into English).

Continue reading “Ellery Queen’s Japanese Golden Dozen, edited by Frederic Dannay”

A Quiet Place by Seicho Matsumoto, translated by Louise Heal Kawai

A Quiet Place
Seicho Matsumoto
Originally Published 1975

A Quiet Place is one of those novels that presents a particular challenge to review without mentioning at least a few spoilers. This is because there is an event that takes place a significant way into the novel which transforms the narrative.

This novel is the first I have read by Matsumoto, an author who was one of the most successful and important figures in Japanese crime fiction. This is a work from later in his career and while I have seen it described as a thriller, that would be a slightly misleading way to characterize a book that contains very little action and little in the way of suspense. It certainly doesn’t read that way. Instead I would suggest it is better regarded as a character study with mysterious elements and some of the form of a detective story.

The novel concerns Tsuneo Asai, a middle-ranking but respected official in the Ministry of Agriculture. He works hard to ingratiate himself with his superiors, knowing that they will likely be with him a short time but hoping that his efforts may lead to some future promotion. He is on a trip with them attending a dinner when he receives a telephone call from his wife’s sister. She informs him that his wife who was only thirty years old died some five hours earlier of a heart attack. He cuts his trip short, returning home to make the funeral arrangements.

As he learns more about the circumstances of his wife’s death he becomes increasingly confused. Not by the cause of death, as he knew she suffered from a serious heart condition, but rather from the location in which it occurred. She died in a boutique shop in a neighborhood he would hardly expect her to visit. He decides to pay a visit to the shopkeeper to offer a payment for the inconvenience his wife’s death caused her business but is confused by the shopkeeper’s demeanor and some of her responses, leading him to have even more questions about her death.

What follows adheres to many of the beats of the detective novel with the husband working to piece together what happened. He interviews some witnesses, tries to get a sense of the location and comes up with a theory. There is little surprising in the content of those investigations, rather the interest comes from the way that this investigation will affect Asai. I should also say at this point that I appreciated that the author has this story take place slowly over a number of months, emphasizing Asai is not a professional investigator and is having to work around the restrictions of his work calendar.

This sort of internalized, psychological story can be only as interesting as its protagonist and here I feel that Matsumoto meets with mixed success. Asai shows some intriguing and credible contradictions within his personality and I can see that there seems to be some satirical notes struck in his characterization yet the character’s reserved and calculating personality means he rarely dominates the narrative, especially in those early chapters.

While he has suffered a loss, the reader is unlikely to feel much sympathy for him given the way in which he responds. For instance, in the immediate aftermath of getting the news his first thought is how to convey the information to his colleagues and ensure his superior continues to receive good hospitality on their trip. As the narrative develops however I think depth is added to that characterization, building up to that moment I referenced where the novel takes on a different tone and style.

I do not want to give the impression that this is an abrupt or unexpected change – I would argue that it is actually rather a natural and organic development from the seeds laid in those early chapters. For me this shift worked nicely because it built upon what had come before and I think what follows is very well plotted and ultimately very satisfying. On the other hand, I could easily see it frustrating readers who come to this hoping for a more traditional whodunit or thriller structure due to its unorthodox structure and sense of pacing.

This puts me in a somewhat difficult position when it comes to recommending it as while I think it is ultimately a very successful novel that contains some wonderful character and thematic moments, it is perhaps less compelling as an example of the mystery genre. After all, for much of its duration the book is really not that mysterious and certainly the explanation for the wife’s death is likely to disappoint most readers expecting a more traditional detective story structure. Indeed, for much of the novel it is not even clear if a crime has taken place.

For those prepared to endure an extremely leisurely pacing for much of the novel, I do think there are some strong rewards both in the way Matsumoto builds to a striking ending and also the fascinating depictions of Japanese social interaction. Set your expectations accordingly and I think you will find it to be an interesting, characterful read.