Book review: 『日本探偵小説全集 1』

Cover of 日本探偵小説全集1. The cover has a dark brown background with four pictures (of dolls and mechanisms) at the center. It says that this volume contains works by three authors: Ruiko Kuroiwa, Fuboku Kosakai and Saburo Koga.
Title: 日本探偵小説全集 1 (にほんたんていしょうせつぜんしゅう)
First published: 1984
Published: 1984
Format: Bunko
Series Number: 1
Page Count: 764

One of my reading projects is to read the entire collection of detective novels called 日本探偵小説全集 and published by Sogensha. There are 12 volumes in total.

This first volume contains novels and short stories by three authors: 

  • Ruiko Kuroiwa (黒岩涙香):
    • 無惨 (むざん)
    • 血の文字 (ちのもじ)
  • Fuboku Kosakai (小酒井不木):
    • 痴人の復讐 (ちじんのふくしゅう)
    • 恋愛曲線 (れんあいきょくせん)
    • 愚人の毒 (ぐじんのどく)
    • 闘争 (とうそう)
  • Saburo Koga (甲賀三郎):
    • 琥珀のパイプ (こはくのパイプ)
    • 支倉事件 (はせくらじけん)
    • 蜘蛛 (くも)
    • 黄鳥の鳴き (こうちょうのなげき)
    • 青服の男 (あおふくのおとこ)

All these novels and short stories are available on Aozora. 

Ruiko Kuroiwa (黒岩涙香)

無惨 is considered to be the very first Japanese detective story. Being written in 1889, it was very difficult to read in Japanese. I sometimes come across difficult books, but this was an entirely different level. Thankfully, the edition I read has a lot of furigana, otherwise it would have been near impossible for me to read it.

A man is found dead, and the only clue that the police has to find the culprit is the body itself. Even the identity of the victim is unknown. The detectives will have to use every detail an every piece of evidence they can find on the body to try to find a lead.

What is interesting in this story, is that the two detectives have a very different approach to the case. Veteran Tanimada uses his long experience that helps him know where to look and what to look for, whereas young Otomo uses science and logic. Reader of French detective novels, Otomo will demonstrate that even three hairs can tell a lot of things to those who know how to examine clues with a scientific approach.

Otomo’s capacities of deduction are impressive, the dynamic between the two detectives makes for fantastic scenes, and overall the story is excellent. 

Strangely, the second story by this author, 血の文字, is a translation from 1892 of the French detective story Le Petit Vieux des Batignolles (1876) by Émile Gaboriau. It’s very strange, but when the anthology was published in 1984, the original work was unknown. Surely, it must have been possible to find the original work…?

Anyway, given that Ruiko Kuroiwa is very difficult to read in Japanese, I was more than happy to read it in parallel with the French original. It was fascinating to compare the two versions and see that translators could take much more freedom with the text at the time than what is expected today. Ruiko Kuroiwa has changed a lot of details and added a lot of engrossing explanations and developments to exciting parts of the story (like the dying message), that made the book even more engrossing than the original. I personally found that these additions were welcome because they are exciting things to read for a reader of mystery and murder stories. 

Fuboku Kosakai (小酒井不木)

Being also a doctor, Fuboku Kosakai has incorporated medical elements in his mystery fiction. This is the case for the several short stories included in the anthology.

The first short story, 痴人の復讐, was a spine-chilling horror story of surgery and vengeance. It was also the very first work I read by this author, and it left a strong impression on me. I highly recommend reading it on Aozora, it is very short and so well done.

The second one, 恋愛曲線 belongs to the author’s most famous works. It has a similar topic to another story, 人工心臓, which has been translated into English by Max Zimmerman, An Artificial Heart. 恋愛曲線 is a story of love and science, and while the idea behind it felt very romantic, there are a lot of precise medical descriptions. 

愚人の毒 entirely takes place in the police interrogation room. The police is investigating the death of a widow who suffered from symptoms that suggest poisoning. Again, medicine is at the heart of the story, but this time, the scientific elements are reduced and the story is quite easy to read. The investigation is engrossing, but the format of the story (no action, just dialogues happening at the police station) also makes it feel unique and refreshing. The end is excellent as well. Overall, I have been entertained and impressed by this short story.

Finally, 闘争 is a story of rivalry in the academic field, and even though it belongs to the author’s most famous works, it was my least favourite overall. 

Interestingly, Fuboku Kosakai is introduced as a pioneer of science-fiction by Max Zimmerman, but in sources in Japanese, he is mostly classified as an author of mystery and detective novels, and what I have read so far belong to the mystery/horror genres.

Saburo Koga (甲賀三郎)

The short story 琥珀のパイプ was an engrossing murder case that also included a mysterious message and an inexplicable theft to deepen the mystery. 

Next was 支倉事件, or the “Hasekura case” which is inspired by a real case, the Shimakura case (島倉事件) that took place in 1917. Shimakura was arrested for theft, arson and murder, but he denied. However, on the fifth day of his detention, he confessed, to then retract his confession during the trial. He was eventually sentenced to the death penalty and committed suicide in prison.

The novel 支倉事件 is strangely divided into two parts that felt very different from each other. The first part depicts how the police tried to find and arrest Hasekura. It feels like a detective or adventure novel, with a lot of suspense and twists. It was overall very engrossing to read, and it felt like reading fiction, as the author would sometimes use narrative device for the benefit of the reader’s enjoyment. For example, the narrator would describe a man that acts suspiciously only to reveal afterwards that he was a policeman.

This whole part is very long and the investigation is very detailed as we closely follow each step. Then we switch to the second part that’s more focused on the interrogation and trial and the novel suddenly changes genre and feels like reading true crime. The author adds commentaries, saying for example why it was necessary to go through certain explanations.

The most interesting element in this part is the author’s position. On the one hand, he describes flagrant police misconduct that leads the reader to think that this is a case of coerced false conviction. But at the same time, the author takes the police’s side, finding excuses for their misconduct and saying that they had no other choice.

This second part felt strange to read, because it is fictional but still felt like reading true crime documentary. I don’t know the original case well enough to judge whether Koga’s depiction is close to the real case, or if it is indeed a fiction.

支倉事件 was an interesting read, but it also felt very long, and I overall much preferred the other short stories featured in the anthology. 蜘蛛 was very good, but 黄鳥の鳴き in particular was a really entertaining mystery about the son of a rich family who commits suicide. The story dives into the family secrets with classic themes like inheritance and succession. I also really liked 青服の男, that felt very inventive.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this first volume, and it was fun to read Japan’s first detective story. When it comes to Japanese mystery fiction before WWII, I mainly knew Edogawa Rampo, so I’m glad that the anthology allows me to discover new authors. I completely fell in love with Fuboku Kosakai’s short stories and plan to read them all in the future.

I’m learning Japanese, Korean and Chinese to read detective novels in these languages. I post about my reading progress and language study here. Best way to get in touch is on Mastodon 🙂

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