Popular Culture and Literature: Japan’s Greatest, Unknown Detective

Content Warning: Fictional murder

What makes a detective fiction story? Is it the characters? Is the mystery, or is it something that goes much deeper than that? Hirai Taro, better known by his pen name, Edogawa Ranpo, is considered the father of detective fiction in Japan. In actuality, Edogawa was studying at Waseda University for a degree in economics when he was first acquainted with detective fiction as a genre. After working a side job in a secondhand bookstore, Edogawa turned to translation work, specializing in mystery stories. He was completely fascinated by the works of detective fiction pioneers in the west. If you break up his name like so, you will find an homage to Edgar Allan Poe, father of American detective fiction: Edoga/wa Ran/po.

Contrary to popular belief, Edogawa’s 1925 short story, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill”, was not the first detective fiction story in Japan. A couple of years prior, he had written a different mystery called “The Two-Sen Copper Coin”, but it was quickly disregarded by Japanese readers. This begs the question: what makes “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” the much more successful detective fiction story? The story is set on D. Hill, a shopping street with only a handful of vendors and a lot of residents living above them. It opens with our narrator, who never receives a proper name, and the eccentric Kogoro Akechi, meeting at a café. The two of them are regulars who bonded over their love of detective fiction. Eventually, they observe something amiss about the arrangement of the bookstore doors across the street. Heading over to investigate results in the discovery of the dead body of the owner’s wife. When pro-detectives fail to make any conclusions as to who the culprit may be, the narrator and Akechi begin some questioning of their own. The story closes with the two acquaintances discussing their theories as to who committed the crime. The narrator suspects Akechi based on accounts of physical evidence, while Akechi is confident in his deduction of the culprit being the soba shop owner based on psychological reasoning. When the daily newspaper arrives, headlines confirm that it was Akechi who was correct. The remarkable conclusion left readers wanting more of the eccentric detective, and gave Edogawa, who initially hadn’t planned to feature Akechi in any more works, no choice but to start a dedicated series. Years later, even today, Akechi Kogoro is seeing several types of film adaptations and nods from contemporary novelists, as well as a steady stream of purchases. With his story, “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill,” Edogawa has left his mark on Japanese literature, but can he manage to stretch that influence to other parts of the globe as well? Popular culture is arguably one of the most influential factors concerning what we read. For others, it may be what they write, and this is the key to looking at Edogawa’s works, and especially the Akechi Kogoro series. 

Though his namesake ultimately went to Edgar Allan Poe, Edogawa was still intimately familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle. In fact, some of the first works of detective fiction that he ever translated were from the Sherlock Holmes series, and so it was Doyle who indirectly inspired Edogawa to write his own detective fiction story. In a way, without pop culture, the world may have never known Akechi Kogoro at all. Before Edogawa, detective fiction had never managed to cross the divide between East and West. After the night’s interrogations end, Narrator remarks, “It’s often been said that the kind of serious crime you find in Western detective novels could never happen in a Japanese building” (14). Additionally, throughout “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill”, Edogawa casually drops the names of other detective fiction stories to demonstrate his characters’ obsession with the genre. It is most likely also a way to celebrate the authors he admired during his job as a translator. Doyle in particular, receives the most nods, with a mention of “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (13) and “The Adventure of the Resident Patient” (26), further highlighting the range of his influence. This trend in writing truly speaks to the enjoyability of writing and reading detective fiction.

Doyle’s role in Edogawa’s writing career doesn’t end simply at straightforward mentions, however. Themes from “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” are visible in “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill”, being carried through without hesitation. First and foremost, there are the two main characters, Narrator and Akechi, who are blatant parallels to Watson and Holmes. Both Akechi and Sherlock are renowned for their eccentricity and near otherworldly deduction abilities. Thus, it is the smarter decision to have the stories narrated by an outsider, whose thought process readers would most likely be able to follow along better with. By choosing this point of view, it also drags the reader along in the narrators’ infatuation with these “hero detectives.” The main difference between these duos is that Akechi and Narrator have a much more equal relationship with each other. They take the time to listen to each other and are close enough that the Narrator can accuse Akechi himself of committing the crime (21). This familiarity with each other speaks to a theme in Sherlock Holmes often discussed by readers, and that is the male relationship. Several literary critics have contemplated a romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the same is true of Akechi and his narrator. Speculative love isn’t the only commonality either. Throughout all detective fiction stories, love affairs have often played key roles in the events of the mystery, whether it be passionate revenge or a lucky ending. In “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill”, love affairs were used in a way that is rarely seen in Western detective fiction, which is as a shock factor. As much as he is known as the father of Japanese detective fiction, it is no secret to his biggest fans that Edogawa was also highly interested in the role of ero-guro—referring to grotesque eroticism—in Japanese literature, which is certainly explored in the ending of “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” when it is revealed that the murder of the bookstore owner’s wife occurred as a result of sadomasochistic play gone too far.  

Another quintessential part of this mystery was the locked room set-up, popular amongst detective fiction authors, and appealing to fans of the genre because of how it seems impossible to solve. Doyle often explored these sorts of puzzles in his works, regarding them as “the perfect crime.” This is especially clear in Doyle’s “The Man With the Twisted Lip” where a woman requests Holmes’ help in solving the truth behind her husband’s disappearance through the window of a sleazy opium den. However, no one else can confirm that her husband was ever in that building. The same thing occurs in “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill.” Despite the numerous stores on D. Hill, no one saw anybody going in or out for the past hour. Even the narrator had been watching the bookstore for some time to no avail. When it comes to the clues of a locked room mystery, in-class works have proved that it’s the clues that readers are given before the crime investigation starts are often the ones that matter most. On a road like D. Hill with only a handful of residents in the 1900s, gossip was absolutely going to be a common occurrence. Upon hearing one waitress remark about the bruises littering the body of the bookstore owner’s wife, another jumps into the conversation, “The mistress of Asahiya, the soba shop on that block, is often bruised as well. I’m sure hers are also from being beaten” (3). Although the narrator is not as intelligent as Akechi, he still has a great deal more experience than the average Japanese reader of the genre, so not only does this serve as stunning foreshadowing, but it also gives readers a head start when it comes to solving the “perfect crime” with the protagonists.

After professional detectives arrive on the scene, the gap between East and West widens even more. In Western detective fiction, there is often a battle between pros and amateurs. The protagonists manage to save the day, but not without some form of illegal behavior along the way. Most importantly, they are active players in the case at hand. “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” is the complete opposite. Akechi and the narrator are mere observers for the majority of the story. They don’t do any sleuthing of their own until the professionals close the case, save for the initial discovery of the body. Even then, it is hardly anything more than a second round of questioning for the shop owners on D. Hill. Competition was of little interest, and the actions they made were all for their own pleasure as lovers of detective fiction. Holmes’ deductive process, however magical it may seem, is still undoubtedly rooted in hard facts, while Akechi goes for a purely psychological reasoning. The narrator’s examination of fingerprints at the crime scene in “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” proves that by no means was Japan behind on forensic technology, yet the information it provided ended up completely disregarded. Without any physical evidence though, Akechi didn’t have a way to tip off the professional police force, but in the end, that didn’t matter either. Sometimes mind games are enough. Akechi’s additional questioning of the soba shop owner was the tipping point. The murder was accidental, but the guilt weighed on him anyway. He turned himself in.

There is no question that “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” speaks clearly to other popular works of detective fiction. What makes it truly impactful is the diversity that it brings to the table. Understandably, throughout the semester, all the works have been set in the U.S. or Britain, but translated works also have plenty to offer. Especially during the early 1900s, Western detective fiction often failed to paint people of color in a good light unless the work was written by a person of color themselves. This insult was another huge influence on why Edogawa began writing his own detective fiction stories. As a literary critic himself, Edogawa wanted his works to be critiqued at the same level a Western work would be critiqued, hence his nod to Edgar Allan Poe through his pen name. Detective fiction, and any genre for that matter, should not (and need not) be bound by geographic borders. The fact is that translated stories will never get across perfectly what the original story intended, but they still have great value when it comes to analyzing the evolution of literary movements across the globe.

On a smaller level, it is also intriguing to explore why “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” was ultimately the kick starter for Japanese readers, especially knowing that it was Edogawa’s second detective fiction story. The most agreed on reason is the appearance of Japan’s first-ever established “hero detective.” Even though Edogawa is considered the father of Japanese detective fiction, he was not the first author in the country to incorporate themes of mystery and crime into his writing. This once again brings up the question: what separates mystery stories from detective fiction stories? Character is a factor that is clearly of high importance. The narrator talks about Akechi like so, “Although he had once told me that he was ‘studying humans,’ I didn’t understand what he meant at the time. All I knew was that he possessed a more than ordinary interest and a wealth of knowledge regarding crime and detection” (15-6). Akechi straddles the line between amateur and pro-detective. He is isolating himself from an average human being due to the plethora of knowledge he’s gained from reading so much detective fiction, but he does not have a license and was never formally trained to be a detective. To distinguish detective fiction from a general mystery, however, a passionate character with a long history of interest in sleuthing seems to be all it takes.

Ultimately, pop culture is vital to creating readers, but it can also hinder the experience. It is important to find the balance and develop a well-rounded library. Edogawa Ranpo’s unique familiarity with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle compared to any other author in Japan made him an obvious candidate for the father of Japanese detective fiction. Readers can easily turn away a story, but it was Edogawa’s job to be intimately familiar with Western detective fiction in order to translate them well. Readers must be diligent in going outside of their comfort zone and educating themselves on works before they are erased from society. The diversity that “The Case of the Murder on D. Hill” offers, and any Akechi Kogoro story for that matter, is invaluable. Literature in translation is too often overlooked, the missing puzzle piece to that long unanswered question: what makes a detective fiction story? Is it the characters or the plot? What’s universal and what’s not? Without a global perspective, it’s a question that won’t ever be answered.

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Emi Leong