Book review: 『D坂の殺人事件…』 by Edogawa Rampo

Introduction

I bought the complete Kogoro Akechi series (12 books in total) and my reading challenge for 2021 is to read one book per month. I will publish the review of each book at the end of the corresponding month instead of following my usual blog schedule for book reviews.

The collection is called 明智小五郎事件簿 (あけちこごろうじけんぼ) and is published by 集英社文庫.

The art on the cover is by artist Konomi Kita (喜多木ノ実)

We start with the first book of the series, which is a collection of short stories. It contains:

  • 「D坂の殺人事件」 (Dざかのさつじんじけん)
  • 「幽霊」 (ゆうれい)
  • 「黒手組」 (くろてぐみ)
  • 「心理試験」 (しんりしけん)
  • 「屋根裏の散歩者」 (やねうらのさんぽしゃ)

Quick rating: 🥰
Fans of classic detective novels are bound to love these short stories, as they feature intriguing cases and reflexions on crime and techniques of investigation.

Review

「この世の中の隅々から、何か秘密な出来事、奇怪な事件を見つけ出しては、それを解いて行くのが僕の道楽なんです。」

Kogoro Akechi

This is my first time reading Kogoro Akechi, and I only knew that Edogawa Rampo was an admirer of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and that Kogoro Akechi was inspired by Sherlock Holmes. Apart from that, I didn’t know what to expect.

In the edition I bought, the stories are classified in order of occurrence rather than order of publication (though I don’t know if they differ much). Each story is dated, sometimes approximatively, based on the information gathered in the stories. For example, we know that the first one happens in “September 1920” while the last one of the book is dated “Spring 1923 (or 1922?)”.

In the first story, Kogoro Akechi is around 25 years-old and is not presented as a private detective. He is simply introduced as a 遊民 who has a great passion for and an immense knowledge of everything related to crime. Then he becomes a 素人探偵 in 『幽霊』 and even a 探偵の名人 in 『黒手組』 In 『心理試験』 we see him collaborating with the police. We don’t know however, how he managed to establish himself as a trusty detective.

Similarly to Sherlock Holmes, we have a first-person narrator who tells us the adventures of Akechi. Strangely though, he only appears in 『D坂の殺人事件』 (where he talks of Akechi as someone he met not long ago) and in 『黒手組』 (where he talks of Akechi as being a close friend). The other stories are told using the third person. In either case, the narrator often speaks directly to the reader, making us actively participating in the story.

There is a lot to love in these stories and if you are a fan of classic detective novels, you are bound to love the series.

First, I love Kogoro Akechi himself. He does not appear that much in the stories, sometimes only making a brief appearance towards the end for the final revelation, but he does have opinions on crime and investigation that place him as a unique figure in the world of fictional detectives.

We know that he believes the perfect crime possible, does not attach much importance to concrete proofs, thinks that witnesses are unreliable, warns against the danger of psychological tests, and only cares about the truth, not about punishment or retaliation. I find this last point particularly interesting, we’ll see how this develops in the next stories.

But Kogoro Akechi’s particular talent is the art of making people talk. He is able to extract information from people simply through conversation. His skill is described as 不思議な話術 and 巧みな話術 and people who experienced it say that Akechi made them talk as if he had used some magic.

I also loved how the stories incorporate reflections about crime and investigation. There are several references to German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg and a good place is given to psychology in several stories.

The stories are written for fans of detective novels and Edogawa Rampo mentions a lot of other famous works of fiction, including works by Junichiro Tanizaki, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Gaston Leroux. This technique not only makes his characters feel more real (as they mention works of fiction as works of fiction), but it also creates some kind of complicity with the reader: we all have read the same books. The reader is also expected to know the codes of the detective genre:

さて読者諸君、探偵小説というものの性質に通暁せられる諸君は、お話は決してこれきりで終らぬことを百も御承知であろう。(p.131)

There are some nice hints at Sherlock Holmes. Not only are some adventures mentioned, but the same technics are sometimes used. For example, in 『心理試験』 the protagonist uses the same trick used by Holmes in A Scandal in Bohemia.

And of course, what would be a detective story without a good murder case? I found that all stories were very addictive. Once I started one, it was hard to put the book down. I loved every one of the short stories, but 『黒手組』 and 『心理試験』 were clearly my favourite, with clever and exciting outcomes.

『黒手組』 has a clever story, but what I loved the most is the coded message in it. This is the first time that I read a coded message in Japanese, so as a Japanese learner, this was very exciting. I could not, of course, crack the code by myself, but once the mechanism was explained, I was able to translate it, which felt very rewarding.

『心理試験』 is all about psychological test (based on free association of words) applied to criminology. Again, this was very interesting to read in Japanese and the story was really good.

Overall, the language level was surprisingly similar to any random contemporary mystery novel I am used to reading. I felt very relieved as I expected something much more difficult given that the stories were written and take place in the 20s, during the Taisho era.

The most difficult parts were descriptions of interiors. I had to look up words or, more often, use Google image to see what words like 鴨居 (かもい) and 敷居 (しきい) refers to. I also had to get used to seeing rooms measured in ken (間), and other details that made descriptions a little bit hard to understand at first read.

Finally, I will say that I love the edition I chose. I really appreciate the effort made to order the stories chronologically. They also added notes to explain details that are specific to the Taisho era and that would not necessarily make sense for contemporary readers.

I will start book II as soon as tomorrow!

If you are interested in reading the series, it is available on Aozora!