Book review: 『一寸法師|何者』 by Edogawa Rampo

Introduction

Title: 『一寸法師|何者』
Author: Edogawa Rampo (江戸川乱歩)
Published by 集英社文庫
293 pages

Short review

If you like stories like Sherlock Holmes, you will certainly love the Akechi series. I found 何者 to be really excellent while 一寸法師 felt somehow unnecessarily complicated.

Long review

This is the second book in the Akechi series. The first book contained 5 short stories, while this one contains 2 longer ones. There are some of the things I found particularly interesting in the two novellas.

Kogoro Akechi: a renown detective

The two novellas in this book are the 6th and 7th stories in the Kogoro Akechi series, and we see Akechi evolving over time. At first, he was just a young man interested in crime, and he is now a renowned private detective.

In 一寸法師 we learn that Akechi has returned from Shanghai 6 months ago and hasn’t had a lot of clients since then. He is now a famous detective, and we can assume that he does not have financial difficulties. There is a sharp contrast with D坂の殺人事件 were Akechi was quite poor and did not even have furniture in his room (the narrator was asked to sit on a book because there was no cushion). He now lives in a bigger place with furniture and is so renowned that he even gets commissions from a general major. We also know that he has a lot of connections, including friends among the police, and he even has people who work for him.

Another thing that shows how much Akechi is settled as a renowned detective is the mention of books about Akechi’s adventures. In 何者, two books are mentioned: the first one is 明智小五郎探偵談, and the second one is 明智小五郎物語.

I also noted in my review of the first book that Akechi is not interested in doing justice or deliver the culprit to the police. He just wants to know if his deductions are right, and whether the culprit is punished or not does not matter much to him. This is something that I found interesting and I was curious to see how it would evolve. This characteristic is also present in both stories of the second book.

Detective novel for fans of the genre

One thing that I really love in this series is that Edogawa Rampo often hints at other detective novels, or plays with the genre. For example, when Akechi reveals the culprit in the final scene of 一寸法師, he does it according to the genre of detective novels: he explains every step of his thought process before revealing the name of the culprit. One character even says: どちも、君の話は小説的でいけない。なるべく簡単に。In 何者, one character says that the case looks like a detective novel (まるで探偵小説みたいだね) and one of the characters is described as acting like Sherlock Holmes (宏一君はシャーロック・ホームズみたいに).

And speaking about Sherlock Holmes, Kogoro Akechi says something very similar to the famous quote “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”, using the formulation “if…., どんなに不自然に見えようとも, then…” (I can’t quote the complete sentence to avoid spoilers).

The characters appearing in the stories are often avid readers of detective stories who love to play the detective themselves and enjoy discussing about crime.

More about the stories

As for the stories themselves, I found 一寸法師 a little bit too complicated maybe. The core story is very good, but I think that it would have been better if it had remained simpler instead of involving annex characters and action scenes. It is also a little spooky with several scenes that belong more to the horror genre rather than the detective one.

Another thing that I did not like is the distinction between the good people (the young, beautiful and rich) and the bad ones (embodied here by the 一寸法師, a man who lost his two legs). These stories were written in the 20s, so it is not surprising to find depictions that we would find insulting and disrespectful nowadays. What I find disturbing is not just the role given to a disabled person in the story (mainly here to serve the spooky atmosphere and be an evil figure), it is that characters are defined by their birth and wealth rather than their actions. Crime can be forgiven for people coming from rich families with a good status or a bright future, while the “bad” ones can pay for them.

I found the end of 一寸法師 quite shocking, and my admiration of Kogoro Akechi has taken a serious hit. At the same time, it also makes the character even more interesting, and I am looking forward to reading the other books of the series.

As for 何者, it was simply excellent. It was so engrossing that I read it in one session, which is quite rare when it comes to reading in Japanese.

Different types of narration

Interestingly, we seem to meet our first-person narrator again in 何者. Among the 7 stories that I have read so far, 4 where told by a third-person narrator and three, including 何者, were told by a first-person narrator. This narrator remains unnamed, but it is clear that we are talking about the same character in the first two stories where he appears: he is a friend of Akechi, and assumes the supportive role of a Dr Watson.

In 何者 however, it is not clear whether the first-person narrator is the same than the other two stories.

While the stories are not homogenic in terms of narrative pattern, one thing remains constant: the narrator often addresses the reader directly. The narrator is either making sure that we remember important passages 読者は記憶されるであろう… or flattering our own deductive skills 読者もすでに想像されたであろうように…

Conclusion

Overall, I did not find the second book as exciting as the first one, but still love the series very much. Akechi’s loose concept of justice and redemption is somewhat disturbing, and I am curious to see how this will evolve in the next books.

The next book on the list is also the first novel: 「蜘蛛男」.