Seicho Matsumoto is known for popularising detective fiction, with several of his books translated into English and adapted into films. The short story 顔 won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1957. The collection I read contains 5 short stories: 顔、張込み、声、地方紙を買う女、白い闇. Some of these stories have been translated into English by Adam Kabat and compiled into the collection The Voice and Other Stories.
Mystery Writers of Japan Award – PROJECT – I read this book as part of my project to read all the winners of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (at least, the books that are available today). Follow my progress here!
This collection of short stories is one of the most entertaining collection of mysteries I have read. The prize winner, 顔, was certainly the best story, but all are excellent and if you like one, you will probably like the others too.
Both 顔 and 地方紙を買う女 were similar in structure. We have a protagonist who is clearly hiding something, but we don’t know what it is at first. These two stories are my favourite, because it creates a tension between caring for the protagonist on the one hand and looking for the truth on the other hand. The reader does not know whether they should identify with the protagonist or keep a suspicious eye on them, and this makes for suspenseful and entertaining stories. 顔 in particular has a very good ending, and belongs now to my favourite short stories of crime fiction.
声 has a similar theme than 顔, where recognition (of a person’s voice or face) plays a role in the mystery. The two stories also have a similar structure with two different parts. While 声 did not have the same impact than 顔 it was still very good with an interesting police investigation in it as well.
白い闇 is a mystery about a husband who suddenly disappears. Even though the outcome is predictable, the story was enjoyable.
Finally, 張り込み is certainly my least favourite short story, but it was still very good, though quite depressive at the end.
Overall, the characters are all very complex for characters of short stories. Some are tormented by a dark past, some want to protect their secrets and some want to find out the truth. As for the Japanese level, this book is certainly the easiest I have read so far among the prize winners.
I will definitely check out Matsumoto’s other books!
Title: 『狐の鶏』（きつねのとり） Author: Jokichi Hikage (日影丈吉) Published by Kodansha 216 pages
Jokichi Hikage has written a lot of short stories and novels, including a detective series called ハイカラ右京, but only a couple of titles have been translated into English.
The short story 狐の鶏 won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 1956. The book I am reviewing contain five short stories: 狐の鶏、ねずみ、犬の生活、王とのつきあい、東天紅.
Mystery Writers of Japan Award – PROJECT – I read this book as part of my project to read all the winners of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award (at least, the books that are available today). Follow my progress here!
The first short story, the prize winner 狐の鶏, was certainly the most impactful to me, and the one that stands out from the collection. The story follows Shinji, the second son, who came back from the war only to take his elder brother’s place, who did not return. It took me a while to understand the characters’ relationship with each other because the story contains what is called levirate marriage (when a man, whose brother has died, is forced to marry his brother’s widow – and in the story, also to adopt his child). I was quite shocked to read this kind of arrangement practised in post-war Japan.
The story is a mystery and falls in the category of what we would call today a psychological thriller. I read it for the mystery, but it is the setting, the characters and the helplessness of Shinji’s situation that I found really interesting and gripping.
The second story is set during the war, in Taipei, and was also quite a heavy read with a very shocking and terrible end.
After reading these two stories, I felt like I needed a break from this book, and came back after reading lighter and more joyful things. However, the other short stories were less dark. 犬の生活 felt more like a classic police investigation, and 王とのつきあい was more a horror story. I really loved this one, it is suspenseful and delightedly horrific, with another impactful end.
I found the stories that are set in the countryside, 狐の鶏 and 東天紅 to be the most difficult to read in Japanese. I guess it comes from the vocabulary and the dialogues that are more challenging to me because of the dialect. The other ones were good for my level.
Overall, I was not expecting such a heavy read for a mystery book. My favourite stories are 狐の鶏 and 王とのつきあい, but I don’t thing that I will jump into another book by this author just yet.
Title: 『ベスト8ミステリーズ2017』 Edited by the Mystery Writers of Japan (日本推理作家協会） Published by 講談社文庫 439 pages
The Mystery Writers of Japan is an association founded by Edogawa Rampo in 1947. It presents two annual awards: the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for long and short fiction and the Edogawa Rampo Award for unpublished fiction.
The association also compiles a collection of the best short stories published each year. The book I am reviewing here is for the year 2017.
The short stories compiled in this edition are:
偽りの春 by Ten Furuta (降田天) (Ten Furuta is the pen name of Ei Hagino 萩野瑛 and So Ayukawa 鮎川颯. 階段室の女王 by Tadanori Masuda (増田忠紀) 火事と標本 by Tomoya Sakurada (櫻田智也) ただ、運が悪かっただけ by Yo Ashizawa (芦沢央) 理由 by Yoshiki Shibata (柴田よしき) プロジェクト：シャーロック by Takemaru Abiko (我孫子武丸) 葬儀の裏で by Nanami Wakatake (若竹七海) 虹 by Miyuki Miyabe (宮部みゆき)
Illustration from 火事と標本
Unsurprisingly, all the short stories in this book are excellent, and reading it was a pure delight. Not only this format gives you the assurance that each short story will be very good, but it also allows you to discover new authors and read different styles.
The first short story is the winner of the Mystery Writers of Japan Award, and it was so good! It is the kind of story that makes you want to stop everything you are doing and read the entire bibliography of the author (or in this case, the authors). It is impressive to see how a 50 pages long story can manage to be so suspenseful and to trick the reader as well. The end really surprised me, because I was sure that I was right in my interpretation, but I was wrong.
My favourite story is another one though: 火事と標本. This story had the more interesting characters and it had a very strong impact on me. It is the kind of story that keeps you thinking about the characters and what happened. Again, this is only a 50 pages long story, but it affected me more than many novels have, and the characters are extremely well portrayed and feel very true. The end was also very good, just as I though that this story was not really a mystery, it turned out that it was.
Speaking of impactful characters, the story by Miyuki Miyabe was to me the second best when it comes to characters depiction. The protagonist is a mother who fled her abusive husband and his family and found refuge in a shelter for women. Miyuki Miyabe makes you feel immediately close to the characters, and the story was really good. I just think that it is not really a mystery.
階段室の女王 was very entertaining and very well done I found. It felt very immersive and what started like an unlucky encounter turns into a real nightmare. The way someone who is perfectly innocent starts thinking and acting like a culprit when put in a certain situation was very well described. Overall, this was a fun and entertaining read.
プロジェクト：シャーロットis a SF detective fiction and was also a fun read. Though I prefer more realistic stories, I really liked this one and found the end very good.
理由 is a more classic story, and I found that some points were not convincing enough, but still a very enjoyable story if you like the genre.
ただ、運が悪かっただけ was unfortunately coming just after 火事と標本, and it shares a similar structure where a character shares an episode of his past with someone, which leads to a long flashback. Compared to 火事と標本, which shows us a really gripping tragedy, I fond that ただ、運が悪かっただけ looked pale, and I could not feel involved in the story of what the characters felt.
Finally, I must say that the story I liked the least is 葬儀の裏で by Nanami Wakatake. After reading a whole novel by this author (プレゼント), I came to the conclusion that her writing style was not really for me. I had exactly the same feeling when reading this short story. I still found it good and I enjoyed reading it, but not as much as the other stories. I also have a hard time connecting with the characters.
I will try to get my hands on the other collections of this series. Even though I prefer novels over short stories, this book is one of my favourite reads of the year.
Title: 『プレゼント』 Author: Nanami Wakatake 若竹七海 Published by 中公文庫 314 pages
This book is a collection of 8 short stories featuring Akira Hamura and detective Shuntaro Kobayashi. Each short story features alternatively one of the two characters except for the last one when they meet.
Nanami Wakatake has written several series of mystery novels, including the Akira Hamura (葉村晶シリーズ) series and the Mikoshiba series (御子柴くんシリーズ).
『プレゼント』 is classified as the first book of the Akira Hamura series, but in reality, it is also the first book of the Mikoshiba series given that Mikoshiba makes his first appearance in this book, as the assistant of detective Shuntaro Kobayashi.
I really wanted to love this book, but I only started to appreciate it towards the end, and never felt really interested in the characters or the cases presented.
I chose to read this book because I plan on reading the whole Akira Hamura series. As a result, I was particularly interested in the short stories featuring Akira Hamura, but in the end, I ended up liking the Shuntaro Kobayashi ones most.
The stories with Akira are told from Akira’s perspective using the first-person pronoun, whereas the Shuntaro ones use the third person pronoun and are told from the perspective of someone related to the case. Shuntaro usually only makes a brief appearance towards the end.
Despite following Akira directly, I never felt close to her nor could I really understand her personality or feel any sympathy for her. I just cannot understand why she acts like she does, this character completely puzzles me. For now, she is not the kind of character I would happily spend 7 books with… this is just the first book though, so things might change.
I also did not particularly like the author’s style. For example, I found that it takes a while at the beginning of each story before the reader can understand what is going on. It is hard to describe what exactly bothered me, but I had the feeling that the narration would always describe first and explain after. For example, you will first go through an entire dialogue without really knowing what is going on or who the persons talking are. Only after the dialogue would and explanation be given. I found it very strenuous to read, especially because these were short stories. I found that I always struggled a bit to get a good vision of the setting at the beginning of each story, and it took me a while to start feeling involved in the case and the characters involved in it. When i finally did, the 30 pages long story was generally over 😅
Overall, I wanted to read this book first because it is the first of the Akira Hamura series, but now I think that I would have enjoyed it more if I had already read books of the series and were familiar with Akira. The problem is that this book introduces two different detectives who only have 4 short stories each, and I feel that it was not enough to really get to know them. My favourite story is the last one where they are both featured. It’s only at the end of the book that I started to get used to the author’s style and to appreciate the characters.
I have the next book of the series because I bought it together with プレゼント, so I am not giving up yet!
Title: 『満願』 (まんがん) Author: Honobu Yonezawa (米澤穂信) Published by 新潮文庫 422 pages
This is a collection of short stories that got the first place in three different rankings for mystery novels: 週刊文春ミステリーベスト10, このミステリーがすごい！and ミステリが読みたい
The short stories in this book are really great, and they all have a surprising ending.
When it comes to mystery fiction, I prefer when there is a tension building up throughout the story, and I don’t mind that much if the end is not that great, as long as the whole story was suspenseful.
The short stories in 『満願』 are the opposite. Some are rather slow-paced and focus more on the characters involved in the case than the case itself. And while the end is always good and surprising, some stories felt a bit long to me.
This is true for the first short story, 夜警 (やけい) for example. I did not love it at first because it did not feel like reading a mystery novel, but the end really caught me by surprise. 万灯 (まんとう), which might be the best short story of the book, was similarly quite slow and not really the kind of stories I wanted to read, event though the end was very good.
Not easy to identify with the protagonists
What all these short stories have in common is that they are told by a first-person narrator. I found that I had a hard time identifying with the protagonist-narrator or the other characters of the stories. Sometimes, I just could not understand why characters would make certain choices or act like they do. This is especially true for 柘榴 (ざくろ), which puzzled me a little. Similarly, I had difficulties feeling involved in the characters of 満願 (まんがん), the last short story of the book.
I find that the capacity for the reader to identify with protagonists of mystery novels is part of the thrill. You end up thinking “this could have happened to me” or “I would have done the same in this situation and end up in the same mess”. So not being able to feel close to the characters somewhat affected my experience with the stories.
Favourite short stories
While I overall liked all the stories, there are some that I truly loved. I found 死人宿 to be very engrossing because it feels like reading a detective story. And my favourite story is by far 関守. I found it so good, I would be happy to read this kind of stories every day. It is only based on one long dialogue and is overall an engrossing investigation. It also has a kind of tension building up and an excellent end as well.
I think that the short stories of 『満願』 are all excellent, but because I could not feel close to most of the characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as most people. The short story 関守 however, is one my favourite reads of the year.
Illustration inspired by 万灯: 「ボイシャク村の様相は、バングラデシュの他の村に比べて特に変わっているわけではなかった。屋根は茅のような植物を束ねたもので葺かれており、壁材には竹が目立つ。葉の大きい木々が村のすぐ近くまで迫り、風に揺られている。」 (p.200)
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:
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.
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:
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!
Title: 『探偵さえいなければ』(たんていさえいなければ) Author: Tokuya HIGASHIGAWA (東川篤哉) Published by 光文社文庫 292 pages
『探偵さえいなければ』is the eighth and most recent book in the Ikagawa city series (烏賊川市シリーズ). This book is a collection of short stories.
I love humour in crime fiction, but it is always hard to find good humoristic books about murder that both make the reader smile or laugh and deliver a good crime story. 『探偵さえいなければ』 is just that. It is a delightful read that was very funny, plays with the codes of crime fiction but still offers suspenseful stories about solving a murder or get away with it.
The book is a collection of five short stories that take place in Ikagawa, a place where there always seems to be a murder on the making somewhere. Most stories feature detective Ukai who might well become one of my favourite fictional detectives. As an avid reader of murder stories, I have encountered a lot of different detectives, but the “bad” detective who somehow manages to solves cases in spite of his questionable deduction skills… that feels new and exciting!!
There is a lot of humour in the stories, from Ukai’s harebrained deductions to perilous alibis settings, there are numerous comical scenes and effects. All short stories were equally good and I was completely engrossed in each of them.
Unfortunately, I haven’t read the other books of the series before reading this one. It is totally fine to read 『探偵さえいなければ』without having read the previous books, but I would still recommend to read the series in order as the author does hint at some previous cases and there are recurring characters.
This book belongs to my best reads this year, and I will definitely read the whole Ikagawa series!
Title: 『予知夢』 (よちむ) Author: Keigo HIGASHINO (東野 圭吾) Published by 文春文庫 270 pages
This collection of five short stories is the second book in the Galileo series. The short stories were first published between 1998 and 2000 in the magazine オール読物 (よみもの).
This second book in the Galileo series is slightly different from the first one, 『探偵ガリレオ』. In my review of this first volume, I said that physics-related explanations were present in each story, and that they never really managed to trigger my interest nor to really convince me.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the stories in 『予知夢』 have taken a different direction. The scientific elements are dramatically reduced. Instead of presenting us with a problem that is apparently impossible and explain it with science, the short stories in 『予知夢』 present us with apparently supernatural phenomenons and explain them with logic, rationalism and deductions.
I found this book extremely addictive, I have read one short story a day, completely putting aside my other books. I love the theme of supernatural elements, and how it is explained in a rational way. I also start getting used to and liking the character of Yukawa, whom I did not particularly like in the first book. Overall, going through all these short stories allowed me to feel closer to the duo of protagonists.
If you want to read the Galileo series but are not particularly excited about physics and science, you could skip the first book and start the series with 『予知夢』 . In any case, 『予知夢』 is a book that I recommend, especially if you prefer reading short stories in Japanese instead of diving into a whole novel.
Title: 『探偵ガリレオ』 (たんていがりれお) Author: Keigo HIGASHINO (東野 圭吾) Published by 文春文庫 330 pages
This book is a collection of 5 short stories all initially published for the magazine オール讀物 between 1996 and 1998. This book is also the first installment in the Galileo series, but even though several books of the series are translated in English, this opening title has not been translated.
Reading Keigo Higashino after quite a long time really feels good. I am always amazed at how good his short stories are. Even in a reduced number of pages you get all the thrill of a good crime novel.
The short stories of 『探偵ガリレオ』 all follow a similar pattern with detective Kusanagi investigating a murder case and asking for his friend’s advice, the physician Yukawa, whom Kusanagi’s chief calls Galileo.
All the stories and cases have a scientific element to them, usually related to how the murder was committed but not exclusively. This element explains the necessity for Kusanagi to seek Yukawa’s advice, and it also distinguishes the Galileo series from Higashino’s other books.
I was a little surprised by the systematic introduction of a scientific explanation in the short stories. The only books I have read from the Galileo series are The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of a Saint which are respectively the third and fifth books in the series. I may be remembering wrongly, but I don’t recall these two books as containing much, if any, physics. Either I am mistaken, or there has been a change in the series, from more to less scientific.
To be honest, I am not super interested in the technical or scientific explanations and physics has always been the subject I hated the most at school. Even though they are explained in easy terms (conveniently for the reader, Kusanagi is 理系オンチ), Yukawa’s scientific explanations often left me skeptical, clueless or bored.
The main particularity of the Galileo series (or at least, the first book) is the scientific element, so it looks like it does not make much sense for me to read the series. But the thing is that I loved this first book so much that I immediately purchased the second volume after finishing it. Even if you are not that into physics, the short stories remain extremely engrossing. They are worth reading for the investigation only, the scientific part being a plus for readers who like physics.
I still prefer the Kaga series over the Galileo series so far, but I found this first book very addictive!
Title: 『駐在日記』 (ちゅうざいにっき) Author: Yukiya SHOJI (小路 幸也) Published by 中公文庫 253 pages
Yukiya Shoji is a prolific author of fiction who wrote several mystery novels including the series “Tokyo Bandwagon” (東京バンドワゴン).
『駐在日記』 was first published in 2017 and got its first pocket edition this year (2020). There is a second volume entitled 『あの日にかえりたい』(published in 2019), which seems to be the direct following of 『駐在日記』. It is certainly better to read 『駐在日記』 first, as it introduces the characters and the setting.
『駐在日記』 is a short novel divided into four chapters. We follow the young couple Hana and Shuhei as they settle in the small and rural Kijiyama in 1975. Shuhei has been posted here as policeman and the couple moves in the police substation (駐在所). Hana decides to write a journal about their life there. Each chapter is devoted to a different case, but the story follows a chronological order and the book cannot be read as a collection of short stories.
I bought this book because I love mystery novels and I also enjoy reading stories set in the countryside. This book was exactly what I was expecting and I enjoyed reading it. I was not expecting too much in terms of criminal investigation because Kijiyama is a peaceful village, and indeed, this is not a book that you will read for the thrill of tracking a murderer. I found the mysteries in the book a little too obvious and easy to crack, but it was still very pleasant to go through them with Shuhei, Hana and the other inhabitants of Kijiyama.
I loved the setting and the characters even though I did not particularly feel that the story happens in 1975. I don’t know how a Japanese reader would see it, but to me, the novel lacked references or details that would set it in the early 70s. At times, I forgot that the story was taking place 50 years ago.
There is maybe just one thing that I did not like but that did not prevent me from enjoying the book overall. After some time reading, it became evident that everyone in Kijiyama would be nice and good. There is no real bad guy and more generally speaking, the countryside lifestyle is depicted in an idealised way: the villagers help each other, they share what they possess with their neighbours, etc.
To conclude, I enjoyed 『駐在日記』 and this is a book I recommend if you like light mystery novels. I don’t think that I will read the second tome 『あの日にかえりたい』, but I am very interested in trying the series Tokyo Bandwagon.