Monday, 15 September 2014

The Laws of Detection

HIGASHINO Keigo (東野 圭吾, born 1958) is one of Japan's most successful crime writers, and one of the few to have been translated into English. I've read a couple of books in his Galileo series, including 聖女の救済 (Seijo no kyuusai, Salvation of a Saint, 2008, translated 2012); but I didn't want to write about that, as I haven't yet read the book that comes before it, 容疑者Xの献身 (Yougisha X no kenshin, The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005, translated 2011). The book I'm writing about here 名探偵の掟 (Meitantei no okite, The Rules of the Great Detective, 1996) is a short story collection that is only available in Japanese. As the cover perhaps suggests, the stories are parodies of traditional puzzle oriented detective stories. The 'laws' are the literary conventions of  traditional detective stories that govern our expectations of what the stories need to contain. (I feel a bit like Canute here, but I am not going to use the word 'trope' here, because I already knew the meaning it had for two thousand years before the internet decided to give it a new meaning. You can picture me shouting at the internet in ineffective fury, 'That's not what "trope" means', and the internet coolly replying, 'It is now'.)

The great detective of the title is TENKAICHI Daigorou, 天下一大五郎, a name which, I imagine, recalls Japan's most famous fictional detectives, YOKOMIZO Seishi's KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一 耕助) and EDOGAWA Ranpo's AKECHI Kogorou (明智 小五郎). His cases are narrated by the classic blundering, stubborn police inspector. The narrator tells us in a prologue that the life of a policeman in a detective story is a hard one: until the real detective solves the case, he has to make sure only to chase after the wrong suspects. The stories have much the form you might expect from this: the characters are aware that they are fictional characters playing out the author's plot, sometimes unwillingly when they spot a convention that they don't approve of.

Each story has one major convention at its heart, while noting several lesser conventions along the way. The chapter titles will give you an idea: "Announcing the locked room: the prince of tricks", "The Unexpected Culprit: whodunnit", "Why is the villa isolated? the closed area", "The Last Words: the dying message", "Announcing the alibi: the timetable trick", "'The Flower of Office Ladies Steam Onsen Murder Case': the two hour TV drama", "The reason for amputating: the dismembered corpse", "The Real Trick: ???", "Now or never murder: nursery rhyme murders", "The Unfair Pattern: the rule of mystery", "The Forbidden Word: the headless corpse", "About the Weapon: Means of Murder". The protests and speculations of the characters are humorous reflections on the characteristics of the genre. A western reader who had read a lot of detective stories from the 1930s would find a lot that's familiar, but some things are more typical of Japan.

The emphasis is on humour, but many of the mysteries are constructed as 'fair play' mysteries. The solutions, though, are deliberately far fetched and outrageous, often turning on the particular problems of each type of puzzle.

I certainly found the stories amusing; but I suspect I would have liked them more if I had read them in small batches over time. The humour starts to feel repetitive; and the 'in book' author's determination to leave no shark unjumped in pursuit of surprise endings gives us more outrageous endings than I could handle.

That doesn't sound very enthusiastic, perhaps. But it's a book that anyone familiar with traditional detective stories (including a couple of Kindaichi novels) should enjoy. You can read Ho-Ling's review of the book and its sequel, and of the television drama based on the book, here.


  1. Memories of having to check a half-finished thesis and changing every mention of trope to topos/topoi suddenly came back to me.

    As for somewhat more positive memories, seeing that link to my review (thanks for the plug) reminds me that the post on Meitantei no Okite was actually the first review on my blog. The first translation posted on my blog was also from Meitantei no Okite, though that typo/grammar mistakes filled incomprehensible text was written in a half trance, half exhausted state somewhere in the middle of the night because I was suffering from jetlag in Japan...

    I still love the book, though I can certainly understand why some people might find it 'a bit' /too/ parody-funny (Someone I know happened to have read the book too a while ago and she couldn't stand the comedy). But I for one really like how Higashino took each convention to its (ridiculous) extremes.

    1. I probably sound more negative about the book than I should. I don't know how professional reviewers manage the problem; but whenever I mention a reservation I have about a book, rereading the review, that seems to dominate what I've written, even if the reservation is really quite minor.