[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]
Another translation: this is the third Boy Science Detective story by KOSAKAI Fuboku. Previously we had:
- Preface (and general introduction)
- 1. The Scarlet Diamond
- 2. A Fight in the Dark
- 3. The Riddle of the Beard
I imagine most children's detective stories prefer to stay with less serious crimes. The Boy Science Detective stories start with an incident that is hardly a crime at all and move on to theft and then in the third story murder. This one goes even further. The murder of children is a crime that writers were a little shy of using in stories that were meant essentially for entertainment; but here we have the murder of a child as the fourth mystery in the series. The only respect in which this is a children's story is that it has a child as protagonist and (as always) the solution is a bit obvious. I hope you won't think that means it isn't worth your time. The answer is obvious, but you might well miss the clues; and the story is an interesting reflection of the state of forensic science at the time.
One last thing: this is a bit spoilerish, but if you don't know how kimonos are worn, you might search out some photographs or prints on wikimedia commons or elsewhere on the internet to get an idea.
The story was first published in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Children’s Science) between October and December 1925. It's in the public domain, so you can read the original Japanese on Aozora Bunko, here.
As always, the actual story is after the break. So click below to read it.
THE SECRET OF THE SKULL
The skeleton in the mountains
It was morning in mid May. In the garden in front of the laboratory the first green was finally starting to come out on the paulownia. The man Toshio Tsukahara called ‘Uncle P’, Detective Oda of the central police station, dressed, unusually, in civilian clothes, had come to visit our combined office and laboratory. His roots were in the countryside in —prefecture near Tokyo; and a case had arisen in the house of his relatives in the village there. He had come to ask Toshio to solve it.
Exactly five days earlier, in the mountains near —village in —prefecture, in a place where last year’s great Kanto earthquake had caused a landslide, two farm workers had been digging up the earth. There, in the roots of a pine tree, they found to their amazement the body of a twelve or thirteen year old boy. It looked as though many days had passed since his death. Both the body, wrapped in a hitoemono (a summer kimono), and the head, by which a school cap was lying, had turned almost completely to bones, so that you could not tell who he was or where from.
The two farm workers ran off in stumbling panic and hurried to report what they had found to the police station in the town of F—. Immediately three police officers set off to investigate and raced to the crime scene.
The unearthed body was wearing a narrow sleeved unlined kimono in the kongasuri pattern of dark blue sprinkled with white and a black hekoobi belt. There was a towel wrapped round the head, tied at the back. The badge on the school cap that lay fallen beside the head unmistakably belonged to the junior school in —village. The purse in the dead child’s pocket was quite empty. The wooden geta sandals had the name ‘Kusano’ branded onto them.
The mountain was between —village and the town of F—; but the place where the body was found was one that people would hardly ever come to. Still, hearing the rumours, the villagers came in a jostling crowd, and in no time it became clear that the dead boy was Tomizo Kusano, eldest son of Fusa Kusano, one of the richest people in the village. In particular, when his mother came, she said the kimono, sandals and other things were all Tomizo’s. Although the face was of course unrecognisable, there was really no room left for doubt.
The story went back to August 30th, 1924. The dead boy, Tomizo Kusano, had disappeared along with another boy from the sixth year of the junior school, Eikichi Tsuda. They had each of them taken fifty yen from their houses. The two boys were delinquents, to the distraction of their teacher. They had left home several times before; but this time they had stolen an unusually large sum. There were people who had seen them heading off together towards the town of F—. Someone else had seen Tomizo riding on the train to Tokyo. With all this, when the families, after waiting in vain throughout the following day for them to return, finally recognised that they were not coming back, each sent out messengers to look for clues in Tokyo, on the morning of September the first.
And then the great earthquake came. The people who had set off to look for the boys, and the boys themselves, all of them must have died in the fires, it seemed. None of them came back; and the villagers took it that they had all become part of the clay of Tokyo.
But since Tomizo, who was supposed to have gone to Tokyo, had actually died in the mountains, perhaps the other boy, Eikichi, had also been buried beneath the landslide. With that thought the villagers worked together to excavate the area; but Eikichi’s body was nowhere to be found.
Why had Tomizo come alone to this place in the mountains? The police first carefully questioned the witnesses who had seen the two boys heading off together towards the town of F—. They found that, as over a year and a half had passed, the answers were vague. It might be that the two had each separately stolen the money from their houses and run off.
At this point the police had another thought. Considering the empty purse and the towel wrapped around his neck, they concluded that perhaps a thief had taken Tomizo into the mountains and strangled him, stealing the fifty yen. But who that thief might be was of course something that they could hardly discover now. Even so, the police officers thought, one way or another they wanted to catch him. They asked about Tomizo’s home circumstances and came to a horrible suspicion of his mother.
The suspicion was this. Tomizo was Fusa’s stepchild. She wanted to pass the family property to his younger half brother (the father had died some years ago). To achieve that she went with Tomizo into the mountains and killed him. Hearing that Eikichi had run off with money, she had spread the story that Tomizo had stolen money too. That, the police confidently concluded, was what had happened.
They took Tomizo’s stepmother Fusa into custody and interrogated her harshly at the police station. The result, whatever that meant, was that she confessed to killing Tomizo.
Detective Oda was the cousin of this stepmother, Fusa. So after meeting and talking to her, his conclusion was that she had definitely not killed Tomizo. She had made the confession from a feeling of social obligation, he believed. He thought of investigating it himself; but as he could not treat it as part of his official duties, he had come to ask Toshio to investigate the case.
‘I accept the case. It sounds interesting,’ Toshio replied easily after hearing Oda’s account. ‘First of all, what I absolutely must do is look at the body. I’ll set off at once. So please give me directions.’
In no time at all the three of us had taken the steam train and reached the town of F—. When we got inside the police station, Oda said, ‘Toshio, will you meet with Fusa?’
‘No,’ Toshio answered. ‘First let me inspect the body. Depending on what I find, I’ll see her if the need arises.’
The body had been put in a separate room. It was a truly pitiful sight, a blackened skeleton. The cap and clothes and other belongings were laid out next to it. Toshio first picked up the skull. After turning it over in his hands for a while, he turned to Oda and asked him to borrow a photograph of Tomizo, if there was one. When Oda had gone out, Toshio turned to investigating the belongings laid out next to the body. As all of these were rotten and falling apart, Toshio handled them with the utmost care. First he picked up the cap and fitted it to the skull. It fitted exactly and seemed a little small.
Toshio smiled broadly at this for some reason. Putting aside the skull, still wearing its cap, he next examined the torn kongasuri patterned light kimono. He seemed to have found something puzzling and stood in thought for a while with his head to one side. Finally he got out his notebook and drew a sketch like the one I have included below, adding the words ‘parts without dirt on them’.After that Toshio made a close inspection of the sandals, the purse and the belt; but he apparently found nothing unusual worth recording in his notebook.
At some point during these investigations, Oda joined us again. He had a photo of Tomizo. It was an 11cm by 8cm clear half body portrait. The boy was not wearing a cap. His face somehow had a cunning look to it. Toshio stared at the photo for a while, and even picked up the skull in its cap and compared skull and photograph. Then he took off the cap and gazed at it intently. Finally he turned to Oda and said, ‘Uncle P, there’s something I want to look into. So please arrange permission for me to borrow this skull for a week.’
Oda went off to arrange this straight away; but he did not come back quickly.
‘Niisan, the police out in the country are really not very bright. This here is something that anyone calling himself a detective would never do,’ he said to me, full of indignation.
At last, after we had waited two hours, Oda looked in again. ‘I finally managed to persuade them,’ he said. ‘You can borrow it.’ Then he added, ‘Toshio, will you meet with Fusa?’
‘I won’t meet with her today. More important than that, we should go to Eikichi’s house and meet his mother.’
Eikichi had five brothers and sisters. His father, like Tomizo’s, had died. His mother was his real mother. She was terribly resentful of Tomizo, whom she blamed for Eikichi’s becoming a delinquent, and she angrily claimed that Eikichi’s theft of all that money was something Tomizo had talked him into. As to how Tomizo became such a little criminal, that was all the fault of his stepmother. That woman was the devil. That was why she had killed Tomizo and was finally about to receive the judgement of heaven. Not knowing that Oda was a relative of Fusa, she reviled her to us in a long stream of insults.
Toshio listened to her silently. Suddenly with a malicious look he asked, ‘Did Eikichi run away with Tomizo?’
‘That he did. Talked into it, he was.’
‘If that’s the case, Eikichi should have seen Tomizo’s murder.’
‘How could anyone know that?’ Eikichi’s mother replied.
‘I can tell. If when Tomizo was killed, Eikichi was next to him, the one who killed him—ʼ
Before Toshio could finish, the other had apparently got the point. Her eyes grew sharp with shock. ‘Why, what a cheeky child! You’ve got some nerve—ʼ she said and turned round and went inside.
Toshio had actually come meaning to borrow a photograph of Eikichi; but now that he had angered Eikichi’s mother, there was no chance of getting it.
On the train back to Tokyo, Toshio said to Oda, ‘Uncle P, when we get back to Tokyo, please contact a reporter and have them write this in tomorrow’s newspaper. In the —village case, Toshio Tsukahara’s investigation has found that the stepmother may well not be the culprit. To confirm that possibility, young Toshio has decided to put flesh on the skull. This is the first attempt at facial reconstruction in Japan; but knowing Toshio, it will no doubt succeed perfectly. That will allow us to see the murdered boy’s face. It it is not Tomizo, the case may take an unexpected turn.’
Toshio had never before been one for boasting. What could be the reason for this one time? And was the victim not Tomizo, but someone else?’
When the newspaper grandly announced that Toshio would be putting flesh on the skull of the murder victim dug up in the mountains in —district in Chiba prefecture, throughout Tokyo people’s interest and expectations were unusually high. Most waited on tenterhooks to hear the result. Some more impatient spectators even visited our office and asked to be shown the process of facial reconstruction. Toshio refused categorically. Not just that, he shut himself up in the workshop, not even allowing me to come in, and started working on his own.
At this point, I think, I should give a rough explanation of what it means to put flesh on a skull. We talk of ‘putting flesh on’ the skull; but no-one is adding actual human flesh. To put it simply, it is a process of pasting onto the surface of the skull a certain substance and so recreating the living face. For this usually the most convenient method is to paste on plasticine, which is used for the modelling of sculptures. Just looking at a skull, people cannot understand what sort of face the person had in life; but if you put flesh on it and show it to people who knew the person’s face, you can immediately find out who the person was. It is a very useful process.
This facial reconstruction is by no means easy work. So far in the west only a few people have succeeded at it. Thirty years ago, when the body of the composer Bach was dug up from the graveyard of a church in the German town of Leipzig, his bones had become mixed with those of other people. So it was decided to put flesh on the skull so that they could decide. Forensic medicine expert Professor His took on the task, and when he had guided the sculptor Seffner to reconstruct the face, the shape they created exactly reproduced likenesses of Bach made in his lifetime. It was so similar that the rumour arose that Seffner had probably secretly consulted pictures of Bach and used them as a reference in making the face. Of course if you have photographs or picture, it could be that even without a skull you could create as good a likeness as you wanted; but even without a photograph or a portrait, if you have the skull, you can create a face just like it looked in life.
A few years ago in New York, when the buried body of a male murder victim was dug up, investigators had no idea who he was. A police detective called Williams succeeded in reconstructing the face and so learnt who the man was, and finally he was able to discover the murderer.
Toshio had read about these successes. He wanted to try forensic facial reconstruction himself, as suited the present case. With unusual enthusiasm he threw himself into the work.
He had before now occasionally for practice created a face after looking at a photo, shaping the face to fit the picture: but this was the first time he had added flesh to a skull. On top of that, as his facial reconstruction would be a key element of the solution of the case, he had to take the utmost caution.
Would the skull that Toshio had brought back with him prove to belong to Tomizo Kusano? When I saw how Toshio had gone about detecting, I concluded that he was thinking that it was not Tomizo’s skull. If it was not his skull, his stepmother, arrested on suspicion of the crime, would be released immediately; but in that case, who had been killed? Was it perhaps Eikichi Tsuda, who had gone missing along with Tomizo? But as the kimono and the cap and the geta sandals all belonged to Tomizo, if the victim was Eikichi Tsuda, what on earth were we to make of that?
Whichever it was, there was nothing for it, but to await the results of Toshio’s facial reconstruction. Luckily, as Toshio had Tomizo’s photograph he should be able to tell as soon as had finished whether it was him or not.
From the day after Toshio got back from the country, he worked all day long in the workshop set up in the room next to his bedroom, allowing nobody to come near. He had a good stock of plaster of Paris and plasticine, so there was nothing to hold him back. He would come out to eat, his hands still smeared with white stuff, and as soon as he had finished eating, he would head back into his workshop.
Left alone in the office, I felt pretty bored; but since, if I carelessly went into the workroom, Toshio would be incredibly angry with me, I stayed where I was and endured it. Uncle P (Detective Oda of the central police station, that is) also seemed to find the waiting hard. From time to time he rang up and asked how the facial reconstruction was going. All I could answer was ‘Please wait a little longer!’
It was night on the second day after Toshio had shut himself up in the workshop. Toshio was sleeping deeply, exhausted from his work during the day; but I, having spent the whole day doing nothing, could not get to sleep properly. Still, a little after midnight I finally became sleepy. I was just thinking ‘At last’, when I suddenly opened my eyes to a clink from inside the workshop. I focused my hearing for a while. Somehow it did not sound like a mouse. So I sprung out of bed and tiptoed close to the workshop door. Finally the sound in the workshop stopped and in its place I heard the patter of feet running across the floor. With a sudden suspicion, I shook Toshio awake.
‘Wake up Toshio. It looks like there’s someone in the workshop!’
Toshio leapt out of bed and raced to get the key, open the workshop door, and flick the switch at the entrance. The lights came on in the workshop: inside everything was put away neatly, and there was no sign of the skull anywhere. But I saw with shock that one pane in the corner window had been cut. At that moment, Toshio shouted, ‘Argh, it’s been stolen.’
That’s terrible,’ I said; but when I looked at Toshio, without wasting any more regret on the loss, he had run over to the cut window and was shining his torch on the ground. There did not seem to be any footprints or other traces. For a while Toshio searched this way and that. Then he said, ‘Well, they finally came!’
‘Huh?’ I said, surprised.
‘I thought, if they came, it would be tonight or thereabouts.’
‘Who?’ I was even more confused.
With those words Toshio smiled smugly and opened a hidden compartment that was built into the floor. From inside it he brought out the skull.
‘Whaaat? Wasn’t it stolen?’ I said, putting my hand on my chest to calm my heart.
‘Oh no, it was stolen, all right. But what they stole was this one’s replica. I took a cast of this skull and remade it in plaster of Paris. I put that on top of the desk. The thief stole that, thinking it was the real skull. It was the kind of thief who could confuse plaster of Paris and the real thing. That should give you a clue, I imagine.’
But I did not have the least shadow of a clue. Why on earth had that thief come to steal the skull? Apart from that, Toshio seemed to have been expecting this.
‘Darn it. Nothing else was stolen was it?’ I asked after a pause.
‘They were looking for the skull. They wouldn’t take anything else.’
‘You knew about this?’
‘Yes. In fact I summoned the thief.’
‘How? You should know how, surely. My aim in having that big announcement in the papers was to summon the thief.’
‘Why did you summon him?’
Toshio gave a mean laugh, ‘The fact is, I just wanted to see if he would come or not.’
Who could the thief be?
In front of the Department Store
I cannot help but think that my readers must be keen to learn the result of Toshio’s facial reconstruction. Imagine the state I was in, then. Living in the same house, but kept out of Toshio’s workroom, my nerves were really on edge with waiting.
In the morning two days after the thief had broken into the workroom and stolen what he did not realise was a fake skull, Toshio told me he had to go out for something and left me minding the house alone. About three hours later he returned.
‘I’ve got something interesting to show you,’ he said.
What he brought out was four false eyes and a box of short cut head hair.
‘What’s that for?’
‘It’s to make the eyes and the hair. I bought the false eyes in Ginza, and I got the hair at the barber shop on the corner.’
‘In that case, you can make him like in life?’
‘That’s it. Like the waxwork mannequins they often have standing in drapers’ shop windows.’
‘But you don’t need four false eyes surely?’
Toshio smiled slyly and said, ‘I’m going to pick the ones that suit it best.’
‘And when’ll you be done?’
‘Today, around four o’clock.’
‘Really. So call Uncle P and tell him to come here at four.’
Uncle P (in other words Detective Oda) arrived at half past three. While we waited for Toshio to finish his work, Oda and I discussed the case. When I told him that a couple of nights ago a thief had broken in, and that Toshio had been expecting this, Oda was shocked.
‘Somehow I think that skull can’t belong to Tomizo Kusano,’ I said with an enquiring tone.
‘I think so too. Or at least I hope so,’ Oda answered. Tears came into his eyes as he thought of his unfortunate cousin, Tomizo’s stepmother.
At that moment the workroom door opened and Toshio came out.
‘Niisan, it’s done at last. So come on in with Uncle P!’
Our hearts bounding, we entered the workroom. There was a boy’s head placed on the desk in the centre. Without thinking I approached it. And then I stopped in surprise.
‘Hey, it’s Tomizo!’ Oda shouted. This was the face of Tomizo that we had seen in the photograph, the same in every detail. The head was so real that it might be alive, making me turn my face away.
Oda’s shock seemed far greater. That was to be expected. If the skeleton belonged to Tomizo, then Tomizo’s stepmother Fusa, who had confessed to killing him, might well be beyond saving. For a while Oda stood there in a daze.
Toshio must have judged what he was thinking. He pulled him out of the workroom and for a long time whispered something into his ear. At that Oda finally smiled and his face clearly showed his relief.
‘Uncle P, starting tomorrow I want you to display this to the general public in the show window of the Fujiya department store in Kanda. And then get it written up in the papers. When you’ve done that, please summon the mothers of Tomizo and Eikichi to the central police station tomorrow.’
After that Toshio sent us out of the room and not much later came out himself carrying a wooden box large enough to hold two heads. He handed this to Oda; and Oda went off with it, striding purposefully.
In next morning’s paper, it was announced that Toshio had succeeded for the first time in Japan in putting flesh on a skull, that the result was that the body belonged to Tomizo, and that the head with reconstructed face would be on view in the Fujiya department store from 9 a.m., and so on.
We too prepared to get to the Fujiya department store by nine.
‘Niisan, I need you to do something for me today.’
‘Catch the thief that came a few nights ago.’
‘Huh? The thief? Where is he?’
‘He should be coming to the Fujiya department store today.’
Amazed, I tried putting various questions to Toshio; but meanly he would not tell me more than that.
When we got to the Fujiya department store, there were crowds both inside and outside. When we entered the shop, Oda came out in plain clothes and led us to a special room. It was set up so that standing in the shadow of the curtain there you had a good view of the crowd’s faces.
‘Toshio, I brought Tomizo and Eikichi’s mothers to the central police station just now,’ Oda said.
Here two of Oda’s subordinates, detectives in plain clothes, came in and after agreeing their plans with Oda went out again.
In due course nine o’ clock came round and the Fujiya staff set Tomizo’s head up in the show window. People compared the photograph of Tomizo that had been placed beside it and cried out in amazement. We watched the faces of the crowd from the shadow of the curtain. I could hardly wait to see what face the thief had; but Toshio would not tell me. At exactly half past ten, Toshio said, ‘Ha, he’s come!’ and pointed at the corner. There a boy of twelve or thirteen, wearing a pattern of dark blue with white splashes and a bird catcher’s hat, was staring intensely at the fleshed out head. Seeing that face I was jolted. The reason was this: the face was the same in every detail as the head inside the window.
‘Get him!’ Oda called out and in the same moment we ran out to the front of the shop, where we found the boy already arrested by the two policemen we had seen earlier.
Leaving the boy to the two policemen, Oda and the two of us went on ahead to the central police station. The two mothers were waiting in one room. When Eikichi’s mother caught sight of Toshio, her face grew sour.
This was our first meeting with Tomizo’s mother, that is Fusa. One glance at her face and I thought, such a gentle person, how was she supposed to have been capable of murder. Both the mothers were unaware that Tomizo’s head had been put on public display in the Fujiya department store.
‘Uncle P, please fetch it!’ Toshio said to Oda.
A little later Detective Oda came back carrying the wooden box. Toshio called the two mothers to come near and said, ‘I added flesh to the skull dug up in the mountains. It’s not Tomizo; so please judge whose face it is.’
With those words he opened the lid of the box and took out a head.
Eikichi’s mother shouted, ‘Eikichi!’ and without thinking took the head in her arms.
‘It was Eikichi that died in the mountains,’ Toshio said sollemnly. At these words Eikichi’s mother cried out suddenly and collapsed in tears.
Tomizo’s mother Fusa was just standing there dazed. Onto this scene, announced by the sounds of trampling feet, came the two policemen from earlier, bringing with them the lad they had arrested in front of the Fujiya store.
‘Oh! Tomizo dear, you’re alive?’ Fusa cried out and ran up to him; but the two detectives barred her way. Tomizo, as one might expect here, looked embarrassed. He was hanging his head and his eyes were shut tight.
According to his confession, on August the thirtieth, 1924, he and Eikichi had each taken fifty yen from their respective houses and set off for Tokyo; but ill tempered Tomizo, aiming to steal Eikichi’s fifty yen, had talked him into going off track into an unfrequented part of the hills. There with ruthless boldness he had strangled Eikichi and stolen his money. With injuries to the skin he had made the face unrecognisable. Then he had changed clothes with Eikichi, so that it looked like he was the one who had been killed, and gone on to Tokyo. After that he had come safely through the great earthquake that followed two days later, then under the influence of bad companions he had become a thief in earnest.
A few days ago, however, when the skeleton was dug up in the hills and the newspapers announced that Toshio was going to reconstruct the face, he had been horribly afraid that his guilt would be revealed and so came to steal the skull. Tricked by Toshio he had only got hold of the fake, so he was still a little anxious, when he saw in today’s paper that the facial reconstruction showed it was Tomizo. That had put him at ease and he had come to take a look. And with that he had ended up getting captured.
The day after Tomizo’s arrest, Detective Oda came to say thank you.
‘When I put the cap on the skull, I started to be suspicious, because it was too small,’ Toshio said. ‘If the flesh had fallen away leaving only bone, obviously the cap should have become loose. After that, if you looked at the clothes on the skeleton, the parts without dirt were on the left. That showed me that he had been dressed with the left side in. Putting clothes on with the left side in, the obvious thing to think is that it was a child putting the clothes on. In that case, I felt sure Tomizo must have killed Eikichi and made it look like he was the one that had been killed.
Well then, if Tomizo was living, he was sure to have got into bad company. So I thought I could lure him out; and when I had them make such a story of my work in the papers, he did come to steal the skull.
That showed me he was alive. One way or another I had to catch him. I used the photo I had of him to make the head. Then I tried putting flesh on the real skull. I found that it was not Tomizo’s face; but I couldn’t tell whether or not it was Eikichi’s. So I got Eikichi’s mother to come.’
And so this difficult case was solved through Toshio’s efforts and Tomizo’s stepmother Fusa was, of course, set free. Then the Eikichi’s head was also put on public display in the Fujiya department store.