"Nothing is impossible... it might be improbable, but not impossible."
- Prof. Augustus S.F.X. van Dusen (Jacques Futrelle's "The Silver Box," collected in Great Cases of the Thinking Machine, 1977)
Shin honkaku is the name given to the neo-orthodox movement of traditionally-minded mystery writers in Japan, who emerged in the early 1980s when socially-conscience crime-fiction dominated the scene, which is a dominance they ended and the movement is still going strong after more than 35 years – having set their sights on conquering the West.
Several fundamentally important shin honkaku works have already appeared in English: Soji Shimada's Senseijutsu satsunjinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981), Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987) and Alice Arisugawa's Koto Pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989). All of them were well received here in the West and made readers, like yours truly, yearn for the next translation.
However, they also tend to make us forget that there was an original honkaku period in Japan. A practically untapped reservoir of pure Golden Age detective-fiction we only got a taste of in Akimitsu Takagi's Shisei satsujin jiken (The Tattoo Murder Case, 1948), Seichi Yokomizo's Inugamike no ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951) and a selection of short stories by Okamoto Kido in the criminally unknown The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi: Detective Stories of Old Edo (2007).
Gratefully, John Pugmire of Locked Room International and Ho-Ling Wong, our guiding light in the world of Japanese detective stories, added a second volume of short stories from the Honkaku period to the list of English translation – entitled The Ginza Ghost (2017).
The Ginza Ghost is a selection of twelve short stories by Fukutaro Suzuki, written under the penname of "Keikichi Osaka," who was one of the leading lights in the genre during a dark time in world history. A period that would leave its marks on Osaka's work and even take him before his time when he was drafted into the army in 1943, but you can read a little bit more about the author's tragically short life in the introduction, which was penned by the author of the locked room galore known as Koromu no satsujin (Murder in the Red Chamber, 2004), Taku Ashibe.
The short stories themselves, written during the 1930s, all strife to be the clever, inventive and fair-play mysteries we tend to associate with the thirties, but, as the back-cover noted, there's "an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them" - wedging most of the (locked room) stories from this collection between the weird menace and impossible crime category. I suppose you can best compare Osaka's crime-fiction with the stories found in L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and the (scientific) impossible crime stories by Jacques Futrelle.
So, in my opinion, Osaka stood closer to the mystery writers who bridged the gap between the Gaslight Era and the Golden Age than with the names closely associated with those illustrious decades between 1929 and 1960. And, to be absolutely clear, this is merely an observation and should not be taken as criticism.
Before I take a gander at each individual entry in The Ginza Ghost, I want to point out that most of the stories have one or more footnotes explaining all of the cultural references made by Osaka. Some even have five or six footnotes! Obviously, Ho-Ling had been amusing himself by pretending to be Carl Horn. You're not fooling me, Ho-Ling!
The first story of the lot, "The Hangman of the Department Store," was originally published in the October, 1932 issue of Shinseinen and was Osaka's debut as a mystery writer, in which the strangled body of a man is flung from the roof of a department store – several hours after he had died. A valuable pearl necklace, nicked from the jewelry department, was found next to the body. The explanation has an ancestor in an 1892 short story, "The Case of Roger Carboyne" by H. Greenbough Smith, but Osaka elaborated and improved on the idea. So a nice opening story to this collection.
Next up is "The Phantasm of the Stone Wall," first published in the July, 1935 issue of Shinseinen, which centers on the public murder of the housekeeper of the reclusive Akimori family. Two witnesses saw a pair of men, dressed in white kimonos, assaulting the woman with a knife and fleeing the scene, but when they pursue the suspects they bump into a third witness. A witness who saw nobody coming his way! The case is riddled with weird, seemingly inexplicable inconsistencies, but Osaka provides the ending with a completely natural explanation.
The third story, "The Mourning Locomotive," came from the pages of the September, 1934 issue of Profile and one of my favorite stories from this collection!
Osaka tells the tale of one of "the most accident-prone of all locomotives" and its operators would hang "a cheap of wreath of flowers" in the locomotive, during "the mourning period," every time an unfortunate soul would be crushed beneath its wheels – which gave the locomotive its mournful nickname and reputation. Lately, the train keeps hitting pigs that are tied down to the railway. The story lacks a proper impossibility, but the sad answer to the bizarre incidents more than makes up for this.
I (largely) figured out the answer to what was happening, but, once again, lost sight of the human element and got the motive completely wrong.
The next story is a gemstone! "The Monster of the Lighthouse" was originally published in the December, 1935 issue of Shinseinen and has an imaginative premise with a genuine original explanation for a unique impossible crime.
A distinctly bizarre incident occurred at the troubled Shiomaki Lighthouse: a gigantic rock has been flung at the top of the lighthouse and crushed the lighthouse keeper, but the only thing "able to throw it thirty metres up," from the "edge of the sea," is the sea monster that was seen and heard at the scene of the crime – something resembling “a terribly large boiled octopus.” The explanation for the rock-throwing bit is a technical triumph and anticipates the large-scale, architectural locked room stories by Herbert Resnicow from the 1980s. On the other hand, the truth behind the screaming monster is simultaneously completely natural and be the stuff horror stories are made of.
The fifth entry in this collection, "The Phantom Wife," first appeared in the June, 1947 issue of Shin Tantei Shosetsu, but is very forgettable and the sole story I was unable to care about. So, moving on...
"The Mesmerizing Light" was originally published in the August, 1936 issue of Shinseinen and the plot is Osaka's take on Futrelle's "The Phantom Motor," which gives an alternative explanation as to how a speeding car can vanish from a closely watched stretch of road. The road in this case is a twisted, snake-like mountain road with tollbooths at both end, but the vehicle responsible for a hit-and-run in the middle completely disappears between these two checkpoints. A case further complicated when the phantom car could possibly have been driven by the perpetrator of a murder discovered at the top of the mountain! The birthday-clue gave away the identity of the murderer, but the solution for the vanishing car is a different story altogether.
Osaka evidently loved tricks that played around with the principle he used here, as there are several other such stories in this collection, but find this example to be as believable as it is unbelievable. I understand how the illusion was accomplished, but not that it would actually work and Osaka was probably aware of this. As he noted in the explanation that, "under normal circumstances," nobody would have made the mistake that created the miracle.
"The Cold Night's Clearing" originally appeared in the December, 1936 issue of Shinseinen and is dark, cold and tragic story with a novel, but simplistic, take on the impossible situation of a set of footprints stopping in the middle of a field of unbroken snow. A long trail of ski-tracks lead from the home of a murdered woman into a snow-covered field, but the track become shallower and shallower. Eventually, they disappear entirely as if the skier had slowly faded out of existence.
A stunt that becomes even more impressive when you realize the murderer took the victim's child from the crime-scene, which culminates in one of the most harrowing endings imaginable to an otherwise traditionally-plotted impossible crime tale. Osaka laughed at the people who claimed these type of detective stories were only about restoring order!
The next story, "The Three Madmen," made its first appearance in print in the July, 1936 issue of Shinseinen and the story reminded me of the horror-tinged crime stories by Fredric Brown and Edogawa Rampo. Nevertheless, the plot of the story is pure GAD. The story concerns three patients of a private mental hospital, called "Knock Knock," "Diva" and "Injured," who escape together from the institute and only left the body of the director behind – who had his brains scooped out of his head! There would be two more bodies along the way and this makes for one of those who-of-the-three type of whodunits you often find Case Closed. Only weakness of the story is that the identity of the murderer becomes very obvious once you catch on to the game that's being played.
"The Guardian of the Lighthouse" was originally published in Teishin Kyokai Zasshi of July, 1936 and is a clever, quasi-impossible crime story with a beautifully tragic and sad ending. One that gives a whole new interpretation to the phenomenon known as karoshi.
A lighthouse keeper leaves his son in charge of the lighthouse, situated on a small island, when he has to travel by the only a boat to the mainland, but a storm prevents an early return to relieve his son. Luckily, the keeper sees to his satisfaction that his son and the lighthouse are performing their duty in the heavy storm. But when he returns the next day, his son has disappeared from the isolated island without a trace. The explanation is heart-wrenchingly sad and the given clues, such as the keeper's imagining he heard his son's voice, become somewhat depressing.
The next story, "The Demon in the Mine," originally appeared in Kaizo in May, 1937, which stands as the longest story in this collection and a personal favorite of mine.
An accident occurs in one of the side-tunnels of the Takiguchi coal mine and the last person present in the doomed shaft, Minekichi, is sacrificed in order to save the rest of the mine. This is, however, immediately followed by the murders of the men who sealed the shaft, but all of the potential suspects, with personal ties to the miner, have alibis and Minekichi is dead, or dying, behind a solid steel door – surrounded by solid bedrock and coal deposits. I loved the depiction of the dark, clammy rabbit-warren world of the coal miners and how it was used for a large-scale impossible crime plot. However, the motive and ending of the story also deserves full praise.
My fellow locked room enthusiast, "JJ," was never so wrong as when he rated this story only three stars in his review of this collection.
Note some interesting similarities with a locked room novel reviewed on here in April, namely The Owner Lies Dead (1930) by Tyline Perry, which also deals with a seemingly impossible murder inside a sealed mine after a disaster.
"The Hungry Letter-Box" is a short short-ish story from the November, 1939 issue of Kitan and is alternatively titled "Love's Exploit," in which the love letter, written by a hairdresser, vanishes from a sealed letter-box. There's not much you can say about this short piece except that it's a short, pleasantly written story with a nice enough ending. One point of critic: Ho-Ling forgot to add a footnote explaining the cultural relevance of the protagonist putting on a hachimaki headband and "concentrated furiously on the problem."
Finally, we have the title story of this collection, "The Ginza Ghost," which was originally published in the 1936 issue of Shinseinen and offers a locked room mystery that could have been penned by the late Edward D. Hoch.
The story takes place in the backstreets of Ginza, where people go to amuse themselves, but the waitresses of the Blue Orchid are everything but amused when they become "witnesses of a baffling, inexplicable tragedy." They witness a murder on the first floor of a tobacco shop, situated across the street, but when the police arrive they find two bodies of woman clad in kimonos. On the surface, it appears as if the murderer committed suicide, after realizing she had been seen, but the medical evidence says that the supposed murderer had died before her victim – which suggests that a ghost had killed someone in "the middle of the jazz neighborhood." After all, nobody else had access to the locked shop.
Osaka caps this delightful story, and collection, with an explanation and ending as clever as it's simple, which makes you long for more translations of both honkaku and shin honkaku detective stories.
So, all in all, The Ginza Ghost is an excellent, properly balanced and historically important collection of short stories, which contained only one story that failed to live up to the other entries in this collection. And that's not a bad score for a short story collection. Not bad at all. On top of that, The Ginza Ghost consists almost entirely of impossible and improbable crime stories in the tradition of the previously mentioned Meade and Futrelle, but written with the fiery imagination of such Golden Age locked room artisans as Joseph Commings and Hake Talbot.
So this is collection of detective stories that is of interest to both readers who love ingenious thought out plots as well as historians of the genre.
Let me end this review by saying that I hope that the next collaboration between Ho-Ling and LRI will not take another year to appear. I'm sure I speak for most of us when I say that we really need a regular fix of Japanese (locked room) mysteries.