The Meiji Guillotine Murders (1979) by Futaro Yamada

Late last year, I put together a list of ten "Non-English Detective Novels That Need to Be Translated" from Europe, Asia and the Americas, but, as noted in the introduction, the list could be entirely filled with the Japanese titles Ho-Ling Wong has discussed on his blog – enough to put together a top 100. One of those intriguing-sounding detective novels Ho-Ling has discussed over the years is Meiji dantodai (The Meiji Guillotine Murders, 1979) by "Futaro Yamada" (penname of Seiya Yamada). A collection of short, connected historical mystery stories or rather an episodic novel with the epilogue turning it into a complete narrative ("...never seen it done as good as here") praised by Ho-Ling as a masterpiece and one of the best mysteries he has ever read. So a translation seemed next to impossible when he reviewed the book in 2013. Fortunately, Pushkin Vertigo asked Ho-Ling for a list of (shin) honkaku recommendations for possible future translations and one of the suggestions was The Meiji Guillotine Murders.

Futaro Yamada was a writer best remembered in his native country for his historical fiction and ninja stories. Reportedly discovered by Edogawa Rampo, Yamada first short story, "Daruma-tōge no jiken" ("The Incident on Dharma Pass," 1947), bagged an award from Hôseki magazine. That short story was not Yamada's last dalliance with the detective story.

The Meiji Guillotine Murders is set in 1869 Tokyo, "although it had been renamed Tokyo, it was still, to be sure, the old capital of Edo," which is the first year of the Meiji Restoration that ended the reign of the shogunate and restored imperial rule – opening the country to the rest of the world. Until then, the country had been under the military dictatorship of the Tokugawa shogunate for two and a half centuries that enforced a policy of national isolation (*). A state of affairs rudely interrupted by the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry's "Black Ships," in 1853, who forced a treaty on Japan opening it up to international trade and diplomacy. Naturally, these rapid changes were not welcomed by everyone, destabilized the sitting power and exploded in a full-blown rebellion known as the Boshin Civil War of 1868-69. The outcome of this civil war restored imperial rule in the young Emperor Meiji and the new government began a process of rapid Westernization, which causes even more social upheavals, political turmoil and, what can be generously termed, growing pains of the Meiji Restoration.

This short story collection-cum-novel takes place during the first year of that brave new era for Japan, but the government had their hands full. Not only had the country to rapidly catch up with the West, but they had to contend with political assassins, rebels and deeply-rooted corruption. So they reinstated the Imperial Prosecuting Office, "a revival of a Heian-period administration," created "to investigate and root out official corruption." There the three protagonists of The Meiji Guillotine Murders enter the picture.

Chief Inspector Toshiyoshi Kawaji is a real historical figure who was tasked with setting up and recruiting men for the new Japanese police force, which in the beginning comprised of several thousand men "charged with maintaining public order in the capital." Chief Inspector Keishirō Kazuki is his colleague and friendly rival ("in the best sense of the term, let's be rivals") who imported a guillotine from France, because "the old method of beheading by sword is on the way out," but "that French beheading block" is not all he brought back from Europe – returning with a golden-haired woman, Esmeralda Sanson. She's the ninth generation of the Sanson family of Parisian executioners and something of a spiritual medium. Every case ends with Esmeralda going into a trance and have the ghost of the victim explain everything happened. Always opening with the lines, "for the first time since arriving in the land of the dead... I can see the land of the living without hindrance." How's that for a setup?

Before delving into the story, it's important to keep in mind The Meiji Guillotine Murders is very different from most Japanese mysteries translated up until now. Particularly if you're only familiar what has been translated over the past 5-10 years. And, knowing some of my regular readers, the book requires some patience to get through.

First of all, The Meiji Guillotine Murders is, as noted before, an episodic novel structured like a short story collection. However, the book begins with two stories, "The Chief Inspectorate of the Imperial Prosecuting Office" and "Esmeraldo the Miko," merely laying the groundwork. They introduce the reader to the three main characters, sketching a picture of 1869 Tokyo and the French contraption getting erected on the execution ground at the Kodenma-chō jail. And getting tested on a couple of unfortunate criminals. After the introduction, the two Chief Inspectors of the Imperial Prosecuting Office get to investigate a handful of cases in five long-ish short stories divided in a setup (roughly 30 pages) and the discovery of the crime with its conclusion being covered in the remaining twenty-some pages. There's a wealth of detail, both historically and to the overarching story, in those preambles to murder. So discussing them in depth is impossible and will only look at the detective elements of those story.

"Kaidan tsukiji hotel kan" ("The Strange Incident at the Tsukiji Hotel") centers on the potential consequences of an unlawful execution coalescing around the titular hotel with a bell tower atop of its roof. A case culminating in a man being found at the bottom of the tower stairs, "abdomen clearly cut open and his innards spilling out," but the suspects who discovered the body had vowed never to kill again. Only other suspect possessed a rock solid alibi. The trick is ingeniously grotesque and agree with Ho-Ling it's something Soji Shimada could have dreamed up, but this story predated his first novel by several years. "America yori ai wo komete" ("From America with Love") has an original take on the no-footprints scenario: two rickshaws end up in the freezingly cold river drowning its sole occupant. Curiously enough, there are wheel tracks of the rickshaws in the snows, but "there are no footprints from the person pulling it" between them. I envisioned a very different solution to the impossibility, but a good and fun story also involving political assassinations, corruption and a haunted cemetery. "Eitaibashi no kubitsuribito" ("The Hanged Man at the Eitai Bridge") reads like a historical reimagining of Freeman Wills Crofts and his alibi-breaking, in which the victim is found hanging from the Eitai Bridge over the Sumida River and the murderer turns out to have a peach of an alibi. The solution is very clever with the period setting doubling as a smokescreen to the correct answer. A great example of the historical mystery in how the setting is used to build up the plot. "Engankyou ashikiri ezu" ("Eyes and Legs") and "Onore no kubi wo daku shitai" ("The Corpse That Cradled Its Own Head") do what so many Japanese detective stories enjoy doing, playing around with body parts. The former introduced a pair of binoculars to the capital and immediately a murder is observed through it ("they were cutting her flesh with a dagger and sawing right through the bone"), while the former toys around with severed heads of executed prisoners.

A hazy kind of vagueness began clouding the endings to those last two cases and made me wonder how, exactly, Yamada was planning to pull everything together in a tight, coherent narrative – which worried me for a second. It proved to be unnecessary as the last story, or chapter, "Seigi no seifu wa arieru ka" ("Can There Be a Just Government?") provided a conclusion that delivered on all fronts. I had some ideas in what direction the story could be headed and harbored certain suspicions against someone, but didn't imagine anything like this. A grand historical double play on (ROT13) gur yrnfg yvxryl fhfcrpg gebcr. More importantly, Yamada wrote and plotted a historical detective novel with crimes and motives that feel indigenous to that specific time and place in history.

I'm very picky when it comes to historical mysteries and impossible crime stories, because both obliges the author to do something with it. Preferably something good. I don't want a historical mystery where the setting only functions as period dressing or backdrop for the story and character. Nor do I want locked room mysteries with uninspired, routine solutions or tricks that belong back in the 19th century. So love historical impossible crime novels like John Dickson Carr's Captain Cut-Throat (1955), Robert van Gulik's The Red Pavilion (1961), Paul Doherty's A Murder in Thebes (1998) and more recently James Scott Byrnside's The Strange Case of the Barrington Hills Vampire (2020) and Jim Noy's The Red Death Murders (2022). You can add The Meiji Guillotine Murders to the list.

The Meiji Guillotine Murders is engrossing, richly detailed gem of a historical mystery novel that stands out due to it being structured like a collection of shorter stories, which allows it to deliver a stunner of an ending. Highly recommended. Just keep in mind The Meiji Guillotine Murders is very different from what most of you have come to expect from Japanese writers like Seishi Yokomizo and Yukito Ayatsuji.

*: Only exception to the strict policy of isolationism was the Dutch enclave of Dejima, which was their umbilical cord to the outside world. It's also the setting of the excellent Judge Ooka historical mystery novella "Een lampion voor een blinde" ("A Lantern for the Blind," 1973) by Dutch poet Bertus Aafjes. The ultimate "isolated island" mystery that deserves to be translated and should be bundled together with an English translation of Seicho Matsumoto's novella "Amusuterudamu-unga satsuyin jiken" ("The Amsterdam Canal Murder Case," 1969). A Dutch and Japanese writer writing detective stories that take place in each others countries is a great hook to hawk a pair of novellas.


  1. Thanks for the review. Agreed on all points. Slower start, but worth it in the end. My favorite case is probably "The Strange Incident at the Tsukiji Hotel". Though I still don't understand some parts of the solution (ROT13: ubj gur fgenc cneg bs gur trgn vfa'g phg ol gur fjbeq. Gur obbx rkcynvarq gur bevragngvba bs gur fjbeq ba gur trgn, ohg V fgvyy pna'g vzntvar vg. V guvax vs gur fjbeq vf uryq va cynpr ol gur fgencf, gur fgencf fubhyq or phg jura gur fjbeq fynfu gur ivpgvz. Jvfu gurer vf n qvntenz.)

    This review also is similar to how I feel when reading "The Samurai and the Prisoner". Usually the crime tricks are what I like the most in detective novels, but in both of these books, the motives are really interesting. They are tailored specifically to their historical setting.

    Anyway, I am glad that Pushkin decide to publish this. Usually, they publish multiple works by the same author, so there is a good chance that more Yamada Futaro's work will be translated. From Ho-ling's review, the rest of his novels seems to be really good as well.

    1. Yes, tricks like that should always come with a diagram to help visualize it, but love the general idea of it. Something you can only find in a Japanese mystery. Have you read Chin Shunsin's historical novel Murder in a Peking Studio? It's in a similar vein as The Meiji Guillotine Murders and, going by your comment, The Samurai and the Prisoner with a slow start to setup the historical backdrop, before introducing a double locked room mystery. All tied together, of course. The book has been out-of-print for decades and virtually unknown today, but well worth seeking out if you liked The Meiji Guillotine Murders and The Samurai and the Prisoner. I don't know why I forgot to mention Murder in a Peking Studio in the review.

    2. 'Murder in a Peking Studio' seems to be interesting, but unfortunate that it is out of print. At least it seems to be available used online, unlike 'The Resurrection Fireplace' which is becoming one of the most elusive oop mystery novel.

      Also forget to mention regarding Meiji, I also liked how the author used real-life historical events as part of the solution. ROT13: Va "Rlrf naq Yrtf", Fnjnzhen Gnabfhxr VVV vf npghnyyl n erny-yvsr svther jubfr yrt vf npghnyyl nzchgngrq ol Wnzrf Phegvf Urcohea. Fb ernqre jub xabj Wncnarfr uvfgbel zvtug trg nqqvgvbany pyhr sbe gur fbyhgvba.

    3. Used copies of Murder in a Peking Studio are not impossible to find. There's always the possibility Pushkin Vertigo decides to reprint it one of these days, which they have done with previously translated novels of Seishi Yokomizo, Soji Shimada and Yukito Ayatsuji, before translating further novels by those authors. So keep my fingers crossed for a Puskin reprint, because it's the best shot of getting a translation of Shunshin's Tricolor Family sometime down the line.

      It's amazing how quickly The Resurrection Fireplace disappeared from print, but the most elusive, out-of-print novel of this kind has to be Ning Xu's Murder at the Drum Tower. I sometimes question its existence.

  2. Wow this sounds like a great book, it would be cool if they released it in the U.S. someday (Pushkin Vertigo moment)

    1. Can't you just order a copy from somewhere like Amazon?

    2. Lol no. I probably could if I switched my region to the UK, but then I'd have to make a new account using a VPN and pay international shipping. Amazon does everything they can to stop you from buying things from international markets. If I'm going to all that trouble, I'd rather get something in Japanese that won't ever make it on the US website.

      Maybe other sites would work, but I have enough other books to read that I'd rather wait then try to figure it out (though that won't stop me from complaining).

      I'm also not sure why it takes Pushkin like eight months to translate their books from British English to American English, but I'm guessing it's a publication rights thing.

  3. While reading, I admit that while the individual tricks were very ambitious, the cluing and reasoning didn't come close to scratching anything resembling fairplay, and the mysteries themselves were very thin, taking up a stark minority of the individual stories. While this had me worried for much of the book, I was positively floored to find out how it all came together in the end. This kind of interconnection is one of my favorite underused tropes of the genre, and should I ever write mysteries myself regardless of medium, I hope to write them with as deft and skillful overarching plotting as goes on here!

    1. This one is definitely a prime example of saving the best for last and perfect for a historical mystery like this. You're right it's surprisingly under used with only a few short stories springing to mind. It's still amazing how much detective fiction has been produced since Poe and how many, practically untapped, reservoirs of potential remain. So look forward to what you eventually cook up.