Asian Mystery Fiction Analysis

Japanese Mysteries Before World War II

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The early popularity of mystery fiction in Japan was clearly influenced by the Meiji Restoration of 1868, which sought to modernize Japan along Western lines. During the early Meiji era, existing Japanese crime fiction provided a base on which Western mysteries could be built. The Kabuki plays of Kawatake Mokuami (Yoshimura Yoshisabur, also Kawatake Shinshichi; 1816-1893) featured underworld figures such as thieves, murderers, and swindlers as primary characters and were innovative works within the Japanese tradition. Kanagaki Robun (Nozaki Bunz; 1829-1894), a comedic writer, depicted evil women and humorous characters in works that appealed to Japanese audiences for their adept depiction of new, confusing Western influences. However, it was Ruiko Kuroiwa’s “Muzan” that established the tradition of Western-style mysteries written by Japanese authors.

Japanese mystery fiction began to follow two different trends. Some writers created realistic stories emphasizing logic and pretending to tell of true criminal investigations, and others wrote mysteries that embraced the irrational and bizarre inherent in the notion of crime as a transgression against social norms. Tanizaki Jun’ichir (1886-1965) became part of the latter group when he wrote his influential Shisei (1910; the tattoo).

The magazine Shin Seinen (1920-1950; new youth) published both foreign detective stories in translation as well as original Japanese works....

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Japanese Mysteries After World War II

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The end of World War II saw the second wave of Japanese mystery fiction. Seishi Yokomizo (1902-1981) established a new emphasis on logical detective stories with his Honjin satsujin jiken (1946; murder at the headquarters). In addition to reorienting Japanese mysteries toward more rational, clue-centered mysteries, Yokomizo also created the first major Japanese mystery series character, private eye Ksuke Kindaichi, in 1946. Until 1973, Kindaichi would solve seventy-seven cases.

Akimitsu Takagi (1920-1995) also wrote in the classic vein and created two series characters, the lawyer Sabur Kirishima and the private detective Kysuke Kamizu. Kamizu’s first case, Irezumi satsujin jiken (1948; The Tattoo Murder Case, 1998) is one of the few classic Japanese mysteries translated into English. Etsuko Niki (1928-1986) was one of the first Japanese female mystery writers. Her Neko wa shitte ita (1957; the cat knew it) confirmed the fame of the postwar style that came to be called honkaku misuter, or authentic mystery.

At the height of the popularity of the authentic mystery, Seich Matsumoto (Kiyoharu Matsumoto; 1909-1992) published Ten to sen (1958; Points and Lines, 1970) a mystery masterpiece that focused on social criticism. Matsumoto’s runaway success, solidified by his Suna no utsuwa (1961; Inspector Imanishi Investigates, 1989), was based on carefully researched murder cases involving realistically drawn members of Japanese society. Matsumoto was especially interested in the social forces that could drive a normal person to crime.

Masako Togawa (1933-    ) became known as a mystery novelist in what has been called the Seich period, ranging from 1957 to the early 1980’s, when she won the prestigious Edogawa Rampo Prize in 1962 for her inaru gen’ei (The Master Key, 1984), which focused on social issues. Togawa’s occupation as nightclub singer and owner of a Tokyo club added to the popularity of her mysteries. The Edogawa Rampo Prize was established in 1954 by the famous mystery writer, who returned to crime fiction after World War II, writing until his death in 1965. The prize continues to be one of Japan’s most coveted mystery awards.

In 1967, Jir Ikujima (1933-    ) introduced the hard-boiled subgenre to Japan. His series character Shir Shida debuted in Oitsumeru (1967; chase to the finish) and spawned many more hard-boiled stories by other authors. Jir Akagawa’s (1948-    ) success was based on his tongue-in-cheek humor in his long-lasting series with the cat Holmes, begun with Mike neko Hmuzu no suiri (1978; the investigations of the cat Holmes).

Japanese Mysteries Since 1980

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

With the appeal of socially conscious mysteries waning and the classic detective story holding on, the 1980’s were an intermediary era in Japanese mystery writing. Stylistic and thematic innovations fought off strong competition from adventure stories. Japanese mysteries also saw more international attention, with numerous translations appearing in English.

What Japanese mystery author and critic Kiyoshi Kasai (1948-    ) called the Third Wave of Japanese crime fiction began with Jukkakukan no satsujin (1987; murder in the hall of ten corners) by Yukito Ayatsuji (1960-    ). Often called Shin honkaku (new authentic mystery), these mysteries displayed a renewed focus on the classic murder puzzle and the importance of clues but with inclusion of socially relevant elements. Kaoru Kitamura (1949-    ) focused on mysteries grounded in daily life and solved by an amateur detective team of a man and a woman in his Aki no hana (1990; autumn flower).

After the late 1980’s writers began to focus on bizarre, shocking crimes arising out of the pressures of modern Japanese life. Outstanding authors whose novels were translated into English are Miyuki Miyabe (1960-    ) and Natsuo Kirino (Mariko Hashioka; 1951-    ). Miyabe debuted in 1989 with Pfekuto bur (perfect blue), and her Kasha (1992; All She Was Worth, 1996) chillingly combined a masterful crime puzzle with a reflection on the pitfalls of easy credit and stringent bankruptcy laws. Natsuo’s Auto (1997; Out, 2003) and Gurotesuku (2003; Grotesque, 2007) focused on women driven to violence, crime, and social disassociation.

As the twenty-first century progressed, Japanese mystery fiction writers continued to invigorate a popular genre. There were crossovers into the supernatural and fantastic reminiscent of the 1920’s when the bizarre and erotic had influenced the genre. There were police procedural s and series characters successfully solving fascinatingly constructed crimes. As Japanese society became shocked by ever more bizarre real-life crimes of increasing brutality, crime authors saw their most outrageous tales mirrored by reality. Increasingly, the works of Japanese mystery writers were translated into English.

Chinese Mysteries Before 1949

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Long before the birth of Western mysteries, Chinese were fascinated by gongan xiaoshuo (stories of court cases) based on famous cases, the earliest of which date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 b.c.e.). They were first written down in Duchen jisheng (1235; all marvels of the capital) in the late Song Dynasty (960-1279). The most famous cases were those of judge Zheng Bao (999-1062), the most popular of all classic Chinese judges, collected in Baijin gongan (1594; court cases of Judge Bao) and Longtu gongan (c. 1640, 1775; court cases of Judge Longtu Bao). A close second in popularity was Judge Di Renjie (630-700), whose cases were published in Wu Zetian si da qi an (eighteenth century; Dee Goong An: Three Murder Cases Solved by Judge Dee, 1949). Robert H. van Gulik’s translation covered only the first three of the four original cases but made available in English Chinese court cases that had fascinated Chinese audiences for a millennium.

As soon as they became available in China in the late 1890’s, Western mysteries were embraced by the urban elite as international, modernizing, and reformist literature. Soon, Chinese authors were writing mysteries in the Western style. Two writer friends created series characters based on their most famous Western counterparts. During the first “golden age” of Chinese detective fiction from 1910 to 1949, Cheng Xiaoqing (1893-1976) created private eye Huo Sang, a science teacher from Shanghai deliberately modeled on Sherlock Holmes, and Bao Long, a sidekick akin to Dr. Watson. Huo’s cases began with “Dengguang renying” (1914; human shadow in lamplight) and “Jiangnan yan” (1919; swallow of the south). Huo solved his original and entertaining cases analytically and was portrayed as a Chinese acting like a Westerner.

Cheng’s friend Sun Liaohong (1897-1958) created Lu Ping, a character modeled on the gentleman burglar and detective Arsène Lupin of Maurice Leblanc. Lu burglarized, detected crimes, and strolled through his witty mystery stories like a decadent urban dandy of Shanghai. As a sign of their friendship, Sun wrote one Lu Ping mystery, “Gui shou” (ghost’s hand), where Huo Sang appears to solve the case before Lu does. Both Cheng’s Huo Sang and Sun’s Lu Ping enjoyed great popularity in the 1920’s and 1940’s.

China’s Cultural Revolution and Aftermath

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

When the Communists conquered mainland China and established the People’s Republic in 1949, Western mystery fiction and classic gongan xiaoshuo were suppressed for being capitalist or feudalist. Theoretically, there was no crime under socialism, only acts of spying and sabotage committed by foreign agents and class enemies. Instead of mysteries, Mao Zedong’s China allowed only Soviet-style fante (antispy and treason) stories that included Guomindang (Chinese nationalist) agents, Japanese and later Soviet enemies, and Chinese counterrevolutionaries.

Popular authors such as Sun Liaohong desperately tried to adapt. Sun’s Qingdao miwu (1958; miasma over Qingdao) was a formulaic antispy novel written in the year of Sun’s death from tuberculosis. His friend Cheng Xiaoqing tried to write mysteries that obeyed Communist Party ideological dictates. In his Dashucun xue an (1956; bloody case at Big Tree village), three people are suspected of counterrevolutionary rural sabotage for burning the hut of eight peasants, who died in the flames. A heroic detective team finds the sole guilty perpetrator.

During Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), virtually all crime fiction, like other fiction, ceased to exist. Cheng was harassed until his death in 1976. Mysteries could not be written when cadres were supposedly omniscient, when regular crime did not officially exist in the socialist society, when the Ministry of...

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Chinese Mysteries Since 1980

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The mysteries written by police officers and published by their ministry’s printing press proved amazingly popular in Deng Xiaoping’s China and beyond. Lü Haiyan, a former prison guard, police officer, and assistant manager of the Ministry of Public Security’s Kunlun Hotel in Beijing wrote Bianyi jingcha (1985; the plainclothes police officer), a best seller as complex as a nineteenth century Chinese family saga and as suspenseful as a cliffhanger.

With “Bangwan qiaomen de nuren” (1985; the woman who knocked at dusk), Li Di featured the Beijing police cadre Liang Zi. As an interrogator, Liang managed to solve the case of a love triangle gone wrong, but the suicide of the falsely accused widow Dr. Ouyang Yun left him feeling guilty. The story slid by censorship.

As the legal profession began to rise from the ashes in Deng’s China, Wang Xiaoying wrote Ni wei shui bianhu (1987; whom do you defend), a long novel in which the author explores the conflicts encountered by her heroine, Mei Zhen. Lawyer Mei, daughter of a famous precommunist counsel, has to decide which clients to defend. Wang’s novel became even more critical because she left the central murder mystery unsolved at the novel’s end, pointing toward postmodernism.

Readers still loved gongan xiaoshuo in the new age of faxhi wenxue, or legal system literature, as mysteries were called in China after 1984. Therefore Liu Zongdai, writing as Zong Dai, created a modern Judge Bao character. His chief of detectives, Huangfu Yu, solved his first case, Gongan hun (1988; soul of public security), in more than seven hundred pages. Nicknamed after the benevolent god Zhong Kui, Huangfu presided over the plot.

Even the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, which literally crushed a student movement, failed to discourage modern authors from trying the limits of crime fiction permissible in mainland China. Chen Yuabin (1955-    ) wrote of a family’s quest for judicial justice, “Wan jia susong,” (1991; the Wan family sues). Director Zhang Yimou made this story into the widely popular film Qiu ju da guansi (1995; The Story of Qiu Ju), which, together with actress Gong Li, propelled Chinese mysteries onto the international stage.

Chinese mystery fiction thrived in the twenty-first century, despite the vast popular appeal of Hong Kong gangster films and South Korean crime cinema. On Taiwan, the intellectual elite rejected Taiwanese mystery authors for producing what intellectuals derisively called “airport literature.”

Indian Mysteries

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

A brief look at mysteries in India reveals that in part because of heavy exposure to classic, British-style mysteries in the colonial era, Indian readers developed a strong taste for this type of mystery. Indeed, one of India’s most popular mystery writers, acclaimed filmmaker Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), created with Feluda and his sidekicks Topse and Lalmohan Ganguli an Indian version of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. From Feluda’s debut in “Badshahi Angti” (1966; “The Emperor’s Ring,” 1989), published in the Bengali-language children’s magazine Sandesh, to his final appearance in “Robertson er Ruby” (1992; “Robertson’s Ruby,” 1992), Ray created a significant body of work that fascinated Indian juveniles and adults.

While Ray’s Feluda stories are perhaps the most famous, many mysteries have been created by Indian authors working in various Indian languages. Typically, their detective stories are relatively short and published in magazines or serialized in newspapers. Unfortunately, like so much of Asian mystery fiction outside the realm of internationally acclaimed Japanese and Chinese mysteries, translation into English has not been forthcoming, making much of these Indian mysteries inaccessible to English audiences.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In the twenty-first century, much mystery fiction is being written in many Asian countries. However, only Japanese mysteries are widely available in translation, reflecting their international high acclaim. All too often, translation resources for Asian languages are not spent on mysteries. English-language crime publishers are reluctant to launch Asian crime fiction, and nongenre literary publishers tend not to publish works that they consider ephemeral, if not trivial. It is regrettable that only a tiny fraction of Asian mysteries have been translated into English.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Christian, Edwin Ernest, ed. The Post-Colonial Detective. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave, 2001. Essays include discussion of some Asian detectives and mystery authors in the light of postcolonial theory; views Asian mysteries as an exciting hybrid of Western and Asian literary and cultural traditions.

Gonda, Manji. “Crime Fiction with a Social Consciousness.” Japan Quarterly 40, no. 2 (April, 1993): 157-163. Sympathetic, in-depth review of the work of Japanese mystery writer Matsumoto Seich, praised for the social realism of his carefully plotted and written stories. Contains a drawing of Matsumoto.

Kinkley, Jeffrey C. “Chinese Crime Fiction.” Society 30, no. 4 (May/June, 1993): 51-63. Comprehensive review of Chinese crime stories, ranging from national classics to Western-style mysteries published in the late nineteenth century; discussion of precommunist mysteries, dearth of mystery writing during Mao era, and the rebirth of crime fiction in the late 1970’s up to the early 1990’s.

Kinkley, Jeffrey C. Chinese Justice, the Fiction: Law and Literature in Modern China. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. Excellent, thorough discussion of Chinese crime fiction in the twentieth century. Gives plot summaries and analyses of many Chinese mysteries otherwise inaccessible to non-Chinese-speaking readers. Outstanding bibliography.

Mathur, Suchitra. “Holmes’s Indian Reincarnation: A Study in Postcolonial Transposition.” In Postcolonial Postmortems: Crime Fiction from a Transcultural Perspective, edited by Christine Matzke and Susanne Muehleisen. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006. Perceptive analysis of the mysteries of Satyajit Ray, which are discussed and placed into their theoretical context.