Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Book Case

本の探偵 ☆ あなたは本を探していませんか? 思い出の本、研究に必要な本、コレクション、何でも探します

The Book Detective ☆ Looking for a book? That one book you still remember, research books, collections, we will find anything.
"The Book Demon"

About two months ago, it was reported that the biggest used book shop chain in the Netherland had to close all of it doors. I have to admit that I had been using online bookstores more often the last few years, but still, it was often fun to just go through the stores once in a while. I have often written about how I love bookshops in Japan: in fact, one of the earliest posts on this blog is about my first observations of Japanese bookstores. The used book market in particular is huge. This is of course partly because Japan has a highly literate population, which of course leads to more books being read in general. But another important fact is that bunko books, Japanese pocket-sized books which are widely read, are in general much more sturdier than pockets from the US or UK for example. The paper and spines of these books are much better suited for long-term use than their overseas counterparts in my experience, so the state of Japanese used books is usually much better. Add in the fact popular chains like BookOff (who also do CDs, DVDs and games) are practically everywhere and it's very easy and fast to sell books (drop your books at the counter, wait for a bit, leave with money), and you will start to understand why Japan is excellent for people who love to read.

But nationwide used bookshop chains are of course something of (relatively) recent years. And don't get be started on the Internet, it's a lot more easier to find that one book you've always wanted to read now than say, thirty years ago. Furuhonya Tantei no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of the Used Book Shop Detective", which publisher Tokyo Sogen has dubbed Murderer's Items in English) is set in the early 1980s in Jinbochou, Tokyo, the holy ground of used bookstores in Japan. Having quit his office job, Sudou Kouhei has set up his own used book shop in Jinbochou. It's doing alright, but to make a bit of extra money, Sudou starts a Book Detective service: he'll find the books you're looking for (once again, note that this takes place in the 1980s; no such thing as Google or Amazon!). But his work brings Sudou in contact with some of the most fanatic of bibliophiles, to whom book collecting is nothing less than SERIOUS BUSINESS. Armed with publication catalogues and his own experience, Sudou starts an exploration in the world of bibliophilia.

I'll just go with Tokyo Sogen's shorter, yet enigmatic English title of Murderer's Items, even there's hardly murder involved with these stories...

Murderer's Items collects all four stories of Kida Junichirou's Used Book Shop Detective series in one neat volume. The stories were originally published in the early eighties, though this volume was published in 1991. The first three are short stories, while the last might be considered a long novella, or even a novel on its own. All of them deal with bibliophiles or the used book market: the opening story, Satsui no Shuushuu ("Deadly Collection"), is about the disappearance of an extremely rare, privately published book that was thought to be nothing more than legend until recent: the owner of the book had placed it in a library's care (only allowing people to read the book in a public room, observed), but the book had been stolen nonetheless. There were only three people who perused the book, and the owner hires Sudou (in his first job as the Book Detective) to find the book (and thief). This is the most 'detective-like' story of the whole collection to be honest, with an almost impossible disappearance and good-old fashioned alibi checking. But more memorable are the parts where Kida goes on writing about books and used book shops: he tells great stories about the lengths to which some bibliophiles will go to obtain that one legendary book nobody else has: like the title says, to really collect books, you'll need to be ruthless. There is a part in the end where the used book shop part of the story ties in nicely with the disappearance, but to me, it seemed like the disappearance was less important than just presenting a story on bibliophiles.

And that's actually the same for the remaining stories. The detective plots play a minor role, the main role is reserved for used book shops and those who dwell there. As a mystery story for example, Shoki ("The Book Demon") is not doing its job well: the plot makes sudden jumps, threads of plot are tied together in the most unrealistic ways and at times it feels like pages that should have explained a little bit more have been deleted. But as a story about a man who always buys a certain height of books and his legendary den full of books, yeah, it's fun to read. Muyou no Hito ("The Unnecessary Man") similarly has some interesting plotlines about artificial price markings on the used book market, while Yoru no Zoushoka ("The Nightly Bibliophile") deals with the search for a man who was once known for (illegal) publications of adult-oriented material. As pieces on book history, on how the used book market works, what drives bibliophiles, these stories are fun. Kida obviously has done extensive research on the topic, with many, many books referenced and the atmosophere of 1980s Jinbouchou really coming alive within these stories.

Murderer's Items is especially fun if you have a little experience with contemporary Japanese second hand book shops. The used book shops are nowadays very popular with the general public, and there always full with people. Murderer's Items brings us back to a time when used book shops weren't hip, when they didn't have point-systems or catchy commercial tunes and when it was still a very closed world.
But as detective stories, the stories in Murderer's Items are a bit boring. Disappointing even. Kida really put emphasis on the biblio-side of the stories, which is not a bad thing per se, but if the mystery plots suffer because of it... The mystery plots, while not masterpieces, could have been entertaining, if only if the division between used-books-plot and mystery-plot wasn't so skewed: developments in the mystery plot always feeling too sudden, and sometimes even unfounded, while on the other hand, tens of pages are dedicated to discussions on rare books. If only some of those pages would have been dedicated at smoothing out the mystery plot...

As a look into the wonderful world of used books and those who read them, Murderer's Items can be quite entertaining. There is something timeless to the crazy world of bibliophilia on one hand, but the used book market as it appears in Murderer Item's is definitely also a thing of the past. As mystery stories though, the four stories collected here are disappointing. In a year from now, I could probably still remember the bibliophilic parts of the stories in this collection, but I'll definitely have forgotten any details about the mystery plots.

紀田順一郎 『古本屋探偵の事件簿』: 「殺意の収集」 / 「書鬼」 / 「無用の人」 / 「夜の蔵書家」


  1. The used book market, especially the used paperback book market, as conducted out of brick and mortar stores appears to me to be in terrible shape here in the United States. I can remember when it was easy to find such stores almost anywhere, and that was not all that long ago. On the other hand, I have to admit that it has become very easy to find almost any book you want, and at a very reasonable price, as a result of the Internet.

    1. One of the more interesting points of Japanese chains like BookOff is that there are everywhere, and also usually fairly well located. On or near stations, in malls etcetera. Loads of people walk inside just to kill a bit of time (in Japanese used bookstores, it's usually okay to just stand there and read the books), and may buy one or two books as they go back to whatever they were doing. The threshold of walking inside is practically non-existant.