Roses bloom, roses scatter
I'm living inside you
Fly up with pride, beauty and magnificence!
"Roses Bloom, Roses Scatter" (Aiuchi Rina)
I love Japanese pockets (bunko) both for their (uniform!) size and the price, so I don't have that many Japanese hardcover books: mostly books that were never made available in pocket form for anyway. I understand that Japan is quite unique with uniform pocket book dimensions and all and I don't suffer from an OCD, but I have to admit: I am a bit annoyed that my only two hardcover books from publisher Soronsha, both from the same writer featuring the same translator, are of slightly different dimensions...
Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957), commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. Despite his status though, he doesn't appear to be available in English (save for this translation I made of his short story Muma), so a short introduction: the Great Korean Empire had been annexed by Japan the year after Kim's birth. He moved to Japan, where he studied at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo. It is during this period he made his debut as a professional detective writer (in Japanese). He moved back to Korea in 1936, where he continued with both writing new stories in Korean, as well as translating some of his older, Japanese stories to Korean. Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetsu Sen ("A Selection of Detective Stories by Kim Nae-seong") collects the Japanese writings by Kim Nae-song, both fiction as well as essays, in one neat volume, giving the reader a glimpse into the early makings of Korean detective fiction. In Japanese (for more early Korean detective stories in Japanese, see this review). I'll only be reviewing the fiction part, by the way.
The book opens with Daenkei no Kagami ("An Elliptical Mirror"), Kim Nae-song's debut story, which was published in the magazine Purofiru (Profile) in 1935. The story starts with an advertisement in the magazine Phantom, which challenges its readers to solve the most heinous crime commited in recent Keijou history (Seoul as it was called during the colonization). The "To-yeong Murder Case" happened six years ago: To-yeong, the wife of the writer Mo Hyeon-cheol, was found murdered in her bedroom. The only people in the house were the victim's husband Mo Hyeon-cheol, a young writer whom Mo Hyeon-cheol had taken in the house and the two servant women. Investigation reveals that To-yeong had an affair with the young writer and that they appeared to had a fight, but no decisive evidence could be found. After the case, Mo Hyeon-cheol commited suicide, leaving an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the young writer. And now six years later, the young writer finally has a chance to clear his name by sending in his solution to the To-yeong Murder Case to the magazine Phantom.
A great story overall. It starts with a great premise (the contest asking readers to solve the case), has thrilling developments (one of the suspects participating in the contest) and a surprising ending. A bit too surprising perhaps, because it was not completely fair to the reader: a vital hint is kept away from the reader until the detective-character suddenly decides to remember it. But the interesting twists and turns lead to a great pay-off and personally, I really like the letter-to-the-editor style of the story that is used until the very end of the story (somewhat similar to that short story collection by Yamada Fuutarou by the way).
Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin ("Murder on a Detective Writer") starts with the murder on Park Yeong-min, the head of the theater troupe Poseidon. Suspects include both his wife Lee Mong-nan, as well as one of the troupe's actors, Ra Un-gwi (who is in love with Lee Mong-nan), who were both absent from a little party during the time of the murder. Among the people who luckily do have an alibi is the mystery writer Yu Bu-ran (who also happens to be in love with Yeong-min's wife). Yu Bu-ran tries to save his love from the suspicions of the police writing a play "The Second Shot", based on the actual murder. The solution he proposes clears Lee Mong-nan, and incriminates Ra Un-gwi, but the police isn't completely convinced by Yu Bu-ran's solution.
An appearance by Kim Nae-seong's series detective Yu Bu-ran (who is named after Maurice Leblanc). Like in Main, he appears to have a love for the adulterous affair, as well as being a rather faulty detective. He's almost like Roger Sheringham. The idea of Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin is actually quite similar to that of Daienkei no Kagami: a murder case with an adulterous affair at the core, an alternative solution proposed to the police investigation using unconventional means (a solution sent to a magazine VS a theater play), a hint that was hidden from the reader until the plot suddenly calls for it. I'd say that Daienkei no Kagami is the superior story though: the second half of Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin suddenly throws a ridiculous secret society subplot at the reader that just feels out of place and the way the solution to the murder is revealed is also not nearly as satisfying.
Kitan Koibumi Ourai ("A Tale: Coming and Going of Love Letters") is a short short in which two people bicker through a series of letters about a mistakenly sent love letter. The ending is rather predictable, but I thought it quite cute. It was also rewritten in Korean to a longer and more detailed version with a slightly different title ("A Tale of Love Letters"). The previous stories were also translated to Korean with new titles by the way, but the stories are the same, as far as I know.
Shisou no Bara ("A Rose of Thought") has a interesting history: it was the first novel Kim Nae-song had written, in Japanese, but he never managed to get it published in Japan. He took the story with him back to Korea and translated it to Korean, where it was published with the current title in 1953~1956 (the original title was Chizakuro, "The Blood Pomegranate"). The story is about an recently promoted prosecutor Yu Jun and his writer/loafer friend Baek Su. One night. Baek Su wants to meet wth Yu Jun and there he admits to being the one responsible for the murder on the actress Chu Jang-mi, a case the police is currently investigating. Yu Jun is appaled, not sure what to do with his friend, but later Baek Su denies everything and says it was just a joke. But Yu Jun suspects there was something behind Baek Su's confession and when Yu Jun himself is put on the case, he can't help but suspect his friend, especially after finding some very incriminating facts, one of them being a manuscript called "A Rose of Thought", which details a hidden past between him and Chu Jang-mi. But Yu Jun doesn't give up and through Baek Su, he discovers more facts which also seem to point to other suspects. Should Yu Jun believe in his friend or stick to his professional duty?
I was quite charmed by the short stories in this volume, as well as Main, but Shisou no Bara...no. It is overly melodramatic, with Yu Jun and Baek Su constantly lamenting about what friends are, what love is, what it means to trust your friends... Baek Su's actions throughout the story also make no sense whatsover ("I did it!", "No, I didn't do it!", "He did it!", "I did it!" ad infinitum) and while there's a sorta neat trick that leads the reader and Yu Jun to the real murderer, it's just too little, too late. Shisou no Bara is tiring, as the story constantly stops to lament about everything. Main had a little melodrama too, but was at the heart always a mystery novel with a good sense of speed. Shisou no Bara on the other hand just is a little plot, made into a long novel through characters who really should learn to talk to each other in a more direct way. It's too bad: Shisou no Bara is the main piece of this book, but is easily the most boring and disappointing story.
I've read six stories by Kim Nae-seong now, and it's funny to see how some elements already feel typical "Kim Nae-seong". Take the maps for example. Almost all stories feature figures of the crime scenes, with detailed maps that really draw the reader in. On the other hand, it's seldom that the maps are really vital to the story, even if they really add to the atmosphere. Kim Nae-seong's stories also often feature writers: his series detective Yu Bu-ran is a mystery writer, but the non-series stories like Daenkei no Kagami, Shisou no Bara and Muma feature writers extensively in the plot. These writers are often not particularly well-off, but manage to live thanks to gifts from family. These writers (including Yu Bu-ran) are also very often involved in adulterous affairs with beautiful young and married women. You'd almost suspect that Kim Nae-seong was drawing from real-life with his playboy-writer-detectives. Also, his stories often have a touch of melodrama, occassionaly more dramatic than others (Shisou no Bara) and lamenting about love and stuff is not rare.
I loved Main last year and while Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetu Sen is not as good as that book, it still had its entertaining points. The short stories are definitely more enjoyable than the novel Shisou no Bara, with Daienkata no Kagami standing out as a really a good detective story. The book is not cheap though, so I'd recommend people to start with Main and then see if they want to read more from the father of the Korean detective story. For those who can't read Japanese, try out this translation of mine of one of his short stories.
Original Japanese title(s): 金来成 『金来成探偵小説選』 （創作編）：「楕円形の鏡」 / 「探偵小説家の殺人」 / 「思想の薔薇」 / 「綺譚・恋文往来」 / 「恋文綺譚」