Saturday, January 1, 2011

"And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids!"

 "Ah, that ever-changing one..."
"Monster Professor and the Boys Detective Club"

This is the first time I've actually really planned something for my blog. January is Edogawa Rampo month here. Despite Edogawa's reputation as the father of the Japanese detective novel, most of his works are actually of the unorthodox, erogurononsense kind that aren't detective stories, but this month I'll focus on Edogawa's orthodox side, which is mainly found in his earlier works and his essays. So expect translations of stories and essays and other stuff this month. And behind the screens, one can expect a lot of last minute changes in topics. Heck, I actually planned a translation to start Edogawa Rampo month with, but I have been slacking. So this week I start with something I had planned for later. Which also kinda falls outside Edogawa's orthodox works and his essays. Nothing goes as planned.

I've written about Edogawa's Shounen Tantei Dan ("Boys Detective Club") series earlier, but I've been wanting to expand on that for some time now. As someone who has been interested in the great art that is detective fiction since childhood, I still have a soft spot for detective fiction for children. I of course grew up with Scooby-Doo Where Are You, I have most books of The Famous Five and I have to admit, I still read the Mickey Lost 't Op ("Mickey Solves It") comics in the weekly Donald Duck magazine with great interest (the older ones with Sul Dufneus were better though...).

Nowadays, quite a nice collection of literature can be found on Edogawa Rampo in English, but most, if not all, of these focus on his formative years, or his onorthodox side. The fact that more than half of his writing career was spent on writing children's detective stories, seems to be either forgotten, or carefully hidden from the public. The Shounen Tantei Dan series however is a series that has a lasting influence on Japanese culture, always returning in a range of different forms, be it a movie, a TV series or even reprints of the original books in recent years.

The Shounen Tantei Dan series effectively begins with 1936's Kaijin Nijuu Mensou ("The Fiend with 20 Faces")'s seralization in the magazine Shounen Club, even though the actually Boys Detective Club, the Shounen Tantei Dan itself doesn't appear in that novel. It does introduces us to the titular Kaijin Nijuu Mensou, a brilliant thief 'who has 20 faces', who focusses on stealing pieces of art. In the first novel, detective Akechi Kogorou and Nijuu Mensou try to defy each others plans. In the first part of the book however, Akechi is on a trip abroad and the one who has to battle Nijuu Mensou is his boy assistent Kobayashi Yoshio (who is more often refered to as the boy Kobayashi). Who is actually quite good at fighting off a genius criminal mind, considering he's just a boy around 10-12 years old.

I have no idea where the concept of a very young detective came from, but I think it's safe to say that at least Kobayashi should be considered a direct descendent of Isidore Beautrelet, from 1909's L'Aiguille creuse ("The Hollow Needle") (Maurice LeBlanc), a young boy detective who manages to make Arsène Lupin's life difficult. 1907's Le mystère de la chambre jaune's ("The Mystery of the Yellow Room") protagonist Joseph Rouletabille is also very plausible as a model for Edogawa's Kobayashi. All of these novels have a young detective battling an experienced criminal mastermind and they actually put up a good, if not fantastic fight.

Kobayashi's performance is of the good, but not fantastic kind. He manages to come quite far, but in the end it's Akechi Kogorou who manages to overcome Nijuu Mensou. But even if Kobayashi didn't win from Nijuu Mensou, he sure did win from the editors at the Shounen Club magazine who weren't sure about Edogawa Rampo, at that time known for writing weird stories, writing for a children's magazine. Kaijin Nijuu Mensou proved to be a great hit with the children.

And kids like to read about kids having adventures, so Edogawa created the Shounen Tantei Dan in the second book of the series (1937). Lead by Kobayashi and sometimes helped by Akechi himself, the Shounen Tantei Dan is a group of elementary school kids who fight crime. Or at least, they try to fight crime. And usually, crime is uncanny close, as Kaijin Nijuu Mensou always seems to target some art object that is owned by a family whose son is in the Shounen Tantei Dan. They do stuff, Nijuu Mensou does stuff, Akechi appears, Nijuu Mensou disguises himself, Akechi unmasks him, Nijuu Mensou flees and rince and repeat. It's really just a fun novel for kids admiring detectives.

While the Shounen Tantei Dan of course remind of Holmes' Baker Street Irregulars, they differ in the sense that the Shounen Tantei Dan isn't just a support group to Akechi, they share the limelight with him as protagonists of the series. And instead of street urchins, these are all well to do kids, but more about that later.

The final book that was written before the war, 1938's Youkai Hakase ("The Monster Professor") revives Nijuu Mensou  (who should have died in the last book), who wants to take his revenge on Akechi and those meddling kids. For reasons I don't understand at all, he calls himself the Monster Professor throughout the story, even though we all know he is Nijuu Mensou, but then again, I'm not a master in disguise posed on taking revenge on a bunch of kids. Once again nothing but plain old fun for children.

After the war, Edogawa Rampo mainly wrote books in this series (and a lot of them too!), leaving both the orthodox and unorthodox detective novel behind him. Which is a pity, but it seems the war, especially war censoring, had had a great toll on his creativity (see the movie Rampo for a bit on Rampo and war censoring, and the movie Warai no Daigaku ("University of Laughs"), based on a Mitani Kouki play, for a humorous take on war censoring).

But it wasn't like censoring had played no part in the Shounen Tantei Dan series though. 1937 was also the year the Ministery of Home Affairs implemented a new guideline concerning children's literature, that severely limited the freedom of writers. Stories couldn't feature elements that would be considered bad for the morale of the country, like too gruesome scenes or even love stories. Edogawa Rampo actually wanted to use the  word kai-tou ("strange-thief" -> "phantom thief") instead of kai-jin ("strange-man" -> "fiend") for his kaijin nijuu mensou, as a clear reference to kai-tou Lupin ("Phantom Thief Lupin" = Arsène Lupin) and make him the protagonist, not the antagonist of the story, but he wasn't allowed to use a thief as the protagonist of the story, neither was he allowed by the editors of Shounen Club to use the character tou ("steal").

Following Washitani (2000) and reading the pre-war Shounen Tantei Dan books as pieces of propaganda is actually quite interesting. The notion that Nijuu Mensou, who is a thief, a man who kidnaps children, who is able to disguise himself from homeless man to idle musician, was a character who essentially represented everything that was considered not good for the war, everything the government wanted to censor, who battles the children from quite good families (and therefore to be the elite of the future) is actually quite interesting.

Matsuyama (1999) looks at the Shounen Tantei Dan from another point, namely of modernization. The members of the Shounen Tantei Dan are all children from well to do families. As mentioned, their families are actually quite often the target of Nijuu Mensou. These children were all part of a new elite in Tokyo, the children who lived in Ginza and Setagaya. People who would grow up to be the next elite, by studying hard and finding good jobs. While people used to inherit their work from their parents, this generation could get places by studying hard and getting in good universities. These kids were the first generation that actually had their own study room and they actually hardly left it, as they had to study. It was actually quite hard to play outside, with gray walls of stone around every house, and the city effectively a maze of asphalt. The scene in Youkai Hakase of Taiji getting lost while following a suspicous man would have be familiar to the readers. Stories like Shounen Tantei Dan and other stories in magazines like Shounen Club, were thus not only propaganda, but one of the few ways to actually "experience" the real world outside their study room for children.

And what a fun 'real world' it is. It must have been amazing to have read those stories in those days! Both Akechi Kogorou and Nijuu Mensou, as story devices, do their best to entertain the children. Nijuu Mensou never really gets dangerous, and the times some trap of his is deadly, Akechi will pop up. And wasn't it nice of Nijuu Mensou in 1938's Shounen Tantei Dan to actually wait till everyone had left the hideout until he set fire to the explosives?!

And of course, the popularity of any given kids' series is visible by the amount of related merchandise. It seems to be able to wear an actual BD ("Boys Detective") badge was almost considered a status symbol by post-war kids, and the kids who didn't get hold of on, would make their own BD badges. The Shounen Tantei notebook also seems to have been quite a popular product. In the '70s, the TV drama BD7 (Shounen Tantei Dan) also spawned its own series of goods (via Same Hat).

Nowadays, Shounen Tantei Dan's influence is mostly felt in Meitantei Conan. The Shounen Tantei Dan in Conan doesn't only borrow its name from Edogawa invention, but many other parallels can be found. For example, Conan's many, many gadgets are actually a modern version of the seven tools Kobayashi carried with him in the first novel. Actually, Kobayashi's tool might be even more effective than Conan's, as one of them was an actual gun.. I hate Meitantei Conan's Shounen Tantei Dan though. Members of the original Shounen Tantei Dan at least  know when they should rely on adults.

In the West, modern remakes of Scooby Doo and even Famous Five have appeared on TV. And while Meitantei Conan may be a sort of a replacement for the original Shounen Tantei Dan, I really wonder how a modern remake would turn out.

Literature of interest:

Edogawa Rampo, Yamada Takatoshi (2004) Shounen Tantei Dan Wandarando. In: Shounen Tantei Dan 2. Shougakkan. 

松山巌 (1999) 『乱歩と東京・1920 都市の貌』双葉文庫
Matsuyama Iwao (1999). Ranpo to Toukyou: 1920 Toshi no Katachi. Futaba Bunko.

佐藤文昭(編集者)(2007) 『僕たちの好きな明智小五郎』 宝島社 
Satou Fumiaki (editor) (2007) Bokutachi no Sukina Akechi Kogorou. Takarajimasha

谷花 (2000) 「怪人、帝都を席巻す : 『怪人二十面相』と『少年倶楽部』の地政学」『文学研究論集』 筑波大学比較・理論文学会
Washitani Hana (2000). The Phantom Thief in the Imperial Capital: Kaijin 20 men-so and the Topology of Syonen-Club. In: Bungaku Kenkyuuron Shuu. Tsububa Daigaku Hikaku Ronri Bungaku Kai

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『怪人二十面相』、『少年探偵団』『妖怪博士』


  1. After reading this piece on Rampo's Boys Detective Club, I have to echo my earlier recommendation of Craig Rice's "Home Sweet Homicide," a wonderful and bouncy comical mystery, in which a mystery writer's three kids stick their noses in a murder investigation. It's one of those books you can't put down, but don't want to finish, either, because you don't want the fun to end! :)

    And coincidently, I also mentioned Robert Arthur, a now obscure writer of all kinds of genre fiction, who also happened to have created a long-running series of juvenile mysteries, "The Three Investigators," which supposedly are well written and decently plotted mystery and adventure stories.

    I don't think we'll run out of books to read any time soon. ;)

  2. It's somewhat depressing when you realize you just can't read all the books you want in this lifetime :(

    And even then...

    "That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed!"

  3. I was referred to your site by someone who knows I'm interested in discussing international crime fiction. Actually, I'm interested in having YOU discuss it on a website for crime fans being developed by the publisher behind It doesn't matter where the stories come from or who published them, we're trying to offer cool content for fans of crime stories. We pay for blog posts, not much, but we do : ) Your signature line can have links to whatever you want to promote, this blog, or anything else

    Please contact me via my profile if you'd like to discuss posting on Japanese detective fiction for us. We'd be thrilled!

  4. I'd like to talk to you privately if I may... would you drop me an email via the Kurodahan Press site?
    Edward Lipsett

  5. Coming in a bit after the fact here, but I just wanted to thank you for your illuminating posts! Since last summer, I've been assembling research material for a presentation on the literary development of the kaitou (I present a lot of educational/historical panels at anime conventions, and this one has shaped up into a 2-hour lecture covering 175 years of literature). The information you've shared on your blog, as well as in the preface of The Fiend With Twenty Faces, has been of considerable help in my research -- and also of great personal interest, as I chose the topic based on my own enthusiasm for it. :) Thanks for sharing!