Thursday, February 16, 2012



"Like how a musician is sensitive to dissonance, it might be necessary for a detective to be sensitive to dissonance to the truth"
"The Dwarf"

I was contemplating making a 'crazy-dwarf-playing-with-dismembered-body-parts' tag for this post, but then I remembered I have a batshit-Edogawa-insane-awesome tag here! For when things get so grotesquely absurd that no other word can describe the amount of awesomeness.

Issunboushi ("The Dwarf") starts with a young man, Kobayashi Monzou, taking a walk at night through Asakusa, when he spots a dwarf sitting in the park. The dwarf, as he leaves the park, accidently drops a parcel on the ground. The parcel contains a human hand to Monzou's great surprise and he decides to follow this mysterious dwarf. After long walk through Asakusa, the dwarf disappears into a temple. The following day, the newspapers are all reporting about the discovery of a chopped off female hand and Monzou decides to look for the dwarf again, but the monk at the temple swears no dwarf lives there. Confused, Monzou leaves the temple again and comes across Yamano Yurie, the young and beautiful wife of an acquaintance. It seems like her stepdaughter Michiko has run away from her home and Yurie wants to ask Monzou's friend, the famous amateur detective Akechi Kogorou to help him find her. Akechi however suspects that Michiko might not have left her home on her own will. And as more dismembered pieces of a female body are found throughout the city, it doesn't take long for Monzou to connect the pieces. Who is this dwarf and what is his connection to the Yamano family?

Issunboushi was Rampo's first novel serialized in a newspaper (in 1926), which is pretty much proof of his immense popularity. A novel serialization in a newspaper in those times was like having a TV drama now! In the foreword, Rampo warned the readers that his particular kind of detective fiction was not like the classics, nor like the works of other, contemporary detective writers. His brand of detective fiction was indeed different, borrowing heavily from horror and also distinctly modern and aimed at the masses, which is what made him so widely popular. Rampo did not rate Issunboushi too well in later years, but it was a hit with the public at the time and was also the first Rampo story that made the jump to the silver screen in 1927 (and was remade a couple of times later).

As a detective story, this is actually quite decent. While the grotesque horror plots elements are overshadowing the detective plot, the latter is still constructed adequately and Issunboushi can still be considered an orthodox detective story with layered solutions even and both hard and psychological evidence. There are some really farfetched parts in the story too though (like how the dwarf keeps disappearing), but the main mystery is perfectly solvable based on the hints given to the reader. What is interesting to the mystery though, is how the story at first doesn't look like a real mystery (I mean, the book is called The Dwarf and we have a dwarf dropping body parts). It takes some time for the plot to really settle (and it might hard to recognize it because of the sheer weirdness of the dwarf's actions), but it is there and it is quite good.

The appearance of Akechi Kogorou in this story is pretty unique. Akechi hadn't starred in any of Rampo's stories for some time now, so the story starts with explaining how he had been on business in Shanghai. Which somehow explains why Akechi suddenly decided to dress in traditional Chinese dress. Wait, no, it doesn't. Why would he dress like that? Anyway, Akechi is officially still an amateur detective in this story, but he has assistants (not young Kobayashi though) and as his name was actually know to Yurie, it seems like Akechi was already slowly going towards the image of the dandy gentleman detective he would end up to be. Except for you know, the Chinese clothing. It is interesting though that despite Akechi's presence, Monzou is also seen detecting on his own. It made sense in D-Zaka no Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of D-Slope"), as Akechi was not an established character at that time and thus a viable suspect, but why have two amateur detectives in Issunboushi?

Yesterday I already wrote about voyeurism in Rampo's work, which is related to this I guess, but a couple of Rampo's stories play with the notion of the public showing of something criminal. This is related to that famous idea in one of Poe's short stories about hiding things in plain sight: in Rampo's work an object that is the proof of a crime is placed before the eyes of the public, but they are not (immediately) recognized as such. It is the realization of what the object is that leads to an incredible feeling of horror. In Issunboushi for example, the arm of a woman is replaced with the arm of a mannequin in a busy department store in the Ginza. At first everybody is just admiring the mannequin, until two boys ask themselves the question: why is that one arm a lot more detailed than the other? The horror you feel when you realize that the thing you have been looking at the whole time was an actual, cut off arm, must be amazing. This is very different from Queen's way of publicly showing grotesque things (like in The French Powder Mystery), as his bodies are usually not meant to be found. In Rampo's work, tension is created because the criminal actually wants the objects to be found, because he wants the people to realize that the object they have been watching is actually an arm or a leg or something. Exhibitionism, I guess.The mind should go like [that is a plastic arm] [wouldn't it be weird if that was a real arm] [but that would be impossible] [or would it....] and then go into panic mode. Other stories by Rampo that play with this include Odoru Issunboushi ("The Dancing Dwarf", no relation to Issunboushi), Hakuchuumu ("The Daydream") and Mojuu ("Blind Beast"). Especially the latter is very similar to Issunboushi, with the latter half of the story focusing on the blind masseur gone mad (= not making this up) who leaves dismembered body parts of women all over town. For fun.

This tendency of public showing might have to do with the modern culture in Tokyo at the time, with its department stores to show off the newest products or the Asakusa Twelve-Stories showing off the newest technology in the world. Indeed, most of the story is set around Asakusa, the main entertainment area of Tokyo and home of the masses who liked a good show. And of gay couples, as Issunboushi starts in a park where apparently gay couples meet (with Monzou curious to the customs of how those people strike up a conversation). The depiction of gay relations in Rampo's work is actually a pretty popular topic, I think I have seen titles of quite a lot of academic articles in the last few years. This was the first time I came across it in Rampo's work though.

And this was actually the first point I wrote down, but somehow it ended up last: man, this book was really written in a different time and place. The depiction of pyshically impaired people as evil is of course one thing. The theme occasionally pops up in Rampo's work like in Mojuu ("Blind Beast"), though they might also be the victim, like in Imomushi ("Catterpillar"). Here however, it seemed like Rampo wanted to make the dwarf evil no matter what and some passages might be considered discriminatory nowadays. I was kinda surprised to see how Rampo changed the image of the dwarf throughout the book: [Evil] -> [Maybe he is a tragic, misunderstood person] to finally -> [No, he was definitely pure evil and let's leave it at that]. Akechi also does something unforgivable at the end of the book, which really emphasized the 'dwarf=abnormal=evil <-> beauty=normal=good' ideas Rampo employed for this book. Which was weird, considering Rampo of all people is usually a writer who manages to depict social deviance as something more sympathetic.

I think I also saw a couple of words in the book that are considered discriminatory nowadays.Not that I would have wanted for the publishers to have changed that: like I said, this was written in a different time, so it was quite interesting to see this all-star parade of words you don't see to often anymore in modern media because they are considered offensive. Which can be quite troublesome at times, with for example a famous hint from a novel by Yokomizo Seishi actually being censored nowadays.

So the short story: this is overall a fun book, that manages to mix an orthodox detective plot with Rampo's trademark grotesque horror in a (mostly) satisfying way. Hmm, did this post turn out to be long? I sometimes have trouble writing an acceptable amount of words for these things, but with Rampo's work the words flow out of me quite easily. And less focused. Mostly ramblings. Let's stop here.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『一寸法師』


  1. hello,
    there is something I didn't understand so I was wondering if you could help me


    who actually strangled the maid?
    Akechi said it was the drawf, but then hinted that it was actually a false confession, and Michiko denied to have done it, so who was the real killer?


    1. Sorry, but both the original and the English translation I have are kinda unreachable at the moment because of the Big Book Rearrangement of 2015.