Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Miss Mystery

I Miss You Miss Mystery
「Miss Mystery」 (Breakerz)

I miss you Miss Mystery
I want to know everything about you
I will reveal everything
And break down your alibi
"Miss Mystery" (Breakerz)

Strangely enough, this isn't my first book I got from South-Korea. I am making a guess though that this will be the first and only English write-up of this book out there... Also: this is actually the first book I started and finished in 2015. All of the books I posted about before, and for months after this post, were read in 2014...

A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou (original title: "Gyeongseong ui ilbon eo tamjeongjakpumjip") is one of the most interesting and odd book releases I know off. Like the title says: the book, released last year in South-Korea, is an anthology of detective stories written in Korea during the period the Great Korean Empire was colonized by Japan. Most of the writers featured in this anthology were Japanese living in Keijou (Seoul as it was called during the colonization) at the time, I think, but the book also features the very first detective story in Japanese written by a Korean. The 22 stories and essays (dating from 1927~1937) are scanned from their original sources (mostly magazines) and while it can be a bit difficult to make out the writing sometimes, the fact you can read everything like it was originally printed (together with the original illustrations) does add to the 'authentic' feel. The book ends with a postface that gives a paragraph or two about each story and the publishing background.

Now you know why I think this is an interesting release, but why odd? Well, except for the postface, everything in this book released in South-Korea, is completely in Japanese. As said, the contents consist of scans from their original sources and that means they were all written in Japanese. So yes, most people in South-Korea wouldn't even be able to read this book, even though it was published there! And even for those who do know Japanese, this book features pre-war Japanese, which has different spelling rules and can be quite difficult to read if you're only familiar with post-war Japanese. Add in the fact that the topic of the book, detective stories from Keijou, is probably not that popular and I really have to ask the question: who came up with the idea of publishing this book, in this particular form, in South-Korea? Heck, the contents of the book is from right-to-left (Japanese), even though the cover and binding is actually made from left to right (Korean)! I'm probably just missing some insight that explains the genius plan behind this book.

And a friend from South-Korea bought this curious book for me, so I can read it here in the Netherlands. Don't you just love overly complex international stories? My friend knows Japanese too by the way and she thought the book almost unreadable, to give you an idea of how common pre-war Japanese is.

I won't be discussing all of the 21 stories + 1 Edogawa Rampo essay in the anthology. Not only would that make this review way too long, I'll have to be honest and say that a lot of the stories are not particular good. Which for some stories, is even too nice a way of describing them. There are some stories that fall in the 'wide' crime genre, and some of the stories are literally: "A heinous crime happened. It was never solved. The end". So I'll just mention those that left an impression.

The book starts with Kui ni Tatta Mesu ("A Knife as a Stake"). The story was written by Kim Sam-gyu between 1929 - 1930 and is known as the first detective story written by a Korean in Japanese. The story starts with the murder on the heiress of a wealthy family, who is stabbed with a knife, which also holds the Spade of Ace card. This first victim is soon followed by more dead, each also being stabbed together with playing cards. The resulting chase for the unknown serial killer is a bit boring to be honest and the identity of the murderer is rather disappointing because there was just too small a cast and everyone ended up being related to the case for some reason or another. More interesting as an anecdote in history than stand-alone detective story.

The anthology features a great number of stories by the Keijou Detective Hobby Club (Keijou Tantei Shumi no Kai), which I think is a club of detective fiction lovers and writers. I say think, because the commentary included in the book that probably explains more about the club and its members is one of the few things in Korean. Which I can't read. Most of the club stories are relay-stories. Onna Supai no Shi ("Death of a Female Spy") starts out as a fairly amusing story where a female spy who infiltrated a communist group/revolutionaries is killed. Each new installment basically turns the story around and while it definitely does not seem like there was any planning done on the story, I had a couple of laughs seeing how each writer seemed to be intent on 1) turning everything the previous writer did around and 2) making things as complex as possible for the next in line. It's even more obvious with Mittsu no Tama no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Three Jewels"), which starts out as a Lupin-esque story where a man is suddenly given three jewels that appear to be the key to a horrible secret, which turns into a Russian melodrama in the second installment and finally the last installment which tries to make sense out of the two previous installments.

The anthology also features two Japanese translations of Sherlock Holmes stories. While Nazo no Shi ("The Mysterious Death") is a straight translation of The Speckled Band, the translation of Silver Blaze (under the title Meiba no Yukue, "The Whereabouts of the Famous Horse") is a bit more interesting. While the story is still set in England, everyone actually has Japanese names. I'd understand if the complete story had been moved to Japan, but why change the names, but keep the setting of England? It'd say it's even a bit distracting to have "Horimi" watch for curious incidents of dogs in night-time.

Houseki wo Nerau Otoko ("The Man Who Wanted The Jewel") by Sagawa Harukaze (better known as Morishita Uson) is a wonderfully hilarious story where a police inspector happens to learn of a jewel heist by a infamous thief and lays a trap for him. The story is short, but satisfying and invokes the spirit of the famou French gentleman thief.

Tenkyoushuu Daijuuichigou no Kokuhaku ("Confession of Asylum Prisoner No. 11") by Yoshii Nobuo (of the Keijou Detective Hobby Club) is another hilarious story of an asylum patient telling how he came to cry out "the wind is blowing, the wind is blowing!" which got him admitted in the mental hospital. It starts out so dark, but the ending is fantastic. It is not a real detective or crime story, but it certainly made me laugh. Ijiwaru Keiji ("A Spiteful Detective") by Yamazaki Reimonjin (kinda guessing the reading of the given name) too is a funny story about something that appears non-criminal at first, but ends with a little twist. His story is subtitled "a detective sketch", so that gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

A lot of the stories are "crime" stories and while as pieces of fiction, they don't impress at all, I do have to say I found these stories interesting as relics of the past, because I normally would have never even thought of trying these stories. With the stories dating from 1927~1937, it's funny to see how many of these stories feature communists and left-wing activists as a source of evil. There's also a faint anti-foreigner tone to be found at times. I don't think people would nowadays read these stories just for fun (I wouldn't), but presented in this form, I thought it was fun to read these stories for a chance, instead of the time-proven classics of yore. Another element that really made you feel these stories were from another time and space was the censoring! Sexual expressions were censored, but that made some stories actually appear more erotic than they probably were. (Ex: "And then he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX her.").

It is not directly related to the contents of the book, but I had fun reading pre-war Japanese. I had read some short stories before, but never something as long as this. It's not completely different from modern-day Japanese, but it takes a while to adjust to the alternate spelling conventions and more complex characters. Still. it only makes me wonder more why a book in pre-war Japanese is published in modern-day South-Korea.

While not all stories of A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou are as amusing, I quite enjoyed the book overall. While I have some questions about the specifics behind this publication and I really have to wonder how many people bought this book, I think the book does offer an interesting look in an otherwise overseen element of both Japanese and Korean detective fiction history.

Original Korean title: "경성의 일본어 탐정 작품집"
Original Japanese title(s): 金三圭 「杭に立ったメス」 / 山崎黎門人、阜久生、吉井信夫、大世渡貢 「女スパイの死」 / 山岡操、太田恒彌、山崎黎門人 「三つの玉の秘密」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 芳野青泉(訳) 「名馬の行方」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 倉持高雄(訳) 「謎の死」 / 秋良春夫 「捕物秘話」 / 青山倭文二 「水兵服の贋札少女」 / 青山倭文 「犯罪実験者」 / 総督府、野田生 「青衣の賊」 / 末田晃 「猟死病患者」 / 森二郎 「共産党事件とある女優」 / Y・黎門人 「彼をやっつける」 / 白扇生 「闇に浮いた美人の姿」 / 倉白扇 「暗夜に狂う日本刀 脳天唐竹割りの血吹雪」 / ヒアルトフ・アルクナア 伊東鋭太郎(訳) 「夜行列車奇談」 / 佐川春風 「宝石を覘う男」 / 木内為棲 「深山の暮色」 / 山崎黎門人 「意地わる刑事」 / 山崎黎門人 「蓮池事件」 / 吉井信夫 「癲狂囚第十一号の告白」 / 古世渡貢 「空気の差」 / 江戸川乱歩 「探偵趣味」

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