THE CURIOUS CASEBOOK OF INSPECTOR HANSHICHI: Detective Stories of Old Edo, by Kido Okamoto, translated by Ian MacDonald. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007, 335 pp., $24 (paper)

Between 1916 and 1937 the critic and playwright Kido Okamoto (1872-1939) published the “Hanshichi Torimonocho”; stories, devoted to the activities of a fictional detective, Inspector Hanshichi. These tales the author claimed to have heard straight from the aging informant himself, born, he says, in 1823 in Nihonbashi. The various deductions were presumed to have occurred around 1850 and Hanshichi was supposed to be telling these to Okamoto in the 1890s. Ian MacDonald here translates 14 of the original 68 stories, mostly from the first year of serialization.

By the time Okamoto was publishing these, the exploits of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes were well known and quite popular in Japan. Consequently Hanshichi behaves in a manner somewhat similar — he relies on observation and logic as well as on coincidence and the knack of being in the right place at the right time. The stories themselves are as rudimentary as those of Doyle and often depend upon an equally tiresome prowess for their effect.

A further resemblance is that Okamoto himself stands in for Dr. Watson, to whom Holmes discloses his various deductions. It is Watson, who provides the great detective with an admiring audience, just as Okamoto does for Hanshichi.

The stories themselves sometimes strongly resemble those of Doyle’s famous detective. They have titles such as “The Ghost of Ofumi,” “The Mystery of the Fire Bell,” and “The Haunted Sash Pond,” and all (like those of Doyle) have rational no-nonsense explanations. Okamoto’s stories also offer, however, something more than fast-paced light entertainment. This is because, as Okamoto explains, “if there is any distinguishing feature of these stories, it has to be that glimpses of Edo are caught behind the detective work.”

It is the exploration of underside of the old city before it became Tokyo, the official capital of Japan, that lends these stories their charm. The street life, the gossip, the trips to the bathhouse, teahouse, whorehouse are all there. And the distance is lent enchantment by the spanning of nearly a century — stories published in 1916 but first heard in 1890, perpetuated in 1850 and by someone born in 1823.

It is this quality in Okamoto’s work that appealed to Edward Seidensticker, noted scholar and eminent translator of Japanese literature, who last year turned the Hanshichi stories into a delightful tribute to the back streets of old Edo.

Though this new translation claims to be the first for these particular stories, this is not entirely true. Last year, Seidensticker published “The Snake that Bowed,” (Tokyo: Printed Matter Press, reviewed on this page on April 23, 2006). This work is based on three of Okamoto’s stories, and shares one of its tales with “The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi.” A difference is that the Seidensticker version is a conflation of translation, adaptation, comment, and knowledge about and affection for Edo.

Another difference is that Seidensticker’s version bears narrative richness that much relieves the bare utility of the original. We must pause to ponder a narrational problem. Just who is telling us all this — Okamoto, Hanshichi and/or Seidensticker? This layered narrative permits a sweeping view of Edo, a now vanished world, through a translation that incorporates its notes into its text, explains as it goes, and renders it all in a language that is historically accurate and amusing.

The MacDonald translation, on the other hand, gives us Okamoto straight and colloquial, and offers the necessary background in a very full and informed introduction. Readers are thus given a choice — though for readers of the genre there is no choice at all. You must have both.

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