PURLOINED LETTERS: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937, by Mark Silver. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008, 217 pp., $52 (cloth)

Western-style stories of crime and detection began making their appearance in Japan from the mid-19th century, initially as translations of works by American, British and French authors. After decades of adaptation and experimentation and the interlude of the Pacific War years, the genre finally came into its own.

The work under review, in the author’s own words, aims to provide a “description and assessment of Japanese writers’ responses to the problem of writing in the borrowed genre of detective fiction.”

“Purloined Letters” is a solid work of scholarship and analysis that will appeal to those interested in knowing more about how this cultural transplant progressed. It focuses on three writers who figured prominently in the evolution of mystery and crime fiction in Japan: Ruiko Kuroiwa, Kido Okamoto and Edogawa Rampo. (The latter is rendered family name first, to preserve its intentional mimicry of Edgar Allan Poe).

Of the three, Ruiko Kuroiwa (nom de plume of Shuroku Kuroiwa, 1862-1920), will be the least familiar to the Western reader. From the 1880s Kuroiwa developed a formula of creatively “reconstructing” foreign novels, going so far as to give the characters Japanese names, to make them more palatable to native readers.

Playwright and author Kido Okamoto (Keiji Okamoto, 1872-1939) wrote dozens of short stories set in the early 1800s about an okkapiki (paid police informant) named Hanshichi. His works, although formulaic, were well constructed and appealed to readers in other ways, some of which Mark Silver criticizes for promoting “nativistic and even xenophobic ideology” that fostered “a fantasy of escape to an insular Japan of the past.”

The literary career of Edogawa Rampo (Taro Hirai, 1894-1965) lurched as chaotically as the second half of his nom de plume (which means “disordered steps”). Rampo’s reputation today probably owes less to the quality of his fiction than to the key role he played as a founder and first president of the Japan Mystery Writer’s Club from 1947. Rampo’s dissemination of extensive criticism from the West was a major force in helping the heretofore “borrowed form” to flourish in the postwar period.

As Silver repeatedly points out, Japanese critics were fully cognizant of the flawed early attempts to adopt the mystery genre. In 1925, Hatsunosuke Hirabayashi wrote, “Japan is fifty or one hundred years behind the West, as one can tell from the development of the modern novel . . . . That is for no other reason than Japan’s scientific culture is not sufficiently advanced to give rise to detective novels.”

It’s difficult to escape Silver’s generally negative assessment; not until the final chapter does he concede that the three at least may “stake claim to an unmistakable identity of their own, in spite of their inhabitation of a borrowed form.”

Any implication that Western detective stories were invariably superior to early Japanese efforts, however, disregards the huge body of long-forgotten works in the West, many highly popular in their day, that were melodramatic, stereotypical and — for lack of a better description — simply dreadful. In this light, using works by the genre’s acknowledged masters, such as Poe, Conan Doyle and others, as comparative benchmarks may not be a realistic approach.

Silver’s timeline, moreover, ends in 1937. Considering the extensive body of mystery literature — both in the vernacular and in translation — that sprang up in Japan soon after the war, these authors deserve full credit for their pioneering efforts to develop and popularize the genre.

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