Unlike Scandinavia, where the police procedural form has been wedded to socio-political activism and pessimism since at least the 1960s, and unlike the United States, where different variations of the native hardboiled school continues to sell, the traditional mystery story is still alive and well in Japan. And thankfully, given a recent push to translate such mystery classics as Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders into English, some of these more orthodox works may be hitting our shores very soon.
Before proceeding deeply into the honkaku, a word that can either be translated as “authentic” or “orthodox,” school of mystery writing, let’s briefly lay out what traditional detective fiction is more broadly. In the early 1930s, a group of successful British detective fiction writers created a literary society with strict rules that came to be known as the Detection Club. Besides the group’s consitution, which was finalized in March 1932 and included such dictates as “The Committee shall be bound upon the requisition of ten Members to call an Extraordinary General Meeting, and shall be at liberty to do so of its own authority, specifying the object, and giving 14 days’ notice of such meeting,” the Detection Club included a set of rules that were meant to give the popular art form not only the appearance of logical conformity, but also a new sense of legitimacy during an age when detective novels had to compete with seedy pulp magazines for working and middle class readers. Appropriately assembled by Ronald Knox, a Catholic priest who also wrote detective fiction, the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction touched on everything from the supernatural (which was forbidden) to the physcial (“Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable”). And while trying to reign in the excesses of certain strands of mystery fiction (“No Chinaman must figure into the story”), Knox’s Ten Commandments created an essentially reactionary blueprint that had developed over time as a reponse to the genre’s success during the years between World Wars I and II.
Although they may sound confining, the commandments of the Detection Club helped to produce the Golden Age of Detection Fiction, when Agatha Christie (who frequently cheated or at least bent the rules), Dorothy Sayers, and the much underrated John Dickson Carr created immensley popular works of cerebral and puzzle-centric detectives stories. In these novels, locked rooms, highly suspicious partygoers, and foreboding country mansions matched wits with eccentric detectives, who spent the majority of their time chasing one elaborate clue after another. It was always about murder, too, for only that crime was deemed worthy enough for the brilliant detective’s attention.
But like all things golden, the Golden Age faded and soon became the subject of ridicule. No critic was as biting or as eloquent Raymond Chandler, who lampooned the genre’s “handwrought duelling pistols, curare, and tropical fish” as unrealistic depictions of crime and criminality. Chandler’s The Simple Art of Murder, which was published in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944, pronounced dead an already dying genre, which has never fully recovered or been rehabilitated in North America.
One place where the Golden Age style remains strong is Japan, where the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan carries on the traditions of the Detection Club and Edogawa Rampo, the legendary Japanese author who first incorporated the themes, tropes, and expectations of Western mystery fiction into his Japanese language detective tales. Beginning with his 1923 short story The Two-Sen Copper Coin, Rampo, whose psuedonym is meant to invoke not only the Edo River, but also his literary idol Edgar Allan Poe, Rampo was reponsible for creating the first era of Japanese mystery writing, which according to Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture author Sari Kawana, overturned “some of the central conventions” of Golden Age detective fiction without fully denouncing the genre a la Chandler. In particular, Rampo followed a “unorthodox” model, peppering his stories with elements taken from horror and the grotesque, while remaining faithful to most of the conventions we associate with characters like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot.