25 October 2011

Fair Play Mysteries and the Land of the Rising Sun

 And on the Eighth Day by Ellery Queen,
 Japanese Edition
     Last spring I received a completely unexpected email asking for permission to publish The Book Case in a new anthology.  The volume is to be titled The Misadventures of Ellery Queen, and will include a number of Ellery Queen pastiches including, in addition to The Book Case, Mike Nevin’s classic Queen pastiche Open Letter to Survivors.

    There is sort of a surprise ending to all of this, but like most surprise endings if you think about it that revelation should have been anticipated:  The anthology will be published in Japan.  The stories will all be translated into Japanese.

    When last I posted on SleuthSayers it was back in September, and  I began by mentioning my lunch with Mike Nevins, emeritus professor of Law at St. Louis University Law School and noted mystery writer, critic and author of the fore-mentioned Open Letter to Survivors.  As mentioned then, Mike and I spent a good deal of time reminiscing about the writings of John D. MacDonald.  As our conversation turned to the growing lack of availability of MacDonald mysteries, even the Travis McGee series, Mike observed that with the exception of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle publication of a mystery writer’s work usually begins to disappear shortly after the author’s own demise.  I mentioned the complete lack of newly-published Ellery Queen mysteries in the United States and Mike shook his head dolefully and cautioned me not to expect any turn-around.

    Not in the United States, that is.

    But surprisingly the taste among readers for newly-published Golden Age mysteries varies drastically around the world.  My Belgian friend and sometimes collaborator Kurt Sercu, in his website Ellery Queen, a Website on Deduction, has noted that there have been new editions of Ellery Queen mysteries published in Russia, Spain and Italy during the last decade.  But the best exemplar of this is Japan, where the Golden Age fair play whodunit is alive and well, and where Ellery thrives. 

Iiki Yusan
    All of this was brought home to me yet again last week when Kurt asked me to edit an interview he conducted recently by email exchange with Iiki Yusan, who is the leader of the Ellery Queen Fan Club in Japan.  Kurt’s interview should be on-line in about a week, and can be accessed here when it goes on-line.  But I couldn’t resist offering up a bit of a prequel.

    First, by way of amazing statistics, Iiki estimated during the course of the interview that the percentage of books in print for Golden Age mystery writers in Japan looks something like this:

Agatha Christie: 90-100%
Ellery Queen: 80-90%
John Dickson Carr: 60-70%
Rex Stout: 10-20%

    While I do not know the relevant percentages in the United States, I do know that there are virtually no Ellery Queen works currently in print, and if you gave me $5.00 and required me to bet with it my wager would be that there are substantially more Rex Stout volumes available in the United States than there are Queen mysteries.   So what augurs a different result in Japan?  Why is Agatha Christie still popular in the United States while Ellery Queen has virtually disappeared?  Apparently there is something about fair play detective stories, and particularly those of Queen, that continues to resonate in Japan in a way that these stories no longer call out to the reading public in the United States.

Frederic Dannay and Ed Hoch 
    All of this goes beyond mere re-publication of the Ellery Queen mysteries.  For example, I was astounded to learn during the course of editing Kurt’s interview with Iiki that in Japan in 1980 there was a television series, modeled after Alfred Hitchcock Presents, that was hosted by none other than Frederic Dannay, just two years before his death in 1982. Queen works have continued to be the subject of movies, television shows and theatrical productions in Japan up to the present.  And Japan also has produced book-length treatises analyzing the works of Queen.  Iiki himself has authored Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) and Reviews of Ellery Queen (2010).  In World Wars and Ellery Queen (1992) Kiyosi Kasai, traces the development of Golden Age murder mysteries in the context of the two world wars and concludes that the rise of the genre, in which well-developed characters were murdered, was a reaction to the countless faceless deaths of war.   And in The Logic of the Detective Story (2007) Kentaro Komori spends a full volume analyzing the deductive logic of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) by comparing the analytic approaches utilized in the novels with the philosophical reasoning of the likes of Bertrand Russel and Kurt Godel.  I doubt that such rigorous analyses of the works of Queen were ever undertaken in the United States, even when the works were in their heyday.

    Modern detective stories written by Japanese writers also continue to reflect the works of Queen.  In his on-line article Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan author Ho-Ling Wong reports that the new wave of fair play whodunits in Japan is referred to as the "new orthodox" detective story -- a story that hearkens back to Golden Age mysteries but does so by incorporating the fair play formula into modern settings.  And, as Ho-Ling Wong references, Ellery Queen's presence continues in these works.
 Other popular writers of the New Orthodox School are Norizuki Rintarō and Alice Arisugawa.  Both writers are strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. Both of them have named their protagonists after themselves, like their great example. Both writers often insert a Challenge to the Reader in their stories.  As one can derive from his first name, Arisugawa often delves into imagery of Alice in Wonderland, just like Ellery Queen, while Norizuki Rintarō’s characters mimic Ellery Queen almost exactly.  In fact, his protagonist is a writer, also called Norizuki Rintarō, who helps his father, a police inspector, mirroring the Ellery Queen – Inspector Queen dynamic.
    What is behind all of this continued interest in fair play detective stories in Japan?  Who can say?  But for whatever reason Golden Age mysteries have struck a chord there.  Mysteries founded on the deductive reasoning process continue to be one of the most popular forms of writing in Japan.  The following quote, still a bit stilted in translation, shows up often on the internet as an explanation for the popularity of the genre in Japan.  Predictably, it is offered up in an imagined conversation with Ellery Queen set forth in The Murders at the Ten-cornered Residence (1991) written by the popular Japanese writer Ayatsuji Yukito.

Ellery, the slim handsome young man says: 
To me, detective fiction is a kind of intellectual game. A logical game that gives readers sensations about detectives or authors. These are not to be ranked high or low. So I don't want the once popular “social sect” realism. Female employee murdered in a deluxe suite room; criminal police's tireless investigation eventually brings in the murdering boss-cum-boyfriend--All cliché. Political scandals of corruption and ineptness; tragedies of distortion of modern society; these are also out of date. The most appropriate materials for detective fiction, whether accused untimely or not, are famous detectives, grand mansions, suspicious residents, bloody murders, puzzling situation, earth-shattering schemes . . . .   Made up things are even better. The point is to enjoy the pleasure in the world of reasoning. But intellectual prerequisites must be completely met.    

    All of this makes me wish that I could read Japanese!  Be sure to check Kurt’s website in the next week or so for the full interview with Iiki. 

(Clip art courtesy of Kurt Sercu and Ellery Queen:  a Website on Deduction except as noted.)


  1. Any idea about the contents of the Misadventures of Ellery Queen? I've always thought an anthology like that would be great, or perhaps one like Byron Priess' Raymond Chandler anthology of a few years ago which had original stories about Marlowe written by mystery authors. There are scads of Sherlock Holmes anthologies like that (including the new A Study in Sherlock, ed. by Laurie King, which is supposed to come out today, if I remeber correctly)

  2. Tim -- I do not know precisely the other stories that will be included. Ed Hoch did two pastiches, and Jon Breen did a couple but I don't know if they will be in the volume. There are also some pastiches written originally in Japanese that will doubtless be included.

    I know one story that will NOT be there -- my own The Mad Hatter's Riddle. Anyone who has read it will be able to deduce why -- there is a poem at the core of the story with several secrets, none of which would hold up in translation! BTW, I have been playing around with the idea of an English version Misadventures of Ellery, wondering if it could find an audience as an e-book.

  3. Congratulations.
    A Japanese edition is a fun thing to have.

  4. The Japanese Alice is male? I think the pleasure of reading Agatha Christie goes beyond the puzzle to the settings and relationships. Christie characters don't have the depth of Sayers's or Josephine Tey's, but they're a lot of fun to read about. How would you assess characterization in Ellery Queen? And the role of women? These might be factors in the popularity of these authors in the US and Japan. I bet cultural context in general has something to do with it.

  5. This was really fascinating, Dale. Seems to me you’re indicating that deductive reasoning mysteries are very popular in Japan, because they provide readers a form of intellectual escapism: mentally stepping out of the modern world—where they are so often bombarded by stories of senseless crime—to immerse themselves in a fictional world where everything makes sense (where even murder, for instance, is done for logical reasons).

    I wonder if you can tell us if this Japanese reading trend seems to have “ramped up” since Japan’s economy ran into trouble. Seems to me, an economic downturn of such proportions would be something the average person would have difficulty making sense of, leading more readers to seek a feeling of control through intellectual escapism.

    If there does seem to be a correlation, it may be possible that such an untapped market might also exist in the US. Perhaps, by analyzing this Japanese market, it may be possible to exploit the current US vacuum (assuming it actually exists).

    Additionally: I think Jan makes some interesting points about characterization and women’s issues, as handled in Golden Age deductive reasoning mysteries in the US. Are these some of the issues addressed by the “New Orthodox” mysteries whose authors incorporate “the fair play formula into modern settings”? Japanese cultural context may negate the necessity for this, but I suspect these issues would need to be addressed in order for any “New Orthodox” market to succeed in the US.

  6. Dale, after saying the Ellery Queen books are out of print in the US, you'll be happy to hear this news: Otto Penzler has just unveiled Mysterious Press as an e-publisher of classic mysteries, and The Roman Hat Mystery and Calamity Town are on his list, available on Amazon or iTunes. He may be planning more. Ask Otto. :)

  7. Dale, I think you stumbled across a great source and resource. You and
    I've discussed how important fair play is and our fondness for traditional mysteries. 'Experts' might disagree with me, but I think a market will always be there.

    As Eliabeth mentioned, Otto Penzler's new enterprise is here.

  8. Sorry to have been absent from the discussions. I have been in Southern Illinois without internet (although with friends!) Just got back on with a glacier-slow signal. My knowledge of the Japanese market was pretty much exhausted by what I wrote in the blog. But it certainly does raise interesting issues. I certainly want to look into Otto Penzler's site -- Otto published a version of The Roman Hat Mystery a couple years ago which may be the only EQ still in print in the U.S.

  9. I'm going to get that anthology!


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