#242: The Ginza Ghost [ss] (1932-47) by Keikichi Ōsaka [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2017]

Disclosure: I proof-read this book for Locked Room International in March/April 2017.

The Ginza GhostAfter two wonderful shin honkaku novels in The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji and The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa, John Pugmire’s Locked Room International now brings you this honkaku story collection from early pioneer Keikichi Ōsaka.  The introduction by Ashibe Taku, author of Murder in the Red Chamber (2004), does a great job of putting Ōsaka in context, since this was a nascent form of mystery writing that allows a fascinating and at times hugely inventive take on a genre we thought we’d seen everything in already — no mean feat when some of the best here are over 80 years old.  And some of these solutions have to be read to be believed… (in a good way, that is).

I would suggest that, in order to get the most out of these stories, you read each of Taku’s summations after you’ve read the story in question.  The insights of form and cultural expectation he provides are fascinating — there are also liberal footnotes from Ho-Ling Wong throughout the text which contribute to this, and they’re brilliant as well, especially that one about birthdays — but there are times when perhaps a little too much is revealed in advance.  Nothing specific, you understand, but even the occasional heavy hint, given the callow nature of what Ōsaka was innovating here, can sometimes be a little too revealing.

As to the stories themselves, well…

First up, ‘The Hangman of the Department Store’ (1932) gives us the suicide of a man jumping from the roof of said store, with the additional complication of his having been strangled to death before jumping.  This is very redolent of Nicholas Olde’s Rowland Hern stories, with the choice of killer being kind of silly and kind of genius at the same time.  Not much in the way of atmosphere to go by, but a nice little primer for what’s to come.

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No two ways about it, ‘The Phantasm of the Stone Wall’ (1932) — in which a murder is witnessed, both murderers disappear, the evidence points squarely at two people with an alibi, there’s an impossible inconsistency in the timeline, and the wall around a house moves about six feet — will infuriate as many people as it delights.  If you’re a fan of Arthur Porges’ Cyriack Skinner Grey stories (and I am) the innovation here will put you in that lucky second group; everyone else…your mileage may vary, as they say.

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Forgive the constant references to other writers’ works, but ‘The Mourning Locomotive’ (1934) has a gruesome aspect that very much reminds me of Edogawa Rampo’s The Black Lizard (c. 1936) and Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981).  The puzzle of a train that keeps hitting something at the same place and time every week has elements of interest, but it becomes apparent as this long story wears on.  There’s a hole in your chest where your heart should be if you’re not a little bit moved, though.

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Atmosphere abounds in ‘The Monster of the Lighthouse’ (1935), with a sea monster seemingly throwing a rock up to the top of an erratically-behaving lighthouse and crushing the lighthouse keeper there.  Certain aspects of the clewing show an unfamiliarity with obfuscation that belies the newness of this story form — it’s scrupulously fair, however, you’ve got to give Ōsaka credit for that — but the explanation for the monster’s screams is kinda genius.  A uniquely Japanese story, no doubt.

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‘The Phantom Wife’ (1947) is again a great piece of atmospheric writing, but every short story collection has a dud and this is it.  The setup of a man apparently haunted by his  ex-wife’s ghost gives plenty of cultural detail and not much else in advance of the (not especially baffling) crime that results.  The explanation is…fine, and Taku’s introduction puts this in the appropriate context, but it’s not really all that interesting a tale, and giving us a ‘ghostly haunting’ story without establishing the ghost is something of an oversight.

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By now, Ōsaka’s approach to the nascent honkaku form should be pretty clear, so the fact that ‘The Mesmerising Light’ (1936) opens in such a thrillerish manner — a body found on a stretch of twisty road, struck by a car seen vanishing into the distance — marks an interesting stylistic change.  When the car vanishes between two checkpoints and another crime becomes apparent we’re on more familiar ground, and the reasoning is solid if a tiny bit fortuitous.  Another unique approach (the why of the disappearing car is very bold) and a few illuminating cultural touches explained in the footnotes again, and a very good ending.

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There’s something more than a little Chestertonian about ‘The Cold Night’s Clearing’ (1936), in which a child is abducted by an assailant on skis and their escape route tracked across snowy ground only for the trail to vanish in the middle of a field.  It acknowledges that it’s a variant on the old ‘no footprints’ murder, and Ōsaka creates a great sense of unease and explains that criminal seeming to float off into the air in a wonderful way.  A beautiful, perfectly-poised little story about which you should know as little as possible going in.

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‘The Three Madmen’ (1936) suffers from being over-long, so that when it eventually gets down to its scheme the fundamental idea will be quite clear to even the occasional reader of this sort of thing.  Still, the last three inhabitants of an asylum escaping, committing a murder, and being hunted down has some very clever little flourishes — the Diva is a great character — and enough mood to provide the cultural interest that’s always going to come with this sort of endeavour.

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Back to lighthouses for ‘The Guardian of the Lighthouse’ (1936), in which the keeper left in sole charge of one during a heavy storm vanishes from the small island despite the only boat being unavailable.  There’s a beautiful inevitability about this apparent impossibility — it’s probably my favourite story in this collection, snaffling the honour on account of its sly emotional threads which pay off in a very powerful way.  Wonderful stuff.

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I don’t know quite what to make of ‘The Demon in the Mine’ (1937); the unusual, claustrophobic setting and the well-framed nature of the problem — murders where the obvious perpetrators are all cleared of complicity — work really well, but it shifts a lot between characters, and takes a long time in establishing a simple idea.  There’s a bigger point being made here, of course, but one that isn’t fully formed and so doesn’t come across as well as it might.  And surely the guilty party went about this in a very long-winded way…

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As Taku says in his introduction, ‘The Hungry Letter-Box’ (1939) isn’t really in the honkaku style, but it does benefit from a more confident brevity and levity of tone.  The workings of how a letter posted in a locked post-box can vanish are revealed about halfway through, and the remainder is concerned with a decent motive for the act.  All told, a very enjoyable, compact story, even if not quite what you’d expect given what precedes it in this volume.

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Finally, title story ‘The Ginza Ghost’ (1936) gives us a beautifully simple locked-room murder — simple in the sense of the facts being easy to comprehend, with no chicanery to cheat anything past you — that plays out smartly and efficiently, covering all the bases and providing a fair, rigorous, and well-solved answer with no wasted space.  Reminiscent of Norman Berrow at his more satisfying, and a frankly delightful note on which to end.

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So, overall this has the triumphs and the difficulties one typically associates with short story collections, but with the added bonus of showing you the opening steps in a dance that has developed into something quite fabulous from these strong beginnings.  It benefits from a great translation, too, which both communicates things clearly and maintains a feel of something written in another language without that becoming jarring or intrusive.  Undoubtedly you’ll get more out of this if you share my fascination with the development of the genre in its nonage — and especially if you have an appreciation for the culturally distinct approach taken in such writingbut there are some pure belters in here, too, and invention enough to capture even the most jaded of imaginations.  More honkaku, says me, both shin and standard, please!

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Tour de Force because both have murders committed when the suspects are all in sight and so could not have committed them.

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14 thoughts on “#242: The Ginza Ghost [ss] (1932-47) by Keikichi Ōsaka [trans. Ho-Ling Wong 2017]

  1. You really whetted my insatiable appetite for impossible crime fiction with this review, JJ! Particularly the short stories you rated five stars, such as “The Monster of the Lighthouse,” because I really want to know now how the aspect of the sea creature is handled. Or the story you compared to the kind of impossibilities found in Arthur Porges’ Cyriack Skinner Grey series. You sure caught my attention with that!

    I’m also still very curious about the mining story, “The Demon of the Mine,” since I have came across several (impossible crime) stories with a mining setting last month. So, yeah, looking forward to getting my hands on this collection.

    By the way, I read Ashibe Taku’s Murder in the Red Chamber last year and the plot is a cornucopia of impossible situations and locked room murders. You can label the book as the Japanese counterpart of Paul Halter’s The Seven Wonders of Crime, but with a better written and plotted story. Something for your TBR-pile?

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    • Yeah, I only recently discovered what a cavalcade of impossibilities Murder in the Red Chamber is — very excited to read it now!

      The two lighthouse stories are brilliant, and ‘The Cold Night’s Clearing’ is a very clever take on vanishing footprints that manages to play around well with the conventions of such a story long before they probably even were conventions.

      I can’t deny the atmosphere of ‘The Demon in the Mine’, and it’s told with a real sense of claustrophobia and confusion about it — but something doesn’t quite work for me, in spite of its undeniable cleverness.

      I look forward to your own take on this; we’re very fortunate to have it translated, as it’s a great perspective on impossibilities that genuinely adds something new to the existing stories in this little corner of the library. Exciting times, no question.

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  2. Thank you very much for the review (and the proofreading)!

    I’ll try not to self-promote too much (or as we Dutchies say, ‘Wij van WC-Eend…”), but I absolutely love the atmosphere of Ōsaka’s stories. The Japan of the thirties is a setting seldom seen in translated mystery fiction: a society rapidly modernizing, but also retaining awfully traditional elements. And a modernizing society also means an industrializing society, and it’s these settings that star in the stories: we see fabulous department stores and highways made for leisure in some stories, and gritty labour sites like mines or lighthouses and labs out at sea in others. Rampo is the one who wrote in the same period, but his stories tend to have a fantastical and more character-focused angle, whereas in Ōsaka’s stories, the backgrounds are so much more than just backgrounds. And they do not only add to the atmosphere, they are actually integral part of each story, leading to truly unique situations.

    Personal favorites were The Mourning Locomotive (it’s so utterly *weird* until you realize what has happened), The Guardian of the Lighthouse & The Hungry Letter-Box (I love these short ones that accomplish a lot in few pages!).

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    • Thank-you for the translation — that’s by far the larger job, and hugely appreciated!

      I certainly found Osaka’s writing more to my taste than Rampo, and you’ve precisely nailed why: the fantastical, deliberately character-heavy stories he told were definitely long on atmosphere, but they tended to crowd out the plot. If Rampo is, appropriately, the Poe of honkaku then Osaka is probably the Anthony Berkeley: taking these ideas and running with them in a series of directions that show how versatile the genre is.

      That conflict between the modernising and the traditional is very cleverly used, and supplies some great moments, such as in ‘The Ginza Ghost’ when the workings of the impossible murder are revealed, or the explanation and motive in ‘The Hungry Letter-Box’.

      Very enjoyable stuff, and I know others will also be hugely obliged to both you and John for the work you have put in here. More, more!!!

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  3. Thanks for the review… I placed a pre-order for this collection yesterday, via my Kindle store. I was wondering how you were able to churn out a review so quickly, until I read your disclaimer. I wish I could do that too! 😀

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    • There’s a lot here to enjoy, though be aware that the atmosphere is laid on fairly dense at times (‘The Demon in the Mine’, ‘The Monster of the Lighthouse’, ‘The Ginza Ghost’, etc) and I know you tend to favour a lighter touch. Overall I think you’ll really enjoy this, though, so let me know when you’ve read it.

      I was very lucky to get involved in the proof-reading — John Pugmire advertised on his site for anyone willing to take it on and I responded in time to be included. It plays perfectly into my slightly obsessive nature, to be honest; I always send back manuscripts marked up with all manner of little things I’ve noticed and haven’t yet been brave enough to go back and check how much attention is given to my obsessive approach. Still, I keep getting asked to do it, so I’ll assume I’m being useful for as long as that continues!

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      • I was wondering about your comment pertaining to my preference for a ‘lighter touch’, and I suppose it can be traced back to some of my disparaging account of early forays into John Dickson Carr, especially ‘Plague Court Murders’? I suspect I disliked the histrionics (a lot) more than the atmospherics…

        In any case, I suspect you would be pleased by my recent second-hand purchases: Waxwork Murders (from a local used bookshop), It Walks by Night (just arrived after bobbing on the sea over a week), and ‘Castle Skull’ (ditto). I probably should brace myself for an onslaught of Bencolin-style gothic atmospherics and histrionics. *sigh*

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        • Ths extended scene where the busload of trainee clowns crashes into the van full of custard pies outside a direputable secondhand car showroom is probably my favourite; I still don’t understand why that was expunged from later editions…

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        • Brad – did you like ‘It Walks by Night’? I get slightly mixed reviews of the Bencolin oeuvre, though everyone agrees that ‘Four False Weapons’ is (very?) good. I fear it’s the hijinks I might need to brace myself for. It was precisely the hijinks culminating in hysterics in ‘Plague Court Murders’ that felt like cheese graters to my eyes… I was surprised my eyes had sufficient vigour to be rolling at the end of the novel. But I’m actually looking forward to reading the Bencolin books I’ve purchased. *rubs hands gleefully*

          JJ – fear of histrionics aside, I do hope my edition of ‘It Walks by Night’ is the full/ complete/ extended edition. I do like my books to be complete…

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        • I didn’t love IWbN, John, but I liked it. I found it interesting, both as the origin of Carr’s career and as a crime novel of its time. It was very Grand Guignol-ish to me, full of much harsher violence and sexuality than I might have expected from a 1930 British-style mystery. There are a number of mysteries Bencolin has to solve, and perhaps part of my lesser enjoyment came about from glomming onto the murderer immediately. There are only so many means of misdirection, and sometimes you just recognize one of them right away. But there were other puzzles that needed solving, and the central one (which I won’t get into for fear of any sort of spoiling) had a marvelous solution. (I can talk more to you when you’ve read it.) I’ll be interested in hearing what you think. Meanwhile, I’m sort of nervous because I just purchased The Plague Court Murders. I hope I enjoy that one more than you seem to have.

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        • “It was very Grand Guignol-ish to me, full of much harsher violence and sexuality than I might have expected from a 1930 British-style mystery.”

          Erm, now I feel like I’ve completely misconstrued your grim irony in describing the novel as ” very lighthearted”… *sweatdrop* I’ll keep you updated as to what I think when I finally get round to reading it. 🙂

          I doubt you would dislike ‘Plague Court Murders’ any more than I did… I seem to be an anomaly on that one. 🙂

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  4. I get slightly mixed reviews of the Bencolin oeuvre, though everyone agrees that ‘Four False Weapons’ is (very?) good.

    It Walks by NIght, The Lost Gallows, Castle Skull and The Corpse in the Waxworks were written when Carr was in his early 20s and, while promising, show an immature writer who had not yet found his own voice. The stories were prone to melodrama and Poe-ish sensationalism. Something that radically began to change once he moved away from Bencolin with Poison in Jest and Hag’s Nook. When he returned to Bencolin to give him a proper sendoff, Carr had settled down in married life and had written a dozen, or so, novel between Waxworks and The Four False Weapons. And it shows!

    By the way, The Plague Court Murders is the book that made me realize I was a JDC fanboy. So there’s that.

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