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Reviewed by:
  • Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, and: Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868-1937
  • Evelyn Schulz
Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture. By Sari Kawana. University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 271 pages. Softcover $22.50.
Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868–1937. By Mark Silver. University of Hawai'i Press, 2008. 217 pages. Hardcover $48.00.

Since its beginnings in the 1840s, fiction dealing with crime, mystery, and detection has become one of the most productive, popular, and global genres, reaching a large readership the world over. The genre, although frequently relegated to the category of low fiction, has proven extremely durable, flexible, and creative. In its early days, detective fiction was dominated by authors from America, Britain, and, to a lesser extent, France. Edgar Allan Poe's early stories, such as The Murder in the Rue Morgue (1841), The Mystery of Marie Roget (1842), and The Purloined Letter (1844)—to which the title of Mark Silver's study alludes—are considered the starting point for the rapid international spread of crime fiction. Poe's stories, as well as those of contemporaries including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Émile Gaboriau, have been translated into numerous languages, and their plots have been adapted by authors in many countries—including Japan—from the late nineteenth century on.

Mark Silver and Sari Kawana both focus on the formative decades of Japanese detective fiction (tantei shōsetsu). While Kawana covers the period from the late nineteenth century to the early postwar years, the timeline of Silver's study begins in the Meiji period and ends in 1937. Both studies show that Japanese detective fiction written during this period oscillated between imitation and adaptation of dominant Western models on the one hand, and innovation and originality on the other. They examine the persistent assumption that the genre relies primarily on imitation and aim to reevaluate its creative potential in the context of the social, cultural, and literary history of modern Japan. The two studies complement one another to a certain extent; their approaches and the materials they investigate, however, differ considerably.

Silver sets himself the task of investigating the origins of detective fiction in Japan and the broader crosscultural borrowing that accompanied it. With the aim of revising established models for understanding cultural borrowing, which rely too heavily upon the notions of straightforward Japanese imitation and Western cultural dominance, Silver focuses on "the description and assessment of Japanese writers' responses to the problem of writing in the borrowed genre of detective fiction" (Silver, p. 16). Silver [End Page 418] points out that detective fiction is a cumulative genre that depends for its very identity on the implementation of long-established conventions such as the locked room, the series of interviews with the suspect, the dramatic reappraisal of the evidence, the revelation of the intricate-yet-utterly-compelling solution by the detective, and the most unlikely "likely suspect" being the murderer. These conventions have an iconic status in the Western tradition of detective fiction and have been so widely circulated and recirculated as to make the question of originality largely moot. Kawana aims to disprove "the fallacy of direct influence" (Kawana, p. 21) and makes a strong point in suggesting that intercultural influence may be mere coincidence made possible by cultural globalization. Japanese detective fiction therefore encourages us to rethink the idea of originality by suggesting that in these stories the measure of originality is not how "new" the plot is but rather how existing tropes and narrative structures are reorganized and reconceived in artful and unexpected ways. For Kawana, similarities and congruences in terms of structure and content are therefore less the result of direct influence or imitation, but rather the consequence of applying similar generic rules. Against this backdrop, the appearance of crime fiction in Japan can be seen as evidence, she notes, for what Yoshimi Shun'ya and Harry D. Harootunian have called "sekai dōjisei (global simultaneity), the emergence of a global culture to which the United States, Europe, and Japan all belonged" (p. 22).

In his introduction, "Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature," Silver sketches the political and cultural...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 418-424
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-16
Open Access
No
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