Purloined Letters: Cultural Borrowing and Japanese Crime Literature, 1868–1937

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ISBN-13: 9780824831882
Published: April 2008

Additional Information

232 pages
  • About the Book
  • This engaging study of the detective story’s arrival in Japan—and of the broader cross-cultural borrowing that accompanied it—argues for a reassessment of existing models of literary influence between “unequal” cultures. Because the detective story had no pre-existing native equivalent in Japan, the genre’s formulaic structure acted as a distinctive cultural marker, making plain the process of its incorporation into late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Japanese letters. Mark Silver tells the story of Japan’s adoption of this new Western literary form at a time when the nation was also remaking itself in the image of the Western powers. His account calls into question conventional notions of cultural domination and resistance, demonstrating the variety of possible modes for cultural borrowing, the surprising vagaries of intercultural transfer, and the power of the local contexts in which “imitation” occurs.

    Purloined Letters considers a fascinating range of primary texts populated by wise judges, faceless corpses, wily confidence women, desperate blackmailers, a fetishist who secrets himself for days inside a leather armchair, and a host of other memorable figures. The work begins by analyzing Tokugawa courtroom narratives and early Meiji biographies of female criminals (dokufu-mono, or “poison-woman stories”), which dominated popular crime writing in Japan before the detective story’s arrival. It then traces the mid-Meiji absorption of French, British, and American detective novels into Japanese literary culture through the quirky translations of muckraking journalist Kuroiwa Ruiko. Subsequent chapters take up a series of detective stories nostalgically set in the old city of Edo by Okamoto Kido (a Kabuki playwright inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes) and the erotic, grotesque, and macabre works of Edogawa Ranpo, whose pen-name punned on “Edgar Allan Poe.

  • About the Author(s)
    • Mark H. Silver, Author

  • Reviews and Endorsements
    • This is an impressive book, which casts the early history of Japanese detective fiction within the broader context of Japanese cultural and political modernity. Through his close analysis of three central figures—Kuroiwa Ruikô, Okamoto Kidô, and Edogawa Ranpo—Silver demonstrates the complex ways in which detective fiction in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was used to reflect upon new ideas, represent the past, and reveal Japan's newly ‘modern’ society in grotesque and frightening ways. Lucidly argued and elegantly written, Purloined Letters will become essential reading for scholars of detective fiction, Japanese literature, and translation studies more generally.
      —Amanda Seaman
    • Mark Silver has written an elegant and original history of the early twentieth-century Japanese detective story, which had a proto-realistic tradition of its own quite apart from that of the canonical Meiji novels. We feel Japan’s anxieties about rising crime in an age when feudal and geographical limits on mobility had crumbled, its nostalgia for a magical past of wise judges and thief-catchers, and its fascination with criminals, some of them women, who were just as ingenious. Silver addresses big theoretical questions of how cultures react to each other while providing new readings of such seminal contributors to the crime fiction genre as Edogawa Ranpo. This eye-opening work not only redefines both Euro-American and Japanese crime genres in light of each other, but also delineates a complicated transition from a premodern and transnational East Asian detective story tradition to a modern genre in which the crimes and sleuthing seem more familiar and Westernized—until, under Silver’s skillful guidance, we get a closer look!
      —Jeffrey C. Kinkley
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