Monday, December 1, 2014

Vintage Mystery #37

I read this book for the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge 2014. The challenge is to read 6 or more Vintage Mysteries. All novels must have been originally written before 1960 and be from the mystery category.

I read this for 0-4:  Author you’ve never read before

The Devil’s Disciple – Hamao Shiro

This fictional work consists of two interesting stories that abound in mystery, murder and uncertainty. Nothing is what it seems. Hamao thinks the fact that motives are often impossible to identify limits our ability to a judge anybody with total confidence. In both of these dark short stories in the crime fiction genre, he presents first-person narratives of why a perp did what he did.

Writing between the wars in what the Japanese call the Taisho Era, Hamao was one of the first Japanese writers of modern detective fiction with elements of the police procedural. He covers the discovery of the crime and the processing of suspects in custody and charging them in court. He is blunt about Japanese police using psychological coercion and violence to extract confessions, false and not.

Japanese critics say that Hamao was influenced by S. S. Van Dine. Perhaps. In both stories, the setting is the upper crust of Tokyo society. We see that Japanese millionaires don’t behave any better than they should just like our rich. Plus, the story is told from multiple points of view, one of which is a defense lawyer who brings logical reasoning to develop alternative theories as to whodunnit. Finally, one victim in the second story was just as arrogant and in as much need of a good kick in the pants as Philo Vance.

But there the cozyish atmosphere ends with these superficial resemblances. These stories include adultery, sado-masochistic sex, and passion gone dark and consuming. It also deals with intense male-male friendships that we see in Japanese fiction like Mishima’s The Mask. Plus, there is uneasiness about unbridled female sexuality as we read about in Tanizaki’s Naomi, written in the same era. Readers into Japan will like how motive is influenced by living in an honor-bound culture, but no anthropological knowledge of Japan is in fact required.  Readers who like Erle Stanley Gardner’s shots at the shortcomings of the criminal justice system will see that Hamao is Gardner’s counterpart. I think if a reader of exotic crime fiction is in the mood for pulpy grotesquery, this is the ticket.

Hamao was a viscount. Despite his aristocratic origins, he was a brilliant student and took up law as a career. He became a prosecutor, but when he saw there was money in fiction-writing (newspapers would pay for serials), he became a full-time author. He brought a deep legal knowledge and extensive experience with people from all walks of life to his fiction. His health was delicate, however, and he died when he was only 40 years of age.

1 comment:

  1. Another Japanese crime writer I'd never heard of. Sounds very much like Edogawa Rampo, the granddaddy or Japanese grotesque crime and mystery fiction. Just found a copy for $1 online and ordered it. Thanks so much for this revelation! Seems this was the week that the other bloggers were teaching me about the obscure and well worth reading rather than the other way around.