Japanese Golden Dozen: Ellery Queen, Intruiging Mysteries from Japan

A magical find from my last London second hand bookshop walk.


This collection from Ellery Queen catalogues the best detective story writers from Japan at the time of publication. Ellery Queen was the moniker of detective fiction writers and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Published in 1978, Lee had passed away by this time and the back cover shows an image of Dannay. This must have been one of the last big collections Dannay produced as he would also pass away only 4 years later. This copy to my surprise was actually printed in Tokyo by the Charles E. Tuttle company, who are still publishing asian fiction, mystery and poetry. As the title suggests there are 12 short stories in this collection and a lot of hits (and some misses), here are my top 5 in order of appearance in the book:

1 – Too Much About Too Many – Eitaro Ishizawa

This semi-impossible short story reads like a forerunner to Keigo Higashino, and concerns the poisoning of a glass at an end of year office party. 13 suspects on Friday the 13th, but all the suspects speak highly of the victim who was loved by one and all. The chilling denouement makes one think of Agatha Christie’s Endless night.

2 – A Letter From the Dead – Tohru Miyoshi

A columnist for a small town newspaper receives a letter to his office from an anonymous author writing from ‘The River Styx’, saying that they were murdered but no one knew it except them and the murderer. There is a return address and postmark which show upon investigation that the letter was sent after the author had died in an apparent suicide. The columnist tracks down the address and visits the widow, and I thought there was going to be a brilliant locked room set up when she would only speak to him through the letterbox. He passed the letter through the letter box and after a moment she started groaning in pain. But alas she wasn’t dying in impossible circumstances (we can’t have everything) but groaning as she recognised the handwriting as her husband’s, although it seemed impossible. The ending is convincing and satisfying.

3 – Cry from the Cliff – Shizuki Natsuki

This was the absolute crown of the collection. A gorgeously written story which perfectly uses a small cast of characters and beautifully described locations to explore a semi impossible stabbing on a beach cliff. The prose are deceptively spare and have inspired me to seek out more of Natsuki’s books. Only a few of her novels have been printed in English, and I would value hearing from others if you have read any of them. Natsuki has often been called the Agatha Christie of Japan, which she begrudges, and this fascinating interview from 1987 shows how she defied gender traditions to become an author, and that she also wrote all her books out by hand!

4 – The Kindly Blackmailer – Kyotaro Nishimura

An absolutely killer opening where a barber has a strange new customer turn up at his shop, who tells him “I’ll be dropping in here, often”. The mysterious man reveal the barbers name and says that he has knows a lot about him. Then drops the bomb shell: “for instance, I know that three months ago, when you were driving a light truck, you ran into a little kindergarten girl.” Holding out his shaving razor blade, a million thoughts run through the barber’s head, and from here develops a twisty blackmail plot with a bag full of mixed motivations.

5 – No Proof – Yoh Sano

This must be one of the most intriguing ideas for a crime short I have ever read. A team of Japanese business men and women head to the roof of their office block for a celebratory new year group photo. The photographer, a co-worker, pretends to be focusing the camera under a piece of cloth, but is secretly putting on a rubber monkey mask. As he shouts cheese, he jumps from behind the camera, scaring one and all, snapping the photo of their terrified faces. They realise they have been party to a practical joke and are laughing away when one member keels over, dying of a heart attack. His last moment immortalised on photographic film. The question… did the photographer knowingly cause his death, and if so, how on earth can it be proved with any credibility? Over three meetings a cast of police officers and detectives named only officer A,B,C and onwards, wrestle out the many moral and legal twists of the case, the motives of which turn out to be much more complex than they think. Really enjoyed this one, highly original.

How this collection came around is another mystery in itself. Queen in his foreword says that he was asked by the Suedit Cooperation to put this collection together. However I can’t find any information about this company anywhere, and the company name looks strangely un-Japanese. At the end of each story is also a gorgeous hand drawn miniature Illustration, but I couldn’t see any accreditation to the artist.

Illustrations for: Too Much About Too Many, No Proof, and Cry From The Cliff.

The book explores a lot of uniquely Japanese themes, and it’s slow and social pace are really satisfying once you get into the mysteries, but at the same time some of the stories are too slow paced to hold you. Of the last four pieces, the first three go down the erotic route, and The Vampire by Masako Togawa is definitely not safe for work, or for reading on the train as I was at the time! Although these three stories do speak to the history of erotic literature in Japan and are not badly written. The final story of the collection was just a shade too dark in its comedy for my tastes, but a nice concept.

If you see this on your journeys, grab it, it’s a real Japanese gem.


18 thoughts on “Japanese Golden Dozen: Ellery Queen, Intruiging Mysteries from Japan”

  1. I have this! But I haven’t read it yet — stumbled across it following the publication of Alice Arisugawa’s shin honkaku masterpiece The Moai Island Puzzle from Locked Room International and snapped it up, since I’m developing something of a man-crush on Japanese detective fiction. Realy pleased to hear there are some crackers in here, not that it means I’ll get to it any time soon…

    For the curious, the full contents are:

    Too Much About Too Many by Eitaro Ishizawa
    The Cooperative Defendant by Seicho Matsumoto
    A Letter From The Dead by Tohru Miyoshi
    Devil Of A Boy by Seiichi Morimura
    Cry From The Cliff by Shizuko Natsuki
    The Kindly Blackmailer by Kyotaro Nishimura
    No Proof by Yoh Sano
    Invitation From The Sea by Saho Sasazawa
    Facial Restoration by Tadao Sohno
    The Vampire by Masako Togawa
    Write In, Rub Out by Takao Tsuchiya
    Perfectly Lovely Ladies byYasutaka Tsutsui

    Very few of these authors have seen anything else translated into ENglish as far as I can tell; aaaah, such untapped depths, it makes the heart sing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh man, Queen’s forward says that he chose these 12 from over 2000 stories, talk about untapped depths! The collection is worth a try when you get the time, generally great quality and really original and engaging idea. Some of the stories drag and have the feel of Ellery Queen’s more bland works, but he is so loved over there, and of course this collection is from Queen so it makes sense that he would choose works that are akin to his own style. With that in mind, readers who love Queen might end up enjoy this book even more than I did!

      Haven’t got to Moai Island Puzzle but really want to give it a go as I have heard many good things about Arisugawa. I am totally in love with Japanese detective stuff as well. I have the huge benefit of having travelled to Japan twice (I totally thought I was going to live there when I was in my late teens and early 20’s), but I wasn’t reading crime them so missed some opportunities.

      When I read Ho-Ling’s blog (http://bit.ly/2kutGV0) and On The Threshold (http://bit.ly/2kQPU4r), I am always stung by how much good stuff is going on in Japan that we are missing!


      1. Did Dannay translate them, do you know? Or were translations provided? Because if there are 2,000 translated honkaku stories available then someone should really get onto that…

        Liked by 1 person

        1. On a quick re-read, it says in the forward the that the stories were ‘selected by a special Japanese Mystery Committee’ from actually 2500 stories, ‘trying to represent a cross-section of the contemporary Japanese genre’. And apparently the Suedit company provided the ‘historical data’ from which to analyse what stories were out there. The translators are not mentioned.

          Wish I could know more, and find out who this mysterious committee were!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. My copy doesn’t have the introduction, which is weird — looks like the pages may have been cut out (clearly someone felt that Dannay’s opening remarks were too scandalous and needed censoring!). I’m with you in being immensely curious about that Japanese Mystery Committee…

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Haha, censorship indeed. That’s annoying as it’s important. Maybe I’ll do a quick scan and send it over. It’s only a few pages and a good read in terms of looking at the development of the detective novel in Japan in three distinct stages, as Queen puts it (up to the 70’s of course).


    2. I’ve not read this particular collection of Japanese stories, but kind of disappointed to see Dannay selected Togawa’s “The Vampire.”

      J.W. van de Wetering included a Dutch translation of that story in a very similar anthology, Een Oosterse Huivering (An Eastern Shiver), but only served as a reminder as to why I hated contemporary crime-and thriller fiction. If they wanted to include some ero-guro (erotic grotesque), why not pick something by Edogawa Rampo? At least he knew how to write that stuff.

      P.S.: I tried to post this before, but, somehow, I always have problems with posts getting through wordpress blogs I never (or rarely) posted on. It usually works when I removed my blog-adress from the form. Very annoying.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. If it’s any consolation, I have trouble getting comments on Blogspot blogs about 50-60% of the time — frequently they scythe comment is posted only for it to disappear, sometimes it doesn’t acknowlede the content or my WordPress ID… clearly there’s some Jets and Sharks shenanigans going on between these hosts. And we’re the Jets, obviously…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks TomCat. I must say, to be honest, I couldn’t even bring myself to finish the Vampire, it just seemed so out of place and pretty intense for the collection itself. Hadn’t heard of the genre Ero-guro before so thanks for the heads up on that as well, hopefully I’ll know whats coming in advance next time!

        Sorry you are having problems posting, and thanks for persisting! I usually have to manually enter my blog address in when posting on yours, and the wordpress link up doesn’t seem to want to work across platforms.


  2. I’ve read four NATSUKI Shizuko mysteries, including two translated into English as “Murder at Mount Fuji” (the original translates literally as “The Tragedy of W”) and “Journey in Black and White”. “Murder at Mount Fuji” is well worth reading, an ingenious combination of inverted and conventional mystery; but I gather that the English translation (which I haven’t read) changes the viewpoint character from a Japanese woman to an American. “Journey in Black and White” is a bit too much a work of its time (late seventies). “Disappearance” (jouhatsu) hasn’t been translated, but I found it more worth reading than “Journey in Black and White”. “The Third Lady”, which I haven’t read in Japanese or English, seems to be the one that gets the most positive reaction on mystery blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Nigel, your blog is another that makes me see how much we are missing here!

      Murder at Mount Fuji is the main one I had seen available to buy translated and keen to get a copy, so thanks for the recommendation. In the interview that I linked she mentions how she changed the character for the American market: ‘I wrote in that part before sending off the manuscript for translation. I thought the change would make the book a bit more appealing to foreign readers, by giving them at least one character they could relate to, so to speak’.

      I have seen translations for Portal of the Wind, The Obituary Arrives at Two O’clock, Death from the Clouds and Innocent Journey also in English. Was your forth one any of those?


      1. No, it was a doomed passion / spy story called “Epitaph in Blue” (Ao no bohimei). I read it before I started my blog, so I didn’t write a review of it. I only read it because a local second hand bookstore had it, and it’s hard to get Japanese books in Europe. It’s certainly not one where you need to regret that there’s no translation


        1. Thanks Nigel, thats really helpful. So you are based in Europe but speak and read Japanese? Thats really awesome. I have visited Japan a few times, and learnt to speak some basics, but unfortunately not enough to read. Although with how much good stuff I am seeing that is not translated I am starting to think about taking it up again!


  3. Frederic Dannay actually kept on editing several of these volumes, but they were only released in Japan. They released a total of four Queen-edited Japanese anthologies over there (with Japanese Golden Dozen being the first). It’s a shame they never made it overseas (and you’d think it’d makemre sense to release those anthologies overseas, rather than somewhere the stories are already available in one way or another…).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Ho-Ling. This is so sad to hear! And your right, surely it would make sense to create anthologies to promote writers further afield?! Again its the tragedy of how much stuff we/I am missing out on not being translated.


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