In her seminal work, Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction and Japanese Culture, Sari Kawana quotes author and essayist Yumeno Kyūsaku from the latter’s 1935 essay. Kyūsaku employs an unusual, pathological metaphor in that work to explain what detective fiction is:

“Detective fiction is like the serum for diptheria. Injecting a patient with the antidiptheria serum works like a miracle. I hear that this remedy kills the disease without fail. Yet, even though we have the treatment, the etiological cause for diptheria has not yet been found. We have not been able to identify it even with the incredible power of modern medicine. The cure has been found, but the cause has not. It is as if the verdict for a crime has been rendered, but the accused is still on the loose. It is a nonsensical situation. [Although we know that detective fiction is popular], the identity of its charm too remains at large. To decipher the psychology that desires detective fiction is utter nonsense itself: detective fiction is nonsense, humor, adventure, grotesque, is all of these things and more.”

Undiagnosed and uncured diseases, disorders and ailments (of the soul, mind, body and society) also persist throughout The Ginza Ghost, a translated collection of short stories from short-lived author Keikichi Ōsaka: tradition and modernity, filaria, infidelity and other complications in love relationships, mental disorders, exploitation of nature and more. In 1930s Japan, Ōsaka was one of the founding and leading lights of the honkaku school of mystery writing, hailed by Edogawa Rampo for his “profound mastery of the intelligent detective story.”

Unfortunately, he died tragically during World War II – and over the next few decades, his works remained largely forgotten. It is only due to the efforts of later honkaku practitioners such as Tetsuya Ayukawa that they started seeing the light of day once more. In fact, Ayukawa would reportedly express his frustration and rage at the fact that Ōsaka’s “pure, honkaku short stories” had been neglected in the first place.

I must say, for a honkaku collection, the stories are worth much more than the puzzles they present. There’s a fascinating, almost unreal, bizarreness in most of the tales that hints towards deeper-lying unease, malaise and pessimism which, in turn, threaten to undo whatever little positivity and fulfillment you can glean from seeing a puzzle solved. And in my opinion, the stories are best read in light of the erstwhile social contexts, of which author Taku Ashibe provides aplenty in his detailed introduction to the book.

Bizarre and heart-wrenching portrait of society in flux

The first story, “The Hangman of the Department Store” (1932) introduces readers to one of Ōsaka’s many detectives, Kyosuke Aoyama. The scene of crime is an alley beside a department store – one of the many products of a modernising, urban Japan in the time between the two World Wars and a space that was not only a locale “where tradition butted up against modernity, or high culture encountered low” but also one of the “contact zones where the firm lines separating the quotidian, bourgeois realities of daily life from the realm of dreams and unconscious desires terrifyingly blurred and disappeared” (as translator Seth Jacobowitz mentions in his note in The Edogawa Rampo Reader).

Here, a man is discovered with telltale signs of violent strangulation and an expensive pearl necklace beside him. With this find, the store no longer remains a space for entertainment and consumer culture, it also becomes a vessel for the eerie and the grotesque, because, by all accounts, it turns out to be impossible for anyone inside or outside the store to have committed the crime.

The logical conclusion Aoyama comes to has a disconcertingly illogical taste to it, but more scarily, it depicts humans as not being in control of their fates or even the outcomes of what they consider to be their surest actions. Perhaps, this also serves as an ominous portent for a Japanese society in flux, not sure of the direction to pursue in its quest for modernity.

In “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall” (1935), one is witness to a timely illusion. On a hot, uncomfortable summer afternoon, a woman is murdered outside a traditional Japanese house with a stone-walled boundary. Her shrieks bring a stranger and a postman to the scene, who witness two identically built men in white yukatas flee in the immediate aftermath and turn a corner into a blind alley. The stranger pursues the two figures, but to his surprise, he meets a salesman who says that no one entered the alley all this while.

Eventually, suspects emerge when footprints and fingerprints are discovered that implicate twin brothers living in the house outside which the crime occurred. But, to the witnesses, these seem to be red herrings to throw the police off the track. Detective Aoyama discovers the elementary truth which, in all honesty, really belongs to a physics textbook more than anything else (a mirage-like phenomenon due to excessive heating of the air). But what really elevates the story is Ōsaka’s expert handling of the story’s atmosphere, and the addition of the planted evidence that lends an extra layer of misdirection to what may seem to be an excessively fair and simple story when seen through modern lens.

“The Mourning Locomotive” (1934) raises the bizarreness quotient to the extreme. Sample these diverse threads for a puzzler: workers at a factory having to repeatedly clean the remains of pigs from the wheels of the same locomotive engine, repeated thefts at a farm in an adjoining town, a strange girl in a funeral shop suffering from a debilitating disease and her relationship with her father and an engine driver who visits the shop occasionally.

Ōsaka manages to tie all these elements in a singular narrative where the truth is almost outlandish but should also tug at your heartstrings. In the end, the resolution becomes a footnote to the heavy, pathos-inducing themes explored here: the devastating effects of suffering from diseases and extreme penury, the absurd extents to which parents can be driven by filial love and the harrowing, tragic consequences of forbidden love and other ‘indescribable feelings’ not being expressed. I may not agree with Ashibe’s contention that this is a ‘crimeless tale’, but I do realise why many would consider this to be Ōsaka’s masterpiece.

Ōsaka uses the same combination of the bizarre and the heartwrenching to a chilling degree in “The Monster of the Lighthouse” (1935) – a story which seems to have a distinct primal appeal. Another of Ōsaka’s sleuths, Saburo Azumaya, also the director of a marine laboratory, is called to a lonely lighthouse – the site of a monstrous, ‘supernatural’ incident. One of the lighthouse keepers has been found battered to death with a rock that also manages to damage the top of the lighthouse and its essential equipment.

There’s blood all over the lighthouse, but what’s even more baffling is the admission by the other lighthouse keeper, supposedly a man of science, that he first heard an infernal cry followed by the sight of a red, ghostly, octopus-like creature jumping into the sea. The discovery of a blood-stained hatchet and a long rope finally clues Azumaya to what really happened, but once again, the human element to the story overshadows everything else from this point on.

While the presentation of the tragic backstory and motives may be a tad bit unfair to the reader, they are central to the narrative and further developments. What happened to the other lighthouse keeper’s daughter? What was the cry all about? How and why did a believer of science come to espouse superstitions and ghosts? How did the cape and the lighthouse become erratic and a graveyard for the ships in the first place?

Just like the previous story, the answer to these interconnected questions leads Ōsaka to ponder on and explore heftier themes as the story unfolds tragically with a twist you are not likely to see coming: the pitfalls of an insular, isolated, excessively strict parenthood, the results of pure, innocent love turning bitter and sour, the boundaries between sanity and insanity and the obscure, visceral, unpredictable nature of the primaeval emotions that regulate these boundaries.

“The Phantom Ghost” (posthumously published in 1947) is an odd one. It bears resemblances to older Japanese tales that portray vengeful spirits of women and wives inflicting pain or seeking retribution for the wrongs committed by men and husbands – stories such as Yotsuya Kaidan or The Peony Lantern (mentioned in this story) for instance. Here, a scholar dies after being haunted by the spectral figure of his ex-wife who took her own life after being divorced by the scholar on the charge of infidelity. But the way a rational link is made to explain the otherworldly apparition the scholar sees and the mystery of his death comes across as too abrupt and rushed.

Not even an improvised bit of gender role-play (appropriate for the time in which it is set) and ruminations on topics such as the innocence and purity of relationships (as well as its perceptions) and the lengths to which people can go to protect or prove it, and the strict, almost feudal, codes that constituted honour in that age can save this one. Definitely one of the weaker efforts.

By this time, it should be evident that besides excelling in creating atmosphere, Ōsaka also uses what would, in usual circumstances, be normal environs to set up incredible, extraordinary scenarios which are ultimately solved rationally. He sets his stories against a wide variety of backdrops—department stores, locomotive factories, lighthouses, mines, asylums and many others. “The Mesmerising Light” (1936) is no different. It starts in a most vivid, thriller-ish way: a car winds haphazardly up a mountain road closed on both ends by toll gates but then mysteriously disappears.

On to the scene arrives, quite coincidentally, an attorney Taiji Otsuki, another of Ōsaka’s investigators, who soon gets embroiled in a police investigation in the matter. Meanwhile, a murder incident far away may have links with the car’s disappearance, but the decisive clue that reveals the culprit is a bit too elementary for my taste.

When it comes to the core mystery of the car’s disappearance, though, the explanation resembles “The Phantasm of the Stone Wall” in that here too a freak optical illusion (again, one you may have encountered in school textbooks) is at play. It would seem that Ōsaka really liked to tease readers with these settings that made the impossible possible without human intervention.

If I had to pick my favourite from the collection, it would be “The Cold Night’s Clearing” (1936). The book blurb mentions the stories as having “an unreal, almost hallucinatory quality to them” – and this tale is possibly the best example. Tragedy strikes the family of an English teacher on Christmas Eve against the backdrop of a cold night’s clearing – a meteorological phenomena in the very cold days of winter during which skies remain overcast during the day, then miraculously clear up at night. In the absence of the teacher, his wife and her nephew are found violently beaten to death with an iron poker, while their child is nowhere to be seen.

The teacher’s best friend and one of his students find ski tracks leading away from the house into an empty field where they grow fainter and fainter until they completely disappear, as if both adult and child had been spirited away – the classic ‘footprints in the snow’ problem with the added caveat that unlike shoeprints, it is difficult to know which direction people are headed towards, by looking at ski tracks.

The resolution to the case is a great example of why it is important to make the right interpretation of visual clues (out of many probable ones), especially at the start of a chain of deductive reasoning. Thematically, this is familiar ground for Ōsaka who once again shows his preoccupation with exploring the fickle nature of human relationships and the thin line between sanity and insanity that allows a person to switch between the two almost instinctively. Above all, there’s a funereal brilliance to this classically modern tale of a simple man who falls into hell which is further enhanced by its bleak, unforgiving atmosphere. Not recommended as a Christmas read unless forgiveness doesn’t happen to be your cup of tea.

‘Dreams made of tricks and logic’

In “The Three Madmen” (1936), we are introduced to three inmates of a private mental institution which has clearly seen better days. There’s an ambience of decline and decay in the institution, the eeriness and loneliness of which is only broken by the unique but harmless tics of each of the three occupants. However, the attitude of the hospital’s director and other authorities towards the three leaves much to be desired and runs the risk of exacerbating the patients’ conditions.

Things come to a head soon enough, and a body (apparently, of the director) is found with a hole in its head and its brains missing. The three inmates are found missing on the institute’s grounds, but two of them are traced at different locations, while the remains of the third are found by the rail tracks after being run over by a train. But, greed and ‘disguised’ intentions (involving the clever realisation of the ‘fancies’ of madmen) are at the bottom of the case here. The inversion of perspectives and roles that Ōsaka employs here challenges people’s conventional notions of sanity and insanity and invites readers to ponder on the following question: who is the one that is really (criminally) insane here?

“The Guardian of the Lighthouse” (1936) forms an interesting counterpoint to the other lighthouse story in this collection (“The Monster of the Lighthouse”). Both stories feature unthinkable acts committed by central characters. But whereas in “The Monster of the Lighthouse”, the actions of said character imperil the lighthouse and the ships and sailors it serves, the ultimate sacrifices made by the central figure in the midst of a raging storm save the lighthouse and those dependent on it from impending doom. A grotesque, tragic fate awaits this character, but that is offset by the undeniably noble and heroic tone of this story of a boy who is dutiful to an extreme fault.

Greed takes centrestage in “The Demon in the Mine” (1937), set in a mine with nearly non-existent safety standards. A death occurs, following which other miners also die in closed tunnels – supposedly the action of the spirit of the first miner who died. Similar to “The Three Madmen”, behind the claustrophobic atmosphere in the mine’s tunnels are the ‘disguised’ intentions of a supervisor that turns fatally stifling for the innocent. This “locked room” story set in the backdrop of nature explores how human and corporate greed spare none – be it fellow beings or natural resources, all are ‘sacrificed’ at its ruthless, unfeeling, devilish altar. Fittingly enough, the story ends with the mine’s collapse.

After the heavy feel of the preceding stories, “The Hungry Letter-Box” (1939) feels like a breath of fresh air. A thinly-veiled detective-cum-spy story, the tale shows Ōsaka’s mastery over romance and comedy genres – genres he took to after crime fiction took a hit after the onset of World War II. The story of a young, lovesick barber who goes on an ‘adventure’ to find the letter for his beloved that disappeared along with the post box in which it was posted has a chirpy, humorous feel to it. It has a nifty trick at its heart and a decidedly happy ending too. A refreshing change, indeed.

In some ways, the concluding, titular story, “The Ginza Ghost” (1936) brings this collection full circle. For one, it is set in a tobacco shop in Tokyo’s Ginza, an entertainment area both in the past and the present, forever situated in the crossroads between tradition and modernity – bringing back to mind the department store of the first story. A crime in a tobacco shop is witnessed by the waitresses of a bar on the other side of the road. The striking pattern of the kimono worn by the assailant allows them to identify the culprit quickly, and soon, two bodies are discovered in the shop.

However, once the medical examination is completed, the people and the investigators are shocked to know that the person they had considered to be the killer had died some time before the victim. The bartender of the bar, however, has a different take on the situation. And once again, an optical phenomenon (you may have encountered this one not just in textbooks but also in other series such as Detective Conan or The Case Files of Young Kindaichi) has taken place unbeknownst to the witnesses, baffling them. But it does not evade the sharp-sighted bartender who is acquainted with it on a regular basis – and it is he who brings the case to an elegant close by demonstrating, first-hand, what actually happened.

In tributes, Ōsaka has been described as an author whose “dreams were made out of tricks and logic”. That may well be true, but it only shows a part of the whole picture. Considering this collection to be representative of Ōsaka’s entire oeuvre, I think he shines best when he seamlessly blends his tricks with deeper philosophical meditations on the puzzling nature of human existence itself – and, as is evident from most of these stories, he undoubtedly harbours a pessimistic outlook to this larger conundrum.

Kyūsaku may have posited a ‘serum’ to a disease as a likely, if not illogical, metaphor for detective fiction, but Ōsaka doesn’t even afford that hope. His investigations into the various diseases and ailments of a society in an indeterminate flux provide no easy, curative answers – the narratives often end in tragically fatal manners, and the act of detection comes as no relief to this overshadowing problem, especially as it is unable to prevent these outcomes.