Ellery Queen is Alive and Well and Living in Japan

Ellery Queen dynamic duo: Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay
Ellery Queen dynamic duo: Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay

Crime novel critic Kiyoshi Kasai focuses in his books on “orthodox” detective novels, which refer to the Golden Age detective novels in the Christie-Queen-Carr tradition. He identifies three distinct “waves” in the development of the orthodox detective novels in Japan , the first (1920-1940s) being the one represented by Edogawa Rampo, while the second is the post-war period represented by writers like Seishi Yokomizo. That brings us to the third wave, the new-old, or the New Orthodox School.

Seichō Matsumoto's social school, as the dominant style of crime novels in Japan, brought forth a whole slew of subgenres in the 1970s-1980s.  One of the most prolific crime writers in Japan is Kyōtarō Nishimura, who specializes in so-called travel mysteries. His novels focus not as much on the classic puzzle plot, nor on social criticism, but rather on using the genre as a kind of travel-guide. His stories travel all over Japan on trains, fun reads with local flavor.  Yasuo Uchida has a similar gimmick, with his protagonist Asami Mitsuhiko, a freelance writer, traveling all over Japan while solving mysteries often connected with local legends. Light-hearted mysteries like those written by Jirō Akagawa were also very popular, and his works frequently made the jump to TV.

The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada
In the 1980s, however, a new movement arose, departing from these lighter crime novels.  Sōji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders can be considered the first novel in this movement. Shimada’s maiden work was a tribute to the classics like Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr. It had an intricate puzzle-plot with a locked room, a master detective, a Challenge to the Reader to solve the crime, even the classic, headless body. Or to be exact, bodies.  As it was a time where the above-mentioned, light-hearted mysteries were at the height of their popularity, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was unbelievably different, daring! Somewhat too daring maybe, as it took a couple of years before this movement really started to move.

Yukito Ayatsuji mansion murder series
Yukito Ayatsuji mansion murder series
The term shinhonkaku-ha, the New Orthodox School, was first attributed by Shimada to the novels of Yukito Ayatsuji, who first debuted in 1987 with The Decagon Mansion Murders (Jukkakan no Satsujin). The novel, featuring an Agatha Christie-like plot with a group of young students on an island who get killed off, one by one, was an ode to the Golden Age classics. Ayatsuji continued with his Mansion (Yakata) series, all of which would feature odd architecture and the ambience of the buildings as a main attraction.  By then, the New Orthodox School had become the name of the whole literary movement that took its cues from the Golden Age detective novels. Writers of this school would incorporate classic elements like the master detective, the puzzle, the mansion with the locked-room murder into their stories, but most importantly, the stories were primarily set in contemporary times and contemporary settings. These writers proved that the puzzling mystery could also work, perfectly even, in modern times.

Other popular writers of the New Orthodox School are Rintarō Norizuki and Alice Arisugawa. Both writers are strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. Both of them have named their protagonists after themselves, like their great example. Both writers often insert a Challenge to the Reader in their stories.  As one can derive from his first name, Arisugawa often delves into imagery of Alice in Wonderland, just like Ellery Queen, while Norizuki Rintarō’s characters mimic Ellery Queen almost exactly.  In fact, his protagonist is a writer, also called Norizuki Rintarō, who helps his father, a police inspector, mirroring the Ellery Queen – Inspector Queen dynamic. Norizuki’s prize-winning short story “An Urban Legend Puzzle” is a great example of the New Orthodox School. While it features a classic puzzle plot, the incorporation of urban legends is distinctly modern. More recent writers of this type include names like Natsuhiko Kyōgoku and Mori Hiroshi.

Detective Conan manga poster
Detective Conan manga: so many deerstalkers!

While not seen as part of the New Orthodox School, the 1990’s also saw the birth of two of immensely popular Japanese comic, or manga, series. Detective Conan, called Case Closed in the United States, is a comic that basically offers a great detective story every week. The somewhat-supernatural premise of a young, master detective being turned into a little boy might scare off the older reader initially, but writer-artist Gōshō Aoyama proves himself to be a master of the genre, with ingenious plots and puzzles that would entertain any crime fan. The Kindaichi Casefiles features the high school-aged grandson of fictional private detective Kousuke Kindaichi, introduced in the previous post, and features many locked rooms and other classic themes. These two series are still very much part of contemporary Japanese pop-culture, with the Detective Conan animation being broadcast on Japanese television in primetime. Having gone to the movie theaters several times to watch Detective Conan movies in Japan, I saw all layers of society, from children to university students to working adults, gathered together to watch animated mysteries.

What does the future bring? With a whole generation growing up on mystery cartoons, it’s hard to say how the detective novel in Japan will develop. One thing is sure though, it’s going to be a blast seeing what they’ll come up with next.

Authors available in English:

Gōshō Aoyama. Case Closed

Jirō Akagawa (1985). Three Sisters Investigate. Kodansha International.

Yōzaburō Kanari, Fumiya Satō. The Kindaichi Case Files.

Kyōtarō Nishimura(1990).The Mystery Train Disappears. Dembner Books.

Rintarō Norizuki (2007). “An Urban Legend Puzzle”. In: Passports to Crime (ed. Janet Hutchings).

Sōji Shimada (2004). The Tokyo Zodiac MurdersIBC Publishing. 

Yasuo Uchida (1994). The Tokagushi Legend Murders. Tuttle.

Ho-Ling Wong


  1. Terrie Farley Moran

    This is why I love the Writing the World series of posts. It seems that all over the world people are writing books that I would love, I just don’t know they exist. As a huge Ellery Queen/Agatha Christie fan, I am happy to learn about the New Orthodox School of writers in Japan, and I appreciate the list of books available in English.

  2. Herbert

    very interesting!

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