Kawana, Sari. Murder Most Modern: Detective Fiction & Japanese Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2008.
God, I love that cover… So it turns out my “Genre Fiction in Japan’s 20th Century” list may actually just be my “modernism and science” list, between this and Golley’s book. And honestly, if they’re all this good, I’m fine with that. Or maybe it’s just that thinking about Einstein’s trip to Japan was the hot thing to do back in 2008 (or, more accurately, the 6 or 7 years leading up to 2008 when these books were being researched and written). Kawana’s book just feels like one of those texts that will become a standard in classes about Japanese modernity, genre/detective fiction, and popular cultural studies. Indeed, I’ve already cited her at least once that I can recall. It’s a certain combination of covering relatively unknown authors and works, bringing out a nest of issues that these works command us to address, and doing so in a style that is disarmingly accessible and engaging. Does that mean that the argument it makes is solid? Let’s investigate!
This book does a ton of groundwork in setting up the study of detective fiction. Kawana blazes through readings of a ton of different texts in backing up her arguments in each chapter. But those arguments, at the end of the day, seem to amount to basically stating, “Detective fiction both reflects and comments upon modernity, in both positive and negative ways.” Each chapter dials in on one of the usual suspects in conversations about modernity: urbanization, sexuality/moga, scientific rationalism, total war, the postwar. Colonialism seeps in around the edges, as well. Kawana goes through a series of close readings to show both that detective fiction had these things on its mind, and that it had things to say about them. Fair enough.
One of the arguments that comes out in the introduction that I found interesting was a discussion about notions of originality, mimicry, authenticity, and value. This line of thought comes in halfway through the introduction and feels quite sudden, so at first I was really confused as to why it was showing up like this. Then I saw that just about every review of this book places it alongside Mark Silver’s study of Japanese detective fiction, which came out the same year. So it seems like perhaps Kawana felt some pressure to include something to differentiate herself from him, and a piece on authenticity would be a logical place to start, since much of his study is concerned with “cultural borrowing” and the anxieties of imitation he sees that as setting up in Japanese crime literature.
Kawana rejects the simple model of detective fiction in Japan as a “Western import,” instead identifying it as a product of “global modernity” (following Harootunian and Yoshimi) and its writers as members of an “imagined guild” a la Anderson’s imagined communities. She says that Western detective fiction was picked up and translated so quickly in Japan that Japanese readers were consuming it almost simultaneously with their Western counterparts, and were thus able (as writers) to keep up with the generic conventions of the style and experiment with them at the same time as Western detective writers. She cites a few cases of uncanny similarity between Western and Japanese stories that would appear to be instances of simple copying, except that the Japanese versions came out first. She likens this to instances of independent discovery of the same scientific concepts by different people in different parts of the world and says that it is precisely because detective fiction has such rigidly established conventions that writers are able to experiment with it and come up with many of the same results.
I want to be on board with this claim for the enticing ethical move it offers — namely, getting over this whole idea of “Western influence on Japan” that simply reads Japanese modernity as a function or byproduct of Western modernity. But in the absence of influence traveling back the other way, can we really say it was working like that? A “guild” where only one half is listening to the other side seems to undermine Kawana’s egalitarian ideal of an international, cosmopolitan community of writers all working with a neutrally “modern” form. The argument doesn’t continue much past the introduction, save for a few tangential mentions of similar cases of detective fiction doppelgangers or events like Einstein’s visit to Japan, and maybe it was never her intention to structure her book around this theoretical consideration in the first place, but it’s just such a tantalizing question that I don’t want to leave it alone. Still, Kawana’s interests seem to lie elsewhere.
One other place we might push her a little bit is in defining “detective fiction” itself. A general set of norms emerges vaguely over the course of the book (ratiocination, individual detectives, logical deductive reasoning, etc.), but at least in the sections I read, she never presents a hard and fast definition of how she views the genre. Instead, some of her examples seem to skate between detective fiction, science fiction, horror, and so forth. Not necessarily a fatal omission, but still something worth thinking about as we push the study of genre fiction forward: how are we defining these genres? Where do those definitions come from, and what do they do? So while Kawana’s book perhaps leaves more questions than answers for theoretical discussions at the graduate level, I’m definitely planning on assigning it to my undergrads, if for no other reason than her amazing chapter titles (“Eyeing the Privates: Sexuality as Motive”!!!) that will make me the cool professor because I get the jokes.
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