Reading the Boy Detectives (or the Detective Boys) by Edogawa Rampo (or Ranpo) is like picking up the American classics Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys. Various people might have different reactions to hearing the name Nancy Drew, but we can probably all agree it conjures the idea of a bygone era. And yet these stories endure and are still childhood classics; the same is true of the Boy Detectives. Well-worn copies of the Boy Detectives books will always be found in Japanese libraries.
The Fiend with Twenty Faces is the first of the Boy Detectives stories and became a mega hit. The story cements not only the Boy Detectives, but also phantom thief Twenty Faces, and even the already known Detective Kogoro, as characters that would remain popular for generations.
“This time I have them for sure.” says the detective. This time will be different. Each time this thief has made law enforcement a laughing-stock by boldly send a letter to the victim in advance as if daring anyone to stop them. The phantom thief has gotten past the police several times but now they think they understand their criminal mind. The thief is part spy, part magician, and part strategist all blended together in a villainous package. Every precaution has been taken. The museum has been swept for surprises that may have been planted there. Every staff member and officer are known to the detective so no flimsy disguises can be used. And this time there is an unexpected trap in place to catch the thief unawares. Tonight will be different. Tonight justice will triumph.
If you have been reading manga and watching anime for more than a few years that story should be very familiar to you. The great battle between the phantom thief and the great detective has played out many times over the years in Japan media. The Lupin Gang vs. Inspector Zenigata. Detective Conan vs. the Kaito Kid. Cat’s Eye vs. Toshio Utsumi. Saint Tail vs. Asuka Jr. The list goes on but you see a pattern there. Each of those rivalries is a little different. One might add a romantic angle while another might sprinkle in a magical girl twist. How evil or benevolent the thief is can vary from story to story. Sometimes the thief and the detective are even forced to work together. But no matter the iteration they all have a common ancestor. They all trace their conflict back to the battle of Detective Kogoro and his Boy Detectives vs. the dastardly Twenty Faces.
The Fiend with Twenty Faces has become part of the very DNA of Japanese storytelling. While the concept of the Phantom Thief is older than the book it is clearly the story that took an idea that was somewhat popular in Japan and made it a part of the cultural lexicon. Any book that influential to detective fiction in Japan seems necessary reading to us on the Reverse Thieves so with decided to give this book a long overdue look.
The introduction in the book is nearly as interesting as the actual story. In it we learn much including how Edogawa Rampo gained mainstream success through these stories, how the stories changed due to censors, and how the series endured even through WWII.
Despite the Boy Detectives being such a cultural institution, I felt going in they were the ones I knew the least about when compared to Detective Kogoro and Twenty Faces. But I was wrong! Kobayashi, the leader of the boys, is an absolute blueprint for Detective Conan. He is quite capable, ingenious, and even carries a set of gadgets around. Kobayashi takes on the cases of his mentor while he is out of town, and foils Twenty Faces. He does get himself kidnapped, but gets himself out handily. The other boys don’t play a huge role in this book, so it remains to be seen how the other kids in Detective Conan stack up.
While Twenty Faces is obviously inspired by Arsène Lupin, Twenty Faces possesses less of an image of a charming gentleman thief. He is a master of disguise, one of such caliber that it is basically magic, and a great actor who even takes on the role of detective Kogoro at one point. He adheres to a code of non-killing. But the “fiend” part of this book title comes from his penchant of kidnapping children with nary a thought. And from reading the introduction, this comes back in even greater force later.
As Kate mentioned the Kurodahan Press translation of the story starts off with an extremely useful preface that does a great deal to put the book in a better historical context. The first ten pages already got the gears in my head turning about this novel before I had read the opening paragraph of the story itself.
The first thought that popped into my head was how much censorship had shaped this book. Edogawa Rampo started his career as the author of shocking and perverse sexual stories. Some but not all of these were also detective stories. While they were popular and groundbreaking the winds of change in Japan had put him in a bit of a slump. Interestingly enough it was the far stricter conditions of writing a children’s novel that reinvigorated his muse.
All of this makes me reexamine the classic theory of why American comics became so dominated by superheroes for the longest time while Japanese comics have had so many flourishing genres over the years. The simple answer was that the Comics Code Authority in America created an environment that restricted all other genres but Japan dodged that bullet letting its range of storytelling be far broader for far longer. In the end, it is not that was utterly untrue it was more that was a simplification. Japan and America have both had its periods where children’s content was censored and repressed. The key difference is more what the reaction of the creators and consumers were to such restrictions.
There is a much longer conversation that would require much more research. But that is beyond this post. It was more something I wanted to point out jumping at me from the preface.
This preface also explains Rampo Kitan: Game of Laplace. I wondered why they added so much odd and seemingly unnecessary perversion to the mystery stories of Edogawa Rampo. As it turns out they were merely trying to update the shocking and scandalous elements of his original stories while adapting his entire body of work for a modern age. The series is not any better for this but at least it put into context what they show was attempting. It also still does not explain why so many other series can’t adapt the stories of Edogawa Rampo into anything entertaining but one mystery at a time.
As for the story itself, the first thing I noticed was the narrator. It is a third-person omniscient narrator but not the mechanically detached version you’re used to. This narrator asks questions and provides commentary to the reader as if they were an audience. It seems much more like a stage performer or a street entertainer telling the story of the Boy Detectives and Twenty Faces than the more standard voiceless method of delivery.
The narrative the broken up into two distinct halves. The first half introduces the Fiend with Twenty Faces and has him face off against the boy detective Kobayashi while his mentor is overseas. The second half has Detective Kogoro finally face off against the master criminal who is attempting to steal a treasure trove of artwork from several sources to create his own personal museum.
Kobayashi is the origins of so many later boy detectives in Japanese fiction. At first, he is underestimated by the people who hire him but he quickly proves his worth with a mixture of disarming charm and raw genius. He also has a Batman-like toolkit of gadgets to help him be on even footing with older opponents. The influences of Kobayashi on Detective Conan are unmistakable. I also cracked up by the clear need to make the character as adult friendly as possible. The fact that all the Boy Detectives vow only to fight crime in ways that won’t interfere with their homework is almost delightfully hokey. It felt like how they forced PSA into 80’s cartoons.
When Detective Kogoro faces off against Twenty Faces the more traditional detective vs. phantom thief narrative takes hold. The fact that Twenty Face pretends to be Kogoro when he robs the fortified mansion is a trick that would be used by countless stories afterward. It makes a great middle of the story twist. It would feel a bit cheap as the final solution for anything other than a short story as it clearly breaks several rules of Knox’s Decalogue but it works in the middle of the story. It shows the skill of the thief before the final caper which can then have a more traditional finale.
Even though this is a book introducing the Boy Detectives, the biggest star is certainly Twenty Faces. Seeing the origin of Twenty Faces was a fascinating look into what people have taken away from the character. Anime and manga definitely enjoy the character of Twenty Faces and many times have brought a lot more charm to him than the original story possesses.
There is something undeniably charming to me about these old mystery serials. Just as I love Nancy Drew, I can happily put the Boy Detectives on the shelf next to her.
In many ways, the later iterations of Twenty Faces is the character Edogawa Rampo wanted to write. The later versions of the character like in Man of Many Faces, The Daughter of Twenty Faces, the Kaitou Kid follow that love rouge archetype set by Arsène Lupin. You can even argue Lupin the Third is exactly the type of Twenty Faces Rampo would have written with no restraints on him. Lupin the Third is a dashing and lovable rouge with just enough perversion to be within Rampo’s wheelhouse.
I think it is also telling that so many of the later versions of Twenty Faces have gone onto to be the heroes of their own works. Much like Sherlock Holmes, it seems that Detective Kogoro’s DNA is very diffuse but direct in the characters he influences whereas Twenty Faces’ has become prevalent in an inverted fashion. The descendants of Twenty Faces refuse to play second fiddle to their detective rivals and steal the stage for themselves as the protagonist.
But perhaps this was for the best. This far more sanitized version of the character was able to connect with a younger audience and insert himself into the imagination of a generation that would go on to reuse, reinterpret, and reinvent the character in countless different ways. In a fashion, each of these characters has become a new mask of the original which is all too fitting a legacy of such a devious mastermind of disguise.