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.