Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Big Book of the Continental Op — Dashiell Hammett, author; Richard Layman and Julie M. Rivett, editors

The Big Book of the Continental Op
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The hard boiled detective is probably my favorite archetype character in crime fiction and I thought it would be fun to visit the roots of the genre. Between 1923 and 1930, Dashiell Hammett recorded the cases of the unnamed employee of the Continental Detective Agency, the Continental Op, in 28 short stories and two serialized novels in the pages of The Black Mask magazine. Before I got my hands on this book, I only knew The Op from the novel, Red Harvest, and didn't realize the treat in store to have all the Op stories collected in one volume.

The Op was the earliest instance of a detective being referred to as "hard- boiled" that I came across.  This was in Red Harvest/The Cleansing of Poisonville (1927). Interestingly, later I read another Black Mask author, Carrol John Daily who has his detective, Race Williams, refer to himself as hard boiled in The Snarl of the Beast (19927). Snarl... slightly predates Hammett's use of hard boiled. These are the first uses of hard boiled or hard-boiled or hardboiled however you want to spell it that I've encountered. I'd love to know if there are earlier uses of the term.

The Op differs from most of the hard boiled detectives in that he is an employee of a national agency. We generally see the detective operating solo. Having worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, it was logical for Hammett to put his detective in that environment where Hammett could use his experiences. Also, in appearance, The Op isn't how we typically imagine a detective. He frequently describes himself and is described by others as short, fat, and middle-aged, not your Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe.

One aspect of the period in which the stories are set that stood out for me is that the detective and the police work together. Apparently it wasn't unusual at the time for a detective agency such as the Continental (ie Pinkerton) to have better resources than the police. In Hammett's detective world you see the police allowing The Op to interview witnesses and suspects in their presence, having the Op and the police follow up leads together, and the police don't bat an eye if The Op asks them to stick someone in a cell. Contrast this with Chandler's Philip Marlowe.

The stories are still very readable with solid and interesting plots and characters and narrated in first person by The Op. The modern reader should be aware that the stories reflect the time in which they were written which means that Black and Chinese characters are more stereotypes than people. I'm also reading the republished Hardman series — also hard boiled —by Ralph Dennis set some 40 years later and these editions come with a warning that they reflect the times in which they were written. Personally, I look at these characterizations just as artifacts of the time

Obviously, coming to stories set in the 20s from the modern detective, the absence of technology is notable. No mobile phones so the detectives have to find pay phones and no internet for email — telegrams are frequently used —and web searching. Rather, the detective has to use the tried and true shoe leather method — look at the evidence, find connections, interview everyone, trust nothing any one tells you,  anything, however trivial, might be important later so dismiss nothing. If you think about it, this is the way cases were investigated for the next 70+ years. As a librarian (ret.) I was interested that, in lieu of the internet, The Continental Detective Agency maintained extensive and well organized clipping files, apparently on every criminal and crime committed in the US. I'd love to know how that worked.

In addition to the short stories, this volume includes two serialized novel length stories, The Dain Curse and The Cleansing of Poisonville. The Dain Curse is four connected stories. The first story, Black Lives, is the setup, giving us the main characters in the next three stories and the plot point that a young woman, Gabrielle Leggett might be under a curse. Subsequent stories seem to bear this possibility out.

The four part The Cleansing of Poisonville particularly interested me because it was later sold as a novel titled Red Harvest and Red Harvest was my introduction to The Continental Op. The Op is hired by the editor of the local Personville (ie Poisonville) newspapers. He is murdered before he can meet with the Op and his father subsequently hires The Op to clean up the gang-ridden Personville. 

This story is interesting in that The Op here isn't particularly likable. As the story proceeds, he seems to develop a killing fever, basically orchestrating the killing of members of the gang factions by playing them off against each other. He even shoots down a police detective. Ok, the detective was corrupt but it wasn't in self defense. At one point, a fellow operatives begins to believe that The Op might be more involved in the deaths than is right for a company detective and leaves the job.

Knopf, the publisher of Red Harvest requested numerous changes to the serialized story and there are many small changes in word choice, slang, and rephrasing sentences. There are also major changes to tone down the violence. Hammett was happy with the suggestions but I lean toward preferring the serial version. In one scene in The Cleansing of Poisonville, the gangster Lew Yard is blown up along with his wife and maid when he starts his can. In Red Harvest he is shot walking down his front steps. Red Harvest also eliminates entirely the scene whee the office of the chief of police is blown up. I liked these two scenes because Personville is a mining town and dynamite is readily available and a logical choice of gangsters.

Here is an example of one of Hammett's rewritten sentences:
The Cleansing of Poisonville
Nick stopped shooting. He put both hands tight to his belly and piled down on his face.
Red Harvest
Nick Stopped shooting. He crossed his guns on his chest and went down in a pile on the sidewalk.
I prefer the Cleansing version, "crossing his guns on his chest" doesn't make sense to me.

I recommend reading both versions of the story.

The Big Book of The Continental Op is a must read if you are interested tracing the development of the hard boiled detective genre from its roots.

Keywords: Black Mask Magazine, hard-boiled detective, crime fiction



Sunday, October 31, 2021

Perception vs Reality: An Eyewitness Account and What I Thought I Saw vs What What I Really Saw

 This story isn't strictly about eyewitness testimony and remembering events but it does tell me that what one thinks one sees and what actually happened can very different.

My wife stayed up later than me and the next morning told me she had an unnerving experience when she saw flashes of light — like a camera flashing — coming from the woods behind our house. I asked her to wake me up if he flashes returned and I was asleep.

The next night, the flashing was back and she got me. I stood at the closed back door and there were flashes of light coming from the woods at random intervals. I watched very carefully but couldn't spot the point source of the flashing.

Finally I went out on the deck and into the screened room at one side of the deck. If there was someone out there, I reasoned that I didn't want to be a target. The next flash seemed to come from behind me. WTF! I turned and looked at the surrounding houses to see if some household's Halloween decorations were misfiring. While turned facing the house, there was another flash but was coming from inside the house in the dark kitchen. There is a window in the side of the screened room with a direct line-of-sight to the kitchen. Later I discovered that my wife did not appreciate the suspense/horror trope, "It's inside the house".

The kitchen has high ceilings with four recessed dimmable LED lights. I was looking around and noticed what looked like a very faint green glowing dot in one of the lights. I was wondering about the glow when, POW!, it was like a strobe light went off in my face.

I discovered that the ceiling lights had not been turned off but set to maximum dimness. For some reason, this caused one of the lights to randomly strobe. Turning off the light fixed the problem.

Here's my take-away. Both my wife and I were certain that the flashes were coming from the woods. I would have signed a sworn statement to that effect. It wasn't until I left the house to observe from a different angle that the true source of the light was discovered.  

You might wonder how we could not see that the source was inside the house. The combination of recessed lighting, ceiling height, and position of doorways resulted in a dispersed flood of light rather than a point source as you would see if you fired a flash directly toward a window. When the light strobed  it reflect back into the house as if the light was coming from outside. All it took was a change in perspective to identify what was really happening. I'm just happy that we didn't call the sheriff's department to report someone in the woods.

This event has made me appreciate that, no matter how convinced one is, perception and reality can differ greatly.

Friday, October 29, 2021

Review: Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari

Dark Things I Adore by Katie Lattari
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 I do love a good revenge story and Lattari delivers in this, her first thriller, Dark Things I Adore

Audra is a beautiful and brilliant art student finishing her master's project under her mentor Professor Max Durant. As Audra's star is rising, Max's own star is fading. His reputation is based mainly on past accomplishments, something he fights against acknowledging. He is thrilled when Audra invites him to her home in Maine to review her thesis collection as he expects he will get her into bed. Unknown to Max, getting him to Maine is the culmination of a plan Audra set in motion years ago. Audra has very different expectations for how the trip will turn out.

The story has an intricate, interwoven structure. In the present, 2018, we have first person narratives from the viewpoints of Audra and Max. Then there is a first person narrative from 1988 by Juniper, an artist and staff member of an artist's retreat, The Lupine Valley Arts Collective where everyone is known only by their nicknames. Interspersed among these narratives are descriptions of paintings from Audra's collection which she calls Her Dark Things. Layered within the paintings are journal entries that read like poems. Whose journal? What's the significance of these journal entries, and how do they relate to the paintings? It must have been challenging for the author to connect three different narratives and the descriptions of art work and make these elements relate in a way that builds the story in a coherent manner. Lattari does it brilliantly.

I enjoyed the way Lattari revealed the characters through the eyes of the three narrators.

From the beginning we see that Audra is presenting two faces. One is that of the devoted protégé and one is the hidden face that shows the contempt in which Audra holds Max and her steely resolve to bring him down. Outwardly Audra presents herself the way one expects to see an artist. But there is more to her: she grew up a country girl in rural Maine and is very comfortable in the woods. Why does Audra hate Max? We find out gradually but the reader can easily deduce that something happened at the artist's retreat in 1988. 

Max is a loathsome character living on his past glories. One of the worst aspects of his character is that he uses women. He draws inspiration from their pain, pain that he causes. The reader would want to see Max brought down for that alone.

Juniper's identity is held from the reader for much of the book. I didn't know who she was until the author revealed it. What we do know is that she was present when whatever happened at Lupine Valley went down. Actually, to be honest, an astute reader will be able to slot many of the pieces together by the first quarter of the book,. I just didn't do a lot of analysis as I read. If something popped out, it popped out.

Dark Things I Adore does have some plot elements that I found slightly contrived but let me quickly add that these did not distract from my great enjoyment in the book. Some of the events that take place when it kicks into full thriller mode are a bit improbable — very neatly choreographed but much could have gone wrong. There is a confrontation that takes place that I, the reader, wouldn't have had but it is entirely in the character of Audra to act that way. There is a twist that actually did occur to me that I'm not sure is entirely necessary but it is handled very deftly. If you're going to have a twist, this is a good example of one that doesn't smack the reader in the face.

Lattari has a real flair for writing thrillers with her character portraits and interwoven plot elements. I hope to see another thriller from her soon. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Review: The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix

Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix
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For those who don’t know about final girls, here’s a brief explanation. The Final Girl is a horror/slasher film trope. Generally you start with a group of young women and men who go to a remote location, often a lake or cabin.  A silent killer picks them off, one-by-one, unless a couple are having sex or taking a shower then they will die together. This continues until only one person is left and this is The Final Girl who dispatches the killer…or thinks she has. Go to TV Tropes Final Girl  and you’ll enter into a maze of related inks that will occupy you for hours. TV Tropes also breaks down this book. Examples of final girl films include Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974 and one of the first slasher films), and Scream (1996). Two of my favorite films subvert the genre. In Tucker and Dale vs Evil, (2010) it’s the two rednecks who are the good guys in danger from the college kids. It’s gory but a very funny parody of horror/slasher films. The Cabin in the Woods (2011) subverts the entire horror genre including the Final Girl and has darkly funny moments. It’s also a treat for horror fans to pick out horror references within the film.

 

The Final Girl Support Group is an action thriller set in a world where the events we know from horror/slasher films have really happened. It answers the question what happens 

“…After the cops eliminate them as suspects. After the press releases their brace-faced, pizza-cheeked, bad-hair-day class photos that inevitably get included on the cover of the true crime book? After the candlelight vigils and the moments of silence, after someone plants the memorial shrub?.


 The Final girl Support Group is narrated first person by Lynette, herself a final girl. Her  life is driven by the certainty that someone wants to kill her. Her only connection to people is throughout the support group and her one significant attachment is to a plant that she has named Final Plant or just Fine.

The Final Girl support group (so named by Lynette) has six members and has been meeting for 16 years. It’s led by Dr. Carol Elliott who has a major role in the story.  These final girls have very different backgrounds. Besides Lynette, there is the very wealthy Marilyn, the druggie Heather, Julie who was crippled while fighting her attacker, Dani who lives out in the country with her wife and horses, and Adrienne, the first final girl and survivor of the Red Lake Killings. They have been meeting so long that they spend a lot of time in the sessions quibbling (why no snacks) and triggering each other. The ever volatile Heather shoots back at Lynette that she isn’t a real final girl. We find out later why she says that and I think a significant expansion to the trope and one I haven’t seen expressed before.

During the most recent session, they learn that Adrienne has been killed. The always paranoid Lynette immediately assumes that one of the “monsters” got to her. Soon after, other incidents occur — coincidence or coordinated attacks. Soon Lynette finds herself under suspicion and on the run, trying to figure out who is behind the attacks, why have they started now, and desperately trying to save the other final girls even if they aren’t convinced of the danger. And much to Lynette's dismay, the security measures aren't proving very effective.

 

Earlier I called this an action thriller, and it is, but the author takes a serious look at the world of the final girls. Throughout the  book we experience the extent of Lynette’s precautions/paranoia and it’s an interesting look at how someone who is absolutely convinced someone(s) intends to kill her would interact with the world. He goes into her routines, establishing nightlines, never having her back to a door, always identifying possible exits, evaluating everyone for their threat potential. At a basic level, many of her precautions are good advice but here Lynette takes them to extremes. One of Lynette’s tricks to see if she is being followed is to memorize the shoes of people around her. Physical appearance and clothing can be altered but a stalker isn’t likely to change shoes.

 

The author also goes into the psychology of not only the final girls themselves but also their fans and the fans of the killers. There are extreme fans who want to marry the killers, emulate the killers, collect memorabilia of the killers and the crimes, and who vilify the final girls. I think this element elevates The Final Girl Support Group above being just another action thriller. He gives depth to the characters.

 

Periodically we get a page from D. Elliott’s session notes, police incident reports, police interview, final girl interviews, pages from books about final girls and the horror genre. These inserts contribute to an overall understanding of final girls and the horror tropes associated with them,

 

The author also does an excellent job keeping the suspense up and releasing significant bits of information at the appropriate time. I have to say that I didn’t see the who and why coming and this made it more enjoyable to read. I appreciate the author’s approach to this horror subgenera and the tropes associated with it.

For those who don’t know about  final girls, here’s a brief explanation. The Final Girl is a horror/slasher film trope. Generally you start with a group of young women and men who go to a remote location, often a lake or cabin.  A silent killer picks them off, one-by-one, unless a couple are having sex or taking a shower then they will die together. This continues until only one person is left and this is The Final Girl who dispatches the killer…or thinks she has. Go to tvtropes dot com and search “final girl” and you’ll enter into a maze of related inks that will occupy you for hours. Examples of final girl films include Friday the 13th (1980), Halloween (1978), Black Christmas (1974 and one of the first slasher films), and Scream (1996). Two of my favorite films subvert the genre. In Tucker and Dale vs Evil, (2010) it’s the two rednecks who are the good guys in danger from the college kids. It’s gory but a very funny parody of horror/slasher films. The Cabin in the Woods (2011) subverts the entire horror genre including the Final Girl and has darkly funny moments. It’s also a treat for horror fans to pick out horror references within the film.

 

The Final Girl Support Group is an action thriller set in a world where the events we know from horror/slasher films have really happened. It answers the question what happens 

“…After the cops eliminate them as suspects. After the press releases their brace-faced, pizza-cheeked, bad-hair-day class photos that inevitably get included on the cover of the true crime book? After the candlelight vigils and the moments of silence, after someone plants the memorial shrub?.

 The Final girl Support Group is narrated first person by Lynette, herself a final girl. Her  life is driven by the certainty that someone wants to kill her. Her only connection to people is throughout the support group and her one significant attachment is to a plant that she has named Final Plant or just Fine.

The Final Girl support group (so named by Lynette) has six members and has been meeting for 16 years. It’s led by Dr. Carol Elliott who has a major role in the story.  These final girls have very different backgrounds. Besides Lynette, there is the very wealthy Marilyn, the druggie Heather, Julie who was crippled while fighting her attacker, Dani who lives out in the country with her wife and horses, and Adrienne, the first final girl and survivor of the Red Lake Killings. They have been meeting so long that they spend a lot of time in the sessions quibbling (why no snacks) and triggering each other. The ever volatile Heather shoots back at Lynette that she isn’t a real final girl. We find out later why she says that and I think a significant expansion to the trope and one I haven’t seen expressed before.

During the most recent session, they learn that Adrienne has been killed. The always paranoid Lynette immediately assumes that one of the “monsters” got to her. Soon after, other incidents occur — coincidence or coordinated attacks. Soon Lynette finds herself under suspicion and on the run, trying to figure out who is behind the attacks, why have they started now, and desperately trying to save the other final girls even if they aren’t convinced of the danger. And much to Lynette's dismay, the security measures aren't proving very effective.

 

Earlier I called this an action thriller, and it is, but the author takes a serious look at the world of the final girls. Throughout the  book we experience the extent of Lynette’s precautions/paranoia and it’s an interesting look at how someone who is absolutely convinced someone(s) intends to kill her would interact with the world. He goes into her routines, establishing nightlines, never having her back to a door, always identifying possible exits, evaluating everyone for their threat potential. At a basic level, many of her precautions are good advice but here Lynette takes them to extremes. One of Lynette’s tricks to see if she is being followed is to memorize the shoes of people around her. Physical appearance and clothing can be altered but a stalker isn’t likely to change shoes.

 

The author also goes into the psychology of not only the final girls themselves but also their fans and the fans of the killers. There are extreme fans who want to marry the killers, emulate the killers, collect memorabilia of the killers and the crimes, and who vilify the final girls. I think this element elevates The Final Girl Support Group above being just another action thriller. He gives depth to the characters.

 

Periodically we get a page from D. Elliott’s session notes, police incident reports, police interview, final girl interviews, pages from books about final girls and the horror genre. These inserts contribute to an overall understanding of final girls and the horror tropes associated with them,

 

The author also does an excellent job keeping the suspense up and releasing significant bits of information at the appropriate time. I have to say that I didn’t see the who and why coming and this made it more enjoyable to read. I appreciate the author’s approach to this horror subgenera and the tropes associated with it.

 

Keywords: final girl, slasher and horror movies

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Review: The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatuji trans. by Ho-Ling Wong 1987/2015/2021

The Decagon House Murders by Yukito Ayatsuji
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**UPDATED** 

A Little Background

I checked my book log and I'd read three Japanese detective novels prior to picking up The Decagon House Murders. They are: The Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada; The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo; The Inugami Curse by Seishi Yokomizo. I enjoyed the books but never thought about the broader context of how the Japanese view crime fiction. By coincidence, all four books fall into what the Japanese refer to as honkaku mysteries. An article in The Guardian (link below) describes honkaku like this:

Honkaku translates as “orthodox”, and refers to the crafting of fiendishly clever and complex puzzle scenarios – such as a murder in a locked bedroom – that can only be solved through logical deduction. Writer Haruta Yoshitame, who is credited with defining honkaku, described it as “a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning...Honkaku writers were scrupulous about “playing fair”.

If you are a reader of Golden Age detective stories, honkaku detective fiction should remind you of S. S. Van Dine's Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Fiction. Van Dine's rules one and two cover playing fair.

Newer works such as The Decagon House Murders are referred to as shin honkaku, or new orthodox. Honkaku fell out of popularity for a while due to the rise of the social school which emphasized natural realism. Matsumoto Seichō launched this movement with books including Points and Lines and Inspector Imanishi Investigates. The Decagon House Murders was instrumental in bringing honkaku back into favor. 

While looking for Japanese mysteries that have been translated I found a shin honkaku titled Death Among the Undead by Masahira Imamura which adds zombies to the country house setting. A locked room AND zombies, could a reader ask for more? I'm pretty sure I need to promote this to the top of my TBR stack.

My interest in making a more focused study of Japanese detective/crime fiction was sparked by the most excellent podcast, Death of the Reader hosted by Flex and Herds. They are an engaging duo with an interesting way of presenting the subject of detective fiction. One will read a book and the other will try to solve the case as they work through the chapters. They also have interviews with academics and authors and they do broader explorations of the detective genre and trace influences of the genre around the world.

I've just started my exploration of Japanese crime fiction and have links to some web articles, a dissertation, and another podcast episode below

The Decagon House Mysteries

Seven students from a university mystery club have an opportunity to spend a week on an island where a year before horrible murders took place. The main house (the Blue Mansion) was burned leaving only the Decagon house standing. Throughout most of the story, we know the students only their club nicknames taken from western Golden Age authors. They are: [Gaston] Leroux, [John Dickson] Carr, Agatha [Christie], Ellery [Queen], Van [S.S. Van Dine], [Baroness Emma] Orezy, and [Edgar Allen] Poe. Leraux, the editor of the club magazine declares that everyone is to write a story for the next issue. Their pleasant retreat takes a nasty turn when they find that they have been targeted for death. Unfortunately the island is without electricity or a phone and they directed the fisherman who brought them to the island not come by until the day of the scheduled pickup.

The action takes place on the island and on the mainland. On the island, fear sets in as the threat appears to be very real. On the mainland, several people — former members of the club — have received a mysterious letter containing the words My daughter Chiori was murdered by all of you. It is signed by Nakamura Seiji who died on the island. Chiori was also a club member who died of alcohol poisoning after a club party. Kawaminami Tata'aki doesn't know if it's a prank and decides to find out if any other club members who were at the party also received letters. On the island the club members are desperately trying to figure out who wants them dead and on the mainland Kawaminami Tata'aki is trying to figure out what the letters mean.

Update: Toward the end I had an idea of who is the killer might be but it wasn't a fully formed idea. However, Flex, on the The Death of the Reader podcast (link above), had the killer(s) nailed. He displayed pretty impressive analytical skills. After I have all of the Japanese mysteries they discuss, I'll be giving The Decagon House Murders episodes another listen.

You might think that remote location, picked-off-one-by-one plot has been done to death (sorry but it had to be said) but the author has a very clever approach to constructing the story especially the way the killer announces his/her intentions. The students simultaneously if someone from the outside is responsible or could it be one of them. Having a parallel investigation on the mainland works very well in advancing the story as details emerge that couldn't logically come from the students on the island.

I don't read Japanese but the translation has a good flow that makes for a smooth read. I was taken with the way the fisherman taking them to the island talks. I got a mental image of the Japanese equivalent of a New England fisherman. It is a neat way to separate him from the university students.

The story begins with Ellery  declaring that the mystery should be an intellectual game. Basically defending the honkaku mystery against the social realism school. He puts forth a bit of foreshadowing when he says"

What mystery novels need are — some might call me old-fashioned ¸— a great detective, a mansion, its shady residents, bloody murders, impossible crimes, and never-before-seen tricks played by the murderer. Call it my castle in the sky but I'm happy as long as I can enjoy such a world. But always in an intellectual manner.

I mostly entirely agree with Shimada Soji in the introduction who says about the characters:

As a result, his characters act almost like robots, their thoughts depicted only minimally through repetitive phrases. The narration shows no interest in sophisticated writing or a sense of art and is focused solely on telling the story. To readers who were used to American and British detective fiction, The Decagon house Murders was a shock. It was as if they were looking at the raw building plans of a novel.

I can't say that I was shocked by the characterization. I thought the author did a decent enough job giving the students individual characteristics and personalities. I read the introduction last and can't say I picked up Soji's analysis of the characters as I read the story. Of course, I can, in retrospect, see what he means.

The Decagon House Murders is a good story in the Golden Age style of mystery writing. Although I am early in my exploration of Japanese mystery stories, I would recommend starting with a honkaku story such as Yokomizo Seishi's The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Curse and then moving on to shin honkaku mysteries like The Decagon House Murders. Bear in mind that I didn't know about honkaku when I wrote those reviews. At some point I'll compile a bibliography of honkaku and shin konkaku mysteries.

References

Locked Room International — Take a look at the publishers website. they have a good list of books, articles, and recommended reading.

Honkaku: A century of Japanese whoduddints keeping readers guessing. From The Guardian, 27 April 2021.

Have you read ... Japanese crime fiction. By Matthew Castle on Rock Paper Shotgun, 18 March 2020.

Whodunit, How and Why? The Evolution of Japanese Detective Fiction Literature. From Jauns — UMD Undergraduate History Journal

Culture and authenticity: the discursive space of Japanese detective fiction and the formation of the national imaginary by Satomi Saito. PhD dissertation

The Honkaku Mysteries on Shedoneit podcast 

For a fun look the trope used in this book, go tot Ten Little Murder Victims on TV Tropes. Beware, though, it's hard to stop following links once you get started down that road.


Keywords: honkaku, shin honkaku, Japanese mysteries, Japanese crime fiction



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