“Fox’s Wedding” by Tsumao Awasaka (1985) trans. by Steve Steinbock (2021)

G.K. Chesterton’s parish priest Father Brown, a “detective” known for his use of purely intuitive reasoning to solve crimes often of a seemingly divine nature, can be said to be in many ways the seed from which the Golden Age of Detection sprouted. Being the ur-example of many then-innovative forms of trickery and misdirection much more refined than the crude mechanics of the yester-year, the writings of Chesterton are very much the prototypes of the puzzlers of the mid-20th century. This is an influence that has spread through nearly all detective fiction written since; not only, of course, in the English-speaking world, but all the world over…

The influence of Father Brown’s intuitive reasoning has had more than an impact on the style and nature of just mystery plotting; he’s influenced full-blown successors across the world! In 1985 Tsumao Awasaka would publish Aa Aiichirō no Rōbai (or The Dismay of Aa Aiichirō), the first in a trilogy of mystery short story collections featuring the eponymous photographer whose intuition and ability to “see and hear things the rest of us miss” sees him accidentally stumbling into and solving crimes alongside the police.

The Aa Aiichirō series owes its identity to Chesterton and Brown. It’s easy to see how the protagonist, reasoning almost entirely from intuition, has Father Brown to thank for his inspiration, but the Chestertonian influence goes much deeper! The most important contribution of that old sleuthing priest, and the most defining feature of Aa Aiichirō as a series is that the stories are predominantly divided into two categories. Impossible crimes feature heavily in both series but, as Ho-Ling of Ho-Ling no Jikenbo elegantly puts it, the more important inspiration is in what he calls the “whatthehell” stories.

Whatthehell” stories are those Father Brown tales where it’s ambiguous what the exact nature of the mystery really is. Father Brown will be witness to events that seem odd (or, perhaps, events so apparently mundane and everyday it’s impossible to figure how or where a mystery could exist at all), and will only at the end of the tale use his great intuitive acuity to reveal that, all along, something hinky has been going on behind the scenes…

One such example of these “whatthehell” stories is the immensely enjoyable “The Queer Feet”, in which Father Brown, taking the confessions of a sick man in a locked room within a high-end hotel, hears outside of his door footprints which “seem to walk in order to run” and “run in order to walk”. From just this observation, Father Brown recognizes (1.) that a crime has been committed, (2.) the exact nature of the crime, (3.) the identity of the perpetrator, and (4.) how the perpetrator avoided detection, in one of the most shocking bits of reasoning in the mystery genre.

About half of all Aa Aiichirō stories fall into this category of “whatthehell” stories that served as a calling card for Farther, least of which not being “Fox’s Wedding”, originally published in 1985 as “DL2-gōki Jiken“, or “The DL2 Incident”…

“Fox’s Wedding” takes place in Miyamae, an island city off the mainland of Japan which has developed a peculiar superstition involving earthquakes. 150 years ago, a great earthquake passed through Miyamae, toppling buildings and laying waste to two-thirds of the city. This earthquake, seemingly, was foretold by a rainstorm… As similar rain-summoned earthquakes begin to rage through the city on the same day, under the same conditions, every 50 years since, the inhabitants of Miyamae have accepted that the city is fated to face deadly disasters every 50 years…

Not a year after the last destructive earthquake, Detective Inspector Hada Sanzo is at Miyamae’s Municipal Airport, awaiting the arrival of a plane that had a fraudulent bomb threat called against it… The moment the airplane touches ground, Hada Sanzo bears witness to a series of bizarre events! A man comes off the plane and appears to trip himself on the stairs on purpose… before strolling over to Hada Sanzo and insisting he was the target of that bomb threat! After demanding the inspector do something about it, the man strolls off with his hired valet Higuma Goro, a man with a criminal history of irresponsible driving that killed a young child, and trips himself on purpose again on the stairs leaving the airport, to go home to a house built on the ravaged ground of the recent earthquake…

From just these seemingly disparate observations, the photographer Aa Aiichirō, who at the time was photographing a bizarre geographical formation from the airport’s tarmac, foretells an attack on Higuma Goro! But of what nature is this attack, and how did Aa know?

This perhaps overtly basic and uninspiring set-up lends itself to a fantastic and surprising resolution that showcases Aa’s intuitive reasoning. A mixture of minute observations and a strong grasp on human nature lends itself to Aa’s aid as he builds a profile of the assailant’s bizarre psychology and deduces the truth behind a seemingly inscrutable man’s seemingly inscrutable motivation for attempted murder…

Just the same as G.K. Chesterton’s “The Queer Feet”, “Fox’s Wedding” uses a contradiction or paradox in character and behavior to divine the criminal truth of bizarre and seemingly innocuous oddities. The explanation is equal parts shocking and natural, totally bizarre yet entirely reasonable. But, like G. K. Chesterton’s more “intuitive” mysteries, “Fox’s Wedding” toes the line between entirely fair and abjectly cheap. While you do have the same information present as the detective when he solves the case, it can be argued that the intuition is a bit close to guessing, and I don’t believe it’s possible for the reader to deduce the solution before the end of the story…

But, for all the ways it can be argued “Fox’s Wedding” is an unfair mystery, it doesn’t detract from the effect of this story. This amazing story (localized with a fluid and natural translation from Steinbock) captures the essence of plotting of the best “whatthehell” tales from the oeuvre of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown to produce a truly unique detective story with a truly novel solution. Those who love Chesterton for his artistic and literary prose will be lost on Awasaka Tsumao, but those who want to see the Chestertonian plotting carried on into the modern world can do no better than this debut from Japan’s heir to Chesterton. If this is the standard of the stories going forward, I can only hope to one day read the follow-ups…