Psychological Test (1925) by Edogawa Ranpo (transl. Akitsugu Domoto 2017)

The long and storied history of the Japanese detective story didn’t begin with Edogawa Ranpo, but it can be said that it grew legs with him. While mystery writing predated Ranpo, such as those works by Ruikō Kuroiwa that were a great inspiration for Ranpo, it wasn’t until Edogawa Ranpo’s post-war efforts to promote mystery fiction in Japan that the honkaku movement of Japanese Golden Age-inspired “puzzle mysteries” truly took off. Despite his contributions to the honkaku sub-genre, however, Ranpo struggled to write in it, as his chief inspirations were western pre-Golden Age authors the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle — his pen-name, as it happens, is a transliteration of the name “Edgar Allen Poe”. Consequently, he developed a reputation for Sherlockian crime stories with a bend towards deviant psychology and sexuality, and not as a peddler of puzzles and riddles.

Ranpo initially got his start before the beginning of World War II with the publication of the short story “Murder on D. Hill”, featuring Akechi Kogoro, the man who would go on to become Ranpo’s feature detective, a brilliant and eccentric detective in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin. Although he only intended to write the one story with Akechi and move on from him, the sleuth’s success among readers and friends alike compelled Ranpo to continue writing stories in this series for more than a quarter of a century. The second of this stories, and the immediate sequel to “Murder on D. Hill” is the renowned inverted mystery “Psychological Test”.

Fukiya Seiichirou is a poor college student, forced to live frugally after he is financially ruined by tuition. He would rather be in his room, reading books and constantly acquiring new knowledge, and yet he’s forced by circumstances to take on various odd part-time jobs to finance his education and living. It is therefore his great fortune to learn from his closest friend Saito that he lives with an old lady who keeps a cache of money hidden somewhere in her house — and that, aside from Saito and a housekeeper, who are frequently gone, she lives entirely alone…

For the next years, then, Seiichirou spent all of his time scheming, learning the ins and outs of the old woman’s schedule, and plotting the perfect moment to murder her. Finally, when she is all alone, he seizes his opportunity, sneaks his way into her property, and assaults her, first suffocating her to knock her out and then stabbing her through a cushion to control the spray of blood. He then steals only half of the money (to disguise the theft), and then puts it into a wallet which he later turns into the police, claiming to have just found it (this so that if the theft is discovered, he’s discounted as a suspect because he turned the money in to police), with the knowledge that if the “true owner” doesn’t pick it up within a year then the money belongs to him legally.

Even more brilliantly for Seiichirou, his friend Saito is the prime suspect in the murder. Apparently, Saito came home only moments after the crime had been committed and decided to steal what remains of the money before calling the police. After being discovered with the stolen money on his person, Saito is quickly charged with the crime, and Seiichirou believes he’s in the clear… only, unbeknownst to him, the judge presiding over the case doesn’t believe Saito is the criminal, and therefore summons famed detective Akechi Kogoro to figure out who the real murderer is. Akechi claims that with just one conversation, he can prove that the killer is that young man Fukiya Seiichirou…

“Psychological Test” is the first story by Edogawa Ranpo I’ve ever read, and it defies every expectation I had about Edogawa Ranpo from his reputation. Knowing that Edogawa Ranpo’s chief inspirations included Arthur Conan Doyle, I never expected that’d he write an inverted mystery. Sherlock Holmes never had an inverted mystery before, chiefly because the focus was entirely on Sherlock Holmes as a detective and his methods. Furthermore, such “gimmick” mysteries as a defined genre were newer than Sherlock Holmes.

But I decided that, alright, Edgar Allen Poe, another core influence on Ranpo, wrote a small few stories that could be arguably considered “inverted mysteries” — “The Tell-Tale Heart”, “The Black Cat”, “The Cask of Amontillado” were all stories told from the perspective of a murderer perpetrating his crime. With this in mind, I went into “Psychological Test” with the expectation that it’d be a story focused on the deviant psychology of a murderer — the title as much as confirmed this in my mind, anyhow.

However, quite bizarrely in fact, the narrator of “Psychological Test” is a detached, nameless third-person narrator, who is not omniscient and knows nothing about the thought process of Fukiya Seiichirou. The implications of the narration is that the perspective is that of an unnamed, unknown character recounting incomplete historical information about an event of which he’s heard. The motive for the murder I recounted in the above synopsis is not a hard-and-fast fact, it is a supposition on the part of the narrator, who all but admits that nobody really knows what Seiichirou was thinking when he committed the murder. It is, in fact, not at all a study of psychology — it is almost as opposite that as it could manage to be, as a murder mystery with no known motive.

“Psychological Test” is therefore a pretty objective, flairless account of a man who decides to commit murder, the steps he takes to plan, perpetrate, and disguise his crime, and the methods by which the detective discovers his wrongdoing. This makes it a very standard inverted mystery story in the style well-known by Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou — one of the, if not the first, of this sort in Japanese mystery writing, as it happens.

As an inverted mystery, as we’ve already established, “Psychological Test” suffers from a featureless criminal who commits a featureless crime. The methods by which the killer attempts to avoid detection include a small handful of clever ideas that, as an inverted mystery, mostly fall into being nothing more than detail, so the first half of the story is devoid of much interest.

While reading the story, though, I was constantly in anticipation of what this titular “Psychological Test” would entail. It’s such a striking title, and to see how the killer’s psychology could be expanded upon and also weaponized to establish his guilt would be very intriguing. It had me on the edge of my seat to see how Akechi discovered Seiichirou’s guilt with obscure psychological trickery…

However, disappointingly, the Psychological Test is nothing more than a mere word-association game played with Saito and Seiichirou where they timed the two boys’ answer speeds — the psychological implications are negligible. Disappointingly, despite the results being laid out in a fully-detailed table in the manner of Freeman Wills Crofts timetables, the test doesn’t meaningfully establish Seiichirou’s guilt, nor does it contain any clues the reader can themselves use to figure out Akechi’s thought-process. Instead, the Psychological Test just functions as a small stepping stone Akechi uses to lay his true trap.

The trap itself is actually entirely unfair to the audience since it relies on a detail that wasn’t mentioned in the text and yet very easily could’ve been, it is such a small and innocuous detail. It is also what I like to call “The Ace Attorney Special”. This method of establishing guilt is a cliche of the genre (very likely originating with this story in the Japanosphere) which was adopted and expanded upon countless times in Furuhata Ninzaburou, which itself later went on to influence Ace Attorney, a mystery video game series that also continued to expand on the idea to the point it’s become a recognized staple of the franchise. It’s like playing a game of narrative device telephone in reverse and I’ve finally reached the first player in line… While it’d be ridiculous to blame “Psychological Test” for its own influence diluting its core idea to the point of insanity, at the same time it’d be equally ridiculous to pretend to be bowled over by a story whose ideas I’ve seen countless other times (through no fault of its own).

What hurt the story even more was Akimitsu Domoto’s translation. While Akimitsu is clearly at least fluent in English, his translation was poor, and he obviously doesn’t have a lot of experience with English prose. Sentences were arranged awkwardly — “he instantly held her from her back and choked her neck (although he was wearing gloves, he didn’t want to leave indentation of his fingers on) by his arms as hard as he could” — and often worded unnaturally — “only was it the knowledge of the woman how much saving was there”. There were many typos and bizarre turns of speech, such as referring to a pot made from maple wood as “a pot of maple”. Hyper-fidelity to the Japanese text also meant that sentences were rarely re-arranged to make it flow more naturally. This means that, for example, as is the case often in Japanese prose, dialogue tags were always separate paragraphs, forcing Akimitsu to constantly write “he so said” or “he so thought” while referring back to earlier paragraphs, which became distracting. I think it came to a head, though, when I read the following line:

Akechi so said, thinking something, but Kasamori didn’t notice the pregnant expression on his face and said:

The story is not long, only 20-odd pages, so it was tolerable, but a full novel could not have been read with this quality of translation. I hope Akimitsu Domoto continues to familiarize himself with English prose so that he may improve with whatever translation projects he undertakes in the future, but as it stands I cannot recommend his translation of “Psychological Test” as a good way to read this story, even to those who are interested.

“Psychological Test” was a weird story for how un-weird it was, containing none of the Sherlock Holmes or Edgar Allen Poe influence I had expected from the writer. Instead, what I had gotten was a bogstandard inverted mystery with an idea whose own influence spoiled its former novelty beyond recognition. With little in the ways of investigative or criminal focus, there is therefore little other reason to read the story outside of the minor interest of the underutilized titular Psychological Test. It’s a small issue, then, that Akimitsu Domoto’s translation makes this a poor version of the story, as even with a better translation I couldn’t recommend this story to anyone other than diehard Ranpo completionists or historians interested in the development of Japanese crime writing.