On every corner
The same old story
Somebody's tellin' a lie
Somebody's lonely tonight
"Give Me Your Love Tonight" (Suzuki Kiyomi)
As you have probably noticed, I write mostly, but not exclusively about Japanese detective fiction here. When it's not Japanese, it's usually English or Dutch, but I don't really care where it comes from as long as it's fun and I can read it. Today, a fairly important Korean mystery classic!
Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957) was a Korean writer and is commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. His first detective story Daenkei no Kagami ("The Elliptical Mirror") was published in 1935. Note that this was a story published in Japan, written in Japanese: the Great Korean Empire had been annexed by Japan the year after Kim's birth and Kim himself had studied at Japan's Waseda University. Kim wrote more detectives stories in Japanese after his debut and also translated some of them to Korean. After his return to the Korean peninsula in 1936, Kim continued writing detective stories in Korean (grand-scale cultural assimilation would take off with the Pacific War, leading to language censoring practices like described in Lee Jung-Myong's Pyŏ-rŭl Sŭch'i-nŭn Baram / The Investigation).
Keijou (Seoul as it was called in Colonial Korea), no, the first in Korea was big news. The fact that Ju Eun-mong and her patron Baek Yeong-ho were going to marry was even bigger news. But the biggest news was that a clown dressed in crimson attacked Eun-mong during the masquerade ball and managed to disappear without a trace. And that wasn't the only strange happening that night, because another guest managed to disappear from a street leading to a dead end while being chased by the police as an important suspect in the case. Who is trying to murder Eun-mong? How did the clown disappear? Who was the other disappearing guest? The events of the masquerade ball are just the beginning of a long mystery, in which we follow great detective Yu Bu-ran as he tries to save the beautiful Ju Eun-mong from the clutches of the crimson clown in Kim Nae-seong's Main ("The Demon", 1939).
Main was first published in serialized form in 1939 from February until October in 170 installments and then released as a hardcover volume in December of the same year in Korea. It was a bestseller at the time and has later also been made into a film. I read the Japanese translation of Main by the way (Majin in Japanese), because I can't read Korean (well, I can read it, but I don't comprehend what I'm reading). As far as I know, Kim Nae-seong's detective stories are not available in English, despite his importance as the father of the genre in Korea.
To start with the conclusion: I enjoyed the novel! A lot, actually. I only discovered just as I was looking things up for this review that series detective Yu Bu-ran's name was a wordplay on Maurice Leblanc (similar to how Edogawa Rampo was based on Edgar Allan Poe), but Leblanc, or more specifically, Arsène Lupin was precisely what I had in mind as I was reading Main. It's a fun mystery adventure, with the thrills and melodrama like you'd expect in a book with the French gentleman detective. Of course, the fact we follow a man dressed as Arsène Lupin during the masquerade ball in the beginning of the story did help with that association, but the way the adventure develops, the use of newspaper articles and jumping between characters to present the story, it's all good old fashioned fun and I loved it (then again, Main does date from 1939...).
Sure, the story is quite easy to solve for the experienced reader (and probably the not very experienced reader too), but I have a weakness for the... honest, pure feelings that go into these kinds of stories. It's the same I have for a lot of the Arsène Lupin and Edogawa Rampo novels: they can be a bit easy and quite silly at times with their almost childish tricks and masquerades and all, but I can almost always see the writers in my mind, with indeed childish laughs on their faces as they were writing their stories. Main is a bit predictable, but it still manages to capture me as a reader through its passion.
Part of the charm lies with the protagonist Yu Bu-ran. Yu Bu-ran is presented as the Classical Great Detective, with a brilliant mind and a knack for disguises. But he isn't one really. I mean, he is a smart guy and all, but he is definitely not the perfect thinking machine, basically everyone in the novel eventually sees through at least one of his disguises and his relations with the fair sex invokes slightly Arsène Lupin. I wonder whether Yu Bu-ran is so human because he originally starred in several mystery stories aimed at children/YA (Rampo's Akechi Kogorou also starred in a whole series of children's mystery stories). Main is, as far as I can tell, the last in the Yu Bu-ran series by the way.
I didn't really notice it while I was reading Main, but this book is culturally really subdued. I guess that this was because of the colonization of Korea by Japan and growing censorship / advancing cultural assimilation, but it could also just have been Kim's style. Anyway, the story is mostly set in the capital Keijou (which Kim likes to dub the 'demon capital'), but Main could have basically happened anywhere, because there is so little in the story that ties it to something more than a vague "Asian" culture. I would definitely have believed it if someone had just changed the names of locations and characters and then told me it was a Japanese story. A bit disturbing if you think about it knowing when this was written.
Anyway, I had great fun with Main. People who like the Arsène Lupin novels or Edogawa Rampo's novels should take a look at this Korean mystery classic. And of course, people interested in the detective genre should keep an eye on the book, as it was a bestseller by the father of the Korean detective story and thus in its way an influential piece of mystery fiction.
Original Korean title(s): 김내성 （金來成） 《마인(魔人)》