Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger


Even if you have a secret you want to keep hidden
As if you're being suspected by me
I'm trying to learn more about you because I love you too much
Let's go and leave the hearts of us two on the other side of the moon
"Mysterious" (Naifu)

Another Dutch book this month? It's becoming scary now!

Henri Revers made his name not only as legal counsel, but also as a gifted amateur detective who occasionally solves cases for clients in matters they'd rather keep silent about (like thefts), but also bigger cases involving the police. But Revers' biggest case will always be the tragedy people called "the mystery of Rijswijk". Baron Albert Meyer-Rosing was found in his garden with a Japanese dagger sticking from his chest on New Year's Eve and the prime suspect was his cousin Max Meyer-Rosing, who had given Albert the Japanese dagger (together with a wakizashi sword) and claimed to have been sleeping in the library overlooking the garden during the murder. The strange thing is that all those who inherited the title of Baron Meyer-Rosing died on the exact same spot in the garden for the last five generations. Max is acquitted because of insufficient evidence, but as the clouds of suspicion prevent him from marrying the love of his life, Max hopes Revers will find out who did kill his cousin and why. Revers' investigation however reveals a lot of secrets and schemes in A. Bertrand's De geheimzinnige Japanees ("The Mysterious Japanman", release year unknown).

Johan Versteeg was a Dutch writer born in 1873 who used a lot of pen names. Apparently, he only wrote three mystery novels in his otherwise prolific writing career, and his first mystery novel was De geheimzinnige Japanees under the name A. Bertrand (his other mystery books are written under the name J.T. van Leiden). The inside of De geheimzinnige Japanees mentions next-to-no details on the publication itself, so the exact publication year can't be traced, but most sources internet seem to set it between 1904-1910, making it a fairly early mystery novel. I was actually quite surprised I got my hands on the book for a relatively low price and it still looks great as a hardcover with neat illustrations.

To be honest, there is very little to be found on this book on the internet and I only became interested in the book because of the title and the cover art. The title features the archaic word "Japanees", which looks like the English "Japanese", but the word isn't used in modern Dutch anymore and looks pretty strange (which is why I rendered it as "Japanman", like "Chinaman"). The cover in turn features the titular "mysterious Japanman", who actually looks more like a "Chinaman" than a "Japanman", making me suspect this was some kind of Yellow Peril-esque novel. Obviously, as a Dutch person writing about Japanese mystery novels, I was quite curious as to the contents of the book and was quite pleased when I finally found a copy of it.

De geheimzinnige Japanees was also better than I had expected, though like I said, I was maybe expecting little of it. The first two chapters do a good job at setting Henri Revers up as the protagonist, who is obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes. With a keen eye for details, the legal man manages to solve two cases of theft and espionage in as many chapters and the espionage case is actually quite neatly done and practically an impossible crime! The story then moves on to the main course of the book and does a great job at introducing us to all the actors involved with "the mystery of Rijswijk" and the Meyer-Rosing family. Revers is given some hints as to where to start with his investigation in the death of Baron Meyer-Rosing, but more and more people with a motive to get rid of the baron pop up as the plot moves on. The murder mystery is spiced up with hints to an old family curse and the use of the Japanese dagger as the murder weapon and by now, the reader has all the things he could've wanted from a mystery novel.

And of course, there's the titular mysterious Japanese and it's here where you suddenly remember that you aren't reading a mystery novel from the 1920s~1940s, but one from the late 1900s. De geheimzinnige Japanees remains an entertaining mystery novel, but yes, given the title and the period, the mysterious Japanese is indeed rather a crucial part of the errr, the mystery, in an almost too predictable fashion. The story does it best at trying to divert suspicion to different characters at several points in the story, but it's always clear that in the background, there's the mysterious Japanese and here you can feel that it's just plot bias that leads Revers to the man, rather than the Holmes-esque thinking work he shows at other points in the story.

Funny is how the book has some segments that show that the writer had knowledge on Japanese culture to some extent, but also parts that show he was fairly bad at making detailed notes or something, because some Japanese words would be spelled right in one chapter only to become something horribly different in another chapter. Some chapters also showed rudimentary knowledge of the Japanese language, while others were just made-up. The author probably looked some things up in a book, but didn't with others, but it is kinda funny to see how sometimes the book features information nobody uninformed should ever know, while at other times it's obvious there's also been a lack of research.

That said though, I had a good time with De geheimzinnige Japanees. I'm tempted to say its set-up is classic (as in 'classic puzzle detective fiction starting around 1920'), but this book actually predates that period. There are actually quite some false trails, plot twists and moving around of the accusatory finger over the course of the book to keep the reader entertained and it reads quite well for a 1900s Dutch novel (I've read 1930s novels with more annoying spelling conventions than in this novel). A real puzzler, it is not, but definitely much, much better than I had expected based on just the title and the cover.

The book features eight illustrations which also look incredible. Though like the cover, the "Japanman" is mostly dressed like a "Chinaman" in the illustrations with long robes and a hat...

Anyway, I'm quite happy I got my hands on this rather obscure Dutch detective novel with a Japanese touch to it. It was quite fun to read and much better than I expected at first. Also, I think this is actually the oldest book I own at the moment and it still looks quite good, so from a bibliophilic point of view, I'm a content reader.

Original Dutch title(s): A. Bertrand "De geheimzinnige Japanees"


  1. That cover looks like it gives away the whole plot!

  2. Also, I got my copy of The Moai Island Puzzle a few weeks ago. It looks good, but I have found that you lose some important data if you do not translate the Japanese honorifics. Most manga now put them in, with an explanatory chart at the front.

    1. Hope you like the book anyway!

      As for honorifics, I have considered including them, and I'm of course aware of the practice in translated manga, but I'm also of the opinion it is not the 100% solution. Honorifics aren't a seperate element of the Japanese language: it's just a cog in the bigger uchi-soto system of Japanese culture, and it works *because* it is used in conjunction with the wider body of keigo (which you don't see in translated manga). You'll often see that the honorific system is simplified in translations because they want to keep it in for flavor, without really considering *why* it exists in the first place (you don't really see the 'flowing' characteristics of honorifics depending on context/place in translations for example because it would need more explanation). Often, the data can be conveyed in other ways than just 'keeping Japanese words Japanese in an English translation'.

      Of course, I do think there are works were keeping honorifics does work (there's an interesting essay on that in Kinsui's "Yakuwarigo no Tenkai" (2011)), but for this novel, I decided the text would flow better without honorifics.