This is a translation of a short murder mystery by Edogawa Rampo (1894-1965), the Japanese mystery and thriller writer. Hope you enjoy it!
Murder on Dogenzaka (1924)
Part 1: The Facts
It was a hot, humid evening in early September. I was sipping an iced coffee in the White Plum Cafe halfway up Dogenzaka. At the time I had just left school and didn’t have anything you might call a profession, so I passed the time reading at my lodgings. When I grew tired of my books, I’d go for a stroll around town and make a circuit of some inexpensive cafes. The White Plum was just down from my lodgings so I’d pass it each time I went for a walk, so it was the cafe I most often found myself in. I would generally stay for a while, and nurse one or two cheap cups of coffee as I never had either the money or appetite for a meal. I would usually stay for a couple of hours, though I never became friendly with any of the waitresses. The cafe just provided a brighter, nicer place to sit than my lodgings.
That humid evening was the same as any other. I had settled in to my usual seat facing onto the street and had been sipping on my iced coffee for about ten minutes while looking languidly through the window. These days Dogenzaka is a big, bustling street, but at the time it had just been widened, and many of the shops which had been there previously had either closed down or moved to another part of town, so there was a lot of vacant land on both sides of the road which made it feel somewhat desolate. Directly across the road from the White Plum Cafe was a shabby old second hand bookshop, which had been the object of my somewhat vacant gaze these last ten minutes. In the normal course of things I wouldn’t have given it a second glance, but I had recently found out that the wife of the bookshop’s owner was a childhood friend of Akechi Kogoro, a recent acquaintance who had left something of an impression on me. He was quite a character, with a fierce intellect and a passion for detective novels.
As I remember from the two or three times I had gone into the bookshop, the owner’s wife was a beautiful lady, and while it was hard to pinpoint exactly what made her so appealing, she had a sensual charm that drew men towards her. She always minded the bookshop in the evening, so she was sure to be there now as well, and I had been watching to see if she might come out to the front of the shop. However, for these ten minutes she hadn’t ventured out to where I might see her, and nor had any customers gone in or out, so I gave up and was just casting my gaze over to the watch shop next door.
Suddenly, in the bookshop, I saw the hole in the door connecting the back room of the shop and the front slam shut from the inside. You might be asking what kind of door has a hole in the middle; well, it was the type of door that a carpenter would call a ‘double slat’ door, where the large central part of the door that would normally have paper pasted across it is replaced by a double layered lattice of wooden struts. Each strut is about 5 centimetres wide, and the two layers of the lattice can either be made to line up, allowing the owner of the shop to keep an eye on the shop between the gaps in the lattice, or made to overlap, creating a wooden screen which can’t be seen through. As this had just been shut whoever was in the back office wouldn’t be able to check on the shop through the door, which was very strange. As well as being an invitation to shoplifters, it would also have prevented air flowing through the shop, making for an uncomfortably stuffy back office. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed, and I found I was unable to look away from the bookshop. I felt something odd must be going on in there.
Thinking of the woman in the bookshop, I recalled some of the rumours that circulated about her among the waitresses at the White Plum. They said that when they bumped into her at the bathhouse, they all noticed that her body was covered in bruises as though she had been hit repeatedly, though outwardly there seemed to be no discord between her and her husband, so it seemed hard to believe he was responsible. Another of the waitresses had seen that the wife of the noodle shop owner two doors down from the bookshop was also covered in the same kind of marks. I presumed that if the rumours were true it just showed the cruelty of their husbands, and didn’t dwell on it further. Alas, readers, I was very wrong about that; as you shall see, those bruises held the key to all that followed.
I watched the shop like this for around half an hour. I felt in my bones that something strange was happening over the street, and that i’d miss something if I looked away for even a moment. Then by chance Akechi Kogoro, who I mentioned briefly earlier, passed by outside the window. He was wearing his customary summer kimono, with wide vertical stripes, and walking in his odd way, with both shoulders shaking as if he was coughing violently. When he noticed me, he bowed lightly and came inside the shop, ordered an iced coffee and sat down beside me. As soon as he noticed I was watching something intently, he followed my gaze over to the bookshop and settled his eyes on it too. He didn’t seem to need an explanation, and simply joined me in staring across the road. While watching we kept up a conversation of sorts, and while I can’t remember everything we spoke about, it certainly had to do with Akechi’s favourite topics, crime and detective work.
“Do you think it’s possible to commit the perfect crime? One that you are certain to get away with? I think it probably is possible. Take the murder in ‘The Lion’s Mane’ by Conan Doyle. If someone committed a crime like that, he would never be found out. After all, there are no detectives like Sherlock Holmes in real life!”
said Akechi, asking and answering his own question in the same breath.
“I’m not so sure”, I replied. “If a criminal can conceive and carry out a crime, it stands to reason that a detective would also be able to conceive it, and if he can conceive it, he can find the culprit.”
We discussed it a little further, but soon enough we both became silent, somehow engrossed by the bookshop across the street.
“You’ve noticed it too, I take it”, I asked.
“The people stealing books from the shelves at the front of the shop?” answered Akechi immediately. “Of course, I noticed it when I came in. That’s the fourth person to steal one since I arrived. I wonder what’s happened to the woman minding the place?”
“It’s the fourth person since you came thirty minutes ago, but I’ve been here over an hour now, and no-one has come out from the back office. Can you see that shutter in the middle of the door at the back? About an hour ago, that was slammed shut from inside.”
“Maybe the person minding the shop went out for something?”
“No, it can’t be that. Since the shutter was closed, nobody has gone in to the back office, nobody’s come out, and the shutter hasn’t been opened once. I suppose someone could have gone out through the back door, but even then it would be very strange to leave the shop unattended for so long. Perhaps we should go over and check that everything is all right?” “Yes, even if there’s nothing wrong, we should check and at least let them know people are helping themselves to the books.”
As I left the cafe, I was morbidly excited at the thought of going to what might be a crime scene of some sort, and I could see that Akechi was experiencing a similar emotion.
The bookshop was of the kind you often see, with shelves up to the ceiling running along the walls left and right, as well as at the back of the shop, and a rectangular ‘island’ of shelving in the centre of the shop that came up to around chest height. At the back on the right was a gap around one metre wide in the shelving where the till sat, and behind that the double slat door leading to the back office, with shutter still firmly closed in the central panel. In this small gap was a chair where the owner or his wife would sit to operate the till and watch the shop. Akechi and I went over to the till area, and shouted towards the back office to see if anyone was there, but no reply came. Could the owner really have been so negligent as to leave the place unattended? I pushed open the sliding door to the back office a little and peeped through the gap. The light was off and it was very dark, but I could make out a vague outline of something on the far side of the room.
“We should go in and check”, said Akechi from behind me.
The two of us crowded into the small back room, and Akechi found the light switch next to the light and flicked it on. At that moment, we both let out an involuntary, stifled shout as we noticed the dead body of a woman sprawled in the corner of the room. “It’s the owner’s wife”, Akechi gasped. “It looks like she’s been strangled”, he added, approaching the body. “We need to tell the police. I’ll go to the phonebox and call them. You stay here and keep watch. We shouldn’t tell the neighbours, or they’ll all tramp in here and disturb the crime scene.”
With that, he ran off to the public telephone, which was about half a block away.
I had read many detective novels since my youth, and felt familiar with the theories of crime, murder and detective work, but now I was faced with the reality of a crime scene, and a murder at that, I had no idea what to do, so I just looked around the room thoroughly as I awaited Akechi’s return.
It was a smallish room, about two and a half by three and a half metres, and to the right was a tiny enclosed garden and an outdoor toilet. As it was summer, the doors to the garden were wide open allowing me a view of the whole place. Through an open door to the left was a small bathroom, and next to this the back door was firmly closed. On the other side of the bathroom door was a narrow staircase and a cupboard. It was the kind of small, cheap row house that are ten a penny in this part of town even today. The woman’s body was by the wall on the left side of the room, with the head facing towards the front of the building. I didn’t want to interfere with the crime scene in any way, and moreover I had no wish to approach a corpse, so I stayed by the door where we had entered. But as it was such a small room, even if I tried not to look at the body it would somehow enter my field of vision. She had on a chrysanthemum-patterned indigo blue summer kimono, and had fallen on her back. Oddly, the hem of the kimono had been rolled upwards leaving her legs exposed up to the thigh. There were no signs that she had resisted either on her body or nearby. Around her neck was a livid purple mark where she had evidently been strangled.
The bustle of the street outside. The sounds of people chatting in high voices, the clatter of wooden geta slippers on the pavement, a drunken voice singing tunelessly, all unaware that behind a single sliding door lay the body of a woman, murdered in cold blood. It is a cruel world indeed, I thought as I listened to the sounds outside.
“The police are on their way” said Akechi, out of breath from running to the phone. “I see” I replied. Just saying those two words was suddenly a great effort, and the two of us looked at each other, saying nothing more.
Soon enough the police arrived. Two men came in, one officer in uniform and one man wearing a suit, who judging from his possessions and general bearing was a doctor of some kind. I later discovered that the uniformed man was an inspector from Kagura police station, and the man in the suit was the police doctor from the same station. I explained to the inspector the evening’s events up to that point. He asked me to explain about the closed shutter in more detail, so I recalled events as clearly as I could. “Akechi here joined me in the cafe at half past eight exactly – I remember as I looked at the clock in the cafe when he came in. So, it must have been near enough eight o’clock when the shutter was closed from inside. At that time, the light was on. So, at eight o’clock someone must have been in here moving around.” While the inspector listened to me and took down notes, the police doctor examined the body. When I finished speaking, he said ‘She was strangled. The murderer used his hands; we can tell from the bruising around the neck where pressure was exerted with the fingers. There’s also a small amount of bleeding which was caused by the killer’s fingernails lacerating the skin as he strangled her. Given that there is the mark of a thumb on the left side of the neck, we can say that the murderer strangled her with one hand, and is right handed. Time of death is just over one hour ago. Obviously, there is no chance she is still alive.”
“Strangled from above, it looks like”, added the Inspector. “But, given that there are no signs of resistance, she must have been attacked suddenly and with overwhelming strength.”
The inspector then asked us about the whereabouts of the bookshop owner. Of course, we had no way of knowing what had happened to him, but Akechi suggested asking the owner of the watch shop next to the bookshop if he knew where he might be. The conversation between the inspector and the watch shop owner was as follows; “Do you know where the owner of this place went?”
“Well, as I understand he runs a temporary night stall selling books, so he’s out at the market because of that. He only gets home from that after midnight, if my memory serves me right”.
“Where is this stall?”
“He often goes to the market at Hirokoji, over towards Ueno, but whether he’s gone there tonight, that I couldn’t tell you I’m afraid”
“About an hour ago, did you hear anything unusual from this shop?” “Something unusual?” “You know, a shout, a commotion, something like that. Anything to suggest a woman being murdered next door!” said the inspector, displaying a trace of emotion for the first time.
“Oh, no, I didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary.”
Meanwhile, the news had spread around the local area about the murder, and a crowd of passersby had crowded into the bookshop. Then the woman who owned the tabi sock shop on the other side of the bookshop came in and supported the watch shop owner’s assertion, saying she too had heard nothing unusual all evening.
There was the noise of a car stopping in front of the shop, and several people bustled into the shop. They were from the public prosecutor’s office, and by coincidence they had arrived at the same time as the chief of the Kagura station, and the famed detective Kobayashi. The inspector who had arrived earlier proceeded to relay the details of the crime to the new arrivals, and Akechi and I were called upon to tell our stories once again.
“Let’s shut the front door, for a start”, said the detective Kobayashi suddenly. He was dressed in a black woollen suit jacket with white trousers, and looked a little like a low ranking company worker trying too hard to look smart. He pushed the onlookers outside and started his investigations. While he was investigating, he seemed to forget the presence of everyone else in the room, as if they were excluded from his line of sight. From start to finish, he worked alone, and it seemed as if the inspector, the police chief and the rest of us were merely there to observe and admire Kobayashi’s actions and methods.
First, he went to look at the corpse. He took particular time looking at the neck of the victim, but in the end he declared to the assembled policeman; “The marks left by the finger are perfectly normal and display no unusual characteristics.The murderer was a normal man who strangled the victim with his right hand. The body yields no other clues.” After that, Kobayashi said he wanted to remove the clothes from the victim to search for more clues, and Akechi and I were obliged to leave the room. We waited in the front of the shop, and while I don’t know exactly what their findings were, I overheard them mention that the woman’s body was covered in bruises. I commented quietly to Akechi that the rumours circulating among the waitresses at the White Plum must be true.
After this examination had finished, we refrained from going back into the back room, instead looking in from the till area in the front of the shop. Luckily for us, as the discoverers of the crime scene, and because we needed to provide our fingerprints to the police, we weren’t asked to leave the shop entirely. Well, perhaps it would be more correct to say we were being held there as suspects by the police, but it allowed us to observe the investigation. Kobayashi’s activities weren’t limited to just the back room, and he checked all rooms inside and the outside of the shop while we waited by the till for any developments that might involve us. As the inspector and public prosecutors had set up shop in the back room, and Kobayashi had to keep returning to inform them of his progress, we managed to overhear all the results of his investigation. As he did this, the public prosecutors scribbled down Kobayashi’s findings in their notebooks.
In the room where the body lay, despite his best efforts Kobayashi failed to turn up any footprints or any other trace of the culprit save for one thing. “There are fingerprints from when the light was turned off”, said Kobayashi as he sprinkled a white powder on the ebony switch. “The light must have been turned off by the culprit. By the way, which of you two turned on the light when you came in?” he asked, turning to Akechi and I. Akechi responded that it was him. “In that case, we’ll need your fingerprints too. Lets remove the light switch so we can take it for testing. But don’t touch the switch!” Kobayashi instructed the inspector.
Then Kobayashi went upstairs to the first floor. He checked there for some time, and no sooner had he come down as he announced that he was going to check the passage at the back of the shop. This took around fifteen minutes, and when he came back still clutching a torch in one hand he was accompanied by someone. It was a man of around forty dressed in a grubby black crepe shirt and khaki trousers that were no cleaner.
“There’s no chance of finding any footprints from the back alley. Perhaps because it doesn’t get any sunlight it’s very muddy, and while I can make out the vague marks left by a pair of geta slippers, it’s impossible to tell even whether they were left by a man or a woman”, stated Kobayashi flatly. “Anyway, this man”, he continued gesturing to the person who had accompanied him in, “owns an ice cream shop just opposite the entrance to the alleyway. As there’s only one way in to the alley, if the criminal left by the back entrance, this man must have seen him come out on to the street. So, let me ask you”, Kobayashi turned to address the ice cream shop owner, “Did you see anyone go in or out of this alleyway at around 8 o’clock this evening?” “No, not a soul. Not even a cat or a dog”, replied the ice cream shop owner confidently.
“I’ve had my shop here for some years now, and I’ve noticed that generally no-one uses that alleyway after it gets dark. It’s so muddy, if you can’t see where to put your feet you’re likely to fall, or at least get your shoes dirty.” “And none of your customers went into the alley?”
“No, nobody. Everyone who came tonight ate their ice-cream in the street in front of the shop then went back along the main road. I’m positive of that.”
So, if we are to believe the ice cream shop owner’s testimony, if the criminal did leave by the back door of the bookshop, he didn’t leave from the only entrance the alley afforded. I know he didn’t leave through the front of the shop because I had been watching so intently from the White Plum. Where in the world could he have escaped from? Kobayashi had two theories. Firstly, he might still be hiding in one of the other buildings in the row which backed on to the same alleyway. Secondly, he might have fled from the first floor somehow. However, while there was a way of getting from the first floor onto the roof, and from there onto the rooves of adjoining houses, the window at the front of the house had a fixed shutter which showed no sign of having been tampered with and certainly not removed, and as for the back window, in this heat almost all the houses around had their back windows open, and many were hanging out their washing on the balcony or going out with a chair to enjoy the evening breeze, making it very difficult to flee from there without being seen.
At this point the assembled policemen gathered together briefly to discuss their next course of action. They decided to visit all the houses which backed on to the alleyway to ask if the owners had seen or heard anything. There were only eleven houses facing the alley, so it wouldn’t be too time consuming. Meanwhile a smaller group stayed behind to check the bookshop thoroughly once more, to see that nothing had been missed.
Unfortunately the result of these labours was not just that the investigation didn’t progress, if anything it provided information which made the case even more difficult to fathom. The sweet shop owner two doors up from the bookshop had been relaxing that evening by playing the bamboo flute on his balcony at the back of his shop, and he had been there from sunset until just now when the police had come round. He was in a perfect place to see if anything had happened at the first floor back window of the bookshop, but had seen nothing untoward all evening.
Well, readers, the case has reached an interesting point, hasn’t it? Where did the criminal enter the shop, and how did he leave? Not from the back door. Not from the back window either, and certainly not through the front of the shop. Is he even real? Or did he disappear in a puff of smoke?
The mystery of the case doesn’t end there, either. Two students from the local engineering school who were renting a room nearby had been passing the shop at around eight o’clock, and while they both seemed very honest, their witness statements served only to confuse the investigators more. This is what they said to the inspector,
“At about eight, I was standing in front of the bookshop, reading a magazine from that shelf. Then, there was a noise of some sort from the back of the shop, so I looked in that direction. While the door itself was shut, the shutters in the middle of the door were open and through the gaps I could see a man standing there. However, at the same time as I looked up to see his face, he closed the shutter, so I can’t tell you anything more about him. But, from the way he tied his kimono he was certainly a man.” “Do you remember anything else about him? His height, the pattern of his kimono, anything like that?”
“I only saw his lower half, so I’ve no idea how tall he might have been, but his kimono was black. I suppose it could have had thin stripes or some other pattern, but it looked black to me.
“I was with my friend at the front of the bookshop reading” said the other student when asked for his statement. “I also heard a noise, looked up and saw the shutter being closed from the inside. But, he was wearing a white kimono. No stripes, no pattern, just a plain white kimono. “Isn’t that impossible? One of you must be mistaken”, said the inspector with a troubled face. “I’m certainly not mistaken”, said the first student “Well, I wouldn’t lie in a case like this”, came his friend’s rejoinder.
What can the two student’s testimonies mean? The sharper readers might have thought of something already, and I picked up on the same thing at the time, but it seems the police and the public prosecutors didn’t dwell very deeply on it at the time.
At this time, the bookshop owner, having been found and notified of the terrible incident, came into the room. He was a delicate looking man who somehow didn’t seem like a secondhand bookshop owner. When he saw his wife’s body, he began to cry, and was unable to speak for some time. Kobayashi waited until he had regained some composure, then began asking questions. However, to his disappointment, the bookshop owner had absolutely no idea who might have killed his wife.
“She was never the kind of person to anger anyone, she had no secrets”, he said through his tears. He also checked the safe and the money in the till, and confirmed that nothing had been stolen from the shop at all. Kobayashi asked about their family history, perhaps hoping to dredge up some long forgotten feud, but there was nothing out of the ordinary.
The questioning continued fruitlessly for some time, until finally Kobayashi asked about the bruises that had been found on the wife’s body. The bookshop owner hesitated for a long time, but eventually admitted that he was responsible. Kobayashi asked why he had done it, but despite repeated questioning, nothing would induce the bookshop owner to explain himself, and he was eventually led away in floods of tears. After all, he had been at his night stall all evening, so even if he was guilty of domestic violence, he had a strong alibi for her murder, and his grief had seemed all too real. He was not for the moment a suspect in the case.
At this point, the investigation finished for the evening. Akechi and I gave our full names and addresses, agreed to make ourselves available for future questioning, and were sent on our way home. It was already past one o’clock in the morning.
If the testimony of all the witnesses is true, and the police haven’t missed anything in their investigation, this really seems like an insoluble crime. As I found out later, the next day Kobayashi continued his investigations, but could progress no further than on the first evening. All the witnesses seemed reliable, and none had any reason to lie. Nor could any information be dredged up from the eleven neighbours who had been questioned. Kobayashi even went back to the victim’s hometown to see if he could uncover any long simmering resentments there, but found nothing. Finally, he also checked thoroughly the only thing that constituted ‘evidence’ from the crime scene; the light switch. However, the only fingerprints on it were Akechi’s, from when we had first entered the back office and he had turned the light on. It seemed that Akechi had been overexcited when he went to switch on the light, and had touched it so many times that the criminal’s fingerprints had been erased.
When a famed detective like Kobayashi puts his heart and soul into an investigation like this, and still can uncover no clue, not even the faintest of leads, as to the murderer’s identity, perhaps you can say it’s the perfect crime?
Readers, perhaps while you were considering this case, some famous detective stories from the past came into your mind? Poe’s ‘Murders In the Rue Morgue’ perhaps, or maybe Conan Doyle’s ‘Speckled Band’? Perhaps you were thinking that, as in these cases, the murderer wasn’t a person, but a wild animal of some sort; and orangutan or poisonous snake from India perhaps? The thought did briefly cross my mind too. But, this too must be impossible. After all, I’m sure there’s no such animal around this part of Tokyo, and as well as a witness seeing a man at the scene of the crime, there was no evidence to suggest the presence of an animal, and no witnesses to one either. Recall also that the marks on the victim’s neck were made by a man’s right hand. No, the perpetrator of this crime was certainly as human as you and I.
As Akechi and I returned home that evening, we spoke excitedly all the way. He said “You know the murder of Rose Delacourt, the one that became the inspiration for Poe’s “Rue Morgue” and also Leroux’s “The Mystery of the Yellow Room”? Even though that was more than a century ago, still nobody knows who the culprit was. That sprang to my mind this evening. The way that the killer seems to have disappeared without leaving a trace of himself, it’s very similar in that respect, don’t you think?” “I suppose you’re right. It’s certainly very strange, this murder straight out of a Western detective novel happening right here in Tokyo! I’ve no idea whether I can do it or not, but I’ve half a mind to look into the murder myself, and see if I can come up with any answers”, I replied.
At this point, our paths diverged, and as Akechi turned off down a narrow lane, I watched him, shoulders shaking as he walked, and his thick striped summer kimono seemed to be thrown into sharp relief by the darkness. For some reason, the image left a strong impression on me.
Part 2: The deduction
Around ten days after the murder, I went over to visit Akechi at his lodgings. What had we done, what had we found, what conclusions had we reached over those ten days? Perhaps, reader, you can already guess what kind of conversation Akechi and I had that evening?
Until that point I had only ever bumped into Akechi at the cafe or around town, so it was the first time I had visited him at home. He rented a room above a tobacconist, which I found without much trouble, so I went in and asked the woman there whether Akechi Kogoro was at this address. “Yes, he lives here. Please wait a moment, I’ll call him now” She went to the stairs in the back corner of the shop and shouted up the stairs for him. Akechi came down the creaky staircase, and looked a little surprised to see that it was me, but quickly recovered his composure and invited me upstairs to his room.
When we got upstairs to the room, it was my turn to be surprised. I had hardly taken a step inside, when I let out a gasp – it really was the oddest room I had ever seen. I knew he was something of an eccentric, but this space was truly astounding. It was around two and a half by two and a half metres, and aside from a small space in the centre of the room where the tatami mats were visible, every inch of floor space was covered with books, here in neat piles, there in disorganised mountains. There was no furniture at all as far as I could tell, and I had no idea how he could sleep here. Also, there was nowhere that the two of us could sit down. If I moved at all, I was worried I would disturb the whole precarious edifice and bring a wall of books crashing down on us. “Sorry about the mess. I don’t really have any chairs or floor cushions, but please find a soft-looking pile of books and sit down” said Akechi, somewhat sheepishly.
After some searching I managed to find such a stack, and sat down at last, but I was so amazed by the room that I was unable to speak for several seconds, instead just looking around me in wonder.
I feel at this point I should explain a little about this Akechi Kogoro, who has been so central to the story so far. But he was a fairly recent acquaintance of mine, and I had no idea about his background, how he managed to get enough money to eat and live, what his purpose in life was, or anything like that, but I know he didn’t seem to have any particular occupation, and seemed to be quite the man of leisure. If you were forced to label him as something, perhaps you’d call him a scholar? Though if he was a scholar, it was a strange sort of study for sure! I remember he had once said;
“I am a student of the human condition”, but at the time I had no idea what he meant by that. One thing I was sure of, though, was that his passion and knowledge of crime and detection was enormous.
He was around the same age as me, so probably no older than 25. He was on the thin side, and as I mentioned previously, had the odd habit of shaking his shoulders while he walked. In fact, it’s an odd comparison, but his walk, his face and voice were all very similar to the old author and storyteller Kanda Hakuryu. Reader, if you can’t picture Kanda Hakuryu, just imagine the most personable and intelligent face that you can, put long, unkempt hair on it and you’ll be close enough. Talking of his hair, Akechi also had the habit of curling a lock of it around his finger while he was talking to people. He didn’t seem to worry much about his clothes, and always wore the same simple cotton kimono with vertical stripes, simply tied at the waist.
“I’m impressed that you found this place, it’s not easy” said Akechi, playing with a lock of hair and looking at me intently. “Anyway, about that murder on Dogenzaka, have the police made any progress? Caught anyone?”
“Actually, that’s what I came here to talk to you about”, I replied
Not really sure how to broach the subject I had come to talk about, I spoke hesitantly; “I’ve been thinking about the case for the last ten days, to be honest. Not just thinking, actually. I did some detective work as well, at the crime scene and around. In the end, I came to a conclusion. I thought I’d come to share it with you.
“Oh, really. Impressive work! Tell me all about it.”
It didn’t escape my notice that as he said this his face took on a knowing look, followed by a relaxed, possibly even scornful appearance. This helped me to put my reservation to one side, and I continued more confidently. “A friend of mine is a newspaper reporter, and he’s a good friend of the detective, Kobayashi, who is investigating the murder. Through that friend, I’ve been able to keep up with the progress of the case in some detail, but the police are floundering. They don’t know how to continue. Of course, they keep working on it, but they’ve found no decisive clue or piece of evidence. Take that light switch, for one. They’ve checked it several times, but only your fingerprints are on it. They seem to think that your prints have obscured or erased the criminal’s prints. When I heard that the police had run into this problem, I decided to try and check it for myself. What do you think my findings were? I wanted to tell you before going to the police.”
Since the day of the incident, I’ve been puzzled by something. Perhaps you remember it too? The two students who saw a man in the back room of the bookshop, their statements were the same, apart from the colour of the man’s kimono. One said it was black, one said it was white, and they were both adamant they were telling the truth. No matter how fleeting the glance, or how poor one’s eyesight, to mistake black for white is surely impossible? I’m not sure how the police interpreted it, but I think both the students were correct. Do you see? The criminal was wearing a black and white striped kimono, one of the ones that you often borrow when you stay at an inn in the countryside. So, how did one student see black, and one white? Well, you remember that they saw the criminal through the latticed shutter in the middle of the door. So, as they were in different places in the bookshop, it’s possible that one student looked through the shutter and saw only the white stripes, and understandably presumed that the whole kimono was white, whereas the other student looked from a different place and saw only the black stripes, with the struts of the shutter hiding the white from his view, and again presumed the whole kimono was black. It’s certainly a coincidence that they were standing in exactly the right place for this to happen, but as it was just for a moment it’s certainly possible, and as far as I can tell there’s no other explanation for it.”
So, we’ve discovered that the criminal’s kimono must have been in a black and white striped kimono, which narrows down the investigation considerably, but is not enough on its own to nail down a culprit. The second piece of evidence I considered is the light switch. My reporter friend told me that Kobayashi hadn’t been able to find anything, so I tried a little experiment, and my hunch paid off. By the way, do you have an inkstone somewhere? Could I use it for a second?”
Akechi passed me an inkstone, and it still had some ink in the well. I put my right thumb lightly into the ink, took a piece of paper from the pocket of my kimono, and pressed down on the paper with my thumb, leaving a thumbprint. Then I let the ink dry for a few seconds, and once again pressed the same thumb into the ink, and carefully added another print over the first one, in a different direction. When I did this, you could clearly see two overlapping thumbprints on the paper
“The police seem to think that when you turned on the light, you covered the criminal’s prints and erased them, but as I’ve just shown you with the ink, this is impossible. Even if you put one print on top of the other, you can still make out the original fingerprint between the lines of the second. It doesn’t matter how hard you press, you can’t erase the original.
So, if we accept that it was the criminal who turned out the light, his fingerprints must be on that switch. I wondered if the police had missed another set of fingerprints between the lines of yours, but according to my reporter friend, they checked that too but still only found your prints. So, you are the only person who touched the switch all evening – before the murder, after the murder, only you put your fingers on that switch. Why the prints of the bookshop owner weren’t there I’m not sure, but I imagine it’s because the light had never been switched off before that.”1
So, what does this tell you, Akechi? This is what I think. A man wearing a striped kimono – perhaps a childhood sweetheart of the victim, who later broke his heart and drove him to murder – knew the bookshop owner was going to be at his night stall, and attacked the woman while he was away. She didn’t resist so she must have known her assailant. After he had killed her, to delay the discovery of the body he turned off the light and went to flee, but as he did he noticed the shutter in the door was open, so went over to shut it before running. By chance the two students had just come into the shop and saw this. Then the killer fled out from the back, but realised that his fingerprints would be all over the light switch, and he needed to somehow erase them. With the students in the shop, though, he could hardly risk venturing back into the room where he had committed the murder, and it was then that he hit on a brilliant idea. He would become the discoverer of the crime. If he did that, he would naturally be able to turn on the light without arousing any suspicion, and later he wouldn’t be suspected when his fingerprints were found on the light switch. On top of that, as the discoverer of the crime, he’d be less likely to be a suspect, so it would really be a case of killing two birds with one stone. Then he could watch the police at work, and even be bold enough to give a witness statement. What’s more, his scheme has gone entirely to plan! Ten days later and the police haven’t got the faintest idea how to proceed.”
Akechi listened to me carefully. I had expected him to interrupt me as I was speaking, or at least to change his expression, but to my surprise his face remained impassive. He simply listened in silence, playing with a lock of hair as usual. I was amazed at his calm, and for want of any response I continued with my explanation.
“You’re probably going to ask how the criminal could have got into and out of the room unseen. Of course, if I can’t explain that then the rest of my explanation falls apart. Well, I investigated that as well. As we saw that evening, there was no clue as to how the criminal either entered or left the room. But, he did commit a murder in there, so he must have got in and out somehow. So, we must conclude that the police missed something in their investigation. It will pain them to learn this, but it seems their detective skills are not up to mine.”
It’s actually quite simple. What I think happened is this. The police checked the bookshop and the back room very thoroughly, and we have no reason to doubt the eleven neighbours who saw nothing on the night of the crime. So, we have to conclude that rather than escaping in the traditional sense, the criminal actually hid in plain sight; somewhere that he could be seen, but where no-one would suspect him of the crime. As I considered how he could do this, I thought of the noodle shop, Asahiya, two doors down from the bookshop. You’ll recall that on the right of the bookshop was a watch shop and then a sweet shop, while on the left is a tabi sock shop and then a noodle shop. Anyway, I went into the noodle shop and asked if anyone had come in just to use the toilet at around 8 o’clock that evening. You know that place – there’s a single straight corridor from the entrance all the way to the back door, and the toilet is just outside the back door. The criminal went in, pretended that he wanted to just use the toilet, went out of the back door, into the back door of the bookshop, committed the crime, and then came back through the back door of the noodle shop as if he had come back from the toilet. This way he could get into the alley without using the entrance where the ice cream shop owner was. For the noodle shop owner, someone going in to use the loo would be an everyday thing and wouldn’t draw his attention. In fact, when I mentioned this to my reporter friend, he said that Kobayashi had spoken to the noodle shop owner, but hadn’t got any information from him about it; someone using the toilet was so unexceptional he didn’t even mention it to the police. But, when I asked the owner directly if he could remember someone coming in around eight to use the toilet, he said there had been, but luckily for the criminal that evening his wife hadn’t been around to help so he had been busier than usual, and couldn’t remember the face, dress or build of the man who had come in. I must say, Akechi, That really was a clever idea of yours.” I paused for a moment, to give Akechi a chance to say something. I was sure he couldn’t remain silent given what I had just said. But, he remained as silent as a stone, and there was no sound aside from the faint rustle of his hair as he continued to twist it round his finger. There was nothing for it. Out of respect for him I had spoken indirectly up to now, but the time had come to stop beating around the bush. “Akechi, you must know what I’m saying. All the evidence points to you. I didn’t want to doubt you, I don’t want to accuse you, but all my investigations have led to you, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I tried to find anything to exonerate you – I checked whether any of the eleven neighbours owned a striped kimono like yours, but none of them do. Unfortunately for you that kind of summer kimono is quite unusual to see around here. The trick with the light switch, and using the toilet in the noodle shop, too, they were both very clever tricks, and only an expert in crime and detection like you would have been able to think of them. Finally, the thing that really gave you away was your relationship to the victim. You told me once that you knew her when you were a child. But, when you gave your statement, and when detective Kobayashi questioned you, you didn’t mention it once.
So, I wanted to ask you for your alibi. Anything to point the finger of guilt in another direction. But there’s no chance of that either, is there? That evening, when you saw me in the White Plum and came in for a coffee, I asked you where you had been. You told me you had just been strolling round the neighbourhood for about an hour. Even if someone had seen you on your walk, it wouldn’t necessarily help you, because you could still have popped into the noodle shop on the way to pretend to use the toilet. If only you had been somewhere else, visiting an aunt across town, anything! Tell me, Akechi, am I mistaken. Please, if you can, defend yourself.”
Well, readers, what do you imagine Akechi Kogoro’s response to have been? Do you think he slumped back in defeat? No, he did not. Instead, he punctured my ego immediately by letting out a loud, slow, long laugh. Then, seeing my injured expression he pulled himself up. “Sorry, sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh, but you’re so serious!” he said by way of excuse. “Your explanation is very interesting. I’m happy to have found a friend like you. But unfortunately your explanation is just too superficial, too material. Take my relationship with the victim. As you say, we knew each other as children, but did you take any time to check what kind of relationship we had, to consider the deeper psychological aspect of the case? Whether we were ever in love with each other? If we were, whether I was still upset and seeking revenge over it? I don’t think you considered anything of the sort. The reason why I didn’t mention my relationship with her to the police is simple. Even though I knew her, I knew nothing about her that could possibly have any relevance to the case. We were only friends for a few years, long ago before we even entered school, and I hadn’t seen her since.” “In that case, how do you explain the fingerprints on the light switch?”
“Do you think I’ve been completely idle since that day? No, I’ve been quite active too you know. I went over to Dogenzaka every day, especially to the bookshop. I spoke to the owner, and asked him quite a lot. I told him that I once knew his wife, which seemed to help him open up to me, so I got quite a lot of information from him – much the same information, it seems, as you got from your journalist friend. I heard about the fingerprints too, and it piqued my curiosity so I also checked what could have happened. Well, I couldn’t help but laugh – it turns out that the filament in the bulb had just broken, so the light went out. No-one turned it off. We presumed that it was the killer, but actually no-one knew what time it went off, and it could have been several minutes after he left the room that it went. When I turned the light switch, I didn’t actually turn on the light – I just moved the bulb and reconnected the filament, so it came back on.2 So, of course there were no-one’s fingerprints but mine on the switch. You said that you saw the light on through the shutter from the cafe, which means that it must have disconnected after that. These old light bulbs often go of their own accord, even while they’re on.”
As for the issue of the kimono colour, your explanation is…” his words tailed off as he rummaged in a pile of books and pulled out a tattered old volume from somewhere near the bottom. “Have you read this book? ‘On the Witness Stand’, by Hugo Munsterberg. Published in 1908, I think. Try reading the chapter ‘Illusions’, the first ten lines or so.” As Akechi put forward his defence, I gradually realised my own failures in investigating the crime. I took the book and read the start of the chapter as I had been told. It read something like this “Last year, a case came to light in which a car had been stolen. In court, several witnesses were called to the stand and swore under oath to tell the truth. The first witness said that the road in question had been dry and dusty when the incident happened, whereas the second said it had been slick with rain after a recent shower. The first person said the car had been travelling quite slowly; the second testified that he had never seen a car driven so quickly. The first person said there were two or three other people on the road at the time, whereas the second stated there had been men, women and families all down the road. Neither witness had reason to lie, and they were both gentlemen of good standing in the community.”
After I finished reading, Akechi directed me to another chapter in the book, called “The Memory of the Witness”
“The last example was a real criminal case, but this is an experiment that Munsterberg carried out to see what people remembered of sudden events. It has a connection to the colour of the kimono that we’ve been wondering about it, so have a read.”
I started to read about the experiment. “The year before last, I carried out an experiment in Gottingen. I held a party for various academics; lawyers, psychologists, physicists and others. In other words, all people whose professions depended on close observation of phenomena. At the time, there was a carnival happening in the city. During the party, the doors opened suddenly and a carnival performer in bright, gaudy clothing came rushing in, as if possessed by madness. He was chased in by a man brandishing a pistol. In the middle of the hall the intruders faced each other and yelled insults. Then the performer lay down on the floor, and the man with the pistol stood on him, pointed the pistol downwards, and shot. Both of them then ran out of the room. The whole commotion lasted less than twenty seconds. Aside from the host, nobody knew or had any reason to suspect that it was all set up for an experiment. The host then brought everyone together, and asked them all to write down a truthful account of what they had seen, as it would be helpful for the police when he called them. As you might have guessed, the witnesses testimonies differed hugely in their accounts of the same event. Of the forty people in the room, four said that the man with the pistol wasn’t wearing a hat. Of the other thirty six, around half said he was wearing a silk hat, around half said he was wearing a trilby. As for his clothes, some said he was wearing red, some dark brown, some light brown, and some went for striped. They all remembered a different set of clothes to the ones they had actually seen – in fact, the man wielding the pistol had been wearing white trousers with a black overcoat, and a large read necktie, with no hat. We must conclude that memory, when all things are equal, is easily fallible, because it is affected by the associations, judgments, suggestions, penetrate into every one of our observations and taint out memory and our recollection of events.”
“Munsterberg’s prose might be a bit of a slog, but he’s exactly right”, said Akechi as I finished reading. “People’s observation and memory is not something you can truly rely on.
As in this case, the witnesses to the event were all scholars, intelligent people, and they couldn’t even agree on the colour of the intruders’ clothes. I think it’s the same case for those two students. Both believe they saw what they said they saw, but one of them or perhaps even both of them are mistaken. They might well have seen something, but I’m sure it was not a man with a black and white striped summer kimono. It certainly wasn’t me! Your theory about the stripes being seen from different angles through the shutter is an interesting one, but when you think about it doesn’t it seem a little unlikely? Too perfect, if you see what I mean. Rather than your coincidence, couldn’t you believe that I’m innocent of the crime?”
Finally, we’ve got the issue of the man who used the noodle shop’s lavatory. In this instance, I agree with you. The criminal must have hidden in plain sight, as you put it, and the only way he could have got to the bookshop and out again is through the noodle shop. Unfortunately, I went to the noodle shop and checked for myself, and the conclusion I reached is exactly the opposite to yours. In fact, nobody went in to use the toilet at eight o’clock. There was no such person.” Reader, as you have seen, Akechi thus demolished my arguments about the witness statement, the fingerprints of the criminal, and how the criminal had got in and out of the bookshop without being seen, and so made the case for his innocence. But denying that someone had gone in to use the toilet in the noodle shop – was he denying that a crime had been committed altogether? I had no idea what he was thinking, so I asked him outright. “Do you know who committed the murder?” “Yes, I do”, he said as he continued to play with his hair. “My methods are different to yours. Looking at the physical evidence is only going to get you so far in detective work. The best way to solve the case is to get into the mind of people, to look into the depth of their heart and understand their motives. But, this depends on the skill of the investigator. In any case, I looked at this case from the opposite angle to you; the psychological angle.
The first thing that caught my attention was the fresh bruises all over the victim’s body. Soon after that I heard that the wife of the noodle shop owner had similar marks all over her body. I think you know that already. But, neither of them seem to have violent husbands. Both the noodle shop owner and the bookshop owner seem to be quietly intelligent men going about their business. I couldn’t help think that beneath the ordinary exterior lay a secret of some kind. So, first I tried to find out what it was from the bookshop owner. As I said, by saying I was an old friend of his wife I was able to get to know him very quickly, so I felt able to broach such a delicate matter as his wife’s injuries. By contrast, I got quite the opposite impression from the noodle shop owner, who seemed guarded and distant. Also, I didn’t have a way in like I did with the bookshop owner, so it was very tough to come to any conclusion about him. But, using a certain psychological method, I was able to find out what I needed in the end.” Are you aware of the ‘association’ method of psychological diagnosis? Did you know it’s also used in the investigation of crime? You give a number of simple stimulus words, and time the suspect’s association of ideas to the words. But, unlike what the psychologists say, I don’t think the stimulus words have to be limited to simple ones like ‘dog’, ‘house’ or ‘river’, and you don’t necessarily need a stopwatch to time the responses. To someone who has the knack of the associative method, it doesn’t have to be so rigid and formulaic. When you think about it, the famous detectives of the past were developing this method unknowingly, using just their own intuition, long before psychology began as a discipline. Somebody like Ooka Echizen3 would be a perfect example. Alternatively, in literature you can look at the detective Dupin in Poe’s “Rue Morgue”, when he explains what his friend is thinking simply from the movement of his body. Holmes also uses the same methods in Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Resident Patient”. They’re all examples of the same technique, but the psychologist insist on complicating matters with machines and mechanical methods because they don’t have the same insight into the human condition, and then claiming the method as their own!
Anyway, I’ve digressed a little, but I tried this method when I was talking to the noodle shop owner. I just talked about very everyday things, and noted his unconscious reactions and verbal responses to my words. But, this is a very delicate procedure; if the subject is in the least suspicious, the experiment becomes flawed and its conclusions unreliable. Anyway, I don’t want to bore you with the methods as it was quite complex, but the results were clear. I had found the murderer.” But, I don’t have a shred of physical evidence for this, so there’s no way I can go to the police with it. Even if I told them I don’t think they’d act on my suspicions. More than that though, there’s another reason that I’m not trying to act on knowing the identity of the murderer. I don’t think he had any evil intent. I know it seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but in this case I think the victim and the killer were cooperating with each other. You might even argue that the victim persuaded her assailant to kill her.” I tried looking at this idea from several different angles, but I couldn’t for the life of me work out Akechi’s line of thinking. By now I had forgotten my shame at having accused him after what I now realised was such a shallow investigation, and simply wanted to hear him explain himself.
“Anyway, let me elaborate. The murderer was the owner of the Asahiya noodle shop. He could easily have gone out of the back door of his shop, round to the bookshop to commit the crime, and back again without his customers noticing anything unusual. To impede the investigation, he made up the man going to the toilet at eight o’clock. But that wasn’t in his plans from the beginning, you know. It’s our fault, in a way. Whichever one of us it was, we asked him if someone had gone into the toilet at about eight, and he simply took the idea and used it. In a way, we’re almost his accomplices! He probably took us for policemen. Returning to his motives for the murder, though, this case for me really illustrates how dark, grotesque secrets can be hidden behind the facade of the outwardly normal everyday lives we all lead. It’s the kind of behaviour that we can only really discover in the world of nightmares.”
The owner of the noodle shop followed in the footsteps of the Marquis de Sade. He was a sexual sadist, and by cruel coincidence, the woman in the bookshop two doors down was his Sacher-Masoch, his willing victim. With the cunning of two people who share a perversion, they began an affair. Now perhaps you understand what I meant when I said this crime was cooperative. Within their own marriages, they could barely indulge their twisted desires at all, which were not shared to anything like the same by their spouses, though the fresh bruises on both the bookshop owner’s wife and the noodle shop owner’s wife show that they both tried. But, they could not satisfy their urges like this. So, when they found each other, a partner with the same desires, not more than ten yards away, it is easy to imagine how they could have immediately developed a deep understanding. However, the results of this chance meeting, this twist of fate, were tragic. Through the synthesis of their passive and active roles, their depravity gradually multiplied until that fateful evening ten days ago, in an outcome that surely neither of them expected or wished for when they first met. She persuaded him to kill her. An awful tragedy.” I shuddered involuntarily as Akechi reached his conclusion. What a bizarre case! Then the woman from the tobacco shop brought the evening paper up to Akechi’s room. Akechi took the paper, opened it at the local news section, and let out a deep sigh. “Ah, in the end it seems he couldn’t live with himself. What a coincidence, just as we were talking about it ourselves, the proof comes in the newspaper”, he said, passing me the paper. I read the section he was pointing at, a short article not ten lines long on an inside page. The headline read;
“Local noodle shop owner found hanged; police suspect suicide” .