Review: The Devil’s Disciple

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December 20, 2011 by markstani

This book was provided courtesy Booktrust. The translated fiction section of their website, which will shortly include a more concise version of this review, is here.

Lumping Shiro Hamao’s sashimi-sized slivers of short stories in The Devil’s Disciple down as detective fiction would be a little like calling Mark Twain a travel writer, or Charles Dickens that bloke who penned miserable Christmas stuff: in other words, it would do scant justice to a writer who wrote the stories that make up this intriguing, translated volume in 1929, six years before his tragically early death at the age of forty.
Originally published in the Japanese magazine Shinseinen, these appear to stand as the only work of Hamao – among his sixteen novellas and three full-length novels – to be put into English. For this, the translator J. Keith Vincent and the publisher, Hesperus Press, deserve much credit.
Hamao’s work does indeed revolve around crime and justice, or rather injustice: there are also prominent sexual and misogynistic elements which brilliantly lay bare the decadent, honour-bound Japanese high society of which he was a part: a world in which marriage, publicly at least, was sacrosanct, and reputation was everything, even in death.
Hamao was born into one of the most rich and powerful families in Japan. He trained in law but to his family’s horror, relinquished his job as a public prosecutor to write books. ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and ‘Did He Kill Them?’ were the first stories he saw published.
In the title story, Shimaura Eizo languishes in jail charged with the murder of a young woman. The narrative takes the form of a letter from Eizo to the prosecutor of the case, who happens to be Eizo’s former lover, and whom he blames for his predicament.
The narrator’s unreliability lends a fascinating extra dimension to the story, as the reader is forced to address the issue of what, if anything, this inherently dislikeable man is guilty of.
Guilt, and the way in which the justice system dictates it, is broached more directly in ‘Did He Kill Them?’ in which Hamao’s narrator assumes the role of an ailing barrister, regaling a group of detective novelists with the story of how an apparently water-tight, death penalty-punishable crime of passion turned out to be anything but.
Hamao makes some observations about the uneasy relationship between the courts, the media and the public in establishing guilty which, more than seventy years after his death, and in light of the tabloid media scrutiny currently obsessing the UK, seem remarkably prescient:

the minute they catch a likely suspect the newspapers waste no time in making out that he’s the real culprit and their readers have the bad habit of believing them. If he turns out to be innocent, people are just as quick to attack the police and kick up a ruckus about trampling on people’s human rights or torture or what have you

The only disappointment about this bite-sized collection is that it is over so quickly, and that, for the time being at least, there appears little or no other English language examples of his work. The guarantee is that while you will devour these stories in a couple of gulps, their mysteries will linger much longer.

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