Television detectives can be loosely categorised into two camps. The first is the gruff, “too old for this shit” type drowning their sorrows in stiff liquor. The other is the kooky wunderkind, sporting an intimidating intellect and usually sitting somewhere on the spectrum. While the former often prioritises immediate action and brute force, the latter draws on deduction and a meticulous attention to the minutiae of criminality. Anime and manga are awash with gifted detectives – from Conan to L – but where do their origins lie, and what is it about mysteries that keeps audiences captivated?
Most historical sources point to Edgar Allan Poe as the father of the literary detective, laying much of the groundwork for other authors to follow. It took Poe all of three stories to cement staple tropes such as the locked-room mystery and the amateur detective, as well as the portraying the procedures of interrogation and interviewing witnesses, solving unsolved murders, planting false clues… and the list goes on. These narrative conceits remained genre mainstays for centuries, and still circle the primordial soup of storytelling with the locked room mystery memorably played out in A-1 Pictures’ adaption of the 1996 novel The Perfect Insider. It’s difficult picking any one of Poe’s contributions as greater than the other, but perhaps it’s his talented-but-eccentric sleuth trope which has had one of the greatest impacts.
Among Poe’s most celebrated successors was Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for his belief in faeries and for creating the world’s most famous private consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. As well adding that distinct sense of Britishness, Conan Doyle expanded on the eccentric troubled genius as detective character, and Holmes seemed to operate on an entirely different level to us dullards. Without having Watson as a narrator, we’d have little hope of keeping up.
Of the generation of writers that followed in Conan Doyle’s wake, none were as important to anime and manga as Japan’s own Edogawa Ranpo. Born in 1894, Ranpo (whose real name was Taro Hirai) was a key driving force not only in popularising mystery fiction in Japan, but in developing and morphing it to fit a different cultural palate. He was a staunch devotee of Western mystery authors, even taking his pseudonym from the Engrish pronunciation of the father of the detective story himself. However, it is a coming together of Conan Doyle and his fellow Japanese author Ruiko Kuroiwa that provided the springboard for Ranpo’s mystery stories to flourish.