This week, I thought I’d take a look at detective stories in manga. These come in two different flavors: the typical star sleuth that you might expect, and it’s close relative the gentlemen thief, or kaitou (phantom thief) story. I’ll save those (mostly) for another day and focus on more traditional ones here.
Case Closed – Gosho Aoyama (78+ volumes)
Of all the mystery manga I’ve read in English, this one is the closest to the type of detective story that populates the mystery aisle at the bookstore. High School super-sleuth Jimmy Kudo frequently collaborates with police to solve unsolveable murders. But one day he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a group of men in black feed him poison. Rather than killing him, it mysteriously reverts him to the body of a 6-year-old. To stop the evil organization, he can’t let them know he’s alive and after them, so he masquerades as Conan Edogawa, bookish first grader. While the length of the series seems daunting, the thing about Case Closed is that each volume contains approximately 3 murder mysteries, and a storyline that deals with plot and characters might only occur every 10 volumes. You can pick up any volume to see what the series has to offer. You don’t read because you need to know if Jimmy finds a cure, you read to see murders solved. The intended age range for this series is a little ambiguous (I tend to go by the age of the main character, but in this case, it’s hard to believe the sometimes very graphic murders were intended for 6-year-olds), but it is for a younger audience, so things are simplified a bit. One of the other drawbacks to reading it in English is that there are a handful of stories that deal with Japanese word and letter puzzles that just don’t translate well. But Gosho Aoyama is clearly a fan of detective fiction, and you can sometimes catch him basing the stories off a famous work of literature or movies. It’s a fun series if you’re into the genre, though the age range is pitched low.
Lupin III – Monkey Punch (14 volumes)
Lupin III isn’t a detective, but rather a thief of the gentleman variety I mentioned in the introduction. But it’s hard to talk about episodic crime stories without invoking the famous Lupin III. Son of French author Maurice Leblanc’s Arsene Lupin, Lupin III is a flashy, boisterous sneak fond of stealing almost anything in the showiest way possible. He’s often chased by comical police inspector Zenigata, and he and his gun-toting henchman Jigen go on a variety of heists. Sometimes Lupin cleverly has the upper hand through the whole thing, sometimes he flies by the seat of his pants, and every so often they end with him in cuffs. Lupin also has a penchant for bedding the most beautiful women he can find. The stories are always funny, and have aged surprisingly well in the nearly five decades since they first appeared. Both the stories and art show a huge western influence, and strangely, Monkey Punch’s art mimicks Sergio Aragones, a style well-suited to the stories. There is a sequel that was published in English called Lupin III: World’s Most Wanted that ran to 9 volumes. Both titles are long out of print in English, but most volumes of both series are available very cheaply. Start anywhere, there’s no overarching plot.
The Kindaichi Case Files – Written by Yozaburo Kanari and Seimaru Amagi, art by Fumiya Sato (59+ volumes)
It’s also hard to talk about detective manga in English without mentioning this one, but I’ll be honest and say I’ve never read it. The Tokyopop translation was never popular, and wasn’t easy to find in stores. Tokyopop released 17 volumes before the series was cancelled, but again, the stories are episodic, and the fact nobody has heard of this means that almost all the volumes can be had very cheaply. It’s very similar to Case Closed (the two are competitors in Japan), in that the main character, Hajime Kindaichi, is a teenage sleuth very good at solving complicated mysteries. Rather than the shorter mysteries of Case Closed, I believe each volume of the Kindaichi Case Files released in English is a self-contained story. The fare also sounds similar to Case Closed, with a lot of locked room mysteries, “impossible” murders where everybody has an alibi, and otherwise impossible cases panning out. The murderer is often sympathetic, usually having a very deep and complicated reason for committing murder. It’s basic sleuth fare, and the audience for this series seems to skew higher, so you might want to give this a try if the stories in Case Closed are too basic for your tastes. I’ll take my own advice and pick it up myself.