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Iiki Yusan: Ellery Queen in Japan

It always takes a bit of explaining in the United States that there actually are regions in the world where Ellery Queen is still well known and even popular. Italy and Japan particularly come to mind. And the continuing presence of Queen in these areas is readily demonstrable – Ellery Queen works are being imprinted and radio plays based on Queen mysteries are being performed on stage. This is certainly the case in Japan, even though the language/cultural barrier between the east and the west at least superficially makes it difficult to evaluate the precise extent of the popularity of the works of Queen.

Luckily for us there is a very active Japanese fan club. It's chairman is Iiki Yusan. Iiki has authored books on Japanese comics and is the author of both Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) and Reviews of Ellery Queen (2010). Not only did he write two books on the Dannay/Lee partnership, Iiki has also provided Japanese translations of International Case Book, The Woman in the Case, The Tragedy of Errors and Other Stories and The Adventure of the Murdered Moths, with The Misadventures of Ellery Queen"(2012) (an anthology of Queen pastiches which will include, we proudly add, a Japanese translation of "The Book Case", by
Dale C. AndrewsWest 87th Irregular and Kurt Sercu).

Iiki Yusan was gracious enough to chat with us concerning just how popular Ellery Queen remains in Japan and the impact the Dannay/Lee library has had on the Japanese media...

Kurt Sercu         
Dale C. Andrews
West 87th Irregular

Spoiler Warning: Content revealed Including plotlines, names of murderers and solutions  of  The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery,  Ten Day's Wonder and Cat of Many Tails


The Japanese Fan Mystery

: Is
Ellery Queen one of the most popular mystery writers in Japan?

Depending on your definition of popularity yes and no. In Japan, I feel, there are two ways to describe the term "popular." The word can be used in reference to selling large quantities, and writers that are popular in this sense are the authors of “Bestsellers,” books with an initial popularity but which after 10-20 years will be out of print. The works of J.S.Fletcher, Edgar Wallace and Johnston McCulley come to mind. But the term “popular” can also denote a book that has a long selling life. These books continue to be published and sold past their initial run, and will still be available 20 years after their initial publication. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie's books and Ellery Queen's books fall into this category in Japan.

Within the Ellery Queen opus there have been volumes falling into each of the two meanings of “popular.”
Queen mysteries published before 1941 were definitely bestsellers, but with an initially short selling cycle, falling into the first definition of the word. In Japan these works are now in the public domain. So, publishers now can freely translate these early mysteries into Japanese and publish them without securing permission from the Dannay and Lee families. Don’t start asking about copyright laws in Japan before the end of WWII, those laws are, even to me, far too complex to explain!
The bestselling Queen mysteries that have found continuing interest among readers, and which fall into the second definition of “popular,” are those published since 1941. These works can only be translated and re-published with the permission of the copyright holders, that is, the children of Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.. Hayakawa publishing company currently holds copyright permission to publish all of the Queen books authored after 1941 with the exception of The Tragedy of Errors and Other Stories.
These books are frequently reprinted and they are basically always available for purchase in Japan.
The earlier Queen works, that is, those in the public domain, are freely available for re-translation, and to re-appear often in new versions. This was the case, for example, in 2009, 2010 and 2011 when "The Drury Lane Quartet" and The Roman Hat Mystery were re-translated.

Q: So are we to understand that the full canon is available in Japanese translation?

In Japan, following books are translated and available to the public:

  • 39 novels (including the Drury Lane series) and 7 short story collections ALL of which are currently still in print.

  • 13 anthologies, 8 juveniles, 2 paperback original novels, 3 movie novelizations, 2 radio-play novelizations (The Last Man Club and The Murdered Millionaire), 2 true crime collections (International Case Book, The Woman in the Case), 1 essay collection (In the Queens' Parlor), 1 radio-play collection (The Adventure of the Murdered Moths).

  • The Golden Summer (the childhood reminiscence authored by Dannay)

  • Japanese versions of original anthologies compiled by EQ. For example....

    • "Queen's Quorum" Anthology: (A short story collection based on Ellery Queen selections that appeared in Queen's Quorum)

    • Best of Mystery League Magazine (an anthology based on EQ's Mystery League Magazine)

It might also surprise you to know that a Japanese edition of EQMM was published from 1956 to 1966, and then again from 1978 to 1999.

If I were to estimate the percentage of books in print for most "Golden Age Mystery Writers" it would look like this:

Agatha Christie: 90-100%
Ellery Queen: 80-90%
J.D.Carr: 60-70%
S.S. Van Dine: 60-70%
F.W.Crofts: 30-40%
Rex Stout: 10-20%
E.S.Gardner: 10-20%


Q: Surely this had an impact in Japanese movies?

There is only one movie based on an Ellery Queen novel. That is The Three Undelivered Letters (1979), which was based on Calamity Town. The Director of this movie was Yositaro Nomura, who was one of Japan’s most famous directors.
In this movie, Ellery (the detective) was re-imagined as a young American studying Japanese culture. But on the whole, the storyline of this movie is faithful to the original novel. If you have read Calamity Town,
you might well be able to follow the movie even without a translation. You might not be able to understand the dialogue, but you’ll still would be able to get the feel of the movie. One of the most appealing aspects of this movie was it’s gorgeous cast of actresses. The Wright sisters, Rosemary, and Roberta (with Japanese names) were portrayed by beautiful and talented actresses. This reflects the fact that the producer intended this Calamity Town to be more of a drama focused on women and their mysterious love affairs than merely a mystery.

Q:  And what about television?

In 1978 The Tragedy of Y was produced for Japanese television.  It was comprised of 6 hour long episodes and was produced by Sigemichi Sugita, from scripts written by Kunio Shimizu.  Shimizu is now very famous in Japan but back then he was just starting out as a script writer. Sugita told me once that he had plans to make sequels based on The Tragedy of X and Drury Lane's Last Case but in the end the plans were shelved.  On the whole, the story that was produced for Japanese television remains true to the novel with the possible exception of it's depiction of the main protagonist.  While the original Drury Lane was retired, here he clearly was still a young man.  Kunio Shimizu (the writer) was also clearly an Ellery Queen fan, and his Drury Lane in fact bore more resemblance to Ellery Queen!

In 1980, The Best Japanese Mysteries Series ran on Japanese TV. It was an anthology series that resembled Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  The stories in the anthology were derived from Ellery Queen’s  Japanese Golden Dozen. At the opening of each episode, Fred Dannay provided an introduction pretty much like Hitchcock did in his series. "The Cat-House Murder Case" was memorably made into an hour long drama for the series and was based on "The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats".  The puzzle story was somewhat altered into a suspense drama without Ellery even appearing.  So in this version, for those familiar with the story, Miss Curleigh, the pet shop owner solved the case at the peril of losing her own life since the murderer tries to kill her.

The Lonely Hunter (1982) was a 2 hours drama based on Cop Out and sadly I have never seen this drama

More recently Q.B.I.'s The Three Widows (1993) was filmed for television, based on the Ellery Queen short-story. In this one hour drama cast members added lots of subplots and gimmicks to the story. This wasn’t beneficial to the story and it can easily be forgotten.

Two documentaries have also been produced for Japanese television focusing on Ellery Queen, These were Ellery Queen Centennial (2005) and Ellery Queen, Mystery from A to Z  (2009).  Each contained background material on the author, his detectives, and works, and had interviews with people who love the mysteries. I provide background material for each of these programs. 


Q: Which leaves us with theatrical productions.

This might be somewhat more obscure but I was told by a member of EQ Fan Club in Japan that there were two stage plays produced by a small company.

· The Adventure of the African Traveler (2004, 2008)

· The Adventure of the Glass-Domed Clock (2010)

Both followed the original storyline closely and had a "Challenge to the audience" in them.


Q: Japanese comic production is unsurpassed. Surely Ellery Queen wasn’t left out?

Actually there are two comic-books based on EQ's stories.

As early as 1978 Mikiya Motizuki made The Terror House. It contained three stories  based on "The House of Darkness", "Man Bites Dog" and "Trojan Horse". While the storyline may have resembled the original works, the image of Ellery himself was not up to specs.

JET did a better job at that when in 1995-96 he produced The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1995-96). This was a four stories collection based on "The Adventure of the African Traveler", "The Adventure of the Bearded Lady", "The Adventure of the Two Headed Dog" and "The Adventure of the Seven Black Cats".

Picture is copyrighted, used by permission Iiki Yusan 
Above: Picture is copyrighted, used by permission Iiki Yusan

Q: From where I’m sitting it seems obvious that Ellery Queen must have a lasting influence of aspiring writers, even today!

In Japan, “whodunits” are immensely popular and hence there are a lot of detective writers who specialize in "whodunits." Most of them have been influenced by Ellery Queen. Some of them even follow an EQ style of titling their books, e.g. "country-name and item-name and Mystery" and "The Tragedy of __ “. "The Challenge to the Reader" is a frequently used in books. And, of course, as with most writers of the Golden Era, "fair play", "logic" and "deduction" are paramount in these stories.
Many of these authors have stated that Ellery Queen is their favorite author. In 1951, Anthony Boucher said that "Ellery Queen is the detective-story-writer's writer", in Japan this is incontestably so.

Q: How could your fellow countrymen read about Ellery Queen?  

They could start with the two books on EQ I've written:

  • Ellery Queen Perfect Guide (2004) a guide  to the EQ writings

  • Review of Ellery Queen (2010) with reviews of EQ's work.

This last book also tries to make several valid points. E.g. it tries to sort out the fact that the "Challenge to the Reader" doesn’t actually just sets out to ask "whodunit" question but also challenges the reader to follow Ellery Queen’s deductive reasoning.

There are other references to Ellery Queen’s work worth mentioning:

  • How did Authors Refurbish the Yellow Room? by Mitio Tuzuki (1975) Wherein Tuzuki insisted that authors of detective fiction placed "logic" before "trickery" and concludes that EQ's early novels served as role model for the current detective story.

  • The North American Detective Story by Rokusuke Nozaki (1991) has Nozaki investigating different detective stories in North America with the emphasis on "Americana". Almost naturally, he spends a large portion of his book on the work of Ellery Queen.

  • World Wars and Ellery Queen (1992) Kiyosi Kasai insisted that authors of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) were influenced by the two World Wars. He concludes that these authors wanted to re-cast the many anonymous deaths in war to individually significant deaths by focusing the reader on specific murder stories with identified victims.

  • In 1995 Rintaro Norizuki wrote The Problem of Ellery Queen.
    This problem was described as follows: in The Greek Coffin Mystery and Ten Days' Wonder, Ellery Queen (the author) created murderers were so cunning that they could manipulate Ellery (the detective). If that was the case how could Ellery ever deduce and reveal the true solution? Norizuki insisted that this perceived conundrum was a big problem for a whodunit story.

  • Hazime Amagi's The Tempest and Ellery Queen (1999) consisted of two parts. In the first part of this critical work Amagi shows that Ten Days' Wonder was an homage to the Shakespeare play The Tempest. In the second part Amagi insisted that there was a puppeteer who manipulated both murderer and accomplice in Cat of Many Tails. The puppeteer is Dr.Seligmann.

  • In 2005 an interesting work, Review of The Siamese Twin Mystery by Kaoru Kitamura was published, where the author insisted that The Siamese Twin Mystery contained had a hidden trick. At the beginning of Part 4 of this book, there was a quotation from "A.F." awaiting execution at Sing Sing Prison. Kitamura pointed out that this quotation was intended as a red herring. It was Ellery Queen's purpose to mislead his readers into thinking that "A.F." was Ann Forrest, and she was awaiting execution for the murder of Dr.Xavier and Mark. Subsequently this led the readers to conclude that Ann Forrest was the culprit which of course she wasn't. Queen magic!

  • In The Logic of Detective Story (2007) Kentaro Komori compares the logic of detective fiction (especially Ellery Queen) with the logic of Bertrand Russel and Kurt Godel.

All the above-mentioned writers of these seven critical works are themselves detective fiction writers.
Which goes to show that in Japan Ellery Queen really is the detective-story-writer's writer.

© Original text 2011 Iiki Yusan
translation © Kurt Sercu - Dale C.Andrews West 87th Irregular

Response by Ho-Ling Wo November 9.2011
I, myself, I much less interested in Queen's current popularity in Japan as opposed to his influence on Japan, the interview included much new information, even for me! Especially the list at the end is very interesting. As it happens I happen to be reading a recent work by Kasai, in which he addresses Norizuki's Problem of Ellery Queen. Where most Western secondary mystery literature focuses on form or genre, writers like Kasai and Norizuki really dig into the "stuff" itself; Kasai e.g. has written many (many!) pages on the implications of the multiple solutions in The Greek Coffin Mystery and on the quality of Queen's deductions in both The Greek Coffin and The Siamese Twin Mystery  in the book I'm currently reading.

It struck me as very interesting that Iiki mentions Norizuki Rintaro, but omits the fact that Norizuki isn't just a critic, but also one of the writers who is himself clearly influenced by Queen, both in setting and thematic parallels. Addressing this might have steered the interview in a totally different direction, since, as Iiki indicates, many Japanese authors are influenced by Ellery Queen. In my opinion Norizuki Rintaro and Alice Arisugawa are the two writers who are the primary examples of students of the Queen school.

Response by TomCat November 6.2011
Ellery Queen's popularity in Japan isn't just measured by the amount of books still in print. It is also measured by the regularity in which Ellery Queen is quoted in the popular manga series. In this detective series
Detective Conan and Tentei Gakuen Q regularly refer to well known fictional detectives including Queen. And Queen’s influence is also noticeable in the Kamen Tentei series. It's so obvious that Ellery Queen was one of the models for this series and he is mentioned several times in the first part of it. (This 4-part serial is available in English).

Click if you think you can help out...!

Links to related articles
Ellery Queen is Alive and well and living in Japan Ho-Ling Wong
(2) Exploring Japanese Detective stories: a Primer Ho-Ling Wong
(3) Chaotic Steps in Japanese Crime Fiction: A Brief History From the 20s-40s
     Ho-Ling Wong
(4) Japanese Fictional Crimes and Criminal Fictions Ho-Ling Wong
(5) How a Japanese island mystery novel replicated the Ellery
and Sherlock Holmes brand of mystery Saptak
     Choudhury (Nov 6. 2022)

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