'The Curious Casebook of Inspector Hanshichi' is comprised of fourteen tales, all but one (the first) recounted by the retired Inspector Hanshichi himself (by this time, purported to be well over seventy years old), and retold to us by the young narrator. The first tale begins in the 1880s, when the narrator, then a boy of ten, hears of the elderly Inspector Hanshichi for the first time from his Uncle K, with the following thirteen stories being told to the narrator, ten years later, by the detective himself.
'I have managed to fill an entire notebook with these detective stories of Hanshichi's. I have chosen those I find most compelling, and I hereby put them before my readers, though not necessarily in chronological order.'
After the first story, each one follows a set pattern, beginning with the young narrator paying a visit to the elderly Hanshichi who, we are told, always served 'the choicest tea and most delicious cakes'. Following this brief introduction, the old man begins his tale, and at its conclusion he generally comments on how things have changed since he was a young man.
Hanshichi himself is often likened to Sherlock Holmes, and there's no doubt that there are similarities (and Kidō was an admirer of Conan Doyle's work), but there are a greater number of differences between the two detectives. To begin with, unlike Holmes, who has science and technology to aid in solving a crime, Hanshichi relies more on instinct, and in many instances simple luck. Holmes is rational to a fault, whereas Hanshichi, though inclined not to believe that people can be spirited away by gods or demons, is willing to entertain the idea in the absence of any other explanation. Hanshichi is a man of his times, and of his city.
The tales themselves are filled with numerous references to sprites, gods, demons, monsters, ghosts, and even vicious river otters and shape-shifting cats. They are infused with insights into the beliefs, manners, and customs of an old, superstitious, and decidedly feudal Edo (now Tokyo) that, by the time Hanshichi reached old age, were becoming as strange and unfamiliar to the people of the city (by then, opened to the West and rapidly undergoing change) as the customs of some far off distant and never-visited land.
It is Kidō's ability to transport the reader to mid-nineteenth century Edo with such ease that, for me at least, makes this collection of stories so appealing. The countless references to plays and stories that were popular at the time and Kidō's impressive geographical knowledge of the city as it was, added to his understanding of customs amongst the feudal and common classes of the time, conjure up an Edo that is three-dimensional and, though creepy and at times shockingly dangerous, also incredibly charming and very real. It is a colourful city inhabited by greedy merchants, lecherous monks, duplicitous mistresses, gamblers, vagabonds, and possibly several kappa (water sprites) who are likely to steal your children.
The only bad thing about the book... it ended.