The Psychological Test / 心理試験

(What does that cover have to do with the story? Your guess is as good as mine!)

The Psychological Test is an early short story by Edogawa Ranpo, one of the grandmasters of Japanese mystery fiction, featuring his famous detective Akechi Kogoro. This was the first piece of Ranpo I've ever read, so it felt like something of a milestone for me. Overall, reading The Psychological Test was an interesting experience, and I liked it, but I was slightly disappointed because I felt like some minor changes could have greatly improved it.

From the beginning of the story we are introduced to the criminal, Fukiya Seiichiro, a brilliant but poor student. One day Saitou Isamu, Fukiya's best friend, discovers where his landlady hides her money, and tells Fukiya about his discovery. Fukiya becomes obsessed with obtaining the money for himself. He decides that his best chance at stealing the money without getting caught requires also killing the landlady. He formulates and executes his plan. Due to unforeseen circumstances, Saitou is arrested as the prime suspect for the murder. The case is put in the hands of the judge Kasamori, who is an amateur psychologist. Looking over the evidence and testimony, Kasamori narrows the suspect list down to Fukiya and Saitou, although there isn't decisive evidence for either of them and Saitou is more suspicious. In order to resolve the case, Kasamori has Fukiya and Saitou undergo the titular psychological test, which is essentially a word association test. Fukiya and Saitou have nearly opposite performances on the test, although the results aren't conclusive. Just when Kasamori is going to proceed with the conviction against Saitou, his friend Akechi Kogoro takes a look at the test. Based on their results, Akechi becomes convinced that the murderer is Fukiya, and promises Kasamori that he can obtain decisive evidence if allowed a single conversation with Fukiya.

As should be clear from my summary, The Psychological Test is not a normal whodunnit. It's much more like an extremely early version of Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburo where we're told the criminal from the start, and the excitement is in seeing exactly how the detective is going to identify and catch the criminal. The story also apparently closely parallels Crime and Punishment, but I haven't read that book, so I can't comment on it more than that.

This is a short story, and so the plot takes only as much time as it needs to develop. While some parts feel like they're dragging at the time, none of them last very long in reality, and they're necessary in order to provide sufficient details to the reader. In fact, at one point Ranpo directly addresses the reader to apologize if they feel like he's been going too slow!

Even completely detached from the content, I found reading The Psychological Test fascinating. The tone of the story was almost casual, with Ranpo pausing not infrequently to directly address the reader, such as the apology I just mentioned. All of Ranpo's asides were on-point, demonstrating he understands how the genre works and what the reader will be feeling. Additionally, this story was first published in 1925, and thus provides a window into how the Japanese language has changed over the past century. Namely, certain words have different kanji (but the same reading and meaning!), there were different okurigana conventions, certain adverbs and auxiliary verbs that now use hiragana were used with kanji, and there was a noticeable lack of katakana loanwords. It was like a reading comprehension test all on its own.

As a short story, The Psychological Test is built upon one trick, and so the strength of that trick is going to have a major effect on the strength of the story as a whole. While I did like it, I had two issues with it, one of which was the story's fault and one of which was not the story's fault in the slightest.

My first problem is that The Psychological Test isn't a fair play story. Which is a shame, because it feels like such an easy fix. The crux of the story comes down to one crucial detail... which isn't mentioned until the climax. If Ranpo had simply sneaked this detail in someplace earlier, the story would be much stronger.

My second problem is... Well, let's just say that fans of Ace Attorney will find the resolution of The Psychological Test quite familiar. A mystery is interesting because it is an unexpected solution to a problem. So it isn't quite as exciting the second time, because once you know the solution, you expect it. When a later mystery draws upon an idea from an earlier mystery, even if you read the later mystery first, you can still appreciate the original ingenuity of the earlier mystery... but it still won't have the same impact as if you hadn't read the later mystery. Even though the earlier mystery is obviously in no way at fault.

I also want to commend Ranpo on doing a fantastic job of having Akechi psychologically deduce the solution. It is very easy to say your detective psychologically deduces. It is very difficult to have your detective do something that can accurately be described as psychological deduction. (Case in point: Psychological deduction was supposed to be the defining feature of Philo Vance's deduction style, and yet I felt he only really did it in one book, and Van Dine stopped even making an attempt to claim Vance was "psychologically deducing" in the later books.) However, in The Psychological Test, all of Fukiya's actions are indeed in line with a certain psychological profile, the evidence does allow Akechi to detect Fukiya's psychology, and Akechi's method makes sense in how it takes advantage of Fukiya's mental processes.

The Psychological Test is in the public domain, and so the original Japanese version can be read here.
An English translation is included in the book Japanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination, but there might be other translations out there as well.

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