The Homunculus and the Lunatics

The Rolling Bootlegs — Ryohgo Narita
Baccano!, book 1


Ryohgo Narita’s light novel Baccano! The Rolling Bootlegs won the Dengeki Gold Prize when it was published in 2003. Translated into English in 2016 by Taylor Engel, it is the first volume in the ongoing Baccano series. Narita’s tale of criminals and lunatics, alchemy and murder is capably illustrated by Katsumi Enami.

Nothing provides results quite like foolish shortcuts. The boatload of alchemists on their way to the New World in 1711 learn this the hard way. While they may be almost immortal, immune to age and injury, they are not invulnerable. All of them can still die at the hands of their immortal companions. Since the killer absorbs all the memories of the victim, there is incentive to murder. A strong incentive, as only one of the alchemists knows how to brew the elixir of immortality. It takes less than a day for the ambitious Szilard Quates to start murdering his fellow alchemists for their knowledge and power.

Twenty-two decades later in Prohibition-era1 New York…

Dallas and his four gangster companions are unlucky. They are also Dunning-Kruger victims to the max, which only compounds the ill effects of the bad luck. They think that the elderly, feeble Barnes should be an ideal victim, but it takes Dallas and his gang two tries to successfully mug the old man. All they get for their trouble is what appear to be a couple of bottles of booze, bottles that they soon manage to lose to the far more competent Gandor brothers.

In fact, those two bottles are believed to contain the only two surviving samples of the latest batch of elixir, recreated after decades of effort by Szilard. Stealing them put Dallas right on the top of Szilard’s Punish With Extreme Prejudice list. Captured and granted a demonstration of Szilard’s powers, Dallas and his two surviving goons are sent out to recover the bottles for Szilard.

Szilard hasn’t become the secretive mastermind running the New York underworld by trusting to a single set of minions, particularly ones as hapless as Dallas. Artificial woman Ennis is dispatched to ensure that the elixir is recovered. Created with a healthy fear of Szilard and no morals at all, Ennis can be trusted where mere humans cannot. Or so Szilard thinks. In fact, Ennis has developed the rudiments of morality and a desire to escape Szilard.

Enter Isaac Dian and Miria Harvert, living proof that it’s better to be lucky than smart. They are convinced that they are brilliant criminals … because thanks to luck, their amateurish crime wave has thus far succeeded. Well, luck and the fact that their methods are so imbecilic the police cannot predict what they might do next.

Such bumblers may not seem to be the best allies for Ennis but their innocence appeals to her. As does their ability to leave chaos in their wake, which could be a powerful tool in Ennis’s quest for freedom….

And that’s not even touching on the complication that the bottles of elixir were swapped for bottles of booze before Dallas and company mugged Barnes for the second time.


Negative first; the prose in this book is functional at best and dire at worst, in a way I’ve seen in some (but not all) works translated from Japanese. I don’t know if there’s a popular Japanese prose style that doesn’t survive the transition to English or if it’s specifically an issue with the translator, but I think the nicest thing I can say is “unpolished.”

The author’s afterword explains how he came to write his book. He was inspired by the differences between the fictional conventions for gangster novels, and the quirks and oddities of actual cops and robbers. Narita seems to have done roughly the same amount of research into the US of this period as an American author might do before setting a story in Japan. That seems fair. Some of the name choices may seem curious, but, as he explains, some of the actual names used in the US seem pretty odd to him.

The framing sequence involves an unfortunate modern-era Japanese tourist who manages to get mugged almost as soon as he steps into the streets of New York. Eager to recover his stolen camera, he pays a local gangster to help him find it. The gangster regales the tourist with tales of Prohibition-era adventures. We later learn that the narrator featured in the stories that he tells, suggesting that he might have found one of those elusive bottles. Which one of the criminals in the Prohibition tales he might be isn’t revealed until the end. Since that is supposed to be a surprise, I will not spoil it.

The author may have intended the narrator to be the protagonist, but as I read, I could not help but feel that the plot actually foregrounded Ennis and her two unlikely allies. Ennis and the lunatics are also closer to being sympathetic characters than anyone else in the story. Narita, the author, does not see gangsters as a heroic cadre of lovable rebels, but as a collection of self-centered, violent, often foolish goons. Immortality just gives them more time to prey on those around them.

Baccano! The Rolling Bootlegs can be purchased here.

1: Also the era of the Great Depression. Prohibition ran from 1920 to 1933, while the Great Depression began in 1929, so there was significant overlap.

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