Sunday, 26 February 2017

Meiji Guillotine

I generally don't use the dictionary very much when I'm reading. In a normal modern text I can generally understand almost all of the words on a page; and, as when reading English, I guess the ones I don't know unless I really have no idea. Some books, though, are more of a challenge. When I read The Panic of A Tomoichirou some months ago, the large amount of background knowledge and unfamiliar vocabulary connected to the end of the rule of the shogun in the mid nineteenth century made for a not very enjoyable reading experience for someone with my level of Japanese. The same problem comes up in the book reviewed here, 明治断頭台 (Meiji dantoudai, Meiji Guillotine, 1979) by 山田 風太郎 (YAMADA Fuutarou, 1922-2001), set only a few years later, on the other side of the revolution which replaced the shogun with the until then more or less ceremonial emperor. The short stories in this collection are a series of murder cases investigated by the newly established police force in Tokyo.

Short story collections have two types. Some are simply the book form publication of diverse stories, most of which have been published before in other outlets, united at most by having the same series detective. Others are a bit more like a concept album: they have a common theme and planned developments that span the whole volume. (Dorothy L. Sayers' Hangman's Holiday is an example of the former type, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime for the latter.) The latter is found occasionally in the west, but seems to be very common in Japan. This book is certainly an example of the form. A mystery is solved in each chapter; but there is also an overarching story. That too added to the reading difficulty, as much of the narration at any point is not really relevant to the case in hand, sometimes because it is part of the larger story, sometimes because it is historical colour. There too a better knowledge of Japanese history would have been useful, so that I could understand whether something was being referenced for historical interest or because it was part of the story. Typically the stories take a long time to get to the actual puzzle part of the mystery. The crime often happens about three quarters of the way through the story.

Strictly speaking none of the stories are impossible crimes; but the stories are a little remiscent of John Dickson Carr. There are a lot of mechanical tricks, often using items specific to the setting, sometimes with a pleasing ingenuity, though never very plausibly. The police captain detective has returned from a visit to France, accompanied by a beautiful blonde woman, his landlord's daughter. His landlord's family had been the hereditary executioners in Paris (a very Carrian touch); and the guillotine features heavily in several of the stories. The solution to each mystery is presented by the French girlfriend, who dressed as a miko, acts as a medium to let the victims tell their story. This has the disadvantage that we never get actual reasoning for choosing a particular solution.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Ash Woman

灰の女 (hai no onna, Ash Woman, 1970) is a detective story by TAKAGI Akimitsu (高木 彬光) featuring his series detective, prosecutor KIRISHIMA Saburou (霧島三郎). I reviewed a collection which included one short story featuring Kirishima last year, Return of the Detectives ( 帰ってきた探偵たち, 1992). As with the stories in that collection, the public prosecutor is not quite an armchair detective, but still only involved at intervals in the investigation, most of which is of course carried out by the police. The narrative in this story switches back and forth between one of the suspects in the case (a suspect to the police, that is, not to us) and the investigators (either the police or Kirishima or both together).

SHIGA Sadahiko (志賀貞彦) is planning to leave his job as secretary for shady business owner IWAMOTO Gisuke (岩本義介) and run off with WAKISAKA Noriko (脇坂則子) the wife of the manager of a larger business, for which Iwamoto's company is actually a "tunnel" firm, a secret conduit for dealings they do not want on their own books. But the day after Sadahiko's resignation, Iwamoto is murdered. Noriko is a central witness in the case. She and her cousin had been sitting in the window of a café across from Iwamoto's office when the cousin thought he saw an attack through the window, and the two of them later discover the body. Noriko hides the fact that she had also seen her lover Sadahiko hurrying out of the building shortly after her cousin saw the fight.

Sadahiko however assures her that he has everything in hand and offers a convincing alibi to the police. He had been lured to the office by a false telephone call and had only entered the main workspace, not Iwamoto's private office; and there were witnesses outside to see that that was true. Still, the inspector on the case cannot help suspecting Sadahiko's immense confidence. Could the ash and wire remains found outside one of the office windows be a clue to some kind of trick? Noriko meanwhile, separated from her lover, is filled with panic about the crime and fear that Sadahiko may be the killer, especially when another murder follows.

I added the "locked room mystery" tag to this post, because Takagi treats the first murder as a locked room mystery. In many Japanese locked room mysteries, the holes are so large that they hardly deserve the name. In this case, the locked (or observed) room aspect only comes into play if you find plausible the police's assumption that it would be odd for a murderer to wait in a room until the people who are in the corridor outside have gone away before making his escape.

There are a couple of other implausible elements to the story, but on the whole it is well constructed and clued, with some ingenious elements. The main problem is that the actual killer is far too obvious. The detectives employ Ellery Queen level subtelty of reasoning, while ignoring the plain as day reasons why one suspect is almost certainly the criminal.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

One More Red Nightmare

Before you read ふたたび赤い悪夢 (futatabi akai akumu, One More Red Nightmare, 1992) by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎), you need to decide whether you want to read the two earlier books in the series 雪密室 (yuki misshitsu, Snow Locked Room, 1989) and 頼子のために (Yoriko no tame ni, For Yoriko, 1990). Events and characters of both of these books are important background to this one; and Norizuki supplies readers with enough information to understand the story even if they haven't read those. That means that they get a good deal more information about the mysteries than they would ideally want before reading them. He doesn't go so far as to give away the whole mystery; but when I think of the trouble I go to avoid spoilers, I feel that authors could make a bit of an effort in that direction too. In this case I accept the inevitable and add the warning that this review, like the book it discusses, will show a little bit more than you might want about at least one of the previous books (but less than the author does).

Detective story author and amateur detective NORIZUKI Rintarou (the character with the same name as the author is an Ellery Queen homage that several Japanese writers have maintained) is suffering from the memories of his investigation in For Yoriko. He has lost any sense of purpose as a detective, and that crisis of confidence has also spread into his writing career, leading to a one year long writer's block. Trying to puzzle out a way forward he finds himself meditating on mid to late Ellery Queen novels that feature a similar mental trial, particularly Cat of Many Tails (1949).

He is partially shaken out of his self absorbed inaction by a call for help from young singing star, HATANAKA Yurina (畑中有里奈), looking for Rintarou's father, the police superintendant, who had promised to help her if she ever needed it in the first book, Snow Locked Room. Yurina has been attacked with a knife, apparently by an obsessive fan, in a store room of the radio station where she had been invited for an interview. Her memory is that she felt the knife stabbing her and fainted; yet when she came to she was covered in blood, but without a scratch. Meanwhile in a nearby park the attacker has been found stabbed in the stomach, although he was apparently unharmed when he left the radio station.

Accompanying Yurina's fear of her responsibility in the killing, there is a secret in her past which weighs on her: her mother had apparently murdered her baby brother and father, before committing suicide, when Yurina was a baby. So the investigation involves two mysteries, the stabbing of Yurina's attacker and the murder of her family in the distant past.

All in all this is an odd book. When I write that the investigation involves two mysteries, in fact the various mysteries also break down into smaller parts, which are solved bit by bit, sometimes by deduction, sometimes by revelation. Those puzzles which allow the reader to solve them are fair enough, but generally not very compelling; one trick where I was led quite astray was very effective (the real solution made more sense than the red herring but was still a surprise). But there are some odd problems of balance in the book. Rintarou's self doubt is far more the theme of the book than the actual mystery (much more so than in the related Ellery Queen books). The mystery however seems too unrealistic for such a novel. And the narrative sometimes slows almost to a halt: a monologue of many pages, which accompanies a guided tour through the radio broadcasting building, feels like it should have something relevant in it; so does a chapter long timeline of popstar marketing in Japan. It almost makes you suspect that some plot points were not quite fixed when the earlier chapters were written.

I could add quite a bit to the things that didn't quite seem to work in the book; but I didn't especially dislike it. You can read Ho-Ling's review of the book here, if you'd like a second opinion, though I didn't notice much that I'd disagree with.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Summer of the Ubume

This not very enthusiastic review will look like a bad start to 2017; but I read this over a month ago, so for me it was more a bad end to 2016. 姑獲鳥の夏 (ubume no natsu, The Summer of the Ubume, 1994) by KYOUGOKU Natushiko (京極夏彦, born 1963) is part of a series centred on the monsters of Japanese folklore, in this case the ubume of the title, a baby destroying spirit created by a death in pregnancy, which has somehow become associated with a bird from Chinese folklore. The detective of the series is an expert on Japanese folklore and he lectures the narrator on this and other subjects intermittently throughout the book.

The narrator, who writes human interest stories for popular magazines, is investigating rumours surrounding a maternity hospital. The son in law of the chief doctor disappeared from a room that was locked on the inside a year and a half ago; and since then his wife's pregnancy has continued despite being long overdue. He discusses the case with his friend KYOUGOKUDOU (京極堂), who takes his name from the used bookshop he runs alongside his second profession as proprietor of a Japanese shrine. Kyougokudou convinces the narrator, by means of destroying his whole conception of himself and the world in a Socratic style interrogation, that such a story should be left alone, but discovering that the missing son in law was a former university friend of the two, he sends the narrator to consult with yet another student friend, telepathically gifted private detective ENOKIZU (榎木津).

By a strange chance, the older daughter of the family at the centre of the mystery has come to consult Enokizu; and soon narrator and various supporting characters are investigating the case. It becomes clear that the narrator himself has some buried memory related to the roots of the tragedy from the days when the son in law first met his future wife. And the rumours surrounding the hospital turn out to be even worse than those we had heard, with suggestions that one of the family's daughters has been stealing and killing the newborn babies of the patients.

I don't think the book has any interest as a puzzle detective story. The locked room mystery has special circumstances which leave a more or less limitless field of possible explanations. For some the attractions of the book may lie in its long conversations philosophising on the basis of amazing facts from popular science (which is sometimes about as scientific as you'd expect these kinds of thing to be) and expounding on Japanese folklore. These are at least bland reading, though they did not feel like a good use of my time. (The oddity of the narrator being so unsettled by this chatter is perhaps lessened by the book's setting in the early fifties.) For others the grotesque horror is presumably the selling point. I strongly disliked this. It reminded me of the forced charnel house horror that John Dickson Carr indulged in some of his weaker books (such as Hag's Nook), but bringing the same approach to pregnancy and childbirth. Now capital punishment or seventeenth century epidemics or whatever Carr might choose are far enough from most readers' lives that he can reasonably fool around with them for our entertainment; but that's not really the case here.

Most people who've read the book seem to have a high opinion of it (and it was 23rd in the 2012 Touzai Mystery Best list of Japanese mysteries), so I'm on my own in this. You can read a more generous review of the book on Ho-Ling's blog here; and you make your own opinion, even if you can't read Japanese, because (for once) there is an English translation available, by Alexander O. Smith (Vertical, 2009).

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Policeman's Child

刑事の子 (keiji no ko, The Policeman's Child, 1990) is a mystery by MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき). It was first published under the title 東京殺人暮色 (Toukyou satsujin boshoku, Tokyo murder dusk colours), then republished in 1994 as 東京下町殺人暮色(Toukyou shitamachi satsujin boshoku, Downtown Tokyo murder dusk colours) and finally in 2011 under the current title. The first two titles, I suspect, reflect the major role of an artist in the story, and shitamachi, downtown, is the central part of Tokyo near the main river and harbour, traditionally a less wealthy and (as the inhabitants see it) more neighbourly area, a place in which people take an interest in what their neighbours are up to more than other parts of the city. The final title reflects the two main characters, detective YAGIZAWA Michio 八木沢道雄 and his teenage son Jun 順, who are living together after Michio and his wife divorced in a new home in the shitamachi area.

The narrative of the story switches between the two. On the one hand we follow Jun and his best friend from school as they investigate rumours circulating in the area about women who visit a famous artist's home never being seen again, on the other we see Michio and other murder squad detectives working on a case with the dismembered body of a young woman. It's a little hard to get the measure of the book. The Jun parts read a little like a juvenile detective story at first; but the murder investigation is more hard boiled, concerned with a series of gruesome crimes. The two strands come together when an anonymous accusation of the artist is sent to the Yagizawa house in the same handwriting as a series of taunting letters sent to the police telling them where they could find the next dead body.

The artist suspect clearly has mysteries of his own, in his attitude to the defining moment of his life, his survival of the firebombing of Tokyo, and in his current artistic choices. The mystery when it is resolved proves to have a complex plot, but I didn't find it very satisfying; and an element of social didacticism also hurt the story for me.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Return of the Detectives

My reading is a little haphazard. Quite a few of the books I read are not specially chosen, but just those that happened to be available in second hand bookshops for the authors I was interested in. So 帰ってきた探偵たち (kaette kita tantei tachi, Return of the Detectives, 1992) by TAKAGI Akimitsu (高木 彬光) is the sequel to a book I haven't read 五人の探偵たち (gonin no tantei tachi, Five Detectives). Since that book was a selection of uncollected short stories about Takagi's various series detectives and this book is a second selection of the same, expectations should not be too high. The main reason for a story not to have appeared in a collection would be that it isn't very good, and the second helping would presumably be even weaker. Whatever the reason, the stories are in fact not that great, at best satisfactory, solid work.

朱の奇跡 (shu no kiseki, "Scarlet miracle" 1960) is one of the better stories. The detective here, public prosecutor ENDOU Shigemichi (遠藤茂道 ) is not strictly one of Takagi's series detectives. He appears in this one short story as a Tokyo public prosecutor. He then served as the basis for a different public prosecutor, because a Nagoya broadcaster wanted a Nagoya detective. The story is basically all about finding the trick the criminal used. Only three people in a small firm had access to the official stamp used when transferring money. After a large sum goes missing, only one of those does not have an alibi. Did one of the others have some way to make the transfer? Or was there some way someone else could get access to the seal? The public prosecutor role here reappears in the next two stories. Like District Attorneys in American detective stories, there is some involvement in the investigation, but most of the narrative follows the police as they follow various leads.

殺意の審判 (satsui no shinpan, "Judgement of intent to kill", 1961) stars public prosecutor CHIKAMATSU Shigemichi (近松茂), the revised version of ENDOU Shigemichi from the previous story. Here the police are investigating a crooked real estate developer who made his first money as a corrupt civil servant. His rejected pregnant girlfriend and a recently released prisoner who had been punished heavily for the crimes he shared with the unpunished victim look like viable suspects. Again this is a story about spotting the killer's trick. The trick itself uses a reassessment of evidence that I've met two times in Japanese detective stories, to better effect than here.

妄想の殺人 (mousou no satsujin "Delusion murder", 1970) stars public prosecutor KIRISHIMA Saburou (霧島三郎), who also appears in two of Takagi's novels that have been translated into English, Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer (both 1965), which I haven't read. Unlike the first two stories, this one has the detective involved from the beginning. As he asks a local policeman the way, he is interrupted by a man trying to confess to the murder of his wife. The policeman doesn't want to know. As he explains, the same man has been confessing to killing his wife every time he got drunk for months; and each time the police found the supposed victim alive and well. Later that evening on his way back from visiting his sister, Kirishima sees the same man back announcing a murder to the policeman; but this time he notices that there is blood on his clothes. 

The fourth story features Takagi's most famous detective, KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介), a specialist in forensic medicine, but generally appearing in stories as a great detective whose advice is sought for particularly puzzling crimes. I've reviewed two Kamizu novels, the classic 人形はなぜ殺される (ningyou ha naze korosareru, Why Were the Dolls Killed? 1955), and 狐の密室 (Kitsune no misshitsu, Fox's locked room, 1977), a crossover with another series detective, OOMAEDA Eisaku (大前田英策). The story in this collection, 怪盗七面相 (kaitou shichimensou, "Phantom thief seven faces" 1952), is part of a writing collaboration with six other writers who all pit their own series detectives against a master thief obviously modeled on EDOGAWA Ranpo's series villain, The Fiend with Twenty Faces  (kaitou nijuumensou, 怪人二十面相, 1936). The publishing idea was more interesting than the story for me in this case.

The last story, 悪魔の火祭り (akuma no himatsuri, "The Devil's Fire Festival", 1957) is much longer than the others and stars private detective OOMAEDA Eisaku whom I mentioned above. The younger sister of a woman getting divorced approaches Oomaeda to investigate the background. Her sister's husband had apparently made her tattoo her whole back and is now demanding that she leave him; given the disapproval of tattoos in Japanese society, that makes it impossible for her to remarry. Oomaeda makes some discoveries, but when he goes to announce them to his client, he finds her murdered, gripping in her hand the festival parasol from her home town of Aomori, a dying message somehow pointing to the killer. The most obvious suspect would then be her sister, whose tattoo featured a festival dancing girl with parasol; but she has an alibi. The second half of the story transfers to Aomori and its famous summer festival, which conveniently all the suspects are also visiting. There are good ideas in the mystery, but the actual dying message is fair but very dull.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Old Photographs

One should always remember to respect one's elders.

I visited my great aunt at the start of this year. She had just reached one hundred. Her memory for the distant past is still good; and she likes to look through old photographs and talk about the people she knew. The photographs are countless, especially since the family from time to time has made reproductions of the oldest ones, from the Victorian period; and they are all haphazardly mixed together in different collections, which change every time someone tries to impose their own order on the confusion by starting a new folder or album. That means that each time I visit I see a different set of photographs.

One of the ones that turned up this year might be interesting for this blog. It was a photograph of a woman whom my great aunt had known in the late thirties and early forties. The woman, Amy McCowan, was a former teacher who had taught in Japan when she was a young woman, and later in Czechoslovakia. At the time that my great aunt knew her, Miss McCowan (as the family knew her) was staying as a lodger in the family's house in York. The house was destroyed in an air raid at some point during the second world war. Everyone survived; but the family had to move, and they had no contact with Miss McCowan after the war.

The picture my great aunt passed to me was an old sepia coloured photograph in a cardboard frame, from an Osaka photographer whose name seemed to be S. Yuki.  A young Japanese woman in Japanese dress was standing next to a seated western woman in western dress, which still seems to show some Japanese influence. I turned it over and read the pencil writing on the back. It was a little hard to read, as the light pencil hardly differed from the cardboard it was written on. As far as I could tell, it said, "Mrs Ando paid to have this picture of Isuneko and myself taken because she wanted to send it to you Amy", with a gap between "you" and "Amy" at the end.

I wasn't sure of the name of the Japanese woman; and Google's question "Did you mean Tsuneko?" is probably pointing to the right reading.

I puzzled a bit whether the text was writted by Amy or to Amy. If Amy had written and signed the photograph, then it would be a picture sent out to someone she knew in Japan, probably a former student at the school or college; but in that case why did she have the picture when she lived in York twenty or thirty years later? Could it be that it was sent to Amy after she left the school? In that case the people in the photograph would be her former colleagues, two other teachers at the school.

"Are you sure this is Miss McCowan?" I asked, showing my great aunt the writing on the back.

"Well I think it is." She looked at the photo again. "We had another photograph from when she was living with us. Now where was that?"

 That started a new search through the various boxes and albums; but nothing turned up and we ended up getting diverted into talking about the other people whose photographs we could find. I felt bad about having carelessly expressed my doubts about my great aunt's memory, and was happy enough that she seemed to have let the question drop; but when her daughter came by a little later, she asked her her opinion about it.

"But I never knew her. That was before my time," she said, after hearing the question. She took a close look at the picture and said, "Actually you can tell it isn't her." She left a little pause to build up suspense, then went on, "She's wearing a wedding ring; and it was always 'Miss McCowan' wasn't it? So it can't be her."

"Oh yes," said my great aunt, peering at the hand in the photograph, "Well I really did think it was her."

My great aunt rarely gets annoyed; but her tone then was full of dissatisfaction at her own bad memory.

That was that for the moment. But some months later I called in again; and this time one of the photographs of Miss McCowan in the back garden of the house in York turned up.

As you can see, it seems to be fairly clearly the same person as the young woman in the first photograph. The handsome, slightly stern features have grown a bit thinner and the expression a bit tougher, as you might expect over a lifetime of work in various countries. I'd guess the woman in the first photograph is about thirty years younger than the second one, which would date it to the end of the Meiji period or the start of the Taishou period (that is around 1912). That fits with what my great aunt told me of Miss McCowan. As to the text on the back, I guess that it was the draft of the message that she sent with different copies of the photograph (perhaps with some added personalising text), and this was the one she kept for herself.

And the wedding ring? Looking again at the first photograph, I saw that the ring had a jewel. "Maybe it was an engagement ring."

"Well you know, I remember she was engaged; and the young man died."

So that disposed of the rest of the mystery (if you can call my unwarranted suspicions a mystery). Engagements broken off by death were probably a lot more common back then; and of course this was around the time of the first world war and the influenza epidemic of 1918, which took so many lives.