Sunday, 11 August 2019

Overheard

傍聞き (kataegiki, Overheard, 2008) is a collection of four long short stories by 長岡弘樹 (NAGAOKA Hiroki, born 1969). It won the short story award from the Mystery Writers of Japan in 2008; and the title story has been translated into English and published as "Heard at one remove" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2010. These are not conventional mysteries with a clearly defined crime to be solved by the reader. In some ways they are like the Japanese "puzzles of everyday life" genre, but there are various ways in which that description would be misleading. Firstly the focus in the stories is on the emergency services and the justice system. Secondly there is no well defined puzzle in many of the stories: we see things that we can't understand, but there are so many elements needing explanation that there is no central puzzle evident as we read the story. Thirdly there is a much larger suspense element in these stories than in most puzzles of everyday life. This last point in particular, I think, makes the stories surprisingly effective.

In the first, 迷走 (meisou, "Wild run", 2008), an ambulance crew is trying to deliver a stabbing victim to a hospital. The town's hospitals are overloaded and after contacting several and finding that none are at that moment ready, the team has to gamble on which they should head for. Adding to the tension of the situtation, the victim is known to two of the team. He is the prosecutor who decided not to prosecute a hit and run driver who ran over the wife of one of the team and daughter of the team leader. As they approach the hospital, the team leader starts giving unexpected orders.

In 傍聞き (kataegiki, "Overheard", 2008) a police detective is on bad terms with her teenage daughter, who communicates only through postcards sent through the mail (although they live in the same apartment). The detective normally works theft cases, but is currently seconded to the hunt for a knife wielding attacker, which keeps her out every evening to the annoyance of her daughter. But she also has another reason to worry. The suspect taken in for questioning about the theft from a neighbour's apartment is known to the detective. He is a recently released prisoner, who had stalked and then attacked his ex wife; and she had been on the team that arrested him. Now, apparently, he is living with other homeless people by the local railway station. Knowing his vengeful disposition she worries that perhaps his reason for being in her neighbourhood was to target her. This fear is reinforced after the arrested man asks to speak with her, and emphasises that, since he is only being held on suspicion, he will soon be out. 

899 ("899", 2007) is more or less an impossible crime story. Firefighters clearing a house which has started to catch fire from its neighbour know that there is a baby in one of the rooms. They hear the baby's voice as they go down the corridor, but when they look in the room there is only an empty cot. With only minutes to go, a panicked search through the other rooms starts.

In 迷い箱 (mayoibako, "Can't Decide Box", 2007) a woman who manages a halfway house for recently discharged criminals feels that her work is worthless and is planning to resign. One last case concerns her, finding work for a man whose drunkenness led to the death of a small girl. She finds a place for him at a local factory, but worries that he may consider suicide as the anniversary of the girl's death approaches.

Not everything works equally well in the stories, but this is a collection that I can enthusiastically recommend. Although exactly what the mystery element is only emerges towards the end, and although the stories do not read like mystery stories, they are carefully and cunningly plotted. The life threatening situations and the lack of a clear puzzle has the reader following the events with alarm and confusion, speculating not just about what is going on, but also about what direction the story is going to take.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Lonely Hunter

I seem to have read a small pile of books since my last post without getting round to writing a review. So I'll try and write them up quickly. One or two of them are quite interesting; but this one, while perfectly readable, didn't make much of an impression.

The book, 淋しい狩人 (sabishii karyuudou, Lonely Hunter, 1993) by MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき) is a collection of six short stories involving a little second hand book shop in Tokyo, its owner Iwa-san and his grandson Minoru () who helps him out at weekends. The title sounds to an English speaker like a reference to Carson McCullers' book The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but the similarity seems to be coincidence. There is at any rate no explicit reference. I might miss subtler allusions, since I've never actually read Carson McCullers.

Iwa-san is managing the bookshop as a favour to a deceased friend, who had wanted the shop to continue after him, but found no-one to take it on. Iwa-san is already retired and has no previous experience in the book trade or special interest in books, but his sharp wits and instinct for business keep the shop running well enough. The stories follow mysteries involving books or the shop's customers. Some are comedies, involving only minor crimes, others more serious, including the pursuit of a serial killer in the title story. At the same time we follow developments in the relationship between Iwa-san and his grandson over the course of the stories.

The emphasis on the shop and the two main characters is constant, but their role in the mysteries are often different. A few stories have Iwa-san as the detective in a classic mystery format, in others he is only a bystander in a story unfolding without his help. In 六月は名ばかりの月 ("June is a month in name only") a young woman whom Iwa-san and Minoru had helped protect from a stalker one night seeks their help in identifying him; and this leads to a murder mystery which Iwa-san solves. In 黙って逝った ("He left without saying anything") a young man suspects that he is destined to a life of getting by, like his dull salaryman father had led. But after his father's death he finds an oddity in his belongings, a bookcase full of copies of the same book, the memoirs of a volunteer crossing guard. Curious he starts to investigate, and finds that the crossing guard had been killed by a hit and run driver. In 詫びない年月 (I'm not quite sure how this title translates, "An age without apologies"?) reports of a ghost in a nearby house are followed by the discovery of a bomb shelter from the second world war with the long dead bodies of a mother and child in it. In うそつき喇叭 ("The lying trumpet") Iwa-san catches a pickpocket, a young boy trying to steal a book called The Lying Trumpet. Iwa-san notices that someone has been physically abusing him. Did the story, an ugly parable of supporters of the military regime who reinvent their past after Japan's defeat, perhaps have some particular interest for him? In 歪んだ鏡 ("Twisted Mirror") a woman finds an abandoned book on the train, and becomes curious about the previous owner, whose business card is left as a bookmark inside. Finally in 淋しい狩人 ("Lonely Hunter") Iwa-san is helping the daughter of a mystery writer, who disappeared years ago, to dispose of his library, as the family have finally come to accept his death. But someone seems to be carrying out the murders in the writer's last book, an unfinished and posthumously published serial killer story.

Most of the stories have some interest, at least in the set up, but the resolution was not always very compelling.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Knox Machine

From the "detective story" and "science fiction" labels I've added to the post, you might guess thatノックス・マシン (Knox Machine, 2013) by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎) is a science fiction detective story. In fact it is a collection of pure science fiction stories, which don't contain a proper mystery, but have golden age detective stories as their subject matter.

The title story ノックス・マシン ("Knox Machine", 2008) takes its inspiration from the ten commandments for detective stories that Ronald Knox wrote as part of the introduction to an anthology. In the mid twenty first century, computer creation of satisfying literature has become possible. Chin Loo, a Chinese researcher attempting to create new golden age style mysteries, uses Knox's rules as a central part of his modelling of the pattern of the story. The choice is politically questionable, because of the fifth law "no Chinaman shall figure in the story". Persevering despite disapproval Chin Loo succeeds in generating new puzzle mysteries; but it seems that his choice has condemned him to a life without career advancement, when he is unexpectedly and alarmingly summoned by senior figures in a government research program. Their interest, it turns out, lies in the fact that the time when Knox wrote his laws seems to be tied in to the possibility of time travel.

The second 引き立て役倶楽部の陰謀 ("The Supporting Characters' Club Conspiracy", 2009). Captain Hastings narrates how in 1939 a letter from Doctor Watson, the president of the Supporting Characters' Club, summoned him and other members to discuss what action needs to be taken in the light of a new affront to the honour of the society offered by Agatha Christie's forthcoming mystery. Their last intervention, following her publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, had gone as far as kidnapping. Now Watson seems ready to countenance even more extreme measures.

The third バベルの牢獄 ("The Jail of Babel" 2010) is not so directly concerned with detective stories, but again has a metafictional aspect.

The last, ("Knox Machine 2" 2013) is a sequel to "Knox Machine", this time centred on Ellery Queen's The Siamese Twin Mystery and The Chinese Orange Mystery and the presence or absence of Queen's famous "challenge to the reader". The electronic library of the world's texts, managed by a powerful American corporation, is being attacked by sudden fires, and the source seems to be The Siamese Twin Mystery. Terrorists, it seems, have manipulated the text, creating an instability that spreads through the neighbouring books. The only solution seems to be a new kind of time travel, back into the book.

I have to admit that I didn't enjoy this much. I like a lot of science fiction and I like classic detective stories, but the mix did not work well for me. One problem is that the exposition overwhelms the story to a greater or lesser extent in all four stories, most of all in the title story and its sequel. The exposition of detective story history (on Knox, Christie and Queen) is readable enough, although I knew much of it already. The physics reads less well. It feels as though having invested so much effort in creating a scientific justification for the story, the author is treating his invention with too much respect. For detective story fans the second story is likely to be of more interest, demonstrating a surprisingly thorough knowledge of early and golden age detective stories, and offering a reflection on the way the genre changed in its choice of plot.

Saturday, 2 March 2019

The Spring Term Special Strawberry Tart Case

米澤穂信 (YONEZAWA Honobu, born 1978) is probably best known outside Japan for a series of everyday life mysteries, starting with 氷菓 (hyouka, Ice cream, 2001), which were the basis for an anime series of the same name. I've only seen the anime series of this; but judging from that 春期限定いちごタルト事件 (shunkigentei ichigotarto jiken, The Spring Term Special Strawberry Tart Case, 2004) is very similar. This book is also a series of "puzzles of everyday life", solved by a boy and girl who have just started high school (which in Japan would make them probably fifteen years olds´): the teenage narrator, 小鳩 常悟朗 (KOBATO Jougorou) and his friend 小佐内 ゆき (OSANAI Yuki).

Kobato and Osanai were at middle school together, and various unfortunate experiences there have led them to adopt a life philosophy, which they describe to themselves as aiming to become a perfect 'petit bourgeois'. In practice this means keeping their heads down and not doing things that might attract attention. In particular, Kobato tries to avoid showing off his skill at deduction.  Osanai behaves like a reserved and timid child, very dependent on Kobato and only showing enthusiasm for desserts. What part of her character she is suppressing only becomes evident in the course of the book.

The 'life philosophy' will probably make older readers roll their eyes a little; but you could say it is a realistic reflection of the things teenagers do. The stories are all mysteries, but they make a comedy of school life. Kobato comes across as a somewhat intellectual type, at any rate a student who reads a lot and pays attention in class. This occasionally makes the Japanese a little more difficult than you might expect for a reader who doesn't come equipped with this standard knowledge. There is a certain tendency to melancholy in the stories, a suggestion that the main characters are suppressing part of their own nature; but comedy is prevalent. Despite the reliance on certain "types" from popular literature, this is generally pretty successful.

Kobato of course does not manage to avoid getting involved in mysteries, and throughout the book he solves a series of mostly minor puzzles, often pulled into them by a busybody friend from his primary school days. Some involve a real (mostly very minor) crime but others are merely puzzles. Most notable is a chapter devoted to finding out how someone managed to make cocoa using only three mugs and one teaspoon (but no milk pan), which is played as a kind of 'impossible crime' type puzzle. As with many such short story collections in Japan, there are developments over the course of the book, a gradual revelation of Kobato and Osanai's characters and background, and an overarching mystery which comes to a high point in the final chapter.

The mystery aspect is generally good enough. Although nothing stands out as a classic puzzle, the surprise for the reader at seeing where the carefully laid preparation is leading is real. And the mix of school comedy and mystery allows for some pleasing humour about what constitutes a reasonable deduction.

The book is the first in a series of three (one for each term of the Japanese school year). I owe my awareness of it to Ho-Ling's blog. You can read his review there, as well as a review of the second book in the series (which I haven't yet read).


Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Odd Jobs Man Daizou at Your Service

The title of the short story collection なんでも屋大蔵でございます (nandemoya Daizou degoizaimasu, It's Daizou the Odd Jobs Man, 1985) by OKAJIMA Futari (岡嶋二人) is a bit hard to translate. The job description more or less literally translates as "anything man", so that "odd jobs man" sounds about right. The synonymous 便利屋 (benriya) translates literally as "handyman", which is much the same idea. This sounds like someone you might employ for repairs that don't quite need a proper specialist. The Japanese version seems to include work of this kind, but it is not limited to it. "Anything" can literally be anything. Only the hero of this collection, KUGIMARU Daizou (釘丸大蔵) draws the line at anything criminal or obviously immoral. Even so, by some odd chance, his work keeps bringing him into contact with a variety of mysteries.

Daizou is middle aged, but in manners more like an old man, with a tendency to a modest formal turn of phrase and a fondness for digressing with conventional observations on morality (which combine, surprisingly or not, with good natured kindness in his actual actions). His office is a converted shed and for most jobs his transport is a bicycle. Despite his humble appearance and manner, he has quite sharp wits.  

In "Murder in the moment of infidelity", a client Daizou had previously refused comes to him with a new request. She had wanted him to tail her businessman husband to catch him in the infidelity she was sure he was guilty of. The private detective she employed instead had delivered a report that showed no sign of any infidelity; but a little later the police come to her saying that they had found the detective dead near her house from a road accident. He had had the report in an envelope, apparently to deliver to her. So they hand it to her. In her confusion she does not tell them that she had already received the report. Apparently the detective had broken into her house to steal it. What was in the report to make him want to take it back?

"Snow White has been kidnapped" starts with a phone call asking Daizou to kidnap the favourite white cat of the local cat lady. Daizou refuses, but by the time he gets round to visiting the cat's owner, the cat has been stolen and tthe kidnapper has sent a cryptic letter giving a clue to where the cat is now.

"Punk rock Awa odori" starts with a visit from a young man who is uncertain whether he is speaking to Kugimaru Daizou or is himself Kugimaru Daizou. He had woken a little earlier lying on a path with no memory of who he was. After a passer by steals his wallet, the only clue he has to his identity is Daizou's business card in his back pocket. The cards are new and Daizou had handed out only a few of them, and definitely none to this young man.

In "Tailed, Killed", Daizou is on his way to a salaryman's apartment to feed his pet squirrel while he is on a business trip. On the way he notices that he is being clumsily followed by a young man. He easily loses his pursuer, but feels that after all the effort he has put in, he should not disappoint him to heavily. Instead he waits to confront him, but when no pursuer appears, he retraces his steps and finds the man lying murdered in the road.

In "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" the imperious wife of the owner of a cleaning service calls Daizou out peremptorily as an urgently needed stand in. When he gets there, she complains about the time he had taken and rushes out without explaining what she had called him to do. Her husband, who is left behind with Daizou says with resigned amusement that he does not know either, but they were to wait by the pond at the back of the business. A little later a car drives up there. The figure that gets out dumps a large cardboard drum in the pond and drives off to the indignation of the husband. Apparently the pond is constantly used as an illegal dumping ground, which he and his staff regularly clean each week. When the wife does not appear, the husband pays Daizou for his wasted time. But a few days later Daizou gets a visit from the police. The team of rubbish cleaners tidying the pond have found in the dumped cardboard tube the dead body of the missing wife.

I don't want to praise the mysteries too highly. An experienced reader will probably see through most of them, at least in part. Most do have some new trick to them, even if that is often a variation on familiar old tricks. There is more attention to character (including Daizou's character, both as actor and as narrator) and to non-mystery narrative elements. The style is light and humorous, much more so than in other Okajima Futari books that I have read; two of the stories even get by without a murder. Even without any really stand out mysteries, I thought the collection worked very well.


The stories apparently provided the basis for a Japanese television series, 何でも屋大蔵の事件簿, The Casebook of Daizou the Odd Job Man, in 2002 and 2003.
 

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Gymnasium Murder

体育館の殺人 (taiikukan no satsujin, The Gymnasium Murder, 2012) is a mystery novel by AOSAKI Yuugo (青崎有吾, born 1991). The publishers, Sougen Suiri, often have an invented English title on their cover, and in this case it is The Black Umbrella Mystery, which might suggest some similarity to the first Ellery Queen mysteries, such as The Roman Hat Mystery. If that was what they wanted to suggest, the suggestion is certainly warranted. Although the book is a locked room mystery, the style of detection involves a string of deductions around a single object, leading to criteria that narrow the field of suspects, very much in the style of The Dutch Shoe Mystery and particularly The Roman Hat Mystery.

The table tennis club and other sports clubs are using the old gymnasium of their high school. At one end of the hall is a stage, and unusually its curtain is down. When the theatre club arrives for its rehearsal they open the curtain. On the stage is the body of the president of the broadcasting club, stabbed in the back. The investigating police soon stumble on a puzzle: the doors at the stage end were both locked, so that the only exit was through the hall; but the president of the table tennis club claims that nobody had come through from the stage end since the victim entered. Since she had been alone in the gym for part of this time, they soon decide that she must be the killer. High school first year, 柚乃 (Yuno), who overhears their discussion, is convinced that her club president is innocent, and desperately seeks the help of secretive and eccentric schoolboy genius 裏染天馬 (URAZOME Tenma). She finds him in an unused club room, which he has turned into his own apartment and filled with toy figures of anime heroines. Urazome has no interest in school work or anything else except for anime and manga, to which he devotes all his time and money. 

I get the impression that the target audience for this book is young teenagers who have not yet read much mystery fiction. Except for one meta-literary joke about 'fair play', all the cultural references seem to be to anime and manga. Most of these escaped me; but I didn't get the impression I was missing anything of value. They seemed simply part of the thin characterisation of Urazome as an otaku. The emphasis on Urazome's effortless intellectual superiority is another element that reads like something only a book for children would do.

Although the 'fair play' joke I mentioned touches on what some might consider improper misdirection, the mystery is very much fair play. All the elements needed to solve the mystery are presented openly and in many cases their significance is noted in advance of the final explanation. I'm not quite sure how good the reasoning is. There were points in the series of deductions where I thought that obvious alternatives were being missed, while a lot of time was being spent on ruling out possibilities that weren't very likely in the first place; but that's a criticism it probably shares with Ellery Queen's acknowledged classics. I didn't enjoy the deductions here as much as I enjoyed Ellery Queen. I'm not sure if that's because I actually was a teenager when I read Ellery Queen or because there was something slightly lacking here. It felt a little like we were creating Venn diagrams more than reading a story. In Ellery Queen the deductions often lead to a real surprise, and perhaps that was what was missing. 

The school setting felt like a deliberate reversal on the kinds of unusual setting favoured by Ellery Queen and others: a completely mundane world, in which every object, room and role is something everyone is familiar with. A few characters are more like types from popular literature than real people; but the only bit that was really far from everyday life was Urazome. I did slightly feel that a sharper observation of the everyday world might have made even that a bit more interesting.

This sounds a bit negative; but if you like classic puzzle detective stories, this is certainly one to try. I certainly expect I'll try another one in the series at some time. One point I liked was the confidence shown in giving us a full length novel with only one murder. Many writers, including the most famous, almost feel obliged to have at least two (Sayers and Crofts are the exceptions that spring to mind); but there is something pleasing to me when the whole book is about just one crime. 

You can read a different take on the same book at Ho-Ling's blog here.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

A Big 1st Year and a Little 2nd Year

大きい1年生と 小さな2年生 (ookii ichinensei to chiisana ninensei, A Big 1st Year and a Little 2nd Year, 1970) is a children's book by FURUTA Taruhi (古田足日, 1927-2014). The title characters are in their first and second years of elementary school (小学校, shougakkou), so probably six and seven years old respectively. The book too is clearly aimed at relatively young readers.

Akiyo and Mariko are the two smallest children in the second year, small enough to be mistaken for kindergarten children; and of the two Akiyo is just slightly smaller. She had somehow had the idea that, since second years are taller than first years, she would get taller at the start of the new school year (which is also the start of the book). For all her small stature, she is tough and self confident, not shy of quarrels with other children. Her friend Mariko, by contrast, is quiet, calm and a little detached. Masaya, a new first year, whose family has just moved to a house near Akiyo's, is large enough that people sometimes think he is a third year; but his character is the exact opposite to Akiyo's, anxious to the point of cowardice.
The elementary school that Masaya and Akiyo walked to was on top of a hill. There were apartment blocks on the high ground. Akiyo's friend, Mariko Fujioka, lived in one of them. The school was just beyond the apartment blocks.
From Masaya's house to the school and the apartment blocks, there were two routes. One was a broad road up the hill, with lots of traffic. The other, the one that Masaya was now walking, was a narrow path up between two cliff faces.
On the way to the school entrance ceremony, Masaya's mother had taken him up the broad road, but after the ceremony, the teacher had said, 'The broad road with all that traffic is dangerous. The way you should take to school is the track through the cliffs.'
So when it was time to go back, mother said, 'Masaya, this time let's go by the cliff way.'
'No. I don't want to go that way,' Masaya said to his mother with a scared face.
'You're a first year now, Masaya, big enough to be taken for a third year. If you can't manage something like that path! The teacher told you that was the way you should take to school.'
Mother gripped Masaya's hand tightly and pulled him along. Masaya was dragged along, almost crying.
That was why Masaya was walking along the cliff route; but he was clinging tightly to his mother, because it was so scary.
It wasn't just narrow, it was dark and there were steep cliffs of red earth on either side, topped  with thick woods. In the midst of those woods, there were huge pine trees that you could see from Masaya's house, and in their tops crows would call, 'Caw, caw' from time to time.
Akiyo quarrels with Masaya on their first meeting, but they soon become more friendly; and Masaya comes to depend on the fearless Akiyo a little too much. Worried about losing her friendship, he starts to consider how he can become braver. 

This a simple story of real life, narrated in a simple style for young children. For all its simplicity, I think it does a very good job of depicting the friendship at the heart of the story, and also in communicating a sense of place, in this country district on the outskirts of Tokyo. And although the events that make up the plot are never far from the minor incidents that make up normal life, the story's progress still feels very satisfactory.