Thursday, 25 July 2013


What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered, "Wilkie, have a mission!"
 (Swinburne on Wilkie Collins)

There are various ways you can divide up crime fiction. Greater or lesser realism is certainly one important spectrum; but in practice, the decision of where a book belongs can be complicated. Discussion of Japanese crime fiction often brings up a 'social school', which is supposedly more realistic and more concerned with depicting the nature of the modern world, as opposed to purely puzzle stories. In fact the two classics most often named in this context, Points and Lines (点と線
1958) and Inspector Imanishi Investigates (砂の器 1962) by MATSUMOTO Seichou (松本 清張, 1909-1992), are both distinctly unrealistic, particularly the latter. Nor do they avoid puzzle elements. But (on the basis of these two books) the style does avoid many of the conventions of traditional puzzle stories. There are alibis and tricks of misdirection by the criminal ; but fantastic crimes like locked room murders, fantastic disguises, unusual buildings or other such settings, the appearance of the supernatural etc. do not occur.  Some recent Japanese writers particularly cultivate such elements. When SHIMADA Souji (島田荘司, born 1948) gets mentioned, it is often as the forerunner of this style. But the stories that I've read featuring the policeman YOSHIKI Takeshi (吉敷竹史) seem to have more in common with the realist school. From western stories the most comparable figure is perhaps Freeman Wills Crofts: an investigation which goes through a period of orientation, then focuses on one suspect, with a problem like an alibi that still needs solving left to the end; a professional policeman as hero, characterised by stubborn persistance.

The 1989 Yoshiki novel 奇想、天を動かす has a rather unusual place in this. One part is pure 'social school', as Yoshiki patiently traces the early lives of a murderer and his victim. The other is a deliberately fantastic impossible crime story. I'll say in advance that this makes a truly, truly terrible mix. But I like both types of story; so it's a readable book despite its faults.

The book starts in the 1950's with a night train journey through a wintery Hokkaido landscape. Down the corridor between the seats, in which almost all the few passengers are asleep, a man in clown's makeup, with a strange and unsettling smile, dances silently past. One wakeful passenger hears a shot and goes to the door through which the dancing clown had passed. He meets another passenger coming from the other compartment; and the two deduce that the shot must have come from the locked toilet. They summon the conductor who unlocks the door. There is the clown, surrounded by burning candles, with part of his head blown off. The conductor relocks the door; but some travellers complain that the burning candles are a danger. He reopens it to extinguish them, and finds that the clown has disappeared.

The story moves to the present day, where a homeless man, less that 1.50 m. high, wanders round Tokyo playing his harmonica at train travellers, but seeking no money. He wanders into backstreets near Asakusa and, apparently in an argument over change, stabs the owner of a small shop. Yoshiki suspects there must be more to the story and finds that the man had previously been wrongly imprisoned for murder. Another prisoner remembers the stories that the man had written, which in turn prove to be reflections of an impossible event in Hokkaido thirty years ago, when the man had been a clown in the circus there. Indeed the events of the night include not only the locked room mystery, but a corpse returned to life, an invisible giant with glowing eyes, and a force that hurls one carriage off the rails.

The final explanation has a wealth of ideas, with a train alibi added to the problem for good measure. But a lot of the explanation comes down to coincidence. The solution to the locked room is not very credible, but it will probably occur to readers. The worst problem for me is that the motivation just doesn't seem to make sense. Even if it did, the mix of social mystery and fantastic mystery feels like a well meaning lapse of judgement.

A core element of the back story is the Japanese kidnapping and use as forced labour of Korean civilians and associated crimes in the period of military rule. Yoshiki is portrayed as someone with no idea of this part of history, which might imply that Shimada expects other Japanese readers to be similarly ill informed. (On the other hand, Yoshiki's role in the novel is generally that of an ignorant but interested listener, whatever the subject.)

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