Saturday, 6 July 2013

Dancing Gimmicks

If you don't like the title, don't blame me. It's the translation that AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫, 1933-2009) gives to his 1977 mystery novel Midare karakuri (乱れからくり). Quite often, when you read a Japanese detective story, you find that the book has an English translation of the title on the cover or on the title page. The English title is often fairly bad English. I have a slight suspicion that this might have started as a marketing trick to give the impression that the book has been translated. Very few Japanese mysteries do get translated: in ARISUGAWA Arisu's 46番目の密室 (The Forty-sixth Locked Room) translation is mentioned as proof of the high status of a writer.

Karakuri dolls were a kind of automata. The tradition of making them reached a high level of art in the late Edo period, when Japan was largely cut off from the technological advances of Europe and America. They are sometimes seen as forerunners of Japanese success in technology (the firm Toshiba goes back to one of the most famous karakuri makers). But the word karakuri is also sometimes used for a trick or contrivance of some kind (such as the trick the murderer uses in a detective story). Midare is "confusion, disorder". So the meaning is something like "Clockwork Chaos"; but I don't know how to get the idea of a trick in, if that's needed.

Midare karakuri is one of those mysteries where the reader gets immersed in a specialised field of knowledge, in this case the history of mechanical toys. KATSU Toshio is a young man, who has just given up on a career as a boxer. His new employer UDAI Maiko is a former policewoman, who left the force on suspicion of taking a bribe and now runs "Udai Financial Research", a one woman operation doing essentially private detective work for commercial customers. Toshio's first job comes from MAWARI Tomohiro, head of production in a toymaking firm, to follow his wife, Masao. It seems as though Masao is having an affair with Tomohiro's cousin, the son of the firm's owner. But while tracking Masao, Toshio and Maiko see husband and wife involved in a spectacular accident (truly spectacular: the car, it seems, is hit by a meteor). Masao survives the accident, but soon other members of the family are dieing by various means. And Toshio seems to be falling in love with his suspect, Masao.

It's a very entertaining book, in the slightly over the top tradition of earlier Japanese detective stories, with dieing messages, mazes, codes and secret passages, and a mystery going back to intrigue in the last days of the shogunate. As a whodunnit, it has to lose points for being too obvious: the fairly small cast of suspects gets a lot smaller by the end. But one of the tricks is simply brilliant. The victim's daily medicine bottle contains only poisoned pills. So unless by bizarre coincidence he had till then taken only the unpoisoned bills out of a bottle containing both, the pills must have been switched that day; and only Masao had the opportunity. I had my own solution, which would have worked perfectly well, I think.  But the Awasaka's trick is one of the best I've read in a Japanese detective story.

If there's a problem with the book, it's the incorporation of the research. I like books that take you into a specialised field; and the history of mechanical toys, particularly in early Japan, is the kind of thing that would interest me. But Awasaka works the research in very clumsily. We get at least four lectures on the subject, from various characters. While we're still getting to know people, that's fine. The first lecture is from Maiko, who's an interesting character; so we're happy to listen to her. But then we get two lectures from people with no relation to the story, and one from a character whose sister has just been brutally murdered.


  1. Not all publishers provide English titles, but all books I've read from Sougen Suiri up until now have English titles.Awasaka's 亜愛一郎の狼狽 had the interesting 'A for Annoyance'...

  2. Perhaps it's just the one publisher then. I'm reading りら荘事件 at the moment, which has the not quite English title, "Villa Lilac Case" on the cover, but nothing on the title page. I'd guess that what goes on the cover only is down to the publisher, what goes on the title page has at least the agreement of the author.

    1. Looking round, I can see examples from other publishers. So Sougen Suiri is only exceptional in making it a rule.