Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Villa Lilac Murder Case

I have a terrible memory for names. I can generally remember what people tell me about themselves, but not the name. Even in Europe that can be a problem. The ancient Romans had slaves whose job was to remind their master of the name and personal details of people they met in the street. Something like that would be useful for people like me today. Without the slavery, of course -- a smartphone app perhaps. Trying to talk Japanese makes that even worse, since you need the name in place of  saying "you".  A practiced memory for names is a real necessity when reading books too. Some names you can work out from the common kanji, others feature unfamiliar kanji or readings that you would need special knowledge to recognise. Mostly the first time a name is used in a book, it comes with furigana. Japanese readers note the reading and keep it in their head for the rest of the book. I note the reading then forget it three pages later. So unless they're called something simple like Tanaka or Ogawa, their subsequent appearances register in my head as "So and so" or "Yama-something" or some wild guess, since the alternative is to hunt back through the book to the page where they made their first appearance.

In the long run I need to improve my memory, somehow. Or else I could stick to reading こころ and 博士が愛した数式. In the short term, I sometimes replace the bookmark that Japanese publishers kindly provide with a piece of paper on which I can note down the names of the characters as they appear. That works quite well. Actually perhaps the act of writing them down helps them stick in the memory, as I find that quite quickly I don't need to refer to the bookmark unless the character hasn't appeared for a hundred pages or so. If you're learning to read like me, I strongly recommend it.

That said, if you're going to read りら荘事件 (The Villa Lilac Case) by 鮎川哲也 (AYUKAWA Tetsuya), perhaps my notes can save you some time.

園田万平 SONODA Manpei caretaker of the Villa Lilac
園田花 SONODA Hana his wife
日高鉄子HIDAKA Tetsuko art student
行武栄一 YUKITAKE Eiichi music student (bass)
尼リリス AMA Ririsu music student (soprano)
牧数人 MAKI Kasundo Ama's fiancé, music student
橘秋夫 TACHIBANA Akio music student (piano)
松平紗絽女 MATSUDAIRA Sarome music student (violin)
安孫子宏 ABIKO Hiroshi music student (bass)
由木 YUKI Saitama police (keiji)
須田佐吉 SUDA Sakichi charcoal burner
堅持 KENMOCHI Saitama police (keibu)
二条義房 NIJOU Yoshifusa student, amateur detective
星影龍三 HOSHIKAGE Ryuuzou amateur detective
水原 MIZUHARA Tokyo police (keiji)

To be honest, I didn't find it a very enjoyable book. It's an attempt at a thoroughly classical puzzle mystery, first published from 1956-7 and then in book form in 1958. A group of students gather for a break at a villa belonging to their university in the hills north west of Tokyo. One by one they and those around them get killed, until the police are left with hardly any suspects to choose from. It's a carefully plotted mystery, with a lot of tricks and clues. But I think it has some terrible problems.
Firstly, the murderer is much too obvious. Before I was a quarter of the way in I had a rough idea of who the killer was and what was going on. That was less than a hundred pages in, and it's a long book (about 400 pages), so that I had another 300 pages to go. At the end more or less everything I'd worked out or guessed turned out to be right. All this time the police are shown as bumbling incompetents, neglecting the most obvious questions and evidence. The experience is like having to watch someone else play a computer game badly for hour after hour. The real detective is not even mentioned till the last fifth of the book; and we have to read on quite a few pages before he makes an actual appearance. There's the same structure, and the same problems, in a 島田荘司 (SHIMADA Souji) book that I read recently, 斜め屋敷の犯罪 (The Crime of the Slanted Country House), a locked room mystery from 1982, which seems a deliberate attempt to emulate traditional mysteries like りら荘事件. In that case too, the culprit is very obvious; but I at least did not have the solution to the central puzzle (though certain elements of it are obvious, too).

Coming back to Ayukawa's book, the characters were a problem for me too. They are none of them interesting and most are fairly unlikable. A writer has no duty to cater to a taste for likeable characters of course. If you've always wondered, 'What's it like to spend a couple of weeks with dull, unpleasant, quarrelsome people?', you may find it enlightening.

But perhaps my level of Japanese is a problem here. It took me over two weeks to get through this. If it was in English, I would have read it in a couple of days and looked more tolerantly on the characters and the puzzle. You can read another blogger's more positive take on the book here.


  1. I've only read the short story version of this story (「呪縛再現), and thought it a bit strange... there was at one hand too much for a short story (two detectives), on the other hand too little (too obvious). I loved the Kyushu dialect though. I loved AyuTetsu's 黒いトランク by the way.

    Regarding names: even though I've read the book several times for my thesis, I still don't know who's who in Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game =_= Jinroujou no Kyoufu was also horrible: there were a lot of characters because of the length, but everybody except for Ranko or Reito, was either German or French, with accompanying katakana names.

    Oh, and Naname is awesome. I have no memory whatsoever about most of the book, but the trick is just unforgettable. Still waiting for someone to make a movie of it (and during the reconstruction scene, the camera has to be on... that thing).

    Oh, mind if I ask what level your Japanese is?

    1. What level? No idea, really. I'm self taught and haven't taken any tests. I know a little over two thousand kanji (or at least the meanings and some uses of them; sometimes if I don't revise, I find I've forgotted the on-reading of some of the less common ones). I can generally make myself understood in conversation; but I often find myself needing to ask the other person to repeat or rephrase.

      I'll note 黒いトランク as one to try.