Thursday, 15 August 2013

Death in Nara by the Sea

Ellery Queen is an important figure in the world of Japanese detective stories. Among modern writers, two in particular show his influence. 法月 綸太郎 (NORIZUKI Rintarou, born 1964) writes stories about a detective story writer NORIZUKI Rintarou, who helps his father, a police inspector, solve cases. 有栖川 有栖 (ARISUGAWA Arisu, or Alice, born 1959, real name 上原 正英, UEHARA Masahide) also has a character with the same name in the detective stories he writes, though in this case Arisugawa is the narrator and also plays the Watson role rather than the detective. The one Norizuki book that I have read had a much more "Queenish" feel than what I have found in Arisugawa books; but Arisugawa too both makes use of favourite Ellery Queen elements (like "dying messages" and elimination of suspects) and also demonstrates allegiance in titles like his first novel, 月光ゲーム Yの悲劇'88 (Moonlight Game, The Tragedy of Y '88, 1989) and his short story collections, which have nation + puzzle titles like the first Queen novels, e. g. ロシア紅茶の謎 (The Russian Tea Puzzle, 1994).

I spoke of  Arisugawa as a character in the books; but it might be more correct to say that he is two characters. There are two different series, the Student Alice series that starts with 月光ゲーム and  the Author Alice series that starts with The Forty-sixth Locked Room (46番目の密室, 1992). In the  Student Alice series, Arisugawa is a law student in the university's detective fiction club, in the Author Alice series, he is a professional mystery writer. The detectives are different too. In the Author Alice series, it is HIMURA Hideo (火村 英生), a lecturer in criminology.  

Death in Nara by the Sea (海のある奈良に死す, 1995)  is from the Author Alice series and like the more famous 46番目の密室, it concerns the death of another detective story writer. Arisugawa, visiting his publishers for discussions over his new novel, meets fellow writer AKABOSHI Gaku (赤星楽). Akaboshi is just off to "Nara by the Sea" for research, he says. The phrase is one of those "Athens of the North" type expressions used to sell a town, in this case the coastal town of Obama. The next day his dead body is found floating in the sea off Obama. Looking for traces of Akaboshi, Himura and Arisugawa search the area for stories connected with a mermaid, referenced in the title of the book Akaboshi was writing.

46番目の密室 has some metaliterary reflection on the locked room mystery. 海のある奈良に死す might be seen as playing with the idea of the "travel mystery". Travel mysteries are a genre (or perhaps two genres) in Japan. The name is used particularly for stories, set in a tourist destination, where to solve the mystery the detective has to learn about the points of interest of the area. It is also used for stories which depend on travel related alibis. Some stories mix alibi breaking and tourism, as does this one. The main trick is no novelty, but the play on generic expectations perhaps makes it stronger. A second murder has a method which to my eyes is about as realistic as "he killed him using mental death rays".

In sum it's one of the weaker mysteries that I've read. Also, this may be a problem of my Japanese competence, but in the Arisugawa books I have read, the characters don't really come across. It's not just that they're two dimensional. Plenty of detective stories have characters with no depth, who are still at least lively puppets. In Arisugawa many of the characters come across as smaller than life.




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