Thursday, 1 August 2013

Pastel with the Dark Brown Coat

OKAJIMA Futari's first book, 焦茶色のパステル, was published in 1982 and won the Edogawa Rampo prize in that year. It's a good example of the sort of mystery that is the staple of the genre outside of a few classics. It has a perfectly good fair play puzzle element; but that makes up at most half of the novel. The rest is the kind of mystery which is solved by investigating, without the reader having a chance to get ahead of the characters or the narrator. A good part of it is pretty much an adventure story. Pasteru of the title is a thoroughbred horse. (The katakana of the name seem to resolve as "pastel", even if that's an unexpected name for a dark brown horse.) The setting of the story is an area in Touhoku devoted to horse breeding; and the book is clearly one of those books based on (and a little bit dominated by) research into an unusual world.

Incidentally, when I review a book that I've just read, I'll try and give a list of characters, as I did with The Villa Lilac Murder Case. But I read 焦茶色のパステル a year ago, and hunting for the furigana on the first entry of the characters would be too much work. Happily the Japanese Wikipedia has an article on the book which does just that.

Kanae (香苗) is unhappily married to a horse racing journalist, who has disappeared. The police want to question him about the disappearance of a university professor. Soon she learns that her husband, another man and two race horses have been killed. From the set up this feels like the kind of story, not rare in western mysteries, where a widow, who had not known what she wanted during her marriage, finds her true character, and surprises about her husband, after his death. But the story developes in a different direction. Kanae remains on the whole more a reactive and reflective character; and the driving force in the story is her friend Fumiko (芙美子), another journalist on the racing bulletin her husband had worked for.

I said that the puzzle is a relatively small part of the mystery. I would bet that it's also a bit too obvious for readers used to puzzle mysteries. Even so, this was a really enjoyable book. Part of this is perhaps Fumiko's character, which provides an answer to that question that so often runs through readers' heads when they read detective stories, "Why on earth aren't you going to the police?" The question just doesn't arise with Fumiko, who is recklessness personified.

I include a scan of the cover of my rather tatty second hand copy, partly to show exactly what colour 焦茶色 in horses is supposed to be, partly because even this artwork is for my European eyes something unusual. It's a curious aspect of Japanese publishing that cover illustration is still normal. In the seventies artwork on the cover was just disappearing in England, and photographs were starting to be used. These days new books almost always use a photograph or a piece of classical art on the cover. In Japan that still seems to be the exception, reserved in the crime genre for the kind of thrillers that give the technical specifications or whatever machines gets used in their pages. Even unsophisticated illustration gives the impression that the publisher is making an effort. And a culture that still values artwork on book covers has the chance occasionally to produce something really good.

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