Sunday, 6 October 2013

The Cat Knew

NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子, 1928-1986) wrote eleven mystery novels and over a hundred short stories as well as children's books. Her novel, 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957) won the Edogawa Rampo Award, one of the major prizes for Japanese mysteries, and was made into a film in 1958 and a television drama in 1973.

At the age of four, Niki had been diagnosed with caries of the thoracic vertebrae, which led to paralysis of both legs. She spent her childhood confined to bed, unable to attend school. Her father died when she was seven years old, her mother and oldest brother died during the war and she came to live with another brother. At first she wrote children's stories, but turned to detective stories with 猫は知っていた.

I make a bookmark with the readings of the names when I read a novel, since names are one of the hardest things to learn (for me at least). Here's a list of the more important names. The question marks are for readings not provided in the book.


Name Reading Description
二木悦子 NIKI Etsuko music student
仁木雄太郎 NIKI Yuutarou botany student, Etsuko's older brother
箱崎兼彦 HAKOSAKI Kanehiko doctor
箱崎英一 HAKOSAKI Eiichi his oldest son, medical student
箱崎敬二 HAKOSAKI Keiji his second son, student
箱崎幸子 HAKOSAKI Sachiko his young daughter
箱崎敏枝 HAKOSAKI Toshie his wife
桑田ちえ KUWATA Chie her mother
桑田ユリ KUWATA Yuri Chie's granddaughter
野田 NODA nurse
家永 IENAGA nurse
人見 HITOMI nurse
平坂勝也 HIRASAKA Katsuya patient
平坂清子 HIRASAKA Kiyoko his wife
江藤まゆみ EDOU Mayumi patient
小山田すみ子 OYAMADA Sumiko patient
宮内正 MIYAUCHI Tadashi patient
桐野次郎 KIRINO Jirou patient
カヨ Kayo maid in the Hakosaki household
清川 KIYOKAWA? previous owner of the clinic
大野 OONO? accident victim
吉川 YOSHIKAWA? neighbour
笠井あきら KASAI Akira detective story writer
峰岸周作 MINEGISHI Shuusaku retired police inspector
KINUTA deputy inspector
杉山 SUGIYAMA? president of Yuri's drama club

The two central character of the book are the botany student, NIKI Yuutarou, and his younger sister, music student Etsuko, who is also the narrator. (Author as fictional character is an Ellery Queen like feature also found in ARISUGAWA Arisu, 有栖川 有栖, and NORIZUKI Rintarou, 法月綸太郎.) In this period it was rare for students to have their own apartment; and the two of them rent a room in the Hakosaki Clinic. (Given her background, a hospital setting perhaps reflects the received wisdom to 'write what you know'.) For a reduction in the rent, Etsuko will be teaching piano to the youngest daughter, Sachiko. Soon mysterious incidents start to occur. Etsuko rescues KUWATA Chie, the mother in law of the clinic's doctor, from the storehouse, where somebody had locked her in. Soon after, both Chie and a patient, the antique dealer, HIRASAKA Katsuya, are found to have gone missing, although no-one should have been able to leave the grounds unobserved. Also missing is Chimi, a young black cat who has a tendency to follow people about. Chimi reappears in the grounds of the temple next door; but there is no sign of the others until Yuutarou discovers the strangled body of Chie. This is the first of a series of murders in the clinic, many of which seem to involve the little cat in some way. Etsuko does some of the investigation, but for the most part she plays the role of intelligent Watson to her older brother.

Niki has been described as 'the Japanese Agatha Christie' in Japan. This kind of description is sometimes used by publishers to sell Japanese writers to western audiences. Julian Symons somewhere comments on the extreme absurdity of the same description used for NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹 静子); and if you google "Japanese Stieg Larsson", you'll find hundreds of people making the happy discovery that HIGASHINO Keigo is nothing like Stieg Larsson. In this case however, the Christie comparison is really quite appropriate. The style and narrative technique has the same kind of easy simplicity. There is little expression of strong emotion of any kind. Niki describes most events with mild humour, becoming briefly serious, but not overwrought, when appropriate. The setting is the normal, modern day world. You could say that Niki was the polar opposite to YOKOMIZO Seishi. A.A. Milne's "The Red House Mystery" gets mentioned early in the book; and that too is similar. 

As a puzzle, it's certainly not on a level with the best Agatha Christie; but it's a well made and fairly clued mystery. I was particularly impressed when I got to the motive, which came as a horrific revelation, although it was obvious once I read it.

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