Tuesday, 5 November 2013


NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子, born 1938) is one of the few Japanese detective story writers that English speaking readers have had a chance to read. Six of her novels have been translated into English. 蒸発―ある愛の終わり (Jouhatsu - aru ai no owari, Disappearance, The End of a Love Affair) is an award winning novel from 1973, unfortunately not one of those that have been translated.

There is more than one disappearance in the book, which is the story of the pursuit of two missing persons. But a particular disappearance is the prize puzzle of the book. Natsuki is well aware of that and describes the episode first, in a prologue, although chronologically it belongs about a third of the way into the book. On the Boeing 727 flight 585 from Tokyo to Hokkaido, the chief stewardess notices that seat 12C is empty, although she knows that every seat on the plane was taken. She remembers giving the woman sat there a refreshment napkin after embarcation, when the doors were already closed. Checking with the other stewardesses, the count of passengers, which a stewardess at either door makes as they come onto the plane, also indicates that every seat should be taken; and another stewardess remembers seeing a woman of the same description. But she is nowhere on the plane; and recounting the passengers shows that there is one less than had been counted in. Somehow a passenger has vanished in mid flight.

The 'vanishing passenger' is an occasional theme of mystery fiction. Ethel Lina White's The Wheel Spins (1936), more famous from the Hitchcock film adaptation The Lady Vanishes (1938), features the disappearance of a passenger from a train; and John Dickson Carr had missing victims or murderers on ships in The Blind Barber (1934) and Murder in the Submarine Zone (as Carter Dickson, 1940). (I haven't heard his radio play "Cabin B-13" [1943] or the film Dangerous Crossing [1953] based on it, which have the same theme.) A plane is a yet more controlled environment than either of these, particularly at this time in Japan, shortly after the hijacking of Japan Airlines Flight 351 in 1970, which led to tighter security controls. There's a 2009 Jodie Foster film, Flightplan, with a disappearance on a plane, not very good, if you trust the critics.

In Disappearance, it's a neat little puzzle; but it's only part of the book. The larger story is the pursuit by a foreign correspondent of his lover, who has gone missing while he was out of the country. The inquiry runs into another missing person problem, which leads to an extremely complicated story, as you could guess from the (selected) cast list below.

name reading role
田淵久子 TABUCHI Hisako stewardess
菊畑敏江 KIKUHATA Toshie stewardess
重松三千代 SHIGEMATSU Michiyo stewardess
小久保寛 KOKUBO Kan? copilot
水谷 MIZUTANI flight engineer
冬木悟郎 FUYUKI Gorou foreign correspondent
冬木郁子 FUYUKI Ikuko his wife
冬木ゆかり FUYUKI Yukari his daughter (5)
朝岡隆人 ASAOKA Takahito banker
朝岡勉 ASAOKA Tsutomu his son
朝岡美那子 ASAOKA Minako his wife
丹野靖久 TANNO Yasuhisa former admirer of Minako, steel company boss
白井 SHIROI Tokyo policeman
武藤 MUTOU Hokkaido reporter
丹野怜子 TANNO Reiko Tanno Yasuhisa's sister
中川圭吾 NAKAGAWA Keigo Fukuoka murder squad inspector
倉橋満男 KURAHASHI Mitsuo Tanno Yasuhisa's right hand man
高見ユリ枝 TAKAMI Yurie Tanno Yasuhisa's secretary
郡司祥平 GUNJI Shouhei Kyuushuu Steel boss
飛田 TOBITA Fukuoka murder squad policeman
須藤二三夫 SUDOU Fumio villa caretaker
小田切 ODAGIRI Fukuoka uniformed police chief
森脇真二郎 MORIWAKI Shinjirou villa occupant
鈴子ふさ子 SUZUKI Fusako villa occupant
小泉悠子 KOIZUMI Yuuko villa occupant
広池 HIROIKE Fukuoka ken murder squad chief
宗像 MUNAGATA Fukuoka town murder squad chief

Fuyuki Gorou returns from Vietnam, where he had been lost in the jungle, presumed dead, to find that Minako Asaoka,  a neighbour's wife, has gone missing. Before leaving for Vietnam he had been having an affair with her, and he was planning to ask her to marry him on his return. As he searches for her, he happens to learn that an admirer from her home town of Fukuoka has also gone missing. He starts investigating that disappearance too. Soon it becomes clear that there has been at least one murder. And a figure that fits Minako's description crops up again and again in eyewitness reports and before Gorou's own eyes, only to disappear again.

The different crimes and incidents each offer separate mysteries of a fairly traditional puzzle mystery kind: the impossible disappearance mentioned at the beginning; a couple of alibi tricks, including a not very interesting train alibi. The larger mystery though is how the two parts of the story fit together. The comparisons that come to mind while reading it were (in different ways) Ruth Rendell, Ross McDonald and Margaret Millar. Locked room mysteries and the like are a sure way to get that pleasing bafflement: 'It's got to make sense. But it doesn't make sense. But it's got to make sense.' But mysteries that play out on a larger scale can manage that too; and if they do, the effect can be really impressive. Natsuki is not in the Margaret Millar class (only Margaret Millar was); the book's success comes closer to one of the weaker Rendell mysteries. After puzzling over things that just don't fit, we want to read a solution that shows the simple truth behind the apparent contradictions, preferably one that completely overturns some of our ideas. The final explanation here pulls things together, but it's neither surprising nor especially simple: some of the many complexities are too obviously invented just to create a mystery, rather than arising naturally from the larger mystery. While I'm listing negative points, the narration too gets a little overburdened with the complexities. After we've followed a character reasoning out what the criminal must have done, it gets a little tiring to hear that reasoning again, or to have the same actions rehearsed when the criminal confesses.

I hope that won't deter anyone from trying this, as all in all it's a clever and well constructed mystery.

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