Saturday, 21 December 2013

Fox's Locked Room

高木 彬光 (TAKAGI Akimitsu, 1920-1995) is one of the few Japanese detective story writers to have had some success in the west. Three of his novels have been translated into English: 刺青殺人事件 (Shisei satsujinjiken,1948, The Tattoo Murder Case, 1998); 密告者 (Mikkokusha, 1965, The Informer, 1971); ゼロの蜜月 (Zero no hanemuun, 1965, Honeymoon to nowhere, 2004). The Japan Foundation site also lists a short story, 二銭銅貨 (Nisen douka, "A Copper", The Reeds, 9, 1963, 71-9). Looking at library catalogues, the journal is probably the house journal of the English department of the Osaka University of Foreign Studies; the story has the same title as an EDOGWA Rampo story (so either it's a homage, or someone made a mistake in the Japan Foundation data entry). The Tattoo Murder Case was Takagi's first novel and featured the detective KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介). It regularly features in lists of best detective stories; but I haven't got round to reading it yet (nor any of the other translated works). A different detective, OOMAEDA Eisaku (大前田英策), features in a (not very good) collection of short stories, 恋は魔術師 (Koi ha majutsushi, Love, The Magician, 1986). While Kamizu is an intellectual, a medical scientist who sometimes is called in as a consultant because of his detective abilities, Oomaeda is a professional private detective, described as the descendant of the bakumatsu rogue, OOMAEDA Eigorou (大前田英五郎, 1793-1874).

In  狐の密室 (Kitsune no misshitsu, Fox's locked room, 1977) Takagi puts Oomaeda and Kamizu on stage together. Oomaeda is called in by a millionaire Kyoto businessman, worried about the woman that his son seems set on marrying. She is currently a nun in a breakaway Buddhist sect with a dubious reputation. Worse than this, the businessman suspects that she may be his daughter from an affair he had in Korea during the war with a Japanese woman who never returned to Japan. Oomaeda's staff start looking into the background of the nun's family, while Oomaeda himself goes to the sect's main temple near Lake Biwa, posing as an invalid seeking miraculous help. The sect's charismatic leader has a legendary reputation; he is said to have had the ability as a child to work wonders through control of foxes (which in Japan are magical creatures). Now however he is sick and is looking to decide the future of the sect. But after a night of prayer, he is found strangle with a fox fur, in a temple surrounded by untouched snow. He died after the snow had stopped falling; but the only footsteps are those of the disciples who found his body in the morning. Locked rooms are beyond Oomaeda; so he calls in the help of the great detective Kamizu.

The first two thirds of the book follow Oomaeda, allowing us to see his suspicions and ideas. After Kamizu's appearance, Oomaeda is more or less an onlooker. Kamizu is very much the great detective, with enigmatic pronouncements and questions whose need is not immediately obvious.

As a detective story, it's at least satisfactory. Despite the title the locked room is more an impossible crime. The solution could be seen as a variation on a very familiar locked room trick. There are one or two points about the locked room situation that seem a little forced. But there is more to the mystery than just the locked room.

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