Sunday, 8 December 2013

Gingko Slope

松尾由美 (MATSUO Yumi, born 1960) writes detective stories, science fiction and fantasy; several of her works are a mix of these genres. Her most interesting sounding book is バルーン・タウンの殺人 (Baruun taun no satsujin, Balloon Town Murder, 1994), set in a new town reserved for pregnant women as part of a Japanese government attempt to keep the birth rate up. Unfortunately the book and its sequels are out of print. You can buy an electronic version if you live in Japan. As I don't, I tried a different book. 銀杏坂 (Ichouzaka, Gingko Slope, 2001) collects five short stories published between 1996 and 2001, featuring two police detectives in a Hokuriku town, whose cases all involve an element of the supernatural.

This is not the kind of supernatural element which actually turns out to have a natural explanation. Instead in the course of the investigation, the detectives have to accept that the mysterious phenomenon is real, and then explain the remaining mystery in the light of that. The stories can all stand as separate mysteries; but experience of one is reflected in the next.

A Street in Kanazawa
Matsuo devotes a lot of attention to the setting. The dialogue is largely in dialect; but it's easy enough to read (the most common differences to standard Japanese are that "ga" often appears where you might expect "no", and "ya" where you might expect "iru"). The town Kousaka seems to be fictional. I think that it's based on Kanazawa, which is Matsuo's home town according to Wikipedia. The town has two rivers, a famous park, little pockets of traditional streets and a "karakuri temple", all of which would fit. Also, one of the stories mentions a local author (apparently fictional) whose works include a story 化銀杏 (Bake ichou, "Gingko spirit"). The famous Kanazawa author, 泉鏡花  (IZUMI Kyouka, 1873-1939), has a story of the same name. I haven't read it; but the summary on the Japanese Wikipedia page fits the description given in the book.

The two detectives are the experienced Kizaki and the young Yoshimura; but in several stories Yoshimura plays only a minor role and it is always Kizaki who provides the key deduction. Kizaki grumbles quite a bit, both at his younger colleague's enthusiasm for detective story style interpretations of their cases, and at the supernatural phenomena that seem to plague him; but he is a likable character, unable to leave a problem alone, but still showing sympathy towards those he investigates. The supernatural elements that wind through the stories are the kind of ideas that disturb the real world only slightly: a ghost (who can be seen, but cannot move objects); prophetic dreams; a man whose soul wanders from his body while he sleeps; a child with weak telekinetic abilities. The crimes involved tend toward the less bloody end of the range of detective fiction. There is one murder, and that in a locked room whose only exit is through a window onto a snow covered garden with no footprints. Other than that the stories feature: the theft of a jewel box, which ought still to be in the building (since witnesses saw no-one leave), but cannot be found; the investigation of a woman whose dreams convince her she is going to stab her husband; a man hit on the head with a surikogi ; a passenger known to have boarded a plane to Tokyo, who nonetheless is not among the passengers when the plane lands. The last one might sound familiar if you read the post on 蒸発 by NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子). This is Matsuo's approach to the same problem, with a different solution. Although there are two or three impossible crimes in the collection, the emphasis is actually more on the characters.

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