Thursday, 23 January 2014

Delivery Red Riding Hood

People who like books probably like bookshops too, if only because they have lots of books in them, though I don't suppose anyone feels much affection for the big chain stores whose staff have no idea of the product they're selling. When I visited Japan a couple of years ago, I found the bookshops a little trying. I had brought with me a list of books I wanted to buy; and expected to be able to find them by looking at the alphabetic position of the author on the shelves, probably sorted by genre, as in a German or English shop. That is, in an English bookshop, Agatha Christie will either be under 'Crime Fiction', if the shop has a section for it, or under 'Fiction'. In Japanese shops, the books are arranged by publisher. So if you don't know the publisher (and when I made my list, I hadn't thought to note that down), you can't find the book. I suspect that a reason for this is that Japanese names are problematic even for Japanese readers, and each publisher has a code on the spine with the first letter of the author surname plus a number showing in what order it should go on the shelves. Anyway, if you're making your first trip to Japan and planning to buy Japanese books, take my advice and make a note of the publisher too.

This kind of arrangement makes browsing a bit difficult. For writers to have a chance of attracting the attention of readers just looking at the shelves, it must be much more important than in Europe to have the right publisher. In the afterword to 配達 あかずきん (Haitatsu akazukin, Delivery Red Riding Hood, 2006) by 大崎梢 (OOSAKI Kozue), the editor 戸川 安宣 (TOGAWA Yasunobu) writes that the genre 新本格 (shinhonkaku, "new orthodox detective stories") is particularly associated with Kodansha, while Tokyo Sougensha is the leader in 日常の謎 (Nichijou no nazo, "puzzles of everyday life"). As the name suggests, these are mysteries involving either a fairly minor crime or no crime at all. The Japanese seem to be the first to give the genre a name; but the thing itself has been around for a while. If you count Kleist's Der zerbrochne Krug (1808), you could say that it's older than the detective story. (The play could also be called the first courtroom drama mystery and the first appearance of the "least likely culprit", at least formally.) I remember someone mentioning Asimov's "Black Widowers" stories in this context; they are a good example of the kind of minor or non criminal puzzle characteristic of the form. It's sometimes said that the Golden Age of detective stories marked a concentration on only murder, unlike the Sherlock Holmes stories and other works of the period, which had included a variety of crimes and even mysteries without a crime. This is perhaps more a move to novels away from short stories. The short stories that Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie wrote also feature several crime free mysteries.

配達 あかずきん is a collection of five short stories set in what sounds like a mid sized bookshop in the shopping centre attached to a station. The main characters are full time shop assistant 杏子 (Kyouko), and part timer 多絵 (Tae). Kyouko is an industrious and capable bookseller in her mid twenties, Tae is a few years younger, a law student. They do have surnames, I think; but they are hardly ever used. Mostly they are just Kyouko and Tae, or in conversation Kyouko-san and Tae-chan (because of status, I suppose). Kyouko is always our point of view in the stories, Tae is the detective. The 'cases' generally start as non criminal problems; but a couple of stories in the collection do involve actual crimes, even one quite serious crime. For the most part, though, they take an aspect of bookshop life and use it as a little mystery. In the first story, a customer brings a friend's incomprehensible book order. Finding what he was asking for becomes an exercise in code breaking. In the second, a woman is looking for her mother, who went missing after hearing some children discussing the Genji Monogatari manga in the bookshop. In the third, the magazine the shop delivers to a nearby hairdresser has had an insulting stolen photograph of a customer inserted in it. In the fourth a women is looking for the shop assistant who advised her mother with suggestions for books for her when she was in hospital; but no-one fitting the description works at the shop. In the last, the display for a popular shounen manga is vandalised, perhaps in connexion with accusations on the internet that the work was plagiarised from an earlier doujinshi.

I like the idea of mysteries without a major crime; and I'll certainly read more in the genre. The cases here didn't include any compellingly brilliant deductions; but they are recognisably still mysteries. The emphasis is on a depiction of life behind the scenes of a bookshop. The stories are slightly humorous, slightly sentimental.

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