Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Seven Days' Ransom

七日間の身代金 (Nanokakan no minoshirokin, Seven Days' Ransom, 1986) is an impossible crime puzzle by 岡嶋二人 (OKAJIMA Futari). A little late, I've added "impossible crime" to the blog's post labels. Japanese detective stories often use "locked room" to describe impossible crimes which don't involve a locked room, or sometimes even a room.

CHIKAISHI Chiaki (近石千秋) and TSUKISHIRO Younosuke (槻代要之助) are a musical duo. Chiaki writes the lyrics, Younosuke sets them to music, then Chiaki sings the songs accompanied by Younosuke on piano. The two of them are in their mid to late twenties, hoping to get a start in the music business. When we meet them, the two are friends, who have somehow missed the point where they might have become lovers. Chiaki is also the daughter of a senior policeman. It's through her eyes that we see the story.

The novel starts with the video of a ransom demand. An acquaintance, TOBA Sumako (鳥羽須磨子) has asked Chiaki's advice after receiving the video, which shows her stepson, TOBA Kunihiko  (鳥羽国彦), and her brother, TAKENAKA Kazumi (竹中和巳), tied up. In the video Takenaka is reading a ransom note to the camera, with the kidnappers' demands. Rejecting Chiaki's urgings to contact the police, Sumako sets off with the money. With no time to telephone and not knowing where Sumako has been told to go, Chiaki and Younosuke set off chasing after her Porsche in Younosuke's Sunny. Even though a kidnapping is a really unpleasant crime, the tone here is actually almost light hearted. Sumako drives to one café after another, evidently picking up instructions from the kidnappers. By quick thinking, Chiaki and Younosuke manage to discover the place where the next instruction is and inform the police. When Sumako goes to the final destination, an uninhabited island in a lake, connected to the mainland only by a long bridge, the police are waiting. To avoid being spotted by the kidnapper,  they have kept their distance; but there are boats on the lake and policemen watching from cover on the mainland. A little after Sumako reaches the island, the police hear a shot and rush there from the lake and from the mainland. Sumako has been shot, the killer is nowhere to be seen. The gun and the ransom money have gone too.

This is obviously a fairly open impossible crime. Escape via the lake, on the water or under the surface, cannot be absolutely ruled out, although the police seem confident that that would be impossible. Other possibilities are likely to occur to readers familiar with the form. But whatever we may have been speculating gets put aside about half way through, when a discovery removes this impossibility and replaces it with a new kind of impossibility.

The puzzle has an odd form: for most of the story, all our suspects are off scene, since everyone connected with the case is either dead or missing. The lighthearted tone also evaporates fairly quickly. Chiaki starts looking like she might be a typical figure of Japanese popular literature, the attractive young woman who always gets what she wants by self confidence or wheedling or family connexions. But the depiction does not go very far in the "charming but infuriating" direction and treats her more seriously as a young woman deciding what she wants in life. The depiction of the two central characters is perhaps a little weak. Their profession is potentially interesting, but has no relation to the story; and we see very little of it. One could criticise the puzzle on the grounds that some bits are overclued and some underclued. It also demands that the police miss a few things, some understandably, some less so. The two main tricks are good enough for a novella, perhaps not quite for a full novel; but Okajima Futari are skilled at involving the story in interesting episodes.

I nearly left out the illustration here. I like that Japan keeps cover artists in business; and some are lovely. This isn't one of those. I put the picture size to "small".

Tuesday, 18 February 2014


Up to now, I've tried to post a review, translation or discussion at least once a week. But I'm incredibly busy with other things at the moment, and will be until summer. I expect that I'm going to be posting less for a while. I will have one more post this week though.

In case you haven't noticed, my usual pattern is one detective story post followed by one children's literature post, and mostly every other detective story author will be female (or male, depending where you start). Since this is a self referential post, I'll explain a convention I'm using now. If I give a book title or author's name in Japanese and English, then if there's a link in the Japanese part, it probably goes to a page in Japanese somewhere, if there's a link in the English, it will go to a page in English. I only developed the convention a few months after I'd started, so there will be some early posts where that doesn't apply. Also, as a reminder, if you want to know if I've written about a Japanese writer and can't find the name in the labels (since they're in Japanese and not in alphabetical order), the catalogue page (in the tab at the top of this page) lists reviews and translations in author order.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Songs of the Wind God

荻原規子 (OGIWARA Noriko, born 1959) is a children's writer specialising in fantasy, with some success in the west. Several of her books have been adapted into manga and anime, and two books from her best known fantasy series have been translated into English, her first book 空色勾玉 (1988) as Dragon Sword and Wind Child (1993) and 白鳥異伝 (1991) as Mirror Sword and Shadow Prince (2011). I've been reading a different fantasy, not yet translated into English, 風神秘抄 (Fuujin hishou, Songs of the Wind God, 2005). I'm not quite sure how to translate that, as my dictionaries don't have 秘抄. The word is made up of "secret" and "extract/excerpt"; specifically, the title is probably a reference to  梁塵秘抄 (Ryoujin hishou), an anthology of popular songs and folk songs compiled at the time the book is set. The novel is a romantic fantasy written in a modern western style, but set in medieval Japan, towards the end of the Heian era, when the Minamoto and Taira clans were fighting for control of the country. In an afterword, Ogiwara indicates that she sees the book as a kind of fourth volume of the series that starts with Dragon Sword and Wind Child, but independent of it, so that it can be read without having read the earlier books.

The hero Soujuurou (草十郎) starts the story as a teenager fighting on the Minamoto side in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. He has a lonely childhood behind him. His mother, a flute player, died in childbirth, and his samurai father's family did not want this child from a different mother, so that he was raised separately and grew up a lonely child, playing the flute he inherited from his mother in the hills where no-one could hear. The rebellion does not go well for the Minamoto; and the story begins with the final battle, and subsequent flight of the defeated forces. This desperate journey is very well described; and we share the experience of the young Soujuurou, as he and the young Minamoto boy he accompanies, Minamoto no Yoritomo, slowly realise that the defeat was more than a setback and that everyone they meet from now on is potentially their enemy.

Separated from the party, Soujuurou learns later that the Minamoto leader to whom he feels loyalty has been executed and secretly visits Kyoto to see if the report is true. It is. He sees the general's head hung from a tree. But he also finds a priest and a young dancing girl, Itose (糸世) secretly performing a dance to comfort the spirits of the dead. He joins their performance on the flute and the combination of flute and dancer give the dance magical powers.

Soujuurou still feels despair and has no meaning in his life after the defeat of his side. Learning that Yoritomo has been captured and is being taken to Kyoto for execution, he prepares to attack the Taira forces accompanying him, in effect throwing his life away. Before he can do so Itose seeks him out again and persuades him to help her dance once more, in an effort to change Yoritomo's fate. The magic is successful and Yoritomo's judgement is changed to exile in Izu; but the magic has been noticed. Soon various powerful nobles in Kyoto are looking to find the two performers for their own purposes.

The fantasy element of the story is largely limited to the effects of the flute and dance. But there is also a talking crow who is a major character. Soujuurou's flute playing draws wild animals to him, much like Orpheus or Tamino in the west. (I don't know if Japanese culture has similar myths; but the book reads like a reworking of the Orpheus myth in other respects too.) The crow Torihiko Ou (鳥彦王) is one of the creatures that Soujuurou's playing attracts. The name means King Malebird. Among the crows, a line of divine descent often has female birds who can speak and understand humans. Males with such ability are rare and destined to become king. Torihiko Ou, accompanied by seven comrades, is seeking experience of the human world and chooses to accompany Soujuurou.

"Shrines where humans worship somehow just don't register, they just slip out of my head, whoosh, like that."

"Do birds have gods they worship, then?" Soujuurou asked.
Of course there were, the answer came back. "I know there are gods. I, after all, am a direct descendant of them."

"You .... you're trying to tell me that you yourself are a being that receives worship."

"What's that? Didn't you know? Torihiko Ou is the living god of the birds, pal."

While Soujuurou wondered whether, with that attitude and that language, "living god" was not going too far, the crow hopped onto his head and continued talking with great self approval.

Like many fantasies it's a long book. On the whole it manages its large story well; but occasionally it loses steam. There's a bit too much reliance on having third parties praise the two leading characters, rather than allowing us to get to see their qualities for ourselves. And the broader strokes of these two characters seem to come from familiar types in fantasy and Japanese popular literature. The greatest achievement is probably the combination of the fantasy with a Heian setting. That does mean that a non Japanese reader will have some hard going through pages filled with unfamiliar names, titles and objects.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Great Merlini

After writing about Hake Talbot's Rim of the the Pit a little while ago, it may skew the focus of the blog to write about another English language detective story here. I don't mean to write many reviews of non-Japanese books; but once in while I hope it won't hurt. Since a recently bought ipad makes reading ebooks practical for me, I downloaded a book I'd been wanting to read since I heard about it in a review on the blog At the Scene of the Crime, The Great Merlini (2012), a collection of  Clayton Rawson's Great Merlini short stories. The edition I read was the iBooks version published by MysteriousPress; since the introduction by Eleanor Sullivan is copyright 1979, I take it that this is a reprint (or digitalisation) of an earlier edition.

The Great Merlini is Clayton Rawson's detective, a magician and supplier of magic tricks to other magicians (does that sound familiar?), who sometimes helps the police with baffling, apparently impossible crimes. I had read two of the stories in anthologies, and also the four novels, Death from a Top Hat (1938), The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939), The Headless Lady (1940) and No Coffin for the Corpse (1942). All the novels are enjoyable books with a lot of ingenuity. Death from a Top Hat and No Coffin for the Corpse both feature excellent locked rooms, and Rawson repeatedly finds new tricks to play on our expectations as experienced detective story readers. And then Merlini really is an excellent detective: high spirited, but with his eccentricity more or less limited to his profession; an amateur, but one with a real specialist knowledge relevant to the kind of cases he gets involved in. The characters tend towards familiar types of mid twentieth century American crime fiction. In particular gruff, no-nonsense Inspector Gavigan, constantly irritated by the bizarre crimes he has to investigate is a figure I seem to have met many times (perhaps a William Demarest role).

The two short stories that I already knew are probably the best of Rawson's work. In particular, "Off the Face of the Earth" is a brilliant impossible crime. A man claiming to be from another world has predicted the disappearance of the judge who ordered his detainment as a material witness in another case. The police suspect that the judge himself wants to disappear in any case, as he is under investigation for corruption. Two detectives tail him to the station, where they see him enter a phone box. When he doesn't come out, they go to look and find the phone box empty, the receiver off the hook and the judge's voice at the other end, giving a mocking message to the detective. It's a very nicely worked impossible crime; and Rawson manages to go one better by having Merlini himself disappear from a phone box that the narrator and Inspector Gavigan are watching later in the story.

"From Another World", the other often anthologised story, is a neatly worked out "sealed room murder", literally sealed in this case, as there is paper tape pasted over the doors and windows, all part of a test of a claimed possessor of psychic powers, who is found unconscious in the room with her millionaire patron, who has been murdered. Suspicion naturally falls on the fake medium; but the real weapon is not in the room. This is very well done. I saw through the trick, so to speak, but didn't find it a worse story for that.

None of the other stories in the collection are on this level. Many are deliberately elementary short short stories, some used as contests for readers to test their skill on in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. All of these are competent for what they are; but the mystery or the deductive element is sometimes not very interesting (a tedious discovery of contradictions). There are two or three other longer short stories, of which the best was "Nothing is Impossible", I think. A rich investigator of UFOs is shot in his locked study. His son in law is with him, but i) unconscious, ii) naked (his clothes are next to him arranged as if he was still wearing them). The detectives find no gun in the room, only a set of tiny three toed footsteps. The set up is another of Rawson's attempts to keep the locked room up to date. Instead of traditional supernatural suggestions, we have extraterrestrials and Rhine's parapsychology as background in the stories. This makes the stories now an interesting window on the time.

This was the first ebook I've read. On the whole the printsetting was no worse than most publishers. I noticed two forgivable misprints ("If s" for "It's" twice), presumably an OCR error; but it looked like someone had gone through and made a reasonable attempt to get rid of such errors. My iBooks edition did have one big and rather disappointing mistake. The story "Nothing is Impossible" was evidently meant to have an illustration of the three toed footprint. This is missing there, but turns up in the middle of a later story, "Merlini and the Photographic Clues", where we really don't want it at all.