[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]
This is another translation, of a story by 平林初之輔 (HIRABAYASHI Hatsunosuke, 1893-1931), 予審調書, his first crime story, published in the magazine 新青年 (Shinseinen, Modern Young Man) in 1926. You can read it online at Aozora Bunko: here. Hirabayashi was a critic and translator (of both French and English). He also contributed to the Japanese detective story with essays, and translations of Poe and S.S. Van Dine.
I'll explain a few points of the story in advance.
Shikishima: a high class Japanese cigarette brand: 敷島.
zashiki: a room in traditional Japanese style spread with tatami mats.
jou: a measure of area, derived from the tatami mats used for floors, about 1.65 square metres.
As usual, I've put the actual translation after the break.
A Record of the Preliminary Hearing
‘I understand your concern very well; but you have to have a little consideration for my position. In the end, rules are rules. So there’s no way that I can permit a meeting with your son in the middle of the preliminary hearing; and I definitely can’t tell you the content of the preliminary judgement, you understand? That should become clear enough when I announce it in just a little while.’
The preliminary hearing judge Shinozaki said this much in the characteristic icy tone of a judge and broke off for a moment. Looking away he lit his Shikishima. The judge’s expression was exceptionally cold and indifferent, today more than ever, almost as though he harboured some emnity, so that his guest had a somewhat ominous feeling as he spoke, ‘I do understand what you say; but still I’m sorry for that boy of mine. Really he’s got I don’t know what in his head of late and it’s come to this: babbling some nonsense he’s said something that can’t be taken back. That’s terrible, and in my concern over it I’m disturbing you every day like this .... When the suspicion is cleared, I mean to send him to the coast for a while and let him get his head right slowly. He just has these odd fits sometimes ....’
The preliminary hearing judge cut off the old professor Harada’s words in the middle; as if rebuking, and at that in a strict tone of command, he said, ‘That line is better dropped, I think. I’ve had a specialist doctor look at your son’s physical state; so I know just how things are. Absurd claims like that just make it worse for your son.’
The old professor was like a drowning man who grasps at straws even while knowing that it is no good, ‘So what did the doctor say? He did diagnose that my son had a mental illness, yes?’
He peered nervously into the other’s face.
‘As I just said, that kind of question is out of bounds. It makes my position really difficult. Properly speaking, I can’t answer at all. However, just today, as I’ve released the preliminary hearing record only a few moments ago, and since it will probably be published in the evening paper, and since you’ve gone to the trouble of calling so often, well today, just between us, I’ll answer whatever questions you have. So with that, you were asking about your son’s mental state: the specialist says that he is just somewhat excited, he doesn’t find any real abnormality.’
The judge glanced at the other’s face. The old professor’s complexion became like clay, his eyes lost the strength to focus on one point, sticking out almost like a dead man’s. Only his single minded concern for his son kept his body sitting up in the chair; that left him just enough strength to finally hear the other’s words, and to open his own mouth.
‘Then, my boy’s taken back that absurd confession, I take it? Completely groundless ..... to say he’d killed someone whose face he didn’t even know, a ridiculous confession ..... Of course, I don’t suppose there’d be a single person to believe his idiotic account .....’ the old professor asked, his tone much like that of an ignorant farmer praying for something before the household altar.
‘No, he didn't take it back. Far from it, I questioned him again and again, and your son’s answers were always exactly the same. Whether you believe it or not, there’s no room for doubt that your son’s confession is the truth.’
The slight smile in the corners of preliminary hearing judge Shinozaki’s mouth could be taken as the consoling smile of affection, or it could be the merciless cold smile of ill will. The old professor gulped at his now cold tea. That was meant as a support to calm the excitement that his heart had felt in the last few minutes.
‘So it seems that you are taking the words of a madman just like that. The ramblings of a madman count for more than proof of the truth, huh? Let me give you some advice for the sake of justice. If the courts are going to do things like fabricating spurious proofs, well, they would do well to hold back.’
‘Don’t be absurd! As I just told you, there’s absolutely nothing abnormal to be found in your son’s mental state. And, let me add, the court definitely does not fabricate evidence. We put the physical evidence and the defendant’s statement together under a light, and when the two fit together we decide the culprit. However, even if these two are in agreement, on days when we suspect the defendant’s mental condition, there can’t be a verdict, you understand. But this time, since it’s all an accident, my view is that your son’s crime shouldn’t be seen as such a big thing. But the prosecutor, it seems, doesn’t view this case as an accident; and since when you listen to the prosecutor’s arguments, there is some justice in what he says .....’
‘So we’re saying my boy has deliberately committed an outrageous murder, yes? That it isn’t even accident? If that’s so, do my boy’s statement and that physical evidence of yours agree exactly? I can hardly think so.’
The old professor’s temples were nervously twitching, and his pale face grew red as blood suddenly washed into it. That was no wonder: he was facing the decision between life and death for his son.
‘Well, well, calm down, now. As I just said, I firmly believe it was an accident. Still, when you say that your son’s statement and the physical evidence can hardly agree, that’s odd too, isn’t it? That day you left for the university early; and the discovery of the body occurred after that. So you never saw the crime scene; and you didn’t hear your son’s statement either. Aren’t you putting things a bit too strongly, when you say you can hardly think so?’
Defeated by the judge’s logical rebuttal, the professor had lost all hope of finding land. Thick sweat was coming out across his forehead. He finally managed to stutter out, ‘Well, that ..... since my boy’s wits are funny, there’s no way we can think that a half madman’s words fit the facts, so .....’
‘But your son’s statement fits the facts perfectly. There’s just one point where it doesn’t fit. If we could understand that too, this case would already be clear and your son’s crime established as a culpable accident; but as there’s this one unclear point, that’s where we get the grounds for suspecting, isn’t this maybe premeditated murder. Of course, as I’ve told you more than once, I don’t believe that at all.It’s just that the prosecutor is quite convinced of it, and depending on how things go, the presiding judge is also thought likely to believe the prosecutor. After all the way things are is strange.’
The preliminary hearing judge fixed an icy regard on the old professor. The old professor’s half white beard was trembling with little shivers; even at a distance of five feet the judge’s eye could easily tell the movement.
‘This unclear point you mentioned, what is it exactly?’
‘Well, it’s a really odd business, you know,’ preliminary hearing judge Shinozaki lit his second Shikishima and started his story. Once again at the corners of his mouth a slight smile, whose meaning was quite beyond fathoming, came and went. He put emphasis on each important point of the account, and as he did so, with the characteristic keenness of a judge he fixed his eyes on the face of the other, with a look to freeze his heart. A seasick traveller will brace his abdomen, but the more desperately he resists, the stronger his nausea grows. The old professor was like that now. He tried to keep his heart calm, in particular he tried to avoid his characteristic weakness, the disgrace of collapsing from shortness of blood to the brain. He straightened his shoulders, swallowed, though his throat was dry, and clenched the fingers of both hands tight as he listened; but under the preliminary judge’s razor sharp eye that posture collapsed almost instantly.
‘As you know, the man apprehended at the scene of the crime was the first suspect, a man called Hayashi. Between this man’s statement and your son’s statement there are strange contradictions. According to Hayashi’s statement, on that morning he saw that on the empty house where the killing took place – the house next to yours, your property, yes? – he saw that there was a “To Let” sign and asked the maid doing washing at your house’s back door, could she let him in to view it. At that the maid said that the main door’s lock wasn’t on, so he should please go in and look round at his leisure. This man Hayashi had apparently come to see the house the evening of the day before, too; but as it was getting dark, he couldn’t make anything out, and he gave up and came again the next day. When he got inside, after investigating the floor of the zashiki, how much sunlight the rooms got, where the toilets and baths were, and so on, he then took a look at the kitchen, and found that there on the wooden floor was the woman’s body lying face down. The whole body was covered in contusions. In particular, the back of her head seemed to be horribly battered, and the hair was matted together with blood. There was a new, sharp knife sticking in her back. When Hayashi saw this terrible scene – well, he must have been thrown into panic – he got the idea that if it came out like this he would definitely be suspected; he thought that one way or another he had to put off the discovery of the body, even a little, and set to hiding the body under the kitchen floorboards. Just at that point, he heard the footsteps of your maid and ran off in panic. Now since, according to the examining doctor’s report, more than twelve hours had passed since death, it was clear that this Hayashi had not committed the crime there. Apart from that, we learn from the doctor that the wound that killed her was the blow to the back of the head, and the knife was, it seems, stuck into her quite some time after.’
He broke off for a moment. The evening son was pouring in through a crack in the curtain like the gleam of a jewel.
‘Of course, that doesn’t mean that Hayashi was completely cleared. Why? Because he had come to see the house the day before, one could suspect that he committed the crime at that point, and then on the next day, unable to leave it alone, he came to check on the crime scene. With this kind of crime, that sort of thing is quite possible you see. Actually it’s not just possible, it might be better to say it’s the sort of thing that tends to happen. Take the protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Gorky’s Three Men: after committing the murder, don’t they come back to look at the crime scene?’
The evening sun that shone in through the window added a kind of sollemnity to the scene inside the room. Professor Harada was listening with desperate concern to each word that came from the mouth of the preliminary hearing judge, who held in his hand the power to take his son’s life or let him live. The judge kept talking with the same fossil like tone as ever. That calm tone was almost calculated to irritate the other’s feelings more and more.
‘But when this case was published in the next day’s newspapers, as you know, your son gave himself up, saying he had killed this woman. With that Hayashi was completely cleared. In the end the only suspicion against Hayashi was that on the evening of the previous day he had come to the place where the crime was committed, you see. As the grounds for suspicion were so very weak, the truth is that on our side too we weren’t sure where to take it; and just at that moment, your son gave himself up. As I understand, with the house being empty, your son used to go there every evening to exercise before going to bed, in order to sleep better. That evening too, around nine, he went to open the front door and go in, and found that for some reason, although it wasn’t locked, the door just wouldn’t open. Finally with a superhuman effort he opened it. At that moment he was shocked by a horrible noise from behind the door. When he entered he found that that an old iron bed that had been leant against the wall, had fallen over when the door opened, and that had been the noise. Looking at it in the little light that came in from the porch lamp, it looked like there was something black crushed beneath it. He lifted up the bed and underneath it he found that woman’s dead body lying there. It seemed that from the head to the chest she had been horribly battered by that thick iron frame and had died instantly, before she could even utter a shriek. This was a terrible thing he had done, he thought; but even so, since instant death is something unthinkable, he hastened to lift her up in his arms. Her body was icy cold and stiff; she was quite dead. At this, your son says, he lost his head, not knowing what he was doing he rushed out in panic. Even saying it was an accident, something as large as the taking of a human life could not simply be cleared away. In addition, he didn’t know whether or not people would believe him that it was an accident. He decided then to pretend he hadn’t seen anything. He left the body as it was, softly closed the door so that no-one would hear it, and with a nonchalant expression returned home and went to sleep. It’s only human in a case like this to do things that are really against all reason. The next day, when Hayashi came to view the empty house and the corpse of the woman killed by your son’s error was found, he was afraid of arousing supicion and went with everyone else to see the scene of the crime. But when the case was reported in that evening’s papers, and he read that the innocent Hayashi had been arrested as a serious suspect, he couldn’t keep still, but came and gave himself up. Your son’s confession is roughly along those lines. What do you think? Does this coherent statement give us any warrant for recognising a mental abnormality in your son?’
Both speaker and listener took out handkerchiefs and wiped the sweat off their foreheads.
‘I imagine that you understand pretty well how it is now,’ the judge started speaking again. ‘According to Hayashi’s statement, the body was lying face down in the kitchen and there was a knife stuck in its back. The result of the crime scene investigation agrees with Hayashi’s statement. But your son says he left the body in the entrance room and ran off in panic ..... If that was all, it would be all right; but more recently his memory isn’t clear even on this. It could be that at that point in a daze, he himself dragged the body as far as the kitchen. What’s more, on investigating the crime scene, we find clear traces that show the body being dragged from the three jou entrance through the six jou living room into the kitchen. On top of that — how should I put it? — the trail of the dragged body had clearly been carefully wiped with a floor cloth or something. When something like that happens, this kind of careful act can be unconscious, you know. There are lots of cases. However, if that’s the case, your son’s position is extremely unfortunate.’
The judge broke off for a moment. He seemed not to notice that each word that came out of his mouth was torturing his listener’s heart as if he was gouging it with a chisel. Or you could counter that he did notice and was taking pleasure in deliberately making the other suffer.
‘Since that’s how it is, it’s a real problem that your son’s statement is unclear in the important point. As I keep telling you, I have no doubt that it was an accident; but the apparent existence of this one unclear part of your son’s statement is not something that the world will understand. When the prosecutor looks at how, just when the door opened and the bed fell down, the victim was standing just there beneath it, and then when the bed fell, how it hit exactly the vital points, all he can think is that the story is a complete fabrication. In reality, coincidence does occasionally create cases which go beyond our expectations; but you habe to see how very hard it is to get the presiding judge to believe such a convenient story.’
If Judge Shinozaki’s intention was to make Professor Harada’s suffering as deep as possible, then you would have to say he had attained his object completely. For just keeping his body’s centre from collapsing was now clearly taking all the old professor’s strength. But apparently the judge had some goal beyond torturing the other. At any rate, the old professor could not take it any other way.
A sick man on point of death, as the hour approaches, sometimes asks the doctor again and again what the chances of recovery are. In such cases an experienced doctor will certainly not make the patient despair. Yet judge Shinozaki was like a merciless doctor continuing to bring terror to a sick man as long as that sick man drew breath.
‘My boy can’t be found not guilty, you’re saying?’ the professor asked in a voice as thin as the buzzing of a fly.
‘Not guilty doesn’t come into it,’ the judge replied. ‘The question is whether or not to recognise extenuating circumstances of accidental homicide. With the current suspicions it could be that it ends up being judged as deliberate murder.’
‘That’s just absurd, just outrageous ..... So what about this man Hayashi?’ the professor’s voice was in truth more a cry than a voice.
‘He’s already out of the picture. The grounds for suspicion were always weak; and your son’s confession removed them completely. His acquittal was already decided at the preliminary hearing. At this trial, he won’t be accused, he’ll be summoned as a witness.’
‘Then there’s no way to save my boy?’
‘I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s no way. But one way or another any more hesitation is likely to see things get quite beyond saving. Your son, yesterday and today, at the hearing, was saying anything that came into his head, taking back his previous testimony, saying that it could be that he had deliberately killed her, things like that. Hearing him even I was frozen with dread. Somehow, like you said, his wits really seemed to have been deranged. In that case we’ll have to consider giving him psychiatric treatment in a mental hospital for a short while, then redoing the hearing.’
‘Wh-, what? That would be so cruel ..... a mental hospital, along with those horrifying madmen. No ..... my boy’s not a madman.’
It was a mystery how there could still be strength left in the professor’s body for this much agitation.
At this point the entrance bell rang. Without waiting for the maid to announce the visitor, the judge got up from his chair and left the room with a word of excuse to the professor. In the entrance he spoke with someone in a low voice, then immediately returned and took up the conversation again, ‘But this is a bit unexpected from you. The idea that your son was mentally unbalanced — weren’t you the one claiming that originally?’
The poor professor said nothing, his head bowed down. Prison or the insane asylum, either way his son was beyond saving. In his head the two dreadful extremes were vividly pictured. A dark thought came over him like night constricting his heart. He opened his mouth fearfully, almost as if touching an abcess, and finally asked, ‘Then I’ll only ask one more question. What degree of guilt will they assign my son?’
The judge, like a cat that has caught a mouse alive and plays with it to its heart’s content before eating it, spoke in a leisurely, calm tone, as if speaking of some unrelated matter, ‘Ah, good question. If it were accident, that wouldn’t be serious at all; but make it deliberate murder and — well, we have to admit that that’s the likely verdict — make it deliberate murder and, well, nine out of ten it’s the death penalty.’
‘Judge!’ Professor Harada cried out, springing to his feet.
The judge's face became a little more attentive and he sat forward in his chair.
The old professor’s temporary agitation had burst forth in that one word ‘Judge!’ and with that seemed to have quite disappeared, he was again withered like greens.
‘Judge, I’m going to make a complete confession here. What kind of a man am I? At this age, although I have a place teaching others, here I am pushing the crime on, of all people, my beloved son, all this time pretending I know nothing. It was me. I killed that woman. I killed her accidentally. Release my boy immediately! And in his place put the handcuffs on me, please! Judge!’
A head so filled with law and only law, hearing such a dramatic confession, should not be indifferent, you might think; but preliminary hearing judge Shinozaki showed not the least surprise or emotion. His expression almost suggested that this was just what he expected.
‘So why was the body, killed in the entrance, then laid out in the kitchen? And why was it stabbed in the back with a knife? Is Hayashi’s statement wrong?’
Professor Harada, now quite calm, started speaking. There was even the trace of a wry smile at the corners of his mouth. ‘His statement is correct. I dragged the body to the kitchen to confuse the traces of the crime. I had the feeble idea that if I did that, someone would certainly come to view the house and suspicion would fall on them, you see. Since the corpse was stiff, getting it up from the entrance into the zashiki was terribly hard work. But then, as it was icy as a stone, it wasn’t too horrible moving it. As you recognised, when I was dragging the body some bloodstains got on the tatami. So I went back to my house and returned with a floor cloth and wiped all the bloodstains away, or thought I did; but the crime scene forensic police finding them was the judgement of heaven. Since even after removing the bloodstains I couldn’t feel out of danger, I then went and bought a knife from a nearby hardware store and stuck it in the corpse’s back to make it look like homicide. At that point, and only then, even my hand was shaking. In retrospect, it’s almost a mystery to me how I was able to stick the knife in in a reasonable state. That was the reason that the body killed in the entrance got moved to the kitchen. It’s clear. My son must have seen me kill the woman by accident in the entrance and must have taken the blame for me. So he didn’t know anything about what came after. If you don’t believe what I’m telling you, try digging at the foot of the fig tree in my back garden. You should find the floor cloth I wiped the blood with buried there. And then, please call the hardware shop owner. Asaba is the shop name. He must still remember selling me the knife that evening. I’ve nothing more to tell you. Please, let my son go and put the handcuffs on me!’
‘There’s no need to summon the hardware shop owner now. That shop owner does remember selling you the knife that evening. He should be here any moment. You heard the doorbell a moment ago, I imagine. That was the police bringing the shopowner’s statement. At that time, in case you ended up not confessing, I had no choice but to plan bringing you face to face and sent for him.’
When someone has accepted whatever may come, they know no suffering, no worry. Professor Harada spoke calmly, ‘Understanding that, you’ll release my boy immediately, I take it?’
‘Your son’s release was already decided at the preliminary hearing. When I said that Hayashi was acquitted, that was actually a lie. It was your son that was acquitted.’
The colour returned to the professor’s face in his relief. The judge continued placidly, ‘With that will you be so kind as to make a full confession? Leaving nothing out.’
The professor looked startled, ‘A confession you say? Beyond this? Does that mean, just saying what I’ve told you, that still isn’t enough to clear my son? Please put the handcuffs on me right now.’
The judge considered for a while with folded arms, then finally spoke again, ‘If you won’t open up more than this, then there’s no helping it. Well, I’m sorry to bother you, but could you take me once more through what you just told me, up to when you took the body from the entrance to the kitchen and stuck the knife in it. That way I can make a little record.’
The professor repeated the earlier statement as the judge wanted. A secretary took it down, then went back out when the dictation was finished.
‘A lot of trouble that. But now it’s done, the record of the preliminary hearing is complete.’
‘My boy is completely cleared of suspicion, I take it?’ the professor’s only concern was this one point.
‘In this case, from the start, there were only two people who suspected your son’s guilt; and it’s because of them that the investigation has been unexpectedly prolonged,’ the judge spoke in an explanatory tone. ‘One of these was your son himself, the other one was you, his father. See there, just to demonstrate that up to now you have been suspecting your son, you’re astonished at hearing what I say. In your conviction that your son was the one guilty of the crime, you moved the body to a different place and tried to stick a knife in it, and so set your son’s statement and the evidence of the crime scene at odds. In that way you tried to create proof that your son was mentally abnormal. But today, seeing that there was no way for your son to be found innocent, you finally went so far as to confess that you yourself were the killer. I have children too, and I do understand your feelings as a parent. For the sake of their children, a parent will do the most idiotic things .....’
Both the judge’s eyes and the professor’s had tears in them.
‘Beyond that, this case was decided from the beginning. Firstly, I don’t understand physics, but just judging from experience, there’s no way that the force of that falling bed was enough to kill someone. Not just that: we’re talking of a person who was standing up being killed instantly without having time to utter a squeak. It’s just impossible. And then, according to your son’s statement the body was hard and cold as ice. The idea that this stiff, cold body had died this moment, well it might fool your son in his panic, it’s too childish to fool a judge. In any case, beyond that, there was a strange thread connecting the bed and the door, and to top it all, there were fingerprints of another man (apart from you and your son) all over the bedstead.’
‘The killer’s. That was Hayashi, of course. He had committed the crime the evening before in the very kitchen where the body was discovered. Then to divert suspicion, he took the corpse to the entrance and tied together door and bedstead in such a way that the bedstead, leant against the wall, would fall when the door was opened. That was his attempt to make it look like the woman had happened to be beneath it and had died like that. After that your son opened the door and it turned out the way it did. Then in turn, you, knowing that, took the corpse to the kitchen.’
‘I am unbearably ashamed at the tricks I played in my ignorance,’ the professor was both shocked and abashed at the strange story.
‘But your tricks speeded up the killer’s confession. That is, by a strange coincidence, or perhaps it was the judgement of heaven, you put the corpse in just where Hayashi had beaten the woman to death with his stick, the exact spot, and laid out just as she had been then. Because of that, as we understand it, when the next day came, even Hayashi, who was so bold as to come creeping back to the scene of the crime, seeing the moved body, was thrown into almost complete confusion, and in his terror he tried hiding it under the floor. After that, there was your stabbing the body with a knife. You said that, looking back, it was strange that you were able to stick the knife in properly with your trembling hands. In fact you hadn’t stabbed her, it had just slipped down the side of her body. Hayashi picked it up and in his extreme terror he stuck it in her back .....’
His listener, speechless at this unexpected story, breathed a sigh of relief. The narrator broke off briefly, then went on with his account, ‘Hayashi has made a complete confession. We also know who the murdered woman was. But as Hayashi’s actions were not really connected with you, I ought not to speak of them. Only now, at the end, I have to apologise for so cruelly tormenting you today. I had calculated that, convinced as you were of your son’s guilt, there was no way a direct address could bring you to a full statement, and by putting you through more and more torment, I got you to make the false confession, “I am the culprit.” I thought that using that I could get an admission from the party responsible for the stage where the body was moved from the entrance back to the kitchen, that is from you. While that one point was not clear, the record of the preliminary hearing could not be completed. When I said the record had been published today, that was a lie, of course. That was my way of getting you to believe what I told you.’
The evening darkness had closed in on the room. As the hundred candle-power electric light flicked on, the sudden brightness shone on the faces of the visitor and his host. And in both their hearts, there was a still brighter glow.