Sunday, 23 March 2014

Palindrome Syndrome

As often with books published by Sougen Suiri Bunko, I didn't have to think up a translation of the title myself, since one was already provided. The original book is 喜劇悲奇劇 (Kigekihikigeki, Palindrome Syndrome, 1982) by 泡坂妻夫 (AWASAKA Tsumao). The translation offered is not literal. Kigeki means 'comedy' and higeki means 'tragedy' and the ki in the middle of it means 'strange' and can be used in describing stage magicians. So a more literal title would be something more like Tragicomagical; but the palindrome of the title references the original japanese. Palindromes in English read the same forwards as backwards. It's the same in Japanese, but the Japanese alphabet is syllabic. There's one letter for 'hi', one for 'ki' and so on, giving a series: ki-ge-ki-hi-ki-ge-ki. So the title is a palindrome, and it's not the only one in the book. The mystery takes place on a showboat whose owner is an enthusiast for palindromes, and all the victims have palindromic names.

Awasaka was himself an enthusiast for stage magic; so it's no surprise that there are several magicians among the characters, including the hero, KAEDE Shichirou (楓七郎). There are also fire eaters, clowns and several tigers. The story takes place on a old transport ship adapted to look like a nineteenth century paddleboat for entertainment cruises in Japanese coastal waters. In the first scene, the ship is travelling through a typhoon on a preparation trip before the first public performance. Hearing a disturbance from the stage magician's room, the crew force the door open. The magician staggers out,  stabbed with a sword that passes right through him. He pushes past the people outside and climbs desperately onto the deck, where he pulls the sword out and collapses as blood pours out onto the deck. Others rush to help, but a wave sweeps him over the side, and they only have time to reach the sword (a real one, not a prop). But one bystander had remained in the corridor outside the room and swears that no-one had left it, even though there is no-one inside.

This is the first of a series of bizarre deaths, which the manager covers up ruthlessly, thinking that the show must go on.  A serial murder case with a background in a curiosity like palindromes is very reminiscent of the other Awasaka book that I discussed earlier, 乱れからくり, which has mechanical toys as its speciality. I think it is less successful than that one was. In both, most of the ingenuity comes in the tricks that the murderer devises; and some certainly are ingenious. But in one case at least, you have to suspect that the murderer's ingenuity is really only for the author's advantage. With a range of grotesque characters and extravagant motives, we are very far from a realistic crime novel. But the first part is strangely a little lacklustre, though certainly not dull. A problem might be the self pitying alcoholic hero. The story picks up a lot towards the middle, as the farcical element becomes stronger; one unexpected turn in particular is neatly worked into a Wodehouse style comedy sequence, in a way very reminiscent of some John Dickson Carr (or perhaps even more Carter Dickson) stories. If you liked 乱れからくり, you'll probably like this, just not quite as much.

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