Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Flying Horse

I've read only a few books in the genre "puzzles of everyday life" (日常の謎), where the mysteries are not major crimes, but the kind of minor puzzles that might happen anywhere. It's a genre that I'd like to like more than I do, since I've always thought that the detective story's emphasis on murder is unnecessary and misses out on a lot of possibilities. Somehow the examples I've read so far don't rise above agreeable, pleasant, not very compelling reading. There always seems to be a slight lack of focus. The problem perhaps is that there's a limit to the amount of energy someone can put into investigating an oddity that they happen to come across. If they have too much curiosity about other people's lives for no good reason, readers may be disturbed rather than entertained. Everyday mysteries with a workplace setting can get around that; but the mystery I'm discussing here, 空飛ぶ馬 (Soratobu uma, Flying Horse, 1989) has characters whose only motivation is curiosity, and, since they aren't pathologically nosy, there is (more or less) no actual investigation, only deduction from the known facts.

The book is the first collection of detective stories by 北村薫 (KITAMURA Kaoru, born 1949), a major figure in the genre. The narrator is a young literature student in her first year at university. The detective is a rakugo teller, SHUNOUTEI Enshi (春桜亭円紫), a former student of one of the narrator's teachers at university. Rakugo is a kind of comic narrative, with a set of traditional stories, where the particular character comes from the way the rakugo artist tells them. Each of the short stories also contains an account of one of Enshi's performances and the story he tells in it. In fact, there are a lot of cultural references: the narrator is an enthusiast for books and rakugo, and deductions may depend, for instance, on the difference between Shakespeare's and Verdi's Macbeth

The first story "The Soul of Oribe" looks for the explanation of apparently supernatural knowledge. An old professor had as a small child repeatedly dreamt of a man who had committed seppuku. One day his rich collector uncle clears out his storehouse and brings out a portrait of the inventor of Oribe pottery, the man from his dream. The boy shocks his uncle by asking if this man committed seppuku: he had had no opportunity to see the picture locked away for years in the storehouse. The second, "Sugar Battle", looks for the explanation for why three women at a teashop would apparently compete to put as much sugar as possible into their drinks. The third story follows the narrator and two friends on an outing in north east Japan: why would someone steal the worthless seatcovers on their car? The fourth, "Red Riding Hood", looks at why a little girl in red would always be seen at the same time alone in a playground. In the fifth, "Flying Horse", a shopkeeper donates the broken horse ride that he used to have outside his shop to a local kindergarten, setting it in concrete in the grounds there. But that night a woman believes it had disappeared, although when she checked the next day, it was there as if nothing had happened.

Anyone expecting a classical mystery is likely to be disappointed here. The stories spend much more time on exploring the narrator's daily life and thoughts about the future than on the mystery. This is most notable in the third story, where aspects of the mystery are prepared early in the story, but the actual mystery only appears in the last few of its seventy odd pages. The solutions are rarely criminal, but they sometimes reflect less happy sides of life; and this in turn becomes material for the young narrator's character development. I must admit that, although I didn't dislike the narrator, her aimlessness was both odd to me and slightly irritating. I don't remember undergraduates in my time being so lacking in interest in where they were going. They may have had a lot of competing ideas; but having none seems very strange to me. The book is the first in a series of six, which follow the character's development (the covers of the sequel show the same figure with slight changes in dress and hairstyle). So perhaps she gets more purpose as it goes along.

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