Saturday, 24 May 2014

Marutamachi Revoir

Every month or so, I look in Google to see if anyone else is writing about Japanese crime fiction in English (or another European language). At the moment, there seems to be only one active blog, Ho-Ling no Jikenbo, which has been going for over five years now and has hundreds of reviews on it. Since we're the only ones currently covering the material, I sometimes try to avoid overlapping too much. But if a book sounds interesting, I'm likely to read it too at some point. The Revoir series by 円居挽 (MADOI Ban, or Van Madoy in the version that the books offer, born 1983) sounds like the kind of thing that I'd expect to like. I tried the first book, 丸太町ルヴォワール (Marutamachi Revoir, 2009); but in the end I couldn't feel much enthusiasm for it. So this'll be a fairly short review.

The set up is the most interesting part of the book, a society within the society of Kyoto, made up of ancient families, who resolve their disputes by a private trial system. The prosecution is for a murder several years back: the then teenage 城坂論語 (SHIROSAKA Rongo) is accused of having murdered his grandfather. The first chapter is a long first person narration by Shirosaka of the events of that day. He was recuperating after an injury to his eyes, which left him effectively blind, in his grandfather's home. His grandfather meanwhile was in the hanare (離れ), a separate building in the grounds, where he lived to avoid electrical interference that might make his pacemaker malfunction. I've mentioned this before, but those places are death traps (I'm fairly sure every detective story I've read so far, if there's a hanare, someone's going to get killed in it). Shirosaka, reaching for his mobile phone, happens to catch the hand of an intruder, apparently a young woman, who claims that her name is Rouge. There follows a battle of wits where he keeps hold of her and questions her; but in the end she gets away, and when later the grandfather is found dead, suspicion falls upon Shirosaka, since there are no traces of the young woman he remembers. The family cover up the crime, but some years later Shirosaka goes against his uncle's wishes, who sets a prosecution in motion.

The books are clearly aimed at young readers; and all the main characters are either students or only slightly older. If you include the first person account in the first chapter, we see the action from three viewpoints, Shirosaka, and his defense team, 御堂達也 (MIDOU Tatsuya) and 瓶賀流 (MIKAGA Mitsuru: I take it that these are unusual kanji for this name, as my Japanese input program didn't offer them as an option). There's a focus on young people's interest in deciding what to do with their lives, and also on cutting a good figure (格好いい). 

The trial proceeds with repeated surprises, especially since both sides are quite unscrupulous, ready to use any trick in order to win. The actual deductions rarely seem convincing and at the end we are left with a solution that was probably the one we were expecting; but if there was any good reason to choose it, I must have missed it. The private court was in the end not really a plus for me. I didn't really care about the ceremonial aspects, which got a lot of attention, and wanted to know what the procedural rules were. As it was, it seemed like a chaotic free for all, which is probably less fun for readers who have a couple of decades of experience of badly run meetings. The books makes a kind of theme of the interplay of the pleasure of deception and the pleasure of deduction. In this book at least, Madoi seems stronger in the first than the second.

3 comments:

  1. Too bad you didn't enjoy it as much as I did. I really loved the fast-paced, improvising trial and if you get through all the chaos and the layers of deception played on both the characters and the readers, you'll see the way hints are laid throughout the text is actually quite good. There's an essay by Madoy himself on Marutachi about one of the recurring main tricks of the book, which I thought to be quite interesting (「丸太町ルヴォワール」 in 『新本格ミステリの話をしよう』 (2012)).

    The rules don't get explained any better in subsequent books, so I doubt you'll like them then. Karasuma shows how both sides have to collect evidence (which has its own set of rules), but in the end, it is always coming up the best theory that fits your own goal based on the things you and the opponent have and hope you entertain the judge.

    About the names, the names of both Mikaga and Midou were taken from seniors of Madoy at his university club, IIRC.

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    1. Thanks for the background. Incidentally I think I remember you writing that you were in Kyoto. Does local knowledge add to the interest of the book, do you reckon?

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    2. Well, I am extremely biased here, as a lot of the locales that appear in the book, were all inside my own daily living radius in Kyoto (not strange, as it would be the normal living area for a student at Kyoto University, like the characters of the book), but yeah, that was definitely an aspect I loved.

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