Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Murders at Broom House

I've given my own translation of the title of 金雀枝荘の殺人 (Enishidasou no satsujin, The Murders at Broom House, 1993) by  今邑彩 (IMAMURA Aya, 1955-2013). As you can see, the publishers have put their own translation on the cover, The Murder at the Broom House; but the English translations that Japanese publishers sometimes put on their books are not always correct or idiomatic. The style of the cover is something you see quite often on Japanese mysteries: thin, very vertically posed figures with long necks and small heads. I'm not sure if they're all the same artist (this cover is credited to KITAMI Ryuu, 北見隆). The style appears on some more light hearted books; but, particularly in colours like these, you can see how it could fit with books tending more towards the horror end of the mystery genre. This book definitely belongs there. There are few descriptions of horrible events as they happen; but we read with anticipation or awareness that most of the characters are not going to survive.

I actually hate this kind of book. I hate watching people cluelessly bumbling about, unaware of the terrible things about to happen to them, or making obviously bad choices in their pathetic efforts to survive. It helps if the victims show more resourcefulness, or if they are particularly sympathetic, so that we care what happens to them. Neither is the case here. We just look on unwillingly as unpleasant events approach people whose fates don't really interest us.

The book also has the trappings of a ghost story. Unlike most detective stories, one ghost at least seems to be real, and we see things from her point of view in a prologue. Some provisional deductions are also made along the way based on acceptance of the supernatural. Such things of course threaten to undermine the puzzle, especially when the rules of the supernatural are not clear. But the central mystery at least can be solved without recourse to supernatural evidence.

Four cousins gather at Broom House to discuss a mysterious massacre that had occurred a year ago in the same mansion, a German style house that their great grandfather had built in the late Meiji period for his German bride.  Five other cousins had been staying there over Christmas. But they had all died. From the evidence, they seem to have murdered each other and the caretaker, serially (i.e. A was apparently killed by B, B by C, C by D and so on), each by a different method. The windows of the house had been nailed shut from the inside, and were likewise all locked from the inside, as were the doors. This massacre resembled a crime from the early twentieth century, when the caretaker had apparently killed his wife and daughter, before killing himself. In that case too the house had been locked and nailed shut from the inside. Did his ghost hang like a curse over the house, driving the cousins to madness? But the cousins' murder has another pattern, the series of the victims resemble the little goats in Grimm fairy tale that the cousins had made the centre of a game when they stayed at the house as little children. And there is one more mystery hanging over the house, the German great grandmother had disappeared shortly after her marriage, apparently abandoning her new born baby to return to Germany.

The four surviving cousins are joined by a woman who can see ghosts and a passing traveller who works his way into the group by a combination of strange persuasiveness and persistence. With six people in the house the stage seems set for a repeat of the events of last Christmas. And someone is secretly nailing shut the windows of the salon.

There are a range of mysteries here. Attention is concentrated on the earlier murder of the five cousins. As a locked room, I don't think it would rank in the top efforts. I certainly considered the actual solution; but, since we are talking about a mansion, rather than a room, with so many possible exits, it's hard to know what might be possible. On the other hand, it's one of the best examples of making use of the horror aspect of a crime to cover (and then from the other side to deduce) how the crime was committed. There are several other clever aspects to the book. At the end the motive brings us back into horror territory, a nastier variation on one of the most famous Japanese detective stories.

I wouldn't want to praise the book too highly; but it was good enough that I'll certainly try something else by the same writer. You can read another blogger's less enthusiastic reaction to the same book here.

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