Sunday, 27 July 2014

The House in the Wood

林の中の家 (Hayashi no naka no ie, The House in the Wood, 1959) is the second detective novel by NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子), following her prize winning debut, 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957). The narrator, NIKI Etsuko, and her older brother Yuutarou, are still students. Although not especially rich themselves, they have fallen on their feet with the chance to house sit (and maintain the cactus collection) for a rich couple who are currently living abroad. This gives them a home and the use of a little Renault car and a television. The book came out in the same year as the OZU film お早よう (Ohayou, Good Morning), whose story turns on the gradual spread of television.

Etsuko is watching television when the story starts (the more serious Yuutarou is cataloguing plants). A telephone call comes from a woman who greets Etsuko and asks to speak to her brother. Then, before she can call him, the woman screams in horror and the phone is cut off. She had mentioned the address she was calling from, so Etsuko, accompanied by her brother, sets out to investigate. They find the victim, a former tango singer, clubbed to death in the titular house in the wood, the home of a successful television and radio scriptwriter. The victim was married not to him, but to a businessman, the manager of the business belonging to the victim's parents.

The story spreads out to cover a very large number of suspects, the victim's parents' family, her husband's household, the scriptwriter, his estranged wife and her employees, and so on. There are more crimes too, a suspicious heart attack, an apparent attempted murder, and the kidnapping a small child. The brother and sister again play amateur detective, with the improbable advantage that both the investigating deputy inspector (who knows them from the earlier case) and many of the suspects are very ready to talk to them. Occasionally there are more realistic moments where their lack of official standing leaves them unable to investigate something. Occasionally too they show an awareness of the various ethical problems that come with their role.

I mentioned the large number of suspects. I think there are at least fifteen people, who (sometimes only formally) are considered at some point as suspects. That means that there are a large number of red herrings. The reader has little chance of really knowing who did it till near the end, when most of the distractions have been cleared up and the picture has settled. The actual solution is well clued, though only parts of it are interesting: there are a few too many clues that rely on trivial contradictions that the reader is supposed to spot for my taste.

I said in my last review that Niki is the polar opposite of YOKOMIZO Seishi; and that's true of this story too. There is not much intense emotion on display. Several characters are wealthy in a normal middle class way; but there are no powerful families with special social influence. The setting is modern and urban and close to everyday life.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Our Hats

わたしたちの帽子 (Watashitachi no boushi, Our Hats, 2005) is a children's book by TAKADONO Houko (高楼方子, born 1955), aimed at older primary school children. Takadono is not well known in the west. There is a recent German translation of her picture book for young children, まあちゃんのながいかみ (Maa chan no nagai kami, Maa's Long Hair, 1989), published by Edition Bracklo (Wenn meine Haare lang wachsen, 2013).

Our Hats is a kind of fantasy, with a modern, urban setting. Saki and her mother move into an old apartment building while their home is being renovated. At first, Saki feels downcast at living in the old building; but soon she comes to feel an interest in it. In a cupboard in the apartment she finds a patchwork hat, made of bits of cloth with flower and leaf patterns. She tries the hat on and is still wearing it when her pet bird, Chiruru, gets out of its cage and flies out of the open door of the apartment. Chasing the bird, she climbs the stairs to the fifth floor, where she finds the door of another apartment open and hears a voice quietly singing inside.

In the middle of the all white, empty, bright room a girl was standing, facing to one side. She was wearing a white blouse and a fluffy round green skirt. Not just that, on top of her shoulder length curly hair, wasn't that the same hat as Saki was wearing? And then, sitting on her fingertip, there was Chiruru. He had his head on one side, just as if he was listening to the girl's song.

Saki becomes friends with the mysterious girl, Iku. Wearing their nearly identical hats, the two explore the building, with its strange corridors and stairs, and observe the even stranger residents. Saki keeps her friendship a secret from her mother, as she suspects that there is something strange about Iku.

The book keeps a balance between reality and fantasy, using the mysterious feeling that a strange older building has for young children. Saki's interpretation of the building and the people in it is informed by the expectations of a child who has read fantasy stories; but most of what she witnesses could be interpreted as part of the (not very) normal world. She has competing desires, for a normal friendship with a real girl her age, and for mysterious and magical events. The resolution of the various puzzles satisfies both her wishes in an unexpected way and links the friendship across the building's history.

[I borrowed the illustration from the JBBY web site that I link to. Mostly I put up a scan of the cover of the books I discuss. But since in either case the copyright belongs to someone else, I hope that if anyone has a problem, they'll let me know, so that I can remove it.]

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Case Files of Young Kindaichi, Files 12 and 13

I don't write much about manga:although I know it's a useful supplement for learning the kanji, I don't read it very much; and since there are a lot of blogs out there on the subject, I don't think I have much to add. I did write about one of the 金田一少年 (Young Kindaichi) manga last year. That one, The Vampire Legend Murder Case, like all those I had read, was from the more recent series, by AMAGI Seimaru (天樹征丸). In the early years the main series was written by KANARI Youzaburou (金成陽三郎). Some people are not big fans of Kanari (here for instance are the blogger TomCat's reviews of several of the translations); but the main reason I had read nothing by him is that in the original, the stories are published so that most start in one volume and end in another. That means that if you want to read every story you pay for, you have to buy a set of three or more volumes between the points where the break between stories and the break between volumes coincide. I didn't care to spend that much money on a writer I might not enjoy, but in Japan recently I picked up a short stretch of three volumes second hand, Volumes 16 to 18 of the series, containing File 12, 蠟人形城殺人事件 (Rouningyoujou satsujinjiken, The Waxworks Castle Murder Case, 1996) and 13, 怪盗紳士の殺人 (Kaitou shinshi no satsujin, Mysterious Thief The Gentleman's Murder, 1996). Both of these have an English translation (with one story per volume, unlike the Japanese), the first as The House of Wax (2006), the second as The Gentleman Thief (2006), both translated by Matt Varovsky. The publishers have changed the file numbers, so that they now number 13 to 14 rather than 12 to 13.

In The Waxworks Castle Murder Case, Kindaichi and his rival Superintendent AKECHI are invited to a mystery solving competition along with other leading crime experts at a lonely castle. The whole castle had been transferred from Germany, intended as the centre of a tourist attraction. That had failed and now the castle stands alone in the mountains. The castle has the nickname "wax figure castle", because it is peopled by life sized waxworks. Among those, they find a line of figures perfectly reproducing all the guests at the mystery solving competition, including Kindaichi, Miyuki and Akechi. The setup of the story is very nicely done. We have a play murder puzzle in which the competitors find one of their number apparently stabbed in the back, but then realise that it is only the wax model that has been stabbed and this 'murder' is their first mystery. Then, when this is solved, they wonder where the real person whose waxwork had been killed is. This is the start of a series of murders in which the murder is announced by the 'murder' of the victim's waxwork figure. Trapped in the castle and unable to contact the outside world, the detectives must solve the case before they become the victims.

The trick in this one is not new, but it's a neat variation, very well prepared. In general Kanazari makes very good use in various ways of the atmospheric, window dressing elements, both to deceive us and to keep us interested as the story is unfolding.

Mysterious Thief The Gentleman's Murder is a much weaker work. Inspector KENMOCHI has called in Kindaichi to help him catch a master thief, who goes by the name "The Gentleman" and always sends a calling card announcing the coming theft of a work of art. The Gentleman also always "steals" the subject of the painting, by changing it in some way. Japan really likes mysterious thieves; and this sounds like a promising opening, with the prospect of a double mystery, theft and murder, connected in some way, or unconnected. Somehow it doesn't come out as interesting as one might hope. The solution to the murder mystery involves a variation on a very standard trick (with perhaps one small interesting innovation, which I'd have liked to see used in a better story).

There are certain elements common to almost all Young Kindaichi mysteries: a closed circle of suspects in an isolated setting; a chapter at the end which explains the motive of the murderer. This can be a little tedious. I remember as a child feeling a bit impatient when I read the ends of the Sherlock Holmes books with the same structure (A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear?). We know who did it now, who cares about the backstory? The Waxworks Castle Murder Case at least provided a new plot idea.

I've read five of the mysteries written by Amagi, and only once (that I noticed) was there a clue which was only in the artwork, not in the text. By contrast, both the mysteries here had clues which were in the pictures and not in the text, although in each case there was something in the text to draw your attention to the fact that there was a clue to be found. The art is by さとう ふみや (SATOU Fumiya), as in the later series. The characters are much the same, but there seem to be subtle changes. Kindaichi's face often looks plumper than in the revived series, and the area of Miyuki's chin and lower jaw is larger. The latter change seems to be part of some more general change in taste in what kind of female faces are judged attractive, even though the volumes here were published only eight years before the start of the new series.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

The Book of Happiness

 Lector intende: laetaberis.
There are probably not many comic novels that deserve the name. But however good or bad a comic novel may be, it is mostly better, or at least less crass, than the cover suggests. English publishers used to like to signal to readers "this is a comic novel" by putting what looked like a pneumatic Punch and Judy show of bulging red faced figures on the cover. The comic Indian that the publishers put on しあわせの書 迷探偵ヨギガンジーの心霊術 (Shiawase no sho, meitantei yogi ganji no shinreijutsu, The Book of Happiness, Stray Detective Yogi Ganjī's Mind Reading, 1987) by AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫) is in a different style, but gives the same misleading impression of a painfully misplaced attempt at very broad comedy. Both the Awasaka books that I've written about so far (乱れからくり and 喜劇悲奇劇) have a lot of humour in them, and this is very similar. But for the most part the humour is in mild incongruities and waywardness of conversation and choice of action.

The book comes with a warning, 'For the Happiness of Readers: Please do not reveal the secret of "The Book of Happiness" to those who have not yet read it.' I suspect with this preparation, warier readers will be on the lookout for the big surprise, and may well have a good idea what it is by the end. One way or the other, I think readers will be impressed (the book is a "tour de force" both in the negative and the positive sense). But, avoiding spoilers as well as I can, here's a little bit about the contents.

The story starts with a description of "The Book of Happiness", a religious text given out to adherents or potential converts to a large cult. It is the cult leader's account of her life and philosophy. The rest of the novel follows various mysterious events occurring in the cult, many of them involving this cult text. The detective figure here, Yogi Ganjī, is one of Awasaka's series detectives. He had already appeared in a collection of short stories, which I haven't read. Evidently in the earlier book, he picked up his two disciples, 不動丸 (Fudoumaru), a man counterfeiting psychic powers, and 美保子 (Mihoko), an actress. Ganjī is a teacher of yoga and casual practicioner of a variety of psychic arts. When we first see him, he is on Mount Osore, at the northern tip of Japan, regarded as an entrance to the underworld. Those wishing to contact the recently deceased go to the yearly festival there. Mistaken for an itako (a Japanese medium), Ganjī does an impromptu communication with a popular singer, who had died in a plane crash. The singer was an enthusiastic member of the cult, as was another recent accident victim, the sister of a man who questions the itako sitting next to Ganjī. In fact several members of the cult have died in recent accidents, and, more unusually, quite a few of them seem not to want to stay dead. Ganjī's curiosity is awoken by the copy of "The Book of Happiness" that one of the victims left behind, and he starts investigating the cult.

The story wanders about in various directions, and I don't think I can give much more of a summary than this, without starting to tell too much of the plot. Like its detective, the story is one where the reader wonders where exactly this is all heading. There are a lot of little mysteries that accumulate through the book, but if there's a major crime, it's not clear what it is. In general, my impression of Awasaka's books is that he's better at tricks (either his or the criminal's) than deductions; and that's probably true of this book too. But the lack of an explicitly posed single mystery until the solution makes for an impressive ending. I had spotted quite a lot of what was going on and had a fair idea of who was doing what and how; but the larger story was a complete surprise.