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.

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