Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Longer Bodies

This is supposed to be a blog about books in Japanese; but since half the books I write about are detective stories, and since I've been too busy to finish the two Japanese books I'm reading at the moment, I thought I'd put up a review of an English detective story, The Longer Bodies (1930) by Gladys Mitchell.

Gladys Mitchell is a familiar name to detective story enthusiasts, but hardly known to general readers. In the late twentieth century, much like John Dickson Carr, a few of her books were sporadically reprinted, so that a well stocked bookshelf might have one or two of them. Currently quite a few are in print, including the one I'm writing about today. I've read six or seven of her books. Each was a little different from the others, in the kinds of things that she was trying to do in them. All of them had in common that they were identifiably classic puzzle detective stories, but at the same time very eccentric, with an emphasis on outrageous elements, often humorous, sometimes horrific.

There's not so much horror in The Longer Bodies and a lot of humour. Great-aunt Puddlequet is a rich old woman, who has been on more or less bad terms with her nearest relatives. Now, as she feels death approaching, she arranges to visit one of her nephews.

'Write to him, Companion, and say that I am going to visit him on Thursday. I want to have a look at his children.'

Godfrey Yeomond guffawed when he read the letter.

'She wants to see the children before she dies,' pronounced his wife. 'Poor thing. I expect she's very lonely and unhappy right out there in the country. Write back quickly, dear, and tell her how very welcome she is.'

'I'd better tip the boys the wink to be civil to her,' said Godfrey, pursuing a different train of thought. 'Her money's got to be left somewhere, and she was never one to be fond of cats.'

Mrs Puddlequet's search for an heir takes on more concrete form when she happens to see English athletes putting on a poor show at an athletics competion. Summoning her great-nephews from various families, she sets them to learn various sports. The one who wins for England will inherit her money. She has at great cost changed part of her estate to make a practice ground, and hired a German trainer. The contestants are followed by their sisters, so that the house is full of young people. The cousins do their best to humour their great-aunt, without seriously aiming for athletic excellence; but someone seems to be up to something more sinister. Great-aunt Puddlequet's rabbits are disappearing, and the javelin is found discarded, with blood on its point. Soon we have the first murderer, a local labourer known for drunkenness and domestic violence (which, since this is 1930, is regarded as something regrettable about which nothing can be done).

That progression, perhaps deliberately, resembles the classic horror and mystery progression, where we start with more disposable victims (in the author's opinion) and only gradually progress to those that the author takes seriously.

Mitchell's series detective, Mrs. Bradley, does solve the murders; but she only appears in the last third of the book. Until then the investigation is carried by an inspector from the local police, who seems reasonably intelligent up to the point where Mrs. Bradley appears, then suddenly turns into a rural Lestrade.

The story and characters are certainly interesting, particularly the ruthlessly selfish and imperious great-aunt. The working class characters tend to be an exercise in broad comedy; but Mitchell is at least aware that they have their own interests and allows them a reasonable amount of good judgement. The cousins were more of a problem for me. There are three families from different backgrounds; but my ears are not attuned to the subtle variatons within the upper reaches of the middle class that a reader in thirties might have found. So most of the cousins sounded much the same to me. The puzzle too was not really one of Mitchell's best. This may be partly my fault. There were a lot of complications in the middle part of the book, which obviously were going to have be shown as red herrings before the end. In those circumstances I tend not to really concentrate my mind on the problem until I can see the full hand; but by then I had lost track of too many details. In the end the definite proofs that Mrs. Bradley offers are only a couple of fairly weak indicators, that take up less than a page of the book.

All in all this is certainly an entertaining mystery; but it wouldn't be the first one I'd recommend, if I was trying to get someone to try Gladys Mitchell.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

God Save the Queen

森 博嗣 (MORI Hiroshi, born 1957) is a prolific and successful detective story writer, perhaps best known outside Japan for The Sky Crawlers (2002), the basis of an anime film with the same title (2008). I had read one book by him before I started the blog, his first novel すべてがFになる (Subete ga F ni naru, Everything Becomes F or The Perfect Insider, 1996). The first English title is the literal translation, the second is the English title printed on the book. Japanese detective stories often have an English translation of the title on the cover, even when the book itself has never been translated into English. In Mori's case, the English titles are often not literal translations, but a different, new title. The post title is the English title provided for 女王の百年密室 (Joou no hyakunen misshitsu, God Save the Queen, 2000); a more literal translation would be The Queen's Hundred Year Locked Room. Neither of these books has an English translation; but both had a manga adaption, which seems to have been published in a French translation by Soleil Manga. I haven't seen these myself, but the titles are F, The Perfect Insider (2006) and God Save the Queen (2006).

 Saeba Michiru is a reporter (or report writer) in the 22nd century, travelling with his 'partner' Roidy, an android. A navigation system breakdown leaves them stranded, unsure even exactly what country they are in. Luckily, there is a town nearby, one that has lived isolated from the world around it for a hundred years. The town is strangely peaceful, ruled ceremonially by a queen, who is said to be over fifty, but looks as if she is in her twenties. But the town has many oddities; and beyond its own mysteries it harbours a man who has some connexion to terrible events in Michiru's past.

During Michiru's visit, the queen's son is found strangled. As far as Michiru is concerned, he has been murdered, but the town's people see death as sleep and store the bodies in freezing chambers. Only Michiru sees the incident as something to investigate, and gets no helpful answers from the incurious witnesses. The book treats the murder as a locked room mystery, but really that depends on the witnesses and we get no encouragement to treat their answers as trustworthy. Neither the murder mystery nor the mystery of the town and its purpose is pursued in a purposeful way. In the end, the not very surprising answers are simply given to us. (Some incidental mysteries are hinted more subtly and may come as a surprise.) The book is probably best seen more as an extended exercise in melancholy than as a detective story or a work of science fiction.

You can read another blogger's opinions of the book here.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Travellers to the North

北へ行く旅人たち (Kita e iku tabibitotachi, Travellers to the North, 1977) is a children's book by KAWAMURA Takashi (川村たかし, 1931-2010), a historical novel set in Meiji Japan, the first in what became a series of ten books, published between 1977 and 1988. The story follows the internal migration of villagers from Totsukawa in Nara prefecture, to Shintotsukawa (New Totsukawa) in Hokkaidou. In 1889 after torrential rain, massive floods and landslides killed 168 villagers in Totsukawa and destroyed hundreds of houses. The Japanese government was trying to develop Hokkaidou at the time, and the homeless villagers were offered new homes in the uninhabited country north of Sapporo.

For most western readers, the most comparable books will probably be the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The main difference is that Wilder's book is a fictionalised account based on her own childhood experiences, but Kawamura's book is straightforwardly a historical novel. It is also probably aimed at slightly older children, probably a little older than the main character, who ages from nine to eleven in the book. This is Fuki (フキ), the youngest of three children who are orphaned in the catastrophe described in the first chapters. This is the first of several partings for Fuki. Her older sister stays in Nara, making a hasty marriage to the man she had been promised to. Fuki goes to Hokkaidou with her older brother, Terukichi (照吉). They share the journey with a neighbouring family, NAKAZAKI Kikuji (中崎菊次) a friend of their father, his wife Shina (しな), son Toyotarou (豊太郎) and daughter Yukino (ゆきの).

In Hokkaidou the new homes are not ready for the settlers; and they spend their first winter there in communal huts across the river from the land they will be taking. Many of the migrants start to despair and think of running off (a dangerous desperation, as they are far from any town). Others spend the waiting time gambling away their money.

'It's not there,' Fuki rubbed her eyes. 'The one yen that sister gave me is gone.'
Everyone folded up the futons, and opened everything, even Terukichi's carrying cloth, looking for the money. It was nowhere to be found.
'Stolen,' Matsukichi said angrily. 'Gone, is it? If it's a thief, he'll likely have taken more than one yen.'
But Fuki seemed to be the only victim. Yukino came to her where she sat despondent on the floor and whispered, 'Yesterday evening, Terukichi was looking in your bag.'
'I'm sure I saw him.'
Toyotarou pulled at his sister's sleeve, 'You sure about that? Not got something confused? Maybe you forgot it somewhere, Fuu?'
Fuki was sitting there dazed. She knew that Terukichi was gambling every day. It was hard to believe, but maybe he had taken it out without telling her.
'Oh yes. I just remembered. It wasn't stolen,' Fuki forced herself to smile. 'I forgot I told Terukichi he could have it, didn't I? I'm such an idiot.'
Nobody answered. The undried wood it the open fireplace split open with a sizzling sound. The gruel in the pot was boiling.
Fuki bowed to Yukino, 'Thank you,' and ran outside. She checked that no-one had followed her, then kicked the snow up with all her strength.
'Eei, idiot brother!'

The narrative moves between three viewpoints, Fuki, Kikuji and a more detached, historical, narrator, particularly in the description of the disaster in Totsukawa. The focus on Fuki increases after the settlers get to Hokkaidou and again when they get to their first homes.

For Japanese learners, I suspect that this might be more difficult reading than many books for adults (it was for me). There is a lot of dialect, and a lot of historical and rural vocabulary. Also, like books for adults the book is printed with minimal furigana.