Monday, 22 December 2014

The Confusion of A Aiichirou

This marks a little blog milestone, as it's the hundredth post. Oddly exactly half those posts are in 2013 and half in 2014. Since I only started the blog towards the end of June 2013, my posting in this year has been unimpressive. I'll try and do a bit better next year; but I don't expect to get up to two hundred posts any time soon.

Because the way that Japanese names are converted in European languages can be a bit variable, the first time I mention a name in a post, I mostly try to make clear what part is family name and what part is given name by using the convention of putting the name in Japanese order and putting all letters of the family name in capitals, for instance YOKOMIZO Seishi (generally referred to in English as Seishi Yokomizo). It turns out that there are names where that doesn't help. So let me just say in advance that the family name of the detective in the stories I'm reviewing here is A (), and the given name is Aiichirou (愛一郎).

AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫) started his career with an A Aiichirou story, one of eight published in magazine form from 1976 to 1977, that were then collected in 亜愛一郎の狼狽 (A Aiichirou no roubai, The Confusion of A Aiichirou, 1978). They are pretty well known among lovers of traditional mysteries in Japan, often compared to the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton. Let me say in advance, they are not nearly as good as the Father Brown stories. I say that, just so that you can have a chance of approaching them without too high expectations; and if you can read Japanese, you should try these, as they make a thoroughly entertaining collection of unusual mysteries. (It is the first of three collections: you can read Ho-Ling's discussions of all three here.)

The hero A is a photographer, specialising in taking photographs of clouds and insects and other natural objects of little interest to most people. At first glance he makes a good impression, as he has movie star good looks and is dressed smartly and with good taste. This impression does not survive long in his company: he is nervous, clumsy and socially awkward. But then his unusual way of looking at things leads him to deductions that those around him could not imagine. This sounds a little forced, as if someone had taken the convention "unimpressive character proves to be brilliant detective" and mechanically added an extra stage "impressive looking character proves to be unimpressive, but then proves to be brilliant detective"; but A's slightly unusual way of looking at things makes a character that goes beyond the summary traits.

The stories generally follow a pattern. The narration is in the third person, but follows the viewpoint of one character. Along with the events that make up the mystery this observer at some point comes into contact with A, and as mentioned is first impressed by his looks, then astonished by his clumsiness, then amazed by his deductions. A's deductions often go so far, that he discovers a crime before we are aware that there is a mystery, or at least before we know that the mystery involves more than a "puzzle of everyday life". Examples of this are the first story, "The Flight DL2 Incident", "The Warped Apartment" and "The Black Mist". In the last, for instance, the puzzle is why someone would engineer an accident that covers a street with carbon dust. Most of the story is a farce, with the shopkeepers on the street losing their tempers with each other. Only A spots that there is something more sinister behind it. Like Ho-Ling, I doubt that a reader could legitimately make the deduction; but it is still a very satisfying mystery. Others involve impossible crimes, a man shot while alone in a balloon that was being observed for the whole period of its flight ("The Skies over Right Arm Mountain"), a village chief on a tropical island found shot dead in a hut observed by the other villagers, the only person with him being his dead wife, who holds the gun ("The God of Horobo"), a mugger found murdered in a car with no footprints leading away through the snow except those of the taxi driver who fled while the mugger was still alive ("Weasel on Road G"), a man in a golden mask shot while standing on the outstretched hand of a giant Buddhist statue with a gun too inaccurate to have a chance of hitting him ("The Golden Mask in the Palm of a Hand"). The last of these is my favourite of the impossible crimes, with ingenious ideas and a good use of A's unusual style of thinking, which often involves imagining himself in the place of others. "The Excavated Fairy Tale" belongs more to the first group, with a writer's odd insistence on retaining misspelling in a fairy tale leading to the discovery of a crime: the route in this case, unsurprisingly, is via code breaking (with an idea quite close to the last code breaking story I read). The storytelling takes a different approach here: the viewpoint character is now an acquaintance of A, and in competition to discover the secret ends up handcuffing A to keep him from getting ahead.

The style of the stories is quite interesting: they seem to be deliberately loosely constructed. You should not expect a single minded concentration on the mystery. Most are humorous, some concentrate on a narrative whose relevance to the actual mystery may prove at best tangential. This makes it easy for Awasaka to introduce his clues, of course; but reading them does not feel like the writer is wasting our time. The experience is more of an agreeable lack of focus.

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