Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Murder at Clock House

I reviewed a novel by IMAMURA Aya (今邑彩) earlier, The Murder at the Broom House (1993). The book I've just been reading, 時鐘館の殺人 (Tokeikan no satsujin, The Murder at Clock House, 1993), is a collection of short stories by the same writer. There are six short stories of varying length. The longest is the title story at ninety pages. Most of the stories are traditional detective stories (more or less), but some are suspense or horror.

The first, 'The Living Dead Murder', features the murder of a writer in his house in Karuizawa. The murderer is also known, a woman with whom he previously had an affair. She too is dead, murdered by her victim and her corpse is sitting in the house. The puzzle is that she died long before he did; and after her known time of death various witnesses had seen her leaving her Tokyo mansion and arriving at the Karuizawa house. The author had fled his attacker and locked himself in the toilet, writing a dying message "Living corpse" on the walls. In the bar "The Living Dead" two crime writers sit discussing the case, watched by the surly and sceptical 'mama' (female barkeeper). I have mixed feelings about this one. It has a lot of ingenious ideas in it, but some of them undermine each other, so that as a puzzle story it could have been far better. Still it's a very clever and playful piece of narrative.

The next, 'Black/White Reversal', takes its metaphor from the game Reversi or Othello, which various characters play in the story. Students from a film history club visit a reclusive old woman and her sister. Both had been actresses, the older one a successful movie star, who retired early after the director who worked most with her had died in a car accident. While visiting, one of the students is murdered. The central trick here is probably rather obvious; and the atmosphere comes to less than one might expect.

'The Murder Next Door' is a suspense story with a twist that you will spot about three pages in.

'That Child, Who is it?' is a ghost story of sorts, the kind of ghost story you might expect a puzzle writer to make, and quite effective (more sad than scary).

'Lover' is a short horror story, and a really horrible one, set in the world of young people living isolated lives in apartment buildings. A failed student studying for entrance exams and working part time is too lazy to put a personalised message on his answering machine. Coming home late at night, he gets a message from a  desperate woman who thinks she is talking to her lover, who evidently left her a false contact number when he left her. Since the student doesn't know who or where she is, he leaves it at that; but the calls keep coming.

The last longest story, 'The Murder at Clock House', has distinct similarities to the first story, making a kind of ring composition. Both make play with the writing of detective stories. In this case, the story is framed by Imamura's account of the editor of a magazine commissioning her to write a "spot the culprit" story for their magazine competition. In a boarding house whose clock loving owner has working clocks all keeping their own private time throught the building, a detective story writer mysteriously goes missing, leaving a note that he can't face his editor who is calling that night. The next day, a snowman is standing in the garden, roughly made, except for the lifelike arms sticking out of the snow. The framing elements are more satisfactory than the actual story to my mind, as the chains of argument in the internal story uses premises and arguments that are hard to accept.

Here and in the novel I wrote about earlier, Imamura seems reliably able to reach a certain level of skill, so the stories are always worth reading; but they also leave some disappointment - the wish to see a better use of the capacity for invention that is so clearly there.

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