Sunday, 22 February 2015

Queen Bee

The next YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史) for review is 女王蜂 (jooubachi, Queen Bee, 1952), first published in serial form between 1951 and 1952, following The Inugami Clan. It's not quite as famous a work as that, but it's still one of the better known KINDAICHI Kousuke mysteries, filmed twice, in 1958 and again in 1978, this time by ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑), whose films of several of the more famous mysteries are the standard against which others tend to be judged. There have also been five television versions. I think it deserves its place among the better known works. It's a solidly constructed mystery, that holds the readers' interest well, although it perhaps isn't quite so skillful as some of the others at creating an atmosphere of alarm and confusion to give readers' speculative tendencies something to work on.

Gekkin player, A. Farsari (from Wikimedia commons)
Gekkintou (Gekkin Island) is a little island off the Izu Peninsular. It is named after the Gekkin (or Yueqin), a Chinese stringed instrument that (according to Yokomizo) had some popularity in nineteenth century Japan, then fell out of fashion. The Daidouji (大道寺) family is the richest family on the island, but their fortunes have long been in decline. The daughter of the house, Tomoko (智子), has just turned eighteen. She is living with her grandmother, and her devoted former tutor, a woman who had also been her mother's tutor. Now, at eighteen, she is supposed to go to her father's house in Tokyo, accompanied by her grandmother and tutor. Her father is not her real father. He had been one of two students who visited the island when Tomoko's mother was sixteen. Tomoko is the daughter of the other student, who, apparently, fell from a cliff on the island and died. In his place, his friend married Tomoko's mother and took on the family name; but it was a marriage only in name and since then he has lived separately in Tokyo as a very successful businessman. In the house on Gekkin Island there is a building gaudily decorated in Chinese style; and in that building there is a "room that cannot be opened". By a strange coincidence Tomoko has found the key. On the day before her departure she sneaks into the room and discovers, in the dust on a table in the middle, a bloodstained gekkin.

Meanwhile detective KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一耕介) is one of the people sent to accompany Tomoko and family to Tokyo. An unknown client has asked his lawyer to engage him, because he and others have received anonymous letters threatening a series of deaths if Tomoko leaves the island. The girl, says the letter, is a queen bee, destined to bring death to the males drawn to her, like her mother nineteen years ago. Kindaichi warns that he is no bodyguard, but he starts investigating the earlier case. Soon however, at a hotel on the Izu peninsular where the family are resting on the journey, the first of Tomoko's suitors is murdered. He is soon followed by other victims, most of them men who had been pursuing Tomoko. Will Kindaichi catch the murderer before it is too late? (Of course he won't. Kindaichi only ever solves a case when pretty much every possible victim has already died.)

Most Kindaichi stories are set in one region, generally rural and isolated. In this book, as in a couple of others we change scene several times, first to the hotel on the mainland, then to Tokyo, finally back to Gekkin Island. This gives the story a slightly more modern feeling; but we are still in a fairly traditional environment (e. g. murder at a Kabuki performance). Much of the mystery concerns what happened nineteen years ago. We get a lot of hints throughout the story; but it is only towards the end that we learn what exactly was supposed to have happened then. There is a little locked room mystery for readers to solve. The first Kindaichi novel is one of Japan's most famous locked room mysteries (The Honjin Murder Case), and Yokomizo has quite a few locked room mysteries in the other books in the series; but the three I have come across are much less ambitious affairs than that first one. I did think this one was a good use of special conditions, though. Like Ho Ling (here), I thought that the whole story was in some senses undersupplied with clues. Most readers will probably spot the killer. There is one good reason (beyond conjectural joining the dots) to suspect them; but most of the details of the various murders turn out to be basically irrelevant. Still, the story kept me reading, and the explanation did not leave me feeling cheated at the end.

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