Monday, 30 March 2015


ユージニア (Eugenia, 2005) by ONDA Riku (恩田陸) won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award in 2006. The book describes a mass poisoning and its aftermath over several decades.

The family of a respected doctor in the Hokuriku town of K (which doubtless stands for Kanazawa) are celebrating a major family anniversary. A motorcycle delivery man brings alcohol and juice, saying that it is sent by an old friend of the doctor. When the family and visiting neighbours drink a toast together, all of them, including several children, die, leaving only a servant and the daughter of the family, blind middle school student Hisako.

Ten years later, one of the children who discovered the mass murder, Makiko, then in junior school, now a student, interviews those witnesses she can find about the crime. Her researches result in a book, The Forgotten Celebration, which becomes a bestseller. The book, though, has some oddities that might make you wonder what her aim in writing it was. Now, decades after that book, someone is interviewing the surviving witnesses again. Most of the chapters are a dialogue with one voice (the interviewer's) removed. A few chapters are internal monologues of characters from the present or the past, or told by an external narrator.

As the various narrators contribute, it becomes clear that most people suspect the blind Hisako of having engineered the massacre. The story becomes a kind of horror story, filling the reader with unease about what Hisako, Makiko, and the unseen interviewer are looking for. The story has 'clues' of a sort, marked bits of the narrative which are obviously going to be explained later; but the explanations when they came seemed fairly abritrary (that is I felt the writer could have spared us the clue).

In my case much of the unease was a suspicion that the story was not going to make any sense. And did it? I don't really know, to be honest. The book was something of a struggle to read; and I had lost interest long before the end. Neither the characters nor the narration were really vivid; most were dreamlike, half sedated. The format, in which we frequently switch between speakers, without an indication of the change, was probably more demanding for me, since as a language learner I miss a lot of the subtler clues that a Japanese speaker would pick up on.

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Boy Science Detective: The Secret of the Skull

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.] 

 Another translation: this is the third Boy Science Detective story by KOSAKAI Fuboku. Previously we had:
I imagine most children's detective stories prefer to stay with less serious crimes. The Boy Science Detective stories start with an incident that is hardly a crime at all and move on to theft and then in the third story murder. This one goes even further. The murder of children is a crime that writers were a little shy of using in stories that were meant essentially for entertainment; but here we have the murder of a child as the fourth mystery in the series. The only respect in which this is a children's story is that it has a child as protagonist and (as always) the solution is a bit obvious. I hope you won't think that means it isn't worth your time. The answer is obvious, but you might well miss the clues; and the story is an interesting reflection of the state of forensic science at the time.

I've glossed most of the things that need explaining in the translation itself. So I think we can get away without footnotes this time.  I'll put a few links in advance. The Great Kantou earthquake took place on Sep. 1, 1923 and caused massive destruction in Tokyo. The most interesting part of the story is the forensic facial reconstruction which is central to the plot. The late nineteenth century reconstruction of Bach's face was performed by Wilhelm His and Carl Seffner. The detective called Williams that Kosakai mentions seems (from Google) to be Lieutenant Grant Williams, bureau of unidentified dead, Manhattan,  who in 1916 identified a skull found on a farm in Brooklyn as Dominick La Rosa leading to arrest of Giovanio Romano (Brooklyn Eagle Oct 10, 1916). Kosakai probably did not know of another more recent case where Williams had been called in by a former subordinate, Mary Hamilton to investigate a skull found  in Rockland County, N.Y. and had reconstructed the face as a missing girl, Lillian White. Hamilton's investigations lead to a suspect James Crawford, who was also missing at the time, but captured in 1925 after a different crime. 

One last thing: this is a bit spoilerish, but if you don't know how kimonos are worn, you might search out some photographs or prints on wikimedia commons or elsewhere on the internet to get an idea.

The story was first published in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Children’s Science) between October and December 1925. It's in the public domain, so you can read the original Japanese on Aozora Bunko, here.

As always, the actual story is after the break. So click below to read it.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

For Yoriko

I wrote about NORIZUKI Rintarou's first mystery, Snow Locked Room (雪密室, 1989), not long after I started this blog, and thought it was an impressive start. 頼子のために (Yoriko no tame ni, For Yoriko, 1990) is another well made mystery.

When Yoriko, the seventeen year old daughter of university professor NISHIMURA Yuuji (西村悠史), is murdered, her father writes an account of his determination to find the killer and take revenge. The diary ends where he has successfully hunted down the man he was looking for, a few moments before he himself commits suicide. The suicide attempt is unexpectedly interrupted, leaving Nishimura unconscious in hospital, while the story grows into a major scandal. Suspicions that the first murder had been covered up set local politicians in damage management mode, suggesting an investigation from detective story writer NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎), who has a reputation as an amateur detective. Rintarou, reading the father's account, thinks that there really is something to investigate, and takes the case.

Snow Locked Room bore a strong resemblance in its central problem to the Carter Dickson classic, The White Priory Murders, which it referenced in the story. Reading the account above, a reader familiar with golden age mysteries will inevitably be reminded of Nicholas Blake's excellent The Beast Must Die. This time too, Norizuki mentions the book within the narrative. Blake's combination of a narrative of revenge and a detective story is one of his best books; but Chabrol certainly did well to replace Blake's too sprightly detective with a more straightforward policeman in his 1969 film of the book. The deliberate change of tone between the two parts is hard to take. Norizuki the character is a lot more sober than Nigel Strangeways; so this is less of a problem. The story does seem to lose focus a little, however. In particular the conspiracies of the rich and powerful subplot feels like a waste of the readers' time (and I think that after Snow Locked Room, another manipulative, dominating, sexually voracious older woman uses up Norizuki's lifetime allowance for this character type).

I understand Ho-Ling's not very enthusiastic view of the book. It's certainly true that the solid clues are  tenuous and the mystery does not really progress very well in the part between the initial revenge narrative and the explanation at the end. And both clues and deductions only go so far (indeed the better clues only point to something that readers will guess anyway). Many of the final revelations are more a story the author decided to tell than a necessary solution to the mystery. The shape of the story is a little like Ellery Queen's Wrightsville books, though the tragedy is a little more gothic than what Ellery Queen favoured at that time.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Journey in Black and White

黒白の旅路 (kokubyaku no tabiji, Journey in Black and White, 1977) by NATSUKI Shizuko (夏樹静子) is one of the few Japanese detective stories with an English translation. The translation, by Robert B. Rohmer, was published as Innocent Journey in 1989.

Shinjuu 心中 is Japanese for a suicide pact, normally between two lovers. I don't know how common they actually are in Japan, but they certainly feature more in literature than in Europe. Quite often, too, when you read a writer's biography on Wikipedia, you find a double suicide at the end - or even in the middle: DAZAI Osamu seems to have more or less made a hobby of it (the first time, his partner died and he survived, the second time both he and his wife survived, the last time both he and his partner died).

In Journey in Black and White, the student NOZOE Rikako (野添立夏子) works nights as a hostess in a bar. When her lover, failing company president TOMONAGA Takayuki (朝永敬之), asks her to join him in suicide, she agrees, and the two set off to a mountain region. They lie down together in the forest and take an overdose of sleeping pills; but Rikako does not die. She wakes up in the darkness after vomiting the pills and finds Tomonaga dead by her side, but not of an overdose: he has been stabbed.

This sounds very promising; but the book didn't really live up to its promise for me. The intriguing aspect of the initial situation is quickly forgotten; and neither Rikako (who suffers from depersonalization disorder) nor the reader feels much emotional involvement. Instead the story starts on a "fugitive pursuing the real criminal" story. Rikako runs away, then realises that the police will see her as the obvious suspect. She starts investigating to find the real killer before the body is discovered and the police work their way round to catching her. Her investigations soon lead her to Tomonaga's beautiful widow. Meanwhile a young architect is searching for his missing brother in law; and his search too leads him to Tomonaga's house.

This sounds promising in a different way, the start of a Hitchcock-style hectic action adventure, perhaps. But although there is action enough, it never feels very exciting, perhaps because Rikako is so consistently glum.

The other problem is that the mystery is for the most part very, very obvious. There are two major twists, and in both cases it's a safe bet that readers will be hundreds of pages ahead of the characters on them. In general, this is one of those books where the plot only just about survives because the main characters are consistently picking the stupidest choice of action. The book probably has some interest for attitudes to gender in Japan at that time; in some ways it is a little reminiscent of the kind of books Ruth Rendell and others were writing a decade earlier.