Thursday, 9 April 2015

11 Cards

The puzzle detective story is itself a curious thing; and it is not surprising if its writers are often interested in contrivances and curiosities. I don't know of any writer who shows a greater fondness for such things than AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫). He was an amateur magician himself and his books often feature such things as stage magic, intricate mechanical toys, codes and word puzzles. Some of them are themselves intricate toys, not just in the mystery, but in the construction of the book. These enthusiasms are already on show in his first full length mystery 11枚のトランプ (juuichi mai no toranpu, Eleven Cards, 1976). The setting is the world of amateur magicians and the story features a book within a book that is a necessary part of solving the mystery.

The amateur magicians' club in the little town of Majiki (真敷) is putting on a show. We see the performances of each of the eleven members. Some go perfectly, some are disasters. At the end comes the worst failure of all. Shimako (志摩子), the young woman who was supposed to appear as part of the final magic trick in which everyone takes part never turns up. The other performers are left standing on stage while the meaner children in the audience start chanting, 'It's gone wrong, it's gone wrong.' After the show, one of them, a police doctor, is called away. When he returns, he is accompanied by two policemen. They have found the missing Shimako murdered in her nearby flat.

Stranger still, arranged around her dead body are a variety of objects, all broken. They all point to one of the stories in a book that one of the club members had written, Eleven Cards. This book forms the central part of Awasaka's Eleven Cards. The stories could be called detective stories, but they are not detecting crimes. They describe magic tricks, each one performed by a member of the club (the same people we have just met in the outer story), either on the other members or in their presence to a different audience. The other club members puzzle over how the trick could have been done, until one of them comes on the answer. The fictional author's prologue emphasises that as he has no powers of invention himself, the stories are taken from what really happened in life.

The final part of the book returns us to the outer story. Several months after the murder the club members are gathered at an international magic convention in Tokyo, where some of them are performing. In the midst of the chaos of the convention, the club members find new clues to the murder.

This is an incredible first novel. As often in Awasaka, not everything works; but the invention and ambition is really impressive, and the trick stories in the middle would be an interesting idea even if they weren't supporting a larger mystery.

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