Sunday, 28 June 2015

A Kyoto Murder Map

京都殺人地図 (Kyouto satsujin chizu, A Map of Murder in Kyoto, 1980) is a set of short stories by 山村美紗 (YAMAMURA Misa, 1931-1996). Yamamura was a major figure in Japanese mystery in the twentieth century; but my impression is that interest in her books has pretty much faded now. She wrote a lot, and the titles and descriptions give the impression that the books are very formulaic. Before reading the book reviewed here, I pictured her work as something like UCHIDA Yasuo's books, giving more attention to tourism and romance than to mystery. That prejudice was reinforced by the Yamamura Misa TV drama I saw when I was first in Japan, which had a too comfortable "Murder She Wrote" feel to it and featured a lot of Kyoto tourism. I don't know what her other books are like; but if this one is typical, I had the wrong idea completely. The stories are neat little mysteries, with a focus on forensic investigation.

ENATSU Fuyuko (江夏冬子) is a kenshikan (検視官) in the Kyoto police, a high achiever who has reached this position while still in her twenties. When she starts, her male colleagues doubt that a young woman like her is up to the job. The kenshikan has responsibilities a little like a coroner, determining the cause of death where there is any suspicion of unnatural death. As Yamamura depicts it, this is the preliminary stage of any investigation. Enatsu is called out to the suspected crime scene and examines the corpse and its immediate surroundings, to decide whether a police investigation is necessary. This gives the stories a typical structure like this: 1) Enatsu races with her partner Hashiguchi to the crime scene and discovers indications that it was murder and gives a preliminary estimation of time of death; 2) as far as her job is concerned, her part in the case is now over, and other police detectives follow various leads, discovering suspects and clues, but finally run into a dead end; 3) Enatsu has an idea that leads to a breakthrough; 4) the head of the murder squad sets out the police case to the killer.

The first story, 'The Girl Died in a Locked Room' is (of course) a locked room mystery. A teenage schoolgirl is found asphyxiated in the one room cottage in the garden of her parent's house where she lived. Door and window are locked from the inside; and it looks like she has died while sniffing paint thinner. Enatsu notices that she is pregnant and suspects that she has been carefully strangled so as not to leave an evident strangling mark. I'd actually already read this one, in an anthology of locked room mysteries edited by AYUKAWA Tetsuya (鮎川哲也). Locked room mysteries really are a staple of Japanese mystery; and many writers seem to include them more from duty than enthusiasm, with an unoriginal use of some idea seen a hundred times before. This one is not as bad as that; but it's not a classic either.

The next 'The Faked Murder Scene' starts with the discovery of a murdered woman, apparently stabbed by her husband, who is missing; but something about the room where the woman was killed seems odd to Enatsu, although she can't quite place what it is. 'The Missing Spouse' starts with Enatsu on her day off watching  television. The television company has located the runaway wife and husband from two neighbouring houses and is putting on a confrontation, getting the pregnant abandoned wife to beg her husband to return, without success.  The other runaway is not on the programme, having refused to take part. When Enatsu is called away to investigate a woman run over by a train, it turns out to be the missing woman. 'The Flower Message of Daffodils is Death' involves the murder of a flower arranger (a traditional art in Japan, ikebana). 'The Methodical Killer' starts with the police in pursuit of the kidnapper of a five year old kindergarten child; but after the first phone call the kidnapper makes no further contact, and when the child is found dead, it is clear that he had already died before the phone call was made. 'The Drowned Woman' features a woman found dead in her apartment with the water of Lake Biwa in her lungs. 'The Headless Corpse' is the investigation of a dismembered body. 'The Proof of the Bones' involves the search for the unrecovered bodies of Japanese soldiers in Saipan.

The stories generally focus severely on the investigations, without going much into character. A little attention is given to Enatsu's feelings about her work and what she wants from life: the ikebana case brings her into contact with an old friend, now a mother, and makes her think that maybe she too should get married (which in Japan at that time would probably involve giving up her job); although her male colleagues come to accept her, she is not really part of the team. Most of the stories are interesting little mysteries; but they are not fair play, at least not reliably. The reader gets the clues needed to solve the case perhaps half the time; in other cases, the clue is revealed along with the deduction. We are watching people detect, more than detecting ourselves.

Only one of Yamamura's books has been translated into English, 黒の環状線 (1976), translated as The Dark Ring of Murder (1996) by Robert B. Rohmer.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

A poor correspondent in an age of social media

You wrote me half an Iliad,
  I didn't give a damn.
Were you expecting better, bad
   At writing as I am?

I post a photo or a link
   On Facebook just to show
That I'm alive. I cannot think
   What more you need to know.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Burmese Harp

ビルマの竪琴 (birma no tategoto, The Burmese Harp, 1940) is a 1946 children's book by TAKEYAMA Michio (竹山道雄, 1903-1984), which ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑) made into a film with the same title in 1956. There is an English translation, Harp of Burma by Howard Hibbett, first published by Tuttle in 1966. The story follows a group of Japanese soldiers in Burma in the last days of the second world war and in the time between their surrender to the British and their return to Japan a year later.

Apart from an introductory chapter, the story is told by an anonymous member of the group, narrating as a representative, not so much telling us his own personal feelings and observations as what the whole group saw and felt. In fact very few of the soldiers are characterised individually and only one is named, the central character Mizushima (水島). Apart from Mizushima, the most important character is the calm and serious captain, who had been a music teacher in civilian life and now keeps the soldiers in spirits with choral singing.

Mizushima is a private (first class) who has discovered a passion for music in this setting, constructing a Burmese harp. 
You know, I think if you collected together the instruments that soldiers have, it would make an interesting museum. Wherever soldiers go, if they have any free time, someone is sure to make an instrument. Some of them are specialists; and it's astonishing what good instruments they can create, making do with the materials available. In the wind section, you go from flutes made by cutting reeds and bamboo and boring holes in them all the way to proper trumpets made by putting together pieces of broken machinery. In the percussion section, I've seen everything from the skin of a dog or cat stretched over a wooden frame to drums made by stretching some kind of skin over an oil drum. They said it was tiger skin, but, well, I don't know about that. Anyway it made an incredible, reverberating noise, and was the pride of that troop.
Mizushima is the troop's scout and goes ahead of them in Burmese clothing to check that they are not going to run into British soldiers. In one village, the Japanese find themselves surrounded by Gurkas and British and Indian soldiers, waiting in ambush in the jungle outside. Pretending to still be celebrating the feast they had been enjoying, the Japanese keep singing their traditional songs, as they push the cart with their ammunition out of the village. A moment before they turn from singing to attack the enemy, the captain stops them. The British soldiers are singing the same songs. (In the nineteenth century, there was a westernising movement in music education, that brought many British songs to Japan with new texts, as well as Japanese compositions in a western style.) The threat of fighting passes, and they find that the war is over and Japan has surrendered.

Nearby a different group has not surrendered so easily. The captain is asked to help and sends Mizushima to try and convince the hold outs to accept defeat. Transported across the country to a prisoner of war camp in Mudan, they wait for him to return; but when months pass without sign of him, it becomes clear that something has gone wrong, particularly when they find that the survivors of the group he was meant to convince had in the end surrendered and are being treated for their injuries in a nearby hospital.  Unable to find out more, they have to assume that Mizushima is dead; but then the captain, driven by his guilt at sending him on the mission, begins to suspect that maybe a buddhist monk they have seen could be the surviving Mizushima. The soldiers fluctuate between belief and rejection, as various clues make the identity seem more or less likely. Meanwhile the captain starts teaching a parrot, the brother of the one that the monk always carries on his shoulder.
Stroking the parrot, he said, "There, there, we've all been ignoring you, haven't we? From now on we'll look after you properly. In return, you can learn some Japanese."

The parrot shook itself with happiness. It clacked its hard bill and stuck out a cold rubber like tongue and pecked the captain's hand.

What the captain had started doing was really strange. He would divide up the food he received three times a day, then he would say, "Oy, Mizushima," and when the parrot repeated it, he would let it feed from the palm of his hand. Then he would say, "Come with us" and when the parrot repeated that he would give it a share of meat from his side dish. Finally he would say, "Home to Japan."  
They send the parrot to the monk; but although he receives it, he seems unwilling to admit that he is Mizushima, appearing only as a silent watching figure outside the camp. Only when they have finally embarked on the boat home do they learn from a letter what had kept him in Burma.

The narration, despite the serious subject matter, mostly runs along calmly and cheerfully. Some bits are even like a children's adventure story. In particular an episode in a cannibal village, wisely dropped from the film, reads as if it came out of a nineteenth century adventure. The book and film are sometimes described as anti war; and they're certainly not pro war. It might be better to see them as depicting people coming to terms with being the losers in a mistaken war and working out what they should be doing with their lives now.

The film is very close to the book. There are hardly any scenes or dialogue which are not taken from it. The main difference, except for some abbreviation, is that Mizushima's narrative is inserted into the story earlier. As Takeyama comments, the central part of the book is structured like a detective story, except that the mystery is only important for the soldiers' feelings. Since the narrative is so even paced, readers are probably willing enough to read first the troops' account, then Mizushima's; but a film viewer has different expectations.

Friday, 5 June 2015

The Decagon House Murders

It's always nice when the book I'm reviewing is one that readers without knowledge of Japanese have a chance of reading. There are so few translations of Japanese mysteries. The translation to the book I'm writing about here isn't out yet (and I haven't seen it myself); but since it's been reviewed in Publishers Weekly, I take it that it should be appearing soon. 十角館の殺人(jukkakukan no satsujin, The Decagon House Murders, 1987) by AYATSUJI Yukito (綾辻 行人, born 1960) is one of the most famous detective stories in modern Japan, credited with starting the "new orthodox" (shinhonkaku) trend in Japanese detective fiction and rated high in lists of the top Japanese mysteries. The book had been translated into French, and will now be available in English from Locked Room International, translated by Ho-Ling Wong (whose blog you should be reading if you're interested in Japanese mysteries).

Ayatsuji is probably best known in the English speaking world for the horror mystery Another, which was adapted into an anime series. The Decagon House Murders is playing with one of Agatha Christie's most horror like novels, And Then There Were None. A group of seven students, all members of the Mystery Research Club, go to an uninhabited island for a week, planning to write detective stories for their club magazine. The island had belonged to an architect, NAKAMURA Seiji (中村青司), who had been fond of odd buildings, often with tricks and jokes built into them. The Decagon House, a separate house in the grounds of his mansion, is his own design. The mansion itself burnt to the ground when someone killed Nakamura, his wife and their servants. One of the servants, the gardener, was never found. Was he killed too, or was he the killer? Or could it be that the body identified as Nakamura actually belonged to the gardener and Nakamura is still somewhere at large?

The club members all identify themselves by club nicknames taken from the famous writers of western detective stories: Agatha, Orczy, Ellery, Carr, Van, Poe, Leroux. Alone on the island, they find themselves in a game of murder. One after the other is murdered to fill the appointed roles of five victims, one detective and one murderer.

Meanwhile on the mainland, two members of the mystery club have received letters claiming to come from the dead Nakamura and apparently announcing revenge for the death of his daughter, who had died of alcohol poisoning at the club's New Year's party. The story then unfolds in alternating chapters, as the students on the island attempt to solve their mystery, while the students on the mainland investigate the earlier case, trying to find out whether Nakamura really did die.

If you had to identify what the characteristics of shinhonkaku were from this book, it would probably be a matter of putting more value on the traditional trappings of mystery (the lonely island, the mysterious earlier case, the series of preannounced murders) than on the actual puzzle. This is not remotely a fair play puzzle, and if you read it expecting one you will be disappointed. It has one very nice trick, which a reader will probably guess at some point in the story (since it's a long book); but "solving" the mystery that way does not feel very satisfactory. It's an easy narrative to read though, and the alternation between island and mainland strands provides a nice variety.

You can read the opinions of other bloggers here (Ho-Ling) and here (On the Threshold of Chaos).

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Deputy Inspector Fukuie's Greeting

福家警部補の挨拶 (Fukuie keibuho no aisatsu, Deputy Inspector Fukuie's Greeting, 2006) is a collection of long short stories by OOKURA Takahiro (大倉崇裕, born 1968). The stories are all inverted mysteries, a format familiar from the television series Columbo. We see the crime being committed in the first chapter, then watch the investigation. Columbo is well known in Japan, which also has its own version of the format, FURUHATA Ninzaburou (古畑任三郎), whom I know only from Ho-Ling Wong's reviews. There are other books in the Fukuie series, and two television adaptations in 2009 and 2014, which I haven't seen.

Columbo is often underestimated by his suspects because of his shabby dress and chaotic behaviour. Something similar is going on in the Fukuie stories, most of it centering on the fact that Fukuie is a woman. The only Columbo style clumsiness comes in a tendency to find she has mislaid her police identification when she first appears on the crime scene (the stories all have a number of recurring set pieces like this, not very funny bits of humour which look like they are there in anticipation of the television series). Fukuie is in her thirties, but looks younger. On the surface her manners are correct and self effacing; but she pursues her goals with ruthless persistance and complete indifference to the reactions of others.

The four stories have varied settings (a library, the forensic medicine department of a university, the world of television drama, a sake brewery) and the culprits have different motives, some more sympathetic than others. Neither the settings nor the characters seem very vivid. Even the title character is seen only with outsiders' eyes. The interest in stories like this is to spot how the detective has found out the truth that we already know, sometimes through the significance of something we know, sometimes because something that we did not know can be deduced. I must admit that I never really engaged with the puzzle aspect of the stories, perhaps because I don't read many inverted mysteries. My reaction to the solutions was always more "Ah, OK, fair enough" than "My God, how could I have missed that?"