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.

2 comments:

  1. For some reason, all the things I've read/seen of Yamamura Misa were all from her Catharine series (American girl in Japan / tourism thing) and like you, I had the impression that she was a lot like Uchida. I just looked at her Wikipedia page and I honestly had no idea she had so many series with different kind of protagonists. She was popular in the game world too, there are several Famicom games with her name attached to them (the most recent game with her was an early DS game, I think).

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    1. I've seen screenshots of the games (with a blonde woman called Catherine speaking, so presumably the character from that series).
      I'm a bit disappointed in Wikipedia there, actually. They give dates for the books and films, but when they list the games, they don't tell you the year.

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