Friday, 28 August 2015

The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou

It's not surprising that the first short story collection by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎) is called 法月綸太郎の冒険 (Norizuki Rintarou no bouken, The Adventures of Norizuki Rinatarou, 1992). Admirers of Ellery Queen, who is a constant presence in Norizuki's books, will recognise the title of the first Ellery Queen short story collection, The Adventures of Ellery Queen (1932). Norizuki's collection is made up of one novella and six short stories, some of them reworkings of stories he wrote as an university student for amateur club magazines.

The novella, 'The Death Penalty Puzzle', is set in the execution room of a prison. Japan is one of the two prosperous democratic countries that still have the death penalty, although it is mostly reserved for multiple murders: there are typically two or three executions in a year. In the story, moments before being hanged, a prisoner is poisoned. The prison governor worries about the public reaction to the crime and asks Superintendant Norizuki and his son, detective story writer and amateur detective Rintarou to quickly identify the culprit. Obviously the motive is the biggest puzzle here, since the victim was about to die anyway; but Rintarou focuses more on opportunity. The story is a strong example of the kind of deduction by elimination familiar from early Ellery Queen. A slight oddity is that the elements on which the deduction are based are not really hidden. Similarly the surprise revelation of the murderer is prepared by hints that are hardly disguised. Even so, I hadn't worked out the answer myself.

I won't describe all the other stories in detail, as working out just what kind of a story it is is part of the interest. Like the short story collections from Doyle through to the golden age, they have a great deal of variety. Some are murder mysteries, and these may be whodunnits, howdunits or something completely different. Others feature minor crimes, "puzzles of everyday life", although the fact that they are not announced as such in advance means that they do not fit so simply into the genre. This is perhaps one of the strengths of the "it doesn't have to be murder" freedom of the short story world. Not every story has to establish a well defined problem near the beginning. Some of them can leave you wondering "just where is this heading?" and the answer can be horror, tragedy or comedy.

One story that does have a clearly defined problem is "The Green Door is Danger", a locked room mystery. The victim was an apparent suicide; but Rintarou becomes suspicious of the widow and tries to find out how the murderer could have got out of a bolted room whose only other exit, the green door of the title, has been sealed fast for many years. I had the right background to make the solution very obvious to me; but I thought it was a very satisfactory version of the locked room genre. It isn't one of the most baffling examples, since, although there is clearly a right answer, the set up would have allowed the murderer a variety of possibilities to create much the same effect. But this is one story where you can decide for yourself, even if you don't read Japanese, as there is a translation by Ho-Ling Wong in the November 2014 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.

Of the other stories in the collection my favourite was "The Slasher" (切り裂き鬼). I wish English speaking fans of the classical detective story had a chance to read it.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

And then there were five people missing

そして五人がいなくなる (soshite gonin ga inakunaru, And Then Five People Were Missing, 1994) is the first book in the series 名探偵夢水清志郎事件ノート (Meitantei Yumemizu Kiyoshirou jiken nooto, Case Notes of Great Detective YUMEMIZU Kiyoshirou) by はやみねかおる (HAYAMINE Kaoru, born 1964). It's a lighthearted children's detective series, probably aimed principally at children around ten to twelve, although the narrator and her sisters are slightly older (about thirteen).

Yumemizu is the new neighbour of the IWASAKI (岩崎) family. He has moved into the ramshackle western style house next door and hung up a sign saying "Yumemizu Kiyoshirou, Great Detective". The children 亜衣, 真衣 and 美衣 (Ai, Mai, Mii, or I, My, Me, as they write their names) regard this declaration with suspicion; and Ai starts to investigate the detective, calling round on the new neighbour with a gift from her mother. Yumemizu is an eccentric, always dressed in a black suit and sunglasses, mostly lying around reading or sleeping. A former lecturer and self proclaimed great detective, his self confidence is boundless, but somehow hard to credit, even though he shows Ai his card, which reads "Great Detective Yumemizu Kiyoshirou".

"You showed me the card earlier, so never mind that. I mean, tell me what cases you've solved so far."
"Fine." But although Yumemizu's mouth stayed open, no more words came out.
"What is it?"
"I can't remember."
Seeing my suspicion filled eyes, he hurried to defend himself, "It's true. I really have solved any number of difficult cases. But when a puzzle's solved, it's not interesting any more and I just forget them."

In the end Yumemizu's deductions convince the sisters that he really is a detective; but since "Great Detective" isn't a real title, they end up calling him "Professor".

The first real case comes in the summer holidays. At a nearby amusement park, the performing magician "The Count" (伯爵) makes a young girl vanish from a box suspended on ropes above the stage. When neither he nor the girl reappear, the audience realise that she has in fact been kidnapped. The Count announces that this is the first of five people he is going to make vanish; and soon another three children disappear in impossible circumstances. The figure of the Count is very much like the villain of EDOGAWA Rampo's children's series; but here there is less adventure, more emphasis on the puzzle. The book aims to be a proper classical detective story, though one in a world in which plausibility is not really a criterion. There are a couple of good ideas in the various puzzles (and one nice use of a narrative trick), but most will seem a little obvious. The chief attraction of the book is in the humour, particularly in its eccentric detective and sarcastic narrator.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

The Magician of Balloon Town

バルーン・タウンの手品師 (Baruun Taun no tejinashi, The Magician of Balloon Town, 2004) is a sequel to MATSUO Yumi's The Balloon Town Murder (1994). I wrote a post about that a year ago; but I'll repeat the essential background to the series here. Balloon Town is the mocking name given by outsiders to a closed district of near future Tokyo, reserved for pregnant women. Most women in this future prefer to use the artificial wombs that have established themselves as the safer and more convenient way to bring a baby into the world. For those women who reject this, Tokyo has set aside a protected precinct, a kind of town within the town, in which almost all the inhabitants are pregnant women. A little unusual among the other expectant mothers, the amateur detective KUREBAYASHI Mio does not share their slightly cultish devotion to natural motherhood. In the stories in the first book, she solves mysteries brought to her by her policewoman friend, ETA Marina, who finds herself sent repeatedly to investigate crimes in this unusual world.

The stories partly satirise things familiar in our world, in particular attitudes to pregnancy and maternity, by taking them to extremes, partly play with the surreal reversal of norms that the premise permits. Both of these elements are still present, but much more weakly so in the sequel. Eta is visiting another friend from the first book, whose baby is due. When a disk possibly containing sensitive government data goes missing from the hospital room, the only suspects are the other visitors, but none of them have the disk on them and none of them could have got it out of the room. Kurebayashi, whose baby Reo was born at the end of the first book, turns up to solve the impossible crime. As the more experienced Balloon Town insiders spot, she is pregnant again. So she is also on hand to solve the crimes that continue to occur in the town. In "The Balloon Town Automatic Doll", a maker of karakuri dolls (traditional Japanese clockwork dolls that perform surprisingly complex actions like serving tea) is bludgeoned and robbed in front of the camera he was using to record the performance of his two automata; but nobody could have got approached him by the only possible exit without being spotted. In "The Orient Express 15:45 Mystery", a protestor who threw tomatoes at a visiting author vanishes into a fortune teller's booth constructed as a railway carriage; but it seems that none of the pregnant fortune tellers could have been the attacker. In "The Strange Passion of Professor Hanibaru", Eta's investigation of a missing pregnant woman leads her to the woman's psychiatrist, a strange, mesmeric figure, whose enthusiasm for the subject of cooking with placentas perhaps hides something even more disturbing.

As the titles suggest the stories make frequent allusion to detective story literature, sometimes creating a pregnancy or maternity themed version of famous mysteries. The crimes are often relatively minor (there was one murder in the stories in the first book, none in this one). While the satirical element is weaker, more attention is paid to the development of the book across stories. The final story is much longer than the others; and lines preparing us for some of its elements are set up in the earlier stories.

Monday, 3 August 2015

The Alice Mirror Castle Murder Case

Ten characters gather on a lonely island in winter. Most are detectives invited by the wealthy niece of the owner of the only house on the island, the Lewis Carroll themed Alice Mirror Castle. The niece wants the detectives to search for the so-called Alice mirror that should be in the castle somewhere. Whoever is still alive at the end of their stay can have the mirror. This seems like an invitation to murder. And indeed someone is targeting the other guests, and one by one their number decreases, in a homage to the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None. If this all sounds strangely familiar, there is more than one homage to the book in the world of Japanese mystery. Today's isolated island serial murder is by KITAYAMA Takekuni (北山猛邦, born 1979), 『アリス・ミラー城』殺人事件  (The Alice Mirror Castle Murder Case, 2003).

I'm not going to write much about this one, because I'm clearly not its intended audience. It has a locked room mystery and various crime scene maps and plans; but at the end, none of the explanations for the various mysteries seemed to make sense. The fantastical set up might be considered a warning not to expect too much logic, and the characters do not act like characters in the real world.

You can read the much more enthusiastic reactions of other bloggers here and here. So obviously I'm missing something.