Friday, 27 November 2015

Jack the Poetical Private

MORI Hiroshi (森 博嗣) started his career as a novelist with すべてがFになる (subete ga F ni naru, The Perfect Insider / Everything Becomes F, 1996), featuring SAIKAWA Souhei (犀川創平), a lecturer and researcher in a university architecture department, and NISHINOSONO Moe (西之園萌絵), the orphan daughter of a wealthy family, a student in the same department. The story was notable for its daringly unexpected locked room mystery and high technology setting; it won the Mephisto Prize and has been adapted into a manga, a television drama, and most recently an anime series. No-one would deny the daring of its approach to the locked room mystery; but I must admit that I thought the book wrote itself a large blank cheque in the assumptions behind what was plausible both for the characters and for the set up.  

詩的私的ジャック (shiteki shiteki jakku, Jack the Poetical Private, 1997) is a much more conventional detective story in the same series. It too has a locked room mystery, or rather several, as a series of victims are found in locked rooms in different universities, all stripped to their underwear with mysterious marks cut into their skin after death. So, as well as a locked room mystery, this starts looking like a "find the connexion" serial killer mystery. In fact the first two locked rooms are not taken very seriously as a puzzle for the reader, and the links between the various murders are also established early. The final locked room is kept as the main puzzle, although it is really hardly a locked room at all. The attention of the police and the amateur detectives is soon drawn to a drop out student at the university, now a rising pop star. The lyrics of one of the songs on his new album have a strange similarity to the crimes.

Like The Perfect Insider, the book reads easily; but I never felt much engagement with the characters. There was a little more Ellery Queen style deduction in the answer this time. Some of it (as often with this style) was not quite convincing; but there were also parts where Saikawa could offer a plausible, but not considered, explanation for oddities in the various crime scenes. The puzzle aspect of the book was very similar to what one might find in one of the more trick oriented golden age writers.

The book had a puzzle of a different kind. As in The Perfect Insider, Mori provides a list of characters, a very useful feature if you're reading Japanese and have difficulty with name kanji. But in both, the only characters listed are those in universities or research institutes. Other characters, such as policemen or servants, are not listed there. I think the first book did the same thing; and it seems very odd to me. Is there some reason for it?

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Girl the Dragon Called

竜が呼んだ娘  (ryuu ga yonda musume, The Girl the Dragon Called, 2013) is a children's fantasy by KASHIWABA Sachiko (柏葉幸子), a writer best known for 霧のむこうのふしぎな町 (The Marvellous Village Veiled in Mist, 1975). That and りんご畑の特別列車 (The Apple Orchard Special Train, 1989) that I discussed earlier are towards the more nonsensical or whimsical end of the spectrum of children's fantasy. This book is much closer to the other end of the spectrum, an adventure set in a world in which magic is real, much like a fantasy written for adults. Visits from our world to the magic world are more likely to be found towards the "nonsense" end of the spectrum. This might be because part of the interest of such books is the strangeness of their nonsense world, and an observer from our world can react appropriately. In The Girl the Dragon Called, the heroine Mia belongs to the world of the story. Even so, readers want a character who experiences the world as something new along with them. Mia  can do that because she comes from a valley cut off from the rest of the world, the home or prison of "wrongdoers" and their descendants. The only creatures linking the valley to the outside world are dragons which can fly over the surrounding cliffs. Each spring the visit of a dragon has a special significance.

Ten year olds wondering, 'Will I be called by the dragon?' felt their hearts tremble at the thought that if that happened they would be leaving the village for good.

Not just the parents of ten year old children, but the whole village would talk about who the dragon would take this year. Sometimes no-one might be called, sometimes two or three. It was an honor to be called by the dragon.

Mia is an orphan, raised by her aunt, who had herself been taken out of the valley as a child, but then returned as an adult, for some wrongdoing of her own. When the dragon calls Mia, she realises that her aunt had been preparing her to leave all her life. The dragon always brings the children to a place where they are needed; and Mia is wanted in the palace complex of the capital. The remnants of a long past war have left behind a variety of unfinished business, that Mia must help with. She is the new servant in the rooms of the hero of that war, who is now only left as a weeping voice heard at nights.

The book is not constantly serious. There are occasional patches of humour or lighthearted adventure; but there are also episodes showing a dystopian society, and more emphasis on a child's uncertain place in the world and their relation to the adults that should care for them.

Most of the various threads of the plot get a resolution of sorts by the end of the book, so that it makes a self contained novel; but it certainly feels like the door has been left open for a sequel with more of the story.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

My Town

NONAMI Asa (乃南アサ, born 1960) is probably best known for her books with police detective OTOMICHI Takako (音道 貴子). The first of those, 凍える牙 (kogoeru kiba, Frozen Fang, 1996) even has an English translation (The Hunter, translated by Juliet Winters Carpenter, 2006). ボクの町 (boku no machi, My Town, 1998) is less well known. It's not a detective story, not even a crime novel really, though the narrative includes several crimes. It's the account of one trainee policeman's first apprentice year in a local police mini station (a kouban) in Tokyo.

The young policeman TAKAGI Seidai (高木聖大) is a bit of a misfit in the police world. He has no great natural enthusiasm for the job and would rather be chasing girls. He had left university with no clear idea what he wanted to do and joined the force almost randomly. Even on his first roll call he gets marked out by his superior officers for having a sticker with a photo of his last girlfriend stuck in the back of his police notebook. He still has an ear piercing, and his speech is mostly casual and slangy. (It sounds like the dialect typical of thoughtless slapdash young men in television dramas, the 'su style, you could say; I've never heard this in real life, and don't know if it's a convention or a real thing.) Through his post training apprentice year he gets experience of what the work really demands, often failing to live up to expectations and questioning whether he has made the right choice in joining the police.

The uniformed police don't get much attention in fiction in Japan or the English speaking world, so it's interesting to read a bit about them for a change. The mini police stations in particular are a very Japanese institution. Tourist guides to Japan often advise you to ask for directions there. There aren't enough of them for that to be actually practical for a tourist; but from the novel it seems that giving directions really is a major part of the work. There are crimes too; but they aren't necessarily resolved. As policemen on the beat, the characters have less control over how things work out than a detective. Mostly they can only patrol or wait and hope to run into the criminal. Towards the end, though, a serial arsonist changes the narrative expectations, as Takagi joins the all out hunt to catch the culprit.