Saturday, 30 January 2016

Murder at Mt. Fuji

I've given the book the English title, since this is one of the few Japanese detective stories translated into English; but a literal translation of the Japanese title of NATSUKI Shizuko's Wの悲劇 (daburyu no higeki, 1982) would be The Tragedy of W. Ellery Queen is very popular in Japan, and the title is a reference to the series of mysteries written with the character Drury Lane, The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, The Tragedy of Z, which the Ellery Queen writers published under the name Barnaby Ross. These books are popular with enthusiasts for Golden Age mysteries; but I wasn't a wild fan of the only one I've read (The Tragedy of Y). In particular the character description seemed to me often clumsy; and the detective figure was both incredible and unappealing.

One aspect that Natsuki's book shares with The Tragedy of Y is a closed circle setting concentrating on events of one family living together in one house. In the afterword, it is mentioned that she was deliberately trying to create a work in this classic pattern.

ICHIJOU Harumi (一條春生) tutors a younger friend, WATSUJI Mako (和辻摩子) in English. The Watsuji family owns one of Japan's largest pharmaceutical firms and is incredibly rich. Over new year the family gather in their villa in the five lakes region near Mount Fuji. This year Mako is finishing her thesis on American drama and asks Harumi to join her, so that she can help correcting the English. The lakeside town is mostly made up of second homes, and in mid winter it is almost deserted. Harumi feels some awkwardness as an outsider to the group, but joins the eight others in the snow bound villa.

That evening Mako runs out from the room of her great uncle Yohee (与兵衛), the company president. She has cut her own wrists, though the wound is not deep enough to be threatening; and in the room, Yohee is lying dead, stabbed with a fruit knife. By Mako's account he had tried to rape her and she had unintentionally killed him in the ensuing struggle. The family want to protect Mako and avoid a scandal for the family name. They decide to make the death look like the work of an outsider. But with the cuts to her hands, Mako is sure to attract suspicion. So they set to work to construct an elaborate cover, making it seem she had left the villa before Yohee was murdered.

The story now turns into a kind of inverted mystery. Until now we had been seeing everything from Harumi's point of view. Now the narrative divides. For some chapters, we continue to watch from Harumi's eyes and listen in on the discussions of the family behind the backs of the investigators. In others we follow the capable local police, as they spot inevitable incongruities and gradually break down the cover story. As we do so, we notice that some things that the police find do not quite fit with what Harumi witnessed. Is someone trying to sabotage the conspiracy?

As in The Tragedy of Y, there is some variation between the parts concentrated on the family and the parts concentrated on the detectives. The former make some attempt to live up to the "tragedy" of the title and evoke an oppressive atmosphere of desperation. The latter are much lighter with some room reserved for comedy.

One can certainly see why the book deserved a translation. The mystery within a conspiracy gives Natsuki the chance to engage our attention in a variety of ways: our sympathies are simultaneously engaged  for the conspirators and the investigators; and the lack of a clearly defined puzzle makes the mystery more interesting. The actual solution to the various mysteries at the end is merely "good enough". The most ingenious parts actually come in the cover up. Stylistically there is also a slight problem, common in successful Japanese detective stories which have first been published as a serial: there is a little too much recapitulation to keep the reader on track.

I haven't read the translation, Murder at Mt. Fuji (1990); but if you have, you may be wondering who all these characters are, since apparently most of the names are changed. Most strikingly, Harumi becomes Jane Prescott, an American exchange student. The English Wikipedia article on the book claims "In all audiovisual media adaptations the character of Jane Prescott, an American, is replaced with a Japanese character named Haruo Ichijo"; but in the essay  at the end of my copy, critic YAMAMAE Yuzuru says that the editor at St. Martin's Press felt that for a Japanese writer unknown in America, something American was needed to make the readers feel at home. So it looks like the difference is due to the translation, as a commentator on Ho-Ling Wong's blog noted.

Friday, 15 January 2016

The Black Trunk

AYUKAWA Tetsuya was a leading representative of the traditional detective story in the decades after the second world war. I wasn't very keen on his The Villa Lilac Murder Case; but 黒いトランク (kuroi toranku, The Black Trunk, 1956) seems to me a real classic of the alibi breaking genre. It is fairly explicitly a homage to Freeman Wills Crofts' classic The Cask (1920), but its complex and ingenious plot makes it a masterpiece in its own right.

The story starts with the discovery of a dead body in a trunk delivered to a Tokyo station from northern Kyuushuu. The addressee has never appeared to collect it, and the address given seems to be a fiction. The sender however is real, a drug dealer in a small Kyuushuu town. Soon the Kyuushuu police are busy trying to trace his movements. When he turns up dead in the Seto Inland Sea, it looks like his suicide puts an end to the story; but his widow is not happy with this and asks an old friend, Inspector ONITSURA (鬼貫警部, Ayukawa's series character), to look into it.

Onitsura had been in love with the widow as a student and had lost out to the man who married her, a fellow student. In fact all the characters in the case were students with Onitsura: both victims, the drug dealer and also the first victim, a widely disliked far right militaristic zealot; and soon two suspects, a nervous artist and a tough minded industrialist. Onitsura soon turns up suspicious activity from a man dressed in blue, who must be the murderer; but it looks as though neither suspect could be the man.

What makes this mystery so good? I think that part of it is the single minded concentration on advancing the plot. In The Villa Lilac Murder Case the mystery remains unsolved until the end only by having incompetent detectives who never notice suspicious behaviour or ask questions every reader has thought of. In The Black Trunk both Onitsura and the local police detective who first investigates are competent. The concentration of the plot is notable. There are only two suspects that matter, and readers will probably quickly pick one of them. You could call this story "The One Red Herring". The characters are not exactly realistic; but they are interesting. Ayukawa allows himself the same freedom as modern drama to let his characters talk much more freely and directly than we would expect. This too helps the story move along briskly.

It must be admitted (as Ho-Ling's slightly less enthusiastic review notes) that there are stretches where the story just feels too complicated. You are asked to keep track of the separate movements of several people and pieces of luggage through the rail and boat systems of Japan from Tokyo to Kyushu over several days. There were certainly points in the story where I had trouble trying to remember what I was supposed to know about the earlier parts of the investigation. Certainly, even if I had made notes, I could never actually solve this in one go; but Ayukawa provides for us there too, I think. The solution proceeds by stages. We make one breakthrough, but find that we are left with a new problem. The reader can at least spot some of the (many) tricks, and as the solution proceeds we get a firmer grasp of the details, leaving us in a good position to solve the final puzzle if we want. Even for admirers of the Golden Age detective story, this is not a book for everyone; but for an admirer of Crofts it's well worth reading.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

The Locked Room the Angel Opened

天使が開けた密室 (tenshi ga aketa misshitsu, The Locked Room the Angel Opened, 2001) is a teenage oriented detective story by TANIHARA Shouko (谷原秋桜子). As the title suggests, it features a locked room mystery.

 Highschool student Minami is trying to save up money with part time jobs. After one of them instead lands her with a massive debt, she is happy to take over the well paid night shift job of a departing neighbour, though she has some doubts when she learns what it involves. An undertakers' does the initial handling of patients who die in a local private hospital (while trying to win customers for the actual funeral service). Minami gets a mobile phone and gets paid even if she is not needed; but if someone dies, then she has to go out (for extra pay) and help move the body.

All goes well enough until her unpleasant colleague is found strangled, and Minami seems to be the only person who could have killed him. Happily she has friends to look out for her, and soon they are on the track of the real killer.

This world Minami lives in is peopled a bit too much by the conventions of popular literature. Her two school friends are an energetic and self confident sporting type and a traditional minded daughter of a wealthy family. Her new neighbour is a handsome and intelligent student, with whom she is on bad terms for no good reason. Her kimono wearing mother is a kindly and domestic figure whom Minami thinks must be protected from the outside world. Any originality in the book comes in the depiction of Minami's part time jobs, particularly the depiction of the undertaking business.

The story and characters are perhaps a bit weak; but it reads easily and agreeably. It approaches the mystery at a fairly leisured pace. We are half way through the book before the crime occurs, although of course some of the elements of the mystery are being prepared at the same time. The actual puzzle could probably fit comfortably into a long short story. 

My kindle edition had a short story with the same characters as an extra, tatta nijuukyuufun no yuukai, 'The twenty nine minute kidnapping'.