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.

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