Friday, 29 April 2016

A Tree with Thorns

刺のある樹 (toge no aru ki, A Tree with Thorns, 1961) is the third novel featuring amateur detectives NIKI Yuutarou (仁木雄太郎) and his younger sister Etsuko, the narrator, who shares a name with the actual writer of the books, NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子). I reviewed the first and second novels in the series earlier, as well as a collection of short stories. Picking up from the last novel, Yuutarou and Etsuko are still students house-sitting for a rich cactus collector who is currently living in Europe. The absent owner also conveniently allows them to use his Renault. Yuutarou is tall, thin, intellectual and more likely to observe social proprieties than short, active, Etsuko. Etsuko is an enthusiast for detective stories and by association for real crime investigation, Yuutarou shows less enthusiasm at first, but once involved in a case is more insistent on doing things his own way.

The new case starts with a visit from a businessman, ONAGA Masaji (尾永益治), who believes that he is being targeted by an unknown assassin. He and his wife have had several accidents in the last months which he thinks were murder attempts; but the police brushed off his concerns. The investigating inspector, who had worked with Yuutarou on earlier cases, had suggested that he talk to him if he was still concerned. Yuutarou agrees that there is certainly something to investigate; but when Onaga rings home to prepare his wife for the visit, he finds that she has been murdered. She had been strangled while bent over her sewing machine; and the maid, who heard her working at it, gives everyone connected with the case an alibi.

As in the earlier books, the mystery is mostly a comic detective story, with much of the humour coming from the narrator Etsuko, both as character and as observer. This kind of thing irritates some mystery readers, who look on busybodies approaching other people's tragedies with light hearted curiosity as sociopaths. A part of the humour is in fact Etsuko's inappropriate attitude here. But in the second half of the book, as a new murder takes place, the contradictions of the genre catch up with the characters and the tone becomes more serious.

As a mystery, it's well narrated with some skill in placing clues, but a fairly minor work.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Momo and Akane

I wrote about the first books in this series by MATSUTANI Miyoko (松谷みよ子) two years ago. As then, the volume I've just been reading contains two separate books, published together in one paperback. The first モモちゃんとアカネちゃん (Momo chan to Akane chan, Momo and Akane, 1974) gives its title to the paperback reprint, the second is the slightly later, ちいさいアカネちゃん (chiisai Akane chan, Little Akane, 1978). The stories follow little Momo, who is just entering primary school at the start of the first book, and the rest of the family, her baby sister Akane, her mother and father, and the cat Pū. Akane, who goes from a newborn baby to a two year old by the second book, gets a little more attention than Momo.

The books are made up of linked short stories, each complete in themselves, but often preparing later developments. Almost all contain some element of fantasy; but the heart of the story is not fantasy but the depiction of life in a modern Japanese family. The fantasy element serves as metaphor or other comment on some aspect of family life, or reflects the way that a young child sees the world. The style is often whimsical, although the subject matter is not always so light.

Perhaps because of her sickness, mama's eyesight seemed to have gone wrong. Sometimes papa would be visible, sometimes not. It was like this.

Papa came home in the evening. 

Trudge, trudge.

Mama recognised papa's footsteps straight away.

Ring, ring, the doorbell rang, and mama flew out to open it. But papa was not standing there. All there was was papa's shoes.

That was it. Mama gazed at the shoes not knowing what to do. How on earth was she to give an evening meal to shoes? It would be ridiculous to say, "The bath is ready" to shoes. All mama could do was wipe the dust off the shoes, rub in shoe cream and polish them with a rag. She polished them so long that they sparkled. Mama's tears dropped onto them.

The next morning the shoes left the house again.

 Not surprisingly, the parents separate towards the end of Momo and Akane; and Little Akane follows mama, Momo and Akane getting by in a smaller house with mama trying to manage work and family alone.

The fantastic elements of the stories mostly comes from the attribution of human understanding to animals or inanimate objects (like the clumsily knitted baby socks that Akane's mother made while she was pregnant). Occasionally more familiar figures appear, both western (Santa Claus) and JapaneseHere Momo and Akane have been thrown off the new red sledge that their grandfather made for them.

Just below them there was a deep ravine.

"There it is, the sledge, there it is."

When Momo peered in the direction that Akane was pointing, she saw a figure wearing a white kimono with long white hair. Even so, it was a young woman. She was standing by the sledge on the floor of the valley. 

"Akane." Momo clasped Akane to her.

"Thank you ..... Thank you for the red sledge. I'd have liked to get you two as well, to take you to my place with me; but since you gave me the sledge, I'll let you off ....."

Ho ho ho ho ho, the laughing voice echoed, hyuuh, the wind blew.  The woman raised her hand, and from around it snow drifted in spiralling clouds.
The general trend of the books is optimistic, while still showing some of the sadness built into the experience of family life and growing up.

According to the Japan Foundation's Books in Translation database, there is a translation of the first of these books, モモちゃんとアカネちゃん, as Momo-chan and Akane-chan by M. McCandless (Kodansha International, 1987).

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Tama Lakeside Murder Case

I don't think I've reviewed anything by UCHIDA Yasuo (内田康夫, born 1934) yet, though I read a couple of his books before I started this blog. He is best known for the Asami Mitsuhiko series, whose hero's job as a freelance travel writer allows Uchida to decorate the mysteries with descriptions of different parts of Japan in which the crimes are set. The title of this book 多摩湖畔殺人事件 (Tamakohan satsujinjiken, The Tama Lakeside Murder Case, 1993) would be absolutely typical of the series, many of which are a combination of place name and "murder case". This is a recognized genre in Japan, the "travel mystery", which gives the reader a combination of guidebook and mystery. The book is actually not in that series, but has strong travel mystery elements, although anyone looking for information on the title setting will be disappointed, as the body found there by a passing jogger ought not to have been there and the pursuit of how the victim got there leads to quite different parts of Japan, in particular to Arita in the north east.

The narration mostly follows the viewpoint of a police detective, KOUCHI (川内), a middle aged man, known to criminals as the demon policeman for his relentless pursuit. He had been too devoted to his work even when his wife and daughter were alive, but after both died early, his work is all he cares about. Currently he is resisting his doctor's advice to have the severe stomach pains he has been experiencing for months properly investigated.

Although the killer seems to have made some effort to make the victim hard to identify, they soon find that he is a Tokyo businessman. His daughter, a beautiful wheelchair bound invalid who resembles Kouchi's lost daughter, soon proves to be more of a detective than the police, making several key breakthroughs in the investigation.

Like many travel mysteries the plot follows a "patient policeman" model, gradually revealing the victim's movements before his disappearance and homing in on a suspect. There is, as often in these stories, only one real suspect, and the interest is in whether the police can break his alibi. Different parts of the  puzzle get solved stage by stage until the final confrontation. None of it really got my interest, I'm afraid, neither the mystery nor the human interest story. Uchida is a competent enough writer that you can understand his reliable popularity; but both plot ideas and characters seem very conventional for the most part. And diversions from the conventional were generally unattractive rather than interesting.