Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Ghost Murder Case

「死霊」殺人事件 (shirei satsujinjiken, The 'Ghost' Murder Case, 1994) is a detective story by IMAMURA Aya (今邑彩), the third in a series set in a police murder investigation department. I'm a little random in my book buying, and I haven't read the first two in the series, so I don't know if I missed anything by starting here.

At the start, the book looks more like some kind of psychological crime story, with a businessman in difficulties thinking of killing his wife for the insurance. Soon however we come to the real mystery, which has a very different character. The businessman, his wife and his partner are all found dead in the businessman's house. Not only that, the businessman, the last to die, had just arrived by taxi and told the taxi driver to wait because he had to get his wallet from inside the house. The taxi driver had had the only exit in view the whole time from when his passenger entered the house until he followed him in after getting tired of waiting. He finds the victim dead, clutching the telephone. At the other end is the wife's sister, who just heard her brother in law say "the dead body came back to life". The wife's body is lying on the bed upstairs with a terrifying grin of fierce triumph on her face. In another room the tatami mats have been pushed aside and the floorboards opened, as though something had dug its way out; and there is dirt under the wife's fingernails.

This grotesque horror story style locked room mystery then merges into an alibi breaking investigation, as the police decide that the two business partners had been planning to kill the wife and had set up alibis for it, also sending a further accomplice to Hokkaido to make it seem that the wife had disappeared there.

This is all very promising, if a bit odd. The definite mismatch of genres in the two types of story, locked room mystery and police procedural is interesting; and the setup is as outlandish as you could want for the former. The series detective Kijima seems like a typical police procedural detective, here partnered with a younger woman, who is characterised by a lighthearted approach to the investigation, rather than the steely determination to succeed in a man's world that the genre expects.

At the end, after another locked room of sorts and the answer to all the mysteries, my feeling was much the same as with other books I've read by Imamura. It was not bad, in some respects very good; but it felt like there was a better book trying to get out with a little more careful work on the plotting. There was certainly too much reliance on coincidence and improbable behaviour from some of the characters.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Sheltering from Rain under the Slide

雨やどりはすべり台の下で (amayadori ha suberidai no shita de, Sheltering from Rain under the Slide, 1984) is a children's book by OKADA Jun (岡田淳).

A sudden rain storm makes a group of primary school children break off their baseball game and shelter under the large slide in the park in front of the block of flats where they all live. One of them suggests that the rain had been magically caused by Mr Amamori, who had been walking by at that moment and opened his umbrella a moment before the unexpected rain arrived. Amamori is an apparently unemployed middle aged man, who avoids contact with other people in the building. Another child reacts to the other's suspicion that Amamori was a wizard.

"You said, back then, I guess he really is a wizard, didn't you? 'Really is' means there was something before this?"

"What? Well, ......" Ichirou, playing with the rubber ball, glanced at Kyouko. "Just, somehow or other," he dodged the question.

Teruo didn't ask any more, but went on, "The truth is, when I heard you say 'wizard', it was a surprise. What I mean is, there was a time when I wondered whether he wasn't a wizard."

Everyone looked at Teruo in shock. Two or three had their mouths hanging open. Teruo went on, "The rain doesn't look like letting up yet, so perhaps you'll listen to my story."

One after the other the children tell stories of their experiences, all with a larger or smaller magical element, and all featuring Mr Amamori, as the apparent worker of the magic. The children are all of different ages (from 6 to 12) and the different stories reflect their different characters. Some of the stories are poetic fairy tales, others are closer to fantasies reflecting the wishes of the narrators. Readers can read the stories as stories, and also as reflections of the different storytellers. It is never stated as such, but there are hints that allow us to interpret the stories, if we want, not as a narrative of real events, but as a collaborative story telling competition. At the end, the final story puts a different perspective on the figure of Amamori, who is moving out that day.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Fall of A Aiichirou

亜愛一郎の転倒 (A Aiichirou no tentou, The Fall of A Aiichirou, 1982) is the second collection of A Aiichirou stories by 泡坂妻夫 (AWASAKA Tsumao). The stories are often compared to Chesterton's Father Brown stories, a comparison Awasaka was probably seeking with his collection titles, which are all of the form "The [abstract noun] of A Aiichirou". A Aiichirou is a photographer, handsome and well dressed, but clumsy and unworldly, with a gift for unusual deduction. As in the first collection, The Confusion of A Aiichirou, which I reviewed back in 2014, the stories are all told from the viewpoint of a third person observer. The narration is leisurely and as wayward as the hero. You never know quite where the stories are going, and what is going to be relevant. Often the solution occurs before the actual mystery has been well defined. Those stories that do have a well defined mystery (particularly the impossible crimes) usually present it more than half way through the story. I'm not sure if this will sound like praise to everyone, but for me the A Aiichirou stories that I've read include some of my favourite Japanese mysteries.

'The Straw Cat'. A and a friend are visiting a retrospective exhibition of the works of a painter famous for obsessive perfectionism, although their interest is actually for the fossils preserved in the gallery wall. While there, A puzzles over the various unexpected 'mistakes' he finds in the paintings. Do these have a connection to the deaths, apparently by suicide, of three people, the artist's most famous model, his wife and himself. And what was the meaning of the straw cat that his wife was clutching at her death? 

gasshouzukuri in Shirakawa village
'The Fall of the House of Sunaga'. A and other travellers are stranded when there train is stopped by a landslide on the tracks. Three of them attempt to reach their destination cross country, encouraged by a salesman, who mistakenly thinks his childhood memories of the countryside will be sufficient. After wandering hopelessly through the woods for several days, they come to the valley where in the nineteenth century the lonely house of the Sunaga family had mysteriously disappeared, leading to a lullaby threatening children with the "creeping monk" who took away the Sunaga family. The occupant of the house that stands there now, with some reservations, lets the travellers in for the night, but nails shut the window to their room. Curious what he is hiding, they pull out the nails and look out on a towering gasshou roofed house (a rustic style with a steep pitched thatched roof that starts at the first floor and contains several floors above that). When they wake in the morning, though, the massive house has disappeared without a trace.

'Suzuko's Disguise'. A fan of a singer who was lost in a plane crash at sea goes to see her last film, accompanied by a competition for a new singer to take her role. This seemed to me the weakest story in the book.

'An Unexpected Corpse". The title (i-ga-i-na-i-ga-i) is a palindrome in Japanese (which has a syllabic alphabet). Awasaka has a fondness for these kinds of games, reflected in his novel Palindrome Syndrome. A different bit of detective story playfulness is at the heart of the puzzle this time, though, the "nursery rhyme murder", in which the disposition of a body is for some reason made to reflect aspects of a children's rhyme.

'The Screwed on Hat' follows A and his current employer (an obsessive busybody), as they attempt to return a hat to a man who abandoned it at a service station parking area when the wind blew it off. But why was he wearing such a large misshapen hat and why did he not wait when A chased after it for him?

'The Four Great Fighting Heads' has a retired policeman looking into the strange behaviour of a young woman's grandfather for her. A slightly jokey story of finding the common element of a variety of odd clues, perhaps a little reminiscent of the lighter Sherlock Holmes stories.

'On the Streets of Saburou Town' is another impossible crime. A taxi driver puts down a passenger, then when the next one flags him down he finds the corpse of the departed passenger somehow still in the taxi, with his head severed.

'A Blade for the Invalid' is also an impossible crime, for me the best in the collection. On a hospital visit, A and his friend, a patient, take a walk on the roof, which has a recreation area for convalescents. Another patient collapses and when they run up to him they find that he has been stabbed. Neither the victim nor the only person close enough to stab him could have been carrying a knife.