Sunday, 27 August 2017

Stakeout

張込み (Harikomi, Stakeout, 1965) is a collection of short stories by MATSUMOTO Seichou (松本清張).

In the title story, a detective on the team hunting for a man on the run after a robbery gone wrong turns to murder thinks that the best lead is the woman he once loved, now living a quiet, married existence in far away Kyushu.

In 顔 (kao, "Face"), a stage actor in a minor theatrical group is starting to get small parts in films. When the chance of a larger role comes, his future looks promising. The only problem is that he knows that there is an eyewitness who can connect him to a murder several years back. If he becomes more famous, it is only a matter of time before the eyewitness sees him in a film and can identify him to the police. Before things get that far, he needs to get rid of the eyewitness. An excellent suspense story.

声 (koe, "Voice") is a counterpart to "Face". A telephone operator on a Tokyo newspaper makes a wrong connection in the middle of the night and gets insulted by the irritated person on the other end of the line. The next day she learns that the occupant of the house she had misdialled has been murdered and realises that she has heard the voice of his killer. This story divides into two parts, a suspense story and an alibi breaking story. Each is good in its own way (with some minor implausible elements in both), but they don't really seem to belong in the same short story.

The basic idea in 地方紙を買う女 (chihoushi o kau onna, "Woman buying a local paper") was already used as a minor plot element in "Face". A woman who needs to keep track of the news in a provincial town orders the local paper, claiming to be interested in the novel being serialised in it. The paper informs the novelist of this flattering news, and again when she cancels her subscription. The novelist, irritated by this insult, starts to wonder if she had some other reason to order the paper.

In 鬼畜 (kichiku, "Monster"), a skilled print setter works his way up to owning his own, moderately successful print works. He starts to use some of his spare money supporting a mistress, and eventually three children. When business gets worse he can no longer support his second family and the mistress ends up leaving the three children with him. Encouraged by his angry wife, he starts thinking that the children may not be his and his life would be much easier if they were gone. Matusmoto is sometimes taken as a standard bearer for a "social school" in Japanese crime fiction; and this could be taken as a good example of that. (If you click on the social pages of a Japanese newspaper, you'll find that much of what's reported under that rubric is crime.) The story reads like it originates in response to the reaction most readers of reporting of instances of horrifying cruelty have: 'How could anyone do something like that?' There's a 1978 film by NOMURA Yoshitarou, which I haven't seen.

一年半待て (ichinenhan mate, "Wait a year and a half") presents first a "social school" story of a woman who kills her abusive husband in defense of herself and her children, then turns this around in a conversation between a mysterious man and the campaigning journalist who championed her. Reconsidering the evidence the visitor shows the unwilling journalist that there must be more to the story than she thought.

In 投影 (touei, "Projection) a lazy journalist quits a major Tokyo newspaper and takes his severance to a seaside town in provincial Shikoku. As the money runs out, he first allows his cabaret hostess girlfriend to support him, then finally takes a job with a tiny scandal hunting independent paper run by a cranky invalid. Soon the reporter's dormant professionalism is reawakened, as he gets on the track of local corruption and then murder. This is an enjoyable story, with some ingenuity in the trick of the story; but as in "Voice" there is some mismatch between the realism of the motive and setting and the detective story unreality of the crime. In addition, the trick is distinctly implausible in any context, both physically (though this felt like something that a writer could make plausible with a few minor changes) and as a method someone might choose.

カーネアデスの舟板 (Carneades no funaita, "The Plank of Carneades") is a sarcastic little story about academics in postwar Japan. After writing nationalist history under the former regime, a young professor successfully tacks left to succeed in the world of textbook publishing and popularisation; but when changes in the committees that oversee textbooks makes a swing back to "great men" and national history desirable, his old professor, rehabilitated through his help, threatens to overtake him. The title is from an ancient thought experiment about whether it is justified after a shipwreck to push away a drowning man from a plank that can only support one person.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Living and Dead

I reviewed The Book of Happiness by AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫, 1933-2009) last year. That book was characterised by a bit of trickiness that readers were requested not to reveal, making a review a little difficult. Its sequel, 生者と死者  (seisha to shisha, Living and Dead, 1994) is also a very unusual construction; but in this case its unusual features are evident from the start. In fact there's a big warning label on the cover telling you how to read the book. Most books are made up of gatherings or quires (if I'm using the words right). The printers print large pages then fold them to make a set of folded pages, with one pair in the centre, and the others around them. Mostly printers use a machine to cut the outer edges; but it was common in the nineteenth century to leave the pages for the reader to cut. Even a hundred years later, if the topics you research are obscure enough, you might find yourself having to cut open the pages in a library book. A few publications still do this today; but this is probably the only mass market paperback in Japan that has the format. The reason is that the book is a kind of magic trick. If you read the pages that are open without cutting (a spread of two pages every sixteen pages), you read a short story. If you then cut open the pages, there's a full novel with a somewhat different story to it.

The short story features a man called Chiaki and a manager Satomi. Chiaki has memory loss and apparently also psychic powers. The novel also features Chiaki and Satomi, and Chiaki again has memory loss and apparent psychic powers; but many things that meant one thing in the short story mean something quite different in the novel. In particular, Awasaka seems to go out of his way to divide up a word (represented by two kanji) over the page break between the open and the uncut pages. The word in the novel is then a quite different one to the one in the short story. And many other things take on a quite different meaning in the new context. Many of these are trivial, in themselves unimportant for the larger story. The idea seems to be that the reader will enjoy finding the changes in meaning from what they read the first time. 

It's certainly an enjoyable game. How successful are the stories? I think only moderately. The short story as a narrative works like many modern short stories as a sequence of unconnected  and inconclusive scenes, from which readers construct their own interpretation; but knowing that the story was a product of a trick construction, the interpretative effort is too much to ask. Some of the joins are a little clumsy too, syntactically correct, but looking like something no-one would ever write.

The short story is not a mystery, and the series detective Yogi Ganjī and his associates only appear once one has cut the pages to read the novel. That is a mystery, with two deaths in it; but it is not clear exactly what we are investigating. The same is true in The Book of Happiness; but there the eventual solution adds up to more than we had been expecting. Here the solution concerns what might be considered the more trivial parts of the narrative, and many elements are narrated at the end rather than deduced. It does hold some surprises though; and as part of Awasaka's craftmanship, several of the differences between short story and novel also have thematic relevance to the ending.

The title, incidentally, refers to a performance by spiritualists or stage magicians, in which after an audience member wrote down several names of living people and one dead person (known only to them), the performer would find among the various folded pieces of paper the one referring to the dead person.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Coffin of Flowers

YAMAMURA Misa (山村美紗, 1934-1996) was very popular in her day, but has probably faded of late. The last time I looked, few if any of her books were in print; on the other hand they were still the staple of Japanese television mysteries the last couple of times I visited. The television mysteries looked a bit boring, cosy mysteries which succeed by catering to Japanese television's love of sightseeing (mostly within Japan). 花の棺 (hana no histugi, Coffin of Flowers, 1975) certainly fits that pattern, with a series of murders and other crimes taking places in different famous parts of the ancient captial Kyoto. The difference to the world of cosy mystery in England and America is that the mystery still keeps up the golden age enthusiasm for tricks, particulary locked room mysteries and impossible crimes.

The book is the first in the "Catherine" series. Catherine, the daughter of the American Vice President, has recently graduated from university and is visiting Japan for a year, keen to study Japanese flower arranging. The three main schools of flower arranging are each keen to win a pupil who could increase their reputation in Japan and beyond; but Catherine hopes that a woman whose exhibition she had seen in New York will agree to teach her. The woman is a member of the largest of the three schools, but had taken a critical attitude to its leader. Unfortunately nobody seems to know where she is at the moment. When she finally does turn up, it is as a dead body, poisoned near one of Kyoto's temples.

This is one of a series of murders and lesser crimes taking place at regular intervals in the ancient grid pattern of Kyoto's streets. Soon there is another poisoning, this one in a locked Japanese tea house surrounded by untrodden snow. An element of another murder is the disappearance of a car and caravan from a campsite with only one, watched, exit. I wasn't that keen on either of these tricks. The locked room has as boring a solution as you can imagine, and the disappearing caravan feels like an idea for a short story shoehorned into a longer mystery where it doesn't belong.

The biggest surprise about the book is how small a role Catherine plays. For most of the story, the actual investigation is done by the police, who are not incompetent. Catherine appears in some chapters as a witness; but the point of view character here is a young political functionary appointed by his foreign minister uncle to escort Catherine. This looks like the setup for a romance, which is certainly implied by the end of the book; but for most of the book we see very little of Catherine and that mostly without any insight into her character, except as a wealthy and influential American, who knows that people are going to let her do what she wants.

I'm not sure how I rate the book. It reads easily. It has a lot of ingenuity. But the different tricks are neither well developed nor properly integrated into the larger mystery.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Arisugawa Alice's Honkaku Mystery Library

This is half a review. The book is an anthology of traditional detective stories edited by Japanese detective story writer ARISUGAWA Arisu (or Alice), 有栖川有の本格ミステリー・ライブラリー (Arisugawa Arisu no honkaku misuterī raiburarī , Alice Arisugawa's traditional mystery library, 2001). Four of the ten stories are translated from English. I don't think I've read any of them; and I'd rather read them in English if I get a chance. I don't imagine anyone is going to specially seek out this out of print anthology; but for what it's worth the translated stories are Robert Arthur, "The Fifty first Sealed Room", W. Haidenfeld, "The Unpleasantness at the Stooges Club", Bill Pronzini, "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle" and John Sladek, "By Unknown Hand".

First "Buried Malice" ("もれた悪意 umoreta akui, 1990) by 昌章 (TATSUMI Masaaki, born 1957). A successful businessman looks to find the lost son of an early patron, probably adopted by a local family. When two different claimants appear, a lazy detective story writer is engaged to identify the impostor. Then the midwife from the district called to decide is murdered, and the writer has a more serious problem to solve. This is an effective mystery in a light style, often flippant and with frequent jokes about the genre.

"Car Chase"( 逃げる車, nigeru kuruma, 1979) 白峰良介 (SHIRAMINE Ryousuke, born 1955) starts with a midnight car chase, as police try to catch a speeding sports car on the motorway. It leaves the motorway and races through smaller streets, grazing lampposts on the way. Finally it stops outside a clinic. The police who get there moments later follow the driver in and find a bewildered doctor in the corridor. He tells them that a man had just rushed past him into the pharmacy; and there the police find a dead man, who has swallowed cyanide. An interesting opening, but the "spot the culprit" story suffers from being stripped down too far here.

"The Golden Dog" (金色犬, konjikiinu, 1968) つのだじろう (TSUNODA Jirou, born 1936). One of the oddities of the collection, an early manga detective story. Like many young Kindaichi stories it takes the Conan Doyle "Hound of the Baskervilles" model of a decorative and diversionary ghost story as a background to the mystery. The detective Johnny Hirota is another boy detective, but along with the simplified drawing style of the comic, there's nothing in his behaviour or his treatment by other characters to differentiate him from an adult.

The only translation from the anthology that I read is "Life and Death on the Line" (生死線上, seishisenjou, 1990), whose author is recorded in the anthology as 余心樂 (YU Xinle, the same Chinese characters as in the Chinese Wikipedia, which I can't read) but known to the Japanese Wikipedia as  余心楽 (YO Shinraku, born 1948) and to Switzerland (where one of his books is available in his own translation as Die Mordversionen) as Wen-huei Chu. The author is a Taiwanese resident in Switzerland, who studied tourism and related subjects there. It's perhaps fitting that this is a 'travel mystery' set on the Swiss railways, a long alibi story, with one obvious suspect. For some reason I had more trouble than I normally do focussing on the details (despite provision of a rail map of Switzerland and various timetables) and found more interest in the view of Switzerland from Taiwanese eyes, particularly describing the immediate aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

"Pillar of Water" (水の柱, mizu no hashira, 1980) by 上田廣 (UEDA Hiroshi, born 1905), another travel mystery, this one on Japanese railways. The narration is divided between chapters following the police investigation and letters from a train conductor, who ends up doing most of the police's work for them.

"The Killer is 'Me' ....." (「わたくし」は犯人....., 'watakushi' wa hannin, 1976) by 海渡祐 (KAITO Eisuke, born 1934) starts with the synopsis of a planned inverted mystery. The female "I" character narrates how they plan to kill their lover's evil wife, with a cunning alibi trick. In interspersed chapters, police are investigating the murder of a married woman, who seems to have died in very similar circumstances.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Great Darkroom

大暗室 (Daianshitsu, The Great Darkroom, 1938) is a thriller by EDOGAWA Rampo (江戸川乱歩). I've not read any of his novels except for a couple of children's adventures, The Fiend with Twenty Faces (1936) and The Boy Detectives' Club (1937). Rampo's writing has quite a range, including children's stories, classical detective stories and "erotic grotesque" stories, which vary in tone from satire to horror.

I don't know where The Great Darkroom belongs in all this, but it's basically an adventure story with a supervillain and a righteous hero combatting him. In many respects it's very similar to the children's stories I mentioned above; but there is quite a lot that would not be acceptable in a children's book, to put it mildly. While in those the antagonist is above spilling blood, the villains in this readily murder women, children and innocent bystanders. There are occasional scenes of sadism, including sexual threats and threats of torture. A small child tortures a puppy in the prologue. The mix of horror and adventure elements is similar to many comics aimed at older children (of the kind that used to attract congressional investigations in America); and it is easy to imagine the readers of the children's stories graduating to this as they become teenagers, but probably without their parents' approval. Apparently there is a rewriting of the book (made after Rampo's death) in the Boy Detective's Club children's series, with AKECHI Kogorou vs. the fiend with twenty faces. Presumably the more offensive elements will have been removed as well.

The first section of the book is a long prologue set twenty odd years before the main events. Adventuring baron ARIAKE Tomosada (有明友定), his friend OOSONE Gorou (大曽根悟郎) and his servant Kurusu (久留須) are adrift in a lifeboat after escaping from a sinking ship. Sure that he will not survive Ariake writes a letter to his wife asking her to marry Oosone, who he hopes will look after her if she becomes a widow. When they spot land unexpectedly, Oosone, who has kept two bullets for his pistol, takes the opportunity to marry a rich and beautiful widow by shooting the other two passengers. A few years later they are married with two children, Ariake's son Tomonosuke (友之助), born after his last departure from his wife, and Oosone's infant son Ryuuji (竜次), who seems to have inherited his father's evil nature. When Kurusu unexpectedly returns from the dead, Oosone attempts to kill the whole household while making his escape with the family's transferable wealth and his son. But Kurusu again survives, though horribly disfigured by fire, along with Tomonosuke, whom he raises in secret to be the righteous avenger of his parents.

With that we move forward to present day Japan where two young men, going by the names ARIMURA and OONOKI, have won a great reputation for their varied ability and daring. When they meet, unaware of each other's true identity, they become a kind of friendly enemies. As Ryuuji starts setting his megalomaniac plans into action, Tomonosuke is there to combat him, mostly with mixed success, so that the villain gets away each time.

The book is much more interested in its villain than its hero. Like a Bond villain, Ryuuji has a vast underground base of interconnected caverns; and the narrative stops for fifty pages towards the end of the book while he gives captive journalists a tour of his kingdom. This is both unpleasant (megalomaniac villains are not people you want to spend time with) and tedious; and I imagine the original series readers must have been wondering when they could get back to the story.

Compared to the two children's books I mentioned in the first paragraph, the plotting of some of the episodes is allowed a little more complexity, although they still work on the same principle of constant surprising reversals. In particular the kidnapping of the "prince" in an all female musical revue is written as a kind of impossible crime. The description of this theatre genre is surprisingly similar to the way that the same thing is described today in the case of the famous Tarazuka Revue, with a club of fans, all young women, devoted to the protection of their idol.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Dr. Poppen's Sunday

ぽっぺん先生の日曜日 (Poppen sensei no nichiyoubi, Dr. Poppen's Sunday, 1973) is a children's book by FUNAKAZI Yoshihiko (舟崎克彦, 1945-2015). It's a comical fantasy story in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland, but with an adult protagonist, the biology lecture Poppen, who gets trapped in a riddle book and must go through all the pages to find his way back to the outside world.

Children's stories with adult protagonists are rare; and when they do occur, the adult characters are mostly young attractive figures with which a child might want to identify. Poppen wears slippers everywhere, having gotten into the habit after a foot injury. He goes through this story dressed in a walking club track suit. He's not especially brilliant or courageous. On the other hand, he manages to find his way through the world he has been thrown into well enough. When he is first transported into the book, he deduces that that is what has happened immediately, and generally manages to keep his equanimity throughout the subsequent adventures.

Many of the characters he meets are animals, but their behaviour is often human, or at least different from what Poppen's knowledge of biology might tell him. Still his background gives a particular flavour to the narration, with a more informed description of the plants and animals Poppen sees. A few chapters offer non animal protagonists, notably one in which Poppen finds his way about a town populated by cast off clothes which go about performing the roles (policeman, sweetcorn seller etc.) that their wearers would, if they existed.

To progress through the book he must solve each page's riddle, and before that he must find out what the riddle is. This makes the book a little like Alice Through the Looking Glass with its chess move progression. The first chapters establish the narrative formula; but later chapters, especially towards the end throw in unexpected variations on the pattern.

The level of danger and feelings of threat in the story are generally fairly mild; and the tone is generally humorous, with comedy coming from the absurdity of the fantasy world or from mild satire of Poppen's own life outside it.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Meiji Guillotine

I generally don't use the dictionary very much when I'm reading. In a normal modern text I can generally understand almost all of the words on a page; and, as when reading English, I guess the ones I don't know unless I really have no idea. Some books, though, are more of a challenge. When I read The Panic of A Tomoichirou some months ago, the large amount of background knowledge and unfamiliar vocabulary connected to the end of the rule of the shogun in the mid nineteenth century made for a not very enjoyable reading experience for someone with my level of Japanese. The same problem comes up in the book reviewed here, 明治断頭台 (Meiji dantoudai, Meiji Guillotine, 1979) by 山田 風太郎 (YAMADA Fuutarou, 1922-2001), set only a few years later, on the other side of the revolution which replaced the shogun with the until then more or less ceremonial emperor. The short stories in this collection are a series of murder cases investigated by the newly established police force in Tokyo.

Short story collections have two types. Some are simply the book form publication of diverse stories, most of which have been published before in other outlets, united at most by having the same series detective. Others are a bit more like a concept album: they have a common theme and planned developments that span the whole volume. (Dorothy L. Sayers' Hangman's Holiday is an example of the former type, Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime for the latter.) The latter is found occasionally in the west, but seems to be very common in Japan. This book is certainly an example of the form. A mystery is solved in each chapter; but there is also an overarching story. That too added to the reading difficulty, as much of the narration at any point is not really relevant to the case in hand, sometimes because it is part of the larger story, sometimes because it is historical colour. There too a better knowledge of Japanese history would have been useful, so that I could understand whether something was being referenced for historical interest or because it was part of the story. Typically the stories take a long time to get to the actual puzzle part of the mystery. The crime often happens about three quarters of the way through the story.

Strictly speaking none of the stories are impossible crimes; but the stories are a little remiscent of John Dickson Carr. There are a lot of mechanical tricks, often using items specific to the setting, sometimes with a pleasing ingenuity, though never very plausibly. The police captain detective has returned from a visit to France, accompanied by a beautiful blonde woman, his landlord's daughter. His landlord's family had been the hereditary executioners in Paris (a very Carrian touch); and the guillotine features heavily in several of the stories. The solution to each mystery is presented by the French girlfriend, who dressed as a miko, acts as a medium to let the victims tell their story. This has the disadvantage that we never get actual reasoning for choosing a particular solution.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Ash Woman

灰の女 (hai no onna, Ash Woman, 1970) is a detective story by TAKAGI Akimitsu (高木 彬光) featuring his series detective, prosecutor KIRISHIMA Saburou (霧島三郎). I reviewed a collection which included one short story featuring Kirishima last year, Return of the Detectives ( 帰ってきた探偵たち, 1992). As with the stories in that collection, the public prosecutor is not quite an armchair detective, but still only involved at intervals in the investigation, most of which is of course carried out by the police. The narrative in this story switches back and forth between one of the suspects in the case (a suspect to the police, that is, not to us) and the investigators (either the police or Kirishima or both together).

SHIGA Sadahiko (志賀貞彦) is planning to leave his job as secretary for shady business owner IWAMOTO Gisuke (岩本義介) and run off with WAKISAKA Noriko (脇坂則子) the wife of the manager of a larger business, for which Iwamoto's company is actually a "tunnel" firm, a secret conduit for dealings they do not want on their own books. But the day after Sadahiko's resignation, Iwamoto is murdered. Noriko is a central witness in the case. She and her cousin had been sitting in the window of a café across from Iwamoto's office when the cousin thought he saw an attack through the window, and the two of them later discover the body. Noriko hides the fact that she had also seen her lover Sadahiko hurrying out of the building shortly after her cousin saw the fight.

Sadahiko however assures her that he has everything in hand and offers a convincing alibi to the police. He had been lured to the office by a false telephone call and had only entered the main workspace, not Iwamoto's private office; and there were witnesses outside to see that that was true. Still, the inspector on the case cannot help suspecting Sadahiko's immense confidence. Could the ash and wire remains found outside one of the office windows be a clue to some kind of trick? Noriko meanwhile, separated from her lover, is filled with panic about the crime and fear that Sadahiko may be the killer, especially when another murder follows.

I added the "locked room mystery" tag to this post, because Takagi treats the first murder as a locked room mystery. In many Japanese locked room mysteries, the holes are so large that they hardly deserve the name. In this case, the locked (or observed) room aspect only comes into play if you find plausible the police's assumption that it would be odd for a murderer to wait in a room until the people who are in the corridor outside have gone away before making his escape.

There are a couple of other implausible elements to the story, but on the whole it is well constructed and clued, with some ingenious elements. The main problem is that the actual killer is far too obvious. The detectives employ Ellery Queen level subtelty of reasoning, while ignoring the plain as day reasons why one suspect is almost certainly the criminal.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

One More Red Nightmare

Before you read ふたたび赤い悪夢 (futatabi akai akumu, One More Red Nightmare, 1992) by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎), you need to decide whether you want to read the two earlier books in the series 雪密室 (yuki misshitsu, Snow Locked Room, 1989) and 頼子のために (Yoriko no tame ni, For Yoriko, 1990). Events and characters of both of these books are important background to this one; and Norizuki supplies readers with enough information to understand the story even if they haven't read those. That means that they get a good deal more information about the mysteries than they would ideally want before reading them. He doesn't go so far as to give away the whole mystery; but when I think of the trouble I go to avoid spoilers, I feel that authors could make a bit of an effort in that direction too. In this case I accept the inevitable and add the warning that this review, like the book it discusses, will show a little bit more than you might want about at least one of the previous books (but less than the author does).

Detective story author and amateur detective NORIZUKI Rintarou (the character with the same name as the author is an Ellery Queen homage that several Japanese writers have maintained) is suffering from the memories of his investigation in For Yoriko. He has lost any sense of purpose as a detective, and that crisis of confidence has also spread into his writing career, leading to a one year long writer's block. Trying to puzzle out a way forward he finds himself meditating on mid to late Ellery Queen novels that feature a similar mental trial, particularly Cat of Many Tails (1949).

He is partially shaken out of his self absorbed inaction by a call for help from young singing star, HATANAKA Yurina (畑中有里奈), looking for Rintarou's father, the police superintendant, who had promised to help her if she ever needed it in the first book, Snow Locked Room. Yurina has been attacked with a knife, apparently by an obsessive fan, in a store room of the radio station where she had been invited for an interview. Her memory is that she felt the knife stabbing her and fainted; yet when she came to she was covered in blood, but without a scratch. Meanwhile in a nearby park the attacker has been found stabbed in the stomach, although he was apparently unharmed when he left the radio station.

Accompanying Yurina's fear of her responsibility in the killing, there is a secret in her past which weighs on her: her mother had apparently murdered her baby brother and father, before committing suicide, when Yurina was a baby. So the investigation involves two mysteries, the stabbing of Yurina's attacker and the murder of her family in the distant past.

All in all this is an odd book. When I write that the investigation involves two mysteries, in fact the various mysteries also break down into smaller parts, which are solved bit by bit, sometimes by deduction, sometimes by revelation. Those puzzles which allow the reader to solve them are fair enough, but generally not very compelling; one trick where I was led quite astray was very effective (the real solution made more sense than the red herring but was still a surprise). But there are some odd problems of balance in the book. Rintarou's self doubt is far more the theme of the book than the actual mystery (much more so than in the related Ellery Queen books). The mystery however seems too unrealistic for such a novel. And the narrative sometimes slows almost to a halt: a monologue of many pages, which accompanies a guided tour through the radio broadcasting building, feels like it should have something relevant in it; so does a chapter long timeline of popstar marketing in Japan. It almost makes you suspect that some plot points were not quite fixed when the earlier chapters were written.

I could add quite a bit to the things that didn't quite seem to work in the book; but I didn't especially dislike it. You can read Ho-Ling's review of the book here, if you'd like a second opinion, though I didn't notice much that I'd disagree with.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Summer of the Ubume

This not very enthusiastic review will look like a bad start to 2017; but I read this over a month ago, so for me it was more a bad end to 2016. 姑獲鳥の夏 (ubume no natsu, The Summer of the Ubume, 1994) by KYOUGOKU Natushiko (京極夏彦, born 1963) is part of a series centred on the monsters of Japanese folklore, in this case the ubume of the title, a baby destroying spirit created by a death in pregnancy, which has somehow become associated with a bird from Chinese folklore. The detective of the series is an expert on Japanese folklore and he lectures the narrator on this and other subjects intermittently throughout the book.

The narrator, who writes human interest stories for popular magazines, is investigating rumours surrounding a maternity hospital. The son in law of the chief doctor disappeared from a room that was locked on the inside a year and a half ago; and since then his wife's pregnancy has continued despite being long overdue. He discusses the case with his friend KYOUGOKUDOU (京極堂), who takes his name from the used bookshop he runs alongside his second profession as proprietor of a Japanese shrine. Kyougokudou convinces the narrator, by means of destroying his whole conception of himself and the world in a Socratic style interrogation, that such a story should be left alone, but discovering that the missing son in law was a former university friend of the two, he sends the narrator to consult with yet another student friend, telepathically gifted private detective ENOKIZU (榎木津).

By a strange chance, the older daughter of the family at the centre of the mystery has come to consult Enokizu; and soon narrator and various supporting characters are investigating the case. It becomes clear that the narrator himself has some buried memory related to the roots of the tragedy from the days when the son in law first met his future wife. And the rumours surrounding the hospital turn out to be even worse than those we had heard, with suggestions that one of the family's daughters has been stealing and killing the newborn babies of the patients.

I don't think the book has any interest as a puzzle detective story. The locked room mystery has special circumstances which leave a more or less limitless field of possible explanations. For some the attractions of the book may lie in its long conversations philosophising on the basis of amazing facts from popular science (which is sometimes about as scientific as you'd expect these kinds of thing to be) and expounding on Japanese folklore. These are at least bland reading, though they did not feel like a good use of my time. (The oddity of the narrator being so unsettled by this chatter is perhaps lessened by the book's setting in the early fifties.) For others the grotesque horror is presumably the selling point. I strongly disliked this. It reminded me of the forced charnel house horror that John Dickson Carr indulged in some of his weaker books (such as Hag's Nook), but bringing the same approach to pregnancy and childbirth. Now capital punishment or seventeenth century epidemics or whatever Carr might choose are far enough from most readers' lives that he can reasonably fool around with them for our entertainment; but that's not really the case here.

Most people who've read the book seem to have a high opinion of it (and it was 23rd in the 2012 Touzai Mystery Best list of Japanese mysteries), so I'm on my own in this. You can read a more generous review of the book on Ho-Ling's blog here; and you can make your own opinion, even if you can't read Japanese, because (for once) there is an English translation available, by Alexander O. Smith (Vertical, 2009).