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.

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