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.