Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Odd Jobs Man Daizou at Your Service

The title of the short story collection なんでも屋大蔵でございます (nandemoya Daizou degoizaimasu, It's Daizou the Odd Jobs Man, 1985) by OKAJIMA Futari (岡嶋二人) is a bit hard to translate. The job description more or less literally translates as "anything man", so that "odd jobs man" sounds about right. The synonymous 便利屋 (benriya) translates literally as "handyman", which is much the same idea. This sounds like someone you might employ for repairs that don't quite need a proper specialist. The Japanese version seems to include work of this kind, but it is not limited to it. "Anything" can literally be anything. Only the hero of this collection, KUGIMARU Daizou (釘丸大蔵) draws the line at anything criminal or obviously immoral. Even so, by some odd chance, his work keeps bringing him into contact with a variety of mysteries.

Daizou is middle aged, but in manners more like an old man, with a tendency to a modest formal turn of phrase and a fondness for digressing with conventional observations on morality (which combine, surprisingly or not, with good natured kindness in his actual actions). His office is a converted shed and for most jobs his transport is a bicycle. Despite his humble appearance and manner, he has quite sharp wits.  

In "Murder in the moment of infidelity", a client Daizou had previously refused comes to him with a new request. She had wanted him to tail her businessman husband to catch him in the infidelity she was sure he was guilty of. The private detective she employed instead had delivered a report that showed no sign of any infidelity; but a little later the police come to her saying that they had found the detective dead near her house from a road accident. He had had the report in an envelope, apparently to deliver to her. So they hand it to her. In her confusion she does not tell them that she had already received the report. Apparently the detective had broken into her house to steal it. What was in the report to make him want to take it back?

"Snow White has been kidnapped" starts with a phone call asking Daizou to kidnap the favourite white cat of the local cat lady. Daizou refuses, but by the time he gets round to visiting the cat's owner, the cat has been stolen and tthe kidnapper has sent a cryptic letter giving a clue to where the cat is now.

"Punk rock Awa odori" starts with a visit from a young man who is uncertain whether he is speaking to Kugimaru Daizou or is himself Kugimaru Daizou. He had woken a little earlier lying on a path with no memory of who he was. After a passer by steals his wallet, the only clue he has to his identity is Daizou's business card in his back pocket. The cards are new and Daizou had handed out only a few of them, and definitely none to this young man.

In "Tailed, Killed", Daizou is on his way to a salaryman's apartment to feed his pet squirrel while he is on a business trip. On the way he notices that he is being clumsily followed by a young man. He easily loses his pursuer, but feels that after all the effort he has put in, he should not disappoint him to heavily. Instead he waits to confront him, but when no pursuer appears, he retraces his steps and finds the man lying murdered in the road.

In "Where are you off to in such a hurry?" the imperious wife of the owner of a cleaning service calls Daizou out peremptorily as an urgently needed stand in. When he gets there, she complains about the time he had taken and rushes out without explaining what she had called him to do. Her husband, who is left behind with Daizou says with resigned amusement that he does not know either, but they were to wait by the pond at the back of the business. A little later a car drives up there. The figure that gets out dumps a large cardboard drum in the pond and drives off to the indignation of the husband. Apparently the pond is constantly used as an illegal dumping ground, which he and his staff regularly clean each week. When the wife does not appear, the husband pays Daizou for his wasted time. But a few days later Daizou gets a visit from the police. The team of rubbish cleaners tidying the pond have found in the dumped cardboard tube the dead body of the missing wife.

I don't want to praise the mysteries too highly. An experienced reader will probably see through most of them, at least in part. Most do have some new trick to them, even if that is often a variation on familiar old tricks. There is more attention to character (including Daizou's character, both as actor and as narrator) and to non-mystery narrative elements. The style is light and humorous, much more so than in other Okajima Futari books that I have read; two of the stories even get by without a murder. Even without any really stand out mysteries, I thought the collection worked very well.

The stories apparently provided the basis for a Japanese television series, 何でも屋大蔵の事件簿, The Casebook of Daizou the Odd Job Man, in 2002 and 2003.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The Gymnasium Murder

体育館の殺人 (taiikukan no satsujin, The Gymnasium Murder, 2012) is a mystery novel by AOSAKI Yuugo (青崎有吾, born 1991). The publishers, Sougen Suiri, often have an invented English title on their cover, and in this case it is The Black Umbrella Mystery, which might suggest some similarity to the first Ellery Queen mysteries, such as The Roman Hat Mystery. If that was what they wanted to suggest, the suggestion is certainly warranted. Although the book is a locked room mystery, the style of detection involves a string of deductions around a single object, leading to criteria that narrow the field of suspects, very much in the style of The Dutch Shoe Mystery and particularly The Roman Hat Mystery.

The table tennis club and other sports clubs are using the old gymnasium of their high school. At one end of the hall is a stage, and unusually its curtain is down. When the theatre club arrives for its rehearsal they open the curtain. On the stage is the body of the president of the broadcasting club, stabbed in the back. The investigating police soon stumble on a puzzle: the doors at the stage end were both locked, so that the only exit was through the hall; but the president of the table tennis club claims that nobody had come through from the stage end since the victim entered. Since she had been alone in the gym for part of this time, they soon decide that she must be the killer. High school first year, 柚乃 (Yuno), who overhears their discussion, is convinced that her club president is innocent, and desperately seeks the help of secretive and eccentric schoolboy genius 裏染天馬 (URAZOME Tenma). She finds him in an unused club room, which he has turned into his own apartment and filled with toy figures of anime heroines. Urazome has no interest in school work or anything else except for anime and manga, to which he devotes all his time and money. 

I get the impression that the target audience for this book is young teenagers who have not yet read much mystery fiction. Except for one meta-literary joke about 'fair play', all the cultural references seem to be to anime and manga. Most of these escaped me; but I didn't get the impression I was missing anything of value. They seemed simply part of the thin characterisation of Urazome as an otaku. The emphasis on Urazome's effortless intellectual superiority is another element that reads like something only a book for children would do.

Although the 'fair play' joke I mentioned touches on what some might consider improper misdirection, the mystery is very much fair play. All the elements needed to solve the mystery are presented openly and in many cases their significance is noted in advance of the final explanation. I'm not quite sure how good the reasoning is. There were points in the series of deductions where I thought that obvious alternatives were being missed, while a lot of time was being spent on ruling out possibilities that weren't very likely in the first place; but that's a criticism it probably shares with Ellery Queen's acknowledged classics. I didn't enjoy the deductions here as much as I enjoyed Ellery Queen. I'm not sure if that's because I actually was a teenager when I read Ellery Queen or because there was something slightly lacking here. It felt a little like we were creating Venn diagrams more than reading a story. In Ellery Queen the deductions often lead to a real surprise, and perhaps that was what was missing. 

The school setting felt like a deliberate reversal on the kinds of unusual setting favoured by Ellery Queen and others: a completely mundane world, in which every object, room and role is something everyone is familiar with. A few characters are more like types from popular literature than real people; but the only bit that was really far from everyday life was Urazome. I did slightly feel that a sharper observation of the everyday world might have made even that a bit more interesting.

This sounds a bit negative; but if you like classic puzzle detective stories, this is certainly one to try. I certainly expect I'll try another one in the series at some time. One point I liked was the confidence shown in giving us a full length novel with only one murder. Many writers, including the most famous, almost feel obliged to have at least two (Sayers and Crofts are the exceptions that spring to mind); but there is something pleasing to me when the whole book is about just one crime. 

You can read a different take on the same book at Ho-Ling's blog here.