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.

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