Sunday, 11 August 2019

Overheard

傍聞き (kataegiki, Overheard, 2008) is a collection of four long short stories by 長岡弘樹 (NAGAOKA Hiroki, born 1969). It won the short story award from the Mystery Writers of Japan in 2008; and the title story has been translated into English and published as "Heard at one remove" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, February 2010. These are not conventional mysteries with a clearly defined crime to be solved by the reader. In some ways they are like the Japanese "puzzles of everyday life" genre, but there are various ways in which that description would be misleading. Firstly the focus in the stories is on the emergency services and the justice system. Secondly there is no well defined puzzle in many of the stories: we see things that we can't understand, but there are so many elements needing explanation that there is no central puzzle evident as we read the story. Thirdly there is a much larger suspense element in these stories than in most puzzles of everyday life. This last point in particular, I think, makes the stories surprisingly effective.

In the first, 迷走 (meisou, "Wild run", 2008), an ambulance crew is trying to deliver a stabbing victim to a hospital. The town's hospitals are overloaded and after contacting several and finding that none are at that moment ready, the team has to gamble on which they should head for. Adding to the tension of the situtation, the victim is known to two of the team. He is the prosecutor who decided not to prosecute a hit and run driver who ran over the wife of one of the team and daughter of the team leader. As they approach the hospital, the team leader starts giving unexpected orders.

In 傍聞き (kataegiki, "Overheard", 2008) a police detective is on bad terms with her teenage daughter, who communicates only through postcards sent through the mail (although they live in the same apartment). The detective normally works theft cases, but is currently seconded to the hunt for a knife wielding attacker, which keeps her out every evening to the annoyance of her daughter. But she also has another reason to worry. The suspect taken in for questioning about the theft from a neighbour's apartment is known to the detective. He is a recently released prisoner, who had stalked and then attacked his ex wife; and she had been on the team that arrested him. Now, apparently, he is living with other homeless people by the local railway station. Knowing his vengeful disposition she worries that perhaps his reason for being in her neighbourhood was to target her. This fear is reinforced after the arrested man asks to speak with her, and emphasises that, since he is only being held on suspicion, he will soon be out. 

899 ("899", 2007) is more or less an impossible crime story. Firefighters clearing a house which has started to catch fire from its neighbour know that there is a baby in one of the rooms. They hear the baby's voice as they go down the corridor, but when they look in the room there is only an empty cot. With only minutes to go, a panicked search through the other rooms starts.

In 迷い箱 (mayoibako, "Can't Decide Box", 2007) a woman who manages a halfway house for recently discharged criminals feels that her work is worthless and is planning to resign. One last case concerns her, finding work for a man whose drunkenness led to the death of a small girl. She finds a place for him at a local factory, but worries that he may consider suicide as the anniversary of the girl's death approaches.

Not everything works equally well in the stories, but this is a collection that I can enthusiastically recommend. Although exactly what the mystery element is only emerges towards the end, and although the stories do not read like mystery stories, they are carefully and cunningly plotted. The life threatening situations and the lack of a clear puzzle has the reader following the events with alarm and confusion, speculating not just about what is going on, but also about what direction the story is going to take.