Saturday, 29 June 2013

The Honjin Murder Case

EDOGAWA Rampo is doubtless the most famous crime writer in Japan; but the most famous detective is probably YOKOMIZO Seishi's (横溝 正史 1902-1981) KINDAICHI Kousuke. ICHIKAWA Kon made several very successful films of the Kindaichi books; and the manga series Shounen Kindaichi no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Young Kindaichi") are written to suggest that the teenage hero is the great detective's grandson. Kindaichi is an eccentric private detective, shabbily dressed in traditional Japanese clothing (at a time when men more or less always wore western clothing), stuttering or scratching through his untidy hair when excited, accustomed to make an odd impression on those he meets, for which he typically gives an amused half apology. Most of the stories featuring him are set in the aftermath of the Second World War, when they were written, but 本陣殺人事件 (Honjin satsujinjiken, The Honjin Murder Case), though published in 1946, is set before the war.

In the Edo period, the Ichiyanagi family ran a honjin, an official guesthouse for travelling representatives of the shogunate; and they are still a family of tradition and influence in the Okayama country where they live. (Yokomizo came from this area, and many of the books are set there or in the neighbouring Inland Sea.) On the night of the wedding of the elder son of the family to the daughter of a new rich businessman, the couple are found stabbed with a sword in a house which is completely locked from the inside. The koto that had been played on the wedding night rang out again at the murder; and a search of the red walled room in which the couple died finds the fingerprints of a three fingered man.

Most Kindaichi books are very long, but this is short (200 pages in my edition, which adds two novellas). Oddly while the long novels seem to need room to build up atmosphere and character, "The Honjin Murder Case", to my taste, does as good a job in what would be a short novel even by western standards.  The puzzle  elements are more prominent than in some of the other books; and there are some good tricks in there.  I don't think I'd rank the locked room particularly high; but there my taste in impossible crimes seems to be the same as victim's brother, an enthusiast for locked rooms.

You can read other bloggers' reactions to the book here and here.

The two novellas both have a postwar setting: 黒猫亭事件 (Kuronekotei jiken, The Black Cat Café Case) is much more modern than "The Honjin Murder Case". As a puzzle, I can't have much enthusiasm for it. It reads like one of those pieces where the writer started with a trick and then tried doing the carpentry to provide a reason to use it, but gave up half way.  A humorous metaliterary introduction, in which Yokomoizo and Kindaichi discuss detective story conventions like the disfigured corpse is more interesting than the actual story. The other, 車井戸なぜ軋る (Kurumaido naze kishiru, Why did the well pulley creak?), is actually my favourite.  Kousuke Kindachi only appears in the prologue and epilogue, and apparently was added after the original publication. The core story is a series of letters from a young woman to her brother, who is in a nearby sanatorium, describing the events in the house since their elder brother has returned from the war, blind and with face injuries. Returning veterans crop up in several Kindaichi books; and if you've read or seen "The Inugami Clan", you'll recognise the similarity (you could see this story as a rehearsal for the other). There's the same question whether the returning soldier really is the brother. But written from the viewpoint of the sister, the question is more directly felt; and the experience of civilians alienated from a family member, who seem to have come back from war a different person, adds to the atmosphere. Yokomizo doesn't try to dot the i's and cross the t's of the puzzle; but I don't think that anyone would complain about the mystery.

A Long, Long Penguin Story

I worry sometimes that if I only read detective stories, I may develope a lopsided vocabulary, so that I end up knowing the Japanese for 'dismembered', but not for 'cat'. Children's books have a lot of the vocabulary that everybody needs to know.  And for reading, they have another advantage: the kanji are almost all provided with furigana, so that you can know the pronunciation of any new compound you meet. (I've sometimes found that I've learnt a word wrong reading detective stories, when the meaning is clear from the kanji, but it's an unusual mix of on- and kun- readings.) Some things get harder, though: children's books tend to use fewer kanji, so that sometimes you're looking at an endless string of kana and trying to work out where one word ends and the next begins. And of course, the language of children's books is not necessarily especially easy.

But ながいながいペンギンの話 (Nagai nagai pengin no hanashi, "A long, long penguin story") by いぬいとみこ (INUI Tomiko) is an easy book to read.  The cover of my edition says that it's suitable from the third or fourth year of primary school (age eight or nine). INUI Tomiko (1924-2002) was a editor of children's books when she wrote it. It was published first in installments in a doujinshi (an amateur literary magazine) from 1954 to 1956, and came out in book form in 1957.

INUI explains at the start that this is not the story of a long, long penguin, but a long, long story about Ruru and Kiki, two Adelie penguin children growing up in the Antarctic. According to the page on the book on the website of the (now disbanded) International Institute for Children's Literature, Osaka, shorter stories were typical for younger children at this age. It is still not a very long book (177 pages), and the story is divided into three self contained parts, all focusing on the more adventurous of the two brothers, Ruru.

Adelie penguins (from Wikimedia Commons: Hans Grobe, Creative Commons 3.0)
As an animal story, it tends towards the less realistic end of the spectrum. The penguins and other animals talk and think much like humans and their actions are not always realistic. But the penguins' real nature always provides a basis: their enemies are skuas and their food is krill. An episode in the middle has some curiosity value for western readers, with a visit to an Emperor Penguin colony used as the occasion for a satire of an excessively militarised society, which looks like a reaction to the military goverment that had led Japan into the war. It's a very readable book, with an optimistic and irrepressible hero, striving towards independence. Sadly the only translation seems to be in Slovenian ("Tučniačatá puk a kuk", I think, though the cover shows emperor penguins). The only book that seems to be translated into a language that I speak is 木かげの家の小人たち (Kokage no ie no kobitotachi, "The little people of the house in the tree shadow") which has a French translation, "Le secret du verre bleu".  It's a very interesting fantasy book aimed at slightly older readers, and I might write something about it later.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

What I know about Japan from reading Japanese crime fiction

  • 'Great detective' is a recognised profession in Japan. The career path is not really clear, but it's a wonderful position if you can get it. The police allow you access to everything and everyone. They'll investigate what you tell them to and ignore what you want ignored.  You can conceal crucial evidence from them if you like. They'll understand.  And everyone calls you 'Sensei'.
  • Japanese architecture is said to be unsuited to the locked room mystery.  This must be because Japanese houses are riddled with secret passages.  Sometimes the secret passages have secret passages in them.  These in turn may lead to massive unexplored cavern systems (and via those to the secret passages of your neighbours' villas).
  • Everything you need to know to solve a crime in Japan is available in a newspaper.  Libel and privacy laws seem to be fairly toothless and a police officer in the presence of a journalist feels compelled to give out every detail of the case. If the chief suspect has a perfect alibi, millions of Japanese newspaper readers can still consider every detail of the suspect's movements, motives and actions over breakfast.
  • Japanese police do not seem very result oriented.  They have an uneasy feeling that they're cheating, doing it the easy way, if they're not doggedly and painstakingly pursuing an apparently hopeless line of enquiry, the more man hours the better.  If the case hasn't involved, say, finding all the bookshop receipts from all the rubbish bins in central Kyoto, in the hope of discovering what the old man on the 5:30 to Osaka had been reading, well they might catch the killer, but did that really count? Japanese policework, perhaps, is not about catching criminals, but more a kind of Buddhist pursuit of enlightenment, like writing haikus or calligraphy. After two months contemplating the national railway timetable, the detective achieves inner peace.  If all he wanted was to find the murderer, he could have read a newspaper - those guys know everything.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

And then the door shut

Outside of genre literature, writing teams are rare.  Somerville and Ross is the only one that occurs to me. But science fiction (e. g. Pohl and Kornbluth) and detective fiction (Ellery Queen, Patrick Quentin, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Boileau-Narcejac) have many examples. OKAJIMA Futari (岡嶋二人) is the pseudonym of two Japanese crime writers.  According to Wikipedia, the name can be understood as meaning 'Odd pair'.

"And then the door closed" (そして扉が閉ざされた) is a mystery published in 1987.  The viewpoint character Yuuichi wakes up on the floor of an atomic bomb shelter in the grounds of the villa of his former girlfriend Sakiko's family. He and three others have been drugged and locked in by Sakiko's mother.  The four had been holidaying with Sakiko months before, when Sakiko's Alfa Romeo had gone over a cliff in a mysterious accident.  Now they are locked in the bomb shelter.  On the wall of the toilet are photographs of Sakiko and her car, and the words "You people killed her" written in red paint.

I mentioned Patrick Quentin above; and the style of the mystery reminds me of some of his books. (The extreme situation is a bit like "Puzzle for Fiends", for instance.)  As with many of Quentin's later works, the mystery unfolds in stages, with major revelations leading to the next part of the puzzle and suspicion shifting to each of the major characters.  The action is divided between the bomb shelter, as the prisoners puzzle and argue over the case and try to find a way to break out, and flashbacks to Yuuichi's memory of the events themselves. The mystery itself is perfectly satisfactory, without having any elements that make it really outstanding.  But it's an entertaining book and a nice exercise in the closed circle detective story, with almost everything depending on the memories and arguments of the four prisoners.



What this blog is for

For the last five years or so, I´ve been trying to teach myself Japanese, chiefly by reading Japanese books. I thought a blog might be a good place to keep notes on the books I'd read and resources I might find. If anyone else can get anything from it, that would be fine too.

The best advice I could give anyone thinking of teaching themselves Japanese is :"Don't do it." It took a year of learning the kanji (the Chinese symbols mostly used for nouns, verbs and adjectives in Japanese) before I even felt ready to read a novel; and even now it takes a week or more to get through a book. Take some classes if you want to learn.  But reading is still useful for building up familiarity with vocabulary and with the kanji.

The books I'll be writing about are not (on the whole) going to be great works of literature. A friend once told me the advice a professor gave her for learning any language.  He would read Agatha Christie books in translation. With a detective story, you want to find out who did it, so you keep reading to the end. I haven't read much detective fiction in the decades since I was a student. Probably because I had read everything I could find that I wanted to read by that point. In fact I did adapt that advice to read a few books by John Dickson Carr, Fredric Brown and others in European languages.  But Japan has a very strong tradition of classical detective stories; so it would be a pity not to get to know these, especially since few have been translated into a European language.

Another piece of learning by reading advice comes in Arthur Ransome's autobiography.  He would learn a foreign language by reading childrens' books of increasing complexity, advancing in the language as a child would.

So Japanese childrens' books and Japanese detective stories are going to be the main material here. (Or perhaps there'll just be this introductory post. We'll see how it goes.)