Sunday, 30 March 2014

Travelling

Another post with no real content. My excuse is that I was travelling for most of March, my second trip to Japan (mostly western Honshuu and Shikoku). Here, for YOKOMIZO Seishi readers, is a honjin, the one in Tsumago, north of Nagoya.
As you can see, it's not quite on the scale of the one in the 本陣殺人事件.

Apart from general tourism, I managed to bring back quite a few books (about forty, plus another fifteen in electronic form, since Amazon only sells ebooks if you're in the country). In particular, I visited the BookOff store in Kyoto, which was near my hotel on the Sanjo-dori, and got about twenty books, including some I'd wanted to read that were out of print.
By Laichuan Yinfu [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
That store also had the advantage that novels were arranged in author order, not the unfriendly publisher order that new book shops use in Japan. I looked in some other BookOff shops and found that some used the publisher ordering. All of them had a large selection of detective stories. The shops sell almost all their books either at 100 yen or at just over half list price. I couldn't work out what decided which of these prices the books went into. The state of the copies seemed about the same. At my current reading speed, I've got enough now (with what I already had) to last for a couple of years, so maybe I can get by without ordering any more until my next trip.

I put a couple of posts up in advance, and managed to write one while I was in Japan (not very easy on an Ipad). But I should get back into normal (but not very frequent) posting now.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Palindrome Syndrome

As often with books published by Sougen Suiri Bunko, I didn't have to think up a translation of the title myself, since one was already provided. The original book is 喜劇悲奇劇 (Kigekihikigeki, Palindrome Syndrome, 1982) by 泡坂妻夫 (AWASAKA Tsumao). The translation offered is not literal. Kigeki means 'comedy' and higeki means 'tragedy' and the ki in the middle of it means 'strange' and can be used in describing stage magicians. So a more literal title would be something more like Tragicomagical; but the palindrome of the title references the original japanese. Palindromes in English read the same forwards as backwards. It's the same in Japanese, but the Japanese alphabet is syllabic. There's one letter for 'hi', one for 'ki' and so on, giving a series: ki-ge-ki-hi-ki-ge-ki. So the title is a palindrome, and it's not the only one in the book. The mystery takes place on a showboat whose owner is an enthusiast for palindromes, and all the victims have palindromic names.

Awasaka was himself an enthusiast for stage magic; so it's no surprise that there are several magicians among the characters, including the hero, KAEDE Shichirou (楓七郎). There are also fire eaters, clowns and several tigers. The story takes place on a old transport ship adapted to look like a nineteenth century paddleboat for entertainment cruises in Japanese coastal waters. In the first scene, the ship is travelling through a typhoon on a preparation trip before the first public performance. Hearing a disturbance from the stage magician's room, the crew force the door open. The magician staggers out,  stabbed with a sword that passes right through him. He pushes past the people outside and climbs desperately onto the deck, where he pulls the sword out and collapses as blood pours out onto the deck. Others rush to help, but a wave sweeps him over the side, and they only have time to reach the sword (a real one, not a prop). But one bystander had remained in the corridor outside the room and swears that no-one had left it, even though there is no-one inside.

This is the first of a series of bizarre deaths, which the manager covers up ruthlessly, thinking that the show must go on.  A serial murder case with a background in a curiosity like palindromes is very reminiscent of the other Awasaka book that I discussed earlier, 乱れからくり, which has mechanical toys as its speciality. I think it is less successful than that one was. In both, most of the ingenuity comes in the tricks that the murderer devises; and some certainly are ingenious. But in one case at least, you have to suspect that the murderer's ingenuity is really only for the author's advantage. With a range of grotesque characters and extravagant motives, we are very far from a realistic crime novel. But the first part is strangely a little lacklustre, though certainly not dull. A problem might be the self pitying alcoholic hero. The story picks up a lot towards the middle, as the farcical element becomes stronger; one unexpected turn in particular is neatly worked into a Wodehouse style comedy sequence, in a way very reminiscent of some John Dickson Carr (or perhaps even more Carter Dickson) stories. If you liked 乱れからくり, you'll probably like this, just not quite as much.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

A Record of the Preliminary Hearing

[You may want to check the warning on this blog's translations.]

This is another translation, of a story by 平林初之輔 (HIRABAYASHI Hatsunosuke, 1893-1931), 予審調書, his first crime story, published in the magazine 新青年 (Shinseinen, Modern Young Man) in 1926. You can read it online at Aozora Bunko: here. Hirabayashi was a critic and translator (of both French and English). He also contributed to the Japanese detective story with essays, and translations of Poe and S.S. Van Dine.

I'll explain a few points of the story in advance.
Shikishima: a high class Japanese cigarette brand: 敷島.
zashiki: a room in traditional Japanese style spread with tatami mats.
jou: a measure of area, derived from the tatami mats used for floors, about 1.65 square metres.

As usual, I've put the actual translation after the break.



Sunday, 2 March 2014

Me and the Cat and the Night of the Full Moon

ぼくと猫と満月の夜 (Boku to neko to mangetsu no yoru, Me and the Cat and the Night of the Full Moon, 2008) is a fantasy juvenile detective story by MATSUO Yumi (松尾由美). It was first published as フリッツと満月の夜 (Fritz to mangetsu no yoru, Fritz and the Night of the Full Moon). My edition is a revision of this, which adds a short story with some of the characters of the original novel, 小早川ミツルと消しゴムの謎 (Kobayakawa mitsuru to keshigomi no nazo, "Mitsuru Kobayakawa and the Puzzle of the Erasers").

The narrator Kazuya is boy in the fifth year of primary school (which would make him about eleven). His father, a writer, brings him to the quiet seaside town where the story is set, for  a few weeks in the summer holidays, while he finishes work on the book. Kazuya is an unremarkable boy. His only special ability is running. He seems intelligent, but not especially so. His narration is marked by a tendency to see the other (mostly negative) side of anything he talks about, often noted in little parentheses and afterthoughts. He soon becomes friends with the son of a nearby café owner, Mitsuru, an enthusiastic mystery reader.

Mitsuru is investigating a little local mystery on his own. Some years back a rich and eccentric woman had taken her whole fortune out of the bank. Although she had had no contact with anyone in the days between that and her (natural) death, the money had disappeared. Mitsuru has heard some clues to this fortune and wants to find it, to prevent it falling into the hands of the mayor, who thinks he has a right to it and wants to cut away the wooded hill above the town to build a golf course.

Mitsuru and Kazuya's investigation is helped and hindered by a thief with a hopeless sense of direction, the mayor's bullying grandson, and a strangely intelligent cat with a gold earring in one ear. The cat, Fritz of the original title, provides the fantasy element of the story. But fantasy does not dominate the narrative; and for the most part the setting is a more or less realistic description of a small seaside town.

The book is probably suitable for children around the age of the main characters, although my edition was not generously provided with furigana in the way that children's books generally are. There is no actual violence, although it is sometimes threatened. The first half of the book felt a little underpowered. The various mysteries were all small affairs, and I couldn't see enough of any of them to really feel involved. But towards the middle, the action and the progress of the investigation picks up.

The short story is in the tradition of "puzzles of everyday life". Mitsuru is pressured into investigating why a fellow schoolboy's older sister is secretly buying erasers. Can she be planning to rub out the sketches of her rival in art class? If not, what can she be planning?