Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Long, Long Murder

MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき, born 1960) is a very successful crime and fantasy writer in Japan, and several of her books have been translated into English. The book I've been reading, 長い長い殺人 (nagai nagai satsujin, The Long, Long Murder, 1992), is a crime novel, to some extent a mystery, but one in which suspense is more important than any puzzle element. We have a fairly clear idea who the bad guys are early on. Only parts of the motives and methods are unclear, and whether they will succeed in their plan, or the police in their pursuit of them.

I often end a review with any reservations I have about a book; but that perhaps leaves a more negative aftertaste than it should. So this time I'll try putting them at the beginning. The final revelations of what, why, how and who are not especially well prepared. The solution is one that I accepted grudgingly, and I felt that, if anything, it made the villains less interesting. That said, this is a very interesting and unusual book. It's really a pity that there isn't an English translation.

 What makes the book so unusual is its narrators. There's a different narrator for each chapter, each following a different character involved in the case: policeman, witness, private detective and so on. You're probably thinking that that's not that unusual, you've definitely read books like that. But the narrators here are not the characters themselves, but their wallets. The wallets are allowed to observe and narrate the events that they are present at as though endowed with intelligence and the ability to hear and see (as long as they're not in someone's pocket). It's a very old fashioned conceit, something you'd associate more with eighteenth or nineteenth century fiction. The only examples I can think of are a children's book, Anna Sewell's Black Beauty (1877), and, definitely not a children's book, Diderot's Les Bijoux indiscrets (1748); but there was evidently a big fashion for this kind of fiction in the eighteenth century. I wouldn't necessarily want to see it become a fashion again, but an experiment like this is very welcome.

The wallets all have slightly different characters. Generally they show some similarities to their owners: their language can be male or female, young or old. They regard their owners with sympathy and concern. They are often a little more cautious and a little more respectful of traditional morality, looking on with helpless dismay at the missteps of their owners. I thought early in the book that there might be a thematic reason for choosing wallets, along the lines of the scene in a George V. Higgins book, where a character explains, whenever you want to know why people did something stupid, the real answer is always "We did it for the money". This might apply to the first chapter, where a debt laden policeman is tempted with a bribe, and a hit and run killing looks like a wife's attempt to kill her husband for the insurance money; but money is not at the heart of the book. The wallets are used in various ways, sometimes merely witnesses, sometimes directly involved in the plot (through the actions of others, of course). If there's a reason why wallets are chosen rather than other inanimate objects (watches, for instance, or socks), it might be that they are just more particularly closely tied to a person's identity.

The plot starts the hit and run death of a man, whose widow seems to have carefully provided herself with an alibi for the night in question. We then switch to various characters who come in contact with the widow, including a boy whose aunt has become engaged to a young businessman. The fiancé easily wins over the rest of the family, but the boy somehow cannot trust him. The distrust seems justified, since on her marriage the aunt is persuaded to take out life insurance for a large sum. The apparent villains seem quite reckless and confident of their ability to get what they want, whatever suspicion may fall on them. By the end of the book there are a large number of victims. This too seems a little old fashioned: characters threatened by a cruel enemy against whom they are quite helpless are something you might expect to find in a nineteenth century sensation novel. The classic puzzle detective story generally has to do without really ruthless evil; and perhaps it is missing something. Certainly the book's suspense is far greater than any puzzle detective story I can remember.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Being Myself

YAMANAKA Hishashi (山中恒, born 1931) is a Japanese children's writer. He also (according to Wikipedia) has written non fiction on the educational material that was directed at children (like himself) during the war years, aimed at making the children good patriotic supporters of the war effort. The book I've just read, ぼくがぼくであること (Boku ga boku dearu koto, Being Myself, 1969) is set in the (then) present day, and follows a twelve year old boy, HIRATA Hidekazu (平田秀一). I'm not quite happy with my translation of the title. "Boku" is a male first person pronoun, typically used by male children and adults who are presenting themselves as modest and unassuming, in contrast to the more assertive "ore" often used by older boys and young men. You might expect a first person narrative with a title like that, but in fact we have an external narrator who follows things largely from Hidekazu´s point of view, with occasional authorial comments.

Hidekazu has a mother who is very strict with her children, expecting them to study hard and get good marks. Her other children have all done so, but Hidekazu hates study and misbehaves in class. The story starts with him heading homeward gloomily expecting his mother's reaction to his latest misbehaviour.

'Ah, if a great big meteor would just fall from heaven and smash our house flat!' Hidekazu was thinking.

You're probably asking yourself, What's up with this rotten kid? But everyone has times when they don't want to go back home. It even happens with adults, that someone gets so that they don't want to go back to their own home and disappears halfway. Every year there are said to be 97000 disappearances. More than half of those are adults.

Under incessant pressure from his mother, Hidekazu threatens to run away, a declaration treated with derision by the family. Hidekazu runs off, thinking to stay outside just long enough to worry the family; but a sequence of accidents has him stowing away in a truck that is headed through lonely countryside in the middle of the night. Here he witnesses the driver accidentally killing a cyclist, then disposing of the body and driving off. Terrified that the driver might spot him, Hidekazu runs off as soon as the truck stops. His panicked scramble through the pitch black woods brings him finally to a lonely farmhouse, where he persuades a grumpy old man and his granddaughter to take him in.

At this point, it looks as though this is going to be a story along the lines of 'boy develops independence and finds his own character while away from his family in the countryside', with an element of adventure from the hit and run driver plotline. To some extent it is; but the book is doing something different in the scenes in Hidekazu's home, which depict a family in crisis. The tone of these parts is also very different, with scenes of conflict and intense emotion viewed through Hidekazu's eyes in the family scenes, more humour and authorial comment in the other scenes.

As an adult reader, the intenser parts had something uncomfortable to them. The antagonists in Hidekazu's family are both female (his mother and little sister), and although there is nothing implausible in their behaviour, it coincides with certain stereotypes: the mother is domineering and hysterical; the little sister is sneaky. Towards the end the autor piles more and more sins on the mother's head: she was speculating behind the family's back and mortgaged the house to cover the debts; she burns down the house by forgetting to turn off the iron. Somehow this makes it all a bit too easy for Hidekazu.

Monday, 15 September 2014

The Laws of Detection

HIGASHINO Keigo (東野 圭吾, born 1958) is one of Japan's most successful crime writers, and one of the few to have been translated into English. I've read a couple of books in his Galileo series, including 聖女の救済 (Seijo no kyuusai, Salvation of a Saint, 2008, translated 2012); but I didn't want to write about that, as I haven't yet read the book that comes before it, 容疑者Xの献身 (Yougisha X no kenshin, The Devotion of Suspect X, 2005, translated 2011). The book I'm writing about here 名探偵の掟 (Meitantei no okite, The Rules of the Great Detective, 1996) is a short story collection that is only available in Japanese. As the cover perhaps suggests, the stories are parodies of traditional puzzle oriented detective stories. The 'laws' are the literary conventions of  traditional detective stories that govern our expectations of what the stories need to contain. (I feel a bit like Canute here, but I am not going to use the word 'trope' here, because I already knew the meaning it had for two thousand years before the internet decided to give it a new meaning. You can picture me shouting at the internet in ineffective fury, 'That's not what "trope" means', and the internet coolly replying, 'It is now'.)

The great detective of the title is TENKAICHI Daigorou, 天下一大五郎, a name which, I imagine, recalls Japan's most famous fictional detectives, YOKOMIZO Seishi's KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一 耕助) and EDOGAWA Ranpo's AKECHI Kogorou (明智 小五郎). His cases are narrated by the classic blundering, stubborn police inspector. The narrator tells us in a prologue that the life of a policeman in a detective story is a hard one: until the real detective solves the case, he has to make sure only to chase after the wrong suspects. The stories have much the form you might expect from this: the characters are aware that they are fictional characters playing out the author's plot, sometimes unwillingly when they spot a convention that they don't approve of.

Each story has one major convention at its heart, while noting several lesser conventions along the way. The chapter titles will give you an idea: "Announcing the locked room: the prince of tricks", "The Unexpected Culprit: whodunnit", "Why is the villa isolated? the closed area", "The Last Words: the dying message", "Announcing the alibi: the timetable trick", "'The Flower of Office Ladies Steam Onsen Murder Case': the two hour TV drama", "The reason for amputating: the dismembered corpse", "The Real Trick: ???", "Now or never murder: nursery rhyme murders", "The Unfair Pattern: the rule of mystery", "The Forbidden Word: the headless corpse", "About the Weapon: Means of Murder". The protests and speculations of the characters are humorous reflections on the characteristics of the genre. A western reader who had read a lot of detective stories from the 1930s would find a lot that's familiar, but some things are more typical of Japan.

The emphasis is on humour, but many of the mysteries are constructed as 'fair play' mysteries. The solutions, though, are deliberately far fetched and outrageous, often turning on the particular problems of each type of puzzle.

I certainly found the stories amusing; but I suspect I would have liked them more if I had read them in small batches over time. The humour starts to feel repetitive; and the 'in book' author's determination to leave no shark unjumped in pursuit of surprise endings gives us more outrageous endings than I could handle.

That doesn't sound very enthusiastic, perhaps. But it's a book that anyone familiar with traditional detective stories (including a couple of Kindaichi novels) should enjoy. You can read Ho-Ling's review of the book and its sequel, and of the television drama based on the book, here.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

The Corpse in Azalea Old Books

The back cover (and probably the front too, if you know how to read the code) says that 古書店アゼリアの死体 (Koshoten azeria no shitai, The Body in Azalea Old Books, 2000) by WAKATAKE Nanami (若竹七海, born 1963)  is a コージー・ミステリー, or 'cozy mystery'. There are quite a few detective stories that are 'comfort reading' for me; but I'm not quite sure what the genre rules of cozy mysteries are. I'm guessing that typical features would be: having more appeal to women than men; some likeable characters in major roles; a romance somewhere in the plot; treating something from daily life (like handicrafts) as a subject of specialised knowledge; a lot of humour, but not too wild; restraint in the depiction of violence. 古書店アゼリアの死体 has something of all these characteristics.

AIZAWA Makoto (相澤真琴) comes to the seaside town of Hazaki after a run of bad luck, including losing her job. Her purpose there is to find a lonely beach where she can shout "Bakayarou" ("You bloody idiot") at the sea, to work off tension. The sea after all cannot answer back, she thinks. But then a drowned body washes up at her feet. The victim seems to be a young man of the influential MAEDA 前田 family, who disappeared twelve years ago as a teenager. The inspector who investigated that disappearance had been called off by his superiors, doubtless at the request of the boy's aunt Machiko (真知子) a wealthy and ruthless businesswoman. Now Machiko is pressing to have the drowned victim recognised as the missing boy; but is it really him?

Aizawa finds a new job in the shop of MAEDA Beniko (紅子), another influential figure in the town, though in her case that influence is mostly in the form of debts of gratitude owed for various kinds of help. Beniko's business skills had founded the family's fortunes; but now she busies herself with her hobby, a second hand bookshop specialising in romance books. When we meet her, she is driving an unwanted customer out of her shop, a detective story fan, who had found a romance written by a crime author he had been searching for. Beniko refuses to sell it to him. As someone who reads a fair few mysteries and more or less no romances, this might suggest that I am not the intended audience for the book either. There is some talk about romance literature (and an appendix, explaining the works that are casually referred to in the novel), and this might lead us to expect a romance plot. There is a romance plotline in the book, following the Pride and Prejudice model of initial hostility and mutual irritation; but this actually takes up very few pages.

Most of the time, the book is either mystery or social comedy. Often, the narrative style suggests that Wakatake got her ideas of storytelling from Japanese television dramas: in particular, she has a tendency to cut between scenes for drama or humorous effect. Apparently this is the second of several books set in the same town, like some British (e. g. Colin Watson's Flaxborough novels) and American series.

As to the mystery, the plot is complicated, unfolding as a series of smaller mysteries, and while some parts are fairly well clued, others are left as revelations that the reader could not be expected to guess.