Monday, 22 December 2014

The Confusion of A Aiichirou

This marks a little blog milestone, as it's the hundredth post. Oddly exactly half those posts are in 2013 and half in 2014. Since I only started the blog towards the end of June 2013, my posting in this year has been unimpressive. I'll try and do a bit better next year; but I don't expect to get up to two hundred posts any time soon.

Because the way that Japanese names are converted in European languages can be a bit variable, the first time I mention a name in a post, I mostly try to make clear what part is family name and what part is given name by using the convention of putting the name in Japanese order and putting all letters of the given name in capitals, for instance YOKOMIZO Seishi (generally referred to in English as Seishi Yokomizo). It turns out that there are names where that doesn't help. So let me just say in advance that the family name of the detective in the stories I'm reviewing here is A (), and the given name is Aiichirou (愛一郎).

AWASAKA Tsumao (泡坂妻夫) started his career with an A Aiichirou story, one of eight published in magazine form from 1976 to 1977, that were then collected in 亜愛一郎の狼狽 (A Aiichirou no roubai, The Confusion of A Aiichirou, 1978). They are pretty well known among lovers of traditional mysteries in Japan, often compared to the Father Brown stories of G.K. Chesterton. Let me say in advance, they are not nearly as good as the Father Brown stories. I say that, just so that you can have a chance of approaching them without too high expectations; and if you can read Japanese, you should try these, as they make a thoroughly entertaining collection of unusual mysteries. (It is the first of three collections: you can read Ho-Ling's discussions of all three here.)

The hero A is a photographer, specialising in taking photographs of clouds and insects and other natural objects of little interest to most people. At first glance he makes a good impression, as he has movie star good looks and is dressed smartly and with good taste. This impression does not survive long in his company: he is nervous, clumsy and socially awkward. But then his unusual way of looking at things leads him to deductions that those around him could not imagine. This sounds a little forced, as if someone had taken the convention "unimpressive character proves to be brilliant detective" and mechanically added an extra stage "impressive looking character proves to be unimpressive, but then proves to be brilliant detective"; but A's slightly unusual way of looking at things makes a character that goes beyond the summary traits.

The stories generally follow a pattern. The narration is in the third person, but follows the viewpoint of one character. Along with the events that make up the mystery this observer at some point comes into contact with A, and as mentioned is first impressed by his looks, then astonished by his clumsiness, then amazed by his deductions. A's deductions often go so far, that he discovers a crime before we are aware that there is a mystery, or at least before we know that the mystery involves more than a "puzzle of everyday life". Examples of this are the first story, "The Flight DL2 Incident", "The Warped Apartment" and "The Black Mist". In the last, for instance, the puzzle is why someone would engineer an accident that covers a street with carbon dust. Most of the story is a farce, with the shopkeepers on the street losing their tempers with each other. Only A spots that there is something more sinister behind it. Like Ho-Ling, I doubt that a reader could legitimately make the deduction; but it is still a very satisfying mystery. Others involve impossible crimes, a man shot while alone in a balloon that was being observed for the whole period of its flight ("The Skies over Right Arm Mountain"), a village chief on a tropical island found shot dead in a hut observed by the other villagers, the only person with him being his dead wife, who holds the gun ("The God of Horobo"), a mugger found murdered in a car with no footprints leading away through the snow except those of the taxi driver who fled while the mugger was still alive ("Weasel on Road G"), a man in a golden mask shot while standing on the outstretched hand of a giant Buddhist statue with a gun too inaccurate to have a chance of hitting him ("The Golden Mask in the Palm of a Hand"). The last of these is my favourite of the impossible crimes, with ingenious ideas and a good use of A's unusual style of thinking, which often involves imagining himself in the place of others. "The Excavated Fairy Tale" belongs more to the first group, with a writer's odd insistence on retaining misspelling in a fairy tale leading to the discovery of a crime: the route in this case, unsurprisingly, is via code breaking (with an idea quite close to the last code breaking story I read). The storytelling takes a different approach here: the viewpoint character is now an acquaintance of A, and in competition to discover the secret ends up handcuffing A to keep him from getting ahead.

The style of the stories is quite interesting: they seem to be deliberately loosely constructed. You should not expect a single minded concentration on the mystery. Most are humorous, some concentrate on a narrative whose relevance to the actual mystery may prove at best tangential. This makes it easy for Awasaka to introduce his clues, of course; but reading them does not feel like the writer is wasting our time. The experience is more of an agreeable lack of focus.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

Boy Science Detective: The Riddle of the Beard

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

Another translation: this is the third Boy Science Detective story by KOSAKAI Fuboku. Previously we had:
This one doesn't give away the endings to the previous stories, so you don't need to have read them to read this. The first story introduces the main character, boy genius Toshio Tsukahara and his bodyguard/assistant Ono. Toshio has a private laboratory and office a few streets away from his rich parents' house. The stories first appeared in a children's science magazine; and Toshio's investigations always involve a Dr Thorndyke style scientific element.

The puzzle in this one is quite well done, I think (although as always the culprit is fairly obvious). The story is also a spy story, and has a not very sympathetic MacGuffin in the national secret of a poison gas formula. At the time of the story, Japan had a small empire (the result of Meiji period militarism) and was a not very stable democracy, which had to struggle with the kind of militarism that would so disastrously come to dominate a few years later.

The story was first published from June to August 1925 in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Children's Science), then collected in book form in 1926.

As always, I've put the translated story (whose Japanese original you can read online at Aozora Bunko here) after the break. Explanatory footnotes look like this[1] in the text; but you'll have to scroll to the end of the file to find them.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Murder at Clock House

I reviewed a novel by IMAMURA Aya (今邑彩) earlier, The Murder at the Broom House (1993). The book I've just been reading, 時鐘館の殺人 (Tokeikan no satsujin, The Murder at Clock House, 1993), is a collection of short stories by the same writer. There are six short stories of varying length. The longest is the title story at ninety pages. Most of the stories are traditional detective stories (more or less), but some are suspense or horror.

The first, 'The Living Dead Murder', features the murder of a writer in his house in Karuizawa. The murderer is also known, a woman with whom he previously had an affair. She too is dead, murdered by her victim and her corpse is sitting in the house. The puzzle is that she died long before he did; and after her known time of death various witnesses had seen her leaving her Tokyo mansion and arriving at the Karuizawa house. The author had fled his attacker and locked himself in the toilet, writing a dying message "Living corpse" on the walls. In the bar "The Living Dead" two crime writers sit discussing the case, watched by the surly and sceptical 'mama' (female barkeeper). I have mixed feelings about this one. It has a lot of ingenious ideas in it, but some of them undermine each other, so that as a puzzle story it could have been far better. Still it's a very clever and playful piece of narrative.

The next, 'Black/White Reversal', takes its metaphor from the game Reversi or Othello, which various characters play in the story. Students from a film history club visit a reclusive old woman and her sister. Both had been actresses, the older one a successful movie star, who retired early after the director who worked most with her had died in a car accident. While visiting, one of the students is murdered. The central trick here is probably rather obvious; and the atmosphere comes to less than one might expect.

'The Murder Next Door' is a suspense story with a twist that you will spot about three pages in.

'That Child, Who is it?' is a ghost story of sorts, the kind of ghost story you might expect a puzzle writer to make, and quite effective (more sad than scary).

'Lover' is a short horror story, and a really horrible one, set in the world of young people living isolated lives in apartment buildings. A failed student studying for entrance exams and working part time is too lazy to put a personalised message on his answering machine. Coming home late at night, he gets a message from a  desperate woman who thinks she is talking to her lover, who evidently left her a false contact number when he left her. Since the student doesn't know who or where she is, he leaves it at that; but the calls keep coming.

The last longest story, 'The Murder at Clock House', has distinct similarities to the first story, making a kind of ring composition. Both make play with the writing of detective stories. In this case, the story is framed by Imamura's account of the editor of a magazine commissioning her to write a "spot the culprit" story for their magazine competition. In a boarding house whose clock loving owner has working clocks all keeping their own private time throught the building, a detective story writer mysteriously goes missing, leaving a note that he can't face his editor who is calling that night. The next day, a snowman is standing in the garden, roughly made, except for the lifelike arms sticking out of the snow. The framing elements are more satisfactory than the actual story to my mind, as the chains of argument in the internal story uses premises and arguments that are hard to accept.

Here and in the novel I wrote about earlier, Imamura seems reliably able to reach a certain level of skill, so the stories are always worth reading; but they also leave some disappointment - the wish to see a better use of the capacity for invention that is so clearly there.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Boy Science Detective: A Fight in the Dark

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

Another translation from the Boy Science Detective stories by KOSAKAI Fuboku. Previously we had:
 暗夜の格闘 (anya no kakutou, 'A Fight in the Dark') is the second Boy Science Detective story, featuring twelve year old Toshio Tsukahara and his bodyguard and assistant Oono (whom Toshio addresses as niisan, older brother). It was published serially from March to May 1925 in 子供の科学 (kodomo no kagaku, Children’s Science). The work is in the public domain in Japan and Europe (and probably America, but I don't know the rules there). You can read the original at Aozora Bunko, here. The story does give away the (very obvious) culprit in the previous story. So you might want to read 'The Scarlet Diamond' first, if you care about that.

Footnotes look like this[1] and you'll have to scroll down to the end of the story to find the annotation they're pointing to (or search for "footnotes").

As always, I've put the translation after the break: so click through for the actual story.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Three Sisters Investigate

AKAGAWA Jirou (赤川次郎, born 1948) is a very successful and very prolific Japanese mystery writer. He has written many stand alone novels, and many different series. The two best known series are probably the Tortoiseshell Cat Holmes series (三毛猫ホームズ, mikeneko Holmes) and the Three Sisters Detective Club series (三姉妹探偵団, san shimai tantei dan). The Tortoiseshell Cat Holmes series started in 1978. The first in the 'Three Sisters' series came out in 1982, with the same name as the series, 三姉妹探偵団 (san shimai tantei dan, Three Sisters Detective Club, 1982); and that's the book I've just been reading. It's one of the few Japanese mysteries with an English translation, Three Sisters Investigate translated by Gavin Frew (1985).

The three sisters of the title are older sister SASAMOTO Ayako (佐々本綾子), a nineteen year old university student, middle sister Yuriko (夕里子), a  seventeen year old high school student, and younger sister Tamami (珠美), a fouteen year old middle school student. Ayako is feeble, unfocussed, clumsy and shy. Yuriko is energetic and responsible, and has been looking after the family since their mother died some years ago. Tamami is sarcastic, pessimistic and miserly. In this book, the only really active character most of the time is Yuriko; and Tamami in particular is hardly characterised beyond the basic traits mentioned above.

Yuriko wakes in the middle of the night to find the family house in flames. Hurriedly, she wakes her sisters, who sleep in the same room, and they escape through the window. The house burns down completely; but luckily the only other occupant, their father, is away on a business trip. The police however, suspect that the fire is no accident, a suspicion confirmed when they find the remains of a dead woman in the burnt out house. When the father's employer denies sending him on a business trip, suspicion settles on him. The three children, now lodged in the houses of helpful neighbours, decide to investigate to clear their father's name.

An Akagawa mystery does not come with a high expectation that it will be a fair play puzzle. The amount of actual detection varies from book to book. Readers are more likely to be interested in the protagonists or in the humour of the narration. In this case, there is a fair amount of reasoning and deduction in the first half, not very much in the second half. By the middle of the book readers will probably have picked who they think is the killer, though they won't be able to explain everything. The problem is that the complications to the story and the explanations for the various unexplained mysteries mostly make very little sense and are not really deducible either.

The comedy is mostly a matter of unexpected dialogue and styles of thinking, and it can be quite funny. But in this book Akagawa has a tendency to point to his own jokes, which makes the whole experience a bit like cheesy Japanese television, with inset reaction shots and captions. Also, for a book that is largely humorous, the subject matter is a little odd. All three sisters are threatened with violence (the youngest is hospitalized) or rape, and the mystery they are investigating also turns on rape, as well as sexual blackmail and the murder of a pregnant woman.