Sunday, 22 February 2015

Queen Bee

The next YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史) for review is 女王蜂 (jooubachi, Queen Bee, 1952), first published in serial form between 1951 and 1952, following The Inugami Clan. It's not quite as famous a work as that, but it's still one of the better known KINDAICHI Kousuke mysteries, filmed twice, in 1958 and again in 1978, this time by ICHIKAWA Kon (市川 崑), whose films of several of the more famous mysteries are the standard against which others tend to be judged. There have also been five television versions. I think it deserves its place among the better known works. It's a solidly constructed mystery, that holds the readers' interest well, although it perhaps isn't quite so skillful as some of the others at creating an atmosphere of alarm and confusion to give readers' speculative tendencies something to work on.

Gekkin player, A. Farsari (from Wikimedia commons)
Gekkintou (Gekkin Island) is a little island off the Izu Peninsular. It is named after the Gekkin (or Yueqin), a Chinese stringed instrument that (according to Yokomizo) had some popularity in nineteenth century Japan, then fell out of fashion. The Daidouji (大道寺) family is the richest family on the island, but their fortunes have long been in decline. The daughter of the house, Tomoko (智子), has just turned eighteen. She is living with her grandmother, and her devoted former tutor, a woman who had also been her mother's tutor. Now, at eighteen, she is supposed to go to her father's house in Tokyo, accompanied by her grandmother and tutor. Her father is not her real father. He had been one of two students who visited the island when Tomoko's mother was sixteen. Tomoko is the daughter of the other student, who, apparently, fell from a cliff on the island and died. In his place, his friend married Tomoko's mother and took on the family name; but it was a marriage only in name and since then he has lived separately in Tokyo as a very successful businessman. In the house on Gekkin Island there is a building gaudily decorated in Chinese style; and in that building there is a "room that cannot be opened". By a strange coincidence Tomoko has found the key. On the day before her departure she sneaks into the room and discovers, in the dust on a table in the middle, a bloodstained gekkin.

Meanwhile detective KINDAICHI Kousuke (金田一耕介) is one of the people sent to accompany Tomoko and family to Tokyo. An unknown client has asked his lawyer to engage him, because he and others have received anonymous letters threatening a series of deaths if Tomoko leaves the island. The girl, says the letter, is a queen bee, destined to bring death to the males drawn to her, like her mother nineteen years ago. Kindaichi warns that he is no bodyguard, but he starts investigating the earlier case. Soon however, at a hotel on the Izu peninsular where the family are resting on the journey, the first of Tomoko's suitors is murdered. He is soon followed by other victims, most of them men who had been pursuing Tomoko. Will Kindaichi catch the murderer before it is too late? (Of course he won't. Kindaichi only ever solves a case when pretty much every possible victim has already died.)

Most Kindaichi stories are set in one region, generally rural and isolated. In this book, as in a couple of others we change scene several times, first to the hotel on the mainland, then to Tokyo, finally back to Gekkin Island. This gives the story a slightly more modern feeling; but we are still in a fairly traditional environment (e. g. murder at a Kabuki performance). Much of the mystery concerns what happened nineteen years ago. We get a lot of hints throughout the story; but it is only towards the end that we learn what exactly was supposed to have happened then. There is a little locked room mystery for readers to solve. The first Kindaichi novel is one of Japan's most famous locked room mysteries (The Honjin Murder Case), and Yokomizo has quite a few locked room mysteries in the other books in the series; but the three I have come across are much less ambitious affairs than that first one. I did think this one was a good use of special conditions, though. Like Ho Ling (here), I thought that the whole story was in some senses undersupplied with clues. Most readers will probably spot the killer. There is one good reason (beyond conjectural joining the dots) to suspect them; but most of the details of the various murders turn out to be basically irrelevant. Still, the story kept me reading, and the explanation did not leave me feeling cheated at the end.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

The Inugami Clan

As I like to review children's books and detective stories alternately here, the next review should have been a children's book; but I'm almost at the end of my stock of Japanese children's books, so the gaps between posts on those will have to be a little longer for the moment.

I had planned to make my next YOKOMIZO Seishi (横溝正史) review 女王蜂 (Queen Bee); but then I noticed that I still haven't written anything about the book that comes before it in the series, 犬神家の一族 (inugamike no ichizoku, The Inugami Clan, 1951). It's a couple of years since I read it and I don't feel like rereading it just now. So this post doesn't count as a review, just a couple of notes on my impressions when I read it.

When millionaire businessman INUGAMI Sahee (犬神 佐兵衛) died at 81 at his residence in Nasu Lakeside, he leaves a family squabbling over his fortune as they wait for the will to be opened. His three daughters by different mothers have each of them one son. In addition there is a girl, NONOMIYA Tamayo (野々宮 珠世), whose grandfather had been Sahee's patron at the start of his career. Sahee had in return taken her under his protection. KINDAICHI Kousuke is staying by the lake, invited by a letter from a man in the law office handling Sahee's yet unopened will. Before he can learn the details, the man is murdered; and it also looks as if someone is also targeting Tamayo, who has to be rescued from drowning. When the will is read out, we find that Sahee expects Tamayo to marry one of his three grandsons, who will then inherit the company. The various provisions depending on what she and they decide, seem calculated to set the family against each other, almost an invitation to murder. And then there is an uneasy suspicion in the house that one of the grandsons is not who he says he is. The story is set not long after the war and the son of Sahee's eldest daughter has only just got back to Japan. Because of war wounds, his head is covered by a close fitting mask. The other sisters suspect that the real son never returned and that this could be an impostor brought in to give his mother access to the fortune.

The return of soldiers, and their character in the peacetime world, is a theme of almost all the Yokomizo Seishi stories of this period. In particular, the novella 車井戸なぜ軋る (Kurumaido naze kishiru, Why did the well pulley creak?), which likewise features suspicions over the identity of a disfigured returning veteran, clearly laid the groundwork for The Inugami Clan, as I commented when I reviewed it. The other book which makes the most of the return of soldiers, Gokumontou, proves to be similar in another direction as well. In Gokumontou the three daughters of a rich Japanese house are targeted, and the murderer seems to be arranging the victims' bodies for emblematic purposes. The same seems to be happening to the grandsons of the Inugami family, with the deaths arranged to recall the family emblems of axe, chrysanthemum and koto.

I'm pretty much alone on this, I think; but I don't rate The Inugami Clan as one of Yokomizo's best mysteries. At least, there must be four or five books I'd put ahead of it. His usual strengths are all here. Complexity of plotting seems to have come easily to Yokomizo. Most of his books have a very complicated plot, which still makes sense (at least in its own world) and still allow a normally attentive reader to follow the story. The Inugami Clan is as complex as any; and it has a plot well made to set us speculating in various directions as we read (I was fairly strongly tempted by a red herring for the first third of the book). I've seen Yokomizo's narrative style described as pulpy. It's certainly not aiming for sophisticated restraint, but a better comparison would be the nineteenth century sensation novel. As in EDOGAWA Rampo's juvenile mysteries, we have a very present narrator, who asks rhetorical questions, exclaims with horror at the events he describes and does all he can to involve the readers. The local setting is well done. As often in the Kindaichi stories, we are in a relatively unpopulated part of Japan, but this time it is a mountain area trying to adapt to the times with tourism. (Incidentally I've seen a review which think this is set in the Nasu in Tochigi prefecture; but if I've got it right, it's a fictional Nasu in what is now Nagano prefecture.) The world of the Inugami family, all revolving around the dead Sahee, make for an involving story, both before and after the denouement.

My slight reservations are that the story is probably in one sense over-hinted (many of the mysteries had an obvious answer, that I would expect readers to spot) in another under-clued (the actual murderer became more and more obvious from the middle of the book, but there was no compelling reason why it had to be them). The result was that there were parts of the explanation at the end where I thought, 'Well okay, but there was no way we would be able to work any of that out.' 

There is an English translation, which I haven't read, by Yumiko Yamazaki (The Inugami Clan, Stone Bridge Press, 2007). You can read a review of that at the blog Pretty Sinister Books, and of the original book and both ICHIKAWA Kon films (from 1976 and 2006) at Boku no jikenbo.