Sunday, 24 May 2015

The Sweet

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

I translated another story by children's writer  新美 南吉 (NIIMI Nankich, 1913-1943) earlier, 牛をつないだ椿の木. The story tanslated here, 飴だま (amedama, 'The Sweet') is a lot shorter. It seems to be set in the Tokugawa period, when samurai had considerable freedom to punish perceived disrepect from commoners. For some reason, I can't help casting MIFUNE Toshirou (三船 敏郎) as the samurai in my head, particularly the Youjinbou period Mifune. The story is in the public domain; and you can read it online at Aozora Bunko here.

The Sweet
by NIIMI Nankichi

It was a warm day in spring. A woman travelling with two small children was riding on the ferry. As the boat was about to set off, there came a shout, 'Oy, wait there just a moment!'

From over on the embankment a single samurai came running, waving his hand, and leapt onto the boat.

The boat set off.

The samurai sat down heavily in the middle of the boat. The day was so warm that he fell asleep as he sat.

He was a strong looking samurai, with a black beard; but the sight of him sunk so deep in sleep seemed funny to the children. They giggled at him.

Their mother put a finger to her mouth. 'Be quiet!' she said. An angry samurai is a terrible thing.

The children stopped laughing.

A little later one of them held out her hand and said, 'Mummy, a sweet please!'

At that the other one said, 'Mummy, me too!'

Their mother took a paper bag out of her pocket; but there was only one sweet left in it.

'Give it to me!', 'Give it to me!' the two children begged her from either side. As there was only one sweet, she did not know what to do.

'Be good children and wait,' she told them. 'Once we get to the other side, I'll buy you some, you see.'

But the children just threw a tantrum, shouting, 'Please! Please!'

They had thought the samurai was dozing; but he suddenly snapped his eyes open and looked at the begging children.

Their mother was shocked. She was sure this samurai was angry at having his sleep disturbed.

'Behave yourselves!' she tried to calm the children down; but they would not listen to her.

At that the samurai pulled his sword smoothly from its scabbard and came over in front of the mother and children.

The mother turned deathly pale and set herself between him and the children. She thought he was going to kill them for disturbing his sleep.

'Give me the sweet!' the samurai said.

The mother handed it over with trembling hands.

The samurai put it on the railing of the boat and with a clink of his sword he split it neatly in two. Then, 'There you go!' he gave one piece each to the children.

After that he went back to his place and was soon sunk deep in sleep once again.

Thursday, 21 May 2015

The Chamber of Horus

As you'd expect, most of the books I write about here are Japanese; but as I need to brush up my French at the moment, I thought I'd try one of the books by Paul Halter (born 1956), who is often mentioned as the modern master of locked room detective stories. La Chambre d'Horus (The Chamber of Horus, 2007) is a historical locked room mystery, set in 1911 and featuring one of Halter's series detectives, Owen Burns.

The story features mysteries in three different periods. In ancient Egypt a judge investigates the murder of a local preacher in his hut, whose only exit faced the town square. When he is found beaten to death, no-one had been seen leaving the hut with a weapon capable of inflicting the wounds. In 1811 an Italian adventurer opens the tomb of a pharaoh. The pharaoh is in fact the judge, who had later in life risen to be regent and so buried with pharaonic honours. To the adventurer's astonishment, although the tomb was still sealed when he found it, the mummy is not in its sarcophagus. Instead a pile of discarded bandages lie on the floor beside it. In 1911 archeologists find the adventurer's diary. He had resealed and hidden the entrance to the tomb meaning to return to it later. When they open the tomb, they find that everything is as he had described, except that the mummy is lying properly in its sarcopagus, wrapped in its bandages. One by one the discoverers die from strange causes. When the mummy is sold to a rich London collector, his family fear that he is bringing a danger into the house and consult Burns, who sends his friend Achille Stock to observe on the evening when the mummy arrives. Despite the precautions a new death occurs, a murder in a room bolted from inside with no other exit; and the weapon is found in a different sealed room, in which the mummy had been placed.

The different puzzles in the book are all at least acceptable. One was a pleasing idea, but rather obvious. All of them felt like they would do better as short stories (discarding the puzzle of the tomb). In style and mood the book feels like an early Hammer horror film. The characters have less life than John Dickson Carr's, and in conforming too well to a dull horror film format the situation lacked the originality that Carr's own inventions had. I don't feel any urgency to try another book by Halter. But it it all reads very easily; and isn't long enough to get tedious.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Marks' Mountain

マークスの山 (Maakusu no yama, Marks' Mountain, 1993) by TAKAMURA Kaoru (高村薫, born 1959) won the Naoki prize, a major Japanese prize for popular literature, in 1993. It was made into a film with the same title (but apparently given the title Marks when shown in America), directed by SAI Youichi (崔洋一), in 1995 and a television series in 2010. It's a long book, about 720 pages in bunko format, split up into two volumes; and its ambitious story runs from 1977 to 1992.


The start of the story is a killing near Kitadake in the Japanese Alps. The killing is no mystery. A drunk living in the hills had hallucinated a wild animal and beat it to death, then woken the next day to find the dead body of a climber. The police close the case, leaving as an unsolved mystery what had brought the victim to his killer's door in the middle of the night. A few days earlier in the same area, a young boy had escaped from an attempt at family suicide on the same mountain. His surviving relatives take him in, but he has suffered brain damage from carbon monoxide poisoning. It is only in 1989 that another body is discovered, a skeleton on the mountain above where the first victim had died. Four years later in Tokyo, a series of brutal murders seem to have some connexion to the killings in the mountains. Different investigations in different parts of the city gradually come together, pursuing the boy from the suicide attempt and a group of now influential former students, who had been in a university mountain climbing club back in the seventies.

The story is a kind of police procedural, and although there are elements of mystery, we get to the answers in the course of the investigation rather than finding them for ourselves. We follow various points of view, including the killer; but the great majority is seen through the eyes of a Tokyo policeman, GOUDA Yuuichirou (合田雄一郎). There is a lot of internal politics in the story, as the different parts of the police and the public prosecutors fail to cooperate with each other. A lot of the narrative is taken up with meetings or with travelling to and fro across Tokyo by taxi or underground. I don't find either meetings or travelling by underground very exciting, so there were times when I thought that the story could easily have been a couple of hundred pages shorter. But it has perhaps the cumulative effect of letting us share almost every moment of Gouda's investigation, as he and the rest of the team pursue every possible link, often catching just a couple of hours sleep at the police station before starting again. Despite the emphasis on detail, the story is not conventionally realistic, building the plot around a large number of coincidences (or the work of destiny, as the investigating detectives call it towards the end of the book). You could see it as an attempt to write the police procedural as an epic, a tragic one, with many victims either of their own bad decisions or of cruel accidents of life.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Boy Science Detective in review

I can imagine that some people will have had enough of these stories by now, after an introduction and six translations; but since I've now translated a whole book (a short one, admittedly), I thought it might be good to sum up what it had to offer. So here's my 'review' of Boy Science Detective by KOSAKAI Fuboku (小酒井 不木). There are six short stories in the collection:
Each of them was first published in a children's science magazine over three issues, reflected in the three parts that each story is divided into. You can sometimes see traces of the serial publication in a slight tendency to unnecessarily recap material at the beginning of a new chapter; but unlike some Japanese mysteries first published as serials, this does not get too repetitive. The magazine publication ran from 1924 to 1926, and the book came out at the end of 1926.

As Kosakai explains in the preface, the stories are meant to encourage young readers to learn about science by showing them that science is interesting. In that respect, I think he keeps his promise fairly well. Almost all the stories have a large scientific element, generally well integrated into the story. Only once or twice did it feel like it was getting a bit bogged down in exposition. This scientific character may well remind you of R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke stories.

Some people find the Dr. Thorndyke stories a little dry. I do too, but generally in a positive way. The Boy Science Detective stories are also a little drier than say EDOGAWA Rampo's boy detective series. The criminals in Kosakai's series are just dull and often not especially competent professional criminals, not flamboyant masterminds; but Kosakai does not forget that he has young readers who want to be entertained. While the villains are generally unremarkable, his child detective is allowed to surprise the onlookers again and again.

The hero is TSUKAHARA Toshio (塚原俊夫), a twelve year old genius, whose rich parents and richer uncle have fitted him out with his own laboratory, from which he takes cases as a private detective. The narrator is his bodyguard and assistant OONO (大野), a young judo expert (whom Toshio mostly calls niisan, 'big brother'). This is an early instance of a constellation most famous from Rex Stout's books, where Archie Goodwin does the more dangerous and active work, Nero Wolfe does the intellectual part. Toshio is pretty active himself, but any violence gets deputed to Oono. Apart from Oono, the most important recurring character is Detective Oda of the central police station in Tokyo, who has learnt to give Toshio whatever he wants, and puts up with being called 'Uncle P' (for 'police') by him in exchange for his invaluable help.

The two Edogawa Rampo juvenile detective stories that I've read avoid actual bloodshed. Kosakai is not so restrained. The first two stories are thefts; but every story after that features a murder. The concession to young readers is that they are all a bit easy. I imagine most children and any adult familiar with detective stories will see who did it in every case. That doesn't mean they have no interest as detective stories. The culprit may not come as a surprise, but there are often excellent clues and elements to the puzzle that the reader may not have spotted.

The best stories, I think, are 'The Scarlet Diamond', 'The Riddle of the Beard' and 'The Secret of the Skull'. 'The Scarlet Diamond' introduces the characters and has an interesting code-breaking puzzle. Obviously this works better if you're reading in Japanese; but I hope I've done enough to let a western reader get something from it too. 'The Riddle of the Beard' is a complex and fairly clued murder mystery. 'The Secret of the Skull' is a dramatic story of forensic reconstruction, as Toshio applies the western technique of putting clay on a skull to find the face of the victim. It too is well clued. Of the others, 'A Fight in the Dark' is a lively story of the capture of a gang of thieves. The mystery element is weak, but the science part is kept up. 'Ultraviolet Rays' is the most complex mystery in the collection; but as there are few clues, most of this is revealed by the criminal's confession at the end. 'The Wisdom of a Fool' seems to me the weakest in the collection, with no clues but an obvious villain, and no real scientific element.

Beyond their interest as mysteries, the stories also have some interest as a view of Tokyo and the surrounding countryside in the early twenties.