Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Policeman's Child

刑事の子 (keiji no ko, The Policeman's Child, 1990) is a mystery by MIYABE Miyuki (宮部 みゆき). It was first published under the title 東京殺人暮色 (Toukyou satsujin boshoku, Tokyo murder dusk colours), then republished in 1994 as 東京下町殺人暮色(Toukyou shitamachi satsujin boshoku, Downtown Tokyo murder dusk colours) and finally in 2011 under the current title. The first two titles, I suspect, reflect the major role of an artist in the story, and shitamachi, downtown, is the central part of Tokyo near the main river and harbour, traditionally a less wealthy and (as the inhabitants see it) more neighbourly area, a place in which people take an interest in what their neighbours are up to more than other parts of the city. The final title reflects the two main characters, detective YAGIZAWA Michio 八木沢道雄 and his teenage son Jun 順, who are living together after Michio and his wife divorced in a new home in the shitamachi area.

The narrative of the story switches between the two. On the one hand we follow Jun and his best friend from school as they investigate rumours circulating in the area about women who visit a famous artist's home never being seen again, on the other we see Michio and other murder squad detectives working on a case with the dismembered body of a young woman. It's a little hard to get the measure of the book. The Jun parts read a little like a juvenile detective story at first; but the murder investigation is more hard boiled, concerned with a series of gruesome crimes. The two strands come together when an anonymous accusation of the artist is sent to the Yagizawa house in the same handwriting as a series of taunting letters sent to the police telling them where they could find the next dead body.

The artist suspect clearly has mysteries of his own, in his attitude to the defining moment of his life, his survival of the firebombing of Tokyo, and in his current artistic choices. The mystery when it is resolved proves to have a complex plot, but I didn't find it very satisfying; and an element of social didacticism also hurt the story for me.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Return of the Detectives

My reading is a little haphazard. Quite a few of the books I read are not specially chosen, but just those that happened to be available in second hand bookshops for the authors I was interested in. So 帰ってきた探偵たち (kaette kita tantei tachi, Return of the Detectives, 1992) by TAKAGI Akimitsu (高木 彬光) is the sequel to a book I haven't read 五人の探偵たち (gonin no tantei tachi, Five Detectives). Since that book was a selection of uncollected short stories about Takagi's various series detectives and this book is a second selection of the same, expectations should not be too high. The main reason for a story not to have appeared in a collection would be that it isn't very good, and the second helping would presumably be even weaker. Whatever the reason, the stories are in fact not that great, at best satisfactory, solid work.

朱の奇跡 (shu no kiseki, "Scarlet miracle" 1960) is one of the better stories. The detective here, public prosecutor ENDOU Shigemichi (遠藤茂道 ) is not strictly one of Takagi's series detectives. He appears in this one short story as a Tokyo public prosecutor. He then served as the basis for a different public prosecutor, because a Nagoya broadcaster wanted a Nagoya detective. The story is basically all about finding the trick the criminal used. Only three people in a small firm had access to the official stamp used when transferring money. After a large sum goes missing, only one of those does not have an alibi. Did one of the others have some way to make the transfer? Or was there some way someone else could get access to the seal? The public prosecutor role here reappears in the next two stories. Like District Attorneys in American detective stories, there is some involvement in the investigation, but most of the narrative follows the police as they follow various leads.

殺意の審判 (satsui no shinpan, "Judgement of intent to kill", 1961) stars public prosecutor CHIKAMATSU Shigemichi (近松茂), the revised version of ENDOU Shigemichi from the previous story. Here the police are investigating a crooked real estate developer who made his first money as a corrupt civil servant. His rejected pregnant girlfriend and a recently released prisoner who had been punished heavily for the crimes he shared with the unpunished victim look like viable suspects. Again this is a story about spotting the killer's trick. The trick itself uses a reassessment of evidence that I've met two times in Japanese detective stories, to better effect than here.

妄想の殺人 (mousou no satsujin "Delusion murder", 1970) stars public prosecutor KIRISHIMA Saburou (霧島三郎), who also appears in two of Takagi's novels that have been translated into English, Honeymoon to Nowhere and The Informer (both 1965), which I haven't read. Unlike the first two stories, this one has the detective involved from the beginning. As he asks a local policeman the way, he is interrupted by a man trying to confess to the murder of his wife. The policeman doesn't want to know. As he explains, the same man has been confessing to killing his wife every time he got drunk for months; and each time the police found the supposed victim alive and well. Later that evening on his way back from visiting his sister, Kirishima sees the same man back announcing a murder to the policeman; but this time he notices that there is blood on his clothes. 

The fourth story features Takagi's most famous detective, KAMIZU Kyousuke (神津恭介), a specialist in forensic medicine, but generally appearing in stories as a great detective whose advice is sought for particularly puzzling crimes. I've reviewed two Kamizu novels, the classic 人形はなぜ殺される (ningyou ha naze korosareru, Why Were the Dolls Killed? 1955), and 狐の密室 (Kitsune no misshitsu, Fox's locked room, 1977), a crossover with another series detective, OOMAEDA Eisaku (大前田英策). The story in this collection, 怪盗七面相 (kaitou shichimensou, "Phantom thief seven faces" 1952), is part of a writing collaboration with six other writers who all pit their own series detectives against a master thief obviously modeled on EDOGAWA Ranpo's series villain, The Fiend with Twenty Faces  (kaitou nijuumensou, 怪人二十面相, 1936). The publishing idea was more interesting than the story for me in this case.

The last story, 悪魔の火祭り (akuma no himatsuri, "The Devil's Fire Festival", 1957) is much longer than the others and stars private detective OOMAEDA Eisaku whom I mentioned above. The younger sister of a woman getting divorced approaches Oomaeda to investigate the background. Her sister's husband had apparently made her tattoo her whole back and is now demanding that she leave him; given the disapproval of tattoos in Japanese society, that makes it impossible for her to remarry. Oomaeda makes some discoveries, but when he goes to announce them to his client, he finds her murdered, gripping in her hand the festival parasol from her home town of Aomori, a dying message somehow pointing to the killer. The most obvious suspect would then be her sister, whose tattoo featured a festival dancing girl with parasol; but she has an alibi. The second half of the story transfers to Aomori and its famous summer festival, which conveniently all the suspects are also visiting. There are good ideas in the mystery, but the actual dying message is fair but very dull.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Old Photographs

One should always remember to respect one's elders.

I visited my great aunt at the start of this year. She had just reached one hundred. Her memory for the distant past is still good; and she likes to look through old photographs and talk about the people she knew. The photographs are countless, especially since the family from time to time has made reproductions of the oldest ones, from the Victorian period; and they are all haphazardly mixed together in different collections, which change every time someone tries to impose their own order on the confusion by starting a new folder or album. That means that each time I visit I see a different set of photographs.

One of the ones that turned up this year might be interesting for this blog. It was a photograph of a woman whom my great aunt had known in the late thirties and early forties. The woman, Amy McCowan, was a former teacher who had taught in Japan when she was a young woman, and later in Czechoslovakia. At the time that my great aunt knew her, Miss McCowan (as the family knew her) was staying as a lodger in the family's house in York. The house was destroyed in an air raid at some point during the second world war. Everyone survived; but the family had to move, and they had no contact with Miss McCowan after the war.

The picture my great aunt passed to me was an old sepia coloured photograph in a cardboard frame, from an Osaka photographer whose name seemed to be S. Yuki.  A young Japanese woman in Japanese dress was standing next to a seated western woman in western dress, which still seems to show some Japanese influence. I turned it over and read the pencil writing on the back. It was a little hard to read, as the light pencil hardly differed from the cardboard it was written on. As far as I could tell, it said, "Mrs Ando paid to have this picture of Isuneko and myself taken because she wanted to send it to you Amy", with a gap between "you" and "Amy" at the end.

I wasn't sure of the name of the Japanese woman; and Google's question "Did you mean Tsuneko?" is probably pointing to the right reading.

I puzzled a bit whether the text was writted by Amy or to Amy. If Amy had written and signed the photograph, then it would be a picture sent out to someone she knew in Japan, probably a former student at the school or college; but in that case why did she have the picture when she lived in York twenty or thirty years later? Could it be that it was sent to Amy after she left the school? In that case the people in the photograph would be her former colleagues, two other teachers at the school.

"Are you sure this is Miss McCowan?" I asked, showing my great aunt the writing on the back.

"Well I think it is." She looked at the photo again. "We had another photograph from when she was living with us. Now where was that?"

 That started a new search through the various boxes and albums; but nothing turned up and we ended up getting diverted into talking about the other people whose photographs we could find. I felt bad about having carelessly expressed my doubts about my great aunt's memory, and was happy enough that she seemed to have let the question drop; but when her daughter came by a little later, she asked her her opinion about it.

"But I never knew her. That was before my time," she said, after hearing the question. She took a close look at the picture and said, "Actually you can tell it isn't her." She left a little pause to build up suspense, then went on, "She's wearing a wedding ring; and it was always 'Miss McCowan' wasn't it? So it can't be her."

"Oh yes," said my great aunt, peering at the hand in the photograph, "Well I really did think it was her."

My great aunt rarely gets annoyed; but her tone then was full of dissatisfaction at her own bad memory.

That was that for the moment. But some months later I called in again; and this time one of the photographs of Miss McCowan in the back garden of the house in York turned up.

As you can see, it seems to be fairly clearly the same person as the young woman in the first photograph. The handsome, slightly stern features have grown a bit thinner and the expression a bit tougher, as you might expect over a lifetime of work in various countries. I'd guess the woman in the first photograph is about thirty years younger than the second one, which would date it to the end of the Meiji period or the start of the Taishou period (that is around 1912). That fits with what my great aunt told me of Miss McCowan. As to the text on the back, I guess that it was the draft of the message that she sent with different copies of the photograph (perhaps with some added personalising text), and this was the one she kept for herself.

And the wedding ring? Looking again at the first photograph, I saw that the ring had a jewel. "Maybe it was an engagement ring."

"Well you know, I remember she was engaged; and the young man died."

So that disposed of the rest of the mystery (if you can call my unwarranted suspicions a mystery). Engagements broken off by death were probably a lot more common back then; and of course this was around the time of the first world war and the influenza epidemic of 1918, which took so many lives.



Saturday, 29 October 2016

Eighteenth Summer

十八の夏 (Juuhachi no natsu, Eighteenth Summer, 2002) by 光原百合 (MITSUHARA Yuri, born 1964) is a hard book to classify. The title story won the Mystery Writers of Japan award in 2002 and a translation by Beth Carey was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine in December 2004; but it is certainly not a conventional mystery. Some of the stories feature crimes, including murder; but all of them are also being pulled the whole time towards the romantic or cosily sentimental. In the best of the stories, this creates a tension in the reader, as they try to work out just how sinister the story is (with the possibility that the answer is "not sinister at all, actually").

The title story is the best example of what I mean. The main character is a school leaver studying to retake his university entrance exams (a common occurrence in Japan). He strikes up acquaintance with a young woman he has seen sketching by the river where he jogs, a freelance illustrator. When he moves into the apartment block where she lives, this starts to look like a story of destructive romantic obsession. Or should we be more interested in the little mysteries of the young woman, in particular the four plant pots with seedlings she has called 'Father', 'Mother', 'Miss' and 'Master'? At the same time the scenes of the teenager's home life feel more like they belong in a cosy family story.

The shorter middle stories, ささやかな奇跡 (sasayakana kiseki "A modest miracle") and 兄貴の純情 (aniki no junjou, "My older brother's pure love") are lighter and more like the genre "puzzles of everyday life" popular in Japan. The difference is that it is not obvious to us until the end where the mystery in the story is. This is particularly true of 兄貴の純, the most lightweight story in the collection, which ingeniously confuses us with its narrator's attitude. In his eyes he is clearly narrating a mystery; but it is one that the reader cannot see.

The final story イノセント・デイズ (inosento deizu, "Innocent Days") is the most conventional in the collection. A teacher at a supplementary school meets a former student and finds that the tragedy that had marked her life when he knew her has continued into adulthood. She and her stepbrother had lost a father and mother respectively before their stepparents' marriage. Then they too died in a tragic accident. Now, the teacher learns that the stepbrother has also died in a recent traffic accident. This is a horrible story of psychological cruelty and revenge; but the narration is probably the least satisfactory of the collection. The story is told as a mystery whose elements are gradually revealed; but as readers we are only being shown the revelations for the most part, and have to put up with a lot of tedious and implausible exposition along the way.


Saturday, 24 September 2016

The Anguish of Galileo

ガリレオの苦悩 (Garireo no kunou, The Anguish of Galileo, 2008) is a collection of five detective stories by HIGASHINO Keigo (東野圭吾). Higashino is best known in the west for The Devotion of Suspect X; and these stories are the third collection from the same series, featuring the genius physics professor, YUKAWA Manabu (湯川学), who is consulted by his friend KUSANAGI (草薙), a police detective, and Kusanagi's younger colleague, UTSUMI (内海). I've read two novels in the series and the second collection of short stories,予知夢 (Yochimu, Prophetic Dream, 2000). Utsumi is a new character, who also appears as the main character in the television series Detective Galileo, which started in 2007. In the books the police role is divided fairly evenly between Kusanagi, experienced but stubborn, and Utsumi, who is shown in the typical role in police stories as a woman policeman who has to fight to get her view of the case recognised.

In 予知夢 Yukawa's role was more or less that of armchair (or laboratory) detective, as I remember. (It's several years since I read it, before I started this blog; if you're curious, there's a review here). In these stories, following the model of The Devotion of Suspect X, there is often a more personal and active involvement.

Ochiru (Fall): a woman falls from the balcony of her appartment. It looks like suicide; but Utsumi comes to suspect that one witness is hiding the fact that he was involved with the victim. The witness though has a perfect alibi. He was walking just below the apartment when the victim fell.

Ayatsuru (Manipulate): Yukawa is invited to a dinner by a retired physics lecturer along with other former students. The old man, more or less limited to a wheelchair, lives with his illegitimate daughter. His estranged son by an earlier marriage has also recently moved in and is staying, an unpleasant and unwelcome guest, in a little house in the grounds. If you're familiar with the conventions of the detective story, you'll know that staying in a place like that is basically signing your own death warrant. So it's no surprise when the son is murdered while the guests are gathered together. The daughter was with them, but her father had been taking a rest alone. Still, in his condition he could not possibly have committed the murder.

Tojiru (Close): Higashino uses deliberately unconventional kanji for these stories. The one's used here are actually those for 'Locked Room'; and this is indeed a locked room mystery. Yukawa is invited by a friend to his inn in the mountains. A guest had died mysteriously, either by suicide or accident it seems, falling into a ravine not far from the inn. The locked room is not where he was killed, but the room where he was staying. Before his death was discovered the innkeeper had been puzzled when the guest did not appear for dinner and had looked at his room and found it locked from the inside; but he had had a strong feeling that there was actually nobody in the room. Yukawa is invited to solve this puzzle; but despite inviting him, the friend seems strangely unwilling to cooperate with the investigation.

Shimesu (Show): Utsumi is watching the daughter of a woman suspected of murder. When they see her finding the (now dead) dog that had gone missing from the victim's house, she claims to have discovered it by dowsing. Utsumi is unwilling to believe that she is lying. She had observed the girl using her necklace for divination as she followed her; but is such a thing possible?

Midasu (Throw into Confusion): a serial killer is taunting the police with his claimed undetectable murder method; and he has a particular interest in Yukawa.

These are all competent stories, but not especially interesting. The idea of a locked room mystery without a victim in it is a nice one though.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Kurt the Wednesday Child

I've already reviewed several books by 大井三重子 (OOI Mieko), the writer of  the collection of children's stories, 水曜日のクルト (suiyoubi no Kuruto, Kurt of Wednesday, 1961); but they were books under a different name and in a different character, as the postwar detective story writer NIKI Etsuko. She had been trying to establish herself as a children's writer when she won the Edogawa Rampo prize for her first detective novel 猫は知っていた (The Cat Knew, 1957), a genre with which she had more success. The stories gathered in this collection are fairy tale type fantasies of various kinds.

The title story, 'Kurt the Wednesday Child', is not one of the strongest, in my opinion. A children's illustrator after meeting a young boy on a Wednesday mysteriously loses items and as mysteriously regains them, while losing other ones. Like all the stories in the collection it is engagingly narrated and inventive; but the invention here is very diffuse, a bundle of different ideas that don't really connect. The style felt a little like a dilute version of MIYAZAWA Kenji's style in the stories in 注文の多い料理店 (chuumon no ooi ryouriten, The Restaurant of Many Orders, 1924).

The second story, 'The Memoir Art Gallery', is a well worked out story that perhaps does not add up to much more than its central, not very surprising, metaphor. The main character, a young boy, finds an art gallery that anyone can visit, but each visitor can only enter one room. The paintings in that gallery all depict people and incidents important to the visitor, whether welcome or not.

The third, 'The Life of a Puddle', is another piece that somewhat predictably follows a familiar genre, in this case the slightly moralising narration of the life of an inanimate object.

'The Story of the Mysterious Water Ladle' is a long and quite lively story of a good hearted cobbler, who is given a magical ladle by a homeless wanderer he invites in. The cobbler wants to give shoes to the poor children in his neighbourhood, but the pair he has just made for one boy is the first he has been able to afford to make in months. The stranger has him plant the shoes, then water them with the ladle. The next day a tree with shoes instead of fruit is growing in the garden. The cobbler plants hat trees and coat trees to make presents for his neighbours, but attracts the attention of the country's king, who confiscates the ladle and finds a horrible new use for it. The ideas in the story are again very familiar, but they combine well to make an interesting story with unexpected plot developments. In this story, Ooi makes the narrator a character, a grandfather visiting his grandchildren.

Unlike the cheerful stories that make up most of the collection, 'The Blood Coloured Cloud' is an unhappy story about war. From the harbour wall a girl sends a piece of paper out towards the horizon where she can see a pink cloud. On the paper she had written 'To the person beneath the pink cloud, please be my friend, Lily.' One day a little sea plane arrives with a boy who had found the letter, a cadet in the neighbouring country's airforce; but on the same day trucks roll through the town with loudspeakers announcing the start of hostilities with that country. Soon Lily's two brothers are called up to fight. This is clearly a more personal story (the author lost one brother in the second world war).

'The Conserve Jars of Things that Are or Could Be' returns to more whimsical magic. An old witch rewards a shopkeeper by making a set of jamjars which contain anything he or his family might need. When they have fulfilled all their needs they start giving away the remaining jars to customers. A girl from the neighbouring town makes friends with a rich invalid boy when his family accidentally leave him unattended and she shows him a nearby wood where they can gather acorns. Much later, learning that the boy is expected to die, she sets off to walk to the shop, hoping to give him one of the magic jars; but there is now only one left, which no other customer had wanted to take.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Stepfather Step

The books by MIYABE Miyuki that I've discussed here have been nearer to crime novels than to the traditional idea of a mystery. ステップファーザー・ステップ (steppufāzā steppu, Stepfather Step, 1993) is a set of lighthearted traditional puzzle mystery stories, with the same characters. These are the narrator, a professional thief, and two middle school children, identical twins Satoru and Tadashi, who pick him up after he falls off a roof. The twins have been abandoned by their parents, who have each separately run off with a new partner, and are trying to get by alone rather than letting the state take them into its care. The money however is running out and they think that the thief can help them make some more. Gradually over the course of several stories, the thief comes to be a kind of replacement parent for the children. The book was made into a television series in 2012.

The actual mysteries use clues and tricks like those of golden age detective stories, but still fairly loosely plotted, with more emphasis on parts of the story incidental to the puzzle. The mysteries generally involve serious crimes, such as attempted murder and kidnapping, but occasionally the stories turn on a non-criminal mystery. The setting reflects modern everyday life, but the humorous approach is treated as a licence to include much that is unrealistic or deliberately absurd. The book was an easy, light read, but the mixture of humour and sentiment didn't always work for me. It felt like there was some sort of emotional satisfaction that readers were meant to get from the book that passed me by.



 

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Panic of A Tomoichirou

AWASAKA Tsumao's A Aiichirou stories are among the highpoints of Japanese detective fiction. I've read two of the three collections so far; but this time I'm going to talk about a prequel. 亜智一郎の恐慌  (A Tomoichirou no kyoukou, The Panic of A Tomoichirou, 1997) features a character who seems to be a bakumatsu version of A Aiichirou. Like Aiichirou he is handsome and elegant, but sometimes clumsy and cowardly, and has a talent for observation and deduction. While Aiichirou is a photographer who specialises in cloud photography, Tomoichirou works in the shogun's "cloud watching department", in which a few samurai spend the day lazily observing the weather in Tokyo from a tower in the shogun's palace.

The first of the seven stories in the collection introduces us to Tomoichirou and other samurai who are assigned to his team, when a court official realises that he has the skills for a secret investigator. The subordinates have various characters, one is a one armed, easy going lover of theatre, one an enthusiast for the ninja skills that are no longer really needed in modern Japan, one is immensely strong. In different episodes in the first story, they show their potential usefulness as secret agents.

The stories that follow have something in common with the A Aiichirou series, but are really far enough removed from it that I don't think that I'd recommend them to fans. There is an impossible crime (of sorts) in the second story, but really most of the stories are more like spy stories with a small detective element. Also although some have a similar humour to the A Aiichirou series, others deal with horrible crimes where humour is really not wanted. Finally Tomoichirou, unlike Aiichirou, is rarely a major character in the story, although he does always make some deduction near the end. More often the mystery plays out as an adventure story with different members of his team as the main investigators (much like Van Gulik's Judge Dee series).

This is not a very enthusiastic review. Partly I may be holding Awasaka to a higher standard than other writers. Partly the historical background may have made this too difficult a book for me to enjoy it. I read a lot on the train, away from the internet or any dictionary. Mostly that works out fine; but here with a lot of vocabulary rooted in the culture of Tokyo under the shogun and a lot of references to historical events and people, I often lacked the background I needed to really appreciate the book. As historical fiction, they work much on the pattern established by Scott. The various adventures are often thrown up by the real historical events of the chaotic period that led to the rejection of the shogun for the rule of the emperor; but although the agents are successful in their own actions, they are not really changing anything in the flow of history.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

Two Idas

ふたりのイーダ (futari no īda, Two Idas, 1969) is a children's book by MATSUTANI Miyoko ( 松谷みよ子).

While their mother goes on an assignment to Kyushu, she leaves Naoki and almost three year old Yuuko with their grandparents in the little castle town of Hanaura. Hanaura is in western Japan, on the coast of the Seto Inland Sea, a location that will become relevant later in the novel. The family sometimes call Yuuko Ida, a nickname that Naoki gave her from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.

On the first night in this grandparents' house, Naoki sneaks out to explore.

Naoki did not know how long he had been standing next to the castle moat. His attention was suddenly wakened as he heard the clatter, clatter sound of someone passing by near his feet. At the same time he heard a low murmur, "Gone, gone, can't find her ....., gone."

Although the voice was low and hoarse, it could be heard from down by his feet. Shocked Naoki looked around below him. It was a chair. It was a small - yes, about the size that would just fit Yuuko if she sat down in it - backed, round wooden chair. The chair was walking, clatter, clatter, along the white path at the edge of the the moat, dragging its legs with each step.

The next day Naoki discovers an abandoned house in the woods, and in it the chair from the night before. When Yuuko visits the house, she seems strangely at home there; and the chair thinks that it recognises her as the Ida it knew. But whoever that Ida was must have vanished long ago. Angry at the chair's claims on his sister, Naoki tries to find out what had happened to the people living in the house; but he also starts to wonder whether his Yuuko might be the reincarnation of the Ida that the chair knew.

A visit to Hiroshima suggests what may have happened to the family. A young woman from the town takes Naoki with her to a memorial ceremony for the victims; and Naoki learns about the events that he had only vaguely heard of before.

In this way the fantasy element of the book winds into a story of the atom bomb. The two fit together a little oddly. The chair's sentience is not really motivated; but its character can be seen as a way of approaching the feeling of being unable be come to terms a loss of this kind.

[UPDATE: I forgot to check the Japan Foundation's Translation Database before writing this review. It turns out there is an English translation, Paula Bush, Two Little Girls Called Iida, Kodanasha International, 1985.]


Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Ghost Murder Case

「死霊」殺人事件 (shirei satsujinjiken, The 'Ghost' Murder Case, 1994) is a detective story by IMAMURA Aya (今邑彩), the third in a series set in a police murder investigation department. I'm a little random in my book buying, and I haven't read the first two in the series, so I don't know if I missed anything by starting here.

At the start, the book looks more like some kind of psychological crime story, with a businessman in difficulties thinking of killing his wife for the insurance. Soon however we come to the real mystery, which has a very different character. The businessman, his wife and his partner are all found dead in the businessman's house. Not only that, the businessman, the last to die, had just arrived by taxi and told the taxi driver to wait because he had to get his wallet from inside the house. The taxi driver had had the only exit in view the whole time from when his passenger entered the house until he followed him in after getting tired of waiting. He finds the victim dead, clutching the telephone. At the other end is the wife's sister, who just heard her brother in law say "the dead body came back to life". The wife's body is lying on the bed upstairs with a terrifying grin of fierce triumph on her face. In another room the tatami mats have been pushed aside and the floorboards opened, as though something had dug its way out; and there is dirt under the wife's fingernails.

This grotesque horror story style locked room mystery then merges into an alibi breaking investigation, as the police decide that the two business partners had been planning to kill the wife and had set up alibis for it, also sending a further accomplice to Hokkaido to make it seem that the wife had disappeared there.

This is all very promising, if a bit odd. The definite mismatch of genres in the two types of story, locked room mystery and police procedural is interesting; and the setup is as outlandish as you could want for the former. The series detective Kijima seems like a typical police procedural detective, here partnered with a younger woman, who is characterised by a lighthearted approach to the investigation, rather than the steely determination to succeed in a man's world that the genre expects.

At the end, after another locked room of sorts and the answer to all the mysteries, my feeling was much the same as with other books I've read by Imamura. It was not bad, in some respects very good; but it felt like there was a better book trying to get out with a little more careful work on the plotting. There was certainly too much reliance on coincidence and improbable behaviour from some of the characters.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Sheltering from Rain under the Slide

雨やどりはすべり台の下で (amayadori ha suberidai no shita de, Sheltering from Rain under the Slide, 1984) is a children's book by OKADA Jun (岡田淳).

A sudden rain storm makes a group of primary school children break off their baseball game and shelter under the large slide in the park in front of the block of flats where they all live. One of them suggests that the rain had been magically caused by Mr Amamori, who had been walking by at that moment and opened his umbrella a moment before the unexpected rain arrived. Amamori is an apparently unemployed middle aged man, who avoids contact with other people in the building. Another child reacts to the other's suspicion that Amamori was a wizard.

"You said, back then, I guess he really is a wizard, didn't you? 'Really is' means there was something before this?"

"What? Well, ......" Ichirou, playing with the rubber ball, glanced at Kyouko. "Just, somehow or other," he dodged the question.

Teruo didn't ask any more, but went on, "The truth is, when I heard you say 'wizard', it was a surprise. What I mean is, there was a time when I wondered whether he wasn't a wizard."

Everyone looked at Teruo in shock. Two or three had their mouths hanging open. Teruo went on, "The rain doesn't look like letting up yet, so perhaps you'll listen to my story."

One after the other the children tell stories of their experiences, all with a larger or smaller magical element, and all featuring Mr Amamori, as the apparent worker of the magic. The children are all of different ages (from 6 to 12) and the different stories reflect their different characters. Some of the stories are poetic fairy tales, others are closer to fantasies reflecting the wishes of the narrators. Readers can read the stories as stories, and also as reflections of the different storytellers. It is never stated as such, but there are hints that allow us to interpret the stories, if we want, not as a narrative of real events, but as a collaborative story telling competition. At the end, the final story puts a different perspective on the figure of Amamori, who is moving out that day.


Saturday, 2 July 2016

The Fall of A Aiichirou

亜愛一郎の転倒 (A Aiichirou no tentou, The Fall of A Aiichirou, 1982) is the second collection of A Aiichirou stories by 泡坂妻夫 (AWASAKA Tsumao). The stories are often compared to Chesterton's Father Brown stories, a comparison Awasaka was probably seeking with his collection titles, which are all of the form "The [abstract noun] of A Aiichirou". A Aiichirou is a photographer, handsome and well dressed, but clumsy and unworldly, with a gift for unusual deduction. As in the first collection, The Confusion of A Aiichirou, which I reviewed back in 2014, the stories are all told from the viewpoint of a third person observer. The narration is leisurely and as wayward as the hero. You never know quite where the stories are going, and what is going to be relevant. Often the solution occurs before the actual mystery has been well defined. Those stories that do have a well defined mystery (particularly the impossible crimes) usually present it more than half way through the story. I'm not sure if this will sound like praise to everyone, but for me the A Aiichirou stories that I've read include some of my favourite Japanese mysteries.

'The Straw Cat'. A and a friend are visiting a retrospective exhibition of the works of a painter famous for obsessive perfectionism, although their interest is actually for the fossils preserved in the gallery wall. While there, A puzzles over the various unexpected 'mistakes' he finds in the paintings. Do these have a connection to the deaths, apparently by suicide, of three people, the artist's most famous model, his wife and himself. And what was the meaning of the straw cat that his wife was clutching at her death? 

gasshouzukuri in Shirakawa village
'The Fall of the House of Sunaga'. A and other travellers are stranded when there train is stopped by a landslide on the tracks. Three of them attempt to reach their destination cross country, encouraged by a salesman, who mistakenly thinks his childhood memories of the countryside will be sufficient. After wandering hopelessly through the woods for several days, they come to the valley where in the nineteenth century the lonely house of the Sunaga family had mysteriously disappeared, leading to a lullaby threatening children with the "creeping monk" who took away the Sunaga family. The occupant of the house that stands there now, with some reservations, lets the travellers in for the night, but nails shut the window to their room. Curious what he is hiding, they pull out the nails and look out on a towering gasshou roofed house (a rustic style with a steep pitched thatched roof that starts at the first floor and contains several floors above that). When they wake in the morning, though, the massive house has disappeared without a trace.

'Suzuko's Disguise'. A fan of a singer who was lost in a plane crash at sea goes to see her last film, accompanied by a competition for a new singer to take her role. This seemed to me the weakest story in the book.

'An Unexpected Corpse". The title (i-ga-i-na-i-ga-i) is a palindrome in Japanese (which has a syllabic alphabet). Awasaka has a fondness for these kinds of games, reflected in his novel Palindrome Syndrome. A different bit of detective story playfulness is at the heart of the puzzle this time, though, the "nursery rhyme murder", in which the disposition of a body is for some reason made to reflect aspects of a children's rhyme.

'The Screwed on Hat' follows A and his current employer (an obsessive busybody), as they attempt to return a hat to a man who abandoned it at a service station parking area when the wind blew it off. But why was he wearing such a large misshapen hat and why did he not wait when A chased after it for him?

'The Four Great Fighting Heads' has a retired policeman looking into the strange behaviour of a young woman's grandfather for her. A slightly jokey story of finding the common element of a variety of odd clues, perhaps a little reminiscent of the lighter Sherlock Holmes stories.

'On the Streets of Saburou Town' is another impossible crime. A taxi driver puts down a passenger, then when the next one flags him down he finds the corpse of the departed passenger somehow still in the taxi, with his head severed.

'A Blade for the Invalid' is also an impossible crime, for me the best in the collection. On a hospital visit, A and his friend, a patient, take a walk on the roof, which has a recreation area for convalescents. Another patient collapses and when they run up to him they find that he has been stabbed. Neither the victim nor the only person close enough to stab him could have been carrying a knife.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Demon's Bridge

鬼の橋 (oni no hashi, The Demon's Bridge, 1998) is a children's book by ITOU Yuu (伊藤遊, born 1959). The story is set in the Heian period, in the early days of Kyoto, where the hero Takamura is the teenage son of a high ranking civil servant.

Takamura had had a much loved younger sister, who had died playing hide and seek with him in an abandoned temple. For various reasons, Takamura blames himself: they were not supposed to go to the temple; he knew his sister hated playing hide and seek, but insisted; when he could not find her, he went away thinking she had run home. The story starts as Takamura revisits the temple where his sister had been found, fallen into a well.

Crossing the bridge was forbidden. Takamura hesitated a moment, still gazing at the far side, then with a kick to the bridge's railing, he set off purposefully over the bridge.

'What are you playing at?' a girl came out from under the bridge and shouted up at Takamura, her eyebrows raised in anger. Apparently that was not enough for her. She sprinted up the bank. Takamura stopped in confusion and looked towards her.

'It was you, wasn't it, who kicked the bridge?'

Her rolled up sleeves showed horribly thin arms. The fingers of her hands were clenched and she was glaring at Takamura with eyes that blazed with anger. He looked perplexed at this girl, who hardly came up to his shoulder.

'Apologise!'

'Apologise?'

The child is Akona, the daughter of a bridge builder, who had died while working on this bridge. Now she lives as a homeless orphan under the bridge that he built.

But there is another bridge in the story, the bridge that the souls of the dead have to cross. In his regret at his sister's death, Takamura finds himself in a place that is the threshold to the world that the dead go to. A huge bridge spans an icy river.

'If I cross this, where would I get to?' he wondered.

Somewhere in his heart he could hear a voice saying 'Better not.' He ignored that and set off slowly to cross the bridge. At that moment, he felt like whatever fate might be waiting for him, there was no reason for him to fear it. Let it happen as it happens, a feeling of throwing everything away. Anyway, walking along the side of this river, there was no goal for him to head towards.

As he kept walking on, however far he walked, no end appeared. The far side never came in sight.

'I wonder how far I've come by now?'

Takamura stopped and glanced back; as he did so, the shock stopped his breath.

There was a demon standing there.

The demons in this world are the guides to the souls of the dead; but they see the living as food.

The story is very episodic, with encounters with supernatural beings in Kyoto and in the spirit world. Through various inconclusive adventures, the various characters (particularly Takamura, Akona and the demonlike Hitenmaru, who saves Akona's bridge when a flood threatens to destroy it) move slowly forward. In particular Takamaru learns to move on from his grief and guilt and to accept adult responsibilities.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

The Scream Castle Murder Case

絶叫城殺人事件 (zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, The Scream Castle Murder Case, 2001) is the title story of a collection of six short mysteries by ARISUGAWA Arisu or Alice (有栖川 有栖), first published in magazines between 1996 and 2001.

Arisugawa has two main series, the "Student Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a student and budding detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his fellow student EGAMI Jirou, and the "Writer Alice" series, in which the narrator is ARISUGAWA Arisu, a professional detective story writer, recounting the deductions of his friend, criminology professor HIMURA Hideo. You might guess that the two Arisugawas are the same person at different points in their life; but there are hints in the "Student Alice" series that the "Writer Alice" world is the creation of student Alice, and in the "Writer Alice" narrative that "Student Alice" is a character in the books written by writer Alice. There are far fewer "Student Alice" books; and they include some of real world Alice's best regarded books. Any moment now, you should be able to try one of his best known early works in English translation, 孤島パズル (kotou pazuru, The Island Puzzle, 1989), published by Locked Room International as The Moai Island Puzzle. It makes an interesting comparison with the first Japanese novel from the same publishers and translator, The Decagon House Murders. At first sight the two are very similar (serial murders on an isolated island), but their approach is the polar opposite.

To come back to this collection, like the title story, the others all have titles of the form: [building name] "murder case". This is a very standard title for traditional detective stories in Japan (much like e. g. The White Priory Murders in English). In one of the stories the policeman in charge comments that Arisugawa would call it that in one of his stories, and (narrator) Arisugawa remarks that in fact he never had used such a title. That seems to be true for real life Arisugawa too. In fact there is a deliberate slight discrepancy between the image the title conjures up (like an English country house or isolated mansion murder) and the actual subject matter in the stories.

The first, 黒鳥亭殺人事件 (kokuchouteisatsujinjiken, "The Black Bird Villa Murder Case") is the nearest to the classical setting. Himura and Arisugawa visit the lonely house of an old friend from university. The friend lives alone there with his five year old daughter, having inherited it from an aunt who bought it cheap after the previous owners died in a murder-suicide. Now however, it turns out that the suicide part had been a fake, as the supposed suicide has been found, recently killed, at the bottom of the garden well.

壺中庵殺人事件 (kochuuansatsujinjiken, "The Retreat in a Vase Murder Case") is a locked room mystery. The victim had a cellar study, humorously called "retreat in a vase" after a Chinese folktale about a man who makes his home in a pot which is larger on the inside. The witnesses find the victim hanging from the ceiling, with the only exit (the hatch in the roof) barred from the inside. Most strangely, someone has put a vase on his head.

In 月宮殿殺人事件 (gekkyuudensatusjinjiken, "The Moon Palace Murder Case") Arisugawa takes Himura to see an unusual building he had discovered near the road they are taking, the tower like house built without permission by a homeless man out in the woods from discarded building materials. When they get there though, they find that the building has been burnt and the owner killed.

雪花楼殺人事件 (sekkarousatusjinjiken, "The Snowflake Tower Murder Case") takes place in the shell of a multistorey building, built in real estate speculation as a resort hotel, but then abandoned. A young runaway couple and an older unemployed man are squatting in different parts of the building. The young man has apparently fallen from the roof of the building; but he died not from the fall, but from a violent blow to the head. On the snow covered roof, the only footprints leading to the edge of the roof are the victim's.

紅雨荘殺人事件 (benisamesousatsujinjiken, "The Red Rain Mansion Murder Case") has a murder case somehow connected to a movie filmed in the title house, a romance of which Arisugawa was a fan.

絶叫城殺人事件(zekkyoujousatsujinjiken, "The Scream Castle Murder Case") is the longest story in the book, over a hundred pages. Himura pursues a serial killer, whose murder seems to be connected to a horror video game, in which young women are chased by an unknown killer through the corridors of a castle in which they are imprisoned.

The stories are mostly good, some very good, although the "footprints in the snow" impossible crime was one the least convincing versions I've read, and the solutions to one or two of the better stories were perhaps a little obvious.


Saturday, 4 June 2016

The Deer King


鹿の王 (shika no ou, The Deer King, 2014) is a fantasy novel by UEHASHI Nahoko (上橋菜穂子, born 1962). Uehashi is best known for her fantasy series, 精霊の守り人 (seirei no moribito, Guardian of the Spirit), which was the basis for a successful anime series and more recently for a live action television series. The first books of the series have an English translation, by Cathy Hirano (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, 2008 and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, 2009). My only knowledge of that is from watching the anime series (and one episode in the middle of the live action series), but if that is anything to go by, The Deer King has a lot in common with Guardian of the Spirit. Fantastic elements are an important part of the narrative, but for much of the time we are nearer to (pseudo-)historical fiction. A variety of characters are at work in the story, most of them loyally serving some higher interest or some ideological principle. As in Guardian of the Spirit, scientists and scholars are key actors, although the major role is reserved for a warrior.

The story is set in a what had once been an independent kingdom, which many years ago came under the rule of an expanding empire. The imperial rulers have colonised some parts with people from their own country, sometimes leading to the displacement of the original inhabitants. The original monarchy and its administration is still active, subordinate to the empire, but sometimes secretly pursuing its own ends. Various peoples within the former kingdom and other parts of the empire also have their own interests. In particular there are the remnants of a civilisation once almost wiped out by plague, which now survives as a kind of politically active university devoted to medical science.

The lead character is Van, the leader of a group of soldiers who had been fighting a hopeless mission to defend their country from the encroaching empire. Van had expected to die in the war, but somehow he ends up a prisoner, chained with other slaves in a salt mine. A sudden vicious attack interrupts this hopeless existence. Wild dogs with strange skill and purpose race through the mine attacking everyone in it. Van defends himself, but he too is bitten. The dog runs off; but the bite carries an infection. When Van regains consciousness, apparently some days later, he finds that all his fellow prisoners are dead. Breaking free of his chains he searches the camp. The guards, prisoners and other workers are all dead. But in one hut, a woman had died hiding her baby daughter from the dogs. With this little girl, whom he calls Yuna, Van sets off out of the camp.

An attack like that on the mine also visits the kingdom's court, leading to several deaths and infections. Court doctor Hossaru starts to investigate, visiting the mine with his servant Makoukan. (At the start of the story Makoukan is the viewpoint character, so that Hossaru can be a Sherlock Holmes type genius, whose thought processes are concealed from us; but half way through we switch to seeing most of Hossaru's narrative strand through his own eyes.) Deducing that a survivor has got away, and keen to find him for the insight he might give into the disease (which resembles the plague that killed his people), Hossaru with the support of an influential nobleman in the imperial administration sends out a tracker from a village of basically ninjas (I've forgotten what they're called in the book), Sae, the daughter of the village chief. These and other characters interact, as different parts of the kingdom's government and the unseen plotters of the attacks pursue their goals.

The narrative does not give many clues to establish just what stage the civilisation portrayed is at, although it is certainly a pre-industrial world. The medical science portrayed goes well beyond what one might expect from such a world. Many aspects recall more recent biological research, some even from the last few decades, although without the theory of evolution that lies behind much of this thinking. To a large extent this is nearer to a medical science fiction novel than a fantasy. The interrelationships of parasites and of organisms in symbiotic relationships or of organisms and the environment and similar concepts then become a symbolic reflection of the interrelated nature of society or the connection of individuals to the social world around them.

The two strands of the personal story of Van, displaced from life by the loss of his family, finding and perhaps losing again his place among people and the larger story of a threatened epidemic move towards their climax over various twists and turns. Refreshingly, the stakes in the larger story are allowed to become less than world destroying while still being serious. In general the story reads well, but some of the political and environmental complications came across as constructed rather than narrated. Long and slightly clumsy exposition of invented history or scientific background also sometimes took over the narrative, even quite late in the story.

Friday, 29 April 2016

A Tree with Thorns

刺のある樹 (toge no aru ki, A Tree with Thorns, 1961) is the third novel featuring amateur detectives NIKI Yuutarou (仁木雄太郎) and his younger sister Etsuko, the narrator, who shares a name with the actual writer of the books, NIKI Etsuko (仁木悦子). I reviewed the first and second novels in the series earlier, as well as a collection of short stories. Picking up from the last novel, Yuutarou and Etsuko are still students house-sitting for a rich cactus collector who is currently living in Europe. The absent owner also conveniently allows them to use his Renault. Yuutarou is tall, thin, intellectual and more likely to observe social proprieties than short, active, Etsuko. Etsuko is an enthusiast for detective stories and by association for real crime investigation, Yuutarou shows less enthusiasm at first, but once involved in a case is more insistent on doing things his own way.

The new case starts with a visit from a businessman, ONAGA Masaji (尾永益治), who believes that he is being targeted by an unknown assassin. He and his wife have had several accidents in the last months which he thinks were murder attempts; but the police brushed off his concerns. The investigating inspector, who had worked with Yuutarou on earlier cases, had suggested that he talk to him if he was still concerned. Yuutarou agrees that there is certainly something to investigate; but when Onaga rings home to prepare his wife for the visit, he finds that she has been murdered. She had been strangled while bent over her sewing machine; and the maid, who heard her working at it, gives everyone connected with the case an alibi.

As in the earlier books, the mystery is mostly a comic detective story, with much of the humour coming from the narrator Etsuko, both as character and as observer. This kind of thing irritates some mystery readers, who look on busybodies approaching other people's tragedies with light hearted curiosity as sociopaths. A part of the humour is in fact Etsuko's inappropriate attitude here. But in the second half of the book, as a new murder takes place, the contradictions of the genre catch up with the characters and the tone becomes more serious.

As a mystery, it's well narrated with some skill in placing clues, but a fairly minor work.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Momo and Akane

I wrote about the first books in this series by MATSUTANI Miyoko (松谷みよ子) two years ago. As then, the volume I've just been reading contains two separate books, published together in one paperback. The first モモちゃんとアカネちゃん (Momo chan to Akane chan, Momo and Akane, 1974) gives its title to the paperback reprint, the second is the slightly later, ちいさいアカネちゃん (chiisai Akane chan, Little Akane, 1978). The stories follow little Momo, who is just entering primary school at the start of the first book, and the rest of the family, her baby sister Akane, her mother and father, and the cat Pū. Akane, who goes from a newborn baby to a two year old by the second book, gets a little more attention than Momo.

The books are made up of linked short stories, each complete in themselves, but often preparing later developments. Almost all contain some element of fantasy; but the heart of the story is not fantasy but the depiction of life in a modern Japanese family. The fantasy element serves as metaphor or other comment on some aspect of family life, or reflects the way that a young child sees the world. The style is often whimsical, although the subject matter is not always so light.

Perhaps because of her sickness, mama's eyesight seemed to have gone wrong. Sometimes papa would be visible, sometimes not. It was like this.

Papa came home in the evening. 

Trudge, trudge.

Mama recognised papa's footsteps straight away.

Ring, ring, the doorbell rang, and mama flew out to open it. But papa was not standing there. All there was was papa's shoes.

That was it. Mama gazed at the shoes not knowing what to do. How on earth was she to give an evening meal to shoes? It would be ridiculous to say, "The bath is ready" to shoes. All mama could do was wipe the dust off the shoes, rub in shoe cream and polish them with a rag. She polished them so long that they sparkled. Mama's tears dropped onto them.

The next morning the shoes left the house again.

 Not surprisingly, the parents separate towards the end of Momo and Akane; and Little Akane follows mama, Momo and Akane getting by in a smaller house with mama trying to manage work and family alone.

The fantastic elements of the stories mostly comes from the attribution of human understanding to animals or inanimate objects (like the clumsily knitted baby socks that Akane's mother made while she was pregnant). Occasionally more familiar figures appear, both western (Santa Claus) and JapaneseHere Momo and Akane have been thrown off the new red sledge that their grandfather made for them.

Just below them there was a deep ravine.

"There it is, the sledge, there it is."

When Momo peered in the direction that Akane was pointing, she saw a figure wearing a white kimono with long white hair. Even so, it was a young woman. She was standing by the sledge on the floor of the valley. 

"Akane." Momo clasped Akane to her.

"Thank you ..... Thank you for the red sledge. I'd have liked to get you two as well, to take you to my place with me; but since you gave me the sledge, I'll let you off ....."

Ho ho ho ho ho, the laughing voice echoed, hyuuh, the wind blew.  The woman raised her hand, and from around it snow drifted in spiralling clouds.
  
The general trend of the books is optimistic, while still showing some of the sadness built into the experience of family life and growing up.

According to the Japan Foundation's Books in Translation database, there is a translation of the first of these books, モモちゃんとアカネちゃん, as Momo-chan and Akane-chan by M. McCandless (Kodansha International, 1987).
  

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The Tama Lakeside Murder Case

I don't think I've reviewed anything by UCHIDA Yasuo (内田康夫, born 1934) yet, though I read a couple of his books before I started this blog. He is best known for the Asami Mitsuhiko series, whose hero's job as a freelance travel writer allows Uchida to decorate the mysteries with descriptions of different parts of Japan in which the crimes are set. The title of this book 多摩湖畔殺人事件 (Tamakohan satsujinjiken, The Tama Lakeside Murder Case, 1993) would be absolutely typical of the series, many of which are a combination of place name and "murder case". This is a recognized genre in Japan, the "travel mystery", which gives the reader a combination of guidebook and mystery. The book is actually not in that series, but has strong travel mystery elements, although anyone looking for information on the title setting will be disappointed, as the body found there by a passing jogger ought not to have been there and the pursuit of how the victim got there leads to quite different parts of Japan, in particular to Arita in the north east.

The narration mostly follows the viewpoint of a police detective, KOUCHI (川内), a middle aged man, known to criminals as the demon policeman for his relentless pursuit. He had been too devoted to his work even when his wife and daughter were alive, but after both died early, his work is all he cares about. Currently he is resisting his doctor's advice to have the severe stomach pains he has been experiencing for months properly investigated.

Although the killer seems to have made some effort to make the victim hard to identify, they soon find that he is a Tokyo businessman. His daughter, a beautiful wheelchair bound invalid who resembles Kouchi's lost daughter, soon proves to be more of a detective than the police, making several key breakthroughs in the investigation.

Like many travel mysteries the plot follows a "patient policeman" model, gradually revealing the victim's movements before his disappearance and homing in on a suspect. There is, as often in these stories, only one real suspect, and the interest is in whether the police can break his alibi. Different parts of the  puzzle get solved stage by stage until the final confrontation. None of it really got my interest, I'm afraid, neither the mystery nor the human interest story. Uchida is a competent enough writer that you can understand his reliable popularity; but both plot ideas and characters seem very conventional for the most part. And diversions from the conventional were generally unattractive rather than interesting.