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.