Thursday, 26 January 2017

One More Red Nightmare

Before you read ふたたび赤い悪夢 (futatabi akai akumu, One More Red Nightmare, 1992) by NORIZUKI Rintarou (法月綸太郎), you need to decide whether you want to read the two earlier books in the series 雪密室 (yuki misshitsu, Snow Locked Room, 1989) and 頼子のために (Yoriko no tame ni, For Yoriko, 1990). Events and characters of both of these books are important background to this one; and Norizuki supplies readers with enough information to understand the story even if they haven't read those. That means that they get a good deal more information about the mysteries than they would ideally want before reading them. He doesn't go so far as to give away the whole mystery; but when I think of the trouble I go to avoid spoilers, I feel that authors could make a bit of an effort in that direction too. In this case I accept the inevitable and add the warning that this review, like the book it discusses, will show a little bit more than you might want about at least one of the previous books (but less than the author does).

Detective story author and amateur detective NORIZUKI Rintarou (the character with the same name as the author is an Ellery Queen homage that several Japanese writers have maintained) is suffering from the memories of his investigation in For Yoriko. He has lost any sense of purpose as a detective, and that crisis of confidence has also spread into his writing career, leading to a one year long writer's block. Trying to puzzle out a way forward he finds himself meditating on mid to late Ellery Queen novels that feature a similar mental trial, particularly Cat of Many Tails (1949).

He is partially shaken out of his self absorbed inaction by a call for help from young singing star, HATANAKA Yurina (畑中有里奈), looking for Rintarou's father, the police superintendant, who had promised to help her if she ever needed it in the first book, Snow Locked Room. Yurina has been attacked with a knife, apparently by an obsessive fan, in a store room of the radio station where she had been invited for an interview. Her memory is that she felt the knife stabbing her and fainted; yet when she came to she was covered in blood, but without a scratch. Meanwhile in a nearby park the attacker has been found stabbed in the stomach, although he was apparently unharmed when he left the radio station.

Accompanying Yurina's fear of her responsibility in the killing, there is a secret in her past which weighs on her: her mother had apparently murdered her baby brother and father, before committing suicide, when Yurina was a baby. So the investigation involves two mysteries, the stabbing of Yurina's attacker and the murder of her family in the distant past.

All in all this is an odd book. When I write that the investigation involves two mysteries, in fact the various mysteries also break down into smaller parts, which are solved bit by bit, sometimes by deduction, sometimes by revelation. Those puzzles which allow the reader to solve them are fair enough, but generally not very compelling; one trick where I was led quite astray was very effective (the real solution made more sense than the red herring but was still a surprise). But there are some odd problems of balance in the book. Rintarou's self doubt is far more the theme of the book than the actual mystery (much more so than in the related Ellery Queen books). The mystery however seems too unrealistic for such a novel. And the narrative sometimes slows almost to a halt: a monologue of many pages, which accompanies a guided tour through the radio broadcasting building, feels like it should have something relevant in it; so does a chapter long timeline of popstar marketing in Japan. It almost makes you suspect that some plot points were not quite fixed when the earlier chapters were written.

I could add quite a bit to the things that didn't quite seem to work in the book; but I didn't especially dislike it. You can read Ho-Ling's review of the book here, if you'd like a second opinion, though I didn't notice much that I'd disagree with.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

The Summer of the Ubume

This not very enthusiastic review will look like a bad start to 2017; but I read this over a month ago, so for me it was more a bad end to 2016. 姑獲鳥の夏 (ubume no natsu, The Summer of the Ubume, 1994) by KYOUGOKU Natushiko (京極夏彦, born 1963) is part of a series centred on the monsters of Japanese folklore, in this case the ubume of the title, a baby destroying spirit created by a death in pregnancy, which has somehow become associated with a bird from Chinese folklore. The detective of the series is an expert on Japanese folklore and he lectures the narrator on this and other subjects intermittently throughout the book.

The narrator, who writes human interest stories for popular magazines, is investigating rumours surrounding a maternity hospital. The son in law of the chief doctor disappeared from a room that was locked on the inside a year and a half ago; and since then his wife's pregnancy has continued despite being long overdue. He discusses the case with his friend KYOUGOKUDOU (京極堂), who takes his name from the used bookshop he runs alongside his second profession as proprietor of a Japanese shrine. Kyougokudou convinces the narrator, by means of destroying his whole conception of himself and the world in a Socratic style interrogation, that such a story should be left alone, but discovering that the missing son in law was a former university friend of the two, he sends the narrator to consult with yet another student friend, telepathically gifted private detective ENOKIZU (榎木津).

By a strange chance, the older daughter of the family at the centre of the mystery has come to consult Enokizu; and soon narrator and various supporting characters are investigating the case. It becomes clear that the narrator himself has some buried memory related to the roots of the tragedy from the days when the son in law first met his future wife. And the rumours surrounding the hospital turn out to be even worse than those we had heard, with suggestions that one of the family's daughters has been stealing and killing the newborn babies of the patients.

I don't think the book has any interest as a puzzle detective story. The locked room mystery has special circumstances which leave a more or less limitless field of possible explanations. For some the attractions of the book may lie in its long conversations philosophising on the basis of amazing facts from popular science (which is sometimes about as scientific as you'd expect these kinds of thing to be) and expounding on Japanese folklore. These are at least bland reading, though they did not feel like a good use of my time. (The oddity of the narrator being so unsettled by this chatter is perhaps lessened by the book's setting in the early fifties.) For others the grotesque horror is presumably the selling point. I strongly disliked this. It reminded me of the forced charnel house horror that John Dickson Carr indulged in some of his weaker books (such as Hag's Nook), but bringing the same approach to pregnancy and childbirth. Now capital punishment or seventeenth century epidemics or whatever Carr might choose are far enough from most readers' lives that he can reasonably fool around with them for our entertainment; but that's not really the case here.

Most people who've read the book seem to have a high opinion of it (and it was 23rd in the 2012 Touzai Mystery Best list of Japanese mysteries), so I'm on my own in this. You can read a more generous review of the book on Ho-Ling's blog here; and you can make your own opinion, even if you can't read Japanese, because (for once) there is an English translation available, by Alexander O. Smith (Vertical, 2009).