Saturday, 22 April 2017

Arisugawa Alice's Honkaku Mystery Library

This is half a review. The book is an anthology of traditional detective stories edited by Japanese detective story writer ARISUGAWA Arisu (or Alice), 有栖川有の本格ミステリー・ライブラリー (Arisugawa Arisu no honkaku misuterī raiburarī , Alice Arisugawa's traditional mystery library, 2001). Four of the ten stories are translated from English. I don't think I've read any of them; and I'd rather read them in English if I get a chance. I don't imagine anyone is going to specially seek out this out of print anthology; but for what it's worth the translated stories are Robert Arthur, "The Fifty first Sealed Room", W. Haidenfeld, "The Unpleasantness at the Stooges Club", Bill Pronzini, "The Arrowmont Prison Riddle" and John Sladek, "By Unknown Hand".

First "Buried Malice" ("もれた悪意 umoreta akui, 1990) by 昌章 (TATSUMI Masaaki, born 1957). A successful businessman looks to find the lost son of an early patron, probably adopted by a local family. When two different claimants appear, a lazy detective story writer is engaged to identify the impostor. Then the midwife from the district called to decide is murdered, and the writer has a more serious problem to solve. This is an effective mystery in a light style, often flippant and with frequent jokes about the genre.

"Car Chase"( 逃げる車, nigeru kuruma, 1979) 白峰良介 (SHIRAMINE Ryousuke, born 1955) starts with a midnight car chase, as police try to catch a speeding sports car on the motorway. It leaves the motorway and races through smaller streets, grazing lampposts on the way. Finally it stops outside a clinic. The police who get there moments later follow the driver in and find a bewildered doctor in the corridor. He tells them that a man had just rushed past him into the pharmacy; and there the police find a dead man, who has swallowed cyanide. An interesting opening, but the "spot the culprit" story suffers from being stripped down too far here.

"The Golden Dog" (金色犬, konjikiinu, 1968) つのだじろう (TSUNODA Jirou, born 1936). One of the oddities of the collection, an early manga detective story. Like many young Kindaichi stories it takes the Conan Doyle "Hound of the Baskervilles" model of a decorative and diversionary ghost story as a background to the mystery. The detective Johnny Hirota is another boy detective, but along with the simplified drawing style of the comic, there's nothing in his behaviour or his treatment by other characters to differentiate him from an adult.

The only translation from the anthology that I read is "Life and Death on the Line" (生死線上, seishisenjou, 1990), whose author is recorded in the anthology as 余心樂 (YU Xinle, the same Chinese characters as in the Chinese Wikipedia, which I can't read) but known to the Japanese Wikipedia as  余心楽 (YO Shinraku, born 1948) and to Switzerland (where one of his books is available in his own translation as Die Mordversionen) as Wen-huei Chu. The author is a Taiwanese resident in Switzerland, who studied tourism and related subjects there. It's perhaps fitting that this is a 'travel mystery' set on the Swiss railways, a long alibi story, with one obvious suspect. For some reason I had more trouble than I normally do focussing on the details (despite provision of a rail map of Switzerland and various timetables) and found more interest in the view of Switzerland from Taiwanese eyes, particularly describing the immediate aftermath of the brutal suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

"Pillar of Water" (水の柱, mizu no hashira, 1980) by 上田廣 (UEDA Hiroshi, born 1905), another travel mystery, this one on Japanese railways. The narration is divided between chapters following the police investigation and letters from a train conductor, who ends up doing most of the police's work for them.

"The Killer is 'Me' ....." (「わたくし」は犯人....., 'watakushi' wa hannin, 1976) by 海渡祐 (KAITO Eisuke, born 1934) starts with the synopsis of a planned inverted mystery. The female "I" character narrates how they plan to kill their lover's evil wife, with a cunning alibi trick. In interspersed chapters, police are investigating the murder of a married woman, who seems to have died in very similar circumstances.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Great Darkroom

大暗室 (Daianshitsu, The Great Darkroom, 1938) is a thriller by EDOGAWA Rampo (江戸川乱歩). I've not read any of his novels except for a couple of children's adventures, The Fiend with Twenty Faces (1936) and The Boy Detectives' Club (1937). Rampo's writing has quite a range, including children's stories, classical detective stories and "erotic grotesque" stories, which vary in tone from satire to horror.

I don't know where The Great Darkroom belongs in all this, but it's basically an adventure story with a supervillain and a righteous hero combatting him. In many respects it's very similar to the children's stories I mentioned above; but there is quite a lot that would not be acceptable in a children's book, to put it mildly. While in those the antagonist is above spilling blood, the villains in this readily murder women, children and innocent bystanders. There are occasional scenes of sadism, including sexual threats and threats of torture. A small child tortures a puppy in the prologue. The mix of horror and adventure elements is similar to many comics aimed at older children (of the kind that used to attract congressional investigations in America); and it is easy to imagine the readers of the children's stories graduating to this as they become teenagers, but probably without their parents' approval. Apparently there is a rewriting of the book (made after Rampo's death) in the Boy Detective's Club children's series, with AKECHI Kogorou vs. the fiend with twenty faces. Presumably the more offensive elements will have been removed as well.

The first section of the book is a long prologue set twenty odd years before the main events. Adventuring baron ARIAKE Tomosada (有明友定), his friend OOSONE Gorou (大曽根悟郎) and his servant Kurusu (久留須) are adrift in a lifeboat after escaping from a sinking ship. Sure that he will not survive Ariake writes a letter to his wife asking her to marry Oosone, who he hopes will look after her if she becomes a widow. When they spot land unexpectedly, Oosone, who has kept two bullets for his pistol, takes the opportunity to marry a rich and beautiful widow by shooting the other two passengers. A few years later they are married with two children, Ariake's son Tomonosuke (友之助), born after his last departure from his wife, and Oosone's infant son Ryuuji (竜次), who seems to have inherited his father's evil nature. When Kurusu unexpectedly returns from the dead, Oosone attempts to kill the whole household while making his escape with the family's transferable wealth and his son. But Kurusu again survives, though horribly disfigured by fire, along with Tomonosuke, whom he raises in secret to be the righteous avenger of his parents.

With that we move forward to present day Japan where two young men, going by the names ARIMURA and OONOKI, have won a great reputation for their varied ability and daring. When they meet, unaware of each other's true identity, they become a kind of friendly enemies. As Ryuuji starts setting his megalomaniac plans into action, Tomonosuke is there to combat him, mostly with mixed success, so that the villain gets away each time.

The book is much more interested in its villain than its hero. Like a Bond villain, Ryuuji has a vast underground base of interconnected caverns; and the narrative stops for fifty pages towards the end of the book while he gives captive journalists a tour of his kingdom. This is both unpleasant (megalomaniac villains are not people you want to spend time with) and tedious; and I imagine the original series readers must have been wondering when they could get back to the story.

Compared to the two children's books I mentioned in the first paragraph, the plotting of some of the episodes is allowed a little more complexity, although they still work on the same principle of constant surprising reversals. In particular the kidnapping of the "prince" in an all female musical revue is written as a kind of impossible crime. The description of this theatre genre is surprisingly similar to the way that the same thing is described today in the case of the famous Tarazuka Revue, with a club of fans, all young women, devoted to the protection of their idol.