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 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).

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.