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.