"Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition--and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do--clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth--the naked shining truth."
"Death on the Nile"
"Death on the Nile"
Christmas means murder. Well, actually, it doesn't, but I sure associate the winter season and Christmas with murder. Because they are made for each other. A body lying in the middle in a field of snow, with no foot tracks. A group of people locked up in an old mansion because of a snow storm. A murderer who like Santa seems to be impervious to the laws of nature, popping up here and there. Christmas at its best!
So I do try to read winter-themed detectives in this season every year. Fortunately, there are many, many snowy-themed detectives out there. This year, I chose a book by Shimada Souji to be my Christmas detective. Shimada, one of the giants in the modern Japanese detective world, is actually one of the few New Orthodox (Golden Age styled) detective writers who has been translated into English. His The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally: Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") is an excellent book. Nay, better than excellent. It is one of those books that any detective fan should read. It does everything right: characterization, setting, the tricks. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was the first novel to feature the astrologer annex detective Mitarai Kiyoshi (whose family name you unfortunately write as "honorable toilet"). A brilliant, if somewhat eccentric mind. Like most great detectives.
The second novel featuring Mitarai is Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion"). I'll begin by saying this is another excellent book. Not as impressive as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but oh so fun. The setting is snowy, snowy Hokkaidou. A strange mansion stands lonely on a clif near the sea. The reason the Drifting Ice Mansion is called strange, is because it is built slanted. Inspired by the Tower of Pisa, the Drifting Ice Mansion actually leans a bit, at the same angle as the replica Tower of Pisa which stands besides it. Everything in the house is bolted to the ground, table legs have been cut off so they don't slide away on the floor. And owner Hamamoto has fun everytime guests trip and fall.
It is to this place that Hamamoto, a succesful business man, has gathered a small party of guests, mainly comprised of business contacts to spend Christmas and New Year with. But in true Christmas Murder Style (C), nothing stays merry. Christmas marks the beginning of a series of murders, horrible murders. One guests is found stabbed in a locked room, with no footsteps in the snow leading to his door. And for some reason a human-sized doll, which belongs to Hamamoto, is found lying outside in the garden. Was it the doll that running around on the roof , as one of the guests says she saw in the middle of the night? The police arrives at the scene, but they are not able to prevent a second locked room murder the same night. Everyone has an alibi. Except for the doll. A doll named Golem, who according to the store Hamamoto bought it from, was named after the legendary creature because he too is actually a living doll. As the police is able to do nothing, one man is sent for. Mitarai.
Who of course solves the cases brilliantly. I really enjoyed this book. It felt quite Carr-ish, with the locked rooms and of course the doll. Heck, even the Slanted Mansion itself seemed to eminate an aura of evil. A hint of Queen with a Challenge to the Reader. Yet, it somehow missed the stunning -wow- factor of the previous book. Because of how the trick of the locked rooms is done, you'll quickly catch on who the murderer is and how. I don't know how detective writers write their books, but this is one which was clearly built around one brilliant trick Shimada had, who then kept building on it till he had a novel-length book. But because the book hinges on that single trick, an acute reader will see through most of the events as soon as he sees through the main trick.
Which might sound negative, but Naname Yashiki no Hanzai is still an excellent book. The main trick is among the more original tricks I have seen in my life and if I hadn't known this book was first published in 1982, I would have sworn it was a detective actually written in the Golden Age. Especially as this novel is relatively clean (as in: no cut-up bodies like in The Tokyo Murder Case), made it seem like one of the classics of the good old age. A revised version was actually published in 2008, but I picked up the original one. It was cheaper.
I haven't read that much Shimada yet, besides the mentioned two novels I've only read the novellettes P no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of P") and Suzuran Jiken ("The Case of the Lily of the Valley"), but it seems like Shimada likes a big scale to his tricks. He doesn't use small psychological tricks, he doesn't uses the sleight of the hand, Shimada's stories are full of mystery and big and bombastic and everything nice. Perfect for Christmas.
Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『斜め屋敷の犯罪』