Thursday, February 17, 2011

「・・・そして伝説は、もう一度、逆転する」

「真実なんてものはないんだよ。仮に、もし真実なんてものがあったとしても全て時の流れの向こう側だ。真実は人に記憶された瞬間から変質していく。記憶は年老いて薄れる、死んで消え去る。真実とか記憶とか、くだらないものにこだわるなんて、人間ってバカだよな。」
『SPEC〜警視庁公安部公安第五課 未詳事件特別対策係事件簿〜』 

"There is no such thing as the truth. Even if there is something like the truth, it is all on the other side of the flow of time. Truth changes the moment people store it in their memories. Memories get old, become vague, die and disappear. Mankind is really stupid to be so obsessive about insignificant things like truth or memories."
"SPEC ~ The Case Files of MPD Public Security Department, Public Security Section 5, Special Counter Measures to Unsolved Cases~"

Rewrite after rewrite tell me I am definately not going to say anything new or actually relevant about Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin ("The Decagon House Murders").  It's like being asked to say something innovative about Christie's The Murder of Roger Akroyd in this time and age. It can be done, but certainly not by me.

So I'll just choose the easy difficulty. Click.

(See also this general post on the Yakata/House series.)


A group of students, all belonging to a local university mystery circle, head out to Tsunojima, an small island off the coast of Kyuushuu. Their goal? The ruins of the Blue Mansion and the only building still left on the island, the Decagon House. Owner of both buildings was the architect Nakamura Seiji, who along with his wife and servants, were killed and burned half a year ago on Tsunojima. The members of the mystery circle have plans to spend a week of leisure at the island, whilst taking a look at a real crime scene. But what begins as a nice holiday, ends in a tragedy, when the students are murdered one by one by an unknown killer. Meanwhile, on the mainland, an ex-member of the mystery circle receives a letter claiming to be from the deceased Nakamura Seiji, hinting something is going on. And so the stories progresses as investigations on both the island and the mainland develop in Jukkakukan no Satsujin ("The Decagon House Murders", 1987)

Jukkakukan no Satsujin is hailed as the first in the wave of new orthodox detective novels in Japan. It is a Giant in the history of Japanese detective fiction. If there is something like a canon to detective fiction history, this would be in it. And I personally thought that fun: I've come to a stage where it is hard to find detective fiction that are historically relevant that I haven't read yet. I have to read The Moonstone yet though. Which I actually have somewhere, I think.

But anyway, this was the start of Japanese new orthodox detective novels. A blast from the past. The description of the story should have tipped you off, as it's all classic stuff, right? The story on the island is a take on Christie's And Then There Were None and is pretty fun, even though the murders don't actually happen till relatively late in the book. The story on the mainland is a more orthodox investigation based on questioning witnesses et al and seems to connect directly to the island narrative only at select times, thus creating a gap between the tension on the island and the more open mainland, but the mainland plotline does give insight in the background of the murders on the island.

Ayatsuji also manages to slip in quite some meta-references in this work. The students are all known by their nicknames (like Agatha, Carr and Ellery) and the discussions the students have when they are trying to find out who is trying to kill them, are not the discussions of people afraid of getting killed, but most definitely of people who are very familiar with the tropes of the genre and think accordingly. Ayatsuji is very concious of the fact he is not one of the Great Ones before him, that he is, in fact, a mystery fan writing a mystery, and that makes this novel really entertaining.

And besides the book being obviously being a homage to And Then There Were None, Ayatsuji also wrote this as sort of a challenge to surprise Christie endings like And Then There Were None and The Murder of Roger Akroyd. I won't go into the trick itself, but the trick is very much like a magic trick. It's a trick that has certain limits (and can be seen through immediately if you just happen to look at from a certain angle) and while I think Ayatsuji plotted this novel very neatly, it left me with some ambiguous feelings. Also because I had seen the trick used somewhere else before, so I saw through it quite quickly. Can't remember where I had seen it though, not even whether it was detective fiction of before or after the release of this book.

But Ayatsuji had succes with this book, with a lot more novels in the Yakata (mansion/house) series published after this one. And of course the whole wave of other new orthodox detective novels. Starting a wave should count as 'succes'.

A friend commented that it seemed like new orthodox detective novels have some relation with (odd) architecture, posing that more orthodox novels are more difficult to use. Indeed, Jukkakukan no Satsujin features a decagon house. A slanted mansion features in Shimada's Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion"). Stories in Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Young Kindaichi"), especially the later, often use this too. But this might be very author-specific, as writers like Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou usually use modern urban settings in their stories. Granted, Arisugawa and Norizuki don't write locked room mysteries often, but when they write them, it's in a 'normal' building. Of course, a strange building is a lot easier to manipulate for a locked room murder, but I think (odd) architecture is more a general thing for detective fiction, rather specifically for new orthodox detective fiction.

But yes, Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Important. New Orthodox School. Read It.

Why isn't this translated in English?

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『十角館の殺人』

13 comments :

  1. Ha: I, too, have yet to read "The Moonstone," which I'm sure must be lying around here somewhere. I think.

    Anyhow, you're correct in stating that architecture is a general feature of detective fiction, because crucial plot elements, such as movement of characters and locked room problems, relay on them.

    As an outside observer, I was getting the impression that Japanese mystery writers were especially fond of oddly constructed buildings and wondered if this fascination was maybe born out of necessity – because traditional Japanese building don't lend themselves very well for a classic locked room situation.

    Great review, as always, Ash! Or should that be Ellery? ;)

    TomCat (Carr).

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  2. This novel has actually been translated into French, but as me and a friend were told later on a symposium last year by the husband of the translator, there are no plans to go on with publishing the whole series (surprising, huh!). I do agree with this novel being very important though and that it should definitely be translated into English as well.

    What eventually coined the term 新本格 was the label on the second book in Ayatsuji's yakata-series and I can only recommend this to you as well. It's certainly more refined than the first one, though maybe also a bit more 'common' but one might especially feel that way because it has been setting standards down to the present day. The third one does the same in terms of meta-mystery, while the fourth plays on the series' own concept.

    Concerning the odd architecture: Ayatsuji in particular was inspired by Dario Argento's movies Suspiria and Inferno, which explains a lot once you've seen them (eerie hidden spaces, connection of mansions via mysterious person X etc.). However this has always been a distinct feature of Japanese detective fiction, as one can draw from very early examples or Ooguri Mushitarou's 黒死館殺人事件 (still have to read it...), which is one of Japan's "Big Three Strange Books" (三大奇書), extremely popular and essential references and influences.

    As for why this is became a trend at the end of the 80's and through the 90's: There is a lot of secondary on this and lots of other topics dealing with the revical of classical detective fiction in Japan. One essay by Endou Toshiaki in his book 「謎」の解像度 explains the connection of Ayatsuji's works (especially their mansions) with actual events and developments in Japan at that time. Too much to cite here, just thoght I'd mention if you were interested.

    Since you also mentioned the trick: Ayatsuji's tricks definitely get better afterwards. While 水車間 features a rather easy to guess but well constructed case, 迷路館 sets standards for meta/narrative tricks and 霧超邸殺人事件 is surprisingly solid and complex without relying that much on peculiar description traps.

    And just in case you didn’t know: Anime and live-action adaptions of Ayatsuji’s most recent work ANOTHER are in planning stage… which is why I’m trying to finish it among the other chaos filling my room before either of the adaptions gets released.

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  3. While warped architecture or strange spaces have been a trademark element of detective fiction from the very start, I think it's important to look at what can be found in modern detective fiction of Japan and the New Orthodox School from a slightly different angle.

    mousoukyoku already mentioned the "Big Three of Strange Fiction", which are a big influence on surreal fiction or works with strong surrealist influences today.
    But he also mentioned Dario Argento's influence on Ayatsuji Yukito and I think it's important to look for more recent influences just like that.

    While classical detective fiction was the primary rolemodel for the revival in form of the New Orthodox School, I think it's quintessential to search for influences from the current pool of popular culture as well.
    If we don't do that we damn those works to an existence as a mere copy of a Golden Age that slips further and further into the past and becomes more and more detached from our actuall present time.

    You say he is conscious of being a mystery fan writing mystery...
    While I would agree that the movement started out as something like that and it might have been his selfdefinition, I would be careful of actually copying that perception.
    These works are definitely more than mere homages to a distant, glorious past. They are transporting frames that proved to be functional into the present and fill them with new dynamics.
    They are filled with influences from a hectic present, full of different kinds of media and events and I think it's important to consider all those influences.

    PS: This is not aimed to criticise your post...just to give some ideas about modern fiction in general.

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  4. @mousoukyoku & seizonsha: I actually haven't read any secondary literature concerning 新本格 yet, so always feel free to comment like this! I'm not even sure where to begin my studies of 新本格 as a literary movement. Which is why I focus more on the influence of the genre/writers on the genre/writers itself.

    But I really should start with more secondary literature. Heck, I still haven't read Kiyoshi Kasai's books yet. Which have been gathering dust for some time now. As well as the one 東京論 in detective novels and the translated detective novels in the Meiji period and the early translated Western detective writers and...

    You both should definitely update more often though ;P

    And now, back to my thesis. Which isn't about detective novels, sadly enough. But I do discuss a 推理ゲーム, so close enough.

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  5. I have been rather busy and distracted lately and am stuck in Kyougoku Natsuhiko's first novel, hence the lack of entries... I definitely have to finish that damn book as soon as possible so that I can dive into more Ayatsuji and Maya and secondary literature for papers as well.

    The latter is of course by Kasai Kiyoshi, which definitely is the best choice if you want to do research on detective fiction in general, but also the new orthodox school and everything after that movement until the current state in particular.

    As for primary literature in the 新本格 field, you have already read a fair amount of essential stuff (Ayatsuji, Arisugawa, Norizuki, Abiko etc.) that constitutes the first wave of that movement. Advancing on the timeline, there would be authors like Kyougoku Natsuhiko and Mori Hiroshi (I definitely recommend his debut) and well... after that it becomes pretty wild and it's quite difficult to do research on stuff from around 96 until today since the whole genre becomes so wide-ranging. Both influences from otaku-culture and really classical detective fiction get mixed up and form hybrids that cannot not be found anywhere except in Japan...

    If you want to go on reading 新本格 stuff, I would say you can't go wrong with Ayatsuji's yakata series, both because it's essential and because it's just plain entertaining. Personally I liked the following works in the series a lot more than the debut. Apart from Maya Yutaka and drawing a line after Mori Hiroshi, I mostly read stuff by authors you already know as well. And Maya is somewhat... unique. His later works can be compared to Ayatsuji's stuff concerning narrative tricks on a very orthodox basis, but what he started with were quite deconstructing novels on the various orthodox codes, but 'nonetheless' they were very entertaining for me.

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  6. I've seen those Kyougoku books so often in Japanese, but the sheer size of those bricks is just frightening! Especially for someone who likes short stories! That explains why I still don't seem to progress in 二階堂の「人狼城の恐怖」.

    Man, it's just disheartening when I realize how much I still have to read. I still have to catch up on all my Yokomizo Seishi and Edogawa Rampo, but I also want to broaden my 新本格 readings (as well as my pre-war readings!), and I want to keep up with recent releases. And of course, English/American detective fiction as well... =_=

    And games. Must continue with Gyakuten Kenji 2 now.

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  7. Yeah, I definitely have to update more often as well. I thought about writing some entries about the secondary literature I read as well.
    I still have some entries to release (at least the ones on すべてがFになる and 砂糖は殺意の右側に) and I'm finishing 螺旋館の奇想 by 折原一 right now.
    University kept me from doing anything regarding that lately...okay and I was a bit lazy.

    Just like mousoukyoku already said, Kasai Kiyoshi is almost quintessential when looking at the development up to 新本格. I've only got some of his essays and his「ミネルヴァの梟」which is part of a range of books dealing with his theory about the development of detective fiction in Japan.

    I recomend Mori Hiroshi more than Kyôgoku Natsuhiko, when it comes to further reading material.
    While Kyôgoku can be great and fun if you've got time on your hand, it can be a terrible drag if you can't finish his books quick enough. He fuses many of his theories about the corelation between myths and social science into his books and sometimes that can heavily slow down the plot.
    I definitely like his plots, but the narrative tends to drag because the flow too often halted by endless musing about theories. I think he's important and I don't regret having read 姑獲鳥の夏 and 魍魎の匣 ... but I would understand if someone found them too long and unnecessarily elaborate.

    I think I will definitely be able to recommend Orihara when I'm finished. Even though he is fundamentaly different from Ayatsuji.
    I have to admit (and I think it's clear from my entries) I'm quite the Ayatsuji fan and I will continue with one of his books right after 螺旋館. That would be 緋色の囁き which is an homage to Dario Argento's Suspiria.

    And just out of curiousity, which 推理ゲーム are you discussing in your thesis. If it's okay to ask.

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  8. I'm using 「逆転裁判3」 as a primary source for my thesis on ビデオゲームにおける役割語の英訳 (社会言語学). So no, the focus is not on it being a 推理ゲーム, but I find it amusing enough I am able to use it as a source.

    I have Kasai's 「探偵小説論」1&2 here, as well as  well as 「探偵小説と二0世紀精神」 (which is indeed part of the 「ミネルブァの泉」 series). I didn't know he wrote essays too though, so I'll try to find some of those too!

    I recently sized up my backlog, mostly books I brought back from Japan... it was sort of worrying. I do want to read Mori and Kyougoku though, but it might be better to work on my backlog here and not buy new books. By the time I'm finished, it might be that I'm in Japan again :P

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  9. It was translated in French but it's now out of print :(

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    1. Well, at least that means it's out there and you could find an used copy.

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  10. Ah ok, I understand know, htnak you

    and sorry for the spoiler

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  11. I opened up this novel and finished it in a single sitting. Thanks for the brilliant translation! Yes the colourfully surprising line hit me like a brick but my favourite was actually SPOILERS IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH !!!!!!

    getting deceived by the structure of the building, I assumed that there was going to be some sort of visual trick or mechanism involving the structure but turns out it wasn't that important after all even though a visual building layout was provided.

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    1. I'm glad you liked the book! (as both the translator, as just someone who also liked the book :))

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