Wednesday, August 10, 2011

『WISH ROOM』

検死官はあくびをして体を動かした。「夜殺人をやるのいたしかたがない。そうする理由があると思う。しかし、死体を発見するのは、私が朝食をすましてからにしてもらいたいんだな」」
『エンジェル家の殺人』 (訳:大庭)

"The medical examiner yawned and moved his body.
"I can't complain about murders being commited at night. There are reasons for doing that. But it'd be nice if they would discover the stiff after I had my breakfast""
"Murder Among the Angells" (Ooba translation)

Even though most of my book purchases are made in second hand bookstores like the Book Off when I'm in Japan, I do go to 'normal' bookshops occasionally. But I only go there when I need to purchase specific books. While my purchasing habits in a Book Off are kinda chaotic (and bad for my wallet), my visits to Fukuoka's Junkudou were like well-planned military missions, purchasing only the books I had planned to buy before entering the building (or occasionally not buying anything at all, instead only acting as a guide as I knew all bookstores in the neighbourhood).

The single impulse purchase I made at Junkudou was that of Roger Scarlett's Murder Among the Angells (1932). Well, technically it's Enjeruke no Satsujin ("The Murder of the Angell Clan"), a translated version (by Ooba Tadao). The title had been in my head for a long time. Why? Well, the novel was mentioned in the very first pages of Yokomizo Seishi's Honjin Satsujin Jiken ("The Daimyou's Inn Murder Case") as one of the books that inspired Yokomizo in writing that novel. I also knew Murder Among the Angells was praised very much by Edogawa Rampo. In fact, Edogawa was so impressed by the book that he made his own adapted/localized version of the story, renamed as Sankakukan no Kyoufu ("The Terror of Triangle Mansion"). A book that inspired two of my favorite authors was simply a must-read.

The problem: it seems like nobody outside Japan knows about this book. Murder Among the Angells is sorta known among Japanese detective critics because of the reasons mentioned above, but a quick Google search for the book and author Roger Scarlett didn't give me any results. At least, I had quite some Japanese results, but practically nothing useful  in English on neither the novel nor the author. Which was kinda surprising. So I did something I practically never do: read the commentary at the end of the pocket (Japanese pocket often include by commentaries by other writers. It seems in the West, introductions are used more often).

And commentator Togawa did write up a nice story. As Togawa also noticed this distinct lack of information on Roger Scarlett, he (with some help) dug through many old English crime writer magazines and guides, resulting in the following findings: Roger Scarlett was the pen name of the Americans Evelyn Page (1902~???) and Dorothy Blair (1903~???). Nothing is known about Blair, but Page seems to have written her own novel (The Chestnut Tree) and even made it to associate professor at several faculties at Connecticut College. Page & Blair's debut work as Roger Scarlett was The Beacon Hill Murders (1930), followed by The Back Bay Murders (1930), Cat's Paw (1931), Murder Among the Angells (1932) and finally In the First Degree (1933) (Of these novels, only The Back Bay Murders is not translated in Japanese). So in only a couple of years, this duo wrote five books.  But they stopped for some reason after that and the name Roger Scarlett seems to be totally forgotten nowadays. Except for in Japan, where a translation can purchased at any store for 900 yen + tax. Go figure.

Anyway, Murder Among the Angells. Like the title suggest, murder happens within the Angell clan. The Angell clan consists of two families: the family of elderly Darius Angell (two sons) and the family of his twin brother Carolus (son, daughter and son-in-law) (I'm totally guessing the spelling of the names by the way: Japanese is not particularly clear when spelling out Western names). The two families live under one roof, in a curious L-shaped mansion. The Angell mansion has been split in two, with a wall seperating the two sides. The brothers live their own lives in their own wings. The two wings are connected only by the front door (+ small hallway) and the elevator in the back of the house, which opens on bothwings.

Darius and Carolus used to be best of buddies actually, until their father died, leaving a rather troublesome will. While they both receive quite some income from their father's fortune as long as they live, the whole fortune is to go unconditionally to the son who outlives his brother. Fast-forward many, many years later, with the brothers living in seperate wings and a heavily weakened Darius who might die any day. Fearing his sons will be left with nothing if he dies now (which would make his brother the only heir), he hopes to convince Carolus to sign an agreement that they'll split their father's fortune with both families, no matter who dies first. Carolus refuses though, and is found the same night dead, shot by an unknown assaillant. And more developments follow throughout the story, with a new will by Darius (who really seems to want to divide the fortune with his nephew and niece) and a murder happening inside a moving elevator!

Murder Among the Angells might be quite unknown outside of Japan, it's pretty clear why it has some fame in Japan. This is clearly a yakata-mono (a 'mansion' story; see also Jukkakukan no Satsujin), with the strangely divided mansion with an elevator in the middle of the building. With many maps throughout the story, rooms that have doors at the weirdest places and the way people have to move about to get from wing to another, this novel practically screams yakata-mono. The strange architecture practically functions as a silent extra character, not unlike the House of Usher and succeeds in providing a very entertaining location for the murders. The movements of the suspects inside the mansion also plays a big role within the story, with both murders being strongly connected with the way the mansion is built and the way the mansion has been divided into two wings. The Angell mansion is a very impressive force within the novel. Edogawa Rampo didn't rename his adaptation The Terror of Triangle Mansion for nothing.

And setting aside the mansion,  I have to say that the plot is, on the whole, pretty good. My major gripes are some of the lucky breaks of the criminal has and I have some doubts about the executability of the locked elevator murder (the trick is, fundamentally, good though). But I'm overall quite pleased with the novel, as it's a good example of what an orthodox detective should be. Edogawa Rampo said this about the book:

I have nothing but admiration for Angell (...) the way the plot develops, the way the mystery is solved, the level of suspense, this novel has these elements in a strange way no other novel has and it suits my humble taste perfectly (...) yes, this is it, this is it, this is the style of writing I like the best, that's what I think as I read every line.

I won't go as far with my admiration, but Edogawa is right about that that the plot develops at a nice pace. The puzzle plot is constructed very neatly, with enough clues to point to the murderer (the main hint pointing at the criminal is a nice one, reminding me of some stories in Conan and Furuhata Ninzaburou). Like I said, the murderer had some lucky breaks IMHO, but nothing game-breaking. The motive is done quite nicely well and in fact, besides the points mentioned at above, I have no real complaints about the plot of Murder Among the Angells. It's a nicely constructed mansion-story that is sure to entertain readers.
 
I had troubles getting through the Japanese though. Ignoring the spelling problem (I'm not sure whether the detective is called Kane, Caine, or Kain or some other spelling actually), prose in Japanese is very different from prose in English. While I've read plenty of Japanese translated in English, this is probably the first time I read a real translation of an English novel in Japanese (the Lupin novels don't count. Besides being originally French, the translation is clearly smoothed out to normal Japanese). But how tedious Murder Among the Angells was! Part of this tediousness might be blamed to the fact the original text is not contemporary, but even accounting for that... I had never felt this big a gap in writing styles across languages before, but this really caught me by surprise. I'm not talking about a bad translation or anything, but just the way people describe things, where the focus of the paragraphs is placed at and how paragraphs are structured... You just don't repeat a personal pronoun sentence after sentence normally, nor are long passages with only short pieces of dialogue (one or two sentences) pleasant to read. It's really different from a novel that was actually written in Japanese (as opposed to a translation). Like I said, I liked this book, but I'm not really looking forward to reading more of Scarlett in Japanese.

I'm actually quite surprised why nobody seems to know Scarlett outside of Japan. This encounter was pretty pleasant and they did write five books in total, so why did the Scarlett name disappear practically competely?  If I hadn't seen the name mentioned by Edogawa and Yokomizo, I doubt I'd ever found about this book, actually. Which is a shame, 'cause Murder Among the Angells is an entertaining mansion-story which I think doesn't deserve to be forgotten ... this extremely. As for the people interested in Japanese detective fiction, I think the mere mention by Edogawa and Yokomizo warrants a look at this novel

Original Japanese title(s): ロジャースカーレット (訳:大庭忠男) 『エンジェル家の殺人』 (Roger Scarlett, Murder Among the Angells)

13 comments :

  1. I've been fancying with this and/or Ranpo's adaption for quite some time now knowing about the huge influence they had on Japanese mystery fiction. A copy of the English original would be a very rare and costly item, so even considering the Japanese translation might not be such a fun read concerning the choice of language, it would definitely be more afforadable...

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  2. True, the Japanese translation is for us the economically sensible choice. If not always pleasant. Seriously, I thought the prose was kinda boring to get through the first couple of pages, but then I started reading Kubi and suddenly the differences between the Japanese of the two books became overwhelmingly clear. Reading it in conjunction with a non-translation is not recommended.

    I'm quite interested in Edogawa's take on the story actually ('cause things can really get crazy then with such a mansion), but as I read Edogawa Rampo relatively often, I expect I'll come across it one day or another.

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  3. Great review, and I am aware of this book and know it's a rarity on the second-hand book market – never came across a copy that was offered for less than a hundred bucks.

    It's not the only of its kind, either, as other, first-rate, detective stories suffered a similar fate. Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel (also a locked room with elements that could now be classified as typical Japanese) enjoys a little bit more notoriety within the Western genre, but only few have actually read it and copies are scarce. The only one up for sale, at the moment, comes with a $200 price tag.

    It's really time these books catches the eyes of publishers like the Rue Morgue Press, Langtail Press or Felony and Mayhem.

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  4. The latest print of Death of Jezebel in Japan dates 2000 (it's OOP now), so with a bit of luck you might find it there for just 105 yen :P

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  5. You know, if I hadn't already got my paws on a untarnished, good-as-new copy, for next to nothing, that would've been kind of mean – and I feel you owe me a locked room translation now to make up for it. ;)

    By the way, Death of Jezebel was the first impossible crime novel I reviewed for my blog. Wow, that was already more than half a year ago.

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  6. Ho Ling, I am looking for a book you discussed. I remember you mentioning the denouement was very sad. I think it was a murder within a japanese familiy. It wasn't Devotion of Suspect X right?

    Origami

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  7. If it was a title I mentioned over at the AniWay fora, it's probably indeed The Devotion of Suspect X. I reviewed the English translation one or two AniWays ago, if you happen to have them.

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  8. have you heard of that book?

    http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13564882-the-three-tiers-of-fantasy

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    1. Not sure why you asked this as a comment to this particular post ^^'

      But no, never heard of it. Should I have? Is it good?

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    2. because I was looking for the Angell Murder book, and I found this one in recommandation

      I don't know if it's good so I was asking you^^

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  9. I found "murder among the Angells" in French! I'm so happy!

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    1. I wouldn't even have heard of this book if I hadn't read your blog!
      thanks!

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