Thursday, January 5, 2012

「Welcome To The End Of The World」

「真ん中の時計は現在の時刻を、左の時計は十分遅れた過去の時刻を、右の時計は十分進んだ未来の自国を指していると云われます」
『『クロック城』殺人事件』

"They say that the clock in the middle shows the current time, the clock on the left ten minutes in the past and the clock on the right ten minutes in the future"
"Clock Castle Murder Case"

Sometimes, all the signs in your life come together and urge you to read certain books. It had been on my reading list for years now (and I had actually already the first part), but the planets aligned, the signs came together and I finally decided to actually read and finish Dazai Osamu's Ningen Shikkaku (No Longer Human) two days ago. Which was very impressive. And immensely heavy. Really heavy. But I'm glad I finally read this classic!

And afterwards, I read 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken ("Clock Castle Murder Case"), which was luckily less heavy. 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken is Kitayama Takekuni's debut work and winner of the Mephisto Prize in 2002. And as always, I discovered the book won a prize after I read it. Actually, I knew next to nothing about this book, which explains why the science-fiction theme the story starts out with was kinda confusing. It is the year 1999. Five years earlier, a sunspot thirty times the size of Earth appeared out of nowhere, messing up the magnetic fields on Earth. Machines started to stop working, communication became impossible. Slowly, human civilization as we know it came to a stop. In this world, it is said that September 1999 will be The End of the World. Minami Miki (assisted by childhood friend Shinomi Nami) is a private detective, even though there is little demand for his services, well, because the Earth is going to end pretty soon. A missing cat or a cheating husband just seems less important in such times. Miki has another talent though: he is able to see and exorcise 'fragments of gestalts', ghost-like appearances. It is because of this talent that Kurou Ruka hires Miki. She is an inhabitant of the Clock Castle and a couple of days ago faces started to appear on the walls in the cellar. Ruka thinks it is the work of Skipman, a ghost that is supposed to haunt the Clock Castle with the power to rip holes in time itself, and she want Miki to excorcise it.

The strange family of Ruka lives in the Clock Castle, far away from cities and (what is left of) society. Clock Castle is divided in three parts that each have their own corresponding clock on the front wall of the mansion. The clock in the middle of Clock Castle shows the current time and is connected to the "Present Mansion", the middle part of Clock Castle. The clock on the left is ten minutes slow and is connected to the "Past Mansion", while the one on the right is connected to the "Future Mansion". Miki starts his investigation in the wallfaces, but it doesn't take long before murders happen. Murders of the decapitating kind. Bodies are found in the Past Mansion and the Future Mansion, while the heads are found in the Present Mansion, but it seems impossible for anyone to have done all this, because the connecting hallway to the three mansions was under constant observation. Was it the work of Skipman?

There is a lot going on in this relatively short novel. Besides the bare-bones detective plot, there is the whole End of the World-thing that plays quite a big part in the story, with two organisations working in the background trying to find someone / something called the Midnight Key, which can either cause or prevent the end of the world. Throw in some more information about sleep illnesses and ghosts ('fragments of gestalts') and we have a lot that is usually interesting, but it at times distracts from the main plot. In my head, these themes also remind me very much of those late-time anime that quickly gather fandom with presumed adult and deep themes, but somehow don't really interest me.Well, at least it doesn't go the whole way to anime-esque themes and storytelling like NisiOisiN did with his Zaregoto series.

With ghosts and exorcisms and stuff, I also had trouble gauging how 'fair' this mystery was going to be. I had read Kitayama's 'Alice Mirror Jou' Satsujin Jiken earlier, and while there were certainly some science fiction / fantasy elements there, it was not as strongly present like in this book. With ghosts and exorcisms and other things, it was just hard to predict how 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken was going to turn out. In the end, it is an orthodox mystery and perfectly solvable without resolving to witchcraft, but the fact that this book has a strong science-fiction / mystery setting will make you hesitate at times and you'll keep that feeling until you reach the end.

With the clocks and the three-in-one mansion and all, 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken is of course a yakata-mono (mansion-story), but like I said, there is also so much going on besides that, that despite the weird architecture, the Clock Castle does not feel as impressive as a mansion as for example the Slanted Mansion or Werewolf Castle. It just gets overshadowed by all the other things. Anyway, a lot of the little plotlines are also left open at the end of 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken and while this might not be a bad thing per se, it does feel like Kitayama might have tried too much in this book.

The main trick of the impossible murders, is sadly enough very easy to see through. While the idea is good, it is just way too obvious and actually the first idea that came in my head. It might have worked better in a shorter story / novelette form. However, I can't praise the reason Kitayama had for the decapitated bodies enough. It fits the theme of the book perfectly and I doubt anyone will think of that reason while reading it. I have seen many reasons for cutting heads of dead bodies in all these years of reading detective fiction, but never have I seen such an impressive and original one. This is really one that is hard to surpass.

I had fun with the book, certainly, but I have to admit that I thought the setting was kinda distracting. A lot of the fluff feels very anime-esque. Which is not something I dislike, except I... don't expect such things in novels.Well, light novels, maybe, but not in serious orthodox detective novels. It's just distracting. The bare-bones plot is quite too easy to see through and not as impressive as 'Alice Mirror Jou' Satsujin Jiken , but Kitayama Takekuni is certainly an author to keep an eye on.

And yes, 'Clock Jou' Satsujin Jiken has one of the most disturbing book covers I've ever seen.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『『クロック城』殺人事件』

4 comments :

  1. The impossible situation itself might just be the easiest I've read so far, but you reminded me of the excellent part of the mystery (reason for decapitaion) which still makes this a recommendable book. The setting worked fine for me but I guess it depends on how you found into the whole genre and how much otaku culture you consume in general. Same goes for the Guillotine Castle. The locked room is... well, much more difficult and to be honest more slipping into unsolvable territory than anything else. The identity of the culprit is totally ingenious though as long as that kind of trick does not bug you.

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  2. I had quite some expectations for the impossible situation, considering Alice Mirror Castle featured that awesome locked room murder behind the Alice Door (and that wasn't even the main surprise!), so it was quite disappointing to see that Clock Castle was so easy to solve. I do think the main idea is sound, but in the way Kitayame wrote this story, it is just way too obvious to see what's going in.

    But indeed,the reason for the decapitations is excellent and really the highlight of this book.

    I am actually surprised to see how much these otaku-elements bother me when reading detective fiction. I have to admit that I haven't been very active in the scene the last few years, but I am still genre-savvy enough to at least recognize the tropes. And they bother me enough to be distracting. High school drama-esque situations in my fiction? No problem. Absurdist humor in my fiction? No problem. The end of the world, exorcists, schools for assassins and worldwide organisations using Christian imagary and magic in my fiction? I will hesitate. Yet I have no problem with above themes if they were simply non-detectives. Go figure.

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  3. That's why I was glad I read Clock before Alice ^^° The latter really is one of my favorites in terms of tricks regardless of their nature.

    Well, to each his own. I found into the genre via うみねこのなく頃に (because I already loved the author's previous work for other reasons) so I already started with the presence of otaku tropes, at least in terms of presentation and characterization as the basic(!) setting is actually quite traditional. Sadly, after reading all that detective novels somewhere in between the Episodes of the game, it did not turn out as I hoped it would, but I'm still grateful for introducing me to the genre itself.

    But yeah, there definitely are cases where moe factors bug me as well. Current example: Ayatsuji Yukito's "Another". Misaki Mei is a supposedly eerie moe character with the typical eye-patch who annoyed me for almost half of the book even though I could have finished that book in no time if it kept me interested. Maybe I should have read the book before the promotion for the anime started and Ito Noizi's character designs where introduced...

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  4. Umineko is still something that sounds incredibly interesting to me, but I just don't wanna play through eight games to get the story. And it doesn't seem like the adaptations handle everything from the games...

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