Monday, January 23, 2012

The Lost Special

ここはどこで どこまで行くんだ
「ファイティングポーズの詩」 (馬場俊英)

What is this? What is this?
What kind of life is this?
Who is the me reflected in the window?
Where am I and where am I going?
'Fighting Pose Song' (Baba Toshihide)

It would have been so much more logical if I had started out reviewing English-translated Japanese novels and then moved on the non-translated novels. No offense meant to anyone, but moving back to English does feel like taking a step back.

One of the most prolific writers in Japan is Nishimura Kyoutarou. He is famous for his travel/train mysteries, that seem like a mix between detective stories, the railway schedule and a tourist guide. Keenfully constructed alibis that make use of the detailed and complex railway system in Japan and cops who have to travel across Japan by train to investigate their cases, it's the formula Nishimura has used for many, many years now and what made him popular. He is also strongly connected with TV productions and if you're watching an afternoon rerun of a two-hour mystery drama in Japan, there is a one in a three chance it's based on a plot by Nishimura (the other candidates are Uchida Yasuo and Yamamura Misa). Wikipedia tells me he has written 469 novels as of today, at the rate of almost a book a month. Sometimes two. And yes, that does has effects on the quality of his novels. I've seen a couple of the TV dramas and read one or two of his train mystery novels, but they are usually not really that interesting (I liked the first DS game though!). But no, I am not a big fan.

In fact, the only Nishimura Kyoutarou novels I've discussed here until now were the four novels of his Great Detectives series. Not Afraid of Great Detectives, Too Many Great Detectives, Even Great Detectives Don't Have It Easy and Cheers To The Great Detectives feature the four detectives Hercule Poirot, Ellery Queen, Maigret and Akechi Kogorou in a grand murder investigation crossover. These are some early works by Nishimura and the books are out of print (also because Nishimura never bothered clearing the rights for the use of the characters), but they are 'normal' orthodox detectives and not train-mysteries at all. The series started out pretty fun but ends in a mess, but the idea is fun. Anyway, it is pretty strange to have discussed four novels of Nishimura without any of them featuring a train...

The first Nishimura Kyoutarou novel I read was The Mystery Train Disappears (original title: Misuteri Ressha ga Kieta), which is as far as I know the only novel available of him in English. The novel was originally published in 1982, with the translation dating eight years later and is part of Nishimura Kyoutarou's Inspector Totsugawa series, his most famous creation. I have to admit that I know very little about Totsugawa, but there is actually little to tell about him except for the fact that he is a homicide inspector at the Metropolitan Police Department, who with his partner Kamei has been solving crimes since the 1970s. And he's also the hero in Nishimura's most recent work (to be released this Wednesday),  Totsugawa Keibu Seibu Shinjukusen no Shikaku ("Inspector Totsugawa - The Dead Angle of the Seibu-Shinjuku Line"). So Totsugawa's been around for some time.

The title of The Mystery Train Disappears tells the reader everything, actually. The Mystery Train is a special train run by the Japan National Railways with an unknown destination and schedule. All people know is that they are promised an entertaining ride on a train that is to leave Tokyo on a Saturday and return the following Monday. And this sense of mystery of course attracts people. Over 8000 people applied for a seat, but only 400 passengers were lucky enough to receive tickets for this exclusive train. A day after the Mystery Train's departure, the JNR's director receives a phone call: someone claims to have taken all 400 passengers hostage and demands ransom money. At first, nobody believes this story, but a couple of a phone calls makes it clear: the Mystery Train has indeed disappeared! The train definitely left Tokyo on Saturday, but it never arrived at Tottori, one of the secret destinations of the Mystery Train's schedule. The trains that were scheduled after the Mystery Train were all running on time, so there couldn't have been an accident on the track midway. How did the kidnappers manage to get hold of a complete train and all 400 passengers?

The problem with the disappearance of a train has traditionally been that there are not many ways to make a complete train disappear. I think I've read Conan Doyle's The Lost Special and Queen's Snowball in July, and I like the latter's solution more, but let's admit, there are only so many things you can do with a gigantic heavy metal tube that usually needs some kind of rails under it to move. Nishimura's solution to the problem is interesting, but though I am no railway fanatic, even I see several problems with the way Nishimura explained how the Mystery Train disappeared. Indeed, the Japanese wiki-page for this novel even makes an explicit statement that the disappearance trick used here is not possible now and not even when the book was originally published. Which kinda kills the magic. A big problem also lies with the scale: Nishimura's trick might have worked on a smaller scale, but certainly not with a 12-wagon train with 400 passengers.

There are actually two investigations going on at the same time: one is the search for the disappeared train and another is related to the transfer of the ransom money and the latter one is actually more interesting. The criminals manage to get away with the ransom money from a running train, even though the windows were locked and every passenger searched by the police. This disappearance trick overshadows the trick of the Mystery Train as it is more believable, which could not have been Nishimura's original intent.

I am also not exactly sure whether a series detective like Totsugawa was needed in this book at all. The police and the JNR are being played with by the hostage takers throughout most of the book and in fact, the story reaches its conclusion pretty much on its own, without any real interference of the police. I am not a Totsugawa fan at all, but I can imagine that some readers might have felt unsatisfied with his portrayal, because literally any police inspector could have filled in the role of Totsugawa here.

In the end, I do wonder why this novel was selected to be translated. As far as I know, it's considered pretty average even among Japanese fans of Nishimura, so why not one of his better books? Most of the Japanese mysteries translated to English are pretty good / considered classics, but The Mystery Train Disappears does not really feel worthwile. If in need for an awesome Japanese train mystery, see Matsumoto's Points and Lines.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『ミステリー列車が消えた』

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