Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Study in Scarlet

今はわからないことばかりだけど
信じるこの道を進むだけさ
どんな敵でも 味方でも構わない
この手を離すもんか
真っ赤な誓い
『真っ赤な誓い』 (福山芳樹) 

There is still a lot I don't understand
I can only move forward on this path I believe in
No matter the enemies or friends I will come across
No way I will let go of
This blood-red oath! 
"Blood-Red Oath" (Fukuyama Yoshiki)

As always, I tend to do a lot of other things when the time for actual study arrives (test/paper period), so instead of working on my Akutagawa Ryuunosuke paper of 10.000 characters, I decided to read a book I had been sitting on for almost 4 months. Though I really, really should start on that paper now, with just a few days to go... (I am working through the notes for my paper and studying for a kanji test as I am writing this, so please forgive the many, many typing errors that are bound to pop up! Will try to fix the worst of them later...)

Ayukawa Tetsuya, or Ayutetsu because Japanese people like to abbreviate everything, is one of the grand masters of post-war orthodox Japanese detective fiction and the fact that I haven't even mentioned his name even once until now on this blog is actually almost embarrasing. No idea how that happened. Anyway, Ayakawa is especially known for his alibi deconstruction stories (starring police inspector Onitsura) and thus a lot of his stories have a distinct Croftsian tone to them, I said knowledgably even though I've only read one Crofts story in my whole life. But for some reason I chose to Akai Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 1 ("The Red Locked Room - Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection 1") to be my first encounter with Ayukawa, which is actually a short story collection focusing on locked room mysteries, instead of alibi deconstruction. And it features the private detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, instead of Onitsura. I never seem to choose things representative on this blog...

Though Jubaku Saigen ("Reconstruction of the Spell") is sort-of representative, as it is the draft / short story version of Lila Sou Jiken, one of Ayukawa's more famous novels. Seven students visit a villa in their summer vacation in Kumamoto, when one day they discover a card saying that O-tsuga's curse (a local legend) will kill them. And indeed, they start getting killed and for some reason, playing cards are left near the crime scenes. Famous private detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou takes up the challenge of solving this case.... and fails. It is up to the down-to-earth inspector Onitsura to find out who has been killing the students.

A weird story to rate. Maybe it should feel grand because of the two detectives,  because this is a very lengthy short story, but I have to admit, I was quite bored the first half of the story. It was pretty clear what was going on early on in the story and I had actually sorta given up on the story, when suddenly the name of the murderer was given two-third into the story. The remaining part of the story was reserved for the deconstruction of an alibi, which was actually way more fun and interesting than the first two-thirds of the story. I would say that the latter part of this story really makes it worth of going through the rather predictable early parts of the story. And I have to admit: I still get excited whenever I see Kyuushuu dialect in detective stories!

The titular Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room") refers to an university autopsy room (and the red brick building it is situated in), where one day the dismembered body of one of the autopsy assistents is discovered. The building served as a double locked room, so how was the murderer able to get in to murder the poor girl? Akai Misshitsu is a neatly constructed locked room mystery, but technically resembles another famous locked room mystery very much, which removes much of the surprise of this story. But it is really well-constructed as a short story, with just the right length to give the reader material to work with, without feeling too bloaty for a short story (like the previous story). Not a difficult or surprising locked room mystery, but expertly written.

Kiiroi Akuma ("The Yellow Devil") is not about a super-difficult boss from the MegaMan series, but about a stripper, who was found stabbed to death in her bathtub in her locked bathroom. She had been threatened by someone calling himself the Yellow Devil for some time now, but how did the Yellow Devil disappear from the bathroom? Mostly a gathering of several familiar tropes of detective fiction, but I have to admit that some of the foreshadowing / hinting in this story was very good.

Kieta Kijutsushi ("The Disappearing Magician") is also not especially exciting, even though it's about a magician who seemingly disappears from a locked room situation after shooting one of his assistants (oh, and don't forget that he poisoned another assistent while doing a 'disappear-from-a-box' trick earlier) . Sounds more interesting than it is, as it is too easy to solve and not particularly well written or structured. But I have to admit: it was hard to lay down because a lot happens within a short amount of pages.

Youtouki ("Record of the Monster Tower") is the shortest story in the collection and I quite like the story, even though it's very easy to solve. Rampo-esque storytelling quickly introduced the reader to the Eye of Shiba, a famous jewel that is supposed to have been lost during the war. The two protagonists suspect that the jewel on top of the turban of a local performing yoga practitioner is the Eye and they practically kidnap the man in order to retrieve it back for Japan. But afraid of the man's yoga powers (Yoga Flame? Yoga Teleport?), they decide to call the police, but not after having tied him up inside an old lift. Which also boarded up. And also raised. Just to make sure he wouldn't disappear. But of course, the yoga practitioner did escape. But how? Like I said, very easy to solve, but I really liked the way the story was told and it was an effective story for the short amount of pages.

But this collection's real gem is Doukeshi no Ori ("The Clown's Prison"). During an interview session by two journalists of a local jazz band at thei base of operations, the singer is killed in her bathtub in her room on the second floor. By a clown. The clown was seen leaving the building by the (tied-up) maid through the backside exit and entering the tunnel right behind the band's building, but witnesses on the other end of the tunnel swear that nobody came out of the tunnel! I really liked this story not only because it once again shows that clowns are evil, but also because it was a really well constructed story, that even if it may rely on what some might consider coincidences, works great. This could easily have been a longer story and still be fantastic, but to pull it off as a short story really shows Ayukawa's gift for constructing great mysteries.

This was just my first encounter with Ayutetsu, but I really liked his style of constructing stories. Even though this collection focuses on locked room situations, it was pretty easy to see that Ayukawa Tetsuya's main love lies in alibi constructions, as half of the locked room mysteries in this collection are mostly based upon the intricate description of character movements during a short span of time and the observation by witnesses of said movements. Jibaku Saigen's Croftsian alibi deconstruction sub-plot was also very interesting and I am tempted to read more of Ayutetsu's 'proper' specialty.

Oh, and one might have noticed that I hardly mentioned the series detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou. He is... just there. He is supposed to be a bit like a Vance-type, but he mostly just appears at the end of the story to explain what happens, with little to nothing to really make him stand out. It's like giving up on a difficult math question and asking the computer to just give the answer to you. He might be different in later stories, but in this collection, he hardly made any impression on me. Well, besides the whole failing part in the first story.

Overall an entertaining collection though and I am defnitely more excited now to read more Ayutetsu. And now to get going on my Akutagawa paper.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也: 『赤い密室 名探偵星影龍三全集1』: 「呪縛再現」 / 「赤い密室」 / 「黄色い悪魔」 / 「消えた奇術師」 / 「妖塔記」 / 「道化師の檻」

2 comments :

  1. Now imagine a whole book with Hoshikage only popping up near the end for the lengthy denouement and you have the Villa Lilac Case! It's awesome nonetheless as there's so much crammed into it and even though the murderer isn't that difficult to guess it's one of the more rewarding denouements I've read so far.

    The only stories in this first collection I really loved were Akai Misshitsu and Doukeshi no ori, but I urge you to read the other collection as well. It features more variety as it's not just impossible crimes but also several fairly Queen-ish, well-constructed ones and honestly I get the feeling Ayukawa was better in that field. 薔薇荘殺人事件 is one of the best short stories I've read so far and I definitely have to read the full-length version of 朱の絶筆 someday.

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    1. I am definitely picking up the next volume, though I will probably go through Amagi Hajime's Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei first.

      Or something else. Aaargh. Too much to read, too little time. And too hot to read. It's really too hot here. =_=

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