Sunday, October 28, 2012

「密室こそ本格の華!密室こそ本格の基本!密室こそ本格の夢!」

「あの、密室蒐集家ってどなたですか?」
「いわゆる『密室の殺人』が起きると、どこからともなく現れて解決すると言われている謎の人物や」
『密室蒐集家』

"Who is the Locked Room Collector?"
"A mysterious man. They say whenever a locked room murder happens, he just appears out of nowhere and solves it"
"The Locked Room Collector"

As much as I love reading short stories, I have to admit I usually do find it kinda hard to difficult to review short story collection here. At least, I think it's difficult to keep a balance between writing about the collection, as, well, as a collection (one whole), and the individual stories. I usually tend to go for the latter, resulting in tedious summaries for each story (and because it usually results in having to write more, I tend to shave some corners on the actual reviewing of those stories). On the other hand, usually the quality between the short stories in a collection changes quite a bit, and as a reader, I would prefer to know more about the individual stories myself rather than the collection as a whole, so there is always the problem of how to tackle these things. Usually, I just go for what pops up in my mind though for my posts here.

Misshitsu Shuushuuka ("The Locked Room Collector") is a short story collection by Ooyama Seiichirou published earlier this month. I think this is the first time I've ever reviewed a book so close after its release (not counting manga). Ooyama is an old member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, but I had only read one scenario by him in the PSP game Trick X Logic. Me no Kabe no Misshitsu ("A Locked Room With Walls of Eyes") was one of the best stories in the game though and I also chose it as one of the most memorable stories I read last year, so it was just a matter of time before I would actually start reading more of him. Well, that, and the fact that this book was available to borrow and looked easy to read did bump it up my reading pile.

Anyway, the five stories collected here are all locked room murder stories, set in different periods and places (though often Kyoto) in Japan. The one thing connecting these independent murders is the Locked Room Collector, an almost legendary person (entity?) who mysteriously pops up whenever a locked room murder occurs. Seemingly a man around his thirties, the Locked Room Collector has built up a reputation of being able to solve all locked room murders and the police will thus happily accept his assistance, but nothing more is known about him. In fact, it is very probable that the Locked Room Collector is just some kind of fairy that appears around locked room murders or something like that.

Yanagi no Sono ("Garden of Willows") is set in Kyoto, 1937 and is very reminiscent of Higashigawa Tokuya's Kirigamine's Humiliation and Kirigamine Ryou's Second Humiliation: this story is also about an impossible disappearance at a schoolbuilding in the form of the letter E. A girl student who went back to the schoolbuilding in the night because she had left her copy of The Tragedy of X outside in the garden, happens to be witness of the shooting of a teacher in the music room. Because of the curtains, she couldn't see the murderer, but she quickly calls for the teacher on watch. The room is locked from the inside though and only after the caretaker (who has the key) comes, are they able to open the door, only to find the dead teacher there.

This is at one hand quite an ingenious story, because even though it is relatively short, the deduction chain based on a single piece of evidence is very impressive and it is rare to see such Queenian deductions used in a locked room mystery. The downside is that at times this deduction chain is not that convincing, making assumptions that aren't as indisputable Ooyama/the Locked Room Collector would like you to think. Overall, it's a very good story though that sets a high standard the whole volume manages to keep.

In Shounen to Shoujo no Misshitsu ("A Boy and a Girl's Locked Room") (1953), a house is being watched by the police, because they have information an illegal cigarette deal will be done there. The house faces the streets on three sides, with the back facing its back neighbor house (which in turn is also facing the streets on three sides). During the stakeout, one policeman notices that the inhabitant of the next door house coming back, and a bit later her boyfriend too. After having caught their man, the policeman thinks it strange the couple didn't react at all to the ruckus they made during the arrest and takes a look inside the house next door, only to find the boy and girl stabbed to death. But how did the murderer escape from the house, as the streets were all watched by policemen?

This is a surprisingly complex story for its page count and really shows off Ooyama's knack for constructing awesome impossible situations in a limited amount of pages. The way Ooyama solves these situations feel very Queenian (even without using the elimination method of deduction) and Ooyama is probably very aware of that. Like Queen's dying message stories, Ooyama will often suggest several very plausible solutions, only to show that he has thought about that too and that he has made sure that those solutions are impossible under the circumstances (for people thinking of Queen's Mr Long and Mr Short, this is a different kind of story!). This story does rely on some coincidences, but that doesn't weaken the fundamental puzzle at all.

Shisha wa Naze Ochiru ("Why Did The Body Fall?") (1969) starts with a young paintress being harrassed by her old boyfriend, asking her to break off her engagement and come back to him. During their fight, they see a woman falling from the apartment above: the hostess living above seems to have commited suicide. They call for the police, but they find a knife in the victim's back, meaning this was murder. Even stranger is that the victim had been dead for almost three hours before her drop to the ground floor. When the police go up to the victim's room though, the door is locked (and the chain-lock is on too), meaning the murderer got away from a locked room.

A relatively simple story, but by this volume's standards, that still means it's a fairly complex story. Once again Ooyama likes to dangle plausible solutions in front of you before showing he has eliminated those possibilities already, forcing you find new solutions and interpretations constantly. This is also related to Ooyama's excellent placing of hints. The most innocently-looking comments will suddenly turn out to be the weak point in your own deductions, while at the same time being the crucial hints leading to the true solution. It's like you have to switch between offense and defense with your deductions constantly as you read these stories, which makes these stories fun to read not only on a contents/story level, but also on the level of interactivity.

Wake Ari no Misshitsu ("A Locked Room with Problems") (1985) is my favorite story of the collection. It starts with the murderer having commited his crime and preparing everything to create a locked room. After this inverted prologue, we (and the police) are presented with an interesting problem: why was the locked room made in the first place? The murderer in fact did everything to ensure that the police would see that it was a genuine locked room murder: the murderer actually made the call to the police, to ensure that the police would be the first ones to discover the body. And while a common trick is to lock a room from outside, only to return the key after the locked room has been opened (so it seems it was inside the whole time), this is also impossible, because the only key to the room was found inside the victim's stomach!

While this whole collection feels meta in general,  Wake Ari no Misshitsu really brings the meta-conciousness up to a different level by having a murderer who actively wants the police to find out the locked room trick he used, going as far as to personally arrange things that other, more conventional tricks would have been impossible. In a way, this is what Ooyama has been doing all the time now with this collection, but having it now used as a story plot is just amazing. I have to admit though that the hints leading to the murderer and the murderer's locked room trick aren't that special, but it is the meta-discussion that arises from the motive behind the locked room murder that makes this story so memorable.

Kayako no Yane ni Yuki Furitsumu ("Snow Packing on Kayako's Roof") (2001) starts with a failed suicide attempt by Kayako in the forest. She is found by a local young doctor, who brings Kayako back to her own house/clinic. The doctor treats Kayako for the day, but the following day the police knock on the door and as the doctor doesn't answer the door, Kayako opens it. It seems someone called the police saying the doctor was murderer in her own house, which turns out to be totally true. Problem: the doctor is murdered, the only other person in the house was Kayako and the only footprints in the snow leading away and from the house, are those of the doctor when she went out for groceries the previous day. Conclusion: Kayako is the murderer.

Well, of course she isn't. I thought that this was the simplest story of the bunch, but it still a very well constructed puzzler, where Ooyama manages to kill off most of your deductions with slyly hidden hints in the text, while at the same time leaving enough hints that lead to the real solution. Here Ooyama also follows a Queenian chain of deduction, starting with one small hint that lead to a wide variety of interpretations and deductions. A story that shows that puzzlers don't have to be overly complex to be fun anyway.

A great short story collection that shows love for the locked room. It manages to present locked room murders as Queenian puzzler plots, which is a feat on its own, but the high standard of every story is just amazing. My only complaint would just be that five stories are way too few to keep the reader satisfied!

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎 『密室蒐集家』: 「柳の園」 / 「少年と少女の密室」 / 「死者はなぜ落ちる」 / 「理由(わけ)ありの密室」 / 「佳也子の屋根に雪ふりつむ」

1 comment:

  1. These stories sound amazing, and I thank you for sharing the review. I liked the way you described switching between offense and defense—which reminds me of a killer crossover in basketball. In fact, the interactions resembles a game of sport: the rush of adrenaline and the thrill of chasing someone on the defense. This is perhaps the reason Carr called it the grandest game in the world. It's a shame that most English publishers don't realize "the world" entails more than English language, so they overlook mysteries in other languages.

    They don't realize the battle of wits has universal appeal and transcends all borders.

    Seriously, I wish I could meet The Locked Room Collector. He sounds awesome. In the meantime, I can only read stories with similar premises, which is why I want to branch out to other writers (i.e. search for talented players to challenge). But even if in my search, I come across a disappointingly simple mystery like Detective Conan's "The Ghost Ship Murder Case," the battle of wits is still kind of fun.

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