『As the Dew』 (Garnet Crow)
"Not able to go against the flow of time, these feelings slowly fade away
But despite that it is not bad to have these flowing tears"
"As the Dew" (Garnet Crow)
I am not sure why I even still wear a wristwatch. I mean, I also walk around with a cellphone and a music player, which all feature clocks, so why bother with an object that has no other function that displaying time? Heck, I usually take it off when I am in class. I would have a good reason to wear it if my watch had a stungun function or a secret compartment with a piece of paper to restore my sealed memory or something, but alas.
Ayatsuji Yukito's Tokeikan no Satsujin ("The Clock House Murders") is a mansion divided in two parts, with the 'old mansion' being the original Clock House, a place where Koga Michinori stored his immense collection of clocks from all over the world and related research material. It has been many years since his death, but the mansion is still being managed as it was at the time as according to his will. Rumors in the neighborhood tell about the ghost of a young girl who died ten years ago haunting the place and as a special project organized by occult magazine CHAOS, the medium Koumyouji Mikoto will attempt to get into contact with the ghost. Koumyouji, three staff members from CHAOS and a group of students from the occult research club from W-University are to spend three days inside the old mansion, locked away from the rest of the world. People start to get murdered however and with the keys to the exit lost and no way to contact the people in the 'new mansion', the survivors can only wait until the third day in the hope that help will come from the outside. Amateur detective / recently debuted writer Shimada Kiyoshi however is also investigating the Clock House unbeknownst to the people inside the old mansion, as it was designed by Nakamura Seiji, whose buildings have a history of stirring up murder.
The fifth novel in Ayatsuji's Yakata (mansion) series and after a somewhat strange day out in Ningyoukan no Satsujin, we're back at what can be considered the good old formula of this series. A suspenseful, dense story with loads of events that happen in a very short period of time, set in a closed circle situation within the titular Clock House. And it's good! I might have said that it was good for the series to have gone on that little field trip in Ningyoukan, but let's be honest, it was definitely the weakest of the Yakata novels up until then. Tokeikan brings us back to the basics, and I mean that in a more literal way than you'd think.
Because in a sense, this feels like a more refined, readable version of the first novel in the series, Jukkakan no Satsujin. Which is also because Kawaminami, Shimada's sidekick in Jukkakan, returns in this novel as the new editor of CHAOS, but we are also presented with another two-dimensional narrative that is a staple within the Yakata series. Suishakan had a past/present narrative and Meirokan a novel/outside world narrative, but both Jukkakan and Tokeikan feature an inside/outside narrative, where you follow the closed circle horror-suspense narrative on one side, and an investigation narrative on the other side. This is naturally a bit dangerous, because it blurs the difference between the two novels, but the atmosphere in both novels is quite different.
I have to say again though, the main trick, while absolutely fantastic and greatly performed, with excellent foreshadowing and hint-placing, once again hinges on the same basic idea Ayatsuji has been playing around ever since the first novel in the series, which makes it fairly easy to spot. But suppose I would have been able to read each Yakata novel with no expectations / a priori knowledge of the series, then I think I would have been the most impressed by Tokeikan's main trick of all Yakata novels. This is also because of the structure of the story: Jukkakan was obviously inspired by Christie's And Then There Were None, and ends with everyone dead on the island. The murders in Tokeikan seem to get solved right after the old mansion is opened again, but with another hundred pages left in the novel, any reader can guess that there is something more coming and it is in this section Ayatsuji reveals that the main trick in Tokeikan is something different than you would have thought in the first place and pleasantly so. Like I said, the main trick's performance hinges on a pattern Ayatsuji uses often, but the trick itself, the type and especially the execution, is really brilliant and marks a new way to look at that type of trick, in my opinion.
Tokeikan also feels more like a refined Jukkakan in the sense that it is a lot more accessible. Jukkakan was immensely meta, with discussions about, and references to classic detective fiction everywhere (heck, the characters were all known by nicknames as Agatha, Ellery and Car!). The setting featuring students belonging to a mystery circle was also strongly influenced by Ayatsuji's own participation in a mystery club. In short, Jukkakan was very much written from Ayatsuji's viewpoint, for people like him. Which isn't a bad thing per se and I still like Jukkakan the best of all I've read of Ayatsuji, but it is not the most accessible, I think. Tokeikan on the other hand loses practically all of the meta-atmosphere, making it work as a 'standalone' novel: it doesn't feel too strongly connected with other writers / books as was the case in Jukkakan. Tokeikan is like a Jukkakan written for a more general public, by an Ayatsuji has grown in the years as a writer.
I do hesitate in recommending reading Tokeikan first though: the Yakata series is definitely a series that references the previous novels. What's more, Nakamura Seiji's existence is a very important factor in the novel and his character is explored the most in Jukkakan. If you know nothing about Nakamura Seiji's 'strange' architecture and the things he likes to hide in his designs, you might get disappointed/mad about some events in the Yakata novels. In a sense, Nakamura Seiji does represent an unfair element in the otherwise fairplay novels (because practically anything is possible in his buildings), but this Nakamura-cheat code is never a vital hint to arrive at the truth, and if it is a vital part, then it will get revealed at an early enough stage allowing the reader some thinking time.
Tokeikan no Satsujin is like with most Yakata novels a recommended read however. And another four to go in the series!
Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『時計館の殺人』