"Ramen is like a minature map of human society. There is sadness, a bit of hapiness and every else"
"Yugefuku - The Hakata Detective Case Files"
I recently bought Columbo on DVD and even though I have seen most of the series, there are still episodes I've never seen, so that has been a fun way of spending my time lately. And then it hit me. A Columbo game like that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo game where you play as the villain would be awesome. Slowly figuring out the perfect crime, and trying to get away from that pesky inspector. And just as you think you have defeated the last boss, he returns with his superspecialawesome attack "just more thing" (unavoidable, instant death). Make it happen!
It shouldn't be a secret by now that I love ramen. Especially Hakata's porkbone tonkotsu ramen. And it is probably also known that I love the town of Fukuoka. So you can guess my excitement when I first heard about Nishimura Ken's Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File ("Yugefuku - The Hakata Detective Case Files"), a connected short story collection set in Fukuoka with a ramen theme! Yuge Takumi is a private detective operating in Fukuoka with a great love for ramen. His father once made Fukuoka's best ramen, but disappeared one day. Yuge (who is still called Yugefuku by his close friends after his father's ramen stand) is still trying to figure out what happened to his father, while also doing his normal business. Which for some reason or another, is often connected to that wonderful noodle dish.
I guess that this is what Cor Docter would have called a topographical mystery. The local culture of Fukuoka definitely comes alive in this short story collection, with lively descriptions of downtown Fukuoka and descriptions of many (actually existing) ramen restaurants, as well as copious usage of the local dialect. In fact, in the many years I've blogged, I've often talked about how I love 1) food-themed detectives, 2) usage of dialects and other speech patterns in fiction, 3) Fukuoka, so you'd figure that I'd be all over Yugefuku. So what is the 'but'?
Well, major part of it is just the (lack) of true mystery. I should have been warned by the phrase 'hardboiled detective': initially, it just seemed like a nice pun on the habit of al-dente noodles in Hakata ramen. But Yugefuku is indeed not a Great Detective, and the cases he encounters miss the complexities and structuring I so love. Not seldom we are given a story where Yugefuku has one, admittedly, bright idea about a certain case, which ends up like 'that brought me on the trail of that one person who never actually appeared in the story and was never mentioned to, who quickly confessed to the crime'. These cases aren't that baffling and most of the time, I was left unsatisfied. The storyline about Yugefuku's father's disappearence is also not of any real importance.
The way the stories connect to ramen are Yugefuku at his best and worst. When author Nishimura manages to present something good, the concept works. Like a certain little lady who likes to compare everything tot the happenings in St. Mary Mead, Yugefuku has the habit of comparing everything with the macroworld of ramen, from the history of ramen-types to how cooks work and customs like second serving. These insights into the world of ramen are interesting on their own, but they also provide surprising new points of view on the case, which lead to the solution. The story Ten to En ("Points and Circles", as a reference to Matsumoto Seichou's Points and Lines) for example has Yugefuku talking about ramen delivery, which turns out to be the key to the case. The moment you see how the two seemingly unrelated notions are connected, is really fun. But most of the time, the connection is mediocre at best. One story for example starts with an anecdote on the custom of kaedama in Hakata ramen, a second portion of just the noodles. The story itself however is about another meaning of the word kaedama, namely substitute/stand-in. So no real connection with the case on hand.
When the anecdotes on ramen and other Fukuoka customs and the main plot don't connect well, the stories kinda fall apart: they feel like a collection of random plotlines and comments, without forming a whole. There were sadly several times I had to ask myself why a certain subplot or comment was inserted in the story, only for me to find out that they had absolutely nothing to do with the main story. It is padding, which is something I am not looking for in a short story.
The pages is filled with love for ramen though, and you'll guaranteed want to eat a bowl of hot noodles when you read this, but purely from a mystery-reader's point of view, this short story collection is lacking. However, as you can hardly define me as just a person who loves detective fiction, without the above mentioned affection for ramen / Fukuoka / dialects, I'd say that people interested in ramen should definitely try it. When the ramen-mystery mix works, it works and you'll learn a lot about ramen anyway.
Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『ゆげ福 博多探偵事件ファイル』: 「暖簾わけ」 / 「途上」 / 「点と円」 / 「学習」 / 「風吹きぬ」 / 「裏窓」「悪意 箱」 / 「絆」