Friday, July 12, 2013

"Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing"

『Holy Ground』 (Garnet Crow)

A future without you is covered with darkness, so I might as well die,
I was thinking beneath the gentle moonlight 
"Holy Ground" (Garnet Crow)

Considering I prefer short stories, I find it quite a feat myself I've actually read two of the three longest Japanese detective novels (one of which should still be the world's longest one, too) Now I only need to read Miyabe Miyuki's Mohouhan ("Copy-Cat Crime") to complete the series!

It feels like I read Ayatsuji Yukito's Kuronekokan no Satsujin just a while ago, but it's actually been half a year already. So it was time to read another entry in Ayatsuji's Yakata series. Ankokukan no Satsujin ("The Darkness House Murders") brings us to another mansion full of secret hallways and other trickery. The titular Darkness House, a grand mansion with four distinct wings and a tower, stands on a small island in the middle of a lake deep in the mountains of Kyushu and is inhabitated by the wealthy, yet mysterious Urado family. Chuuya, a young student is invited by his friend Genji, son of the current head of the Urado family, to spend a few days in the Darkness House, as are some other relatives and family friends. Those days Chuuya spends at the mansion however, are strange. The house itself is definitely not making Chuuya feel comfortable, as it has no windows and is mostly covered in darkness, but Chuuya also comes across a stranger falling from a tower, Genji's slightly deformed sisters, a legend about mermaids in the lake and, the mysterious Banquet of Daria, a special dinner named after the wife of the first head of the family. And it all ends with murder. Several murders, of course. What is the secret behind the Urado family and the Darkness House, and can Chuuya make it out alive?

First thing I have to say about Ankokukan no Satsujin. It's long. Very long. Too long. It's not as long as Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu (probably still the world's longest detective novel, or at any rate the longest locked room mystery), I think, but it comes close. Even more important however, is that Ankokukan no Satsujin feels long. I read the original publication, which consists of two books of 600 two-column pages, but nothing of interest happens until the end of the first book (and the second book doesn't improve much on that, to be honest). The start to corpse time is ridiculous and the worst I've ever seen. Compare to Jinroujou no Kyoufu, 1) stuff happens all the time and 2) the length is actually used to its full potential. Here, it feels like the story could have, and should have been told in half the amount of pages.

But the story feels long not only because of physical reasons, but also because of the way it is written. Half of the story, Chuuya is confronted with events that are only enigmatic to him, because nobody bothers to tell him anything. The meaning of the Banquet of Daria? The secret behind the mausoleum in the garden? Genji's amnesiac past? Chuuya has some valid questions, but everybody just says 'we'll tell you later', which they do, just eight hundred pages later. Part of it is of course build up, the fear of everybody but the protagonist=reader knowing something, but it shouldn't be done the way it is done in Ankokukan no Satsujin. I recently watched Another, the series based on Ayatsuji Yukito's novel, and it had the same problem, with everybody refusing to tell the protagonist anything, despite knowing the answers to most questions. It is a very artificial way of stretching things,

The atmosphere of Ankokukan no Satsujin is basically horror, a style Ayatsuji often dabbles in but usually not in this series. The house is brilliantly described as a real place of darkness (literally). The truth behind the Urado family is also surprising, in the sense it wasn't the kind of setting you'd expect if you have read the Yakata series up until now (I'd have totally expected in a Nikaidou Reito story though...). Not a bad thing per se, but I am not sure whether I like it in this particular series. It's different, for sure.

As a detective novel, Ankokukan no Satsujin has one or two moments that really shine, but there are also a great number of moments that felt very predictable. The basic pattern Ayatsuji has been playing with since the first novel in the Yakata series is also present here, so the reader won't be that surprised when that narrative element reaches its conclusion. On the positive side of things, Knox might have not been too keen on secret hallways, but Ayatsuji makes the use of secret passages a great, and fair, part of the deduction process. There is also a fantastic blind spot introduced in the novel and while I am not that big a fan of this novel, I have to admit that this blind spot is worth remembering. 

Ankokukan no Satsujin is the seventh novel in the series, but feels a bit different from the other novels (mainly refering to Jukkakukan no Satsujin, Suishakan no Satsujin, Meirokan no Satsujin and Tokeikan no Satsujin). Yes, there is a closed circle situation and a house full of secret hallways, but there is also a distinct horror-like atmosphere throughout the novel not present in the rest of the series. The scale of the story is also different, from the page count to the size of the Darkness House. However, Ankokukan no Satsujin also turns out to be a very important part of the whole mythos of the series and does not feel as 'detached' as Ningyoukan no Satsujin.

All in all, a hard one to judge. Ankokukan no Satsujin forces you to wade through hundreds of pages (literally) to find something good, but there it is there (if you can survive that long). But this entry is quite important to the story of the whole series, so one shouldn't skip it /choose for not reading it. Does it offer enough good for the bad? Not sure, actually. I don't regret having read Ankokukan no Satsujin, but I certainly wouldn't recommend people to start with this novel; it really has to be read as a part of the Yakata series, or else you won't get enough out of it.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『暗黒館の殺人』

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