J'ai, quelque jour, dans l'océan,
(Mais je ne sais plus sous quels cieux),
Jeté, comme offrande au néant,
Tout un peu de vin précieux...
"Le Vin Perdu" (Paul Valéry)
Twain's comment on 'classics', "a book people want to have read, but don't want to read" has been true for a lot of books for me, but with detective novels, I usually really do want to read the 'classics' myself. Of course, what's a 'classic' to one, might not be to another, and canons are rarely perfect. And yet, you have to admit, a title like "The Three Great Occult Books" sounds alluring, right? And so the reading of the classics continues...
The Three Great Occult Books
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (1934)
Dogura Magura (1935)
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (1964)
Hinuma Souji and Kouji lost their parents in the great Touyamaru accident, just like their cousin Aiji. They all seem to cope with their loss in a different way: Souji has become quite pessimistic, Kouji tries to occupy his mind by writing a detective novel, while Aiji has of late become a frequent visitor of gay bars. But was the death of their parents really just an accident? The Hinuma family is said to have been cursed by an Ainu god for cruelties done by the first Hinuma in the family line and indeed, Aiji has lately been seeing a suspicious Ainu hanging around. Hearing more about the Hinuma family, chanson singer Nanamura Hisao forespells that there will be more deaths in the family soon, dubbing it "The Hinuma Murders". And indeed, Kouji is one day found dead in the bathroom. Because everything was locked from the inside and Kouji had a weak heart, the police decides it was an accidental death, but not everyone is convinced by that, especially because this is awfully similar to the novel Kouji had been writing. A group of interested people, including Aiji and Hisao, decide to deduce who the murderer is, but surprisingly, they all arrive at different conclusions. But this was just the first act in the long tragedy to be found in Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness", 1964).
Ranking in second in the Tozai Mystery Best 100 list, Kyomu he no Kumotsu has the reputation of being an anti-mystery novel masterpiece. While not as... crazy as Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura (at least I can write a normal review for this book!), it is not surprising why this book is considered one of the Three Great Occult books of Japanese mystery/fantasy fiction. Kyomu he no Kumotsu manages to be a great anti-mystery, but also to be a great 'normal' detective, a quadruple locked room mystery nonetheless, at the same time and it works. There is something for everyone here and anyone who can read Japanese, should read Kyomu he no Kumotsu.
The initial set-up reminds of Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of course. Like I mentioned in the review of that book, Berkeley often comes close to being an anti-mystery. but always stays on the safe side of the line. Kyomu he no Kumotsu in comparison, crosses the line. And is on crack. Similar to The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the amateur detectives each arrive at their own conclusions; they deduce different tricks, different murderers. And now multiply it by four different locked room murders and you might get an idea of how the deductions and hypotheses of Kyomu he no Kumotsu really feel like offerings to nothingness. This is nothing like the progressive, evolving theories of Ellery Queen, or the blatanly false, but plausible theories presented by the attorneys in Van Madoy's Revoir series: in Kyomu he no Kumotsu, you're presented with an amazing amount of theories for a series of locked room murders, basically posing the infinite possibilities of the imagination, and doubting the possibility of certainty. Heck, at one point, the detectives actually theorize about a locked room murder they think the murderer will commit, figuring they can then solve the murder before it has even happened! The contineous deductions are a bit tiring, but that is the point. Yet, every single one of these deductionsis certainly interesting, and keeps your eyes glued to the pages.
The amateur detectives are also very meta-concious, refering to a whole slew of detective novels, and in particular, the Ten Commandments of Knox and the Twenty Rules of S.S. Van Dine. During their deduction battles, the detectives also, for 'fun' reasons, have to adhere to the famous rules and even have a rule their solutions to the locked rooms must be original: they are not even allowed to use tricks seen in other detective fiction! One character who is not as big a mystery reader as the others is even given a copy of Edogawa Rampo's famous essay A Categorization of Tricks, so he check whether his trick is original! Just consider: here we have writer Nakai Hideo, forcing himself to come up with an original solution for every hypothesis posed by every character, for all four locked rooms! As reader you get mesmerized by this parade of ideas, but to think one man did all this, for one story! In fact, Kyomu he no Kumotsu was written in two parts, and when Nakai initially send in the first part to a competition, the judges thought this novel was a joke novel, because the neverending deductions and the strict following of the Decalogue and Twenty Rules made it seem so absurd. I have to note though that unlike Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolate Case, Kyomu he no Kumotsu always keeps a straight face, a very serious and straight face indeed.
In the end, the story actually denies being a mystery novel. Unlike some anti-mystery novels, this novel does indeed have a proper solution to the whole series of deaths, but the conclusion forms a magnificent ethical criticism on the whole genre. But the great part of this is; you, as the reader, have the freedom of how to read Kyomu he no Kumotsu. Sure, the conclusion sets "The Hinuma Murders" in a different light, but even so, it remains an excellent locked room murder mystery. The criticism on the genre works, because Kyomu he no Kumotsu has taken on the form of a proper detective novel, but at the same time this book shows exactly why detective novels have been so popular. Read it as anit-mystery, read it as a proper mystery novel, it works both ways.
A great locked mystery, a great anti-mystery, an ode to deduction, a criticism on detective fiction. Kyomu he no Kumotsu is an offering to nothingness, and an offering to detective fiction. Definitely a must-read. Oh, and no, I won't be doing Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken anytime soon, I think. I have it here, but to reading all Three Great Occult Books in a short period of time is probably not good for you.
Original Japanese title(s): 中井英夫 『虚無への供物』