"Tell me... Is fate unchangeable?"
Shui Hu Zhuan (The Water Margin) is one of the classics of Chinese literature and chronicles the adventures of 108 men and women who band together against a corrupt government in the 12th century. The story is a romanticized version version of real events and these outlaws of the marsh have been a major part of Chinese literature for many centuries, and the tale of the 108 Stars of Destiny have also been a source of inspiration for many, many other works of fiction (for people who play videogames, the Suikoden series will probably sound familiar).
It's also a lengthy work, with many, many characters, so naturally, some episodes are better known that others. Two of the fan favorites star Wu Song: one in which he famously kills a tiger with his bare hands and another one, where he avenges the death of his brother Wu Dalang, who had been poisoned by Pan Jinlian so she could be together with her lover Ximen Qing. Both Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing are brutally killed by Wu Song in Shui Hu Zhuan, teaching readers everywhere it's not smart to cheat on, and poison the brother of a man who slayed a tiger barehanded.
However, there exists a spin-off-esque naturalistic novel called Jin Ping Mei (The Plum in the Golden Vase), which provides an alternate version of the above events: here Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing manage to escape the wrath of Wu Song and they live happily ever after. Sorta. Jin Ping Mei describes the sexual escapades of Ximen Qing, wealthy merchant, and his many, many wifes and lovers and the quarrels and domestic problems that arise from having like seven or eight wives in your home.
By now you'll be thinking, what does this have to do with detective fiction? Well, one day, Yamada Fuutarou was given a copy of Jin Ping Mei for his work as an editor, and he drew inspiration from this Chinese classic to write his own, classic of Japanese detective fiction. Like the original story, Yamada Fuutarou's Youi Kinpeibai ("The Bewitching Plum in the Golden Vase") follows the sexual adventures of Ximen Qing (Japanese reading: Seimon Kei) and his many wives, seen from the eyes of Ximen's friend (and financial leech/suck-up/etc) Ying Bojue (Ou Hakushaku). As a wealthy merchant, Ximen Qing is able to support his gigantic harem, but ever since Pan Jinlian (Han Kinren) has joined as his fifth wife, things have been a bit strange in the Ximen mansion. Sure, there were also domestic struggles, as all of his wives were jealous of the others, but before Pan Jinlian's arrival, these troubles never ended in... death. Starting with the double murder of two of Ximen's wives (whose legs are cut off), tragedy relentlessly strikes the Ximen household. Is it Pan Jinlian's presence that makes everybody crazy?
I raved about Yamada Fuutarou's Meiji Dantoudai in December, so I was eager to read more by him. Youi Kinpeibai ranked 30th in the Touzai Mystery Best 100 (highest of Yamada's entries in the list), and boy oh boy, does it deserve it's place in the ranking! Like Meiji Dantoudai, this is a masterpiece and even this early in the year, I reckon this will end up among the best reads I had this year.
Youi Kinpeibai is in essence a short story collection, and while I usually discuss short shories seperately, discussing fifteen stories would make this review a bit too long, I think. Also, the short stories of Youi Kinpeibai do form one coherent narrative and can just as easily be read as 'one' story with many episodes (like many of the old, Chinese classics), so one could also argue this approach might work better for this work.
Starting with a grotesque double murder, Youi Kinpeibai consists of a series of murders and other horrible events surrounding the people in Ximen Qing's harem. Sometimes it's an impossible crime, sometimes it's only revealed at the end of a story that a crime had been commited. With fifteen stories, you can be sure there's a lot of variety in the stories and despite the fact all events of Youi Kinpeibai happen within one household, things don't become boring nor does the cast becomes too small because everybody is killed off, because Ximen Qing's sexual adventures ensure there's no shortage of new characters (and wives) popping up.
Yamada Fuutarou makes optimal use of the limited spatial setting, as well as the psychological closed setting of a harem in Youi Kinpeibai. Indeed, one of the joys of reading this novel is seeing how the women in Ximen Qing's harem, especially Pan Janlian, are going to react on a new fling or whimsical game Ximen Qing comes up with and the usually mortal tragedy that arises from that. There are several stories that depend on the layout of Ximen Qing's love nest, while another set of stories are more styled as whydunnits, and depend on the unique psychology of the women in Ximen Qing's harem. Multiple wives vying for the attention of their husband is a setting not commonly seen, so the motives that you'll see in Youi Kinpeibai are among the likes you've never encountered before.
Which is also true for some of the tricks behind the mysteries. Youi Kinpeibai features some of the most original murder scenes, and solutions I've seen, but also some of the more grotesque and shocking ones I've ever seen. One could say that it makes great use of the fact Youi Kinpeibai is based on a graphically sexual novel, with the situations presented here quite unique in the annals of detective fiction. But a lot of the solutions only work within the 'literary world' of Youi Kinpeibai. The world in Youi Kinpeibai is not quite our reality, but a romanticized version of twelfth century bourgeois life in China. Compare it to the 'reality' of Homer's Illiad and Homer, where it's infinitely easier to fool people with disguises for example. A lot of the tricks only work in a very special setting, in special world and while the tricks work perfectly in the world of Youi Kinpeibai, one has to note that they would only work there. In my opinion, this works out fantastically for Youi Kinpeibai though, as it is really a unique story with settings and tricks that only work here, creating a distinct atmosphere that one might call Youi Kinpeibai-esque.
But, there is of course a difference with other 'special' settings for detective novels like historical novels or science fiction/fantasy novels. Science fiction/fantasy detective novels work best in my opinion when the rules/possibilities of the world are clear (c.f. Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban, Snow White and The Caves of Steel). A historical novel like Meiji Dantoudai was clearly set in a historically realistic Meiji period Japan. Youi Kinpeibai on the other hand is admittedly a historical novel (so the tricks make use of contemporary mechanics and technology), but the way people behave, the way they act do feel a bit more artificial, indeed, because these are characters that live in a highly artificial literary world. The rules of what's possible and what's not are less clear here than in Meiji Dantoudai, or even the science fiction/fantasy detective novels I named, so some might find the world a bit difficult to get into.
I have not read the original Jin Ping Mei, though I have read Shui Hu Zhuan, but I don't think it's necessary for the reader to have knowledge of the original stories to enjoy Yamada Fuutarou's play with Jin Ping Mei: while the latter half of the story does feature some characters from Shui Hu Zhuan, the episode surrounding Wu Song, Pan Jinlian and Ximen Qing is explained here anyway, and that's all you'll need to know to enjoy Youi Kinpeibai.
Oh, and before I forget: medieval China + detective stories = Judge Dee for most people, I think? The basic setting might be different (the stories of Youi Kinpeibai are definitely not about detecting and punishing crimes), but it's probably quite easy for readers of Judge Dee to get into the world of Youi Kinpeibai. Not only do they share a historical setting, but crimes in Judge Dee also have a tendency to be a bit nasty and despite all the historical correctness of the Judge Dee series, it similarly has an unique worldview that allows the tricks to work in these novels.
I would say that like Meiji Dantoudai, Youi Kinpeibai is a masterpiece. It makes perfect use of its setting (both as a historical setting, as well as the 'literary world' of the original Jin Ping Mei). The stories and characters are memorable and it also makes great use of its format as a connected short story collection. Once again, I conclude a Yamada Fuutarou review stating I need to read more Yamada Fuutarou.
Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『妖異金瓶梅』