Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Lesson in Murder

「だが犯人はその『困難』を巧妙に『分割』することで『不可能』を「可能」にしたんだー!!」
『金田一少年の事件簿: 吸血鬼伝説殺人事件』

"But by dividing each difficulty, the murderer made the impossible, possible!"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Vampire Legend Murder Case"

I once wrote a bit about Comic Shock, a used bookstore I frequented when I was Kyoto. I can still recognize which books I bought there because of the plastic covers the people gave every book there. And yes, today's book was bought at Comic Shock. I even think it was the first book I bought at Comic Shock: I was quite surprised to find it there, because while not rare, it is certainly not a really popular book, so I hadn't expected it to find it in an used bookstore.

Ever since his debut in 1947, Amagi Hajime's stories have widely been considered to be among the most best in the subgenre of impossible crimes in his home country, but his stories weren't available in a collected form until 2004. Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei ("Amagi Hajime's Curriculum on Locked Room Criminology") is a collection of both fiction featuring, and critical essays on locked room murders and other impossible crimes. The first two parts of this book are subtitled "Practice" and "Theory", in which Amagi Hajime presents his own locked room typology (like the locked-room lecture in John Dickson Carr's The Hollow Man), with several of his own stories as examples of the types of locked room murders he identifies. The third part collects several of Amagi's early impossible crime stories, but these are not presented as part of the lecture course on impossible crimes. Because of the two distinct 'goals' of the book, I decided to divide my thoughts in two parts too. In this review, I will only discuss the third part of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei: the locked room lecture parts of the book (parts one and two) I will probably discuss in a seperate review on its critical qualities someday. Maybe.

Part three of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei collects all the stories starring amateur detective Maya Tadashi, a brilliant philosophy scholar and friend of Police Lieutenant Shimazaki (who after becoming an inspector, would later star in Amagi Hajime's alibi-breaking stories). Maya is dubbed 'the Clown of the Crime Scene' by the police, because he always seems to be talking utter nonsense whenever he is facing an impossible crime, but while his statements always seem to be too stupid to be true, they always turn out to be the key to solving the mystery.

The Maya Tadashi stories are all extremely short, but plotted very well, making maximum use of the limited amount of pages. They are also set in the time they were written, so just after World War II and this is of importance: many of the stories deal with the social and economical changes the war had brought upon the country and many of Maya's philosophical musings can be taken as a critique on the manner in which modernity and industralization has changed the country's mode of thinking. I would therefore say that a lot of these stories are quite context-heavy stories, as I think some of these stories are kinda difficult 'to get' without a bit of knowledge on Japan's (socio-cultural) history.

Fushigi no Kuni no Hanzai ("The Crime of Wonderland") was published in 1947 as Amagi Hajime's debut story and is about a man killed in a small passageway, with both entrances at each end of the passage constantly observed by multiple witnesses. A very short story, as well as fairly simple problem: for me, I think the story's merits lies in its historical value (an impossible crime story just after the war, so it belongs next to Giants like Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Shisei Satsujin Jiken), as well as the way Amagi manages to work out the problem in just a few pages, but I wouldn't consider it among the best of the stories collected in this volume.

Kimen no Hanzai ("The Crime of the Devil's Mask", 1948), Kiseki no Hanzai ("The Miraculous Crime", 1948) and Yume no Naka no Hanzai ("The Crime Within the Dream", 1948) are stories featuring similar tricks and to be honest, I didn't really like them. Sure, the premises of a mask of an Oni killing people in a locked room (Kimen no Hanzai) and other disappearing murderers (Kiseki no Hanzai, Yume no Naka no Hanzai) may be alright, but the solutions are extremely basic, probably even when these stories were first published. And I doubt the trick in Yume no Naka no Hanzai could even work as it was described in the story itself: it can be done (I've seen it in other stories too), but those had different conditions that made the execution possible. Here, it seems highly implausible it could have worked.

Takamagahara no Hanzai ("The Crime of Takamagahara", 1948) is considered one of the best Japanese impossible crime stories and I can understand why, though this is really a very unique locked room murder that could only have happened under these very special circumstances.  The "god" of a new religion is strangled to death in his room, but the two men guarding the staircase to the room saw they saw nobody enter or leave the room. How then was the deicide committed? I guessed the solution quite quickly actually, because I have reviewed at least other three stories on this blog that feature a similar trick (I won't link them, because it may be a bit too spoilery), but I would say that the execution in this story is very good and it is indeed a very memorable story. But again, only under these special circumstances.

Ashita no Tame no Hanzai ("The Crime for Tomorrow", 1954), Potsdam Hanzai ("The Potsdam Crime", 1954) and Fuyu no Jidai no Hanzai ("The Crime in the Winter", 1974) are all three about footprints on the ground, or more precisely, the lack of footprints. Ashita no Tame no Hanzai has footprints that stop in the middle of a garden: the solution is simplicity at its best. Maya's short answer to the question how such a miracle was performed is short, but it explains everything in an instant and has the reader go 'why didn't I think of that!'. Fuyu no Jidai Hanzai has a naked, dead lady in the snow with no footprints around it: the solution is a bit like that of Ashita no Tame no Hanzai: they work with the same principle, but are executed quite different. Interesting to look at as a pair. Potsdam Hanzai has some interesting links with the Potsdam Declaration and is an okay impossible crime story, but every effort at summarizing the story sorta spoils the solution, it seems. There is a nice piece of misdirection there, but my attempts at summarizing this story kinda make the solution seem too obvious.

Kuromaku - Juuji ni Shisu ("The Mastermind - Die at Ten", 1955) features a murderer who disappears from an observed house which was searched immediately after the shot, but the solution hinges on 1) one very obvious trick and 2) one very silly trick that can't possibly have worked.

Nusumareta Tegami ("The Purloined Letter", 1954) is the most interesting story of the collecion together with Takamagahara no Hanzai, I think. Holmes always keeps complaining to Watson his stories are too sensational, that the records of Holmes' investigations should place emphasis on the thought process behind each case, right? Well , Holmes would have loved this variation on Edgar Allan Poe's famous short story. The story consists of a letter written by Maya Tadashi, who explains precisely how he manages to find the location of a hidden film with a photograph of a compromising letter. Starting with the definition of what 'solving the case' means, he moves to definitions of clues, and even discusses the role of philosophy and the sciences in modern police investigations, and just as you think his story has nothing to do with the case, he shows how all the previous arguments were crucial parts in the thought process behind locating the hidden film. Nusumareta Tegami is a fairly theoretical story though, something Edogawa Rampo had noted too when he had read one of the earlier versions, and while this is still a very scientifical piece even after several rewritten versions, I think it is a great story.

I am aware that this is an incomplete review, as I've only looked at the third part of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei, but I feel that this part can stand perfectly on its own: while not all stories are as memorable as others, stories like Nusumareta Tegami and Takamagahara no Hanzai make this a worthwile read. But besides that, the way in which Amagi manages to depict these impossible crimes and their solutions in just a few pages is amazing. A final note: I have no idea when I'll look at the critical study parts of Amagi Hajime no Misshitsu Hanzaigaku Kyoutei. It might be soon, might take ages. And in the worse scenario, I'll just forget.

Original Japanese title(s): 天城一 『天城一の密室犯罪学教程』: Part 3 毒草 / 摩耶の場合 「不思議の国の犯罪」 / 「鬼面の犯罪」 / 「奇蹟の犯罪」 / 「高天原の犯罪」 / 「夢の中の犯罪」 / 「明日のための犯罪」 / 「盗まれた手紙」 / 「ポツダム犯罪」 / 「黒幕・十時に死す」 / 「冬の時代の犯罪」

21 comments :

  1. it's frustrating to read about untranslated books :/

    I just read your article on "Castle of the Werewolf", I couldn't stop drooling while reading it! It sounds like the perfect mystery novel!

    Now my new goal in life is to live long enough to see it translated one day T_T

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    1. Thanks for reading some of the older reviews!

      And at the moment, I think it would be quicker to just learn Japanese yourself :D Not that Nikaido has no chance of being translated to English, but it /is/ a very, very, very, very long novel, so I assume it would end up rather low onthe priority/novels deemed feasible for translation list...

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    2. Speaking of Nikaido, why haven't you reviewed more of his stuff? Did it get too insane? Did it get too long? And I agree with the complements about The Terror of Werewolf Castle. I want to read that so bad...

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    3. Funny you should ask; a Nikaidou review is scheduled to appear next week.

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  2. I was wondering about something: if the TRICK tv series is so popular, why didn't the heroes appear in Gosho's Detective Picture Book?

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    1. Well, it's just a list of the characters/books/series /Aoyama/ wants to recommend to /his/ readers, so he is really the only one who could answer.

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  3. Fuyu no Hanzai sounds like a story I read in an anthology of locked rooms edited by Ayukawa Tetsuya. As I remember it, the approach to the story (two policeman puzzling over a solved but still mysterious past case as they walk through the woods where it occurred) is more interesting than the actual solution to the puzzle (though I don't have any complaint about that either).

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    1. You sure it wasn't the same story? It's been a while since I read this story (enormous lag between /writing/ reviews and them actually being posted), but I think this story also started with Inspector Shimazaki and another cop talking about an old case.

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  4. Ho ling, have you read the manga 'Spiral' by Kyou Shirodaira/Eita Mizuno?

    There are some very interesting impossible crimes and an original locked room murder

    At the time I read it I even thought it was "the best manga I've ever read"!

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    1. Yes, I know Spiral quite well. I think I saw the anime not long after it was broadcast and I also read the manga at a later point. Fun series with a dynamic take on 'intellegent battles'. I'm actually quite sure I've referenced the series in a couple of reviews here.

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    2. Ah, I thought you didn't review it
      I apologize

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  5. Hey Ho-Ling!

    Do you know of any good murder mystery novel located in spooky castles (as in Scooby Doo)?

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    1. While I'm pretty sure they're out there, I can't think of many, actually. At least, not available in English (I could name a bunch of Japanese novels though...). But Carr's "He Who Whispers" comes in mind, if you haven't read that one yet...

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  6. Hi

    Have you read these books?

    - The Togakushi Legend Murders
    - Summer of the ubume

    If so, what are your thoughts on it? (sorry if you already did a review on them, I couldn't find it)

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    1. Yes, I have reviewed both novels actually. (Links: The Togakushi Legend Murders and Summer of the Ubume). If you're looking for certain reviews, the library is the easiest way to go.

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  7. May I ask: how long did it take you to learn how to read and understand Japanese?

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    1. Depends on how you define 'understand' and 'read' and the kind of texts. It doesn't take long to learn enough basic Japanese to read a children's book for example. On the other hand, there's still enough for me to learn now.

      In general, I think you'd surprised how far you'd get within one year of dedicated study (x hours a day). Take level 3 (intermediate level) of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test for example. It is described as a level where:
      "One is able to read and understand written materials with specific contents concerning everyday topics. One is also able to grasp summary information such as newspaper headlines. In addition, one is also able to read slightly difficult writings encountered in everyday situations and understand the main points of the content if some alternative phrases are available to aid one’s understanding."

      They estimate you'd need about 500~750 hours of study, which would mean that at two hours of study a day, you could read Japanese fairly well within a year.

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  8. To "Anonymous," you posted a question on my blog if Locked Room Int had any interest in translating Castle of the Werewolf. I have no idea, but e-mailed your comment to John Pugmire.

    @Ho-Ling: when I finally got around to peek at your blog, I was surprised to actually see 19 comments on this post. We rarely break double-digits in our niche-corners.

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    1. I know! I am expecting pigs flying by any minute now.

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