Don't judge a book by its cover
- English idiom
Those with an interest in contemporary Japanese mystery fiction have probably heard of the Mephisto Prize (which derives its name from the mystery/science fiction magazine Mephisto). It is an unconventional prize, because there are no entry periods (you can send in your manuscript any time) and while there are no direct monetary rewards connected to the Mephisto Prize, the winner does get his/her novel published by Kodansha. The jury is 'in search of the ultimate entertainment novel', which has resulted in a very varied list of prize winners, and people are often divided on their opinion of the winners, as there are so few winners that are really alike. The winning novels vary incredibly in style, and even the winners' ages go from as young as twenty to someone of the respectable age of fifty-six!
To give you an idea of the variety, a couple of Mephisto winners I've reviewed in the past: Mori Hiroshi (with Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider, 1996), Inui Kurumi (1998), Takada Takafumi (with QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu, 1998), Kuroda Kenji (2000) NiSiOiSiN (with Kubikiri Cycle, 2002), Kitayama Takekuni (with Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken, 2002) and Amane Ryou (2010). So you have something like a hard science-fiction mystery (Subete ga F ni Naru), to a historic-literary mystery (QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu) to a light novel (Kubikiri Cycle) to a fantasy-like mystery (Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken). One could say that a lot of these novels have very distinctive worlds and characters, that the writing and setting of many of these novels share a lot of parallels with manga and light novels (emphasis on over the top characters, easy readability and aimed at a young adult ~ adolescent public) and by the time you have read several of the Mephisto Prize winners, you'll start to get a feeling for what feels 'like' a Mephisto novel. but still, it is hard to guess what kind of novel the next Mephisto Prize winner will be.
The fiftieth Mephisto Prize was given last month to Hayasaka Yabusaka's Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case"). The foreword-cum-Challenge-to-the-Reader explains the rather strange title: we have whodunits, howdunits and whydunits, but what about a detective novel where you need to find out what the title is? This novel is probably the very first whatsthetitle and the reader has until the very last line to figure out what the title is. And of course, there's a 'normal' mystery hidden within the two-hunderd pages of the novel too. A group of fans of the free outdoor life, who got to know each other through a blog, have an offline meeting each summer on Second-Cousin Island, a private island and part of the Ogasawara islands. Members include the owner of the island (who wears a mask because of an accident years ago), a college student, an attorney, a doctor and a public servant called Oka Kentarou who serves as the narrator. This year, the red-haired Raichi joins as the party as the young squeeze of one of the members and while it takes some time, the group learns to accepts her in the end. And thus a Tropical Island Fantasy starts! That is, until people start to disappear, the phones don't work anymore and one of the members is found murdered in a cave. Who brought death into paradise and also important, what's the title of the book?!
Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken is in both positive and negative sense, a Mephisto Prize winner. It is a unique book in the sense that it does things I hadn't seen before and I'll remember the book for it, but it also has its share of flaws. To start off: the whatsthetitle concept is fun in theory, but is very little more than a gimmick. Sure, the 'true' title does relate to the contents of the story in an admittedly amusing manner, but you can only guess the title if you have uncovered most of the mystery, so it doesn't really add to the experience. Wouldn't it have been more fun if you could guess the title beforehand and use that as a hint to solve the whole case? Now it's bit like I'd give you The ????? ?????? Mystery by Ellery Queen and after some shenanigans with coffins with dead Greeks in them, you'd come up with The Greek Coffin Mystery. Just gimmicky. Also: it's almost impossible to search for this title on the internet because search engines think you're using the ? (○ in Japanese) as a replacement sign.
The writing can also be a bit tiring. Writer Hayasaka Yabusaka tries a bit too hard at being meta and edgy, and often ruins his own scenes. Whenever anything happens that can be related to mystery fiction and its tropes, the writer is sure to remind you of that. "Oh, an island. Perfect for a closed circle situation!". "Just to be fair, I am not an unreliable narrator". "And so the reader knows, all the doors close quietly and the staircase makes no noise". "You were probably thinking of the old ???????? trick, right?". I probably should mention that this book (for a certain purpose) indeed uses a lot of familiar tropes, from a mansion on a faraway island to weather conditions cutting all the lifelines of said island to even more specific tropes like a man in a mask. And then imagine Hayasaka commenting on that every single time. Yes, we get it. You know mystery fiction. This is meta. So move on! I have no problem with meta: in fact, I am someone who quite enjoys a meta-discussion on the genre within detective novels. But it has to fit neatly in the narrative and it need not be thrown at you every other page. But placing a spotlight on that fact constantly, pulls the reader out of the experience. Given the nature of the Mephisto Prize, it can't be helped that some winners feel a bit unpolished, but of the few I've read, I get the 'newcomer' feeling the most with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken. The writing is very close to what you'd expect in light novels, and while I can quite enjoy them (Zaregoto series, Kino no Tabi), I didn't really like it here. The pacing of the story is also a bit odd, with very little happening in the first hundred pages of the story, only to throw development upon development in the couple of pages before the conclusion.
The mystery plot is... also Mephisto Prize-like. Even given the simple choice of yay or nay, I'd go with the non-committed nyay. I think the fundamental idea of the mystery plot is okay, but the presentation is not completely fair. Not to say it's unfair, but even though Hayasaka did leave clues in the text, I don't think it's enough to lead to the solution. As it is now, a lot of the clues seem too open for interpretation and not doing enough to fulfill their meaning of life as a hint. I didn't solve the case before the conclusion, but I did like that I instantly understood everything the moment one single sentence was spoken. I love these mysteries where one utterance, one sentence can instantly clear all fog. There were also some instances where certain actions performed admittedly had a reason and made sense with in-universe logic, but from a reader's point of view, it seemed just like an effort of the author to be all sexy and edgy. But of course, it's part of a mystery writer's job to mask the importance of each scene and Hayasaka succeeded there in my case. Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken definitely has a memorable mystery plot, even if the road to the solution isn't without bumps and other imperfections. I can totally imagine the writer coming up with this trick one day and fueled with enthusiasm writing his novel in one go, forgetting to polish the plot a bit.
On the whole, Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken is an okay mystery novel. The whatsthetitle gimmick might not be used to its full extent, nor is the mystery and writing without faults, but I had fun reading the book and in the end, that's what's the most important, right? The core trick, the core mystery has its memorable moments, even if the presentation is a bit rough at times. But like a lot of its fellow awardees, I think opinions on this one will be varied. I think that people who often read Mephisto Prize winners might feel more positive about the book than I do, while more 'conventional' / 'old-fashioned' readers of the genre in turn might not appreciate the book in the way I do. But I guess that's what makes it a Mephisto novel.
Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝 『○○○○○○○○殺人事件』