Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Blue, Over The Blue

I have a blue house with a blue window.
Blue is the colour of all that I wear
"Blue (Da Ba De)" (Eifel 65)

Because of a ridiculous backlog of reviews, this post won't be published until December, even though I'm writing this in mid-July. A message to my past self: don't worry, the weather will eventually become cooler! And now, back to the main topic of today.

Hoshikage Ryuuzou series
Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room")
Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room")

The first time I read Ayukawa Tetsuya was two years ago, with Akai Misshitsu ("The Red Locked Room"). I thought it to be a great short story collection overall, with some good impossible crime stories (with Doukeshi no Ori the absolute masterpiece). But because Ayukawa Tetsuya is better known for his detailed, sober and down-to-earth alibi deconstruction stories where you need to take notes and calculate everything, Akai Misshitsu was perhaps not representative of Ayukawa's complete oeuvre. I later reviewed Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), which I loved, despite the slightly shocking discovery that the thing about taking notes and calculating alibis wasn't just a joke. But now, I return to Ayukawa's more showy side. Aoi Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 2 ("The Blue Locked Room - Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection 2") collects the last set of short stories featuring Hoshikage Ryuuzou, the import/export tradesman / amateur gentleman detective. Most of them were published in the period between 1958 until 1961, except for the last one which dates from 1974.

This volume collects two other color-themed mysteries, Shiroi Misshitsu ("The White Locked Room") and Aoi Misshitsu ("The Blue Locked Room"). The first derives it's title from the ever-popular theme of footprints in the snow, in this case, a professor has been murdered in his home, and the only footprints left in the snow on the path to the victim's house, were of the two persons who discovered the body. A simple trick to suit the low page count, but nothing special here. Aoi Misshitsu lends its title to the collection, but there is not much blueness in the story: the not-very popular stage director of an acting troupe is killed inside a his bedroom with a blue lamp: the door was locked and while the window was open, no tracks were left beneath the window. The impossible situation is alright, but the basic idea behind the locked room murder is very similar to Shiroi Misshitsu.
 
A set of three similar stories form the core of this collection, in my opinion, consisting of Barasou Satsujin Jiken ("Murder at the Villa Rose"), Akuma wa Koko ni ("The Devil is Here") and Suna to Kurage to ("Sand and Jellyfish"). All three of them have the writer-character Ayukawa Tetsuya visiting some his holiday villa, with murder happening there and all three stories also take the form of a guess-the-criminal script complete with Challenge to the Reader. It is kinda difficult to write more detailed about these stories, because like the traditional guess-the-criminal script, these stories take a very minimalist form and focus very strongly on just presenting a (completely fair, well hinted) puzzle plot to the reader. Which is also the problem of these stories: they are very similar in both set-up and execution and the fact that these stories are ordered after each other in this collection isn't really helping with the differentation process. They are also very classically written: I guess that the first members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club took inspiration from Ayukawa Tetsuya's stories, but a lot of the elements seen in these three stories are still often used tropes in the scripts members write nowadays and feel a bit outdated. But of course, you can hardly fault Ayukawa for having people imitate him. One special mention for Barasou Satsujin Jiken though, which features the most daring Challenge to the Reader I've ever encountered.
 
Guess-the-criminal scripts often resemble early Ellery Queen stories, because they often focus on identifying characteristics of the murderer and comparing them to each suspect. Akanesou Jiken ("The Dark Red Mansion Case") and Akuma no Hai ("The Devil Ash") invoke a bit of Queen in another way. Recognizing Hoshikage Ryuuzou's gift for detection, a group of people occasionally comes together to dine and for a  Puzzle Club-esque practice, or one might want to call it a Tuesday Night Club practice. The guest of the day is to tell about a mysterious problem they encountered and after they have finished, Hoshikage Ryuuzou is given fifteen minutes to solve it. Which he does, of course. Akanesou Jiken is actually a very simple and bland mystery plot, about a blackmailing journalist who thought it was smart to stay at the same inn as his victims (spoiler: he dies), but I actually quite enjoyed reading the story. Just to show that a mystery plot is not necessarily the single element makes or breaks a fun detective story (but, it often is). Like the stories above, the deduction style kinda resembles Queen, but I have to say that this story is not really as fair, or at least does not feature as obvious/clear-cut/unrefutable deductions as you'd like such a story. Akuma no Hai is about the death of a professor in a locked room. His dead face was covered by ash, simulating the incidents of his father and grandfather's busts being covered by ash. Just the right amount of complexity for the short page count and definitely one of the best constructed stories of the whole collection.

Shu no Zeppitsu ("His Last Writings in Red") is a novellette which was later rewritten to full-fledged novel with the same title (similar to Jubaku Saigen in Akai Misshitsu, which was also rewritten to a novel). Hoping to receive his ordered manuscript, an editor visits the house of a famous author, which also serves as a gathering place for more writers/illustrators/people in the business. The author is murdered in his study and more murders follow. The story starts out simple enough, but more and more elements make their way into the plot until it you realize the story is a bit too ambitious for its format. No wonder Ayukawa made it into a full novel. It's a fairly okay story, but the main trick is rather obvious to guess, I think and the pacing of the presentation of all kinds of story elements is a bit unbalanced.

Overall, I thought that Aoi Misshitsu was a slightly less impressive sequel to Akai Misshitsu. The impossible crime stories in this book miss the Oomph! factor Doukeshi no Ori had in the first volume. Aoi Misshitsu on the other hand features some traditional guess-the-criminal scripts which are fun, but seen from the modern point of view offer little surprising, because a lot of the probably surprising elements at the time of original publication, have nowadays been become the most basic elements of any guess-the-criminal script. The fact Aoi Misshitsu features a bunch of stories which seem similar isn't helping either. If you'd had to choose, I'd say go for Akai Misshitsu, but Aoi Misshitsu does feature a fairly different selection of stories from the first and is worth a read too.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『青い密室』: 「白い密室」 / 「薔薇荘殺人事件」 / 「悪魔はここに」 / 「青い密室」 / 「砂とくらげと」 / 「茜荘事件」 / 「悪魔の灰」 / 「朱の絶筆」

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