I jump in the orange Heaven's Express of love to go see him
I fly across stations with tremendous speed
to that little room
It's no use talking to me, my mind isn't here anymore
"Heaven's Express to Love" (Kojima Mayumi)
Each time I read an alibi deconstruction story, I chuckle, thinking how horribly impossible it would be to pull one off perfectly with the Dutch railways.
Inspector Onitsura is set on the case in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Hakuchou ("Black Swan", 1960).
This year is rather heavy on alibi deconstruction stories, it seems: there was that little Crofts boom I had early in the year, and Matsumoto Seichou's Jikan no Shuuzoku a couple of months ago. Ayukawa Tetsuya was also famous for his alibi deconstruction stories (as well as impossible crimes and guess-the-criminal stories... I guess he did everything). Three years ago, I reviewed Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), which was also an Inspector Onitsura case and a great, but perhaps too complex an alibi cracking story involving the movements of a black trunk containing a dead body across Japan. In Kuroi Hakuchou, the movements of a dead body by train once again forms the focus of the investigation, but the atmosphere is completely different from Kuroi Trunk. The investigation itself does bring Onitsura to Kyoto and Fukuoka (Kashii!), and I am starting to suspect that famous Japanese alibi deconstruction stories have a rule about featuring both Tokyo and Fukuoka (Ten to Sen, Jikan no Shuuzoku and Kuroi Trunk).
And the change is sometimes good, sometimes not as good. For example, Kuroi Trunk was way too focused on just the movements of the titular trunk, and it resulted in an investigation where the police would try to determine the exact location of the trunk down to the minute, across a space of Tokyo-Fukuoka (for those who don't know: it's a very large distance in time and space). It was at times too specific, too detailed and too focused. Kuroi Hakuchou on the other hand features a much more varied investigation, with lots of clues in different directions and even a much more dynamic way of presentation: in the course of the book, no less than three parties contribute to the hunt for the murderer, with series detective Onitsura only making his late first appearance in the second half of the story. The flow of the story thus does more to attract the reader: oh, this clue leads to a dead end? Let's go in this direction then? Oh, this gave us a new suspect, let's go in that direction for a bit, etc. On the other hand, especially in the first half of the novel I had the feeling the story wasn't moving forward at all, only sideways, which I thought a bit tiring and boring. The jumping between investigating parties was also part of that; especially as I had to wait half the book for Onitsura to appear.
I remember that in most of the Crofts I read, Inspector French also arrived late on the scene, but the story set-up was also quite different from Kuroi Hakuchou. Most of them were inverted mystery stories, so it was all lead-up to the murder and painting the scene. In Kuroi Hakuchou however, the murder happens very early in the book and it starts almost right-away with an investigation; it's just that Onitsura isn't called for until in the second half.
Which reminds me, I knew this was an alibi deconstructing story when I bought it (that was all I knew about it), but I loved how Ayukawa Tetsuya still presented Kuroi Hakuchou as a full-fledged whodunnit story. A lot of alibi-cracking stories give you an obvious murderer and focus completely on deconstructing his/her alibi, but in this story, you'd vagely guess that there was an alibi trick pulled off somewhere by someone, but the when and who were equal parts of the mystery besides the how. I'll be honest and say I was first looking at the wrong suspect, as he was the first to have a perfect alibi in the story, and well, considering all I knew about the book was that it was an alibi deconstruction story, it was natural for me to suspect him, right? Of course, this was completely my mistake, but I love it when mystery stories try to present themselves as one type of mystery story, when they are in fact another (i.e. making one trick appear to be another). There are some great ones there (which I can't name by title because it would spoil the fun), but playing with expectations at a meta-level is something I always appreciate.
Oh, by the way, I kinda liked how just like in Kuroi Trunk, this book is based on the actual train time tables at the time and that the time tables are also included in the book. Maybe it was just Matsumoto Seichou and Ayukawa Tetsuya, but it's interesting to note that the tricks in their stories were actually based on the actual time tables and could all actually be pulled off back when they wrote the stories (the one in Matsumoto's Ten to Sen in particular is very famous, but that one became impossible I think quite soon after publication). Not sure actually whether I've seen that with Western writers, now I think about it.
At the very end of the story, a minor hint is revealed to Onitsura (and the reader), which I actually quite love, but it's almost impossible to pull off good in the form of a novel. Really a shame, because the hint itself is good and deliciously hard to spot, but fair, but it just doesn't really work here. It almost feels like Ayukawa just used the hint because he liked it, rather than that it really added to the story, but it is the one element in the book that really made me wish there was an adaptation of this book for screen/big screen/radio/whatever.
I quite enjoyed Kuroi Hakuchou as a very competently written alibi-deconstructing whodunni. I do think I like Kuroi Trunk more, but I think that for most readers, Kuroi Hakuchou is probably the better one because it is much more varied and simply more enjoyable to read as a story.
Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『黒い白鳥』