Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Masque of the Red Death

"Red...White...Blue..."
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Whenever I see covers of Japanese detective novels where the characters of the title make 'a corner', I always wonder whether it's the infuence of Ichikawa Kon's Kindaichi Kousuke films, which all featured stylized credits with similar 'cornering' in the names.

Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Mansion of the Red Death", 2001) is a short story collection by Ashibe Taku, starring his series detective Morie Shunsaku. He is supposed to be a defense attorney, but at least in the four stories collected in his volume, we see very little of his legal performances, and a lot more of him as a celebrated amateur detective specializing in locked room murders and other impossible crime mysteries. He is joined by his assistant Niijima Tomoka, as well as other acquaintances with the police, the news and even a mystery writer called Ashibe Taku, as he solves one baffling case after another. This particular volume is the eleventh entry in the long-running Attorney Morie Shunsaku series (which started in 1990), so it jumps right in the action without any (deep) introduction of the principal players.

The title story Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Red Death Mansion") is the longest story in the volume, closer to a novelette than a short story. Niijima Tomoka's hiking trip during a short holiday turns into a nightmare when she gets lost in the mountains and winds up in a strange mansion with rooms connected to each other in a zig-zag pattern, all decorated in different colors from black to green and blue, which reminds of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. After a bit of confusion, Tomoka learns that the building is owned by Koshimizu Tatsuma, who can't get out of his bed anymore and probably has't long to live anymore. His granddaughter, Saya, also happens to be visiting her grandfather that night, and she confides in Tomoka that she suspects something isn't right and that the building's caretaker (who also takes care of her grandfather) might be a bit suspicious. Tomoka and Saya are each given the use of one of the colored room. In the middle of the night, Tomoka sees a suspicious black figure making his way through her room to the next room, and Tomoka decides to follow the figure. The figure however manages first to conjure Saya away from her room, then disappear himself before he knocks Tomoka out. When Tomoka awakens, she finds that the caretaker has been killed, and that grandfather Tatsuma and Saya have been spirited away from the building.

A lot happens in this novelette, from an impossible disappearance from the colorful rooms and a murder to just the mystery of where Saya and her grandfather have gone off too, as well as the purpose of the strange building and even more. Yet the story is almost strangely straightforward and clear and never feels too convoluted. The solution has both ingenious ideas as well as some points that seem a bit unlikely. The way the story connects to The Masque of the Red Death is definitely good: I love detective stories that can give new (logical) interpretations to classic horror and ghost stories. The basic idea behind the disappearance from the rooms is good, but I really, really wonder whether the trick can be performed as described in the story. Finally, there's another important part of the mystery related to the actual murder that seems a bit hard to swallow, even if I have to admit there were some hints pointing to it. It's a trick that always seems a bit hard to believe in general, so it's not a problem specific to this story. Overall a good story, even if a bit long.

Oh, Edogawa Rampo's Ougon Kamen funnily enough also featured an impossible disappearance in a setting inspired by The Masque of the Red Death.

Shikku Suru Joker ("The Running Joker") on the other hand is a short, but powerful story, about a murder commited in a holiday villa. The only witness had been standing guard in the main hall of the villa (because the inhabitants had good reason for wanting security), but nevertheless a murderer dressed up as a joker made his way inside the building and inside one of the bedrooms completely unseen, killed one person and then disappeared into another room after crossing over the main hall (knocking the witness out in the process). The solution is simple, and elegant and with just enough hints around in really short, no-nonsense impossible crime story.

Fukatu Keibu no Fukitsu na Funin ("The Unfortunate Appointment of Inspector Fukatsu") has a local rural police station in an uproar because of the arrival of a fast-track police inspector who is appointed to their station for the necessary "experience", leaving Morie Shunsaku unable to get the information he needs as an attorney. A corpse found at the bottom of a cliff discovered right after Inspector Fukatsu's arrival means he can get right to work and Morie sticks around to see how things work out. The solution is rather clever: I quickly saw through the first layer of the solution, but definitely had not expected that Ashibe would double-up me there. Again a fun short story that also includes quite a lot of satire on rural police stations and how careers within the police are planned.

Misshitsu no Oni ("The Monster of the Locked Room") is my least favorite story of the volume. A professor is threatened with death on a specific day, and the police naturally keeps an eye on him. The professor retreats to his study in the garden, with the only entrance to the garden locked from the outside by his brother-in-law and the house being observed from a room above the garden and the entrance from a restaurant across the street. And yet the man is found stabbed to death, with no signs of any intruders (or escapees). While not a bad story, it just lacks something really catchy (especially compared to the other stories in the volume). There's something like a robot in the room that is supposed to make the story a bit more interesting, but that plot device isn't really used to its full extent, and gives a 'oh, by the way' vibe.

Overall though, Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin is a good short story collection featuring impossible crimes. The start is a bit more impressive than the ending, but good nonetheless. There are also quite a lot of references to other entries in the Attorney Morie Shunsaku series and this volume certainly made me interested in reading more of Ashibe, so you can expect more of this series in the future on the blog.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『赤死病の館の殺人』: 「赤死病の館の殺人」 / 「疾駆するジョーカー」 / 「深津警部の不吉な赴任」 / 「密室の鬼」

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