"In spring, the dawn is best."
The Pillow Book
As someone who suffers from hay fever, and can't stand heat, I have to say I always hate the first half of the year...
Special Yakisoba-pan. Once in a while, she comes across strange happenings. Nothing of a criminal kind, mind you. Just little mysteries of everyday life, like that lady who sat upon part of Izumi's skirt in the train, but who refused to stand up despite Izumi staring her in the eyes. Innocent, but not less dumbfounding mysteries. One day, Izumi is introduced to her best friend Asana's boyfriend Uehara, who has recently graduated university and is now an elementary school teacher, and Uehara's friend, the university sudent Tobiki. Tobiki has a knack for solving Izumi's questions and as the year passes on, Izumi learns to trust Tobiki with her questions about all kinds of mysteries that happen in the city of Fukuoka.
Okay, I admit, I only bought this short story collection because it said it was set in Fukuoka. Well, that and it was published by Tokyo Sogensha, which is responsible for quite a lot of very good mystery novels. Still, the main reason was Fukuoka. Having lived there for a year, I sometimes get overwhelmed by nostalgic feelings, which I then ease with mystery novels set in the city. Because strangely enough, there are quite some good novels set there. Anyway, Houkago Spring Train is Yoshino Izumi's debut novel, so it was a bit of a gamble, so how did that work out?
Well, to be honest, as a everyday life mystery short story collection, it's still a bit rough. The everyday life mystery's biggest hurdle is of course that the mystery lacks impact from the start. It's no murder, not some criminal event. It's by definition a mystery you and I could come across in our normal lives. So for it to have impact, an everyday life mystery needs to be 1) alluring, by presenting a believable, but utterly baffling mystery that you imagine you yourself could come across and 2) by giving a satisfying solution to the problem, again one that seems fitting to everyday life. The problem with Houkago Spring Train is that the mysteries presented in the four short stories aren't just not consistently alluring.
The book for example starts with the title story Houkago Spring Train ("After-School Spring Train"), where Izumi and Asana almost miss their connection, when a lady sitting on Izumi's skirt in the train refuses to get up, despite Izumi's calling out to her and staring the woman in the face. The mystery deepends when, after the girls manage to get out, the lady comes after them to apologize for what happened. In the core, this is a good everyday life mystery: it's a situation that is imaginable and yet strange enough to nag at you. But the solution is not satisfying at all, because it comes out of nowhere. The detective doesn't reason his way to the truth: he pulls out a random piece of trivia out of nowhere and it is expected from the reader to just believe this. The lack of convincing power is what breaks up the story and the magic of the otherwise good setting of the puzzle.
Gakusai Broadway ("School Festival Broadway") is better, though it actually features something that could almost be considered a crime. Izumi's class is performing two plays in English as part of the school festival. Having finished Team A's performance of Sleeping Beauty, Izumi and Asana wander to the make-shift Dressing/Prop Room, where they discover that Cinderella's dress for Team B's play is gone. More students arrive and they all look for the dress, but nobody is able to produce results. In the end, they gave Cinderella Sleeping Beauty's dress, but the question of where Cinderella's dress went still roams in Izumi and Asana's heads. This story is a lot better than the title story, with better (but still vague) hinting, and a much more interesting build-up of the story. It's a slow buid-up though, making it feel like the pages/plot ratio is not optimal.
The third story, Oru Kami Tsunoru Kami ("Folding Papers, Raising Papers") is a bit chaotic. At first, it looks like it'll be a story about whether the process of assigning every student new seats in the class was done fairly or not, as the lots were all in different colors (and seats in the back of the classroom are a luxury). But then it turns into the strangely compelling story of raising funds for a good cause. Izumi is 'lent out' to the school volunteer club by her own club in exchange for services rendered by the voluteer club: she, as well as other students from other classes, are to help with collecting money to help a girl get an operation abroad. The whole weekend, the students are split up in teams in the Tenjin (downtown) area and the Hakata Station area, trying to collect money. Izumi's on the Tenjin team, while the Volunteer Club president is on the Hakata Station team, but on the last day, Izumi discovers that the president wasn't at Hakata Station at all this weekend, and the members of the Hakata Station team actually thought the president was at Tenjin the last few days. The answer to why the president lied is actually quite good: it fits the school theme perfectly (like the previous story actually). It is however once again not really well hinted at. Overall though, I think this was the best story of the collection, as it has a mystery that is puzzling, but not really serious (where was the president during the weekend while everybody else was collecting money), while it also has a satisfying, and believable answer. The previous story is good too, but there the puzzle (the missing dress) seems a bit more 'serious' than the mystery here.
The final story, Cantaloupe, has Tobiki helping out his friend Uehara. One of the pupils at his elementary school is for some reason lying about the plant he was raising for a school project. Uehara made notes about which pupil planted what, but this boy keeps saying he had another plant, and that it died yesterday. Uehara doesn't mind giving the boy a new plant, but he does want to know why the boy is lying. The solution to the problem is really disappointing, as it comes out of nowhere and it is kinda hard to believe as a reason for what happened. The story luckily adds one last surprise that has been building over the course of the book, which was actually quite brilliant. The best part of the book perhaps. But strangely enough, it was just 'the extra', not a main puzzle. I actually think Yoshino should've written a story with this last part as the main gimmick, as that would've resulted in a very surprising, yet satisfying everyday life mystery. Now I think: "You should've given me that sooner!".
I did enjoy the writing of this novel a lot. Both the narration and the dialogues of Izumi, Asana and the other high school students are really fun to read, the characters do come alive on the pages. Wordplay, random chatter about familar school topics, as a youth novel, Houkago Spring Train is quite enjoyable. And for me, it gets a lot of bonus points for being set in Fukuoka. And not just Fukuoka: the whole book is mostly set around my activity zone when I lived there: Tobiki is a student of Q-University (= Kyushu University), working at Hakozaki Campus, which is where I was situated too. Izumi's lives just across the road of the campus, while her high school is located in the area where my room was. So it was nice to see all kinds of familiar places mentioned. Of course, most readers won't have this emotional bond, but as it was a reason for me to purchase the book in the first place, I was more than happy to see how 'my' Fukuoka was portrayed in the book.
With the knowledge that this book is Yoshino Izumi's debut novel, I'd say that Houkago Spring Train is still a bit rough around the edges, but definitely in possession of potential. The middle part of the book is fairly good, but the start and end are less entertaining. The writing is good though, and I'd to see more of the characters and the setting. Let's hope more will follow and Yoshino will be able to develop as a mystery writer too.
Original Japanese title(s): 吉野泉 『放課後スピリング・トレイン』: 「放課後スピリング・トレイン」 / 「学際ブロードウェー」 / 「折る紙募る紙」 / 「カンタロープ」