"A train running on rails is better than a train not running at all"
It's been like two or three months since I last wrote a review for the blog, but because of the posting schedule, you (dear reader) shouldn't have noticed that. Heck, it will take almost half a year before this post is actually published!
Ayukawa Tetsuya was a well-beloved mystery writer who specialized in 1) whodunnit stories and 2) alibi deconstructing stories. And like the other Ayukawa novels I've reviewed in the past, Tsumiki no Tou is an alibi deconstructing story starring Inspector Onitsura... set between Tokyo and Fukuoka. The latter is not a coincidence, nor representative of Ayukawa's work though, mind you. At least, I don't think so. Fukuoka (and the island of Kyuushuu) is often used as a setting in Ayukawa's work, probably because he spent some time there during World War II. But the more important reason is that I actually set out to find mystery novels set in Fukuoka, so my selection of Ayukawa stories is very skewed towards Fukuoka.
That said though, Tsumiki no Tou does resemble the other novels I reviewed a lot. They were all alibi deconstruction stories set between Tokyo and Fukuoka, and the tricks were all based on the actual time schedules for the trains at the time. The books all feature those time schedules, so readers could really figure out the alibi trick themselves, or even use them! Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen famously also featured a trick that could be done in real-life, though I think that was only possible for a short while (because of changing schedules). I think I already posed the question in a previous Ayukawa review, but I wonder how common it is to do alibi stories based on real time schedules?
Tsumiki no Tou is a pretty short novel, but the story has excellent pacing and the solution behind the main problem (how could the main suspect have commited the murder despite having a perfect alibi) is really neat. Ayukawa knew how to do the alibi deconstruction story, and Tsumiki no Tou is an excellent example. After presenting you with a seemingly good alibi, the story keeps feeding you possibilities that undermine that alibi, only to show that alibi is really rock solid. After a while you too start to think the deal is impossible, and it's then that Ayukawa shows the ingenious trick that lies behind the murder. It's this idea of offense and defence that marks a good alibi deconstruction story in my opinion, and Ayukawa obviously knows that. It also helps that the trick in Tsumiki no Tou is not overly complex, like in Kuroi Trunk. Tsumiki no Tou is definitely solvable, and quite satisfying.
I was less impressed by the way the story developed at times though. Too much of the development depended on coincidences of the witnesses. By which I mean, once every while the police would hit a stop, and then a witness would remember something crucial, or talk about something that would turn out to be important. This device can be used once or twice in a novel, but after four or five times, it feels rather forced. It's like a reverse Columbo-situation: just about the time the police is giving up, the witness stops them from leaving with a "One more thing...". It's even more jarring, because the detectives in Ayukawa's novels are actually all quite competent.
I was also charmed by the original motive. Obviously, I'm not going to write in detail about that here, but I don't think I've seen this kind of motive often, and it was also hinted at really well throughout the novel. Motive is not especially important in an alibi deconstruction story, but here it was a very nice bonus.
There's really nothing much I can say about Tsumiki no Tou. If you're looking for a good, solid alibi deconstruction story (that isn't too long), you have your winner here. I find it even more accessible than the previously reviewed Kuroi Trunk and Kuroi Hakuchou, so I'd even recommend this book over those if you haven't read any Ayukawa yet.
Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『積木の塔』