Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Wind

遠い思い出 と今なら言える 

And the past days where I hid my tears
Now I can say they are a distant memory
It's the wind's lalala...
"The Wind's Lalala" (Kuraki Mai)

Ayukawa Tetsuya was a highly influential writer of puzzle plot mysteries in post-war Japan. He was especially a prolific writer of stories featuring impossible crimes of a very specific kind. Whereas most people would instantly think of locked room murders, Ayukawa instead focused on the alibi deconstruction story: stories where the culprit has an unbreakable alibi, making it impossible for them to have committed the murder, even though it seems quite clear it was them. In the past, I have reviewed books like Kuroi Hakuchou and Tsumiki no Tou for example, which I really enjoyed. Ayukawa was also an important editor by the way connected to the publisher Tokyo Sogensha by the way, and writers like Arisugawa Alice and Ashibe Taku made their debuts thanks to awards connected to Ayukawa.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind", 2007) is a short story collection by Ayukawa Tetsuya featuring stories originally published in the period between 1951 and 1975. The stories all feature Ayukawa's most famous detective character: Chief Inspector Onitsura of the Metropotan Police Department. Interesting is that even though Inspector Onitsura is the series character, he is seldom at the centre of the story. Warui Kaze for example features a couple of inverted stories (which obviously have the murderer in the center), where the inspector is only mentioned by title, never by name. But even the stories that do follow the police seldom show us the man: you're more likely to see several of his subordinates doing their job diligently, with Onitsura leading the investigation from his desk. He sometimes doesn't even appear for the finale for the story, leaving that job to his subordinates too. There have been some TV productions based on the Inspector Onitsura series, but I wonder whether he's as absent there too.

Etude in Blue (1956) starts with a scene where the director of a small company and his mistress comment on how their situation resembles the thriller movie they just saw. In the film, the director of a small company and his mistresss plotted together to kill the wife. And that's exactly what they are going to do too. The plan is to provide the director with a perfect alibi during the time of the murder, by making it appear his current girlfriend and intended victim (his secretary) was in a completely different place during the murder. The plan goes without a hitch, the conspirators think, but the police is eerily quick to catch on... As an inverted story, this is a decent, but not particularly memorable story. Like in Columbo, there is of course a major mistake left unnoticed by the murderer, which sets the inspector on their trail (a theme which is true for basically all stories in this collection). In this case, the mistake itself is a good one, and it's normal the inspector would continue his investigation from there, but there's still quite a jump between that point, and him finding out all the others details of the crime. Because this is an inverted story, we obviously don't get to see the police checking up on all the details of the case (as we already saw that from the murderer's point of view) and Onitsura explaining everything again would be repeating, but I guess a more logical structure to how Onitsura's explanation would've been better, as now he starts pointing out the things the murderer did to create his alibi, but then ends up with pointing out that mistake, which on its own does not connect to the rest of Onitsura's story.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind"), Itai Kaze ("A Painful Wind") and Satsui no Esa ("Bait for Murderous Intent") are three very short inverted stories. Warui Kaze, which lends its title to the collection, is about a dentist, who happens to be visited by the man who drive his daughter to suicide. Murder ensues. The dentist comes up with a plan to create a fake alibi, but the scheme basically breaks through sheer bad luck, and it's not even possible for the reader to have foreseen that. In Itai Kaze, a husband discovers his Russian wife has been cheating him with a younger man, and the husband plots to kill the man, and make it seem his wife did it. While it is a short story and basically hinges on one single mistake, the plotting of the fatal mistake in question is actually quite smartly done, and I enjoyed this story. Satsui no Esai has a young man with a bright future plotting to kill his lover. He originally had not planned to kill her, but prospects of a marriage with a wealthy heir soon turned his feelings of love into murderous intent. The plan is to make it seem like she committed suicide on her own, but he makes one little mistake that turns everything upside down. And that's it, actually. It's really a small mistake that upsets his scheme, but rather than being impressed by how ingeneous it was, I was more thinking along the lines of "Yeah, of course he's going to forget that, it's really a small thing that very few people would think of". With stories like these, you want the police to point out a mistake that seems so stupid in hindsight, not one that seems genuinely unnoticable.

In Yoru no Houmonsha ("A Nightly Visitor"), a private detective is asked by a woman to prove the innocence of her deceased husband. A former lover who had been basically stalking him had been murdered on the night her husband died in a traffic accident. Police investigation showed that he had indeed been in the neigborhood of the crime scene, and as the other suspect has a perfect alibi and dead men tell no tales, they decide the deceased man was the murderer. The basic idea behind the alibi trick is fairly simple, and is actually seen in several of the other stories in this collection, though I did like one important part of the alibi trick, concerning a delivery from a Chinese restaurant. The way the police figure out this part of the alibi is suspect is fairly mundane, but also realistic and I could really clearly imagine how the scene'd go. 

MF Keikaku ("The MF Plan") is the plan one side of a manzai comedy duo gave to his scheme to kill his partner. Even though his partner is the reason they're not doing very well as a comedy duo, his partner refuses to break up with him, and even threatens to reveal hidden skeletons to the police if pushed. The plan is to make it appear his partner was already dead in his apartment while he himself still out of town. The fatal mistake in this inverted story is on one hand very simple: you're likely to come across it one of those solve-it-yourself mystery quiz books for children. On the other hand, the way it's hidden in the narrative is smart.

Madara no Inu ("The Speckled Dog") is by far the longest story in the collection, taking up about a quarter of the pages on its own. A female office worker receives a box of bonbons at her work. Figuring it might be from one of the many admirers she has, she puts on in her mouth, and finds out the hard way that the bonbons are filled with cyan. Police investigation initially focuses on her acquaintances and admirers, but then the police discovers that she might not have been the intended victim. While this story is a lot longer than the rest, it does feel a bit artificially long. The first half for example could be shortened greatly without any harm done to the narrative. The murderer's plan also involves an utterly complex scheme to get hold of a perfect alibi with too many elements. I think this plot would've worked either better as a full-length novel, with each of the elements having more time to get developed, or a less complex, short story.

The last two stories in the collection focus on a younger Inspector Onitsura, during his period with the Harbin police. In Nire no Kisou no Satsujin ("Murder in the Elmwood Mansion"), Elizaveta, a Russian aristocrat, calls Onitsura for help, as she found a dead body in the abandonded Elmwood Mansion near the Russian Cemetary. Elizaveta was supposed to meet with the victim, a blackmailer, for business about her deceased sister, but she found the blackmailer murdered. Later, they find out that Elizaveta's father has committed suicide that night, and that his pistol was also the weapon that killed the blackmailer. The problem however is that considering the time schedule, Elizaveta's father couldn't have retrieved his pistol from the store, murdered the blackmailer, and then gone on home to commit suicide. The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple, yet elegant. It's also the first story in this collection to emphasize the impossibility of things, even if by nature, alibi tricks are always stories about impossible situations. Oh, and on a side note, it's hard figuring out the original Russian names from the Japanese text!

Akuma ga Warau ("The Devil Laughs") is the final story in the collection and also set in Harbin. On New Year's night, a policeman is guided by a gunshot and a ghastly laugh to a street, where he discovers a dancer lying on the ground. She mutters the name of her assailant, and dies on the spot. The name of the assailant was a familiar one to the police, but when questioned, it appears he had a perfect alibi for the time of the murder: He was a block away, just stepping inside the bus, and there was a trustworthy witness present (trustworthy in the sense that the witness would have more reason to lie to get the man in trouble). The solution has Carrian qualities to it, I think, and quite well thought-off. It's not a classic, but certainly a more than decent impossible crime.

Warui Kaze, as a collection, is a bit skewed towards very short, one-idea stories that sometimes feel a bit like hit-or-miss. Well, there are not genuinely misses here, but they don't really fill the stomach either. I remember I felt the same about The Columbo Collection, the Columbo short story collection by William L. Link. There you definitely felt the difference between the one-short stories which point out one fatal mistake and then end, and the longer Columbo TV episodes, where Columbo slowly pulls on the thread, revealing more and more of the scheme. Warui Kaze basically has the same, as the conclusions to a lot of the stories feel to abrupt, even if the contents of the stories is interesting. I did enjoy the stories overall though, but I'd not recommend this as an introduction to the Onitsura character (also because he does not appear that very often).

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『わるい風』: 「青いエチュード」 / 「わるい風」 / 「夜の訪問者」 / 「いたい風」 / 「殺意の餌」 / 「MF計画] / 「まだらの犬」 / 「楡の木荘の殺人」 / 「悪魔が笑う」


  1. have you played Laytonn Brothers Mystery Rooms ?

    I would love to see a review of it

    1. I played it when it was first released, when it was still a severely flawed, incomplete game with only four cases and no sign or announcement when, or even if new cases would be added (it took MONTHS before new cases were added). I might replay it in the future, but I have no plans for it for the moment. It's a simple, stylish game, but the way it was initially sold was ridiculous.

      Now Layton Mystery Journey (the renamed Lady Layton), that's a different story. I'll definitely play the game, and if it fits in the scope of the blog, I'll try to write something about it.