flying fall down
Flying fall down
As I fly, I fall down
To your side
"Flying" (Garnet Crow)
I actually quite like the cover of the book in today's review in terms of artstyle and design. If only it did not feature a clown....
Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") 
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") 
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") 
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") 
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") 
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") 
Nejishiki Zazetsuki ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") 
Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") 
Okujou no Douketachi is the fiftieth story in Shimada Souji's Mitarai Kiyoshi series, which started with Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (1981), known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. As most people reading his blog will probably know, it were the early works in this series that later inspired writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou (and many more), which in turn would lead to a new wave of puzzle plot mystery stories in Japan in the late eighties/early nineties of the previous century. If you take a look at the list above, you'll see I've only reviewed a very minor selection of this long-running series starring a genius astrologist-turned-private-detective and his Watson, the writer Ishioka. Over the course of the run of this series, there have been a variety of adventures for this duo. Early stories like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai were very classically built puzzle plot mysteries for example, while works like Ihou no Kishi or Nejishiki Zasetsuki were much more character-focused. What these works do often have in common are fantastic, alluring premises, as well as a tendency for very ridiculous tricks, in a good sense of the word. I think I make this comparison every time I do a Shimada review, but whereas most people would a needle and thread to come up with a locked room trick, Shimada would use iron wire and jackhammers. This also holds for Okujou no Douketachi.
I'd say that the premise of Okujou no Douketachi is probably the best part of the book. The mysterious roof where people who have absolutely no reason to commit suicide, who even state they have no intention to commit suicide, still jump off from is a strangely eerie place. I say strangely, because this roof is situated on top of a bank, next to a department store, in a fairly lively neighborhood. Yet, despite this modern setting (the story is set in the 90s by the way), there's definitely something uncanny going on the roof, as one by one, the bank employees take the quick way down to the street. I really enjoyed the chapters that detail this impossible situation, as you feel something anti-modern slowly creeping up.
I am not as overwhelmingly positive about the how and why behind the mysterious deaths however. On one hand, the solution definitely features the over-the-top elements I'd expect from Shimada (I correctly guessed the solution), which show that imagination is more important (and more fun!) than realism in mystery fiction. On the other hand, you need a truckload of coincidence for all the events in this novel to happen. One or two events, okay, I might accept that as possible and plausible, but there's a ridiculously long chain of coincidences necessary to result in what actually happens in this story. The way Mitarai sees through that all is a bit unbelievable, because there's too much luck involved.
The unbelievable number of coincidences necessary is also connected to another 'problem' of this book. I think I had the same with Atopos, but the plot tends to meander at times and the result is a fairly long novel, but in a way, unnecessary so. I think the idea of this story would have worked much better as a short story. A short story also means a more streamlined plot, which in turn would also get rid of a good amount of coincidences the current novel form needs to work. To call it dragging, would be to overstate my feelings on the matter, but I do feel this story is a lot longer than actually needed, and all the meandering is mainly used to set up coincidence after coincidence.
What was interesting is that there are several narratives in this book that cross each other. So you'd get a few chapters of narrative A, and then a chapter of narrative B, and than back to A, etc. The neat idea behind this is that each of these narratives has its own font. So narrative A uses font A, narrative B font B, etc. It reminded me of how the deluxe edition of the manga Houryuu Kyoushitsu (The Drifting Classroom) used different kinds of paper depending on where the narrative was (the unknown world/Earth). I really like these ideas of using the book format to bring the reader an unique experience. I did not like all the fonts used in Okujou no Doukeshi however. Especially the first one was hard to get through, as it was like a font in bold. There was another section with a very round, cute font which was also a bit difficult to read quickly through. I think there were about four, five different fonts used in total. But especially now publishers and readers use the e-reader more and more, I am happy to these kinds of design ideas behind old-fashioned printed media.
Is Okujou no Douketachi a story fit be a landmark, to be the fiftieth work in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series? As I ask myself this question, I start waggling my head about. Not really. While it has an interesting premise I did really like, the story has to twist and turn itself around to accommodate to a novel-length plot. The problems I have with the story mostly result from stretching out an otherwise interesting idea in a manner that is at best questionable. This premise would've worked much better as a short story, which is a shame. Though this book might work quite well as a TV production, now I think about it.
Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『屋上の道化たち』