Wednesday, July 19, 2017

She Sailed Away

We are all rowing a boat of fate 
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

Note to self: need to try Russian food some time.

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Receiving fan mail was by no means a rare happening for actress Reona, but even she had to raise an eyebrow when she got Kuramochi Yuri's letter. One reason for Reona's surprise was that the letter had been delivered to her almost a decade late, as it had been sent to her former agency in Japan before she moved to the States, and it got stuck there. The other reason for Reona's surprise was the contents. Yuri wrote the letter on her deceased grandfather's behalf, as he begged his granddaughter to ask if Reona could go Charlottesville, Virginia, USA to locate a certain Anna Anderson, to tell Anna he was sorry for what happened in Berlin, and that it all could've been avoided if they had the photograph at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. Reona has no idea however who this Anna is, and why she was asked to pass on the message. A few phone calls also tell her the letter reached her too late: Anna Anderson had died in 1984, soon after the letter had been posted, and Yuri herself also died in an accident. Reona asks her friends Mitarai Kiyoshi (amateur detective/astrologist/neurologist) and Ishioka Kazumi (writer) if they could look into this curious request. The photograph mentioned in the letter shows the foggy arrival of a Russian warship in Lake Ashi near Fujiya Hotel in 1919, but it is an utterly impossible one: for how could a Russian warship have landed in a lake up in the mountains in 1919, a lake with no shipyards, no access to the sea and not even modern roads at the time! With their interests thorougly piqued, Mitarai and Ishioka chase after the mystery of Anna Anderson and the impossible photograph in Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case Of The Russian Phantom Warship", 2001).

Narrator Ishioka starts his tale about this adventure noting that this was a unique case for him and Mitarai, as it did not involve murders, or even death. And yes, Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is indeed probably a book very different from what you'd expect from the series, especially if you've mostly read the English releases, like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. For Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is not a classic detective story with an ingenious puzzle plot that dares to challenge the reader to solve its mysteries. This book is a historical mystery that mixes fiction with fact. You may noticed from the links in the summary already, but the Anna Anderson in this novel was a person who actually existed. She was the best known of all the people who claimed they were Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia. And yes, that means that this novel is about the mystery of Anastasia, the famous heir of the Romanov family of whom it was rumored she managed to escape the massacre of her family.

I guess that the term historical mystery could refer to two types of stories (which aren't mutually exclusive per se). A mystery tale could be set in a historical setting (for example the Judge Dee stories), or the tale could be about a mystery that occured in history ("Where did the hidden treasures of the Templars go?"). The latter of course don't need to be set in a historical setting themselves. Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken obviously belongs to the latter category and is a fairly entertaining example of the genre. I hardly know anything about Anastasia and the final days of Imperial Russia, to be absolutely honest, but the tale told in the pages of this book, which mixes facts and fiction, is entertaining at least. Mitarai, as a fictional character, deducing conclusions based on facts from 'our' real world is also an interesting sight, like Dupin's comments on the Marie Rogêt case (which was based on the real murder case of Mary Rogers). I have no idea whether the theories posed in this novel could survive close academic scrunity, but I for one enjoyed the tale about the alluring mystery of Anastasia with the changing world politics as its background.

The question is though, did this story need feature Mitarai? Yes, some of the deductions Mitarai makes about trauma in the brains and stuff are obviously ideas that 'belong' to him (as he is a neuroscientist), and there are some elements in this story that keep in firmly in the mystery genre, but still, most of the book consists of lectures on history. First it's a long history on Anna Anderson, then it's a history lesson on the Fujiya Hotel, then it's a historical account of the final days for the Tsar and his family... A lot of the time, it's just one or two people telling long tales from the history books. I am not sure whether this story needed the fictional world of Mitarai Kiyoshi, as it could've worked just as well without him. The character Reona also appears in other Mitarai stories by the way, like Atopos and Suishou no Pyramid.

The one element that is clearly something fit for a mystery novel is the titular Russian phantom warship, which apparently appeared in a mountain lake in 1919, despite the mere idea of that happening would've been impossible. In fact, the sheer scale of this mystery (a Russian Imperial warship making its way to a lake in the Japanese mountains) is exactly something Mitarai is used to solving. The actual solution however is... not something you'd expect from a mystery novel, as there were no hints available to the reader at all, and Mitarai just suddenly drops a surprising truth on both his allies and the readers. Sure, the explanation of Mitarai to the phantom warship is absolutely historically sound, but the truth behind the title is really not presented in the form of a mystery novel, as it does not follow the structure of mystery -> clues -> logical solution based on the clues. It's just sprung upon the reader now.

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is an interesting historical mystery on Anastasia, yes. However, it's definitely not what you'd expect from a book in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. The puzzle plot mystery elements are far to weak for that. I have the feeling Shimada wanted to write a book on Anastasia, and thought it'd appeal to his readers better if Mitarai was involved with the case, but I think adding Mitarai only hurt the story as intended, as the fusion feels a bit forced. The fact a lot of the story involves plain info dumping, instead of a more engaging narrative is also a bit disappointing, as the material itself is interesting.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ロシア幽霊軍艦事件』


  1. This one is like Josephine Tey's book The Daughter of Time, which also featured her series detective Inspector Grant.

  2. Thanks for the review, and I think I should seek out some Shimada Souji novels to read... I still have 'Tokyo Zodiac Murders' on my metaphorical TBR pile (in my Kindle), and I'm resisting reading 'Slanted Mansion' in Mandarin, just in case an English translation emerges eventually.

    Which of the Shimada Souji novels would you say have the best mysteries/ puzzles?

    1. but most importantly which ones can be read/viewed in english?

      thanks for any help mr ho-ling. i only have zodiac by shimada sensei.

    2. As you might've noticed from the list above, I haven't read that many of them, but I definitely enjoyed The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and The Crime at the Slanted Mansion the best, as well as most of the stories in the first two short story collections (Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings and Dance). The other novels I read where not bad, and some of them featured some really ingenious puzzles, but are also extremely long with more emphasis on the background story, rather than the puzzle.

      As for which can be read in English, as far as I know Tokyo Zodiac is still the only novel released in English, with a few short stories being published in EQMM (though never collected, I think)

  3. You're not having much luck with Shimada recently, are you?

    I'm interested though. I'm wondering if he wouldn't be better served by separating his desire to write historicals from his mysteries, because they seem to keep getting in the way of each other (see: Atopos and it's multi-hundred page intro about Elizabeth Bathory!)

    ----The Dark One

    1. As someone who prefers short stories/to the point stories and thinks background story/atmosphere is of secondary importance to pure mystery plot, my views on Shimada's longer works might be a bit skewed, but yeah, I often feel that a more focused approach would've helped at least my own personal enjoyment.