Wednesday, August 30, 2017

The Vanishing Magician

月夜の悪戯の魔法 君は月影に囚われ
新月 闇に潜むように 君の輪郭が見えない
「月夜の悪戯の魔法」(Breakerz)
 
Mischievous magic on this moonlit night / You are captive of the moon's shadow
You can't be seen / As if you're hiding in the darkness of a new moon
"Mischievous magic on this moonlit night" (Breakerz)

Stage magic and the mystery genre have a lot in common of course. Both revolve around fooling the onlooker. It's all about misdirection, about making people think something has happened (something impossible at times even), even though the truth is something completely different. The key difference between the two is of course how it ends: stage magic is all about keeping up the illusion, while a mystery story cannot be complete without revealing how the illusion was created. But as there are close ties between the two, it's no surprise that there are many mystery stories that are about stage magic, from murders committed during a show to stories with impossible murders where every suspect is a magician.

Awasaka Tsumao (1933-2009) is usually mentioned on this blog because he was a very brilliant author of short stories featuring impossible situations and other baffling crimes. His A Aiichirou series for example feature some of Japan's best short stories, and one read of them is enough to understand why Awasaka was also sometimes refered to as the "Japanese Chesterton", as their wonderfully imaginative, yet ultimately simple set-ups remind very much of Father Brown's adventures. But Awasaka was also known as a stage illusionist, and his love for stage magic can also be seen in his mystery work. His Magician Detective Soga Kajou series for example featured, as the title suggest, a magician who also detected, and many of the stories revolved around magic tricks.

It should therefore not be a surprise when I tell you that Awasaka's very first novel published, 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards", 1976), featured magicians extensively. It's been exactly twenty years since the Majiki Community Center opened, and three local clubs are to perform in the venue to celebrate the Center's role in the community. The program opens with a magic show by the Majiki Club, followed by a children's ballet performance and finally a puppet theater show. Little goes exactly as planned with the magic show of the Majiki Club. This was to be expected perhaps, as stage experience was something very few of the amateur magicians in the club had, but still, dying pigeons and children ruining tricks were obviously not something any of the magicians had expected. But even with everything going on both onstage and backstage (they also have to do all the spotlights/music/etcetera themselves), the Majiki Club manages to get to the end of the show mainly unscathed. Or did they? The fact that one of their female members, Shimako, didn't appear for the finale performance of the whole club was odd, but they figured something very urgent had come up.  It was the police however, accompanied by another of the Majiki Club members who usually works as a police doctor, who brought the bad news: Shimako had been murdered during the magic show in her own apartment room. And the strange thing is: her body was surrounded by several broken objects, including a broken phone, a dead bird, a perfume bottle... Everybody in the club is shocked, as they realized all these 'broken' objects, including Shimako herself, were the main props in The Eleven Cards, a short story collection written by the head of the Majiki Club, about eleven unique magic tricks invented by the club members.

Let me start with this: this is an incredible first novel. True, Awasaka had already debuted as a mystery writer one year earlier with his short story DL2 Gouki Jiken, but a short story is obviously not the same as a full-length novel, and yet Awasaka manages to present something unbelievably polished. Is it a perfect novel? Well, to be honest, I thought sometimes the narrative could be a bit too talkative, especially on some of the more technical, or historical aspects of stage magic. But with 'too talkative' I mean like two or three pages longer than I had hoped, rather than being a bore to read. On the whole, this is a very complete novel, that already rouses your interests with the table of contents.

For 11 Mai no Trump is divided in three distinct acts, of which the second is the most interesting. But we start with the first of course, which details the happenings both on and backstage during the Majiki Club's performance at the Community Center. This is a mostly comedic piece, where we see how each of the performing members prepares for their act and how things go in front of the audience. The tricks seldom go as planned however, and there is a lot of chaos backstage too, so it kinda reads like Mitani Kouki story, with all the comedy going on. As we read on, we learn more about the members of the club, but we also get a lot of insight in the world of stage magic, as the tricks performed are all discussed in detail, and it's here where Awasaka shows his knowledge of stage magic, as he manages to both pose the illusion, and explain the tricks behind them, in a captivating way. People who like stage magic should really enjoy this part, as Awasaka is great at conveying interesting information while also advancing the story. This part ends with the death of Shimako and the realization her death is somehow connected to the novel The Eleven Cards.

The second part of the book is The Eleven Cards, which is presented as a story-within-a-story. The premise of The Eleven Cards is that magicians often come up with new illusions and tricks, that are sadly enough very hard to perform, as they rely on very specific situations, making them unusable for a proper show. The members of the Majiki Club all had a trick like that up their sleeve, so the president of the Majiki Club decided to write a novel introducing those eleven acts, starring the members of the club. What follows are basically eleven very short mystery stories, where one magician performs an utterly baffling illusion, while the other members try to figure out how the trick was done. From a telegram that tells the future to a bird which can see through paper and a telephone which can guess what card a person chooses: the magic tricks shown off in these short stories are all very inventive, and the solutions to them are great. Each of these tricks could've easily supported a longer short story with ease, and they really show off what an imaginative magician Awasaka must've been. In fact, I think that, if they had been in possession of the ideas presented in The Eleven Cards, most people would've just used those to write a short story collection and called it a day, rather than using those ideas just as a story-within-a-story device. The eleven stories are all written as experienced by the writer himself (the president of the club), and we learn more about the interactions and relations between the Majiki Club members as we read this story-within-a-story.

The final part of 11 Mai no Trump has the members of the Majiki Club attending a stage magic conference some time after Shimako's death and the events there eventually lead to the discovery of who killed Shimako. It is here where Awasaka's novel really shines, as he reveals how carefully constructed his tale was. Clueing (or clewing) is an art, and Awasaka shows in his debut novel that he is Master Clewer already. The way he has sprinkled clues here and there across the novel, from the magic show at the Community Center to the eleven short stories in The Eleven Cards is brilliant, something only the best of the best could've done. The moment everything comes together is an eye-opener: innocent-looking lines and events suddenly take on a completely different form. The conclusion of this novel is basically split into a whodunnit and a howdunnit/alibi deconstruction story, and it's especially the whodunnit part that is memorable. The howdunnit too is very impressive though, as it makes very good use of the stage magic background, but without feeling 'unfair' to the reader. As you read the conclusion, you realize that Awasaka has been very attentive to the reader, always explaining in detail how all the stage magic works, and his insights in the topic as presented throughout the book are more than enough for the reader to figure out how the murder was committed.

What really surprises me is that this book is all about stage magic and the amateur performers of stage magic, but it never feels too alienating for someone who knows very little about it. It does not feel like a book for lovers of stage magic per se. Awasaka is clearly not just writing for his own people: he wants to show people why he loves stage magic and because of that, 11 Mai no Trump, remains open to all readers from the very first page to the last, never indulging too much in inside comedy or overly detailed descriptions of knowledge only experts could appreciate.

The three-act set-up, with a story-within-a-story device, is something I had not expected from Awasaka actually. I never saw him much as a bibliomystery writer, but playing with the conventions of books is of course exactly what bibliomystery writers like Ashibe Taku do. The idea of naming the story-within-a-story after the actual title of the book is an alluring one, and the three acts do all feel quite different from each other. Awasaka might have perhaps decided on this structure because he was more familiar with writing short stories, but he definitely made good use of it, and when you reach the end, you do feel like you read one complete story, rather than loose parts thrown together.

And as I read this book, I felt I could now draw lines and connect several loose points in my own Detective World thanks to 11 Mai no Trump. Because I am quite sure that things like Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target and the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney series were heavily inspired by 11 Mai no Trump (Ace Attorney creator Takumi is a self-professed fan of Awasaka so no surprises there, I guess).

So yeah, 11 Mai no Trump, great stuff here. It's an ode to (amateur) stage magic, but also an ingeniously plotted mystery novel (with a short-story-collection-within-the-story) that manages to impress throughout. As a showcase of how to properly clue a mystery novel, 11 Mai no Trump is mus-read material, and the fact that this was Awasawa's first novel makes that even more amazing. Certainly one to remember.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『11枚のとらんぷ』

8 comments :

  1. Thanks for the review. :) Thankfully, there's a translation of this novel in my local library - and its under 300 pages!

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    1. I'm unable to the find a translation of this book. New or secondhand. Are you sure there's a translation of it available?

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    2. In Mandarin, I'm afraid... Though perhaps you might persuade Ho Ling to do a translation into English? :D

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    3. I´d love to do an Awasaka novel, for those reading with the powers to make it be ;P I don't think any of his work has been translated in English yet, and the A Aiichirou series does really rank among the best of Japanese mystery fiction in short story format.

      And I like how TomCat assumed you were talking about an English (Dutch/other Western language) translation :D

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    4. I suppose I've had no reason to allude to Chinese translations in my messages on TomCat's blog - though I might have made one in relation to Case Closed/ Conan. But I certainly have mentioned on multiple occasions on your blog my preference for English rather than Chinese translations of quality Japanese mystery novels. :D

      I do confess a predilection away from short stories - for some reason I've found novels a fuller and better medium for puzzles and mysteries? Maybe I just need to start reading some mystery short stories... Especially when I run out of good Ellery Queen novels - I believe their short stories are highly rated?

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    5. Yeah, the Queen shorts are great and an underappreciated part of their work!

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  2. One of the A Aiichirou stories has a children's story within it that is part of a larger puzzle; and "shiawase no sho" is all about a cult's sacred text in a similarly tricky fashion. I think the mentality of stage magicians probably lends itself to the kind of writing where a story works on its own and then shows a new meaning in a larger context. The sequel to "shiawase no sho", "seisha to shisha" does it with even more deliberate artifice: the gatherings are uncut; you read a short story in the uncut pages; then you cut the pages and read a novel with a somewhat different story. Of course that kind of tricky construction means those stories will never be translated.

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    1. Ah, that's a very good point you make, that a story about stage magic will often tend to take the form of a "text" (the show) vs. interpretation (the story around it).

      Oh, I quite like those 'cut-these-pages-open' gimmicks you sometimes see in Japanese books! I think I have two of them by Higashino Keigo (and they don't even conceal the solution, just the hints). Ashibe Taku released an interesting one two about half a year ago. It's a book which you can read from either the front of the book or the back: there are two seperate narratives, each one starting on the other end of the book. And the middle part is sealed, which I assume will show how the two narratives are connected.

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