Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Night on Haunted Mountain

The bear went over the mountain, 
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see, 
And all that he could see, 
Was the other side of the mountain

I love the covers of this series by the way, the characters look really creepy!

Toujou Genya has not only made a name for himself as a horror/occult novelist who travels across Japan researching local folkore, he also has a knack for running into weird crimes, and solving them. It is for this reason that sometimes letters are delivered at his publisher from people who want his help making sense out of some mysterious experience they may have had. The manuscript from one Gouki Nobuyoshi caught the attention of Genya's editor in particular, as it concerned a little mountain community Genya happened to had visited last year. Gouki Nobuyoshi is the fourth son in a prominent family in Hado, a mountain village in the faraway rural outskirts of Tokyo. Unlike his father and brothers, Nobuyoshi was not made for the rough mountain life, and after he managed to find a job as an English teacher in Tokyo, he decided never to return to Hado, but a few months ago, his grandmother pleaded with him to return to at least conduct the Rite of Adulthood, which is a local custom. The curious incident that happened to Nobuyoshi during the Rite has weighed so heavily on his mind however that he has turned neurotic since then, not able to make any sense out of it all. Genya agrees to look into the matter and find a rational explanation for the baffling and horrifying experience Nobuyoshi had during the Rite of Adulthood in Mitsuda Shinzou's Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)?

The Rite of Adulthood is conducted by climbing the three interlocked mountains near Hado all by yourself to pray at the three shrines there, and it usually takes the better half of a day for people used to the mountains, but when Nobuyoshi conducted his Rite, he got horribly lost in the mountain woods, leading to frightful encounters that reminded him of the old ghost stories his grandmother used to tell him about the Mountain Fiend, a monstrous being that would lure wary travellers into the depths of the woods by calling out to them pretending to be a human. Eventually Nobuyoshi realized he had gone off-course in the worst way possible, as after the sun set, he found himself on Kanayama, the "forbidden" mountain of the region that is thought to be cursed by the local people and avoided by all. Eerily enough though, he stumbles upon a little cabin on Kanayama in the night, inhabitated by old Tatsuichi and his family: Tatsuichi is the eldest son of the Kasumi family, a once prominent family of the village of Kumado, which lies on the other side of the mountains to Nobuyoshi's own Hado. Tatsuichi had left his village when he was a young man and became basically a nomad, dwelling across the mountains of Japan. A few months back, he and his family too got lost on the mountains, and he found he had returned to his home village for the first time in decades, so he decided to stay for a while before leaving again. Nobuyoshi is offered a bed, and the promise that they'll show him the way down from the mountain the following day, but when Nobuyoshi awakens in the morning, he finds the breakfast table set up completely, but strangely enough nobody else is in the cabin. And what frightens him the most is the fact that the cabin is locked from the inside, meaning that Tatsuichi and his family couldn't have left the cabin in the first place. Nobuyoshi eventually finds his way down the mountain the village of Kumado, where he confides his tale with Kajitori Rikihira, basically the head of Kumado, but also the childhood friend of Tatsuichi who gave him permission to use the cabin for the time being in the first place. Enquiries by Rikihira and Nobuyoshi make it clear that Tatsuichi and his family couldn't have made their way down from the mountain without being seen that morning, as all the paths from the mountain were under observation since the early hours, and when the two return to the cabin, they find that the set breakfast table was also cleaned! Genya thus needs to solve the Mary Celeste-esque disappearance of a whole family in a double-locked situation, but what first appears to be "just" a strange, personal experience changes in something far more sinister as the day after Genya arrives in Kumado, someone is found murdered inside the locked mountain cabin, and it appears the murder is styled after a certain nursery rhyme about Kanayama!

Early this year, I reviewed Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, which was not only my first encounter with Mitsuda Shinzou, and his Toujou Genya series: it was also a fantastic mystery novel, easily one of the best I had read in years. So yeah, I was sure to revisit the series about the occult and folklore specialist and writer Toujou Genya. Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is the follow-up novel to Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono not only in publishing order (this is the fourth novel in the series), it's also slightly connected to the third novel content-wise: Toujou Genya made an early, but short appearance in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, when he's on his way to the village where the murders of that novel occur, when he gets distracted by some stories about the folklore surrounding the Mountain Fiend local to Kumado and Hado. Not able to contain his curiosity, Genya changed his travel plans to head out for Kumado, meaning he wouldn't get involved with the murders of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono until much later, which probably also means that that case would've been solved much earlier had he not changed plans at the start of that book! Anyway, during his stay at Kumado, Genya became friends with Kumado's Kajitori Rikihira and learned much about the Mountain Fiend from him, which explains why he became so interested in Gouki Nobuyoshi's story in this novel.

I have to admit that Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono started out incredibly slowly for me. The first one-fifth of the book (more than a hundred pages) consists of the manuscript by Gouki Nobuyoshi, where he explains the strange happenings that occured to him during his Rite of Adulthood, from his apparent run-ins with the Mountain Fiend in the mountain forests to the Mary Celeste-inspired disappearance of Tatsuichi and his family from a locked cabin. This part is mostly written as a horror novel, which isn't odd as the Toujou Genya is explicitly marked not only as a mystery series, but also a horror series, and in both novels in this series I've read now, there are also slight elements that are left unexplained and up to the imagination of the reader (though of course, the elements surrounding the core mystery plot are all explained rationally ). While the novel thus starts with an investigation into an impossible disappearance, it changes into a full-fledged serial murder investigation once Genya arrives in Kumado to investigate what happened to Nobuyoshi.

My praise for Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono was mostly directed at the ingenious use of a certain theme in that novel: while several murders occurred there under very different circumstances, there was a common, underlying theme that connected all these murders, that served as means, opportunity and motive for the execution of all these crimes. The synergy going on in that novel was absolutely crazy, as it managed to do so many different things with one common idea. I was pleased to learn that this concept of synergy is actually also present in Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono! For example, the disappearing family from a locked room, a man whose face was burnt off in a stove inside a locked mountain cabin and the naked man killed inside a mountain shrine are all completely different mysteries in this novel: they are committed in different ways and come about in varying ways, but there is still an underlying theme that connects these mysteries, that explains why these events happened and why certain actions were taken by the murderer. It can be debated that in this novel, the two locked room situations (impossible disappearance from the cabin and the murder inside the cabin) are not directly related to this overall theme (i.e the locked rooms were not made possible because of this theme, like it was in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono), but still, the reason for these mysteries are still ultimately same. And Mitsuda manages to come up with wildly different applications of this theme: the reason for the Mary Celeste-esque disappearance of Tatsuichi's family from the cabin is absolutely brilliant for example, but that wouldn't work for the reason why the murdered man inside the cabin had his face burnt off, and yet it all comes down to the same theme. Whereas most mystery writers would use various ideas for one novel (a locked room murder, and a dying message, and a... ) to bring diversity, Mitsuda somehow manages to always use one single idea, but then come up with a myriad of applications that still surprise the reader. This meaningful repetition of one single theme in all kinds of different ways really makes his novels a joy to read, as there is plot consistency from start to finish and you never feel any part is unnecessary, as everything is done to strengthen the underlying theme.

While there are two reasonably simple locked room situations in this novel (one of which is solved early on), the main question driving the plot is why, and from there it becomes a who. The why is the underlying theme and I really can't praise that enough. The jump to the question of whodunit is also great. The last two chapters where Genya explains how he solved the crime are extremely long (once again about one-fifth of the fairly long novel) as he also goes into detail in some of his mistaken hypotheses about the identity of the murderer. Genya proposes several fake solutions that are actually all pretty good, but each of them are proven to be wrong by some small clue in the spirit of Queen, for example by proving suspect A knew about a certain fact, so they couldn't have been the murderer etc. These fake solutions however are never discarded completely, but elements of them always make it into the next solution, so it's a great experiment in deduction, as it shows how solution A turns into B, and C and finally, the true solution. To be honest, I had my eyes set on the right person fairly early on because of a certain somewhat obviously described clue, but I had completely missed most of the other clues that would set-up the basis for this conclusion, so I didn't feel very accomplished for figuring out whodunnit, as much as I wanted to hit myself for missing out on all those other, brilliantly placed clues (even if not all of them were directly connected to the real murderer).

The novel is incredibly atmospheric by the way, with stories about local folklore and a distinct, post-war air of rural Japan that one might recognize from Yokomizo Seishi's work. In fact, people who like Yokomizo's work should really check out this series, as there's so much in common. This novel in particular seems to be inspired by one of the better known books in Yokomizo's Kindaichi Kousuke series, though I'll refrain from title-dropping as it could work as a spoiler. A series of murders styled after a nursery rhyme is of course also very Yokomizo-esque by the way. Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono actually features a very short Nursery Rhyme Murder Lecture. Though not nearly as extensive as the Decapitation Lecture in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, it's still an interesting thing to read and to see how the nursery rhyme murder is used in this novel.

Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is thus another excellent mystery novel that brings surprising variety by delving deeply in one single, certain theme of mystery fiction. While I'd argue that the previous novel is better, it's the difference between Extremely Good Mystery Novel and Extremely Good Mystery Novel That Is A Bit Better. Readers who like a bit more conventional mystery fiction might perhaps even prefer Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, as at least in this novel, Genya appears throughout the novel and actually does detectivey stuff as opposed to his minimalist appearance in the third novel. I am someone who prefers short stories, but Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is a good example of why some mystery stories can only work in a longer format, as it offers more room to really explore and play with ideas, in a meaningful manner.

Original Japanese title(s):  三津田信三『山魔の如き嗤うもの』

6 comments :

  1. Thanks for the review. I don’t like horror/ supernatural novels, but your endorsement of this title as a mystery novel makes me inclined to try something by 三津田信三. My local library stocks some of his novels, but the two you especially enjoyed have been translated into the traditional Chinese script. I prefer reading the modern Chinese script, and one title caught my eye: “Murder in the Disused Garden”. Would that be any good...? �� The other titles in modern Chinese script hint at content leaning towards horror or the supernatural: “Seven Playing Hide and Seek”, “Water Demon” and “Red Eye”. ����‍♂️����‍♀️

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    1. I haven't read any books outside the Toujou Genya series, so I can't really comment on them. Could the Water Demon you mention perhaps be 水魑の如き沈むもの? That is part of the series, and it won the 10th Honkaku Mystery Award, so I am going to assume it's probably not a bad'un ;D

      Glancing on Amazon, it seems the other books you mention are also horror mystery novels, save for perhaps 赫眼, which is a short story collection, and the titles included seem to suggests it's more of 'traditional' horror collection.

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  2. Sounds like this author will be the guy we look back on as one of this generation's premiere Japanese mystery authors?

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    1. His distinct horror tone might not appeal to all readers of mystery fiction, but every one of his novels I've read until now (I've read three now: the review of the third book still has to be published) were also excellently plotted mystery novels, where he really manages to come up with deep, and daring ways to use what would otherwise be familiar tropes of mytery fiction.

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  3. I meant to finish this book earlier, especially after the excellent Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono. Your experience mirrors my own; the beginning narrative concerning Nobuyoshi’s supernatural-like experience on the mountain and the impossible disappearance of a family overnight was a bit of a chore to plow through (albeit very important to the core mystery). But damn, did the momentum really picked up after the first murder....I was completely sold after the investigation into the "WHY" part of the nursery rhyme murder took center stage!

    The mountain fiend is nowhere as scary as the headless phantoms from the last book, but still, how the fiend’s folklore and legend affects the story was an excellent setup from Mitsuda's plotting. I really cannot praise the careful placement of clues and foreshadowing in this book enough. I guessed some parts of the mystery correctly, but there were just so many excellently hidden (but completely fair) information in the opening chapters, from people’s nonchalant dialogue/conversation with one another, even down to mundane actions that you though had nothing to do with the serial murder case…..all came back to smack you in the head!

    It wouldn’t be a Mitsuda story if there weren’t at least like 4 or 5 layers of fake solutions near the end. A lot of the logic deductions were based on analyzing who knows what at what certain time, including how certain people would act once that information is known. By combining this idea with the main “trick/theme” of the book, and then repeat it a few times, Yamanma no Gotoki is another very strong entry in the Genya series.

    My friend also claims that this series’s 2018 entry, 碆霊の如き祀るもの, reaches the same height quality-wise, but that one haven’t been translated in Chinese yet.

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    1. Glad you liked it too! Mitsuda's really been the discovery of this year for me, as not only is his plotting and clewing excellent, the way he manages to really incorporate the atmosphere/background setting into the core mystery plot and make it all one coherent story is almost unrivaled.

      The slow beginnings however are I fear something that can't be helped. I reviewed the first book of the series a few weeks ago, and yep, it took ages to get through the opening chapters.

      I'm reading the (cheaper) pocket versions, so it'll probably take a few years before the 2018 book will be pocketified, though for next year, I at least plan to do one of the short story collections too to see how they come out (as I *really* have no idea how Mitsuda's stories would work in short story form).

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