Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Origin of Evil

"The time has come," the Walrus said,"To talk of many things:
Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax
Of cabbages and kings

And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings
"Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There"

One Japanese writer whose work I've been enjoying all along is Norizuki Rintarou. The first work by him I read, was "An Urban Legend Puzzle", which was translated in Passport to Crime, an international crime story anthology. It was an excellent story on its own merits, but what really attracted my attention was the fact that it was a Queenian work. Here we have a writer called Ellery Queen Norizuki Rintarou, who writes about a fictional writer called Ellery Queen Norizuki Rintarou, who helps his father, police inspector Queen Norizuki with cases. And of course, all cases are solved through sheer logic.

Afterwards, I explored the short story bundles Norizuki Rintarou no Bouken ("The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou") and Norizuki Rintarou no Shin Bouken ("The New Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou"), which besides Queen-ish titles, contain very Queen-ish stories and highly recommended to everyone interested in classical detectives. And Japanese detectives. And any mix of those two.

And this week, I finally read the novel that started it all. Norizuki Rintarou debuted with Mippei Kyoushitsu ("Airtight Classroom"), but his second work (and first as a professional writer) introduced us to the Rintarou and father duo. Yuki Misshitsu ("Locked Room in the Snow") has a straight-in-your-face title, which is quite nostalgic. Murder on the Orient Express. Death on the Nile. Mrs. McGinty's Dead. Yes, the story does involve a locked room. In the snow. No surprises there (note the snow on the cover).

The book revolves around inspector Norizuki, who heads out to a mansion (in the snow!) being invited by a woman called Shinozuka. Who gets killed. In a locked room cottage. And of course everyone had a motive for wanting her dead. The inspector begins his investigation, gets stuck and tries to get help from his writer and amateur detective son, who of course has a deadline for an upcoming book. Very classic stuff indeed, in fact, Yuki Misshitsu is amongst the first wave of novels that brought forth the "New Orthodox" detective wave in Japan.

With its focus on the inspector's work, the motives behind Shinozuka's murder, a challenge to the reader and some other scenes, this work in more than one way reminds me of Queen's own debut work, The Roman Hat Mystery. Both works also have their faults, but the writers of both series certainly improved with following works. The locked room is not very original, but the 'padding' story is quite well done (especially the epilogue which functions as a prologue, makes for a nice piece of misdirection).

Another Queen-ish work was Arisugawa Alice's 46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room"), which also happened to be a starting point. In this novel, Arisugawa Alice introduced us to the character of Arisugawa Alice (yes, I'm seeing a pattern here), a detective writer. And he has a friend, the criminologist Himura. They fight crime. And with they, I mean Himura. Arisugawa is just a device to spew out as many detective references as possible.

The titular 46th locked room referes to the final locked room mystery the "Japanese Carr", Makabe has decided to write. Wanting to go beyond the boundaries of the detective novel (and having written several mediocre locked room novels in succession), Makabe decides that he'll quit being the Japanese Carr after the publication this book. Which is a surprise to the detective writers (including Alice) and editors invited to his holiday villa for the Christmas holiday. What also surprises them is a series of strange "presents" they find in their rooms. But what surprises the most, is that Makabe gets killed. In a locked room. Oh, and another unknown person too. In another room. But in the same way, that is, burned in the fireplace in a locked room.

So two locked rooms. In a house full of detective writers and detective story editors. Yes, it's an enjoyable book.

The locked room was not Queen's specialty (The Chinese Orange Mystery is just... incomprehensible...), so in that aspect, the novels mentioned are more Queen-ish in format than in actual content, but the beginning of the book feels Queen-like and even if the author hadn't told us, you'd know it's very The Finishing Stroke-ish. And The Mad Tea-Party-ish. No, not the Alice in Wonderland one. Though the short story of course did reference it heavily. And of course, Arisugawa Alice's logo is a Cheshire Cat with the words Alice in Mystery Land.

Oh, and Alice is male. 

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎 『雪密室』/有栖川有栖 『46番目の密室』

(And somewhere in between I also read Sherlock in Shanghai, a short story collection of the Huo Sang detective stories by Cheng Xiaoping. Ignoring the fact that Sherlock in Shanghai is a horrible title, it contained amusing stories, but none I really get excited about. Star of the collection is not Huo Sang however, but the Lupin-esque South-China Swallow. )


  1. 法月綸太郎 -> 法水麟太郎
    Not obvious at all... nope.

    That book from Arisugawa sounds neat, I'll put it on my endless reading schedule.

    Seeing how fun you find the genre in general and not only the cases itself told within I think you would also enjoy this one

  2. Actually, from what I remember reading is that while most people indeed think the pen name Norizuki Rintarou is derived from Norimizu Rintarou, it's actually derived from some character in book by Yoshikawa Eiji, whose family name was also Norizuki. Thinking it was a nice family name, Norizuki Rintarou intentionally stuck an awful sounding first name to it. Which seems to be a common trait among Japanese detectives. Kogorou? Ninzaburou? Kousuke?

  3. Oops. Oh well, I guess coming up with that possible reason is not unnatural though...

    And yeah, is there any other genre where authors like to pick even more peculiar names than this one? Nobody tops Nishio Ishin at naming oddities though... I mean who creates a surname with the kanji for a rabbit being hanged on a tree (Utsurigi)?