Saturday, December 25, 2010

Des Pas sur la neige

"Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition--and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do--clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth--the naked shining truth."
"Death on the Nile"

Christmas means murder. Well, actually, it doesn't, but I sure associate the winter season and Christmas with murder. Because they are made for each other. A body lying in the middle in a field of snow, with no foot tracks. A group of people locked up in an old mansion because of a snow storm. A murderer who like Santa seems to be impervious to the laws of nature, popping up here and there. Christmas at its best!

So I do try to read winter-themed detectives in this season every year. Fortunately, there are many, many snowy-themed detectives out there. This year, I chose a book by Shimada Souji to be my Christmas detective. Shimada, one of the giants in the modern Japanese detective world, is actually one of the few New Orthodox (Golden Age styled) detective writers who has been translated into English. His The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally: Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case")   is an excellent book. Nay, better than excellent. It is one of those books that any detective fan should read. It does everything right: characterization, setting, the tricks. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was the first novel to feature the astrologer annex detective Mitarai Kiyoshi (whose family name you unfortunately write as "honorable toilet"). A brilliant, if somewhat eccentric mind. Like most great detectives.

The second novel featuring Mitarai is Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion"). I'll begin by saying this is another excellent book. Not as impressive as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but oh so fun. The setting is snowy, snowy Hokkaidou. A strange mansion stands lonely on a clif near the sea. The reason the Drifting Ice Mansion is called strange, is because it is built slanted. Inspired by the Tower of Pisa, the Drifting Ice Mansion actually leans a bit, at the same angle as the replica Tower of Pisa which stands besides it. Everything in the house is bolted to the ground, table legs have been cut off so they don't slide away on the floor. And owner Hamamoto has fun everytime guests trip and fall. 

It is to this place that Hamamoto, a succesful business man, has gathered a small party of guests, mainly comprised of business contacts to spend Christmas and New Year with. But in true Christmas Murder Style (C), nothing stays merry. Christmas marks the beginning of a series of murders, horrible murders. One guests is found stabbed in a locked room, with no footsteps in the snow leading to his door. And for some reason a human-sized doll, which belongs to Hamamoto, is found lying outside in the garden. Was it the doll that running around on the roof , as one of the guests says she saw in the middle of the night? The police arrives at the scene, but they are not able to prevent a second locked room murder the same night. Everyone has an alibi. Except for the doll. A doll named Golem, who according to the store Hamamoto bought it from, was named after the legendary creature because he too is actually a living doll. As the police is able to do nothing, one man is sent for. Mitarai.

Who of course solves the cases brilliantly. I really enjoyed this book. It felt quite Carr-ish, with the locked rooms and of course the doll. Heck, even the Slanted Mansion itself seemed to eminate an aura of evil. A hint of Queen with a Challenge to the Reader. Yet, it somehow missed the stunning -wow- factor of the previous book. Because of how the trick of the locked rooms is done, you'll quickly catch on who the murderer is and how. I don't know how detective writers write their books, but this is one which was clearly built around one brilliant trick Shimada had, who then kept building on it till he had a novel-length book. But because the book hinges on that single trick, an acute reader will see through most of the events as soon as he sees through the main trick.

Which might sound negative, but Naname Yashiki no Hanzai is still an excellent book. The main trick is among the more original tricks I have seen in my life and if I hadn't known this book was first published in 1982, I would have sworn it was a detective actually written in the Golden Age. Especially as this novel is relatively clean (as in: no cut-up bodies like in The Tokyo Murder Case), made it seem like one of the classics of the good old age. A revised version was actually published in 2008, but I picked up the original one. It was cheaper.

I haven't read that much Shimada yet, besides the mentioned two novels I've only read the novellettes P no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of P") and Suzuran Jiken ("The Case of the Lily of the Valley"), but it seems like Shimada likes a big scale to his tricks. He doesn't use small psychological tricks, he doesn't uses the sleight of the hand, Shimada's stories are full of mystery and big and bombastic and everything nice. Perfect for Christmas. 

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『斜め屋敷の犯罪』


  1. I have the book lying on my shelf, staring at me, but somehow I can't get myself to start reading it.
    I agree with the points you raised which were done well in 占星術, but I somehow couldn't get passed the fact that the story of crime is so far in the past and the present action is really only investigation.

    Maybe it's really because I'm more of a closed circle kind of guy, but that part really disappointed me after I had heard so many great things on Shimada's writing.
    But I guess the things you wrote sound like this one could fix some of the small problems I had with the first one.

  2. Hmm, that's an interesting point you raise. Never really paid much attention to it, but come to think about it, even though I like my closed circle stories (still enjoying my Conan and Kindaichi Shounen :D), in the end, I am someone who reduces every story to the bare bones (a single puzzle/trick), so I don't really mind whether the detective is investigating it from the outside or inside or in real/apparent time.

    But Shimada seems to make use of a great range of story types. I have 漱石と倫敦ミイラ殺人事件 and 火刑都市 lying here...somewhere, and while I haven't read them yet, I imagine the first is more like a Holmes adventure, while I've heard the latter somewhat linked to 東京論, so I think it's more like an urban thriller.

  3. @seizonsha: When I first started reading detectives, I actually had a preference for stories in which the investigation focused on unsolved crimes that had surfaced from the murky depths of the past. I was fascinated by the effect of old crimes on the lives of those involved, which since then had moved on.

    As Ash can attest, I have turned away from that modernist position and adopted the orthodoxy of the Detection Club, but I still enjoy those types of stories when done in the classical mode – and only last month I read one that combined a two-and-a-half decades old murder case with a deadly reunion at a cut-off island.

    There's very little that beats these classics from yesteryear! ^__^

  4. Well it really depends on what you enjoy in a story. I actually quite like the postmodern 新本格 approach quite a bit, mixing classical orthodox elements with a slightly more fastpaced story.

    While I like some of the orthodox classics, I see most of them more as necessary roots than unbeatable giants, even though of course they set standards.
    I'm also always pleased when an author is able to craft a good trick and deceive me in a fair manner...but it doesn't matter much (to me personally) if the plot doesn't entertain me.

    @Ho-Ling: Yes, Shimada is still an author I have to approach closer, but I just don't get the right amount of time. But it's great to hear that he seems to explore more scenarios over his writing career.

    I'm reading 長い家の殺人 by Utano, 死ねばいいのに by Kyôgoku and the last story of 殺意は砂糖の右側に by Tsukatô alongside each other and still have some reviews to write on others.
    It's a real shame that there's really not enough time to give each interesting author I stumble across...

  5. My taste for mystery fiction is fairly broad, and I can enjoy a fast paced modern detective as much as a classic locked room mystery, if there's a well thought-out and clever plot at the heart of a story. Unfortunately, there aren't many writers, here in the West, whom combine the traditional mystery format with the modern thriller.

    Oh, and most of the orthodox writers were, IMHO, unbeatable giants in their fields (Chesterton pretty much invented every trick in the book), and not every detective story published before 1950 involved cut-off islands, snowed-in mansions and ominous sleepy villages – those are just superficial tropes and not the actual genre, which is infinitely more richer, rewarding and influential than most people could probably imagine.

    It's therefore a real shame that so many people, who claim to love detective stories, are satisfied with merely scratching the surface of the genre, and stick with Doyle, Christie and Leblanc.

  6. But to be honest, a reader who would only stick to Chesterton, Doyle, Christie and LeBlanc would _still_ have access to a wealth of different kind of settings for the detective story. There is of course much more outside the world of these writers, but give credit where credit's due.

    But I too am one who considers the classic orthodox writers as colossi in the field and even within the JP new orthodox school, I prefer the writers whose work feel the most like the orthodox school.

    Of course, I've only set my first steps in the world that is the new orthodox school. But I need more time. I have a huge backlog of Nikaidou, Arisugawa and Norizuki and I haven't even started with authors like Ayatsuji, Mori and Kyougoku!

  7. I wasn't knocking The Great Ones; just think it's a pity that people who enjoy a superbly plotted yarn of bloody murder, like our fellow Detective Conan fans, rarely venture outside familiar territory to discover such gems as: Roos' "The Frightened Stiff," Brand's "Green for Danger" and Sladek's "Black Aura." They have no idea what they're missing out on!

    By the way, do you think you'll ever return to the Western detective story? I'm starting to feel like I'm the only one left in this country who still reads them! Although, if we continue reading like we're doing now, it will be inevitable that one day we'll be collaborating on a definite work on the detective story from the West and the East – and that's definitely something to look forward to. ;)

  8. It's quite strange with Detective Conan though; Aoyama has discussed an impressive amount of detectives over the years, so you'd think those introductions, read by countless of people, would lead to at least some results...

    And it's not like I've left the Western detective completely, I mean, this year I've discussed... 5 or 6 Western novels... which isn't as much as I actually thought it would be, but you can't say I am concentrating solely on Japanese detective fiction ;P

    I am of course perfectly aware I am behind on my Western detective stories. Last year was a special case because it's kinda expensive to get Western books in Japan, but this year might look a bit better. Reprints are easily available, I gather, so it's safe to say you can expect some more Western books discussed here this year.

    Which reminds me, I have Scarlett's "Murder among the Angells" in my backlog. In Japanese. Is that Japanese or Western backlog? ~_~

  9. Oh, and:

    "Although, if we continue reading like we're doing now, it will be inevitable that one day we'll be collaborating on a definite work on the detective story from the West and the East – and that's definitely something to look forward to. ;)"

    The fundamentals of war. Divide and conquer!

  10. I agree with your review and also felt that the debut novel (Tokyo Zodiac murders) was superior compared to the second novel.
    Maybe writing about mansion/house murders aren't his forte. I felt that the Decagon house/8 mansion murders had a much more believable 'trick'. The novel also suffered from having too little 'face-time' with Mitarai. However, I did enjoy the history lessons on automata/karakuri along with the struggles faced by the three police dudes.

    1. Where Shimada excels in with especially his early stories is coming up with *ridiculous* over-the-top mechanical tricks. Like this one. It's been years since I last read this novel, but I can *vividly* recall what the main trick of the novel was and easily visualize it.

  11. Having read the book myself, I'm surprised you enjoyed the detectives so much. I found them immensely frustrating, between their constant bad deductions and lack of personality. It's the same reason I found the 50 pages the previous book spent on Ishioka wandering around Kyoto pursuing an obvious red herring were frustrating, it just feels like the book wasting time.

    1. I'm a simple person, (ROT13 spoilers) jrncba syvrf guebhtu ubhfr, I'm happy.