Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Burning Court


"Control fire with fire"
"Movie TRICK Psychic Battle Royale"

Yes, I still read books. Occasionally.

Shimada Souji's Kakei Toshi ("The Burning Metropolis", 1989) is, to me, a very peculiar novel. Up until now, all the Shimada novels I've read either featured a master-detective one way or another. The stories featured impossible crimes, locked rooms, detectives who uses their heads instead of their feet and mouth. That was the only Shimada I knew. Kakei Toshi is quite different. It's practically a detective novel of the social school, yet with a distinct classic touch to it. A hybrid mystery, if you will. It totally caught me by surprise at any rate (proving that I hardly read the description on the back of books when I purchase books in Japan. I do little research beforehand too).

The year: 1982! The place: Tokyo! Inside a burnt down building near Yotsuya station, the dead body of the security guard is found. At first it seems like he was just a victim of the fire, but the police discovers that the man was knocked out with sleeping pills, which were probably put in his late night snack. Police detective Nakamura thinks the fire might have been a smokescreen for the murder on the guard and starts to check into the victim's background. Nakamura discovers that the victim had been living with a woman, his fiance actually, but it seems she has cleared out of the apartment. No clothes, no pictures, not even fingerprints. Nobody knows who the woman was, not even her name. Nakamura starts a search for the woman, but how do you look for a woman you know nothing about in a metropolis like Tokyo? Things get worse when more cases of arson occur in the city and it seems they have a serial arsonist running around.

The story is mostly like a police procedural in the spirit of Matsumoto Seichou, with a detective doing his work on his feet, checking out every single clue that might lead to his prey. Nakamura by the way, is a police detective who occasionally appears in other Shimada stories as a secondary character (for example in Shissou suru Shisha). The way Nakamura looks for the mysterious woman is really social school-like, as Nakamura slowly finds out where she comes from and how she has lived her life over the last few years, moving all over the big metropolis Tokyo from one apartment to another. The way Nakamura goes around every single place she lived and worked (and the occasional social commentary) is something you'd never expect in a Shimada novel if you'd only read Mitarai novels, I think. Like I said, I was surprised.

On the other hand, Kakei Toshi also reminds of those orthodox missing link detective novels like The ABC Murders and Cat of Many Tails. As more and more arson incidents occur, Nakamura tries hard to find how the arsonist is picking his targets. He's sure the arsonist isn't just setting fires randomly, but what is he trying to accomplish? What's even more surprising is that almost all fires start out... in a locked room. The fires couldn't have been set in those rooms, yet they are. The locked room problem is not as big as you'd think it is though (I think most readers will pick up the clue), but it was a nice surprise. The missing link however is very impressive. I really really want to discuss it as it concerns a topic that interests me, but alas, the rules of the game forbid me mentioning it. Even though pretty much every single review on the novel seems to mention it (usually in an oblique way, but still).

As the story is set in Tokyo, the arsonist is quite busy and the mysterious woman has lived all over Tokyo, the reader is treated to a very extensive trip throughout the city. Unlike Cat of Many Tails, where Manhattan, despite the class differences within the city, seemed to move like a single entity, the wards in Tokyo never lose their individuality and the story makes for a very nice vehicle for Shimada to comment on Tokyo as a city and its individual wards. The story makes for a very amusing reading for people interested in urban sociology. Kawamoto's Misuteri to Toukyou ("Mystery and Tokyo"), a book on the image of Tokyo as it appears in mystery novels, actually starts with a chapter on Kakei Toshi (note that at least that chapter isn't that good though; it's mostly a summary of the story, so full of spoilers and the points Kawamoto makes are actually made fairly clear in Kakei Toshi itself, so he adds very little to the conversation on the novel; see also the attic).

It took some time for me to switch over the hybrid-detective-reading-mode, but Kakei Toshi is a pretty interesting detective story. I do have to say that I doubt this novel could become succesful outside Japan: so much of the novel's strong points depends on its description of Tokyo, I doubt it would appeal to people who have never been there / don't know the social image the city and its wards have / don't have some knowledge of the history of the city.

Addendum: oh, there's a drama-version. That might be interesting.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『火刑都市』 / 川本三郎 『ミステリと東京』


  1. Japan hasn’t only kept the art of the detective story alive, but also the art of, well, cover art.

    By the way, this is the fourth post in a row with an English title... have you been garnering a bigger, international audience?

  2. Pattern-like behavior in my posts is usually nothing more than pure coincidence. The same holds here. I just use whatever seems (sorta) related to the contents of the posts, be it quotes or story titles (or occasionally, song lyrics related to detective shows). Heck, I've even used Korean and French titles! (Yes, I like the bilingual bonus trope)

    And my audience has always been strangely international actually. Ignoring the people who come here accidentally, I do sometimes wonder how people arrive here.