Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Which Witch is Which?

「青白く光る女の幽霊。美しい謎の女の肖像画。夜中に廊下を歩き回る甲冑の亡霊。黒魔術の化粧をされた首と手のない死体。そして、鍵のかかった殺人現場。消失した犯人 ― ふん、まさにこの《悪霊館》という奴は、幽霊の巣窟に違いない」

"The pale glowing ghost of a woman. A portrait of a mysterious beauty. The ghost of a suit of armor that walks the hallway in the middle of the night. A head- and handless corpse that shows signs of black magic. And a locked murder scene. A murderer who has disappeared.  Hmm, this Palace of Evil Spirits really seems like a den for ghosts"
"Palace of Evil Sprits"

I'll admit that my pile of unread books is quite big when compared to normal standards, but if I ignore the non-mystery books and the Edogawa Rampo paperbacks, the pile isn't that absurd anymore actually. I brought back about 60 unread mystery novels back from Japan last year and there are about 10 novels left. Which means I'll allow myself to buy new Japanese novels in the mere future. Yay!

I had already gone through all my Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice novels and this week I finished my last Nikaidou Reito novel. For some reason or another, I've been reading the Nikaidou Ranko series in a very roundabout way. And contuinity is actually quite important in this series. The basic premise is the same for every novel, with narrator Nikaidou Reito teaming up with his genius (adopted) sister Nikaidou Ranko solving grand grotesque cases, but the characters in this series actually grow up (they start out as high-school students in Jigoku no Kijutsushi, but are university students in Jinroujou no Kyoufu) and they often refer to previous cases, sometimes even nearly spoiling the solution to them. For example, pretty much every reference to Jigoku no Kijitsushi (the first novel) in subsequent novels kinda reveal who the murderer is in that novel.  Maybe I should learn to read things in order.

Anyway, Akuryou no Yakata (the covers says "Palace of Evil Spirits") is the fourth novel in the Nikaidou Ranko series. The book starts with a scene borrowed stolen from Yokomizo's Inugamike no Ichizoku: the whole Shimanuma clan, comprised of three different families who live in different buildings inside the Shimanuma mansion, is gathered around the deathbed of the Shimanuma patriarch. The will she leaves is as devilish as that of old Inugami Sahei in Yokomizo's classic: she is practically forcing the heir of the main family, Takuya, to marry the heir of one of the branch families, Miyuki, if the main family wishes to keep its wealth and power. They have one year to decide whether they will marry, or else the money will go to one of the branch families. The problem is, Takuya wants to marry his niece, Mari.

Skip to one year later. The deadline of the will is nearing and Takuya has finally agreed to marry Miyuki. Mari has been dumped and there is a tense atmosphere in the Shimanuma mansion, which for everyone's convenience is nicknamed the Palace of Evil Spirits. And then one day, murder! A truly grotesque scene is found inside Mari's locked bedroom: the naked,  head-, finger- and toeless body of a young woman lies in the middle of the room. A sword is sticking out of her body. The body itself is placed inside a pentagram, surrounded by a circle of torn up books and to finish the scene: four suits of armor surround the dead body, with their backs turned to her as if to protect her. Besides the obvious problems like how the locked room was made, how the murderer managed to move four suits of armor from the gallery to the room and the meaning behind all the black magic stuff, there is another important problem: is the victim Mari.... or her twin sister Sari?

At this point, you'd think that Nikaidou has done enough for the atmosphere, but as if a creepy locked room isn't enough he also includes: 1) a walking suit of armor that attacks people in the mansion, 2) a clock tower that seems to attract suicides, 3) the mystery of the whereabouts of the previous owners of the Palace of Evil Spirits, 4) a ghost of a woman who roams the third floor of the mansion and 5) the curse of a witch. And not creepy, but he also sqeezes in a two-chapter police procedural in the novel. Just to keep things interesting. Or just to fill all 850 pages of this brick novel.

A lot of Nikaidou's novels are quite long and while the effort usually pays off, the novels usually start out immensely boring. The first chapter of this novel is one big family-line and it pretty much killed the book for me. I picked up the book again after a month and the second chapter was better, but pretty much a complete copy of Yokomizo's Inugamike no Ichizoku. Get past that point though and you get a story that develops at the speed of light and that is interesting until the end. Which is not too surprising considering the ridiculous amount of sub-story lines and at times a lot seems rather unnecessary, but Nikaidou mostly manages to keep everything together (although admittedly, only barely at times).  He has trouble keeping things realistic at times though, with some actions taken by the murderer and some 'deductions' by Ranko asking for a lot of suspension of disbelief.

Nikaidou specializes in locked rooms and other impossible situations and this locked room was a very entertaining one. The trick is deviously simple, but it fits so perfectly with the story. The pseudo-historic background of the story is also interesting and is something Nikaidou works with quite often. In fact, Akuryou no Yakata feels a lot like an Ur-Jinroujou no Kyoufu. A lot of elements from this novel are found in that Giant, including the whole Medieval esotorism theme, the walking suits of armors , the grotesque locked rooms, pseudo-historism and immense list of characters. Some supernatural elements are also found in both novels (not with a direct influence on the story, but for example Ranko is often foretold to be an extremely powerful force in the battle against evil).

Akuryou no Yakata is an entertaining locked room mystery, but it has a bit too much going on for its page count at times. Getting rid of a few story-elements could have made this book a third shorter and just as powerful. Or he could have made the novel longer and gotten more out of some of the elements. Akuryou no Yakata therefore feels like a transition novel at times, a work that floats between the 'normal' long novels of Nikaidou and the next book in the series, Jinroujou no Kyoufu.

Maybe now is a good time to read a bit more of Nikaidou Reito's Mizuno Satoru series...

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『悪霊の館』

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