Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunset Men


"What is more difficult? Constructing a problem nobody can solve, or solving that problem?"
"The Devotion of Suspect X"

Finding free Japanese mystery novels at the university library is always fun. Now only if I actually had to read all those books! Even this post's topic, a Higashino Keigo novel, took me almost two weeks. In the holiday, I could easily finish a Higashino Keigo novel in one or two days. Oh, free time, where art thou?

Higashino Keigo's Manatsu no Houteishiki ("A Midsummer's Equation") is the third novel-length entry in the Detective Galileo series. The previous two novels, Yougisha X no Kenshin and Seijo no Kyuujo were quite different from the short stories within the series: whereas the Galileo short stories are usually about the use of the hard sciences in murders / solving murder, the novel-length entries have always been rather 'serious' police procedurals where physicist Yukawa, nicknamed Galileo, (sorta unwillingly) helps the police with their investigations, with only a very shallow link to the sciences (making the novels also more accessible).  Manatsu no Houteishiki continues this trend, but sadly enough isn't as interesting as the previous two novels.

The story starts with Kyouhei, an eleven-old kid, going to his aunt and uncle's place for the summer vacation, as his parents are out of town because of work. His aunt runs a pension in Harigaura, a little resort town that has seen better days. Even though it's the middle of summer, the pension only has two other guests. One is Yukawa, who is a invited speaker for a panel discussion on a planned natural resources development project in the sea of Harigaura. The other guest, an elderly man called Tsukahara, is apparently an interested party too, as he shows up in the public of the panel discussion. The panel discussion is quite heated, with lots of villagers wanting to preserve the sea, like Kyouhei's niece Narumi. Others see no future in Harigaura as it is now and strongly believe that the development project will save the town.

The night after the panel discussion however, Tsukahara is found dead on the cliffs. The police at first thinks it's a simple accident, but when they discover that Tsukahara was an ex-cop and that he didn't die of the fall, but of carbon monoxide poisoning, they start to suspect it was murder. Where did Tsukahara die and more importantly, why? Did it have to do with some of his old cases? And meanwhile, the kid Kyouhei is having the worst vacation ever, as his aunt, uncle and niece are too busy dealing with the police. He does find an unexpected friend in Yukawa though, who seems to have some interest in the Tsukahara case too.

While Manatsu no Houteishiki is mostly a police procedural like the previous two novels, it feels quite different. One reason is that we have about five interested parties, with the story's point of view changing between them. Yukawa, Kyouhei, Narumi and her parents, the local police and the Tokyo police all look at the case from different angles, with information flowing from one party to another, some information being hidden from another party and yes, it's a bit too much. The story never gets confusing or anything and the constant changing ensures the story developments keep up a certain pace, but at times it also just feels like unneccesary padding out of the story.

The many perspectives on the case do make it kinda vague what the main problem of this novel is. The previous Galileo novels were clearly about an alibi trick and an impossible poisoning, but there is nothing like that in Manatsu no Houteishiki. The promotion phrase for this book was "Accident? Murder? The truth Yukawa noticed...", but even the question of accident or murder is not as important as one might think. Near the end, the story focuses on the why and how of Tsukahara's death, but it's pretty sad to see that Higashino basically reuses a plot-device he did much better in one of his other novels. The twists in the previous two Galileo novels were devilishly simple, while Manatsu no Houteishiki's trick is more like 'oh, well, yeah, that was simple and not very interesting'.

While there is little discussion on science in this novel, the interaction between Yukawa and the kid Kyouhei does give some interesting insights in Yukawa's idea of science. However, I had troubles seeing Kyouhei as a real kid in the novel. Which is maybe because he is 11, which means he is not a real kid anymore and thus can act more adult at times, but his character seemed to swing to much depending on the situation. Of course, Kyouhei is a lot more realistic than kids like Conan's Detective Boys or Edogawa Rampo's original Detective Boys (and Kyouhei isn't even playing a detective), but I would guess that realistic children are harder to create on paper than adults.

While Yougisha X no Kenshin, Seijo no Kyuujo and Manatsu no Houteishiki are about different kind of criminal problems, the three novels are in the core very similar novels. Higashino uses a similar plot-device in all three novels, he constructs a 'simple-and-therefore-effective' problem in all three novels, the police procedural angle with opposing forces plays an important role in the story development in all three novels. The 'problem' for Manatsu no Houteishiki is that even though it's a decent mystery, the other two novels are simply better at pretty much everything.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『真夏の方程式』

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