Thursday, December 15, 2011

Turnabout Beginnings

"The Legend of Zelda"

Publishers bringing us old out-of-print mysteries in this age, you naturally deserve praise for your wonderful efforts, but you should really do something about the smell of those print-on-demand books. Seriously, they smell absolutely awful...


As it would be very easy to start a review of a Philo Vance novel with a reference to Ogden Nash's simple yet striking description of the detective, I'll refrain from that. Or wait, did I just reference it? At any rate, S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance series is so well-known (in the right circles), that I doubt I'll need to introduce them. So I'll be lazy and refer to Wiki. And yes, I do seem am more lazy when I review English-language material. The fact that I am doing a review of both The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case in one post though, is not because I am lazy. And in fact, it was also very alluring to make two seperate posts about them (because that would make bump up the post-count). But these two books actually work quite well together for a double review. Why? Well, while I am certainly not an expert on the complete Philo Vance canon, I am quite sure that The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case were the most influential books of the canon, having inspired countless of other writers all over the world with their amazing plots. Or, I can at least say with certainty, The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case have been a tremendous force of influence to Japanese writers. And as I like to pretend like I have knowledge of Japanese detective fiction, I should at least have read these two novels, right? Not having read these novels is like going questing without a sword! It's dangerous!

The Greene Murder Case, third in the Philo Vance series, is 'a complete and unedited history of the Greene holocaust'. The Greene family was never a happy one, with every member of the family hating the others. What made it worse was that they had to live in the same mansion for 25 years (due the conditions of old man Greene's will). The Greene mansion was a place of evil, of built-up hate, hate which ended in murder. Starting with the murder on the eldest Greene daughter (and a attack on the youngest Greene daughter) one night, members of the Greene family are being killed one after another, leaving district attorney Markham, the police and amateur detective Philo Vance with a rather bloody mess.

The Greene Murder Case is, despite some clear flaws, a very powerful novel. The story of the 'Greene holocaust' has a good pace, it is well structured and mostly fairly hinted. The story developments are quite well done: I read it in one go, which is a rare thing. Flaws however include the fact that it is pretty easy to deduce whodunnit as pretty much everybody is dead near the end of the novel and one particular trick behind a murder seemed rather farfetched. Yet, the atmosphere in the novel is really good, which is also the reason why I like this novel the best of all the Van Dine's I've read until now. It's clearly a step up from the previous two novels (which were to me so nondescript that I hardly remember anything about them).

While The Greene Murder Case is probably best known for its solution/murderer, which has inspired quite some other writers, I won't touch upon that here. No, for this blog it is far more interesting to look at The Greene Murder Case as the ur-example of a good old yakata-mono (mansion-story). While this Japanese term might suggest relations to a term like 'country house murders', a yakata-mono is distinctly more dark than the more neutral 'country house murder' moniker. The mansion in question should almost act like a character itself in the story; this might be at an actual physical level (for example, strange architecture like in Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Murder among the Angells) or at a more spiritual level, for example by acting as a place with a distictly evil vibe. Which is certainly the case with The Greene Murder Case, though another example would be the Hatter mansion in Queen's The Tragedy of Y. It is a subgenre quite popular among Japanese orthodox writers, with Ayatsuji Yukito and Nikaidou Reito being the usual suspects. I've read more Nikaidou than Ayatsuji, but for example most of the Nikaidou Ranko novels I've discussed are clearly yakata-mono, with almost monstreous architectial structures looming in the background of the story. In fact, Nikaidou's novels take more cues from The Greene Murder Case: his novels often feature families forced to live together in a place of evil mansion which ends up in a lot of murders.

The Greene Murder Case (and Van Dine in general) also had a profound influence on Yokomizo Seishi and it is not hard to see the many similarities between Greene and Yokomizo's Inugamike no Ichizoku. A family forced to live together through a horrible will of a deceased family patriarch, the absolute hate that exist between the family members, who will work together and betray each other whenever it suits them, the changing shares of the inheritance when one dies.... while Yokomizo's puzzle-plot is completely different from The Greene Murder Case (and superior, I might add), one can feel Greene's influence everywhere.

But I think it is pretty safe to say that The Bishop Murder Case was the most influential of the Philo Vance novels. As it is revealed in the first chapter already and this is really really well known, I consider it not a spoiler to say that The Bishop Murder Case is a nursery rhyme mystery. The first actually (at least, that is the consensus, which I is perfectly fine with me). The Bishop Murder Case is about a series of murders resembling Mother Goose nursery rhymes (i.e. a man called Cochrane Robin found dead with an arrow in his chest), all commited by someone calling himself Bishop.

Setting the importance of the nursery rhyme mystery plot device aside for a second, I didn't like this book as well as The Greene Murder Case. Pacing, structuring, clueing, it all felt inferior to what Greene and let's be honest, a lot of the nursery rhymes murder scenes felt forced. Yes, they mention that it was coincidental, but still, a lot of coincidences make up a pattern, and this pattern was rather hard to believe. Oh, but the part where Vance investigates an alibi by getting the records of a chess game and re-playing the game himself? Genius!

And now to the topic of the nursery rhymes, but I don't think I have to go to deep into the importance of the nursery rhyme murder to the history of detective fiction, right? It's not just the nursery rhyme motif, it is the whole concept of a series of murders to stand symbol for something else that is important; it is the concept of structuring a series of murders that is important. Yes, we have nursery rhyme murders like Christie's And Then There Were None, but the structuring of The ABC Murders is just as much indebted to The Bishop Murder Case. Loads of Ellery Queen's novels are following a certain structure that allude to something else (which may or may not be clear from the start). While the connection to the nursery rhymes are made almost immediately in The Bishop Murder Case, a lot of 'nursery rhyme mysteries' usually turn this around: they come up with a series of seemingly unrelated murders, only to reveal at a later stage that all the crimes are connected through a (often symbolic) link.

Scholar Kawana builds on critic Kasai Kiyoshi' literary history of Japanese detective fiction when she argues that the nursery rhyme murder is a distinctly post-World War theme for mystery novels, as a nursery rhyme murder motif is basically a psychological plot-device to create structure in a series of seemingly unrelated, meaningless murders (= giving meaning to every single, individual death, as opposed to the mass deaths in total war). While absolutely not without its share of flaws, Kasai's attempt of presenting orthodox detectives as post-World War literature and the non-Western-centric approach to it is certainly laudable and Kawana's analysis of Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou as Japan's first original 'nursery rhyme mystery' is certainly worth a read (full of spoilers though!:  Kawana, Sari (2007) ‘With rhyme and reason: Yokomizo Seishi’s postwar murder mysteries’. Comparative Literature Studies, 44:1-2, 118-143.)

From a less-literary history-ish viewpoint, Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou, as well as Akuma no Temariuta are perfect examples of how the nursery rhyme mystery was adapted by Japanese writers. In Japan, the plot-device is usually refered to as a mitate satsujin (a 'resembling' murder), i.e. a murder that stands symbol for / resembles something else, with the term mitate originating from the poetic scene, as well, yeah, poems quite often refer to X by saying Y. The mitate satsujin is even now a very popular plot device in Japan (and very much associated with Yokomizo Seishi-esque stories). Seeing Queen's popularity in Japan and the extensive way in which Queen used this motif, I would say that most of the direct influence on Japanese writers came from Queen, but we all know who Queen was based on.

And finally, two general notes on the two novels. One: what is it with Van Dine coming up with ridiculous psycho-analytic explanations for the motives of the murderers? Seriously, both these books have Vance spout some weird mumbo-jumbo about how some people are more inclined to commit murder that just rubs me the wrong way. And two: is the literary device of "S.S. Van Dine" as the chronicler of the story even needed? Even though he is supposed to be at Vance's side the whole time, I don't think he has been ever acknowledged by any of the other characters in any of the two stories. The stories are so-called accounts of real cases told to us by Van Dine fom a first person point of view, but he has no presence at all in the stories. While Ellery Queen's "J.J. MC." had a similar function, he at least never pretended to have any presence in the stories. In fact, the only time Van Dine seems to react on Philo Vance's actions in the story is in the footnotes. Not in the main body of the text. In the footnotes.

Anyway, short story: interesting books, must-reads for anyone interested in detective fiction in general and Japanese detective fiction. And surely a lot more interesting than the first two Philo Vance novels.

Oh, look, this post didn't turn out to be as horribly awful as I thought it would be.


  1. Your knowledge of Japanese detective stories and the influence Van Dine had on it, gave this review an interesting (and original) perspective on these two novels.

    I concede that The Greene Murder Case is an important and influential novel within the genre, but it was, IMO, neither powerful nor atmospheric – and the elimination of nearly every suspect was ruinous to the solution.

    Van Dine's approach to setting the mood was simply stating that a sinister and terrifying atmosphere prevailed throughout the entirety of a case, however, these feelings never conveyed themselves to me. It was just that, a statement of fact and nothing was done to empress this terrifying atmosphere onto the reader.

    Your observation on the use of buildings as "characters" is interesting, and it reminded of a conversation between Poirot and Hastings in Curtain - in which they discuss the possibility that Styles Court, the setting of their first and last case, might be the real catalyst for all these murders. A place that, due to its history, attracts and breeds evil.

    The Bishop Murder Case makes me feel sorry for poor Van Dine. The only time he hit on a really good idea, a serial murder who knocks his victims off according to nursery rhymes, and he was outdone by nearly everyone who tried their hands at it themselves – most notably The Queen of Crime.

    But to be honest, the murders were ridiculous and stretched credulity beyond the borders of believe (a man with the rare surname of Robin does archery with a friend whose last name means sparrow... who becomes the main suspect when Robin is plugged with an arrow... right).

    I can't help but sneer at the scholars who attempt to give a deep, psychological spin to simple, but nonetheless, nifty plot devices. They just overanalyze the fun out of certain things. I mean, you can easily churn out a theory that Chesterton's "The Invisible Man" was so popular, because people had enough of uniforms after The Great War. The simple truth is that writers were exploring the field for new ways to astonish, thrill and fool their audience.

    By the way, have you read Ellery Queen's Double, Double, which also revolves around a series of nursery rhyme murders. It's also, IMHO, the only interesting, full-length novel from the Wrightsville series.

    Van Dine, as a character, was acknowledged in two or three novels, by Vance and Markham, but mainly plays the role of silent partner.

    Anyway, I recommend you also pick up The Kennel Murder Case, which is Van Dine at his absolute best, and even has a really decent locked room – and came very close to matching the best mysteries penned by EQ.

  2. The problem with these two novels (and any of the classics) is just how well-known and much-discussed they are, it's hard add something interesting / worth reading if the discussion has been going for such a long time. Well, with this post, I luckily had the advantage of being positioned in a niche area within niche area: there is just still little known about Japanese detective fiction in English-language sources.

    Concerning Double, Double and The Kennel Murder Case, due to circumstances I think it will take a long time before I'll get around to those. Two books are still on their way to me, but I think that those wiill be the last English-language novels discussed here for the time being.