Sunday, March 4, 2012

Problem at Sea

"Why must people die? Why must the living die? Or rather, why must they live....simply to die?"

I. Need. New. Books. I really want to read something I haven't read yet! Aaaaaargh. These two months, I have read like... three new books. Two of those, I didn't even really wanted to read: it's just that I don't have anything else left here! Another month, another month...

As I am slowly going crazy, I picked up another book from my emergency pile. Which mostly consists of Uchida Yasuo books. I definitely picked up too many of his books that one time they sold books at university here, without really finding out if these were interesting or not. I have read a couple of his books now, but I am still not sure what to think about Uchida. On one hand, I do like the atmosphere in his particular brand of travel-history mystery novels. Uchida usually spins an entertaining yarn combining domestic tourism, popular history and folklore. His settings are usually very interesting and quite educational. On the other hand, Uchida is not that gifted a puzzle-creator. As a big fan of the puzzle-school writers like Queen, Norizuki and Arisugawa, the simple (detective) plots of Uchida's stories almost always feel disappointing, especially as his well-researched settings usually have great potential. It are the settings that really keep me glued to the pages of his books. If not, I would have given up on Uchida a long time ago. Well, now is an emergency though.

I reviewed two Inspector Iwao (the Shinano Columbo) novels last month, but Uchida's main/most famous series is the Asami Mitsuhiko series. It is an immensely long series that has many, many TV adaptations, audio drama adaptations and even videogames. I reviewed the first Asami Mitsuhiko novel in a faraway past, but to give an idea of the series: Asami Mitsuhiko is a freelance writer for a travel magazine, specializing in local history and folklore. He naturally has to travel a lot for his work and he has a knack for getting himself involved with murders that happen at the tourist spots he investigates. He also has a talent for getting himself into the position of important suspect in those cases. That is, until the local police find out that Asami Mitsuhiko is in fact the younger brother of the Director-General of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the National Police Agency (Mitsuhiko hates people finding that out though). The best point of the series is precisely what Uchida does best: mixing tourism, folklore and local history with a detective plot. The character of Mitsuhiko provides a perfect vehicle for that (better than inspector Iwao, actually) and there is quite a large extended cast that provides for some entertaining moments throughout the series. This is strengthened by the literary agent aspect of the series: within the Asami-universe, there is a detective writer called Uchida Yasuo who bases his stories on the adventures of Asami.

Kumano Kodou Satsujin Jiken ("The Old Kumano Road Murder Case") starts with writer Uchida Yasuo asking Mitsuhiko to come along to Kumano in the Kii Penisula. Uchida's friend, professor Matsuoka of T University, has asked his help in trying to prevent his assistent Takeno and his students from reenacting an old Buddhist ritual in Kumano. The ritual is called Fudarakutokai, which means 'crossing the sea to Potalaka'. It seems that it has been believed in Japan that the Potalaka Mountains, where the Buddhist deity Kannon resides, are located in Kumano. However, to cross over to the Potalaka mountains, you have to get into a boat and let the sea bring you there. The ritual of Fudarakutokai consists of going out on sea on little boats. That's it. You either die at sea, or reach Potalaka to achieve enlightment. Many monks have actually tried this in the past since the Japanese middle ages, until it was banned in the Tokugawa period. It is probably fair to think that at least the majority of those people died.

Matsuoka's students want to recreate the ritual as a form of experiment despite Matsuoka's protests. Matsuoka's assistent Takeno has already signed up to be the one in the boat. Fearing that something bad might happen, Matsuoka wants Uchida on the scene. Uchida thinks he might use the fudarakutokai ritual for one of his books and agrees, taking Mitsuhiko along with him. On their way to Kumano however, the pair gets involved with the mysterious death of a woman who seems to have been following them. When they discover that the woman is linked to the fudarakutokai ritual, they begin to suspect that professor Matsuoka's feelings about the ritual might have been right.

And really not sure what to think about this book. I am pretty sure that my overall negative feeling is right, even though this story is not without its merits. Which is mostly concentrated in the fudarakutokai ritual. I don't have a spiritual interest in Buddhism, but as I have taken courses on Japanese religion and am a big fan of Tezuka Osamu's work, I have seen my share of interesting Buddhist rituals. I was already familiar with a ritual like instant Buddhahood (sokushinbutsu), of which fudarakutokai is a surprising variant. There is also a bit on the legend of Kiyohime and it are these elements that gave this story great potential.

I for one was expecting a locked room murder: here we have a little boat (more like a box), with someone locked inside it, going out on sea. Perfect situation for an impossible crime, right? It really screams for a scenario where the person in the boat gets brutally murdered even though the boat was in the middle of the sea with nobody in the neighborhood. And I admit, the story does develop sorta along those lines, but in the most unimpressive way possible: the person inside the boat is poisoned. Uchida then tries his hand at an impossible poisoning story, but it never really works out because it is almost painfully clear how it was done. Why not have the person killed in a more impossible way? Like dismemberment or something like that. That would have laid more stress on the impossibility of the situation.The strange thing though, the boat as a locked room situation is actually used in another situation in this story, but the impossibility of that situation is only explored after Mitsuhiko explains the trick and why it was seemingly impossible. I was utterly confused by this tactic of Uchida of first not making better use of a locked room situation and then creating an impossible situation which he doesn't explore as such. Seriously. What was he thinking.

There are definitely more problems with the story, from too much coincidences in the plot to a competely useless car chase at the end of the story that seemed written for a thrilling and exciting TV adaptation. The book also suffers from really bad pacing. The book is quite short (250 pages), but the first (and most boring) murder doesn't happen until past the halfway point. The conclusion also takes up almost 50 pages, leaving quite little for detecting. Which would seem sort of relevant. In fact, there are two major problems to solve in this story, but the only time the characters discuss those problems are when they are actually solving it. So the problem is followed immediately by the solution. With stories of writers like Queen and Norizuki, we are usually fed mid-term deductions throughout a story, just to keep us going to the conclusion. Here the puzzle plot is only mentally explored when the detective is explaining his deductions.

I am still not sure what to think about Uchida. I really loved the background setting of Kumano Kodou Satsujin Jiken, but the detective plot was quite a mess. Surprisingly, the tricks he did end up using in this novel were actually OK, but the way those 'puzzles' were incorporated into the plot was just horrible. I have to admit though, that the other three novels I read of Uchida were not nearly as bad as this book (they were all OK-ish), but this one was really disappointing.

Aaah, new, interesting books. I need them.

Original Japanese title(s): 内田康夫 『熊野古道殺人事件』


  1. You could pick up some easily available Dutch authors to cross the bridge from this month into the next: Baantjer has a few classically-styled detective novels, Janwillem van de Wetering has a collection of short stories set in Japan and Bertus Aafjes and Robert van Gulik will definitely keep you occupied until April if you settle for them.

    On the book you just reviewed: the fudarakutokai ritual also impressed me as the most interesting element of the book and I feel your frustration when a writer introduces an interesting (impossible) situation, but fails to capitalize on it. I sometimes really wonder why they bothered introducing an impossible angle in the first place, when they just let it sit there doing nothing.

    The only time I have seen this work was in Neuman's The Seclusion Room, in which the locked room had to be sacrificed in order to achieve a certain effect. It almost morphs into a anti-detective story (from a complex and highly unlikely murder case that could've been plucked from the pages of a GAD novel to a more realistic, everyday crime).

    A counter example would be Paul Doherty's The Assassins of Isis that introduced two intriguing impossible killings, but what he does with them (or rather what he doesn't do with them) makes you want to throw the book across the room and they can be considered cheats, too! If I recall correctly, I offered an alternative solution to the first locked room situation in my scathing review of the book.

    But I have babbled on long enough.

  2. I do intend to keep myself to this purchase restraint this last month. Just a few more weeks and then it's all over. I have to admit that I do try to find loopholes within my own rules though: a purchase like Kamaitachi no Yoru 2 counts as a game, not a detective novel. Even though it's in fact a detective sound novel written by a famous New Orthodox writer and stuff.

    I might take a cue from your recommendations though and reread some of the Judge Dee novels. I like them, but my memories of the stories tend to get a bit mixed up because of the multiple case set-up of the novels and also because I read Parallel Cases under the Pear-Tree, which naturally has a lot in common with van Gulik's stories.