Wednesday, August 29, 2012


"If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man
Judges 16:17

It was actually about time for me to get my hair cut. For some reason, I really hate having my hair cut, though there is always a time when even I have to admit that things are getting out of hand. And into my eyes. Though I do wonder why I can't find those cheap 1000 yen barbers here in Kyoto: you couldn't get anywhere without seeing one of those in Fukuoka. And how is this related to today's book? Well...

It is probably more usual to get to know your future wife by taking the same classes at university, or having a common friend or meeting at a party. Asukai Kyou and Miyuki first met beneath the apartment of Mishima Satsuki, a famous writer-illustrator who was also supposed to have psychic powers. Was, because she had been murdered moments before Kyou and Miyuki met. Kyou happened to have witnessed the murder from across, as he was setting his telescope up for an exciting night of stargazing. Miyuki happened to have found the body, together with Satsuki's sister Yuumi, as they had come to visit Satsuki at her apartment. And Satsuki, our murder victim, just happened to have her hair cut after she was killed.

Fast forward six years and we are at the proper beginning of Ayatsuji Yukito's Meifuusou Jiken - Satsujin Houteishiki II ("The Howling Wind Mansion Case - Murder Equation II"). Kyou and Miyuki are happily married now and Miyuki is supposed to go to a small middle school reunion, where they're going to dig up a time capsule they buried ten years ago. Kyou was supposed to go with Miyuki (as she wanted to show off her police detective husband), but an accident prevents from Kyou from going himself. As Miyuki had been bragging a long time about Kyou, she sees no other way around it than dragging along Kyou's twin brother (also called Kyou) to fool her friends. Yuumi also appears at the reunion, held at the Howling Wind Mansion, but strangely enough looking and acting exactly like her murdered sister. Complete with the whole psychic powers thing and so. And just liked her sister, Yuumi ends up being murdered. And even more mysterious, the murderer cut off her hair after murdering her, just like what happened to Satsuki.

The sequel to Satsujin Houteishiki continues the slightly lighter, more humorous tone (most of it deriving from the switch of the Asukai twins) which sets it apart from Ayatsuji's Mansion series. You might be fooled by the title (I was!), expecting a story where the setting of the Howling Wind Mansion would serve an important part in the atmosphere of the story and where the mansion itself might play a big role in the mystery itself. I mean, this is an Ayatsuji novel and he did add in all those maps in for some reason, right? I was thus quite surprised to see that the mansion itself played a very minor role in the story and I really wonder why the story wasn't titled something like Murder Equation II - The Problem of the Cut Hair, in the same vein as the first book in the series?

Because that is what makes this story fun. Why was the victim's hair cut? It mimicks the main problem of the first novel (where the victim's arm and head was cut off for some mysterious reason) and in that sense, the two Murder Equation novels really feel like a set, as they address the same type of mystery. But while the two main problems are very similar, the execution of the two novels are very different. I think I like the main idea in the first novel better, but the overall structure in Meifuusou Jiken - Satsujin Houteishiki II is much better.

I had already said in my review of Kotou Puzzle that it is hard to explain what is so great to a logical chain in detective novels, as opposed to for example a locked room trick. But that is exactly what is so great in Meifuusou Jiken: Ayatsuji has constructed a great logical chain that leads to the murderer (which in turn leads to the mystery of the cut hair). I think this might be a remnant of his experience at the Kyoto University Mystery Club: a lot of the stories written there are solved according to a Queenian elimination method (the murderer has X characteristics, and then you cross-compare those X characteristics to the suspects). In this novel, Ayatsuji has constructed a logical maze that really messes with the readers if they only employ the elimination method, showing fake weak points at several points that are only meant as traps to lure in the reader's deduction. It might not be a surprise if I say that this is actually the first novel by Ayatsuji to include a proper Challenge to the Reader and he really did his best trying to fool the reader (without becoming unfair).

I really liked this part of the novel, but the logical maze does weaken the position of the cut hair as the star of this story. At least to me. Which is why I prefer the way the main mystery (the cut up body) is handled in the first novel, while said logical maze and the way it in the end ties up to the problem of the cut hair makes this story overall better than its predecessor.

The Murder Equation novels have a distinct literary grammar: in both novels data files are inserted between the chapters, which contain character profiles, reports on the crime (like autopsy reports and such). It does kinda break the illusion of the fictional world, but one might say that this is what Ayatsuji likes to do: experiment with ways of narration. His Mansion series for example often feature two-dimensional narratives. I think that one of the reasons his novels are so pleasant to read is that Ayatsuji constantly tries different ways to present his stories and also in a way that the style of presentation is relevant to the mystery he has constructed. In the Murder Equation series, the data files do convey a feeling of pure fairness to the reader, really challenging you into solving the puzzle yourself (and boy am I happy I had written something similar in my review of the first book: it always feels nice to know you're not contradicting yourself!).

The Murder Equation series is on hold at the moment, though I think that Ayatsuji did once state he would like to do a third one in the series. The series is quite different from his Mansion series, and I do prefer the more geeky, meta-approach to the detective story in that series, but the Murder Equation books are sure to entertain any fan of the genre.

Ah, my backlog of reviews to be written is still horrible though, and it is certainly not going to shrink with the pace I've been reading with lately... You might expect to see something American in Japanese, something Japanese in American, something French in English, a holocaust of a family or the self-destruction of a family in the following days/weeks/months* (*delivery times might change depending on unforeseen circumstances, including, but not exclusively, videogames, incapability in channeling the writing muse, forgetfulness and slacking. Though it's probably the latter).

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『鳴風荘事件 殺人方程式 II』

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