Saturday, October 6, 2012

Puzzle for Puppets

『Time after Time ~花舞う町で~』 (倉木麻衣)

You are more easily hurt than anyone else
I want to be at your side, this time forever

I am pretty sure that I have mentioned before that I have a totally rational fear of clowns. Because we all know they are inherently evil. Not sure though whether I ever mentioned that I also have a rational fear of puppets/dolls/evil incarnate/you choose the word. There is probably some psychological explanation for it, seeing as both beings are distorted images of the human body and such, but that still doesn't change the fact I don't like dolls and clowns.

Which might have been the subconcious reason I had been pushing Ayatsuji Yukito's Ningyoukan no Satsujin ("The Puppet House Murders") back in my reading pile for so long. I bought almost half a year ago and I actually got it signed by Ayatsuji himself then (I happened to have it with me then, meaning I had meant to read it in May already), but somehow it got pushed back. A lot. And often. The titular Puppet House is a nickname one of its room tenants has for a large mansion in a residential area of Kyoto. Hiryuu Souichi has recently moved into the mansion as its new owner and landlord, having inherited from his recently deceased father. The nickname derives from the fact that several faceless mannequin dolls are placed around the mansion, which are not to be moved following Souichi's father's will. But mysterious events like threatening letters, strange sounds at night and rumors about the mansion worry Souichi and when it all culminates into the death of his mother, he seeks out the help of his old friend Shimada Kiyoshi.

Ningyoukan no Satsujin is the fourth novel in Ayatsuji's Yakata series and this novel marks a turning point for the series. The previous novels had all featured very tense closed circle situations surrounding the sinister buildings designed by architect Nakamura Seiji. This time however, the setting is actually an open one, with the story taking place over the course of several months. Compare the students on a lonely island, a mansion in the depths of a forest and a locked underground maze to... a mansion in a residential area. With the protagonist going out for coffee occasionally. Right from the start the reader is aware that this is a very different novel from the previous novels. Which can be a good thing of course. Ayatsuji obviously started to see the limits of his own series and thus changed things a bit (in fact, Ningyoukan was supposed to be the last book in the series initially, which might also explain the big changes, wanting to make it more distinct).

But, did he succeed? Yes and no. Sure, he got rid of the closed circle situation trope, the dense story-telling of many events in a very short period of time. The focus on the buildings is therefore also weakened, this time presenting us with lively descriptions of Kyoto. This obtained freedom allows Ayatsuji to slowly, but surely build up the suspense surrounding Souichi and I would say that it works. There is also little to no meta-discussion about the genre, which makes it more accessible to 'normal' readers, as compared to the more blatantly mystery-fan oriented Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Meirokan no Satusjin.

And while there is no meta-discussion on the genre, Ayatsuji actually managed to sneak in a meta-discussion about the Yakata series and himself as a writer in general. Through the words of Shimada Kiyoshi, it becomes clear where Ayatsuji felt the series was heading to if he didn't change the formula and he makes it a wonderful point of the story, without rubbing it into the reader's face. One should read the series in order though to really appreciate this point.

On the other hand though, Ayatsuji still uses the same type of tricks he had used in the previous novels. The exterior might be different (with the closed circle trope gone), but it is still built around something that is nothing more than another (no pun intended) variation of the same main trick. It is also fairly weakly disguised here, making it by far the easiest-to-solve mystery by Ayatsuji I have read until now. As a writer, I think Ayatsuji pays more attention to the story itself, rather than the puzzle plot, which would explain why the formula changes were mostly centered on the storytelling tropes, rather than on the trick tropes, but I find it a bit disappointing. I had personally no problems with the closed circle settings, so I had rather seen the reverse: changes focused on the trick tropes, rather than on the storytelling tropes.

Though I have to admit, I did like the descriptions of Kyoto in this novel. The K- University mentioned in the novel is obviously Kyoto University (where Ayatsuji studied, and where I am studying now) and the area where Hiryou lives, north of the campus, around Kita-Shirakawa street, is actually where I live at the moment (my room is actually facing the street), so it was quite recognizable. Which usually means sneaky bonus points for me. Marutamachi Revoir is also set in Kyoto (though mostly in a courtroom), but it was set in another part of town, so it didn't really feel close.

This is definitely a change from the formula up until now. I myself am not too big a fan of this change actually, but I can see why the changes were made and why readers would like it. But with these fundamental changes done, I really have no idea how the consequent books in the Yakata series are going to be (and then I realized that I am not even halfway through the series...).

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『人形館の殺人』

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