Saturday, November 17, 2012

Murder, Smoke, and Shadows


"So the author throws down his glove down before you, asking 'Why were the dolls killed?'"
"Why Were The Dolls Killed

Already something that happened last week, but because I kinda forgot to preorder the Animal Crossing 3DS LL pack, I visited a lot of shops last week on the release day to see if some shops still had them. I now have to wait until half December, but at least I managed to order it now. But setting that aside, why would you run across a store to the game corner to buy the new Animal Crossing / the Animal Crossing 3DS LL pack if you already have a preorder reservation slip for that day? It is not like they will sell the copy with your name on it to someone else. And it wasn't like those customers were all in a hurry, as evidenced by them hanging around the game corner for quite some time, telephoning people to say they secured the goods. Anyway, that was the biggest mystery I encountered last week.

Takagi Akimitsu's Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru ("Why Were The Dolls Killed?") is widely considered one of the best Japanese detective novels. I think that Nikaidou Reito considers it one of the best detective novels ever, while recently Ayatsuji Yukito also tweeted his own Takagi top 5, with this novel at one. Anyway, I knew that sooner or later I had to read this book. (Considering it has been like two or three years since I first heard of the novel, it means it became quite a bit later, but anyway...) During a performance organized by an amateur magician's club, the head of a human doll that was to be used for a guillotine trick is stolen. The puppet's doll is later discovered, being switched with the real head of a woman who has decapitated on a guillotine block herself! Kamizu Kyousuke and Matsushita Kenzou team up again to solve the problem of the 'killed' doll. And the actually killed woman.

The plot develops even further after the initial murder, but I have to say: I had problems getting through the book. Takagi writes... not boring exactly, but definitely dry. Compared with contemporaries like Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi, Takagi's writings are a bit hard to get through smoothly. I already felt it with Noumen Satsujin Jiken, so I guess that this is just his style. It's a bit of a waste though, because he could have done so much more with the theme of the puppets and the whole magician club thingy (then again, Takagi also kinda dropped the ball on the creepy atmosphere in Shisei Satsujin Jiken).

But to get back to the actual story: it's good! Very good indeed. I think that Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru best point lies in its construction: a whole variety of tricks is used in this novel, but the usage of them makes sense in the context of the story. Takagi weaves all kinds of tricks together in one coherent structure and whereas in many novels a succession of different kind of tricks (i.e. alibi trick, locked room trick) might feel like indeed nothing more than a succession of tricks, the tricks used in Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru add up to something more than just the total sum of its components. I quite liked Crofts' Mystery on Southampton Water, which also featured a wide variety of detective tropes in its plot, but the way it is done in Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru feels more satisfying.

And the title of the book is in fact a Challenge to the Reader itself! There is a proper one in the story too, but it all boils down to the question: why were the dolls killed?

I haven't read that much Takagi (in fact, the number of books I've read by him probably equals the number of his books translated in English), but at least his orthodox detective fiction seems to form a nice little set wit Yokomizo Seishi. Yokomizo's best works are set in postwar Japan, but in little, rural villages where the customs of pre-war Japan still live on. The detective (outsider) has to work in small isolated communities, with power struggles exist between young/old, poor/rich, main families/branch families etc (see reviews of Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Akuryoutou for more on that). Takagi's novels are also set in postwar Japan, but in much more urban environments and the stories revolve around the middle/upper class of society. Some of them may become socially and economically somewhat weaker because of the abolation of the nobility structure in Japanese law, but they, together with the 'new' postwar rich, are still a very influential class with 'expensive' hobbies like mask collecting or tattoo studies. They show a very different kind of postwar Japan than Yokomizo and it is not strange to see that Takagi also moves towards more shakaiha-esque (social school) novels during his career.

Anyway, I definitely understand why Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru is considered a classic.To me, its merits lies in its construction and not the storytelling, but it is certainly worth a read. Even if you have to fight through the dry text.

Original Japanese title(s):  高木彬光 『人形はなぜ殺される』

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