Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Backstage Rage

「本番中の演出かご室。 大胆な犯行ですね」
「?!!! 」

"So in a stage cage room during a performance. What an adacious murder"
"The murderer must be very intellegent. What kind of trick did he use?"
"This case looks difficult"
"Yes. This story will take at least two weeks for us to solve"
"Sir, the criminal just confessed!"
"33 Minutes Detective"

 I did post the Tozai Mystery Best 100 last week, but I am not sure yet whether I am going to make a best-of-list, like last year. Partly also because I read quite some very good books this year for reading clubs, which makes it harder to make a list. But I might figure out something for that. Like a Japanese/Non-Japanese list or something like that. Still a week to go in this year, so we'll see.

Under normal circumstances, it is quite hard (or at least expensive) to get your hands on a copy of Christianna Brand's Death of Jezebel. When you're in a Mystery Club, you can just casually mention you want to read to the book, only to find out the following day that someone has been nice enough to bring his copy for you to read. Rare books, smare books! Anyway, a nice young lad called Johnny Wise finds his girl Perpetua in the arms of another man, "thanks" to the rather cruel Isabel Drew and commits suicide. Seven years later and Perpetua, the man Johnny found her with and Isabel (whom people also call Jezebel) all receive threatening letters. It also happens that all these players are to participate in a pageant, with Isabel playing the Queen in a tower, surrounding by her knights on horseback. And what happened at the pageant was that Isabel fell down the tower (after being killed), surrouding by her knights on horseback. And nobody in the public saw the murderer enter or leave the tower on stage!

I first have to say that the Johnny's suicide was kinda... fast. I mean, it happens in the first few pages of the book to set-up the story, but the jump between finding out his lover's infidelity and his suicide was quite abrupt. I get that finding your girlfriend in the arms of another man is less than pleasant, but to skip all the (psychological) steps leading up to suicide...

But having addressed that point, I can join the praising parade for Death of Jezebel. I wonder whether reviewing this book is some sort of ritual a mystery blog has to undergo before it is recognized as one. Anyway, first up, the murder! Who doesn't love an impossible murder, commited in front of many witnesses, on stage?! In a sense, all mysteries are a kind of theater, a play that unfolds in front of the reader's eyes and thus such murder stories are closer to meta-fiction than most people would initially think. And I love meta-fiction, so no objections from me.

I  won't say I'm a Brand expert, seeing as I've only read Tour de Force and seen the Green for Danger movie, but I am going to suppose that having multiple (fake) solutions and insane complex logical plotting is a characteristic of Brand. Which again is something I love, so more bonus points. The trick behind Jezebel's murder is complex and certainly impressive enough to hold the structure for a whole book (which isn't always the case for mystery novels). The trick also has a distinct, headless flavor to it you don't see that often in Golden Age mysteries, but something I certainly can appreciate walking round the bloody fields full of decapitated corpses and loose limbs that make Japanese detective novels (ok, it's not that bad. Only relatively).

My second not-sure-whether-this-is-a-Brand-characteristic is the observed murder setting: Tour de Force, Green for Danger and Death of Jezebel all feature impossible crimes, where the crime scene is under (almost) constant observation by multiple witnesses. These crime scenes are under natural observation (it is normal to overlook a beach, just like that doctors and nurses do have to look around in an operation room), with people all doing their own thing (walking around the beach; doing their own tasks in the operation room, the actors in a play), which gives the murderer leeway to execute his trick. The interesting thing is that Brand handles the same situation in very different ways, with different kind of tricks and solutions to the problem. So even if you recognize the setting, you probably won't see what Brand has up her sleeve this time. Which , making her murders all the more puzzling and fun to read. Or watch.

And one final point to make this post absurdly Brand-centric even though I hardly read her work: Death of Jezebel features both inspector Cockrill (of Tour de Force and Green of Danger) and Charlesworth (whom I know absolutely nothing about). Wait, sorry, I don't even have a point to make about this. It's just a fact I wanted to mention.

This is one of those novels that you really want to recommend to other people, only to remember at the last moment that the book is quite rare. And not everybody knows a guy who has a copy of the book available to borrow. Still, it might be a more realistic recommendation to most people, compared to recommending Japanese novels nobody can read. The things money can buy!


  1. Well, Charlesworth is Brand’s secondary series character, who made his debut in Death in High Heels, making Jezebel a crossover novel.

    And yes, plot ingenuity, multiple false solutions (usually coming from the suspects themselves as opposed to the detective figure) and impossible crimes are very characteristic of Brand's plotting technique, but also the closed circle of suspects and actually being pretty good at creating characters.

    I've always loved how important the characterization in London Particular was to the advancement of the plot and can recommend that one for your next Brand.

    You can also opt for Suddenly at his Residence, which has everything you found in the stories you've read now, but it has gotten very mixed reviews – and I thought it was only so-so.

  2. Hi Ho-Ling, I hope you don’t mind me necro-posting to such an old post. I had just finished both “Death of Jezebel” and Norizuki Rintarou’s “Nakakubi ni Kiite Miro - The Gorgon’s Look”. Rather than posting them separately, I hope you don’t mind me combining the posts here. There is a particular trope that both novels played with, and I’d like to discuss them here. I will use some rot13 to mask some stuff here and there, as it’s very hard for me to analyze both books without going to spoiler-ish territory.

    (Also, I need to split things up because HTML cannot accept to many words. Sorry)

    Let’s talk a bit about “Nakakubi ni Kiite Miro” first. I will be honest, it was a very frustrating experience, especially since I know I thoroughly enjoyed Norizuki Rintarou’s short stories. This is because I really, really loved the core idea he came up with (rot13):

    Abevmhxv’f vqrn sbe gung fgbel jnf gb cynl jvgu gjb znwbe vqrnf va qrgrpgvir svpgvba: Qlvat Zrffntr naq Zheqre Naabhaprzrag. Gur fgnghr’f urnq jnf bevtvanyyl zrnag nf n qlvat zrffntr, ohg jnf erzbirq ol gur ivpgvz sbe fnsrxrrcvat. Gura gur xvyyre hfrq guvf npgvba gb uvf nqinagntr naq fzbxrfperra rirelguvat ol gheavat gung vagb n Zheqre Naabhaprzrag, juvpu va ghea uvqrf gur bevtvany Qlvat Zrffntr! Guvf vf rkgerzryl pyrire; V qba’g guvax V unq rire frra gurfr gjb gebcrf genafsbezrq va fhpu n znaare. Va n jbeyq bs fpvrapr jurer QAN grfgvat, svatrecevagvat unq znqr gur Qrpncvgngvba Gebcr zhpu yrff rssrpgvir guna va gur cnfg (lbh'yy unir gb qb n ybg zber gb uvqr n ivpgvz'f erny vqragvgl gurfr qnlf), Abevmhxv'f vqrn urer genafpraqrq gubfr obhaqnevrf ol gnxvat fhpu n pbzzba gebcr vagb n irel harkcrpgrq qverpgvba.

    But the execution, the journey to reach that gem of a conclusion was tedious and the prose was kinda...dry, I guess? Understandably, this is one of his earlier works and he had improved immensely since then as a writer. Awesome core idea, but poorly packaged which made it seemed like a missed opportunity.

  3. Now, allow me to join your parade in singing praises for Death of Jezebel. You already mentioned about the layers of false accusations/solutions that made this novel complex. So I had been asking myself lately: what is the “highest pinnacle/level of a successful trick”? And I think I found my answer with Death of Jezebel. It’s not so much about asking the question: “Okay, what is the blatantly devious trick that the author is going to pull on me this time?”. But it’s more like, “My gosh! There WAS a trick here? I didn’t even notice!!!” Here’s something that Christianna did that was amazing here (rot13 here again, like usual):

    Gur znwbevgl bs gur abiry’f qvfphffvba jnf ba gelvat gb erfbyir gur ybpxrq ebbz fvghngvba. Puevfgvnaan’f vagrag urer vf gb hfr gur ybpxrq ebbz fvghngvba gb qenj lbhe nggragvba njnl sebz na rneyvre rirag: Rney’f qrpncvgngvba. Zbfg ernqre jvyy bsgra snvy gb nfx gur pbeerpg dhrfgvba urer: Jul jnf Rney’f qrpncvgngvba arprffnel? Naq nf vg ghearq bhg, GUNG jnf gur pehpvny chmmyr cvrpr gung nyybjf lbh gb fbyir gur ybpxrq ebbz fvghngvba. Ohg V, zlfrys, arire nfxrq gung dhrfgvba orpnhfr V qvqa’g frr gung nf n arprffnel vaterqvrag gb fbyir gur ybpxrq ebbz, naq gung’f jung znxrf vg fb oevyyvnag. Hfhnyyl, gur pyhrf gb n ybpxrq ebbz zlfgrel ner zber va-lbhe-snpr, yvxr oebxra cvrprf bs fgevatf be jrveq neenatrzrag bs bowrpgf va n tvira fcnpr. Rirel npgvba bs gur phycevg jnf pnershyyl cynaarq naq ybtvpny, abg n fvatyr npgvba jnf fhcresyhbhf be jnfgrq. Nabgure abgnoyr zragvba, gur xavtug nezbe. Gur punenpgref pbagvahbhfyl fgerff gur cbvag gung bapr lbh jrne gur nezbe, lbh pnaabg qvfprea gur vqragvgl bs gur crefba. Fb, nyy lbhe nggragvba vf qenja gbjneq “jub jnf gur erq xavtug”. Gur fbyhgvba gura orngf lbh bire gur urnq ol znxvat lbh ernyvmr gung gur znva cbvag vfa’g nobhg “uvqvat gur vqragvgl bs gur crefba”, ohg gur vzcbegnag cneg vf nobhg gur uryzrg’f novyvgl gb “fubj gur rlrf bs n crefba’f urnq”!

    So either way, had a blast with both novels, with very different experiences and expectations.

    Just to keep a “certain theme” going, my next stops will be “Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono” and “Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken”. I am so glad Chinese translation groups are so hardworking!

    Thanks again for all the recommendations on these great books! I’d never had run into them if it weren’t for all the hard work you put into this site :D

  4. Namakubi is actually one of Norizuki's later novels featuring Rintarou, and most of his novels are bit dragging, save for the first novel. They feel quite differently from his short stories, which are snappy, often funny and really space-efficient. Novel!Rintarou is also far closer to the later Ellery, so with a lot of self-doubting, often resulting in these slower novels.

    I think that with your views on these two books, you touch upon what I usually find most interesting in mystery novels: clues based on the question of 'why a certain action was taken'. The theme you're talking about is a rather "in-your-face" action, but the motive behind them can offer so much variety and don't even get me started on the less conspicious uses for these clues in stories by writers like Queen and Arisugawa (i.e. the story is solved by figuring out why certain actions were taken, even if the action seems insignificant or obvious at fist sight).

    I have already written a lot about Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono's treatment of the theme, so I hope you'll enjoy it. Clock Jou has a very unique, pseudo-science-fiction/fantasy world that takes a while to get into,but I still haven't read any story that is even remotely similar in concept to Clock Jou's extremely original take on the theme.

    1. Oops, haha, you are definitely right the novel Namakubi. Should have checked the year publishing date before I made that statement. But yeah, Namakubi is definitely my first exposure to his longer feature-length novels. My prior experience with his work had always been his shorter stories, with some of my favorites (I recall) being: An Urban Legend Puzzle, Deadly Flashlight and that one short story where the protagonist had to find the only clock showing the correct time in a building full of clocks that were showing the incorrect time (it had a game-like element to it and it was awesome).

      Speaking of Clock Jou, I just remember I need to follow up on Kitayama Takekuni's Kirigiri novels too. Sometimes it's easy to forget while waiting for long periods for fan translation to catch up with the volumes, haha.