Friday, December 28, 2012

The Black Cat

"One morning, in cool blood, I slipped a noose about its neck and hung it to the limb of a tree; - hung it with the tears streaming from my eyes, and with the bitterest remorse at my heart; - hung it because I knew that it had loved me, and because I felt it had given me no reason of offence; - hung it because I knew that in so doing I was committing a sin - a deadly sin that would so jeopardize my immortal soul as to place it - if such a thing wore possible - even beyond the reach of the infinite mercy of the Most Merciful and Most Terrible God"
"The Black Cat"

When a friend said earlier that this habit of mine was strange, I shrugged it away, but now that I think about it, playing a videogame while watching/listening to a video playthrough of another videogame is a bit strange maybe. Then again, a videogame where the universes of several game series collide isn't that different from a videogame where Sherlock Holmes has to take on Chtulhu, I guess.

Kuronekokan no Satsujin ("The Black Cat House Murders") is the sixth novel in Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series and revolves around an elderly man who has lost his memory after a traumatic escape from a fire. Almost all clues to his identity were lost in the fire, except for a notebook he had with him when he was saved. It appears to be a diary-like record of a caretaker of a cottage, who is, considering also fingerprint research, is the John Doe. The contents however are quite shocking, as they detail a murder case that happened when the son of the cottage's owner and his three friends visited last August and how everybody present there contrived to hide the body. Our John Doe wants it to be just a piece of fiction, but he sadly enough finds one piece of evidence in the record that tie it to reality: the cottage, refered to as the Black Cat House, is said to be designed by Nakamura Seiji, who really did exist. Wanting to find more about his own past, the man contacts the expert on Nakamura Seiji, writer Shimada Kiyoshi and his editor Kawaminami to help him.

Wow, maybe it wasn't that smart of me to read this right after Tokeikan no Satsujin. I wouldn't say that Kuronekokan is bad per se, but it is definitely very different from the large-scale Tokeikan. Well, of course the two-dimensional narrative is still present here (with the story alternating between the investigations of Shimada and snippets from the diary), but because I wrote quite enough about this characteristic of the series just a few days ago, I am just going to refer to that review. There is not much to add to that for this review, besides a comment that you won't find anything shocking here from Ayatsuji's side.

Well, except maybe for the fact that this time, the use of a story-within-a-story narrative brings forth an armchair detectivy vibe to the series. Sure, this type of narrative was also used in Meirokan, but there the story-within-a-story is actually presented as a narrative on its own, while here the old man's diary really just functions as a problem which the reader has to solve, not unlike a proper Challenge to the Reader type of story. The funny thing though, is that while the story-within-a-story narrative in Meirokan doesn't succeed as such from the beginning, because you are aware that not everything is solved within that inner narrative, while in Kuronekokan, you are never really sure what the main problem is and what you are exactly looking for.

The main problem is quite as easy to see through though, which might be a bit disappointing, but I did find it quite amusing to see that despite having arrived at the solution quite early on, I had still failed to pick up quite an amount of hints and foreshadowing lines Ayatsuji was kind enough to hide in the story. Not sure how that happened. Kuronekokan will not go into my memory bank as a remarkable detective story, but I have a feeling I will remember this novel as one where hints and foreshadowing were woven quite well in the narrative. Well, except for one thing that I don't think is as absolute as Ayatsuji tries to make you believe.

It is quite obvious that Ayatsuji was inspired by Queen on several levels with this novel, actually the most I've ever seen in his works. The length of the story and the set-up of the story actually made me think that this was originally a short story written for the Kyoto University Mystery Club (as they often tend to take a Queenian tone), but apparently not (of the Yakata series, only Ningyoukan seems to be a rewritten version of an older, published script, as well as the not-really-Yakata-series-but-close-enough Kirigoutei Satsujin Jiken).  

Kuronekokan is a fairly short novel (350 pages), probably somewhere around the size of Ningyoukan and that's not the only thing they have in common. These two novels also differ from Jukkakukan, Suishakan, Meirokan and Tokeikan because they aren't really closed circle serial murder mysteries, making them feel very light and relaxed compared to those four. The 'big four' feature 'bigger' stories, with the cast being occupied with some activity or some quest (i.e. researching an old murder, an annual gathering etc), but Kuronekokan and Ningyoukan are about murders that 'just' happen unexpectedly. Once again, not a bad thing per se, but I wouldn't say that I am really looking for that in the Yakata series. These 'main events' combined with Nakamura Seiji's buildings always made it feel like there was something like destiny working there, like all the stars aligned for murder or something like that, but here it feels more like... coincidence.

And to echo the previous post: another three to go in the series! (*I am pretty sure that the next review won't be a Yakata review though)

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『黒猫館の殺人』


  1. This is the only Yukito mystery I've read, and I hope the others are better. I wasn't particularly surprised at the big surprise, but I was irritated. The internal narrative is filled with attempts to mislead and clues to the real situation, and they're things that the internal narrator has no motive for writing (e.g. the name of the guy that got him his caretaker job). And the narrative is pretty long for that kind of attempt at misleading, even if it was motivated. There's a reason "Who killed Baker?" is three pages long. - Is your reference to Queen the long story in "The Adventures". The idea is picked up in a Yokomizo Seishi juvenile, "Daimeikyuu".

    1. Well, all Yakata novels feature some kind of narrative trick to one extent, which is a bit predictable now, but the internal narrative wasn't that full of actual misleading hints aimed at the reader by the internal narrator. Most of them made sense from the point of view of the writer (though I definitely grant you some shaky points). It just worked out quite misleading because of the 'outer' narrative.

      As to Queen, it's certainly partly a reference to a story I am not going to specify further because it might spoil the game for readers of these comments, but there are at least two or three points that also invoke Queen (novels and thematics), some more heavily than others. It's definitely a very famous trick all over the world and not only Yokomizo, but Rampo also made use of it.

      Though I can name at least one famous novel that predates Queen's story several years that features the same trick, but nobody will ever see the trick as a reference to that book ^_^'

    2. As to spoiling the game, it occurred to me too late, that for people who've read any one of these my comment gives too much away (though in the Yokomizo it's very obvious what's going on). Feel free to edit my post to obscure anything like that.

      My problem with the internal narrator's misdirections are exactly that they're not his intention (they're aimed at the reader by Yukito). When he tells us who got him the job, it's unnecessary information from his point of view. A lot of the other misdirections stick out in the same way. If the internal narrator was meant to be an incompetent narrator, that would be forgivable (from the point of view of fair play); but of course he isn't (we wouldn't put up with 100 odd pages of incompetent narration).

      Incidentally there's an Arisugawa Arisu novel which is doing something similar to the metaliterary concept in this book (in a very different way). I don't think saying that spoils it from the way the story develops, but I won't name it, in case you still haven't read it.
      Nigel Holmes