Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Destination Unknown

大きな詩を カバンにつけこんで
約束の場所めざして let's keep on running
「アコギな二人旅だぜ!」 (景山ひろのぶ、遠藤正明)

Let's go look for the answer you started to lose
Across the neverending horizon
Stuff a big song in your suitcase
And head for the promised place, let's keep on running
"A Duo's Acoustic Guitar Trip!" (Kageyama Hironobu, Masaaki Endou)

I really shouldn't be writing this review, considering I have a paper due tomorrow which I haven't even started with yet...

I had been wanting to read more Ayukawa Tetsuya ever since Akai Misshitsu - Meitantei Hoshikage Ryuuzou Zenshuu 1, so I picked up his Kuroi Trunk ("The Black Trunk"), the novel that could be considered Ayukawa's debut novel. I say considered, because Ayukawa, whose real name is Nakagawa Tooru, had initially won a contest with his Petrov Case in 1950, but due to problems with the publisher the book wasn't properly released then. It wasn't until 1956 that his first original novel, Kuroi Trunk, was published by Kodansha, under his new nom-de-plume Ayakawa Tetsuya. The story starts at Tokyo's Shiodome station, where a very suspicious smell from a black trunk sent there to be picked up, prompts the station attendant to call the police and open the suitcase. And lo, they indeed find a dead body stuffed inside the trunk. Tracing where the trunk was sent from, the police stumble upon the name of one Chikamatsu Chizuo, who sent the trunk to Tokyo under his own name from Fukuoka's Fudajima station. The hunt for Chikamatsu starts, which results in the discovery of his dead body, as he seemingly commited suicide. Seemingly, as inspector Onitsura, who used to be a classmate of Chikamatsu, suspects there is something more sinister going on with the problem of the black trunk.

Kuroi Trunk is seen as one of the best novels of 'alibi-breaking' Ayukawa and considered one of the classics of Japanese detective fiction in general. It's highly Crofts-inspired (especially The Cask) (and a bit of Yokomizo), as Ayukawa himself admits, which might also explain why it is certainly not one of the most pleasant books to read in terms of readability. But it is definitely a recommended read, because Ayukawa weaves a highly complex web of alibi tricks and deductions surrounding the origins and whereabouts of the titular black trunk.

As an alibi deconstruction story, the story settles on its main suspects about half-way through the story, but the complexities start there. Not only does the main suspect seem to have an unbreakable alibi, there is also another, fundamental problem governing the developments in this novel, that of who put the dead body in the black trunk and more importantly how. This forms both the novel strong and weak points. At one hand, we have a really well-constructed maze of actions, time-tables and other considerations, with a story that never feels boring. Every section of the story seems to have its own function, to complement something to the final solution.

On the other hand, Kuroi Trunk is definitely too complex for its own good at times. The story is hard to solve if you don't take notes regarding the time-tables: the murder and subsequent sending of the trunk to Tokyo takes place over a period of several days and Ayukawa sometimes discusses character movements in units of minutes. There are a lot of minutes in several days. Including the time-tables for the trains is a welcome point (and Ayukawa based his story on actual train time-tables at the time), but they are definitely also kinda scary. In my pocket version, the commentary includes a time-table that reconstructs the actual events surrounding the murder and just looking at it makes my head hurt. Note that I am saying this even after reading the novel.

I had seen this eye for minutely constructed alibi-breaking stories already in Doukeshi no Ori, which I loved, but it worked better there because it was a short story. The scale of the story is totally different and with Kuroi Trunk, it feels just... too hard. I don't think I will ever make this comment again on this blog, but Kuroi Trunk feels much more like a puzzle, than a novel (note that I am someone who likes early Queen, his short short stories and overall someone who looks more at puzzle plotting and placements of hints, than at actual characterization).

Kuroi Trunk is a classic post-war alibi-breaking mystery featuring trains and set in both Fukuoka (the northern part of the Kyushu island) and Tokyo, which is strangely something you can say also about Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines"). They were released around the same time and feature similar ideas (though the execution and focal point is definitely different). As someone who lived in Fukuoka, I always love seeing Fukuoka and the usage of the local dialect in novels, which is featured in both these novels, though I am wondering why I see so much of Kyushu in Ayukawa Tetsuya's writings: unlike Matsumoto Seichou, he doesn't even originate from there. To bring back the point of Kuroi Trunk being a puzzle: Ten to Sen may feel alike, but it is definitely a novel and a fine one at it too.

I do like Kuroi Trunk though, but I doubt I would recommend it to people as their first Ayukawa, as it is a bit too complex for its own good at times. If you like alibi deconstructing stories though, it's definitely a recommended read.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『黒いトランク』

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