Thursday, January 31, 2013

Yellow Iris


"Let's study flower language tonight. First, we have the Cyclamen. In flower language, it means suspicion. Ehhm, then the Yoshino Cherry. In flower language, a beautiful person. Weeping plum. Knowledge. And the Miyakowasure. In flower language, it means a short parting. This is Furuhata Ninzaburou"
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: A Short Parting"

Finally handed in my final paper for this term, which meant I finally have time to play videogames read books. Heck, I should also finish some books now, papers and exams kinda messed up my reading schedule, resulting in me taking several weeks to read a book that can be read in several hours,

Renjou Mikihiko's Modorigawa Shinjuu ("Love Suicide at the Returning River") was recommended to me several times as one of the best mystery short story collections in Japan and indeed, it ranked as the best short story collection in the Tozai Mystery Best 100, entering the list at a very decent 12th position. Luck also had it that the local second hand book store had it in stock when I finally decided to actually look for it, so there I was. To be honest, I knew nothing about Renjou Mikihiko. Well, almost nothing. But for some reason I had always associated the name with 'serious' literature (whatever that is), and not with mystery. So I started in Modorigawa Shinjuu not sure what to expect. What I got however, was very pleasant.

Modorigawa Shinjuu collects five out of eight stories by Renjou that are collectively called the Flower Funeral series: the stories don't have any real connection to each other, but they all feature flowers as a common motive. I don't know about the three stories not collected here, but the stories in Modorigawa Shinjuu were also all set in the Taishou (1912-1926) / (1926-1989) early Shouwa period of Japan. I'm personally most familiar with these periods through the works of Edogawa Rampo, but there are no phantom thieves running around the city in these stories.

I tried discussing the stories seperately, but as it turns out very bland and a bit spoilerish, I give up on that and will try to give a more overall view on the collection. My first impression, which starts with opening story, Fuji no Ka ("Scent of the Wisteria"), is that Renjou Mikihiko is indeed not just a 'normal' mystery writer. His prose is really nice and he has a great talent in conveying the feel of the locale (in this story, the entertainment quarter of a harbor city) and human emotions. In fact, the story didn't feel like a mystery at all: sure, there was apparently a serial killer on the loose in the entertainment quarter, but the way the narrator, and Renjou, spoke about things made it feel much more like a well written short story about such environments near the end of the Taishou period.

And the conclusion comes and I was surprised to see that Renjou did really write a nice detective story, complete with clues and all, without me noticing. I won't say that it is a masterpiece, but it did manage to surprise me. Renjou's prose is nearer to writers who write 'serious stuff', which certainly made me underestimate the way the detective plot was weaved into his story about the Taishou world.

And this holds for all the stories in the collection. Renjou comes with great stories that are really interesting to read even without the mystery element, which convey a great sense of history and emotions of the anonymous mass of the Taishou period. We see the entertainment quarters of modernised cities in Fuji no Ka and Kikyou no Yado ("House of the Chinese Bellflower"), the world of organized crime in Kiri no Hitsugi ("The Paulownia Coffin"), the way temples are run and the effect of superstitious belief in small communities in Byakuren no Tera ("The White Lotus Temple") and tormented young writers in the titular Modorikawa Shinjuu ("Love Suicide at the Returning River"), themes and motives which are explored really well.

But he somehow manages to sneak in quite good mystery plots within them too, even if it takes a long time for them to come afruit. Most of the stories are a bit vague regarding fairness though, in the sense that we usually have an enigmatic situation that seems to repeat several times, with a hint here and there, with everything solved when the final hint is presented, but the jump to the final conclusion is usually based on intuition. Like a lot of Christie's short stories, the stories in Modorigawa Shinjuu are based on a reverse interpretation of situations, but there is no actual proof for this: it's just a guess based on the hints left by the author. I for example really liked the Modorikawa Shinjuu (for which the collection is named), but the solution is based on basically nothing but conjecture, lacking convincing power. I suppose that not all stories can be about pure elimination logic a la Queen, but the stories already feature a rather dreamy feel, which combined with the somewhat less-than-100%-convincing plots lead to detective stories which definitely work, but don't feel as strong as they might have been (to me at least).

And probably a slightly more regular posting schedule in February. Probably. And I'll probably write slightly better / more coherent reviews. The amount I've written this week about things like Akutagawa Ryuunosuke, Taishou Tokyo, human-computer interfaces and other stuff  was just a bit too overwhelming (I should learn to plan ahead) and I really have to recharge my writing power bar.

Original Japanese title(s): 連城三紀彦 『戻り川心中』:「藤の香」 / 「桔梗の宿」 / 「桐の棺」 / 「白蓮の寺」 / 「戻り川心中」

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