Saturday, June 1, 2013

Cards on the Table


Through a gust of wind the white dew on the autumn grass
Scatters like a broken necklace
Funya no Asayasu

Things I do when I don't write about Japanese detective fiction: write detective fiction in Japanese.

The title of Takada Takafumi's QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu ("Q.E.D. - The Curse of Hyakunin Isshu") refers to a famous anthology of Japanese poems (waka) compiled by Fujiwara no Teika. As the anthology's name suggets, the collection consists of 'one hundred persons, one poem each'. The poems of Hyakunin Isshu are also for the traditional uta-garuta (poem card) game, which consists of two sets of cards. The first set, the yomi-fuda, contains cards with the first line of a poem, which are read aloud. The second set of cards, tori-fuda, are placed in front of the players and have the second line of the poem written on them. Players thus try to obtain the correct tori-fuda to the yomi-fuda being read. And it was a yomi-fuda, with the first line of the poem quoted above, which was found in the dead hands of wealthy Hyakunin Isshu karuta fan Masakaki Dairoku, murdered in his own mansion almost a year ago. The case seemingly ended with the suicide of his daughter not long afterwards, but the police still think the murderer is out there. In need of information, reporter Komatsuzaki seeks the help of his old friend Kuwabara Takashi (whose name sounds like a traditional phrase to ward off evil), who besides being a pharmacist, also happens to be knowledgeable about Hyakunin Isshu.

I am not interested in history per se, but I've always had a weakness for ancient conspiracy plots/untold history/folklore etcetera. So Takada Takafumi's Q.E.D. had been on my reading list for a long time, as his books were precisely about linking history with detective plots. QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu is the first novel in the series and while it has interesting points, I can't but be a bit disappointed by it. The main problem of the book is that it seems like Takada had a whole bunch of interesting ideas, but couldn't find a way to connect all these dots together in a convincing way. The reader is presented with a misty cloud of which the complete form is just vaguely clear.

For example, we are first introduced to the series detective Kuwabara, because he is an expert on Hyakunin Isshu and he might thus deduce the meaning behind the card the deceased had in his hand (spoilers: it was a dying message!). This is a semi-logical relation (I say semi, because I am not sure why Kuwabara was created as a pharmacist who happens to know literature, instead of, I don't know, an expert on literature). And yes, having Kuwabara explaining a bit on the origin of Hyakunin Isshu is also still relevant. But what Kuwabara (and thus writer Takada) does, is not just explain a bit. What Kuwabara does, is hold a complete lecture course on the subject, including presenting an admittedly interesting theory behind the selection process of the poems of the Hyakunin Isshu, but of which only ten percent is relevant to solving the dying message.

Don't get me wrong though, what Kuwabara in the end discovers about the Hyakunin Isshu is quite interesting and it shows the research writer Takada did for the book, but it has too little to do with the murder. Reading QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu is like reading two barely related storylines. The individual storylines are fine on their own, but there is no reason to force them together in one story. Half of the book could have easily been scrapped (especially as the 'final hint that led Kuwabara to the truth' was something already said early in the grand lecture, the rest was just further exposition...) and you'd still have a coherent dying message story.

So let's look at the two storylines seperatedly, because that makes more sense to me. The secret behind Hyakunin Isshu definitely surprised me, but it requires quite a bit of knowledge on classical Japanese literature and history, which aren't exactly my fields of expertise (I am more of modern literature and history). Fun to read, but written a bit clumsily perhaps, with parts written too theoretically and other parts too repetitive (no, there is no need to give five of six examples, two or three are enough; yes, I see where you're going, you don't have to explain it for five pages...).

The actual murder was... better, but maybe not fair. There is also a kind of impossible situation present besides the dying message and the (weak) link with Hyakunen Isshu does provide a hint to the dying message, but only barely. The solution was sort of funny, in the sense that I was first afraid that it would require specialist knowledge on classical literature; I was spared this, but instead of that, you do require specialist knowledge of psychology and medicine. Which is something I don't have. You might know those stories where all kind of hints lead to a conclusion someone was colour blind, well, those I usually get quite quickly nowadays, but a similarly hinted story for some obscure psychological disorder? How is the average reader supposed to pick that up?! It's even disappointing, because the basic premise / concept behind the impossible situation is interesting, also in the way it links with the Hyakunen Isshu, but the execution...

In the end, QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu just left me with a great pile of questions. Why force these two storylines together? Why are the parts on the Hyakunen Isshu and the murder part so different in tone? Why does the interpretation of the dying message feel weak/ not conclusive enough? Why a pharmacist if you need a character with knowledge on literature? Why the need for an extra assistent/sidekick role in the story in the form of the fellow-pharmacist Nana, if you already have one in the form of the reporter? Deep in its core, QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu has some promising elements, but it just doesn't work in the way it is now.

Original Japanese title(s): 高田崇史 『QED 百人一首の呪』

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