Saturday, June 22, 2013


Two's company, three's a crowd

With more and more English-language blogs on detective fiction popping up, I always hope more on Japanese detective fiction appear... but it never happens. I'll just keep waiting.

During the Second World War, the narrator (a writer) had been staying at his friend Utagawa Kazuma's family mansion. Now two years after the war, the narrator is once again invited to the Utagawa mansion, together with a group of other artists who had been staying there too during the war. However the narrator is relunctant to go, because there are bound to be troubles. Among the guests are: three men, all vying for the hand of Kazuma's sister. Kazuma's wife's ex-husband. Kazuma's ex-wife and her current husband. Another couple of which the wife is in love with Kazuma. And complex human relations is just half of the problem. A threatening letter has been sent to Kazuma, while another letter asking for a detective's help signed by Kazuma was sent, even though he denies having written one. And the day all guests are gathered, a murder happens. And then a second. And a third. But what is the motive behind these seemingly disconnected murders in Sakaguchi Ango's Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken ("The Non-Serial Murder Case")?

A classic scene: the detective (most probably Poirot) gathers every suspect in the drawing room and states everyone in the room had the motive for wanting to have killed the victim. It's only after extensive fingerpointing that he moves on to the real suspect. In Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken, this method would have been a bit troublesome because this novel works, and in a way fails, because everyone has a motive for something.

This works at one hand, because the main problem of this novel is the mystery behind the motive(s) behind the many murders. Is it a serial murder case all done by one and the same person? Or a non-serial murder, with multiple murderers working at the same time? Just as you think you found a pattern, another murder pushes your ideas towards a different direction, keeping you on your toes all the way to the conclusion. You can't accuse Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken of being boring, or at least not after the first murder.

But the story also fails on the other hand, because it is too complex at times. By which I mean, what the heck are all these characters doing in this story?! There are way too many characters here, who are all interconnected. A is married to B but in love with C who is love with D who hates B and E but like F etcetera. So A might have motive to kill C and D, but not E and maybe F. And B might want to kill A, C and D but not F, but.... I didn't count them, but according to Wikipedia, 29 persons, including the servants, are running around the Utagawa mansion and that is just... confusing. Especially with the ridiculous relations between them. Even if you consider that fact that people get killed off rather easily and fast in this novel,Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken overdoes it. There is no correlation diagram in this novel, but I advice people who are going to read this to make one yourself: it will save you.

Also, most characters are absolutely horrible and it makes no sense at all for them to all be at one place. When you read a detective, you won't be surprised when it turns out that everybody had a motive to kill the old man, but you might wonder why the old man allowed all those people who hated him to gather at one place, right? Here we have the Utagawa mansion, where everybody is having an illicit relation with somebody else, or at the very least hoping to have one and they are all artists, which is usually used as another word for 'unpredictable', 'crazy' in these kind of books, so of course something is going to happen. But it is a riddle why all these people would gather here on their own free will! Most of the time, I couldn't care less about who died, as nobody appealed to me. Which is rare.

Oh, and for those interested in linguistics and the Japanese language, this is another of those books where the use of words like kichigai (madman) and semushi (hunchback) is still intact: they are not allowed to be used on TV anymore (political correctness and stuff), but you still occassionally come across them in novels.

Overall, Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken is an okay story. I really did like the main problem, but the book does suffer from misuse of characters. In the Touzai Mystery Best, this book ranked 19th. I certainly wouldn't rank it higher, but it indeed has it's good points. Also, for those interested in Sakaguchi Ango, and not-literate in Japanese, the animated series UN-GO (Ango) is based on his mystery works and available for streaming on websites like Crunchy Roll.

Original Japanese title(s): 坂口安吾 『不連続殺人事件』


  1. The problem with blogging about Japanese detective novels not translated into English is that, no matter how interesting they sound, my chances of being able to ever read them are remote, so that is frustrating. Only a few Japanese mystery novels have been translated in English. I purchased and read Natsuhiko Kyogoku's The Summer of the Ubume. There was so much interesting material in it that I did something with it I never do with mysteries - I underlined important parts and made marginal notes. The problem is that it is extremely unlikely that I will ever get to read any other book in that series. So in the end it is very frustrating. I don't think you will see any amount of interest or comment on Japanese mystery novels here in the West until someone starts a regular translation program for them. For instance, here in the U.S., Viz Media has a regular program called the Haikasoru imprint for the translation into English of Japanese science fiction novels, and it seems to be doing all right. Maybe you would want to approach Viz Media to see if they have any interest in expanding their line to include mystery novels?

    1. Well, with the success of translated Higashino Keigo lately, now seems the best time for the boom. Ayatsuji's Another is also coming, which might lead to a translation of the Yakata series... (though I suspect [i]Another[/i] might be promoted more towards animanga consumers...).

      I always thought it was a shame series like Conan and Kindaichi Shounen never made it big with the 'serious' mystery readers, it seemed like a good way to spark interest in Japanese mystery fiction.

    2. I saw the anime of Another. I thought it was pretty good. I am happy to hear that they are bringing out a translation of the novel. I think anime like Conan are geared toward a more juvenile audience, and so are unlikely to appeal to a more mainstream audience. Also, I note that shows like Conan tend to rely heavily on Golden Age techniques: locked room, dying message, etc. I happen to like that style, but I don't think they are mainstream any longer (which is one of the reasons I don't read many American modern mysteries).

    3. As far as the Galileo novels go, I recently got The Devotion of Suspect X, but I doubt that the three novels (one forthcoming)of that series will be enough to spark a boom for Japanese mysteries.

    4. Higashino alone won't be able to do much of course, but one would think/hope that following the critical acclaim of The Devotion of Suspect X, more publishers would go for Japanese mystery. Especially as people now slowly start to realize that the mystery market there is absolutely huge.

  2. I'd often thought of doing one, but I suspect that I won't have the energy in the long run. Here's an attempt.

    1. Oh, welcome to the blogosphere! I for one hope you stick around!