Monday, July 15, 2013

High Rise Hair Raiser

“Believe only half of what you see and nothing that you hear"
Edgar Allan Poe

Having survived a summer in both Fukuoka and Kyoto, I thought I'd be better prepared for the summer here; I mean, if I can survive near 40 degrees Celsius, 25 degrees shouldn't be that hard, right? And of course, I was wrong. So wrong. And I don't even have airconditioning here

Bikkurikan no Satsujin ("The Surprise House Murders") starts with the young adult Michiya finding the novel The Labyrinth House Murders by Shishiya Kadomi in a bookstore. The novel about the strange serial murder case that happened in the mansion designed by architect Nakamura Seiji, was especially interesting to Michiya because he had first-hand experience with another of Nakamura Seiji's creations, many years ago, when he was twelve. Michiya had just moved into a new town, where he had become friends with Toshio, who lived in the Surprise House. Nobody actually knew why it was called the Surprise House. Some say it was because the house was full of jack-in-the-boxes. Some say it was haunted by a ghost who loved scaring people. Some even say the complete house was a jack-in-the-box. But one thing was sure; as a house designed by Nakamura Seiji, it was destined to become a murder scene. Because on Christmas, Michiya found Toshio's grandfather murdered inside the Surprise House, in a room locked from the inside. And as Michiya starts to think about the murder, the reader is told all the events that led up to the murder.

The eighth Yakata novel and a weird one too. I also said that about the previous entry in the series, but they differ from the norm for quite different reasons. One of the major reasons for Bikkurikan no Satsujin feeling different, is because it was actually written with a totally different target group in mind. The book was originally written for publisher Kodansha's Mystery Land imprint, a line of mystery novels for children. The change in target readers shows, with an easy to read writing style, a child protagonist and even illustrations to accompany the story. It is however a full-fledged part of the Yakata series, Ayatsuji Yukito assures the reader.

I am not sure what to think about it though. First of all, the titular Surprise House never really manages to surprise. Or impress. Or do anything. Sure, it's a mansion, with one or two 'strange' things to it as you'd expect from a Nakamura Seiji house, but it misses the impact other mansions had. The obligatory secret passage (all of Nakamura Seiji's houses have secret hallways, so that's not a spoiler) is used in a great way for the story though, but the Surprise House itself is rather bland. There were other mansions in the series with somewhat 'boring' themes initially, I admit, but something like Kuronekokan no Satsujin shows that even a bland idea for a house can turn out quite good. The Surprise House however misses a real identity. The real reason behind name Surprise House isn't revealed until quite late in the story, and even then it's not really impressive, so it never manages to stand out as a setting.

Most of the story's atmosphere is derived from young Michiya finding out more and more about Toshio and his grandfather, and their past which involves a family tragedy. The build-up of this segment is great, and connects well to the first of two main surprises Ayatsuji wants to spring on the reader. The problem: it works great as a horror story, less as a fair detective story. Had I read this as a horror story, I would be moderately pleasantly surprised, but as this is an entry of the Yakata series, I can't help but feel a bit underwhelmed.

The locked room is similarly not completely satisfying. The locked room is presented as the main problem of the story; the novel starts with Michiya's recollections of how Toshio's grandfather was discovered, before going back to explain all the events that led up to the murder. As such, the solution to the locked room problem can't but disappoint, I think. I can see where Ayatsuji was going for with this locked room, and it might work as part of a larger, more complex story, but not as the main attraction.

And as a children's mystery/horror book? It's freakin' scary at the end. Or at any rate, I found it really creepy. It reminded me of the short comic stories by forever young Umezu Kazuo, which often utilize a shock surprise ending. These stories are also unbelievably creepy (and hilarious/absurd, from a certain point of view), even though they were originally intended for children. 
As a proper entry in the series, Bikkurikan no Satsujin is a bit underwhelming. There is the house, there is a secret passageway, a murder happens, but it's just not enough. This might be partly because the novel was deliberately written for a different target group, but that raises the question why this story wasn't written as a spin-off to the series.

On a side note: the Yakata series is slated to end with ten novel. As of now nine of these have been released (and I have reviewed eight of them now): 

Jukkakukan no Satsujin (The Decagon House Murders)
Suishakan no Satsujin (The Watermill House Murders)
Meirokan no Satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders)
Ningyoukan no Satsujin (The Puppet House Murders)
Tokeikan no Satsjin (The Clock House Murders)
Kuronekokan no Satsujin (The Black Cat House Murders)
Ankokukan no Satsujin (The Darkness House Murders)

Bikkurikan no Satsujin (The Surprise House Murders)

I have to confess though: I will not discuss another Yakata novel in the next post, but it will be related to the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『びっくり館の殺人』

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