Monday, August 26, 2013

L'offrande au neant

 J'ai, quelque jour, dans l'océan,
(Mais je ne sais plus sous quels cieux),
Jeté, comme offrande au néant,
Tout un peu de vin précieux...
 "Le Vin Perdu" (Paul Valéry)

Twain's comment on 'classics', "a book people want to have read, but don't want to read" has been true for a lot of books for me, but with detective novels, I usually really do want to read the 'classics' myself. Of course, what's a 'classic' to one, might not be to another, and canons are rarely perfect. And yet, you have to admit, a title like "The Three Great Occult Books" sounds alluring, right? And so the reading of the classics continues...

The Three Great Occult Books
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (1934)
Dogura Magura (1935)
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (1964)

Hinuma Souji and Kouji lost their parents in the great Touyamaru accident, just like their cousin Aiji. They all seem to cope with their loss in a different way: Souji has become quite pessimistic, Kouji tries to occupy his mind by writing a detective novel, while Aiji has of late become a frequent visitor of gay bars. But was the death of their parents really just an accident? The Hinuma family is said to have been cursed by an Ainu god for cruelties done by the first Hinuma in the family line and indeed, Aiji has lately been seeing a suspicious Ainu hanging around. Hearing more about the Hinuma family, chanson singer Nanamura Hisao forespells that there will be more deaths in the family soon, dubbing it "The Hinuma Murders". And indeed, Kouji is one day found dead in the bathroom. Because everything was locked from the inside and Kouji had a weak heart, the police decides it was an accidental death, but not everyone is convinced by that, especially because this is awfully similar to the novel Kouji had been writing. A group of interested people, including Aiji and Hisao, decide to deduce who the murderer is, but surprisingly, they all arrive at different conclusions. But this was just the first act in the long tragedy to be found in Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness", 1964).

Ranking in second in the Tozai Mystery Best 100 list, Kyomu he no Kumotsu has the reputation of being an anti-mystery novel masterpiece. While not as... crazy as Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura (at least I can write a normal review for this book!), it is not surprising why this book is considered one of the Three Great Occult books of Japanese mystery/fantasy fiction. Kyomu he no Kumotsu manages to be a great anti-mystery, but also to be a great 'normal' detective, a quadruple locked room mystery nonetheless, at the same time and it works. There is something for everyone here and anyone who can read Japanese, should read Kyomu he no Kumotsu.

The initial set-up reminds of Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case, of course. Like I mentioned in the review of that book, Berkeley often comes close to being an anti-mystery. but always stays on the safe side of the line. Kyomu he no Kumotsu in comparison, crosses the line. And is on crack. Similar to The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the amateur detectives each arrive at their own conclusions; they deduce different tricks, different murderers. And now multiply it by four different locked room murders and you might get an idea of how the deductions and hypotheses of Kyomu he no Kumotsu really feel like offerings to nothingness. This is nothing like the progressive, evolving theories of Ellery Queen, or the blatanly false, but plausible theories presented by the attorneys in Van Madoy's Revoir series: in Kyomu he no Kumotsu, you're presented with an amazing amount of theories for a series of locked room murders, basically posing the infinite possibilities of the imagination, and doubting the possibility of certainty. Heck, at one point, the detectives actually theorize about a locked room murder they think the murderer will commit, figuring they can then solve the murder before it has even happened! The contineous deductions are a bit tiring, but that is the point. Yet, every single one of these deductionsis certainly interesting, and keeps your eyes glued to the pages.

The amateur detectives are also very meta-concious, refering to a whole slew of detective novels, and in particular, the Ten Commandments of Knox and the Twenty Rules of S.S. Van Dine. During their deduction battles, the detectives also, for 'fun' reasons, have to adhere to the famous rules and even have a rule their solutions to the locked rooms must be original: they are not even allowed to use tricks seen in other detective fiction! One character who is not as big a mystery reader as the others is even given a copy of Edogawa Rampo's famous essay A Categorization of Tricks, so he check whether his trick is original! Just consider: here we have writer Nakai Hideo, forcing himself to come up with an original solution for every hypothesis posed by every character, for all four locked rooms! As reader you get mesmerized by this parade of ideas, but to think one man did all this, for one story! In fact, Kyomu he no Kumotsu was written in two parts, and when Nakai initially send in the first part to a competition, the judges thought this novel was a joke novel, because the neverending deductions and the strict following of the Decalogue and Twenty Rules made it seem so absurd. I have to note though that unlike Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolate Case, Kyomu he no Kumotsu always keeps a straight face, a very serious and straight face indeed.

In the end, the story actually denies being a mystery novel. Unlike some anti-mystery novels, this novel does indeed have a proper solution to the whole series of deaths, but the conclusion forms a magnificent ethical criticism on the whole genre. But the great part of this is; you, as the reader, have the freedom of how to read Kyomu he no Kumotsu. Sure, the conclusion sets "The Hinuma Murders" in a different light, but even so, it remains an excellent locked room murder mystery. The criticism on the genre works, because Kyomu he no Kumotsu has taken on the form of a proper detective novel, but at the same time this book shows exactly why detective novels have been so popular. Read it as anit-mystery, read it as a proper mystery novel, it works both ways.

A great locked mystery, a great anti-mystery, an ode to deduction, a criticism on detective fiction. Kyomu he no Kumotsu is an offering to nothingness, and an offering to detective fiction. Definitely a must-read. Oh, and no, I won't be doing Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken anytime soon, I think. I have it here, but to reading all Three Great Occult Books in a short period of time is probably not good for you.

Original Japanese title(s): 中井英夫 『虚無への供物』

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Mystery Incorporated

「君 どんなの読むの?好きな作家でもいいから」

"So, what do you like? Writers are also fine!"
 - I don't read at all, let alone detectives!-
".....Co...... Conan?"
"Doyle! So you like the classics?"
-Who the hell is Doyle?!-

Those familiar with manga and anime, might have heard of the series Genshiken. Genshiken, short for Gendai Shikaku Bunka Kenkyuukai (The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture), is a fantastic meta-series about a college club for otaku. The series features a great cast of members, all with their own field of interest, ranging from fighting games to figures to cosplay, but also includes members who are just lightly into things like anime and manga (or, in a bizarre twist of fate, one person doesn't like otaku hobbies at all, but is forced to hang around because of her boyfriend). As such Genshiken is a very educative, and funny view on Japanese college club culture, as well as fan culture.

People who have been following this blog for a while, might know that I was member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, a college club where we talk about, and write detective fiction. So we were quite surprised when we heard of the limited series Misuken! by Sakataki Arata. Misuken!, short for Misuteri Kenkyuukai (Mystery Club), stars Aiba Chisato, trying to enjoy her first year at a university in Kyoto. And she decides that a boyfriend is necessary to enjoy college life, and that the handsome Kagemori Kiyomasa should be the lucky one. Trying to get close to him, she decides to enter the same college club as Kagemori, not knowing it's a Mystery Club. Chisato is a bit overwhelmed by the almost maniacal love these people have for detective fiction, especially because she hardly reads herself, but she slowly adjusts to the club and starts to genuinely enjoy detective fiction herself too, while she is still trying to get Kagemori to notice her.

Oh, and yes, this is a shoujo (girls) manga. Oh,and note that the mystery in Mystery Club refers to detective fiction. The first time I used the term Mystery Club (the 'official' English term for the club I was at), people were thinking more in terms of Scooby Doo's Mystery Incorporated, I think.

So Misuken! is basically the Genshiken for detective fiction. So it's not a detective story, it's about detective stories. It is loosely based on the Kyoto University Mystery Club (though the 'proper' abbreviation for that club is Mysteryken), as it is also set in Kyoto and shares the same main club activities (reviewing and writing fiction; there are other university Mystery Clubs in Kyoto, but especially writing is an important part of the Kyoto University Mystery Club). But everything is a 'bit' more sparkly and cleaner here. Seriously: I can guarantee you the club room of the actual Mystery Club is not, and will never be even close to being so tidy and big as the one in Misuken!. Also: I am pretty sure that few members of the club entered to find a boyfriend / girlfriend. The part about having a fairly high rate of flunking students. Well, that's slightly more close to the truth. Playing mahjong is definitely real.

But ignore that for a bit and what do we have? A series that tries to do well, but fails in that. The start is very stereotypical for these kind of series, with the protagonist finding about the wonderful world of [insert topic], but I guess it works here. The story eases you into the topic, with every chapter featuring introductions of major titles / writers of the genre, helping protagonist Chisato (and the reader) on her way. I have to admit though, like so many series featuring a hobby or activity, it does sometimes feel like brainwashing. Just like how Captain Tsubasa's Tsubasa managed to convince brainwash everyone of the wonders of soccer, just like how Slam Dunk's Hanamichi slowly starts to understand is getting taken over by basketball, Chisato's sudden 'jump' to detective fiction in the first chapter, thanks to Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin, is a bit scary.

In subsequent chapters, Chisato gets to learn the other members a bit better, including their own motives for joining (the funniest being someone who not unlike Chisato, joined the Mystery Club, because he watched the drama version of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de. Because it starred actress Kitagawa Keiko). There is also a bit on 'Guess the criminal' stories, and a fun story about members of the club doing a 'pelgrimage' to the sights described in Van Madoy's Marutamachi Revoir (for those who happen to be visiting Kyoto: you can also do one for Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital!). And of course, every story has a nice amount of references to detective fiction.

The problem here, is that this is a limited, one shot series and the two main objectives of the series: 1) Chisato getting close to Kagemori and 2) giving the reader a glimpse of the club activities and members of a college Mystery Club, are hardly achieved: There's just too little that can be done in just four chapters, and the series 'ends' with almost no sense of fulfillment, you only get 'oh, they might get close' and 'oh, she learned to like detective fiction'. It is a bit of a shame, because I do think there are quite some topics left untouched that should have been included (more about book collecting / buying, more indepth on writing fiction, more characters with distinct preferences etc.). There is just no sense of conclusion here, and you're left with the feeling of 'was this all?'.

The topic of detective fiction Mystery Club is a fun one though and often seen in Japanese detective fiction. This is also partly because many writers debuted as students, and members of university Mystery Clubs. Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game, two major titles of the New Orthodox movement, feature university mystery clubs heavily for example. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy series in turn feature the high school variants. Assuming that genre readers are on average relatively meta-conciousness, having a Mystery Club in a detective story has quite some positive points, as the characters can act more 'smart' because of their meta-knowledge, as well as to convey the author's own, reflexive thoughts on the genre. The difference with Misuken! being that in Misuken!, there is no mystery, it is really only about the activities of an average Mystery Club. It's definitely something I had never seen before. Misuken! also a lot more accessible for precisely those who aren't too familiar with detective fiction, but want to learn more.

The series also shares a bit with series like (the highly underrated) Kingyo Used Books, which manage to convey the feeling, the love people have for books and the culture behind it. Because most of detective fiction is indeed in the printed medium, this shouldn't seem strange, but while you often see book collectors and such in fiction (hello, Ellery Queen!), 'normal' love for books and the average reader don't seem to have a place in fiction, which is a shame. Sometimes, finding a book that reminds you of something, or buying a book because of its nostalgic smell or something like, is just as interesting as finding that first print of A Study in Scarlet. Misuken! might not be as fluent in conveying those feelings as Kingyo Used Books, but it definitely did it right.

Misuken! is definitely a flawed short series. It's nowhere close to a masterpiece like Genshiken, even as a series on its own it's just barely achieving what it should do. The concept is great though, so you might want to read it if you're into detective fiction and want to learn a bit more about what they do at mystery clubs. Because unlike as seen in Jukkakukan no Satsujin, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and the student Alice series, Mystery Clubs in general are not coming across murders on a regular basis. It's really short too, so it doesn't even take that much time to go through it. Oh, and I gathered that this year, the Kyoto University Mystery Club had a significant rise in new, female members. Dare we call it the Misuken! effect?

Original Japanese title(s): さかたき新 『みすけん!』

Saturday, August 24, 2013

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe

"A premeditated murder is not unlike a child. First it must be conceived, second gestated; only then can it be born. These three steps in the fruition of the homicide are usually unwitnessed; when this occurs, there is a Mystery, and the function of the Detective is to go back along its bloodline , for only in this way can be established the paternity of the crime - which is to say, solve the mystery.

Ellery Queen had never before been privileged to attend the delivery, as it were, and the fact, having attended it, he knew as little about its parentage as if he had not neither irritated nor angered him, for if a murder had to be commited and could not be averted, then Ellery preferred it to be a mystery at the beginning, just so he could dig into it and trace it backward and explain it to himself at the end."
"There was an Old Woman"

You know, writing detective fiction yourself is surprisingly fun. Though I really should start thinking about writing these things in English some time, instead of Japanese...

Chance brings Ellery Queen to the Potts family, led by the old matriarch Cornelia Potts. Having made her money with shoes, Potts is referred to as the old woman who lives in a shoe.She is also the mother of six children; the three by her first marriage are just as eccentric as she is. Thurlow is spending fortunes bringing in lawsuits 'to protect the family name', Louella is obsessed with her scientific experiments and Horatio is basically living the life of a child. The other three children suffer quite under their mother and the other children; the twins Robert and Maclyn run the business, but only see fortunes spent by Thurlow and Louella, while Sheila is pretty much ignored. One day, a fight ends up with Thurlow challenging Robert in a gun duel at dawn; fearing somebody might get hurt, Ellery wisely decides to switch the live bullet in the gun, for a blank. Ellery, the inspector and Velie are witness to the duel, which to the Queens' surprise has a deadly end anyway; someone switched the bullets back for live ones!

I went in There Was An Old Woman without too much expectations, but I have to admit: this was a great Queen and I am glad I read it. I did know it was a nursery rhyme murder; that is, the murders (yes, plural) follow a Mother Goose rhyme, but the way this was done was quite impressive. Of course, ever since  S.S.The Bishop Murder Case, we have seen the nursery rhyme murder trope, (or more broadly speaking, the mitate murder), in countless of novels by slew of writers including big names like Christie. Take the trope a bit broader and you might even say that Christie's One Two Buckle My Shoe is a nursery rhyme murder in plot structure (not in execution/story though). So what made There Was An Old Woman so enjoyable?

Well, I have always thought that in order for a mitate murder to work, you need to have a certain atmosphere. Because let's think about it, killing someone according to a nursery rhyme, or a traditional game song, or something like, it's a bit silly. Yokomizo's famous works like Inugamike no Ichizoku, Gokumontou and Akuma no Temariuta wouldn't have worked half as well if the stories weren't set somewhere the reader believes common sense is not as common as you would think it is. Strange, faraway small communities where the rules might be a bit different. Mansions where one family's word is law. It's there where outrageous murders work, and where something surreal as a nursery rhyme murder might actually seem plausible.

The house of the Potts, with the strange inhabitants, is indeed such a place where common sense might not prevail. In a house where people challenge others to a duel to the death, spend fortunes on doomed experiments and playing in the garden, sure, someone trying to recreate nursery rhymes through murder actually seems believable. Despite it being located in New York, the Queens' homeground, the way Cornelia Potts rules over the mansion really makes it feel like a different world where bizarre things might happen. It's this which makes this novel so fun to read.

To compare it to a similar Queen novel: I recently also read Double, Double, which also features a nursery rhyme murder, this time set in Ellery's second home Wrightsville. However here the murders seem less bizarre and the connection to the rhyme seems weak, which is partly because tidy Wrightsville seems less of an obvious spot for a surreal series of murders. Sure, it can work, like in Ten Days Wonder, but even that book misses the zany atmosphere of There Was An Old Woman. (This paragraph is the Double, Double review by the way; there is too little material there for a seperate review. I would similarly be talking about nursery rhyme murders, only using the book as a bad example.)

There Was An Old Woman not only feels similar to Van Dine's The Bishop Murder Case, but als takes some cues from The Greene Murder Case, with a small family being murdered. Like I mentioned in the reviews for both those books, a lot of Japanese writers are, either directly or indirectly, influenced by Greene and Bishop, which explains why this novel also feels very close to some major titles of the (New) Orthodox schools of writing.

It's not all Van Dine though. There is a thorough search for some missing guns, which is a classic Queen trope, while the multiple layers to the solution, as well as the type of murderer, is also something a seasoned Queen reader will figure out. As such, it's actually quite easy to solve this case, as there are quite some parallels to other Queen stories, but that doesn't make this less fun. If earlier Queen novels were best experienced for seeing how story and deductions are connected, then this Queen is best experienced as a trip to a surreal world. Oh, and for those interested in the multimedia world of Ellery Queen; there's a nice surprise waiting for you at the last page.

So in short,  There Was An Old Woman and Double, Double both do similar things. But Woman is a lot better. The next review by the way, whenever that will be, is probably of something Japanese.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Strangers on a Train

"It's so simple, too. A couple of fellows meet accidentally, like you and me. No connection between them at all. Never saw each other before. Each of them has somebody he'd like to get rid of, but he can't murder the person he wants to get rid of. He'll get caught. So they swap murders."
- "Swap murders?"
"Each fellow does the other fellow's murder. Then there is nothing to connect them. The one who had the motive isn't there. Each fellow murders a total stranger. Like you do my murder and I do yours."
 "Strangers on a Train"

And in other news, it might be interesting to note that my review of Gyakuten Saiban 5 / Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies gathered a larger total visitor count than any post here, within a week. Probably says more about my regular visitor count than anything else though. And now for something completely different.

Private detective Ukai Morio and his landlord Akemi are going undercover as butler and maid in a mansion in the mountains near the city of Ikagawashi, because the lady of the house suspects her husband is cheating on her. By going out a night (but leaving her detectives in the mansion), she hopes to be able to find proof of his infidelity. Meanwhile, detective apprentice Ryuuhei is having a dare-we-call-it-a-date? with the wealthy Sakura (whom he met in Misshitsu ni Mukatte Ute!), visiting one of Sakura's friends. Strange happenings happen at both sides of the story though, which seems to be connected to a murder in a less-fortunate part of town. What is going on in Koukan Satsujin ni Mukanai Yoru ("A Bad Night To Exchange Murders")?

Fourth novel in Higashigawa Tokuya's Ikagawashi series and personally, I wasn't too big a fan of it. Sure, there's the zany humour and the multi-perspective storytelling we've all come to love in the series, and it was quite fun to see Sakura again from Misshitsu ni Mukatte Ute!, but overall, the book failed to impress. Might be because I read it closely after Kanzen Hanzai ni Neko wa Nanbiki Hitsuyouka, leading to a Higashigawa overload, but there is another fundamental fault to this story.

I've been writing about detective fiction for some years now, usually by focussing on tropes/conventions. This usually works out well for me: I like writing about tropes like locked room murders, closed circles, nursery rhyme murders or even more specific tropes likes Queen's 'fetish' for objects, or the importance of location in the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games. What's even more important, I can usually write freely about these topics, because they don't really spoil the book for readers. In fact, there are quite some readers for example who read a book, because they know it's a locked room murder. So I feel no hesitation when I describe these murder scenes, or go indepth about tropes across works and adding a little tag to the post with trope X's name on it.

But then there are some you just can't spoil (or at least, I don't want to spoil). I usually try to avoid mentioning narrative tricks and other surprises for example. It makes it hard to review such books for me, because saying that there's a narrative trick hidden in a story, already spoils the surprise for the reader (even if I don't specify what it exactly is), while I myself do really want to write about these kind of things. Heck, there are actually a lot of books reviewed here which should have a 'narrative trick' tag. There are other examples: sometimes not knowing what's coming, improves the enjoyment of a certain story and then it's better not to touch upon the topic in a review (I really want to discuss the trick of a major Japanese work translated in English two, three years ago, for example, but it would spoil the surprise if I specified which work it is).

And that's the problem I have Koukan Satsujin ni Mukanai Yoru, because I might have found the happenings to be slightly more mysterious and puzzling if the title didn't outright say there was a murder exchange going on. In an inverted mystery, it might be better to know beforehand there's a murder exchange, but when the title talks about exchanging murders, and you're presented two parallel running storylines, well, you can make an educated guess what's going on. I was more surprised at the fact the 'reveal' that there was a murder exchange going on was supposed to be surprising.

There is of course a bit more going on than just a 'simple' murder exchange, but the keyword murder exchange already spoils too much of the story, as even the subsequent reveals seemed, at least in my eyes, not very surprising. The fact that the dead body appears quite late in the narrative is also not beneficial to the enjoyment of the novel, as you already know 1) someone is going to die and 2) there will be a murder exchange just from the title; it shouldn't take hundreds of pages to bring the story to that point.

There is also a second 'trick' hidden within the narrative, but it is executed extremely artificial and unbelievable, it's impossible to enjoy (despite it actually being related to one of my academic interests). Especially after seeing the same trick executed, much, much better in other novels, I can't help but wonder what Higashigawa Tokuya was thinking. He has some great work, like the horrible short story Arima Kinen no Bouken shows, sometimes he has a very, ver bad day.

In conclusion, a disappointing entry in an otherwise fun series. Next up: probably something English!

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉  『交換殺人に向かない夜』

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Cat Food

『完全犯罪に猫は何匹必要か?』 東川篤哉

"You don't have to act so surprises just because my client was murdered. According to some, having your client killed is an important step to become a real detective. A lot of the famous detectives in the past had their clients murdered. It's actually quite common."
Did he mean the detectives were killing the clients themselves? There were probably such cases, Akemi thought, but she didn't say it out loud in front of a detective. So, a different question.
"So what's a detective with a murdered client going to do?"
"Take revenge instead of my client and find the murderer, is the common way of doing things. Do that, and you'll finally be considered a real detective."
"How Many Cats Do You Need For A Perfect Crime?" (Higashigawa Tokuya)

Writing the Dogura Magura review was definitely more tiring than I had expected. But it's honestly the only way I could think of writing something on it. But because of that, I have a horrible backlog of reviews-to-be-written. Well, at least I don't have to worry about material to post about this month.

Goutokuji Toyozou is the owner of the popular sushi chain Manekizushi and a great cat lover. In fact, Manekizushi's trademark is a grand maneki-neko in front of every restaurant (lovingly called "colomeow Meownders"). But his beloved cat has disappeared, so Goutokuji hires the private detective Ukai Morio to find her. The search for the cat isn't going as smooth like Ukai would have wanted, and the murder on Goutokuji in the glass house in his garden some days later isn't really helping the case either. Why was the murderer wearing a cat mask, why was the gigantic maneki-neko statue moved from the mansion's entrance to the glass house and where is that cat of Goutokuji? In short, like the title Kanzen Hanzai ni Neko wa Nanbiki Hitsuyouka? says: how many cats do you need for a perfect crime?

The third novel of Higashigawa Tokuya's Ikagawashi series, which has become familiar terrain by now. Once again we follow the (mis)adventures of private detective Ukai, Ryuuhei (and the office's landlord Akemi) on one side, and the police represented by inspector Sunagawa and his subordinate Shiki on the other side. Like with Higashigawa's other series (like the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series and Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de), humour plays a large part in these stories. There are a lot of slapstick-funny moments and the whole tone of the book is quite light, but as always the humour shouldn't fool you, because these are all wonderfully constructed Golden Age style detective novels and even the funny moments might contain a crucial hint that leads to the solution of the case.

Like the first novel in the series, Kanzen Hanzai ni Neko wa Nanbiki Hitsuyouka is a bit on the easy side, but the way Higashigawa manages to blend the humour with the proper detective plot is still very enjoyable to see. Part of the humour is derived from mirroring scenes of Ukai and his disciple Ryuuhei, with the events that happen to inspector Sunagawa and Shiki. There is probably an awfully intellectual way to explain how the humour works through the juxtaposition of scenes, but I definitely can't. I just know I like this kind of humour.

The problem of who killed the client, and the mystery behind the moving manekineko is as said a bit easy. The phrase Simpsons did it is strangely enough usable here (no, it's not the Mr. Burns story), but even without having seen it, the hint seems just too... obvious. Especially after the first two novels, the presentation of the main hint seemed a bit crude. There is another murder in the story, of someone at a funeral, and that was much better in terms of tying it up to seemingly meaningless humorous banter. In fact, I very much liked this murder at the funeral (not to be confused with Christie's After the Funeral).

The cat-theme did bring up memories of a discussion I was once present at on so-called cat-mysteries. When is it appropiate to call something a cat-mystery (or more broadly; an animal mystery)? Kanzen Hanzai ni Neko wa Nanbiki Hitsuyouka for example does feature a lot of cat themes, like the manekineko, the murderer's cat mask and the search for the missing cat, but some might argue for fiction where cats themselves play an active role in the case. A series like Akagawa Jirou's Mikeneko Holmes can thus be considered the cat-mystery, but one could also consider a cat leading detectives to clues / murderers to be a bit unrealistic. And I guess that Morikawa Tomoki's Cat Food (with magical cats) is also out of the questions. And if we are only looking at mystery fiction where animals act...well, you'd expect the animal in question to behave, would it be possible to consider Gyakuten Saiban / Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney a parrot mystery?

And yes, this was not that interesting a review.  It's relatively easy to write about a really good, or bad book, but filling a post on something slightly beneath average - average - slightly above average is surprisingly difficult.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『完全犯罪に猫は何匹必要か?』

Wednesday, August 7, 2013



Ding dong... dong.... dong...... --------

The continuing sound of a bell faraway awakened me. I found myself in a small room, with only one bed and one chair as its decoration. A barrred window provided the only light in the room. It was midday. Strange. This is really strange. I have no memory of anything before the toiling of the bells.

I touched my own face, to find glasses there. A chin sticking out. Strange. This was not a face I knew. 

Suddenly, I heard knocking on the wall. A girl's voice cried out.

"My love, my love, my love, my love! Do you hear me? Answer me if you hear me. My love. My love. Say you remember me. It is I, your bride you yourself killed. But they brought me back to life, so just say you remember me, and who you are, and we can go freely, back home!" 

"She is right, you know." A man had appeared in my room. "Do you remember who you are?"

No, I replied . I had no memory of this room, the girl next door, this man or even myself.

"Do not worry, in due time, you will remember who you are. Let me introduce myself, I am professor Wakabayashi of Kyushu Imperial University. You are the subject of an experiment by the brilliant professor Masaki, who died last month. Professor Masaki was working on a method to cure mental patients. He believed that madness is a form of genetically inherited memory. It is passed on for hundreds of generations, making some people relive the memories of his ancestors. The professor has gone now, but he believed you would be his first succesful subject. And indeed, you have finally awakened from a long slumber and you are on the verge of remembering what happened to you."

I was not sure what the man was talking about. Was I a madman? While I was not clothed in a straightjacket, this room did look like a clinic's room. Would this explain why I have no memories of before I awoke?

"I want you to read this now. Professor Masaki, and I, believe that this will help you remember your past," the man said, and he took a book and a bunch of papers from his bag. I took the scrap of paper on top.

The Three Great Occult Books

The Three Great Occult Books (Sandaikisho) refer to the three Japanese detective / fantasy novels The Black Death Mansion Murder Case (Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, 1935) Dogura Magura (1935) and Offerings to Nothingness (Kyomu he no Kumotsu, 1964). Some add Takemoto Kenji's Paradise Lost Inside a Box (Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku, 1977), calling them the Four Great Occult Books, but there is no general consensus about this. In China, the term kisho refers to works of great, superior quality, as used in the Four Great Classical Novels, but in Japan the term adds the nuance of strangeness, deviantism and occultism.

As soon as I saw the title Dogura Magura, I felt my whole body shudder. Professor Wakabayashi seemed pleased to see me react like that.

"You're remembering. Here, read this now," he said and he handed me two small pocket books, with questionable covers. The text was in Japanese, but I could read it for some reason. It read Dogura Magura. I started to read the two books. It felt like it took me days, weeks to go through it, but professor Wakabayashi was always standing there, watching my every reaction to the story told within the pages.

Dogura Magura (1935)
By Yumeno Kyuusaku.
A Summary

1926. A young, amnesiac man awakens in an isolation room of the Kyushu Imperial University. He is told by professor Wakabayashi that he is the subject of an experiment to cure mental patients and that they are on the verge of a breakthrough. The man only needs to remember who he is and what happened to succesfully end the experiment. The man is led into the room of the deceased head of the project, professor Masaki, and is shown several documents and videos to help his memory. Among them are the research theses of professor Masaki on psychological heredity, a document called Dogura Magura written by a madman and the curious research of professor Wakabayashi and Masaki on the murder of the young madman Kure Ichirou on his young bride Moyoko. And so the amnesiac tries to figure out who he is and what led him to be the subject of an experiment, despite the fact that every document seems to contradict the other.

Dogura magura: history unclear. Thought to be derived from the verbs tomado-u (v., to be confused), menkura-u (v., to be perplexed) in a Kyushu dialect.

I didn't understand anything. Why were professor Masaki and Wakabayashi appearing in this novel? Why did my situation seem to mimic that of the narrator of Dogura Magura? Why was there no clear ending to the story? Was the story all the imagination of a madman? Was it a dream? Or was someone trying to set him up? Was the narrator Kure Ichirou? The professor Wakabayashi who stood in front of me, threw a smile.

"You're confused. Naturally. I am sure you have a lot of questions. But first, tell me what you think about Dogura Magura. I will answer any questions afterwards. Write your thoughts down here. I will go out and get you food while you're writing," the professor said and left the room. He came back after what felt like an eternity. I had in my hands my note, of which I had no memory of writing.

About Dogura Magura
By: ???

A very interesting story, as it is narrated by a man who might or might not be mad. Like the narrator, the reader is thrown into a spiral of confusion, as he is told the strange story of how the young man Kure Ichirou became mad and murdered his bride. The various documents presented to the narrator make up the bulk of the narrative and seem to guide the narrator slowly towards the truth behind the murder, the motive and the real murderer of Moyoko, but nothing is ever what it seems at first sight, or even second or third sight. Depending on whether you believe the narrator to be mad or not, and to believe everything, nothing or parts of the documents presented, you might figure out a truth, but there is no definite answer to anything. Considering that within Dogura Magura, there is a document also called Dogura Magura that is written by a madman, anything seems to go. This is a detective/mystery story in the broad sense of the word, dealing with a mystery (surrounding the narrator), but you're never sure about anything. The chaotic structure is one of the books defining traits however and the writing style is sure to suck any reader into its betrayingly deep story.

I handed the note to professor Wakabayashi. He seemed pleased. Now it was time for my questions, if I had any, he said. I had many.

"Am I the narrator of Dogura Magura? Why are you in the book... and here in front of me? What has Dogura Magura to do with my memory loss?"

"First of all, this isn't 1926, but 2013. And I am both the Wakabayashi from the book, and not. And as for your relation to Dogura Magura, let me first assure you are not the narrator from the book. But as for you who you are, you'll find out when you read the rest of the documents I have here.

Detecting Texts - The metaphysical detective story - from Poe to postmodernism (1999)
By: Patricia Merivale and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney

"A metaphysical detective story is a text that parodies or subverts traditional detective-story conventions - such as narrative closure and the detective's role as surrogate reader - with the intention, or at least the effect, of asking questions about mysteries of being and knowing which transcend the mere machinations of the mystery plot. Metaphysical detective stories often emphasize this transcendence, morever, by becoming self-reflexive."(p. 2)

"Is Dogura Magura a metaphysical detective story? Is this why you showed me this?," I asked. The professor coughed.

"Metaphysical detective story, postmodern detective story, anti-mystery, there have been many terms used in the past, and in the future for these kind of novels. Though post-modern would be strange to use on a book from 1935. But I didn't show you this note because I agree, or disagree with it. But it is connected to you. But I see you are tired. Go to sleep now, and we'll talk tomorrow."

I wanted to talk more, to figure out who I was, but professor Wakabayashi walked out of the room and locked it behind him. I sat on the bed. It was night now. I tried to sleep, but was afraid I would lose my memories again. Then suddenly, a man tapped me on the head. I had never seen the man before. I think.

"I am professor Masaki. I heard you woke up, so I came here to talk to you."

"Professor Masaki? But I heard you were dead?," I asked surprised.

"Heard that from professor Wakabayashi, right? Hahahahaha, I tell you, don't believe everything he says. He is trying to prove something, and will do anything to achieve his goal. Read this, and you will understand everything."

He gave me a sheet of paper. I looked up. The professor was gone.

Lament of the Reviewer
By: Professor Masaki Keishi of Kyushu Imperial University

▲Aaaaaaaa------ Look at the man trying to write down his thoughts in a logical way on something illogical... Trying to create order out of disorder. He tries to rectify it, to present it the chaos to others, but in his attemps, he falls victim to the confusion himself....

Aaaaaaa------ Look at the man with his notes... notes on structure... notes on the metaphysical... notes on narrative... but none of his notes describe how the feeling of the book... he was never told how to explain chaos through the order of grammar and words....

Aaaaaaa------  Look at the man staring at the book. Did he understand it? Didn't he understand it? Could he have understood it? Could anyone have understood it? Is it possible to understand something that does not wants to be understood?

Aaaaaaa------ Let us lament the reviewer, let us lament him, for he will not be among us sane anymore------- Aaaaaaaaa

It was morning. Professor Wakabayashi was standing in the room. He asked me what I was reading. I told him of professor Masaki's visit.

"I am sorry to say, but that is utterly impossible. Like I told you yesterday, professor Masaki died last month. He commited suicide, you know. But enough about him. Have you remembered already? Do you know why Dogura Magura is so important to you?"

I answered no. Strange. I felt my body wanted to scream yes. What is it? Do I understand? Strange.

"Well then, no need to hurry. I am sure you'll remember everything in due time. Here is a bit more for you to read," he said and he handed me a sheet of paper, and the two Dogura Magura books. The sheet of paper had one sentence.

It is impossible to summarize the book in a coherent manner

"Don't mind that," the professor said, "just try to read Dogura Magura again, maybe you will figure it out this time."

I read, and I read, and nothing came out of it. I was sucked into the world again, but I never understood why. Not even what had happened. After I had finished the book, I decided to read the back of the book. The final sentence of the publisher's introduction burned into my eyes.

It is said that whoever reads this book, becomes mad

I felt a slight dizziness.  Even though the midday sun was shining through the barred windows, everything started to become dark. Complete darkness. The last thing I remember before passing out, was the continuing sound of a bell faraway.

Ding dong... dong.... dong...... --------

Original Japanese title(s): 夢野久作 『ドグラ・マグラ』