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』

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