Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Butterfly in Shades of Grey

今すぐ キミに会いに行こう
Butter-Fly (和田光司)

I want to become a happy butterfly, and ride on the glittering wind
I am coming to see you now
"Butter-Fly" (Wada Kouji)

When in doubt of what to read, I usually go for something written by Edogawa Rampo or Yokomizo Seishi. Partly because I always have something unread of them lying here, partly because they're easy to get into. And yet that Edogawa Rampo pile never seems to shrink. The Yokomizo Seishi pile however is finally done for the moment; I still have two or three unread novels somewhere, but I have seen adaptations of them so I am not in a hurry to read them.

Yokomizo Seishi was one of most famous Japanese detective writers, and his creation Kindaichi Kousuke is basically the quintessential Japanese private detective. A great number of Kindaichi Kousuke novels are still considered to be among the best of Japanese mystery novels (including Gokumontou, Honjin Satsujin Jiken and Inugamike no Ichizoku). And then there are the lesser known Kindaichi Kousuke novels. Mitsu Kubi Tou? Yoru Aruku? People might know them by name, but fewer have actually read them. Fushichou ("The Immortal Butterfly") is also one of the lesser known stories. There were once two wealthy, rival families in the town of Imizu, the Yabe family and the Tamatsukuri family. And like a Romeo and Juliet story, Shinichirou, the eldest son of the Yabe family, fell in love with Tomoko, daughter of the Tamatsukuri family. They even made plans to elope, hoping to escape through the set of caves that connects their houses, but their plans failed. Horribly. Shinichirou was held captured by his father, his younger brother was found stabbed to death in the caves and no sign of Tomoko: it was thought she must have killed the brother and then commited suicide by jumping in a deep crevice in the cave.

Twenty-three year later, the Tamatsukuri family plays host to three Japanese Brazilians visiting the home country: the wealthy heiress Mari, her mother Kimie and the companion Asako. The head of the Yabe family however swears he recognizes Kimie as Tomoko, and suspects she must have fled to Brazil all those years ago, only to come back to her family now. Private detective Kindaichi Kousuke is hired to investigate the case, but little did he know that the caves were to be the stage for a new murder.

Well, actually, by now he should know, because it more often than not that people start to die after Kindaichi Kousuke's arrival on the scene, a trait he shares with his grandson.

If I were to explain Fushichou in short, I would just say it reminds me of that one Kindaichi Kousuke classic, Yatsu Haka Mura. We have the two rivaling families, the backstory with murder and of course, the caves. Much of both stories happen within the caves (heck, half of the Yatsu Haka Mura game was just cave exploration...). Add in a bit of Yoru Aruku (sleepwalking) and Inugamike no Ichizoku (uncertainty about the identity of a person) and there we have Fushichou.

As a puzzle plot, it's decent and unlike Yatsu Haka Mura, actually done carefully with proper foreshadowing and hints. A bit too neatly maybe, as it's pretty easy to arrive at the solution of the puzzle. Also, the murder happens quite late in this novelette, with subsequent events following each other in rapid succession, making the first half a bit slow, and the second half a bit too fast. It's all in all a decent Kindaichi Kousuke story, with all the right elements you'd expect from such a story, but definitely not near the level of Yokomizo's best.

Fushichou is a novelette, and my copy also includes the short story Jinmensou ("The Face Sore") to fill up the pages of the volume. Kindaichi Kousuke is on a resting holiday together with his old friend inspector Isokawa, and one night, Matsuyo, one of the maids makes a suicide attempt, saying she has killed her little sister again during one of her sleepwalks. Her sister is indeed found dead later, but it seems Matsuyo she had an alibi for the time of her sister's death. The following day, Kindaichi and Isokawa start to investigate the history behind the sister, Matsuyo and the strange swelling on her body that resembles the sister's face.

A jinmensou is a swelling of the flesh that resembles a face. I first came across the phenomena in a famous chapter of the medical science fiction series Black Jack, but the Jinmensou is also known as a youkai, being a creature that manifests itself as face on someone's body. And it's creepy. In fact, most of Yokomizo's short stories don't do too well in the atmosphere department compared to his novels, but Jinmensou does it very well, with the creepy face, the suicide attempt and the sleepwalking (again!). The way Matsuyo's jinmensou is explained and how it ties up to the main plot is also surprisingly good.

As a puzzle plot, Jinmensou is not very special though. Actually, most of the story is spent on the explanation of Matsuyo and her sister's relation, and then the solution basically just presents itself. It is thus more a story where you just enjoy the atmosphere, rather than actively try to solve the crime. It's not a bad story by any means, but again not one of the classics.

Fushichou is an okay volume, but definitely not required reading material. It has the usual Yokomizo Seishi elements, but it misses that extra little bit that make it classic material. If you have already gone through all the major Kindaichi Kousuke novels and you want to start with the rest, then Fushichou is a decent candidate.

Oh, and I quite like the cover, actually. There are no transforming butterfly-humans in the story though...

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 『不死蝶』: 「不死蝶」 / 「人面瘡」

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