Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

Erst zu begegnen dem Tiere,
Brauch ich den Spruch der Viere:
Salamander soll glühen,
Undene sich winden,
Sylphe verschwinden,
Kobold sich mühen
"Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil"

And it's finally done. With this review, I've finally covered the Three Great Occult Books (sandaikisho) of Japanese detective fiction on this blog. These three mystery novels are considered classics of anti-mystery in the world of Japanese fiction, written in a time before we got lost in the woods of Post-Modernism, and before we actually used terms as anti-mystery, meta-physical mystery or whatever word is hip nowadays. But even as anti-mysteries, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, Dogura Magura and Kyomu he no Kumotsu had immense influence on Japanese detective fiction in general, and specifically the New Orthodox movement, so it is also considered must-read material for those who really want to get into Japanese detective fiction. And yes, I was quite late with reading them. Fearsome reputation was fearsome, is my excuse.

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)

Somewhere in the Shinagawa prefecture stands the Black Death Mansion. Its previous owner, Furukiya Santetsu, commited suicide under very suspicious circumstances, and his dark chateau, which is an exact of a mansion once inhabitated by people suffering from the Black Plague, is now the home, nay, prison of Santetsu's son Hatatarou and four foreign people from Europe Santetsu adopted as his own children. Santetsu's children are gifted musicians, but none of them have ever left the Black Death Mansion during their lifetime. When Norimizu Rintarou, ex-police attorney and detective extraordinaire, is told that Grete, one of Santetsu's adopted children, was killed, he is not at the least surprised, stating that a house as dark as the Black Death Mansion, inhabited a family with a history as strange as the Furukiya family, is bound to be the home of tragedy. Together with the district attorney, Norimizu enters the Black Death Mansion, which is filled with ancient weapons, moving dolls, armors, art and other secrets, intent on solving the Goethe-inspired murders in Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Death Mansion Murder Case").

I will say this first: THIS IS THE MOST UNREADABLE NOVEL I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Yes, a reading of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken provides important insights in Japanese detective fiction. BUT THAT READING WILL KILL THE UNPREPARED! THIS NOVEL WILL STRUGGLE, IT WILL FIGHT, IT WILL DO ANYTHING BUT GIVE IN TO THE READER'S WILL.

Ahem. Let's elaborate on this point.

Dogura Magura was about piecing together a story through a selection of memories, documents and conversations which might all have been nothing more than the imagination of a madman. Kyomu he no Kumotsu in turn was about deduction battles about a series of deaths, even though it wan't even sure whether there had been foul play (and the detectives even deduce possible solutions to possible murders). Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken seems the most normal of the three, right? A murder in a mansion, a secret in the family, references to Goethe's Faust. Heck, writer Oguri Mushitarou was obviously inspired by S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance series, and series detective Norimizu Rintarou (not to be confused with Norizuki Rintarou) was also modeled after Vance. So what could go wrong, we have all the makings of an orthodox mystery story, right?  Well, wrong. We all know that little rhyme of Philo Vance Needs a Kick in the Pance, right? Because Vance is obnoxiousy flaunthing his knowledge and all? Well, there are a lot of pances to be kicked here, because Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is the ultimate pedantic novel. 

Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken takes on the form of a standard detective story, but it is never really about the murders. It is just a set-up for Norimizu Rintarou (and author Oguri Mushitarou) to hold page-long expositions and discussions about pretty much any topic, but mostly occultism, mysticism, criminology, religions, astrology, astronomy psychology, heraldry, medicine and cryptography. Mostly. Anytime Norimizu sees anything, he starts rattling about how this relates to a certain book, or a certain writer, or an experiment conducted somewhere, which in turns is related to another topic and so on. The number of works referenced in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is easily more than two hundred, with a majority of them being obscure books on occultism. Heck, probably about 70, 80% of this book consists of just pedantic talk. It makes this novel practically unreadable, because you are confronted with a master course Occultism every two pages.

And what's even more vexing is that these tangents about how heraldry showed that something was going to happen in the Black Death House or after giving a lecture on the historic and socio-economical significance of a picture on the wall and how it relates to occultism, are often used as a base for complex, highly convoluted, off-the-wall crazy deductions about the case. To give an example: it is not often you'll need to plough through a lecture on astronomy to get to a possible solution for a locked room murder. But the link between the topic-in-discussion and the murder is always bizarre, almost grotesque and never natural. The pedantic attitude of Philo Vance in Van Dine's novels might be irritating, but his knowledge is often needed to solve the case. Indeed, you'll often see references to non-common knowledge in detective fiction to explain how something happened in a story. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken however doesn't use pedantry to explain its mystery plot, it is a pedantry plot in the form of a mystery. It really doesn't matter who the murderer is, or how it was all done. It's just about flaunting knowledge

Add in the fact that the flow of Oguri Mushitarou's prose isn't really natural (even considering it is an old text) and you see why it's impossible to read. I had initially planned to write this review in the same style as the book (similar to what I did with Dogura Magura), to convey the effect of the book, but that would definitely mean that nobody would bother to read it.

But because all the flaunting, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken might also be considered the ultimate otaku novel. This is all about flaunting one's knowledge about specific fields of interests. This is about bombarding you with trivia. Novels like Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru or Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Ubume no Natsu are representative for mystery novels that refer deeply to very specific fields of interests for example (technology and the human consciousness in Subete ga F ni Naru and youkai in Ubume no Natsu), they indulge in them and many discussions on these topics have no direct relation to the mystery plot. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is an extreme example of this and thus an important point when one wishes to map out otaku culture and detective fiction.

I mentioned in my double review of S.S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case that these books were very influential on the Japanese detective model because of two characteristics: the Western mansion (yakata) as a setting and the mitate satsujin (a resembling murder, or a 'nursery rhyme murder' in a more broad sense of the term). However, this infuence was achieved also partly through Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, which not only had a Vance-esque protagonist, but also combined the setting of a family cooped up in a dark, sinister Western mansion (The Greene Murder Case) with a 'nursery rhyme' (The Bishop Murder Case), here based on a magic spell used in Goethe's Faust. The Black Death Mansion of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is brimming with secrets, its presence is almost evil and it would serve to be an example to many writers after its publication. And the mitate satsujin ('nursery rhyme murders'), well, they're still a very popular trope in Japanese detective fiction (also thanks to Yokomizo Seishi, of course). One can easily see how important Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is.

Take Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series for example. A whole series based on the concept of spooky mansions with secret passages! The first novel in the series, Jukkakukan no Satsujin (1987), marked the beginning of the New Orthodox movement in Japanese detective fiction, but consider this: murders in a creepy house and a cast of detective fans, who flaunt their knowledge of the genre. Similarly, the history and architects behinds both houses (a man called Dicksby in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, and the infamous Nakamura Seiji in Jukkakukan no Satsujin) are of vital importance to the plot in Kokushikan Satusjin Jiken and Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Another example would be Maya Yutaka's Tsubasa aru Yami, which is styled after Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken in both atmosphere and setting.

It's no denying that Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is an important novel in the history of Japanese detective fiction. Its influences, derived from its atmosphere, its setting, yes, even the pedantry, can still be found in modern day detective novels. And yet Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is definitely an anti-mystery. The mystery plot takes a back seat to was never allowed to get into the car of the main course, the (mainly occult) pedantry of protagonist Norimizu Rintarou. And yet the book is considered one of the Giants of Japanese detective fiction and it has almost a mythical status among those interested in the New Orthodox movement. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken might be neigh impossible to read, but those who have bested its challenge wear that fact as a badge of honour and are considered among the most fanatical of detective fans. And this strange position is why Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is considered one of the three great occult books of Japanese detective fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 小栗虫太郎 『黒死館殺人事件』


  1. In spite of all the negative comment Van Dine gets, it is interesting to note just how influential the Vance books have been. I think that a hundred years from now all that will be left of Ogden Nash's work will be that Vance doggerel; that is the only thing by him I ever see quoted anymore. I read Natsuhiko Kyogoku's Summer of the Ubume, and I liked it precisely because of its digressions.

    1. Well, here, the mystery plot is the digression, the random occult trivia is the main ^_~

  2. Thanks for this review. I was considering translating one of these three great books and I guess this is not the one to go for.

    1. I too had played with the idea of a translation, before reading it ^_~' Of the three books, I think 虚無への供物 is the most 'sane' and the most like a 'normal mystery novel', but that's only relative...

  3. You are a braver soul than I and I applaud you.

    1. There's a comic version which is infinitely easier to comprehend, though that kinda takes away what makes this story, this story.