Saturday, April 12, 2014

Turnabout Gurgitation


"The king of food, is still, has always been and will always be ramen"
"Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney"

Last year, just before I left Kyoto, I wrote a lengthy post on ramen (a noodle soup dish). It had nothing to do with detective fiction. But I like ramen, no I love ramen, so I just wanted to do a write-up on the many, many restaurants in my neighbourhood (which was dubbed a ramen restaurant warzone). And yet, it is still one of the best read posts on this blog. I may be doing something wrong here.

And also about one year ago, I wrote about Nishimura Ken's Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File, a short story collection centered around ramen, specifically Hakata tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. Hashigo ("Food Stand Hopping") is the sequel, and has the same set-up: we follow Fukuoka-based private detective Yuge Takumi (and connoisseur of ramen) as he takes on different kind of cases, from locating missing people to fullfledged murder. The cases, while varied, have one thing in common: Yuge always manages to solve them through his knowledge of... ramen. His pet peeve, "Ramen is like a minature map of human society. There is sadness, a bit of hapiness and every else", isn't just words: the key to every case can always be found in the rich ramen culture. And ramen is also a symbol of the greatest mystery Yuge has to solve: his father, who had a ramen stand, disappeared many years ago and Yuge is determined to find his father.

You know what, I could say that Hashigo is basically the same as Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File, only slightly worse, and I'd be done with this review. There is really little to differentiate to Hashigo from its predecessor: sure, we see some characters from the first book here too, and we are slightly closer to solving the mystery behind Yuge's father, but that's all. This Hakata Detective Case Files series is apparently planned as a trilogy, but unless Nishimura Ken manages to pull something amazing in the last volume, the series sure doesn't feel like a properly planned trilogy, as the first and second volume are practically the same...

What Hashigo still does right is being a topographical mystery: Fukuoka, its inhabitants and its many, many ramen restaurants really come alive in these stories, and I say that having lived for a year (in Fukuoka; not a ramen restaurant). A lot of the detective stories I read are set on the main Japanese island of Honshuu, so I always appreciate it when I see Kyuushuu as a setting, and seldom has it been described so lively as here. The same holds for the copious amount of information to be found on ramen here. From the complex history of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen to how yatai food stands are set up, ramen is everywhere in this volume and you'll learn more about the tasty noodle dish than you'll ever need.

Yugefuku - Hakata Tantei Jiken File was at its best when it managed to connect these anecdotes on ramen to the mystery plot in a meaningful manner. It was something that happened rarely though, with most of the stories only barely relating to ramen anyway, and most of the times that some anecdote served as the key to solving the case, it felt kinda too farfetched. Only once or twice did it really work. And in Hashigo, this happened even less. Ryuuro ("Channel") was the only story that kinda worked, I thought, but that was a spiritual sequel and variation to Ten to En in the previous volume (and definitely my favorite), also dealing with the movements of ramen stand owners. Kusare-en ("An Unseverable Tie") started out good as an impossible crime story where a suspects commits suicide in the questioning room with a gun that shouldn't have been there, but it was a very simple impossible crime, and once again, the anecdote on ramen that served as the hint, wasn't really that neatly connected to the story.

As a book on ramen, Hashigo definitely manages to fill you up, but it leaves you wanting for much, much more as a mystery novel. It is basically a slightly worse version of Yugefuku, which is the one I'd recommend if you want to read a ramen-themed mystery. And beware, you will crave for ramen the moment you start in Hashigo.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『はしご』: 「後継者」 / 「交差点」 / 「風と桶屋」 / 「流路」 / 「腐れ縁」 / 「家業」 / 「出入りの町」 / 「絆ふたたび」

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