Wednesday, December 10, 2014

His Alias Is

"One shall stand, one shall fall"
"Transformers: The Movie"

And that's another series wrapped up! I just realized that I've read very few mystery series completely, but that's also because I read many contemporary writers. Who knows when those series will stop?

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the last volume in Awasaka Tsumao's wonderful three volume A Aiichirou series. And today, I review the second volume of the series because who cares about chronological order? A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou") collects eight short stories starring A Aiichirou, a handsome, but somewhat clumsy photographer who specializes in wildlife photographs. A often accompanies academic expeditions as the resident photographer, but he has a knack for getting into trouble, or just noticing little things that lead into bigger problems. But beneath his stuttering and cowardly demeanor, hides a frightfully keen mind that can solve the most baffling of mysteries.

As I've remarked in the reviews of the other volumes, the A Aichirou series is heavily inspired by the Father Brown series and the 24 stories can roughly be divided in two categories: the impossible crime stories, and what I like to call the what the hell sories. The first speaks for itself, but what I mean with the second term is a story where it's not immediately clear there is a mystery,  or even in the case it's clear there is some kind of mystery, it's very unclear what it means. In the case of the A Aiichirou stories, these mysteries are usually solved by an uncanny intuition.

The opening story, Wara no Neko ("The Straw Cat"), features a somewhat clearly defined mystery, though the significance and the implications of that mystery sure stay vague until Aiichirou explains all. At an exhibition of the late Kayuya Toukyo, a painter in the Realist school, A Aiichirou discovers that many of his pictures contain strange 'mistakes'. A girl with six fingers, a door in the background that can't possible be used. The story unfolds as a missing link story and the truth hidden behind these mistakes is quite surprising, a bit too surprising maybe. While I admit the story does feature some hints that point to the solution, so much of it depends on 'interpretation' and 'intuition', I find it hard to say it's completely fair. The same holds for Nejirareta Boushi ("The Crooked Hat"), where Aiichirou and an associate try to locate the owner of a top hat: tracing the hat's shop and the store written on a receipt hidden inside the hat results in strange, conflicting stories and once again the missing link between these events is what leads to the truth. Which is so farfetched and impossible to deduce, that this was definitely the weakest story of the volume. Followed by Arasou Yon Kyotou ("The Competing Big Four"), in which the granddaughter of a recently retired politician is suspicious of her grandfather's recent activities. He has been spending a lot of time with some of his old friends, and she found newspaper cuttings, coins and other strange objects in the room they usually stay. The granddaughter wants to know what they are doing there and while the story features some great red herrings and a fairly amusing solution, the jump between the missing link and the solution seems a bit too big and I'd prefer some more hints to exclude other solutions a bit more convincingly.

A personal favorite was Suzuko no Yosooi ("Dressing like Suzuko"). Kamo Suzuko, affectionately called Rinko, was a slightly under-the-radar idol singer, whose popularity soared after her tragic demise in an airplane crash. One year later, her agency holds a Rinko look-a-like contest, with the winner earning the role of Rinko in a film. Aiichirou happens to be in the theater where the contest is held, but he discovers that between all the auditions, something is going on. This is a great whatthehell story, as there really is no visible mystery at all, until A Aiichirou suddenly pulls your attention to the many, but very small points that bothered him. As you go "Now you mention that...", you suddenly realize that there really was something hidden in the story and the solution is quite memorable, especially the circumstances that led to it all.

Igai na Igai ("The Unexpected Corpse") is a relatively straightforward mystery in comparison to the previous stories: a murdered corpse is found on a mountain where Aiichirou and a researcher have been taking photographs of rare fish. The strange thing about the body: not only was it set on fire, it was also boiled. The story links to a local nursery rhyme, giving the whole story a Yokomizo Seishi-vibe. A story that does pretty much everything good. The hinting in particular is fantastic and it's amazing how much is crammed in the limited page count.

And like all A Aiichirou volumes, A Aiichirou no Tentou also features some neat impossible crime stories. Sugake no Soushitsu ("The Disappearance of the House of Suga") features the classic trope of disappearing buildings. Because of a landslide, A Aiichirou and two fellow travelers decide to walk the way to the next town instead of waiting for the rails to be cleared of debris. The trio get lost in the mountains though, but manage to find shelter in the house of the last of the Sugas, of whom legends say their family house has disappeared multiple times in the past. Before the trio go to bed, they see there is a house in the distance from their window, but when they wake up the next day, they discover it has disappeared completely! I had never seen this solution to the problem of the disappearing building before and I quite like it as it actually makes absolutely sense and seems quite plausible. Saburuchou Rojou ("On the Roads of Saburouchou") too is great: a taxi driver wants to pick up his last ride when his prospective client cries out for a good reason: there's a dead body in the backseat! And as if that wasn't strange enough, the taxi driver swears that the body is that of the customer he had just dropped off somewhere else! A solidly written story and the trick reveals the magician within Awasaka Tsumao: he was actually an amateur magician and even wrote another series about a magician-detective. The final story, Byounin ni Hamono ("A Sharp Instrument for the Ill"), also deserves special mention. A patient on the garden-roof of a hospital accidently walks into another patient and falls down. But by the time A Aiichirou, the nurse and other patients have run to the poor man, he has been stabbed in his stomach. Yet everyone swears the victim and his tumbling partner weren't holding knives, nor that any knives were lying on the ground. A very satisfying impossible crime story, also because of the hints Awasaka has spread across the text.

In fact, I noticed I had not once written more extensively about the type of hints Awasaka Tsumao used in previous reviews, so to talk a little about it now: The A Aiichirou stories seldom feature material evidence or hints, but instead feature thematic hints. Awasaka often mirrors certain aspects of the crime / mystery in other segments of the story, that function as hints to the final solution. He usually manages to distort the mirror image enough so it's not immediately clear it's actually the same as the circumstances of the mystery, but it does suit the intuitive mode of detection many of his stories have: if you happen to 'feel' correctly that mirror image A is in fact the same as the main mystery, it's usually fairly simple to deduce the correct solution. It's similar to Miss Marple's and Father Brown's comparisons, and they work brilliantly for these stories. It also helps that the A Aiichirou stories are written in a fairly comical way. Like Higashigawa Tokuya, Awasaka Tsumao hides these mirror images and hints within comical situations that don't appear to be related to the mystery at first sight, only to turn out to be of crucial importance.

A Aiichirou no Tentou is, like all in the series, a great mystery short story collection.. If I had to rank the three collections, I would say that the first is the best, then A Aiichirou no Tentou and then the last, but it is not like one volume is much better or worse than another. I'd say that especially those who like the Father Brown series should take a look at the A Aiichirou series. There is a spin-off volume featuring A Aiichirou's forefather by the way, so I might read that book too one day.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の転倒』: 「藁の猫」 / 「砂蛾家の消失」 / 「珠洲子の装い」 / 「意外な遺骸」 / 「ねじられた帽子」 / 「争う四巨頭」 / 「三郎町路上」 / 「病人に刃物」

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