Thursday, February 5, 2015

Death Comes as the End

"It's our problem - free philosophy Hakuna Matata!"
"The Lion King"

It took me almost two years to work up the courage / spirit to go through today's book. The prologue was just too dense to get through. Of course, when I finally got past the prologue, it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. 

A distressed call screaming murder brings the police to the doors of the mansion owned by the wealthy Jewish financier François Dassault. Dassault however refuses to let the local cops inside and uses his connections to get Inspector Maugars in his house, who will hopefully help hush up what Dassault calls an unfortunate lethal accident that happened on his premises. One of Dassault's guests tripped and hit his head on the stone floor, it seems at first sight, but when Inspector Maugars discovers a knife wound in the dead man's back and a broken knife with the SS emblem on it, the case turns into a murder case. And a screwy one too. For one, it seems that Dassault's guest was not a voluntary guests, as the lack of luggage, the bare minimum of furniture in the room and the locks on the door suggest. And even more crazy is that after questioning all those in the house, it seems the man was stabbed in a triple locked space: (1) the third floor room in which the victim was discovered was locked from the outside, the third floor can only be reached from the second floor (which also houses the safe with the room's key), and (2) the staircase to the second floor was under constant watch by several witnesses on the ground floor and finally, (3) the only exit out of the mansion was also being watched. And the case seems to be connected to a group of Yewish people who survived the concentration camps... A most difficult situation, but Yabuki Kakeru (friend of the Inspector's daughter Nadia) is convinced he can bring light to the case with his phenomenology in Kasai Kiyoshi's Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu ("A Locked Room for Philosophers", 1992)

Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu is the fourth book starring Yabuki Kakeru, a Japanese student of philosophy who solves baffling crimes and mysteries through phenomenology, i.e. the analysis of structures of experience and conciousness. It is worth noting that Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu was published almost ten years after the third entry in the series, and while I have not read any of the other novels, it is said that Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu is a turning point for the series with a slightly different tone. Oh, and the long period between the third and fourth book certainly didn't stop Kasai from starting Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu with a long prologue where Kakeru and Nadia talk in detail about their previous adventure, including delicious spoilers, and discuss a bit of philosophy, so Reader Be Warned: the first sixty pages of this book can be difficult to get through.

But then again, what is sixty pages of a story that consists of 1100 pages spread over two volumes? It's certainly not the longest detective I've read (hello Jinroujou no Kyoufu and Ankokukan no Satsujin), but short, it is not.

The triple locked room murder happens early in the story and is great. It has the allure of one of those matryoshka dolls, with a locked room in a locked room in a locked room and Kasai adds enough twists and turns and fake solutions to the plot to keep the locked room mystery entertaining. Especially the way in which series detective Yabuki Kakeru manages to use the Amazing Powers of Philosophy to solve the crime is fantastic and like most of the best locked room murders: the solution itself is actually amazingly simple. And as if that wasn't enough, the story features another triple locked space mystery, one that happened in the past in a concentration camp. While the solution to this past murder is not nearly as elegant as that of the first one, these two mysteries do keep Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu going at a good pace for a fairly good time.

A fairly good time, I stress, because I have to be honest, I didn't enjoy all of the book(s). While this was the first novel by Kasai Kiyoshi I have read, this was certainly not my first encounter with him. I think that anybody who does any serious research on Japanese detective fiction will come across his name very early in the process, as he is also the author of a seminal series of books on the history of Japanese detective fiction and basically impossible not to know if you want to research Japanese detective fiction through the fields of sociology, philosphy and literary history and even formalism. So this might be my first meeting with series detective Yabuki Kakeru, I have been familiar with Kasai Kiyoshi and his thoughts on detective fiction for a good six, seven years now and we haven't always been the best of friends. I have the same with Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu.

There are quite some discussions on philosophy in this story, partly because Kakeru is in fact an international student in France to research philosophy, but an important philosopher who is Martin Heidegger in all but name also plays an indirect role in the plot and sometimes the characters start discussing the meaning of death and Dasein for a lot of pages and while I understand some do love philosophy, it's just not a field of interest to me. Especially not because I have read a lot of Kasai's ideas on philosophy in his academic works on detective fiction (the points he discusses in Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu will be very familiar to those who have read Kasai's Tantei Shousetsu Ron books). That said, I can imagine that someone with an interest in philosophy enjoying the discussions. I for example loved it when Kyougoku Natsuhiko wrote about folklore studies on youkai in Ubume no Natsu, which others might have hated. At any rate, philosophy does play a part in the themes of Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu, as the title A Locked Room for Philosophers suggests, so it's not just pedantry like in Kokushikan Satsjin Jiken. But considering this is a 1100 page story, with quite some talk on a discussion I do not particular like, so you can imagine I did find it a bit tiring. Heck, I think the book could have been half the length it is now and still work. But mileage may vary.

The funny thing about series detective Yabuki Kakeru is that he uses philosophy (phenemonology) to solve crimes. Which means he usually needs to see the whole phenomenon if he actually wants to analyse it. And yes, that in turn means he usually can't solve a crime until all elements of a crime have revealed itself. Kakeru can explain serial killings, but he can't stop serial killings because his method involves analyzing the meaning and connections of the whole picture. Kindaichi Kousuke also has a nasty habit of not being able to save anyone until the end of a case, by the way.

If you asked me if I enjoyed Kasai's Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu, I'd say "Yes, but...". It is a locked room for philosophers, which I am not, but the core locked room mystery is indeed well constructed. I am not sure whether it helped that I was already quite familiar with Kasai's academic works though. At one hand, it was kinda reading the same story again, but on the other hand, it did make the philosophic talk a bit more easier to follow because I knew where Kasai was going to. I think I might read some of the earlier novels in the series (which are less taxing, I heard), but I don't think I will read any of the later novels, if they all follow the tale as told in Kasai's academic work on detective fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 笠井潔 『哲学者の密室』


  1. The longest detective story written in English with which I am familiar is The Matilda Hunter Murder by the late great Harry Stephen Keeler. It clocks in at 741 closely-written pages. If I am correct that this is the longest for English, then these Japanese novelists have the English-writing detective novelists beaten to a frazzle for length.

    1. Well, Japanese pockets are quite small, so that bumps the page-count a bit up (layout also differs per publisher/line), but there are plenty of Japanese detectives out there that have more than 741 pages. It's actually quite common for Japanese books to be split in multiple volumes.

      As for longest, it's probably a close fight between NIKAIDOU Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu (four pockets of 600~900 pages each), AYATSUJI Yukito's Ankokukan no Satsujin (four volumes of 500~700 pages) or MIYABE Miyuki's Mohouhan (five volumes of 500~600 pages). They started publishing the last in English by the way, under the title Puppet Master (digital only).

    2. @Anonymous:

      The longest detective story in English is relative to what you define as a detective story.

      Elizabeth George wrote the thousand-page counting A Traitor to Memory, but I doubt any of us would consider the Thomas Lynley series (and other "literary thrillers") as neo-orthodox. You'll probably find quite a few lengthy stories among contemporary crime writers, but probably nothing even close to those lengthy Japanese mysteries.

    3. In regard to A Traitor to Memory, I note from a look at that while the paperback edition has 1006 pages, the word count per page is small. If you look at the hardcover edition, it is listed as having 736 pages, which is a few pages less than the Keeler. The Keeler also has very small type and the printing takes up the whole page with small margins. My copy of Emile Gaboriau' s Monsieur Lecoq has only 639 pages, even including the historical novel part The Honor of the Name; this last part isn't a detective novel.

      To be really accurate, you would need to take a word count rather than a page count, but right now it seems to me the winner is still the Keeler for English language books.