Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back in Time

"So how did you make the connection with the 8:13 which left six minutes earlier?"
- "Oh, er, simple! I caught the 7:16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8:09."
"But the 7:16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays."
"Yes, surely you mean the Holidaymaker Special."
- "Oh, yes! How daft of me. Of course, I came on the Holidaymaker Special calling at Bedford, Colmworth, Fen Dinon, Sutton, Wallington and Gillingham."
"That's Sundays only!"
"The Railway Sketch" (Monty Python)

When discussing mystery fiction, there are some which you can categorize without major problems, but some which cannot. For example, most people don't bother if you tell him a certain novel is a locked room problem. In fact, many readers want to read locked room mysteries, so they want to know beforehand what a mystery novel is about. On the other hand, you'd hardly want to beforehand that a certain novel features an unreliable narrator, because that gives away the whole trick right away. That's why I do have tags for things like impossible situations or locked rooms but not for narrative tricks. But with alibi deconstruction stories, you have roughly two sets. For some mysteries, you don't want to know that an alibi trick has been used, because it's part of the magic the murderer pulled off. He is safe because nobody suspects he faked his alibi. On the other hand, you have alibi deconstruction stories that often go hand-in-hand with the inverted form: we know whodunit, we know that he used an alibi trick, but now to find out how he pulled it off. With these stories, knowing beforehand that it's an alibi deconstructing story does not lessen the pleasure, I think. But because the spoil-factor can differ greatly per story, I decided not to use a dedicated 'alibi' tag for reviews featuring such a plot.

I am not a big fan of Matsumoto Seichou, the father of the social school (shakaiha) of mystery fiction, per se, but I absolutely love his first novel Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines", 1958). Partly because part of the story is set in a place where I lived for a year, but also because it's a darn fine alibi-deconstructing mystery. Over fifty years since its release, it is still regarded as one of the best Japanese mystery stories of all time. Jikan no Shuuzoku ("Customs of Time", 1962) is the sequel, set four years after Points and Lines. The murder on the editor-in-chief of a transport magazine in the resorts of Sagamiko, Kanagawa sets police detective Mihara Kiichi on the trail of a taxi company owner Mineoka Shuuichi. This man however has an ironclad alibi: in the night the murder took place in Kanagawa, Mineoka was all the way in Kitakyushu, attending the annual Mekari Shinji at Mekari Shrine. The photographs he took of the ritual and more show he was indeed there on that night. But Mihara thinks Mineoka's alibi a bit too well prepared and together with his collegue and old friend Torigai Juutarou of the Fukuoka Police Department, the duo once again tackle a seemingly perfect alibi.

I didn't even know that Points and Lines had a sequel until a few weeks before I read Jikan no Shuuzoku. And in the time between I ordered the book and it being delivered, I thought, why is there a sequel? Points and Lines was a great alibi-cracking story and I liked the main characters, Mihara Kiichi, the diligent and fast-thinking detective from Tokyo and Torigai Juutarou, the wise and experienced cop from Fukuoka, but why reuse the idea of an alibi trick set between Tokyo and Fukuoka, why use these cops again? I read a lot of series novels, but I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see Mihara and Torigai again, in a story similar to Points and Lines. I guess I was somewhere scared to see Matsumoto just going for quick cash by writing a book in title a sequel to his bestseller. With these doubts, I turned over the (strangely realistic) cover of the pocket and started reading.

And I was sucked into Jikan no Shuuzoku pretty much the moment it started.

The set-up is very similar to Points and Lines: a murder at one side of the country and a perfect alibi showing the suspect was on the other side of the country, a very sober and meticulous investigation into the movements of the suspect, many many dead ends and the final solution. Jikan no Shuuzoku resembles its predecessor a bit too much at times, but luckily, the main puzzle is quite different. Jikan no Shuuzoku is all about the photographs Mineoka took on the night as his alibi and I can tell you, the solution is probably not as simple as you might think. I have to admit, the moment I read it was about photographs, I thought I had guessed the solution, but Mineoka soon proved my theory wrong. So I went to my next theory. But that wasn't possible either and Mineoka was still safe. And then a third time. And a fourth time. Seldom have I been played so skilfully by a criminal in a detective novel! Every time I, and protagonists Mihara and Torigai, came up with a theory, it turned out to be wrong. Like trying to play chess with someone who was infinitely better than me. A minor point I do want to raise is that the trick is a bit outdated, similar to how the main trick of Points and Lines misses the impact it no doubt had when it was first published. Jikan no Shuuzoku's alibi trick involved some knowledge that was probably common back then, but mostly forgotten now. Of course, that's not a real fault against the story, which was awesome, but still, one should keep it in mind. But overall, Jikan no Shuuzoku is a great alibi-deconstructing story, just like Points and Lines.

A TV special of Jikan no Shuuzoku was broadcast earlt 2014 (with the always strong Kinami Haruka!), but it was quite different from the original story. The setting was changed to contemporary times and I already noted the novel's trick is outdated, so the main alibi trick was also changed quite a bit for the TV special. Personally, I thought the special was a bit of a disappointment. Much of the original's charm comes from the fact the distance Sagamiko - Kitakyushu was so immense back in the day, which made the alibi trick hard to crack, but nowadays the world is much smaller not only because of faster modes of transportation, but also mobile phones and the internet.

In my review of Points and Lines, I mentioned that I had been told that the novel was like a Freeman Wills Crofts novel. I had not read Crofts at the time, but I have now, especially the last few weeks. And yes, Points and Lines and Jikan no Shuuzoku share a lot with Crofts' Inspector French stories. From the sober writing and protagonist detective, to the carefully constructed alibi tricks and the way the plot keeps surprising you with new discoveries and developments, one can find many similarities and I'd recommend readers of Crofts to take a look at Points and Lines (and Jikan no Shuuzoku, if you can read Japanese) and vice versa.

If I had to choose though, I would say that Points and Lines was better than Jikan no Shuuzoku. The latter is not bad, far from it, but Points and Lines just has that edge. The distance between the alleged alibi and the crime scene is further and what's more, it has a more memorable moment with the infamous "Four Minutes" at Tokyo Station (readers of Points and Lines will know what four minutes!). Jikan no Shuuzoku has no such miraculous event and that's quite a shame actually. In Points and Lines, the almost impossible Four Minutes gave a reason for the police to start suspecting the criminal, while in Jikan no Shuuzoku, Lieutenant Mihara only starts doubting Mineoka's alibi because it seems so good. There was absolutely no reason for Mihara to suspect Mineoka of the murder other than his instinct. Which turned out to be right, but still...

Anyway, Matsumoto Seichou's Jikan no Shuuzoku is a very solid alibi deconstructing mystery. It is a bit dated though, but still, a good detective story is a good detective story, no matter when or where it was written, and no matter when or where it is read.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張 『時間の習俗』


  1. Crofts' book Sir John Magill's Last Journey (1930) has much of the feel of Points and Lines: there is a lot of stuff in it about railways and checking people's movements.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation!

      (Ack, my Crofts wishlist is way too long!)