Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Mousetrap

「最愛」 (KOH+)

You don't have to love me
But watch over me from far away
"My Greatest Love" (KOH+)

In general, Japanese publishers have not forgotten the importance of good cover art (I once even wrote a post on that). But I have to admit, I have no idea what is going on in the cover of today's book.

Renjou Mikihiko (real name: Katou Jingo) was a critically acclaimed writer in many genres, who passed away in October 2013. He debuted as a detective fiction writer and he is still fondly remembered for his devilish short stories, as well as his fantastic prose. I reviewed his short story collection Modorigawa Shinjuu in the past, which was a great outing to a romantic Japan of the past. And today, another of his short story collections! Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") is a much-praised short story collection that had been out of print for some years, but was republished recently (in a slightly edited version compared to the first release and with a much worse cover), as Renjou's death probably gave demand a little push. The volume collects nine stories set in post-war Japan, all written in the period between 1981 ~ 1983, with no ties between the stories.

It's also a really, really good mystery short story collection! It ranked 86th in 2012's Tozai Mystery Best 100, but had the volume been more easily available, I think this would have ranked much higher, similar to how Yamada Fuutarou didn't even rank once in the original Tozai Mystery Best 100 of 1985, but then no less than four times (with Youi Kinpeibai, Taiyou Kokuten and Meiji Dantoudai among others) in 2012 when more of his work had been made available. While the nine stories in Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni are not connected, they do share the same structure and style. That is, basically all stories feature 1) a surprise twist and 2) some tragedy born out of human (romantic) relations. This was also the case for Modorigawa Shinjuu, and while it may seem like Renjou was a one-trick pony, he sure knew how to present his trick in a myriad of different ways.

The twist in Renjou's stories are not unlike those you see in Chesterton and Christie's works: you are presented a certain situation but at the end of the story you realize it was the other way around. It wasn't a V, but /\! He wasn't entering the store, he was exiting it backwards! Well, a lot better than my examples of course, but you get the idea. Most of the stories do feature a criminal plot, but there is always more than seems at first sight. And don't worry, this isn't nearly enough to spoil the experience: I already knew Renjou's modus operandi from Modorigawa Shinjuu and I was still fooled almost every time. And I enjoyed it!

The stories are also always about human relations. Spurned love, old love, unrequited love, revenge, oh my god so much revenge. Somebody will die the moment one person falls in love with another person in Renjou's world. Always. Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni is an amazing story collection, but it will leave you with melancholic, heavy feelings and even a bit of despair. I read little fiction outside of the mystery genre and I usually focus on tropes / plots, so I seldom mention topics like 'readability' or the quality of the prose in my reviews, but man, Renjou Mikihiko could really write. Then again, he was a pretty allround writer it seems (not just mystery) and it really shows in this collection. It is a mystery collection, but I think this volume has enough to offer to those not into the genre.

The volume starts right away with a bang with Futatsu no Kao ("Two Faces"). An artist is called in the middle of the night by the police, who tells him his wife has been murdered in a hotel room. The artist is baffled. Not because his wife is dead. But because he just killed his wife at home, and buried her in the garden himself. At the hotel, the artist discovers that the body there is probably indeed his wife, so that raises the new question: who did he bury in the garden? The concept of the story is already captivating, but once you realize how extremely well plotted and hinted story is, especially if one considers the fact it's a very short story, you can't help but be amazed by it all. 

Kako kara no Koe ("Voice from the Past") too is a story that can go straight in the Great Canon of Mystery Short Stories. It starts with a letter from a ex-policeman written to his ex-collegue/senior. He reminisces on an old kidnapping case they worked on together, which eventually led to the writer quitting the force. But as he tells his tale, he slowly unravels a most surprising truth behind everything, which makes this easily one of the most surprising and best kidnapping mystery stories I've ever seen.

Kaseki no Kagi ("The Fossil Key") is about a young disabled girl who lives with her father in a small apartment room. The girl's mother occassionally sneaks into the apartment to visit her daughter during the day, but having discovered that, the father decides to change the front door lock one day. The lock is changed in the afternoon, with the landlord taking care of the keys. With the daughter having a nap, the landlord locks the door and goes out for a small errand, but when she returns, she discovers that someone had attempted to strangle the disabled girl. But how did the assaillant get in, as she was the only one with the new lock's door? All the stories were feature some sort of twist ending, but this is the story that keeps giving: it's a twist festa, but each and every twist is fairly hinted and you can never say it came out of nowhere. In terms of complexity of plot, I think this is the best of the collection.

Kimyou na Irai ("A Strange Request") is about a private eye who is first hired by a man to follow his wife, then the wife hires the detective to follow her husband, and again vice versa....By the time you're near the end, you'll have been shown a very strange couple who obviously don't trust each other, and a Philip Marlowe-esque private detective who is used as a ball in the rally game between the two. And when you finally realize what was going on, you hit yourself for not noticing it earlier, despite all the hints.

Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") lends its title to the whole collection, which suggests it's the best, or at least the most impressive one of the nine stories, right? Well, it's certainly a fantastic story and maybe indeed the best. The story of a man bent on vengeance on the doctors responsible for his beloved wife's death (whom he calls his mouse) seems straightforward enough, but not only is the outcome of his vengeance very surprising, the prose of this story leaves quite an impact on the reader. Note that basically all stories are very well-written, but the pain and agony of the narrator of this story in particular feels real, and the melancholic atmosphere that pervades the whole collection is at its strongest here.

It's around Nijuu Seikatsu ("Double Life") that the collection loses a bit of its momentum. The story of a love... square? quartet? two points of the square wanting to kill the other two points is a simple one, but the revenge plan has its original points and the story does feature one fantastic plot twist. But while this is a very good story by most standards, I do have to say that by the standard of this particular collection, it feels a bit lacking. The least impressive story in the collection is Daiyaku ("Double"), which is about a famous actor planning to kill his wife using a body double as his alibi. The story is quite alright as a Doppelgänger horror-esque story, but not even Gladstone Gander could caused all the coincidences come together for the final twist. Especially considering the neat plotting of all the other stories, Daiyaku feels disappointing. Bei Shiti ni Shisu ("Death in Bay City") finally is about a gangster out for revenge having spent six years in prison for a murder he didn't commit (by know you may have noticed that Renjou's relations basically all end in deadly revenge). I found it to be a rather bland story, with a simple plot and set-up, which doesn't go nearly as far as the first couple of stories in the collection.

The final story in the collection, Hirakareta Yami ("Open Darkness"), is quite different from the previous stories: they all relied on twist endings and turning around situations, but this last story is a very conventional whodunit. A gang of delinquent youths ask for the help of their teacher Masa when one of them is murdered during a stay in the villa of one of the member's uncle. Clues seem to point to the victim's girlfriend, but Masa thinks there might be more behind the murder. And there is, but the road from hints to the solution is a bit bumpy. The story has two good ideas, the first one being a hint for the solution, which needed a little bit more attention for it to really work as a fair hint. The second idea is that this story features an extremely original motive for murder, but it's also an incredibly silly motive, at least, in the world of this story (and most worlds). I can imagine that this motive would be a lot more convincing if it was used in a more special setting, but it just doesn't feel right in a normal setting.

There's not much more I can say about Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni. Ayatsuji Yukito praised this volume as 'a masterpiece collection you must read' and while I think the second half has not as much impact as the first half, the word masterpiece is really the only word that describes that amazing first half. This collection makes it quite easy to understand why Renjou Mikihiko was such a respected writer in the business and as the recent reprint has made this volume available again, I don't think anyone has an excuse to not dive into Renjou's beautifully crafted worlds of twists and romance.

Original Japanese title(s): 連城三紀彦 『夜よ鼠たちのために』: 「二つの顔」 / 「過去からの声」 / 「化石の鍵」 / 「奇妙な依頼」 / 「夜よ鼠たちのために」 / 「二重生活」 / 「代役」 / 「ベイ・シティに死す」 / 「開かれた闇」


  1. Hi,

    I wanted to ask: should I read Agatha Christie's Mr Parker Pyne?

    is it good?

    1. You probably should ask someone who has read the stories, because I know I haven't.

  2. I am happy to hear that they still make good book covers in Japan. Mystery book covers in the U.S. are generally very bad: Whoever is responsible for covers in the U.S. seems to think that that pictures of misty landscapes will sell books. The art of making a book cover is to use a picture which would induce someone to buy the book just to get the cover.