Sunday, July 12, 2015

Detective's Diary

 Don't judge a book by its cover

Occasionally animals appear in one form or another in detective novels: be it as an actual character within the story, or just a theme or in a title. For some reason though, cats seem the most common of detective animals, at least in detective fiction discussed on this blog.

The cover of today's book says it's Tsuzuki Michio's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute ("Put A Nail In The Cat's Tongue"), but when you open the book, you discover that the book is actually the diary of the mystery writer Awaji Eiichi: he once received a mock cover model of Tsuzuki's book and is now using the empty pages inside as his secret diary. Why he needs to keep a secret diary? Awaji is in a rather dangerous position: he is the murderer, detective and victim in a poisoning case! Roleplaying as a poisoner, Awaji had slipped some cold medicine (pretending it to be poison) in the drink of his neighbor at a bar. Who then died. Awaji had only wanted to pretend to kill the man, but has now become a real murderer. Awaji had gotten the medicine from Yukiko, the girl he loves, and he realizes that someone must have been trying to kill Yukiko with the medicine he 'borrowed', and that that person will try again once he realizes his plan has failed. Thus the murderer Awaji must detect the person who planted the poison and if he's not careful, he might fall victim too to the real murderer. The diary hidden within the covers of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute (i.e. what the reader is holding in his hands) is just in case Awaji doesn't make it out alive.

Tsuzuki Michio was a fairly famous writer, specializing in science-fiction and mystery. This was the first time I read something by Tsuzuki by the way and I liked most of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute. Most, because there are some parts I found hard to get through.

But to start with the good points: Tsuzuki makes fantastic use of the medium of a book, as the contents of the book is actually Awaji's diary, instead of Tsuzuki's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute (the title therefore has nothing to do with the contents). It's not even just a gimmick, as the mystery of this story is built at a meta-level and it is indeed important to always remember that you're reading Awaji's diary hidden within a different book. Detective stories that implement the form in which they are published (i.e. a book) in the mystery are rare (though I have reviewed some of them here), but I always love it when an author thinks not only of a story, but also about the circumstances in which a person will read the book. For that, Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute gets full points.

The concept of the narrator = murderer, detective and victim is also pretty neat, and the beginning chapters where Awaji explains to the reader how he came to be in such a peculiar position are great, as well as the final chapters where Awaji finally reveals the true murderer. As said, the mystery also makes good use of the fact that it pretends to be a diary hidden within the covers of a different book and the main ideas and tricks behind Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute really shine within the first and last parts of the book.

But the middle part is actually kinda boring. Even though Awaji explains how dangerous the situation is and how he must work fast to save his love, the plot goes absolutely nowhere for 70% of the book. You'd think that he'd be a bit more pro-active in his detective role, but nothing of the sort: the plot just meanders, mostly focusing on Awaji's work and his efforts at getting closer to Yukiko (who sadly enough is already married to someone else). Okay, I guess that this is a diary and one would write about things like that, but... let's be honest: all readers know that this is a detective novel and that you're supposed to find the (real) murderer. The moment Awaji starts saying he is the murderer, detective and victim of this case, you know that this is a puzzle-type detective and that the author is playing around with genre conventions. So why pretend it's something else? Why move so far away from the mystery plot? Had it really helped the plot, okay, I'd be all for it, but I found it quite tiresome to go through the book as it just kept going around and around and around to nowhere. Sure, hints are placed within these parts, but the middle part could have been a lot more concise without giving up on plot or atmosphere. In fact, I think the whole mystery plot of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute, including the meta-level tricks, could have been pulled off much more effective in novelette form, rather than as a full novel.

Tsuzuki Michio's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute is an interesting detective novel: I always love me some meta-level detection and the idea of playing with character roles of detective, murderer and victim is fun. But I thought the middle part to be a bit too diary-like and had trouble getting through this muddy part. Not without its problems, but a good book overall.

Original Japanese title(s): 都筑道夫 『猫の舌に釘をうて』

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