Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scared a Lot in Camelot

"Life's a show and we all play our parts."
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Confession:  I always first look through lists with episode titles of Scooby Doo! whenever I need a title for posts on 'scary' detective stories.

Sid Thornhill, the self-made millionaire Chicken King from the United States, has recently purchased Andernut Castle and plans to move the whole building brick for brick to the new world. He invites a small party of people for one final party before the residence changes addresses together with its owner. Among the guests are Sid's son and his niece, but also the famous amateur-detective Reginald Nigelthorp. Even before their arrival, the guests joke how Castle of Grand Guignol might be a better name for Andernut Castle, but little did they know there were absolutely right. A mysterious Chinese automaton and an even more mysterious, uninvited Chinaman guest set up a stage that will also reveal a locked room murder and a man being thrown down from a window by an empty suit of armor! Meanwhile, attorney and amateur-solver-of-impossible crimes Morie Shunsaku is also witness to a suspicious death of a man who has some links to Ellery Queen's legendary short-lived magazine Mystery League and the adventure in Andernut Castle. The surprising link between these two storylines is the heart of Ashibe Taku's Grand Guignol Jou ("The Castle of Grand Guignol", 2001).

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a mystery novel that has some great ideas, which sadly enough aren't all worked out as good. To start with what I thought disappointing: the actual locked room murders aren't really that exciting. In fact, I'm pretty sure that physically, the solution to one of the murders is impossible (and even then, at best poorly hinted at). The whole dark atmosphere of Andernut Castle is great and the varied, international cast and Spooky Castle With Bloody Background and stuff are elements we know from writers like John Dickson Carr and Nikaidou Reito (especially this novel) and very enjoyable, so it's a bit of a shame that the murders are a bit bland. Also, I had to tilt my head at the end and ask myself the question, 'was all that trouble really needed, even for detective novel standards?' about certain (rather important) plot developments.

But hey, you say, what is there left if the impossible crimes aren't that interesting? Well, I'm afraid it is rather difficult to write about that without going into (spoilerific) details, which is something I try to avoid here. Basically, it has to do with the way the narrative is structured. The Castle of Grand Guignol has two distinct storylines: one about Reginald Nigelthorp and the events at Andernut Castle, and a parallel one which follows Morie Shunsaku as he investigates the mysterious death in the train. The way these two storylines eventually link together is really fantastic though. For a moment, you'll be completely baffled, until you slowly start to understand what is going on. Ashibe then continues the narrative magic and conjures up several surprises both 'in-universe' and even at the meta-level. The actual murders might not be very interesting themselves, the tale of the murders is told expertly and the way Ashibe works out his themes are very entertaining. By the time you've finished the book, you'll realize how utterly complex the story is, and it is, in a way, an explanation why the locked room murders are a bit bland (as they are of lesser importance), but still, I want to dream of a version where the locked room murders are a bit more interesting too.

The play with narrative and meta-level detections reminds me a bit of Dogura Magura, only a lot more sane. A lot more. Then again, most things are a lot more sane than Dogura Magura.

There is also a bit of literary detection in this novel, as Morie Shunsaku's storyline also involves an investigation into Ellery Queen's Mystery League, a pre-cursor to EQMM that only ran for four issues. I had never heard of it before, but The Castle of Grand Guignol has some interesting tidbits about the magazine, mixed in with some elements for its own story, including the alluring tale of a story in the last issue that ended with a Challenge to the Reader, of which the solution was never published because of the magazine being cancelled. As an Ellery Queen fan, I definitely enjoyed this part a  lot.

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a fun mystery novel, especially to those with an interest in biblio-mystery/literary detection, I think, but you might get bit disappointed if you go in expecting exciting locked room murders. I for one did really enjoy it though and I think the 'other' surprise really makes up for the bland impossible crimes.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『グラン・ギニョール城』


  1. It seems like biblio/literary allusions and themes are common in Ashibe's work. I really enjoyed Murder in the Red Chamber and that was a murder mystery homage to Dream of the Red Chamber. Wish more of his work was available in English.

    1. Ashibe does like his literary allusions, certainly. I have read a handful now, but most of them have some reference or another. He has also written a couple of pastiche collections with both Western and Japanese detectives. Which I have somewhere, but still haven't read.