Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Walking Into The Sunset


"You can think whatever you want. If you believe you can convince your readers, write it down in one of your novels. Even if the police or courts won't accept it, it might work as fiction."
"A Study in Vermillion"

Lately, it seems I've only been writing reviews once a month. Though I usually write 3, 4 reviews in one or two days then, so I average out on one review a week (which is the schedule I want to keep on this blog). It's really been a while ago since I wrote my last review, though it shouldn't really be noticable for the readers.

Oh, and the disclosure message: I translated Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle.

Criminologist and university teacher Himura is often asked to help with police investigations, but it's rare for him to be asked for help by one of his own students, especially as his professional assistance to the police is a secret. Akemi has developed a strange phobia for the color of deep, intense orange (vermillion), which means she can even pass out by looking at the setting sun. The origin of this phobia comes from her association of the color with several family tragedies in the past. She hopes Himura can solve a murder that happened in her own personal circle three years ago, to which Himura agrees. And it appears there's something going on, because Himura has only started when one very early morning, he and his friend Alice (a mystery writer) are asked to go to a certain apartment room in a flat (known as the "Ghost Flat") near Alice's home. There they find the dead body of Akemi's uncle, and clues indicate that this new murder might be related to the murder Himura was asked to investigate. The investigation quickly shows that one person is suspicious. No, it even seems like this person was the only one capable of committing the murder, thanks to the testimony of both Himura and Alice, but Himura thinks there might be more behind this in Arisugawa Alice's Shuiro no Kenkyuu ("A Study in Vermillion", 1997).

The drama Himura Hideo no Suiri was broadcast early this year, based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. From the first episode on, it was clear that the series would also include an adaptation of Shuiro no Kenkyuu, with early appearances of Himura's students, including Akemi, so I decided to quickly read the original book, before the drama adaptation would appear on TV. Note that this review is posted now, even though I read the book late January...

Whereas I think all of the books in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series are really complex, and also fun mystery novels, I have found the books in the Writer Alice series to be less consistent in quality. Shuiro no Kenkyuu is one of the books I personally didn't really like. The book is split in two parts: in the first part, Himura and Alice are investigating the murder on Akemi's uncle in the empty apartment room. Evidence and testimony point to one person at first sight, but after some good sleuthing by both Himura and the proper authorities, a sorta surprising reveal is made. I say sorta, because I actually already saw the same trick used one in Detective Conan already (though this book pre-dates that Conan story). It has ties with the impossible crime, but saying more might spoil what's going on. Then again, the trick itself isn't really surprising, considering the elements you're given and that's why I thought this part was very slow: this trick would've worked much better in short story form, rather than as part of a longer story, especially as its links to the second part are superficial at best.

In the second part, Himura and Alice finally get around to investigating the murder that happened three years ago (as asked by Akemi) and it's here where the story takes on a Five Little Pigs-approach, with Himura and Alice questioning the people who were involved with the incident in the past. I thought this second half was weak at best. Unlike Christie, who mostly focused on psychological evidence, Shuiro no Kenkyuu focuses on an interpretation of physical evidence to arrive at the solution. This is certainly not surprising as Arisugawa is obviously inspired by Ellery Queen who so often used physical evidence to point to the murderer. However, Shuiro no Kenkyuu's line of reasoning is fairly weak compared to the impressive feats Arisugawa has already shown in earlier books (for example, Kotou Puzzle). In the end, the book focuses much more on the motive of the murderer, which is nearly impossible to 'deduce' from the facts and goes deep into the human drama more often found in Higashino Keigo's work. Which can work, but not in this way, where it's not intertwined with the complete work. In Shuiro no Kenkyuu the human drama motive really appears out of nowhere.and it makes the whole narrative feel disjointed.

In my mind, I associate the Student Alice series with the closed circle trope, set in isolated locations like islands or little villages. As a counter, I associate the Writer Alice series with the city and indeed, a lot of the (short) stories are set in Osaka, Kyoto and other urban settings. But despite my 'gut feeling', Himura and Alice do actually appear often in isolated settings in the novels, like in 46 Banme no Misshitsu or Sweden Kan no Nazo. And I enjoy those stories actually a lot better than the novels in the series set in 'open' settings, like Dali no Mayu or Shuiro no Kenkyuu.

As the time I'm writing this, the TV drama Himura Hideo no Suiri still has some episodes to go before Shuiro no Kenkyuu, but I guess that the selection for the book is an understandable one. Human drama is obviously something they want in drama shows, as it attracts also viewers not especially into mystery fiction. Personally, I thought the book was just a mediocre entry in the series. Arisugawa has written much better mystery novels, also within the Writer Alice series, so I wouldn't recommend this as a must-read.

Original (Japanese) title(s): 有栖川有栖 『朱色の研究』

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