Saturday, April 8, 2017

Down Town Game

flying fall down 
「Flying」(Garnet Crow)

Flying fall down
As I fly, I fall down
To your side
"Flying" (Garnet Crow)

I actually quite like the cover of the book in today's review in terms of artstyle and design. If only it did not feature a clown....

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]
Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]

Toshiko had no reason at all to commit suicide. Sure, she was not particularly good at her job at U Bank, and unlike the other female workers her age, she was still single at the moment, but unbeknownst to the people making fun of her behind her back, she did manage to get herself engaged with a nice, extremely handsome younger man, who looked a lot like Tom Cruise. With their marriage planned for the following month, Toshiko had every reason to want to live. Yet for some mysterious reason, she jumped off the roof of U Bank. Her boss obviously is perplexed. Toshiko had just bragged about her boyfriend moments before she went up to the roof to water the bonsai plants there, so why would she commit suicide? Yet a witness swears he saw Toshiko go over the railing by herself, with nobody else present on the roof. With a witness present, even Toshiko's boss has no other choice but to accept it was a suicide, but soon after, another of his subordinates jumps to his death after being sent up to water the bonsai plants. This man too had absolutely no reason to die, but once again, it appears the victim jumped on their own volition, as there was nobody else on the roof at the moment it happened. Both suicide and murder are impossible considering the circumstances, yet these deaths did happen. When a third man jumps however, their boss is finally convinced that their roof is cursed. A journalist informs private detective Mitarai Kiyoshi of these strange events, but Mitarai is convinced there is a logical explanation to this series of deaths in Shimada Souji's Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof", 2016).

Okujou no Douketachi is the fiftieth story in Shimada Souji's Mitarai Kiyoshi series, which started with Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (1981), known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. As most people reading his blog will probably know, it were the early works in this series that later inspired writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou (and many more), which in turn would lead to a new wave of puzzle plot mystery stories in Japan in the late eighties/early nineties of the previous century. If you take a look at the list above, you'll see I've only reviewed a very minor selection of this long-running series starring a genius astrologist-turned-private-detective and his Watson, the writer Ishioka. Over the course of the run of this series, there have been a variety of adventures for this duo. Early stories like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai were very classically built puzzle plot mysteries for example, while works like Ihou no Kishi or Nejishiki Zasetsuki were much more character-focused. What these works do often have in common are fantastic, alluring premises, as well as a tendency for very ridiculous tricks, in a good sense of the word. I think I make this comparison every time I do a Shimada review, but whereas most people would a needle and thread to come up with a locked room trick, Shimada would use iron wire and jackhammers. This also holds for Okujou no Douketachi.

I'd say that the premise of Okujou no Douketachi is probably the best part of the book. The mysterious roof where people who have absolutely no reason to commit suicide, who even state they have no intention to commit suicide, still jump off from is a strangely eerie place. I say strangely, because this roof is situated on top of a bank, next to a department store, in a fairly lively neighborhood. Yet, despite this modern setting (the story is set in the 90s by the way), there's definitely something uncanny going on the roof, as one by one, the bank employees take the quick way down to the street. I really enjoyed the chapters that detail this impossible situation, as you feel something anti-modern slowly creeping up.

I am not as overwhelmingly positive about the how and why behind the mysterious deaths however. On one hand, the solution definitely features the over-the-top elements I'd expect from Shimada (I correctly guessed the solution), which show that imagination is more important (and more fun!) than realism in mystery fiction. On the other hand, you need a truckload of coincidence for all the events in this novel to happen. One or two events, okay, I might accept that as possible and plausible, but there's a ridiculously long chain of coincidences necessary to result in what actually happens in this story. The way Mitarai sees through that all is a bit unbelievable, because there's too much luck involved.

The unbelievable number of coincidences necessary is also connected to another 'problem' of this book. I think I had the same with Atopos, but the plot tends to meander at times and the result is a fairly long novel, but in a way, unnecessary so. I think the idea of this story would have worked much better as a short story. A short story also means a more streamlined plot, which in turn would also get rid of a good amount of coincidences the current novel form needs to work. To call it dragging, would be to overstate my feelings on the matter, but I do feel this story is a lot longer than actually needed, and all the meandering is mainly used to set up coincidence after coincidence.

What was interesting is that there are several narratives in this book that cross each other. So you'd get a few chapters of narrative A, and then a chapter of narrative B, and than back to A, etc.  The neat idea behind this is that each of these narratives has its own font. So narrative A uses font A, narrative B font B, etc. It reminded me of how the deluxe edition of the manga Houryuu Kyoushitsu (The Drifting Classroom) used different kinds of paper depending on where the narrative was (the unknown world/Earth). I really like these ideas of using the book format to bring the reader an unique experience. I did not like all the fonts used in Okujou no Doukeshi however. Especially the first one was hard to get through, as it was like a font in bold. There was another section with a very round, cute font which was also a bit difficult to read quickly through. I think there were about four, five different fonts used in total. But especially now publishers and readers use the e-reader more and more, I am happy to these kinds of design ideas behind old-fashioned printed media.

Is Okujou no Douketachi a story fit be a landmark, to be the fiftieth work in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series? As I ask myself this question, I start waggling my head about. Not really. While it has an interesting premise I did really like, the story has to twist and turn itself around to accommodate to a novel-length plot. The problems I have with the story mostly result from stretching out an otherwise interesting idea in a manner that is at best questionable. This premise would've worked much better as a short story, which is a shame. Though this book might work quite well as a TV production, now I think about it.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『屋上の道化たち』


  1. Thanks for the review, and I must say that I liked the cover too - even with the dancing/ lurching clown... Which of Shimada Souji's novels would you recommend? It seems like only 'Tokyo Zodiac' and 'Slanting Mansion' have received endorsements from the standpoint of the quality of the mystery/ puzzle.

    P.S. If you are going to translate 'Slanting Mansion', do please let me know before I pay out an exorbitant sum for the Mandarin translation...! :D

    1. I haven't read that many of him actually, and the two titles you mentioned are definitely the must-reads. His short stories are also good, but again, I've only read his early short stories.

      From what I've gathered, it appears the rights for an English translation of Slanting Mansion have been picked up already, but I have no idea when or who'll be translating it.

  2. I might have read too many locked room mysteries, but your description of the impossible situation and how even people with no intention to commit suicide jump from the roof sounded very familiar. I suspect the explanation is something along the lines of John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides and In Spite of Thunder. The impossible situation from the latter is practically identical to what you described in the opening paragraph.

    I would also love to see another translation of a Shimada novel!

    1. Havne't read In Spite of Thunder, but the expanation of this book is definitely something completely different from the one in Constant Suicides.

      And as mentioned in the other comment reply, I think an English translation of the second Mitarai Kiyoshi novel is in the works.

    2. It honestly reminds me more of Cornell Woolrich's, The Room with Something Wrong.

      The Dark One

  3. Sounds exciting that there might be an English translation of 'Slanting Mansion'. Perhaps Pushkin Vertigo has the rights? I seem to recall some mention of more Shimada to come after they released 'Tokyo Zodiac'...

  4. Are there nine volumes in this series or fifty (50)?

    1. Fifty (at the moment), but I have only discussed nine books on this blog (the ones linked). Note that I have discussed more than nine *stories* though, as some of the books discussed are short story collections.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. I had to delete the original comment because the question contained a spoiler. The question (without the spoiler) was:

      "will you please explain the motive for the murder in the computer cottage murder case in kindaichi case files.why did ***?"

    2. Please don't post open spoilers in the comments. Readers shouldn't need to stumble about unmarked spoilers about any works (whether it's the topic of the review or not; both cases are pretty bad).

      As for your question, sorry, I really don't remember and I don't have my copy of the novel at hand at the moment.