Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Misty Time

Time after time 君と出逢った奇跡
「Time After Time ~花舞う街で~」(倉木麻衣)

Time after time / The miracle of meeting you
In the city where the wind blows gently
That hill road where we walked as we softly held each other's hands
And the promise I even now still remember
"Time After Time ~ In The City of Dancing Flowers~" (Kuraki Mai)

While I have to admit I don't always wear a wristwatch anymore like I used to (i.e. I don't bother when I go out for groceries), I still often take the thing with me, even if I have a phone with me. I wonder when Conan will trade his tranquillizer gun wristwatch in for a tranquillizer gun smartphone...

As readers of the blog have already noticed, I've become quite a fan of Ayukawa Tetsuya. He was a post-war writer who specialized in impossible crimes of both the 'old-fashioned' locked room murder kind, but also of the uncrackable alibi kind, where an ingenious murderer uses train time tables and other tricks to concoct a perfect alibi for themselves. Ayukawa also wrote really great 'Guess the Criminal' puzzle plot short stories, where the reader is challenged to prove through logic who the murderer is and he was also a very influential editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice basically making their debuts under his guide. Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks", 1999) is the first volume of two in the series Ayukawa Tetsuya Short Story Masterpieces and as the name suggests, the bulky volume collects some of his best short works. The collection features two of Ayukawa's most infamous creations: Chief Inspector Onitsura and the brilliant amateur detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, with a slight emphasis on Onitsura stories.

In the past, I reviewed the two Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection volumes, and several stories featured in Itsutsu no Tokei are also available in there. So for my thoughts on the stories Shiroi Misshitsu ("The White Locked Room"), Doukeshi no Ori ("The Clown's Cage"), Barasou Satsujin Jiken ("The Villa Rose Murder Case") and Akuma wa Koko ni ("The Devil Is Here"), I'd like to point you to those older reviews. I'll only be reviewing the stories I hadn't read yet in this post (which by default are all Inspector Onitsura stories).

The book opens with the title story: Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks" 1957). Inspector Onitsura is asked by the fiancée of the main suspect to take a new look at a murder investigation. Money appears to be the motive behind the murder, and the suspect definitely needed that for his upcoming wedding, but his bride-to-be is sure he's innocent. Onitsura's problem is that the only other suspect has a perfect alibi. The other suspect was accompanied by a witness almost all night, who can swear to almost every single minute (with other witnesses backing the blanks up). The way this suspect managed to create his perfect alibi is brilliant: at one hand, it is actually just a series of otherwise simple ideas, but it's the way it's all combined that makes this story so ingenious. Definitely a great alibi deconstruction story.

Soushun ni Shisu ("Death In Early Spring", 1958) was a case that Onitsura had a lot of trouble with, the prologue says. The investigation on a murder that happened at a construction site at night had quickly led to a suspect (a rival contender for the hand of a certain lady), but this suspect has an alibi for the time the crime must have happened, as witnesses at the victim's workplace, the train time schedule and a letter written on that train show when the victim arrived in town. The solution to Onitsura's problem is one that neatly makes sense out of all the chaos. It's perfectly hinted at, and while not very difficult to solve, I think this is a good example of doing a well-constructed mystery that doesn't aim at completely baffling the reader, but instead offers the reader a good chance at solving it themselves without making it overly simple. And that in itself is an art many writers seem to forget.

Ai ni Kuchinan ("Withering in Love") starts with a theft of a wooden crate from a shipping company in Osaka, but the ensuing chase ends in the water. As the people of the shipping company try to save the crate, they open it, and find the dead body of a woman packed inside. The victim was an employee in the shipping company back in Tokyo, but nobody has any idea how she got inside the crate. Was she packed inside by the sender of the crate (a luxury furniture maker), the Tokyo branch of the shipping company, the driver of the truck, or someone else? What is even more confusing is that while the sender had shipped off two crates that day, one smaller to Osaka and a larger one to Shizuoka, but for some reason, the body was discovered from the larger crate, but in Osaka. The solution depends on a fact that may or may not have been common knowledge back when this story was written (1958), but it certainly isn't now, so to me, it really came out of nowhere. It's of course a problem that occasionally occurs: mystery writers usually make use of conventions of every day life to create a mystery plot, but time will eventualy change these conventions, making such stories difficult to graps for other times. Mind you, this story is not incomprehensible today, as I myself went 'Aah, I see, I get that', but the main gimmick certainly needs explanation and is not considered 'basic knowledge of society'. The idea behind this trick though is one I really like, it's just that the execution is a bit outdated for a reader almost 60 years later.

The murder on an affluent writer is what drives the plot in Ninomiya Shinjuu (1958), with the police focusing on literary colleagues of the victim. One of the suspects has a rather peculiar alibi: he tried to commit suicide with a woman on the night of the murder, first by throwing themselves in front of a train and later by taking sleep medicine. The alibi is dependent on where they tried to commit suicide and when, but the solution is rather weak: the police first proves one part of the alibi to be false because the murderer did something inexplicably stupid (there was no way that part of the alibi was going to hold!) and then they show you all kinds of train time tables that come out of nowhere and talk about characteristics of the night trains to show how the trick was pulled off. I think that if this story had been extended to a full novel, with more room to properly introduce the necessary clues to the solution, this story would've been much more enjoyable.

Fukanzen Hanzai ("Imperfect Crime", 1960) is an inverted story, about a publisher plotting the death of his business partner, who has discovered that he cooked the books of their company. He comes up with a plan to make it seem like his partner had fallen of the train elsewhere, while in fact he'd kill him in town. The conclusion is predictable, once a certain character trait is shown in the story, and the behavior the murderer shows at the end is actually rather unbelievable, as it's clear from the start that that behavior could be the only thing that could prove he had anything to do with the crime, so why do that!? Funny is that Chief Inspector Onitsura isn't the detective in this story: a rather unexpected character solves the crime, showing that everyone can be a great detective if they learn to observe, not only watch.

This volume ends with Kyuukou Izumo ("The Izumo Express"), where Onitsura has to solve a murder on a blackmailer. The main suspect is a farmer whose fiancée is now in a mental institution because of blackmailing. The man claims he had only just arrived in Osaka by the Izumo Express just minutes before the murder happened, so there was no way he could've made it out of the station and picked a cab to go the crime scene, especially not as it was his first time in town. Passengers riding in the same coach of the Izumo Express that day however don't remember seeing him. Is the man lying, or is something else going on? The main trick is probably not very difficult to guess once a certain word is dropped, and on the whole, I'd say this is a decent, but not particularly outstanding story. There is a hint of an impossibility here (the suspect claiming to have been present in a coach while the other people in the coach deny it), but the solution is rather obvious and if you really think about it, it's clear that any close investigation by the police would've soon brought the truth to light.

Itsutsu no Tokei is on the whole a great short story collection by Ayukawa featuring a great selection of impossible crimes. Locked room murders are probably usually the most popular variant of the impossible crime, but Ayukawa shows with his Inspector Onitsura stories that alibi deconstruction stories can be just as fun. People with interest in trains in particular will have a blast with these stories. I'm based in the Netherlands, where we have rather dense network of railways, similar to Japan, so I do like train mysteries, but I wonder whether it's something less attractive for readers based in countries lik the United States, where trains are less part of daily life? Anyway, what makes the Inspector Onitsura also interesting is that he is by no means the quintessential brilliant police detective. Sometimes, he'll be fooled by a murderer's tricks for weeks on, and in some stories, it isn't even Onitsura who solves the crime!

So, yes, Itsutsu no Tokei s definitely recommended material for people interested in Ayukawa Tetsuya, and Japanese mystery short stories in general. The Ayukawa Tetsuya Short Story Masterpieces offers some of Ayukawa's best work (complete with commentary for each story by Edogawa Rampo by the way), and with both Inspector Onitsura and Hoshikage Ryuuzou present, there is also diversity in this volume. I'd say this volume is better balanced than the Great Detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou Complete Collection series (which obviously only focuses on one character), so at the moment, I even think this is the best book for people who have never read Ayukawa before.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『五つの時計』: 「五つの時計」 / 「白い密室」 / 「早春に死す」 / 「愛に朽ちなん」 / 「道化師の檻」 / 「薔薇荘殺人事件」 / 「二ノ宮心中」 / 「悪魔はここに」 / 「不完全犯罪」 / 「急行出雲」


  1. Wooden boxes (The Cask, The Sea Mystery) and train timetables (innumerable)? He sounds like a Freeman Wills Crofts fan.

    1. He was. His first published novel, Kuroi Trunk/The Black Trunk, is in fact clearly inspired by The Cask, and as you point out, a lot of Ayukawa's stories feature Croftisms. At least, the Onitsura stories do. His Hoshikage stories are really fantastic impossible crimes and locked room murders not at all reminiscent of Crofts' work.