Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Time Hollow

The days and the months are drifting by
As though they didn't notice seasons changing in the breeze 
They all look the same but I sense something's there
"Time Hollow" (Mouse)

It might be because of where I live, but I've never really understood the preference of some cultures/societies for the am/pm denotion of time, rather than a twenty-four clock. Why would you choose to say 08:00, but add am/pm to specify what you really mean because 08:00 on its own is confusing and you know it, while you could also use 08:00 and 20:00: two distinct denotations of two distinctly different points in time. It's way more efficient!

It was attorney Morie Shunsaku's assistant Tomoka who was the most excited about her boss's latest gig, even though she wouldn't be involved herself. Morie had agreed to take over a certain task from one of his colleagues, and this task brought Morie all the way to the countryside, to the ancestral home of the Amachis. Keijirou had inherited the place as the head of the family after the death of his father, immediately followed by the death of his older brother. Keijirou had remained single until death, and poured all his attention to collecting antique Japanese clocks: at the time he died, his home was full of restored Japanese clocks, and there was even a clock tower with the traditional Japanese time system. Morie is sent to this Japanese Clock Mansion to read Keijirou's will, but little did he know that his task would be the start signal for murder. Morie wakes up in the middle of the night after the reading, and he is witness from his room in the annex to a struggle going on in the main mansion, which eventually becomes a murder. But he learns to his great surprise there was no murderer inside the room where it all happened when the door was forced open, even though Morie had his eyes on the room right up to the moment the other group entered the room in question. The police quickly learns of Morie's reputation as a gifted amateur detective, so they ask him to think along too in Ashibe Taku's Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Japanese Clock Mansion Murders", 2000).

Right from the start Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin lets you know that you are indeed reading a very, very classically-structured mystery novel. The characters themselves are luckily meta-concious enough to notice that 1) a reading of a will for a wealthy family with complicated interpersonal relations and shady pasts, coupled with 2) a mansion filled with Japanese clocks and a genuine clock tower in the countryside and 3) a mysterious bandaged man appearing in the house, well, this combination can not end well. If you're faced with these elements, yes, you are very likely a fictional character in a story highly inspired by Yokomizo Seishi's novels. Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin might be written in 2000 (the paperback version I read dates from 2004), but in terms of atmosphere, it's definitely a throwback to Yokomizo's postwar classics.

Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin, and Ashibe Taku's Morie Shunsaku series in general, is usually fairly reserved when it comes to playing the meta game compared to works from other writers like Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice, whose books are usually filled with references. In comparison, Ashibe usually keeps references to other mystery novels just below surface (usually through comments made by assistant Tomoka). Ashibe does know his stuff though (as seen in his The Exhibition of Great Detectives series among other), but he chooses to not indulge too much into that in this particular series. Still: even without the references you can clearly tell Ashibe likes his classics, as Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is brimming with familiar tropes and elements. The book is never really surprising, and a lot of situations feel, well, not clichéd perhaps, but a bit too familiar. Is that a bad thing for a classic puzzle plot mystery? Not per se, but I have to admit at times the book almost felt more like a parody, because it was so straight a take on classic tropes that it felt almost as a critique. Perhaps it's just me, and perhaps I've seen too many of these situations, but the basic outline of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin felt at times more like a Stereotypical Japanese Mystery than a genuine Japanese mystery, and I doubt that was the intention.

As a mystery tale, Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is a reasonably complex one, with multiple murders including an impossible one (with a disappearing murderer) and one has to praise Ashibe for connecting a lot of loose elements into one, consistent plot. There are a lot of things going in terms of the mystery plot, and some of the ideas are pretty clever. There is a pretty subtle misdirection trick early on in the novel for example, and another with a certain kind of secret message (which by the way is basically impossible to translate in a natural manner). Most of these elements are on their own not very surprising, but by expertly linking them together, Ashibe manages to come up with a satisfying plot. Craftmanship is something that can change simple ideas in great execution, and I think this novel is an example of how to use plotting effectively.

The one big problem of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is also its greatest strength. I have noted in previous reviews of Ashibe's works that his stories often entail a lot of historic research, especially in regards to bibliophilic topics. While the main theme of this particular story might not be about literature, it is clear that Ashibe did read up on the topic of Japanese clocks, and pre-modern time systems in Japan. Japanese clocks are pretty unique, we are told, as whereas most cultures adopting Western clocks also adopted the Western two-times twelve hours system that go with those clocks, Japanese engineers used the Western mechanics to show Japanese time (which was quite different, with "hours" with variable lengths depending on the season). The start of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is admittedly a bit slow, as Morie (and the reader) are given a lecture on ancient Japanese time systems, but like I often feel about this side of Ashibe's work, I I thought it was pretty interesting. I already knew a bit about it, but I thought the topic engaging, and of course, I knew it'd pop up later in relation to the main mystery.

And that's also the problem, because when you have a story about a mansion filled with Japanese clocks, and you're given a lecture about it, you can bet it will be of importance to the mystery plot. Considering the theme, I think most people can make a fairly good guess about the role of the Japanese clocks, and that kinda spoils the surprise of the novel. Ashibe boldly references another, fairly well-known mystery novel that used a similar idea (though in a completely different manner), which shows even more of his cards (I have a review of the book in question, but I'll refrain from linking to it). The actual trick behind the main mystery is...too complex for its own good by the way. It's clever, yes, but the puzzle asks so much of the reader, you're inclined to just give up and nod to what you're told. Puzzle plot mysteries are fun, but there's a line between a fun puzzle plot, and a puzzle plot that becomes a chore. Here, large parts of the puzzle almost feel like a chore, even though I can see that on a structural and contents level, it's a crafty one.

So I'm a bit divided on Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin. I can't deny it's a very cleverly structured puzzle plot mystery, even if the premise is undeniably a bit too familiar, but the main theme and mystery of the novel are also a bit too clever for its own good, weakening its own position. I wouldn't recommend the book to someone as an introduction to Morie Shunsaku, I think, as it feels a bit uneven because of the points raised above, but it is certainly not a bad, nor even mediocre mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『和時計の館の殺人』

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