Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Detective Chronicles

「忘れ咲き」(Garnet Crow)

Before I knew, I had come to this nostalgic riverside
Or imagined how my dream last night would continue
"Blooming Late" (Garnet Crow)

By the time this review will be posted, the horrible season of hay fever will be long, long gone: that's the only comfort I have while writing this text as the tears caused by those accursed pollen are blocking my sight.

Most of the novels I’ve reviewed by author Ashibe Taku have featured the lawyer Morie Shunsaku as the protagonist. He is a somewhat reserved character (some might even say nondescript), but he has certainly made a reputation for himself as not only a capable attorney, but also as gifted amateur detective. In fact, now I think about it, most of the stories I’ve read he’s not hired for his reputation in the court, but rather as a problem solver. Morie was not always an attorney however. In the short story collection Tantei Sengen - Morie Shunsaku no Jikenbo (“Declaration of Detection - The Case Files of Morie Shunsaku”, 1998), we follow Morie Shunsaku through various phases of his life. And while he might a student in one story and a reporter in the other, the tales all have one thing in common: Morie Shunsaku wil solve any impossible crime that crosses his path.

Tantei Sengen was originally published in 1998 (my pocket edition dates from 2005) as not only the first short story collection featuring Morie Shunsaku, but also Ashibe’s very first short story collection ever. The stories collected in this book therefore originate from the period between Ashibe’s debut as a professional writer until this publication, with the oldest story dating from 1991 and the most recent one included written especially for this collection. While the stories were originally written completely independently, Ashibe decided to edit and rewrite all the stories slightly, and added “Author’s Notes” after each tale, which gives the book a consistent feel, rather than feeling like a handful of random stories.

As I noted above, in the books I have read up until now, Morie was already an attorney, but this book delves more into his past, as we first meet him as a high school student en then follow him all the way through hiss life until he’s become an attorney. The stories are printed in chronological order for Morie (not of original publication date) and thus show an interesting look at the background of a character who is usually actually very nondescript in his own stories. I for one had never imagined him as a reporter, so it was quite funny to see him in different roles compared to how I’ve known him up until now. And speaking about funny, all the stories carry the title A Murder Comedy, and while the stories do have some light banter and funny scenes, it’s not slapstick comedy that’s awaiting the readers here. Each of the stories feature a murder, and most of them are also of the impossible kind (a genre Morie specializes in, but that makes sense if you consider he’s been working with them ever since he was in high school).

The book opens with Satsujin Kigeki no Tokeitou (“The Clock Tower: A Murder Comedy”), which also carries the subtitle An Early Case of Morie Shunsaku. We are introduced to a Morie in his high school student days, when he was a (reserve) member of the school’s theater club. The club has gathered at school even though it is closed because of a public transport strike, as they need to prepare for an upcoming performance. While Morie’s busy with prop making in the court, he notices a notorious delinquent student from a different school loitering around, who has been rumored to have forced the star actress of their play into a relation. The club decides to wrap up things for today at dusk, but a scream brings them and other students and teachers present at school to the nearby grove, where the delinquent student is found dead, his head smashed in. It appears that someone had thrown a rock from the school clock tower at the victim’s head from above and then dragged him to the grove, but police investigation shows that everybody has a solid alibi. Morie’s solution to the conundrum is a reasonable one, but one that doesn’t feel as impressive as it could’ve been. A map for example would’ve done wonders for this story, as well as better pacing to help the hinting. I love the basic idea that makes the perfect alibi possible, but there’s almost no hinting available to show that that was possible, and there are also parts that feel much longer than necessary. Balance isn’t missing per se, but it’s not completely level.

We jump a few years in the future in Satsujin Kigeki no Fushigimachi (“The Curious Village: A Murder Comedy”), as it is subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s College Days. Morie is on a journey by train, but he misses his train and strands in a small village. A man is shot on the beach near the restaurant where Morie’s killing time. The murder weapon is a curious one: an old Spanish matchlock pistol that’s part of the victim’s collection. Morie tries not to get involved, but fate keeps preventing him from catching the next train and eventually decides to solve the murder. In this story we see Ashibe’s interest in history, especially that of Western culture in pre-modern Japan. I am not completely sure whether this is a really fairly-hinted story: Morie is already on to something right from the start (he’s only reluctant to get involved) and some of the mystery can only be solved by some random trivia that is admittedly introduced in the story, but not in a way that makes it actually possible (i.e. “it” is introduced, but not explained in enough detail for the reader to know that a certain action can be done). I did like how the matchlock pistol was used in the story: while the way it used is not brilliantly original, I think the setting and Ashibe’s interest in the topic made this prop a convincing one. This finale of this story connects directly to Morie Shunsaku’s very first novel adventure (and Ashibe Taku’s debut novel) by the way.

Morie Shunsaku had met a reporter in the previous story, and it was probably that influence that resulted in him becoming a reporter himself. Satsujin Kigeki no Choujin Densetsu (“The Legend of the Birdman: A Murder Comedy”), subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Reporter Days I, has your local reporter Morie traveling with attorney Kuki to a hotel, but on their way up the hill they pass by a bus incident. When they do arrive at the hotel, the man Kuki was supposed to meet is gone, and after a bit of questioning, it appears something unbelievable has happened: apparently their man had been seen flying off into the sky from the hotel and he had then caused the bus accident, as the driver had been surprised by a man flying in front of the bus. What is the truth behind this flying birdman? This is one story where I think A Murder Comedy is an apt title, as the whole premise of the birdman and the truth behind it are quite farcical, but in a good way. The story reminds of Shimada Souji actually, in terms of the scale of what happened. Fictional murder doesn’t need to be realistic. Often, the most unbelievable, most fanciful approach can actually work for the best. I think that this story is a good example of having a great premise helping the whole story, as while the solution is a bit easy to guess, the absurdness of everything keeps it going.

Morie continues writing local news reports, though he’s apparently not very good at the job, so he’s sent to another location in Satsujin Kigeki no Mayoiga Densetsu (“The Legend Of the Mayoiga: A Murder Comedy"), with the subtitle A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Reporter Days II. There he meets with an “old” acquaintance (they met in the previous story) and he’s instantly dragged into a new mystery. Morie’s friend swears she saw a big mansion standing at the side of the mountain, but it has disappeared without a trace. The two climb the mountain to find out what has happened to it, but it appears there never was a house there. Their adventure reminds them of the tale of the Mayoiga, the  “Lost House”, a house that appears and disappears at a whim, but which bestows fortune to its visitors. But Morie’s lost house has left something else: a dead body at the place where the house was supposed to be. Overall, I’d say this is a bit of a confusing story, with multiple plots intertwining in a rather unbelievable way to make the premise (disappearing house, appearing body) possible. It reminds slightly of Queen’s The Lamp of God, but that story was simpler, more to the point and less contrived than this one. 

Morie Shunsaku became acquaintances with the attorney Kuki in the adventure with the Birdman, and as the subtitle A Case When Morie Shunsaku Changed Occupation suggests, Satsujin Kigeki no XY (“XY: A Murder Comedy”) is set around the time when Morie Shunsaku made the jump from reporter to attorney. A murder occurs in the Grand Osaka First Building, a tenant building that also houses Kuki’s law offices, where Morie has been working lately. Witness accounts quickly point the finger to the business partner of the victim, but he has disappeared without a trace. But the tenants of the building aren’t given any time to rest, as the first murder is soon followed by a second murder in the same building, committed by the man on the run. Why is the man after all these people in the building and can the police stop him from committing more? This is both the most ambitious and most flawed story of the whole collection. The fundamental problem is that it tries to do too much for a short story. While this is the longest story of the collection, it moves at breakneck speed to include all the elements Ashibe tried to pack inside these pages and the result is something that just doesn’t feel right: things happen too fast, too chaotic, and the plot doesn’t feel consistent. For example, there is an interesting part involving a dying message and linguistics, but the presentation isn’t fair: a lot of necessary information to arrive at a certain deduction is definitely not common knowledge, and also not presented in advance to the reader. More build-up could’ve easily solved that. That said though, the linguistics part is extremely detailed and I think most readers will just give up on it, as it relies too much on specific knowledge. That is a problem that occasionally arises with Ashibe’s stories, as he obviously has a scholarly interest in a variety of topics (including, but not exclusively linguistics, pre-modern and early modern Japanese history, literature and books), but he has a tendency to dive really deep in that stuff, without giving the proper set-up for readers not versed in those topics. Usually he manages to stray just on the right side of the line, but I’d say this is an example of him going too deep, too fast. The other mystery elements of this story also feel a bit disjointed, and the result is a story that never becomes as good as it could’ve been as it tries too much in too little time.

Satsujin Kigeki no C6H5NO2 (“C6H5NO2: A Murder Comedy”), subtitled A Case During Morie Shunsaku’s Spare Time, is a short intermezzo with a parody undertone. Morie Shunsaku is asked to provide an extra solution to a certain case involving poisoned chocolates. It appears a club of amateur detectives had already come up with six solutions, with another female mystery writer posing a seventh solution, but Morie is challenge to come up with an eight solution. Some other people present in the restaurant invite themselves into the conversation however, and that explains the other subtitle of this tale: Denouement 8~13 to The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Yes, this is a parody of Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case, the infamous meta-mystery novel that plays with the notion of “one truth” in a detective plot. Christianna Brand added a seventh solution to the tale in her A New Denouement, but Ashibe decides to go even further by adding solutions 8 to 13! The story is fairly short, so the premise, the original six solutions and Brand’s seven solution are all summarized very shortly, and Ashibe’s own solutions are also explained very briefly. Like the original six solutions, they’re more “interpretations” than full-fledged solutions, but as a way to strengthen Berkeley’s idea of dismissing the one truth, they do their work. This tale also includes guest appearances by several of Ashibe’s other fictional detectives (who all propose a solution), so it’s a very tongue-in-cheek story.

The final story Satsujin Kigeki no Morie Shunsaku (“Morie Shunsaku: A Murder Comedy”) carries the subtitle A Recent Case of Morie Shunsaku and was especially written for this collection to wrap things together. A new client of Morie Shunsaku is stabbed in his back in the hallway on his way to the bathroom. A closer look at his client reveals that the man was wearing a fake beard, and when removed Morie is shocked to learn his client was an old high school classmate of his. The surprises don’t stop here, because he also learns that only a block away from his office, another man had been stabbed in his back in a restaurant. The curious thing is that the knife in the back of the other man had the fingerprints of his classmate, while the knife in the back of his classmate carried the fingerprints of the other dead man. But how could they have stabbed each other in the back if they were in two completely different places? The solution to the impossible situation is not very hard to guess, I think, or at least, most will have a vague idea of what might’ve happened. The real surprise is how this story ties in all the previous stories together though, as it is admittedly a neat way to bring a connection to this set of stories, which were originally just separate, independent stories. It’s certainly a thing Ashibe likes to do and it works mostly in this story. The idea of how he connected these stories is really good and had fooled me completely. The actual execution (as in: how he implemented that idea in this last tale) is a bit weird, as the tone of this story suddenly turns into a cliché thriller with basically no build-up, as we’re suddenly given a Morie Shunsaku Must Die! plot that I have actually never ever seen in any of Ashibe’s stories. It feels horribly out of place. A weird way to end a moderately good collection.

My thoughts on Tantei Sengen - Morie Shunsaku no Jikenbo are not very different from how I usually feel about stories featuring Morie Shunsaku, or Ashibe Taku’s story in general. The basic premise behind the mystery plots is usually good and entertaining, but the execution can be a bit chaotic, or too complex at times. Too many subplots here, too much delving into background topics there. His stories always have a distinct feel of slight unbalance, with a great base, but going just too far in this regard or that regard. Depending on the specific work, and the reader, this can be either a good or a negative point. I for example love Ashibe’s experiments with literary references and meta-fiction, like his The Poisoned Chocolates Case parody in this collection, but some might think it feels too much like an inside joke. The stories in this collection all have great ideas within them, and the way Ashibe manages to connect the stories together is also surprising, but each of these stories also has something that makes you go “Good, but…”. Overall, I’d say this collection is a good book, that also offers a good diverse look at the character Morie Shunsaku, but it’s also a book that’ll have you say a couple of times “If only that had been different.”

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『探偵宣言 森江春策の事件簿』 / 「殺人喜劇の時計塔―森江春策、初期の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の不思議町―森江春策、大学時代の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の鳥人伝説―森江春策、記者時代の事件I」 / 「殺人喜劇の迷い家伝説―森江春策、記者時代の事件II」 / 「殺人喜劇のXY―森江春策、転身前後の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇のC6H5NO2―森江春策、余暇の事件」 / 「殺人喜劇の森江春策―森江春策、最近の事件」


  1. This author sounds interesting. I would nominate him for an English translation of his best book.

    1. I haven't read it myself yet (even though I have a Japanese copy...), but Murder in the Red Chamber is available in English, and it's often seen as an interesting mystery novel that shows Ashibe's interest in biblio- and literary mystery very well (as it's based off a classic Chinese novel).

    2. Thanks for the tip.