Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Mystery of the Blue Train

“Yes, yes, I know. Life is like a train, Mademoiselle. It goes on. And it is a good thing that that is so.” 
"The Mystery of the Blue Train"

It's always weird reading books with complex and intricate alibi tricks that involve the railway, when you're actually waiting on the platform for a train that's ten minutes late already...

The discovery of the body of an attractive woman in the Tama River in Tokyo appeared to be nothing more than usual business for inspector Totsugawa and his team at first, until they find a reporter who swears the victim was with him on the Hayabusa last night. The Hayabusa is a Limited Express with sleeping carriages, departing from Tokyo and arriving at Kumamoto on the other side of the country the following day. Until both trains stopped their services in 2009, the Hayabusa and its sister train Fuji were both colloquially referred to as the Blue Trains, as a reference to their characteristic blue carriages, as well as one to the famous Le Train Blue. The travel reporter had been on the Hayabusa to write an article about the trip to Kumamoto and he is sure one of his fellow passengers in the private compartment carriage had been the victim. But if she had indeed been on the Blue Train to Kumamoto as the reporter says, she could never have made it back to Tokyo to be fished out of the river as a corpse the following morning. Inspector Totsugawa however has to move carefully in this case, as the discovery of the private business card of the current Minister of Transport in the victim's purse links her to a daring caper that happened several years ago, a case in which the culprits used that very business card to scam a bank out of funds. A long and puzzling case awaits Totsugawa in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Blue Train Satsujin Jiken ("The Blue Train Murder Case"、1978).

Nishimura Kyoutarou is an immensely pro-active mystery writer who since his 1970 debut has written nearly 600 novels, most of them in the so-called "travel mystery" subgenre, which focuses on traveling, tourism and means of transport. The subgenre has elements of the Croftian school, as it often involves alibi tricks using trains, airplanes and other means of transport, but also celebrates "the country": stories are often set across various areas in Japan, and so they also include a touristic element, as each book allows the reader to travel to a place faraway. Nishimura's most famous creation is Inspector Totsugawa, who made his debut in 1973. Nowadays everybody associates Nishimura with Inspector Totsugawa and his railway mysteries, but it was actually's 1978's Blue Train Satsujin Jiken that started it all, as it is seen as the very first of Nishimura's travel mysteries.

That said though, you wouldn't have guessed from the writing, as Blue Train Satsujin Jiken starts off really captivating, as it manages to paint an interesting portrait of the titular Blue Train Hayabusa and its image in the public's eye. There is a certain romantic image to trains, especially sleeper expresses, and descriptions of the children going out to take pictures of the Blue Train are certainly not a creation of Nishimura's imagination, but something that is grabbed from real life and it's parts like these that really help give the Blue Train a firm place in this tale. The opening chapters also do a great job at inviting the reader to the mystery of a woman who may or may not have disappeared from a sleeper coach only to re-appear on the other side of the country and an enigmatic assault on the reporter on the train.

Like the novels by Crofts and Ayukawa, we follow Inspector Totsugawa as he leads his team during the investigation. And indeed, like in the novels of those two writers, it's not just Totsugawa who has his moments throughout the story. Totsugawa's whole team is of importance, and he'll often remain in headquarters, while his men and women do all the footwork and follow up on their clues. It's here where we really feel the "travel mystery" element of the book. Totsugawa himself for example travels all the way to Fukuoka (Hakata) to investigate the Blue Train early in the book, while later in the book one of his subordinates actually travels on the Blue Train, seeing all the different sights, while another subordinate is investigating in a different part of the country alongside the route. We follow the team as they travel across Japan, giving you an amusing look at the country. Domestic tourism was of course already present in Japan, and with travel standards slowly raising in the post-war period, this focus on travel was well-received, as affordability, comfort and speed were all improving.

It is in the latter half of the book things start to fall apart though. Well, 'fall apart' might be worded too harsh, but the plot definitely looses steam, as it appears Nishimura appears to have problems giving a good explanation to the otherwise promising premise. Reasons he gives for why things happened the way they happened appear sound at first sight, but even a slightly closer look quickly reveals that doing those things doesn't really make sense. As it is now, the plot feels very artificial, as the actions of the characters only served to create the initial disappearance, rather than that characters were taking logical actions in regards to their own agendas. The thing becomes too complex, with the only reason being that those events need to happen so the initial mystery premise can become true. There is actually some really clever clewing going on, but a lot of that is overshadowed by the arbitrary manner in which the mystery is revolved.

The puzzle-plot driven mystery story is of course always a fairly artificial construct, but it's up to the writer to at least give a logical reason for the actors in the story to do the things they do. In this novel, it's not utterly unbelievable, but it sure looks like there were tons of ways to do things in a simpler and less conspicuous manner.

What I did really like about this novel, and a lot of railway mysteries in general actually, is that it's all based on real timetables. There's just something magical about mysteries that make use of the actual schedules of trains, and the land they traverse through. The Blue Trains as described in this novel don't exist in their original form anymore, sadly enough, so train aficionados might find some comfort in reading about those trains of the past in novels like these.

Blue Train Satsujin Jiken in general is an okay novel on average, with a great first half, but a less impressive second half. It's certainly entertaining on the whole and one can easily imagine how Nishimura found his groove and his audience with this first travel mystery novel, despite its shortcomings. A lot of Nishimura's later works feel very similar and not very inspiring actually, with trainy train plots with simple mystery plots barely worth writing about, but Blue Train Satsujin Jiken, as one of his (relatively) early works is a moderately amusing classically constructed puzzle plot mysteries of some quality, like many of Nishimura other early works.

Original Japanse title(s): 西村京太郎 『寝台特急(ブルートレイン)殺人事件』

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