Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Limits of Truth

"My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get.”
 "Forrest Gump"

"There must be something comforting about the number three, people always give up after three," Sherlock said in the episode The Lying Detective from Sherlock, and indeed, who would've thought I'd need to bring out the old The Three Great Occult Books tag out again, considering I already discussed all three books already? But as Sherlock pointed out, sometimes it's not just three.

The Three Great Occult Books
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (1934)
Dogura Magura (1935)
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (1964) 

The Fourth Great Occult Book
Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku (Paradise Lost Inside A Box) (1978)

The declaration of Naru (nickname: Niles) that he planned to write a detective novel came as a surprise to his circle of friends. The members of the group, consisting of his twin brother Ran (nickname: Holland) and approximately ten other friends and acquaintances, had a love for mystery fiction in common, and affectionately referred to each other as "family". Nobody really knew what Niles' intentions were behind writing a novel using the "family " as the characters, and many of the family members looked forward to the novel titled How Was The Locked Room Made? That is, until a real mystery happens among the group of friends, and it appears this tragedy was already predicted by the events in Niles' novel. As Niles continues writing his novel, reality and fiction cross each other, with occurences in Niles' novel having an impact on the murder investigation in the real world, and vice versa. What is real and what is fiction in Takemoto Kenji's Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box", 1978)?

The term sandaikisho, or The Three Great Occult Books, refers to three Japanese mystery novels considered to be the pinnacle of the anti-mystery genre, written before we readers all got used to terms like Post-Modernism, meta-physical mysteries or even anti-mystery. The books take on the form of a mystery novel, but deny the possibilities of the genre, basically taking the genre conventions to the extreme to show its limits. The term Three Great Occult Books is actually a play on the Four Great Classics from Chinese literature, but give another meaning to the word ki: In Chinese, the same word is used in the context of "outstanding", but in this Japanese instance, the word is used in the meaning of "strange", "occult" or "deviant".

Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (1934) for example pretends to be a story about the investigation into a series of murders in a mansion, but is actually the ultimate pedantic novel. It's Philo Vance on crack here, as the detective takes up any occasion to blab about topics including (but not exclusively) occultism, mysticism, criminology, religions, astrology, astronomy, psychology, heraldry, medicine and cryptography. Symbolism is what drives the novel, as the detective keeps relating anything he sees or hears to some obscure topic in any of the aforementioned fields, resulting in an outrageously farfetched deduction.... which also turns out to be correct. It basically ridicules the concept of solving crimes based on evidence and logic by presenting incredibly farfetched deductions based on obscure facts and symbolism. Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura (1935) in turn did away with the notion of reality in general: there is no straightforward narrative here as the reader, and the protagonist who might or might not be a mental patient is presented with contradicting documents, records and accounts from which they might or might not construct a murder case that might have happened in the past. Finally, Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu (1964) is what Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case never dared to be: an utter deconstruction of the possibilities of deduction by having a group of people deduce the most fanciful, yet convincing theories about a death that might not even be a murder, and about a series of hypothethical murders that may or may not happen in the future because they think serial murders are more interesting and fun, while holding onto rules and tropes like having to come up with murder tricks that are completely original. Every theory seems plausible and the perfect solution until the next theory is introduced which seems even more brilliant, until the reader realizes that at this point any theory seems plausible, with no guarantee something is right.

And now to get back to the topic of this review: while the aforementioned books are referred to as The Three Great Occult Books, Takemoto Kenji's Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is often considered the fourth book, as it not only derives a lot of inspiration from the three great books, but also continues the tradition of being an ambitious anti-mystery novel. The reader should be warned when reading this, as it has absolutely no intention on playing straight with the reader. The novel takes on the form of a mystery novel, but is closer to a post-modern experiment. That said, many Japanese mystery authors have cited this book as having great influence on them, including Ayatsuji Yukito and Inui Kurumi.

Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is in short the cumulation of The Three Great Occult Books: it takes something substantional from each of those books to weave its own story of murder and mystery. The most iconic trick it plays on the reader is the fluid form of reality and fiction. In the prologue, Niles explains he's going to write How Was The Locked Room Made?, a novel based on real-life, featuring his friends as the characters. But from that point on, the reader is thrown into a mystifying maze, as they are presented with two contradicting narratives: in the uneven chapters, the reader is told one of the "family" members was murdered inside a locked apartment, and that the even chapters are excerpts from Niles' novel How Was The Locked Room Made?. But in those same even chapters, the family members are presented with an impossible disappearance from a locked room, and the events in the uneven chapters are considered to be from How Was The Locked Room Made?. Both narratives thus claim to be reality, and that the other is fiction. What makes things even more confusing is the fact that Niles' book is stated to alternate between chapters based on events that really happened to the "family" and Niles' own story, which means that basically all chapters included in the book are from How Was The Locked Room Made? and that characters sometimes refer to certain chapters that are supposed to be accurate accounts of "their" reality.

It's basically Inception.

The dual narrative structure, both accusing the other of being How Was The Locked Room Made?,  means that characters who die in one narrative, might still be alive in the other and vice-versa. For example, a character called Hikuma is the murder victim in the first chapter, but the same Hikuma is still very much alive in the second chapter, as both narratives consider the other fiction. It leads to the unique situation of having a character detect his own (fictional) death, as the even-chapters Hikuma himself is also curious as to how he died in the uneven chapters. Characters can also act differently across narratives, as Niles' characterization might not be perfect at times. Sometimes events that happen in the fictional world do also happen in the real world, strengtening the link between the two and blurring the boundaries. This play with the narrative and the characters, where you never really know what is real and what is fiction is similar to the effect Dogura Magura had, and at a certain point, the reader doesn't really mind anymore what's real or not. It's a very weird, alienating effect that gives this novel a unique feel.

The many battles of the wits from Kyomu he no Kumotsu are another form of the inspiration for Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku. In Kyomu he no Kumotsu, the characters entertained themselves by comparing their theories about the (hypothetical) murders with each other, setting up special rules like "only original ideas", "no accomplices" and "there have to be multiple murders". These battles of the wits were the driving force behind the plot, as we were presented I think at least four seperate elaborate solutions times four murders each. The "family" members in Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku do the same (they even say they are inspired by Kyomu he no Kumotsu), as each of them hopes to outsmart the others with some brilliant deduction about the mystery they're facing (the murder in the even chapters, and the disappearence in the uneven chapters).We are shown quite a lot of fairly interesting possible solutions to the impossible situations, and it's here when Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku feels most like a "normal" mystery novel, with people trying to solve the mystery. Some solutions are pretty neat actually, and could've worked perfectly for a standalone impossible crime story. That said though, it is also clear it's inspired by Kyomu he no Kumotsu and The Poisoned Chocolates Case, as each plausible theory is easily discarded by the reveal of some new fact, and replaced by another plausible theory, which in turn is also proved to be wrong, etcetera ad infinitum. Nothing is straightforward in this novel.

Indeed not, because the novel also borrows the pedantic mode from Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken. While not as vexing as in that book, the theories of some characters in Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku do feel very pedantic, referencing obscure topics from psychology, chemistry and even esotericism. Some characters will first go on on such themes for four, five pages, only to explain how that concept has parallels with their own situation, and then the application to show how they eventually arrived at their solution. I was relieved to see it never went as crazy as in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, but this indulging in seemingly useless trivia can be quite hard to get through. Even Philo Vance would find it intrusive.

The title as the Fourth Great Occult Novel for Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku is definitely not undeserved. While it features common mystery novel tropes like locked room murders, impossible disappearances and a whole slew of imaginative solutions that would've been well-received if used in a normal mystery story, the tone of the anti-mystery genre still reigns at the end. The greatest prank it pulls on the reader is that it never lets you know what is real and what is fiction. You are never given certainty about what case you're supposed to be investigating (if there's any case at all), you don't know which characters are supposed to be dead, who is supposed to be alive or that they're supposed to be Schrödinger's cat. It is an extremely strange book, though I did like it. In terms of atmosphere, it resembles Kyomu he no Kumotsu a lot, which was by far my favorite of the Three Occult Books. Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku does leave you with a feeling of senselessness, as if it all had been for nothing, as it was just fiction, but as that was obviously what it set out to do, I can live with it. I would never recommend this book to someone with a "normal" interest in mystery fiction, but it might be interesting for someone who wants to delve more into post-modern mystery novels.

Original Japanese title(s): 竹本健治 『匣の中の失楽』


  1. This sounds interesting. Someone should translate them as a set.

    1. Releasing these books without any context/introduction/commentary and observing how the English-reading audience would react to them would be a hilarious experiment, I think.