Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Strong Poison

I'm still in a dream, Snake Eater 
"Snake Eater" (Cynthia Harell)

Never seen a snake I think (except for in the zoo) and I sure am not planning to see one any time soon...

Kamiki Raichi is a very attractive senior high school student who practices enjou kousai, or "compensated dating". In theory, this means that older men are paying younger, attractive women for their companionship, but as a social issue, and especially in the case of Raichi, it means she's prostituting herself, as the services she renders are most definitely of the sexual kind. One of her regular clients is the police detective Aikawa Hiroshige, whom she first met during a murder investigation, which was also when Aikawa discovered that Raichi is a brilliant amateur detective. One morning, Aikawa decides to tell Raichi about a recurring dream he has since he was a baby, where he is attacked by two snakes inside a dark room. Aikawa's parents had told him that when he was a child, snakes had indeed snuck into his bedroom once, which would explain the dream, but Raichi points out a fatal contradicton in the explanation of Aikawa's parents, which prompts him to ask them what really happened. The truth however is much stranger than he could have imagined, as he is told he was involved with two utterly impossible incidents involving snakes when he was very young. One incident in which a venomous snake managed to assault Aikawa's mother (who was still carrying him inside of her at the time), kill another man, and leave a cabin without leaving any traces, and one in which a snake managed to find its way into the baby bedroom... on the twenty-seventh floor of an apartment building. It's this double mystery that Raichi decides to solve for her paying sex customer in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Souja Misshitsu ("The Locked Rooms of the Twin Snakes", 2017).

The fourth book already in Hayasaka's series starring the self-prostituting Kamiki Raichi. The series has been quite unique in its use of sex as a genuine part of the mystery plot. Usually mystery fiction only features sex to spice things up, but in the Kamiki Raichi series, sex is an integral element of the mystery. The erotic scenes can seem a bit graphic at times (though that actually softens a lot with each new book), but it's always with a cause. Occassionally, Raichi simply uses her sex appeal to get things done or to get information from suspects, but more often than not, these scenes contain subtle clues or link up in surprising manner to the mystery, and are thus always a vital jigsaw piece of the puzzle. The mystery plots of this series wouldn't work without the sex, and that is quite different from how sex is usually handled in mystery fiction. That said though, the eroticism is actually toned down a lot in this novel. Partly because most of the story consists of a flashback starring police detective Aikawa's parents, rather than Raichi herself and to be honest, the erotic adventures Raichi has this time feel less 'necessary' for the plot in Souja Misshitsu compared to previous books.

Souja Misshitsu revolves around two different impossible situations, both involving snakes. The one involving a snake finding its way to a baby room in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor is titled The Locked Room In The Sky. The window of the baby room was open, but it faces a river, and the veranda was unreachable from either the roof and the room directly below, so how did the snake fly up there? The solution is... troublesome, in the sense that it hinges entirely on some trivia you simply might happen to know. Or not. The whole plot revolves around this piece of trivia, and there's little more to it than that. The use of this concept shows almost no originality, as it's basically used as-is, which means that it is a very simple locked room, solely dependent on something that is probably not common knowledge and without any innovative repackaging of the idea. Sure, the idea of using this concept is original (in a way), but it definitely could've been polished up a bit to give it more of an unique taste.

The Locked Room On Earth is more interesting. The cry of both victims led to the discovery of a man poisoned to death, and a woman carrying a baby inside of her still suffering from a venom attack, both inside a cabin, soon after the rain stopped. Both victims have signs of having been bitten, but no snake can be found inside the cabin, nor around it (the ground around the cabin is still wet from the rain). The theory that a snake didn't do it, but that the woman used a poisonous needle to kill the man to make it seem a snake did it, and then pretended to be bitten herself too is proposed, but this leads to the same problem, as no needles can be found in or around the cabin, and the wounds show that the two victims were discovered very soon after their attack. So how did the murder weapon, be it a snake or a needle or something else leave the cabin without leaving any traces?

The solution to this conundrum has to be one of the most original tricks I've ever seen, and also one of the silliest. It's an ingenous way to poison someone, and I have to admit, unlike the solution to The Locked Room In The Sky, this problem was more than adequately clewed and brimming with its own unique take, but even so, I doubt many people will figure this one out in time, as it's simply so unexpected, so daring that I dare claim that this is one of the most original tricks I have ever seen to poison someone under impossible circumstances. It's also a trick I can only imagine happening in this series: someone like Carr could never have pulled this off. In a very vague way, it kinda reminds of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru, but only in one specific point. The biggest problem with this trick however is... that while it's absolutely original, it's not practical at all. The circumstances that led to this impossible poisoning are extremely unique, so you're tempted to cry out that this is absolutely absurd, as this could never have happened normally. And you're right.

But then again, that has always been the modus operandi of this series. Hayasaka made his debut with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken, which was the first book in the Kamiki Raichi series, and that too featured a trick so singularly unique and yet also downright silly, people felt quite divisive about it. Other stories in the series too featured surprising and almost comedic ways to use sex as a viable element in mystery fiction. In Japan, there's the term baka-mys, or "silly mystery fiction", that refers to mystery fiction that feature such silly (yet possible) solutions that can make you laugh at its brilliance and throw the book against the wall at the same time. The Kamaki Raichi series is often also considered baka-mys, and it shows especially in this novel and Hayasaka's debut novel.

Overall though, I thought that Souja Misshitsu was the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books. The Locked Room In The Sky is overall rather disappointing, while The Locked Room On Earth is highly original, but the execution is not as polished as in previous novels, leaving much room for the reader to ask questions starting with "but....". Also, because most of the book is actually told through flashbacks, we see very little of Raichi in this book, which is a shame, because she's the most interesting character to watch.While she was not in the spotlight all the time in the previous books either, her absence this time is especially felt, making this book perhaps feel a bit tedious and longer than it actually is, as it's in truth a very short novel.

So one fairly weak locked room mystery, and a highly original, but not completely convincing locked room mystery in Souja Misshitsu. It's clearly the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books, and even the link with the eroticism is a bit weaker than usual this time. But at least the main mystery felt perfectly fit for this series, resulting in a book that is not likely to end up in the best-book-of-all-time lists, but that will remain in reader's memories as "oh yeah, that's the one where the victim was poisoned by......". And that's a feat on its own, perhaps.

Original Japanese title(s):  早坂吝 『双蛇密室』


  1. Hayasaka Yabusaka is definitely one of those authors that is very skilled in turning the story in directions that you can't really predict or expect. Just like a previous novel, 誰も僕を裁けない, I can argue that even this book's ending dabbled a bit in social school discussion once the identity of the culprit for the second locked room is revealed.

    (I had to laugh when you compared a certain plot point to Subete ga F ni Naru.....the fact that I can't think of any other story to make a similar comparison is probably a testament of praise of originality for both books, haha)

    1. Hayasaka really has carved his own niche within the genre, and i's always guessing what he's going to come up with next. To be honest, after the disappointing locked room in the sky, I wasn't expecting much from the one on the ground, but man, I really didn't see that one coming.

  2. I really like this cover.

    1. The cover of these initial shinsho paperbacks are neat right? They are simple in design (always Raichi), but they really depict the character well. The bunko paperback re-releases of this series sadly enough don't feature the character art.

  3. Excuse me, if I talk about another japanese writer. I would know if "Hakuba Sansō Satsujin Jiken" di Keigo Higashino, is a locked room or not. Thanks.

  4. I haven't read the book myself, but the summary on Wikipedia seems to suggest so, as it mentions the death of someone inside a locked room, which the police assumes is suicide, but the sister of the victim doesn't believe it's suicide.

  5. how i wish you would spoil the tricks sometimes for those of us who will never be able to read these books. using reverse text or blacked spaces...i am always saddened when you fawn over a neat plot device but never dish the tea.

    maybe you can think about it for later reviews?

    anyways the second zaregoto novel is being released by vertical this month. are you making a purchase?

    1. Just speaking from experience, a lot of these amazing tricks and "shocking revelations" only really works because you read through the entire book and is thoroughly immersed in the author's setup before reaching the conclusion. If the entire book were to simmered down to a paragraph and a one-line solution of the trick, it really wouldn't seem nearly as impressive compared to reading the material yourself, unfortunately.

      It gets even more troublesome when a lot of Japanese detective fiction uses unreliable narration these days in the construction of their tricks. Trying to explain those kind of tricks and articulate the "shock factor" by explaining all the clues that make the setup amazing can be quite the massive task.

    2. Yeah, Wing Hong gives one good reason for why talking in-depth about tricks/solutions is not always feasible in a general review. A possibility would be a focused article on a particular topic, where I could refer to tricks and solutions more freely, but I'm not a very big fan of that as you'd shut out a very, very large percentage of the readers. -> This is an excellent Japanese site that does do reviews including a spoiler segment, where they talk in-depth how the tricks/solutions work, but from my own experience, I only read the spoiler-filled parts of the reviews of books I have actually read.

      As for the second Zaregoto novel: that's a (revised) reissue. The book was already available NA many years ago. I read the Japanese version (have a review too), though I think I do have a copy of the original NA version too somewhere (which was heavily discounted overstock. Probably got it for one euro or so a few years back).