Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Haunted Showboat

The show must go on

There are many mystery stories set on means of transportations, like ships or trains, but I wonder how many there are set on a bicycle. For example, what about an impossible murder where the rider is stabbed in their back, while there was someone else sitting on the carrier in the back (who isn't the murderer of course).

Awasaka Tsumao's Kigekihikigeki ("Comedia Tragedia Magica", 1982) introduces the reader to Kaede Shichirou, disciple of a renowned magician and once a fairly succesful magician himself, but he became more interested in the bottle after his wife ran off with a man, and the last few years, he's been barely able to make a living with his performances. An old friend however manages to find a job for him that might change his life. He's to fill in as a magician for the variety show held on board of the Ukon-Gou: an old transport ship refurbished to look like a paddle steamer, which will provide various forms of entertainment like revue shows and dining as it cruises along the Japanese coast. The original magician who got the contract has disappeared, while the Ukon-Gou's maiden voyage is scheduled for tomorrow, so Shichirou is hired for a month, with an option for a longer contract. He's also appointed a new assistant, Makoto, who's a young, but enthusastic amateur magician herself. But Shichirou soon regrets taking the job. The diverse entertainers on the Ukon-Gou include not only fire eaters, clowns, tigers and dancers, but also Utako, his wife who left his side. When the clown is murdered however, Shichirou sees how the manager is doing everything to keep the murder under wraps for the sake of opening day, and he realizes that the magician he was sent to replace also died under very suspicious circumstances on the ship. And the strangest thing about both murders is that the only thing connecting the two victims is that the names of both victims were palindromes, and due to the manager's hobby, several other entertainers aboard have palindromes as names.

Kigekihikigeki has an alternative English title Palindrome Syndrome, which is an apt title, though not a palindrome (or kaibun) like the original Japanese title. In the Japanese mora/syllable alphabet, ki-ge-ki-hi-ge-ki is read the same both ways, so a palindrome. Due to certain qualities of the Japanese language, like the syllable-based alphabet, but also the fact that voiced and unvoiced consonants count as the same (for example, /ki/ and /gi/ are the same), it's fairly simply to make palindromes in Japanese, and author Awasaka has a lot of fun with this. Many characters have palindromes as names, and they become potential victims of course. What Awasaka does brilliantly is hiding some of the palindromes at first. Some names are very obviously palindromes, but other people are revealed to have palindrome names too in surprising ways, that make you hit yourself on the head because you should've seen that coming. Palindromes play an important role in the story itself, but they are also important at the meta-level: the title of the book isn't the only palindrome, as all the chapter titles are palindromes too. And yes, this would be a very challenging book to translate.

As mentioned in earlier reviews, Awasaka was not only known as a mystery author, but also as a stage magician. His debut novel 11 Mai no Trump was a masterpiece featuring amateur magicians, but this time, we're presented with a professional magician (and his assistant), as well as other performers and artists in a circus-like setting. Awasaka shows once again he knows his stuff, as he expertly uses his knowledge of stage magic to spin a tale. Some of the tricks are used for the murder plots, but other tricks are simply revealed to give the reader more insight in how stage magic and illusions work. While Kigekihikigeki is not as focused on stage magic as 11 Mai no Trump, it's still obvious from reading this that Awasaka really loves his magic. We are also given a glimpse in other performances, like fire eating. And while the characters make it feel like a "normal" circus, I have to say that the show boat setting is really unique. The fact that this troupe is performing on a ship is definitely integral part of the mystery plot, making the Ukon-Gou (also a palindrome in japanese by the way: U-Ko-N-Go-U, with the ko and go being the voiced and unvoiced version of the same mora) a very memorable setting.

I do have to say I found the overall story a bit dragging. The first half of the story is very slow, and spends a lot of time focusing on Shichirou, his past and his drinking problem. His assistant Makoto is a great foil to him as the peppy girl assistant who manages to surprise her boss with her detailed studies in magic, but still, things don't move really fast. Even after the halfway point, which introduces some more suspenseful (and comedic) plot points (somewhat reminiscent of Awasaka's A Aiichirou series), the plot feels like its moving only at eighty percent speed. This isn't helped by the rather nondescript individual murders. While the murders do make good use of either stage magic or other performances (there's for example someone burning alive on stage), the tricks behind them are fairly simple. The emphasis lies on the whodunnit plot, but even that is surprisingly uncomplicated. By the time the motive is introduced, you're basically left with only two suspects, and only one of them is really viable as a suspect. There's a pretty neat hint placed earlier in the story to allow the reader to deduce which of the two it is, but the reader is barely given time to process that themselves, so that segment too felt rather underwhelming. And while the murderer did do one thing that might seem impressive/surprising to the reader, it does feel very similar to what was done in 11 Mai no Trump (which was also about magicians/stage performances), so there was a bit of déjà vu there.

Kigekihikigeki was in a way very similar to the other Awasaka novels I read the last few months, focusing on one theme or topic (in this case, palindromes) and running with in surprising ways.  And it's something Awasaka is good at, at mixing comedy, mystery and a unique topic he obviously adores. But in comparison with Awasaka's debut novel 11 Mai no Trump, which featured a similar magicians/performers setting, Kigekihikigeki feels less refined, with simpler murders and a less impressive structure leading to the identity of the murderer. I love the setting of the show boat, but as a mystery novel, Kigekihikigeki is just a decent work, compared to the masterpiece that is 11 Mai no Trump.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『喜劇悲奇劇』


  1. Thanks for the review... Looks like I should hunt down my local library's copy of '11 Mai no Trump'!

    1. Yeah, you should! Of the four novel-length works I've read by Awasaka, it's by far the best and also closest to his short stories (and in case you haven't read the A Aiichirou series yet, borrow those books too, as they feature some of the best impossible short stories from Japan ;P)

    2. '11 Mai no Trump' is on my to-read-list as well. I've only managed to read one volume of the A Aiichirou series in Chinese and it was such a high-quality collection of short stories. Too bad I haven't been able to hunt down any translations on the other two books in the series.

      On another note, I had been recently slowly working through Ayukawa Tetsuya's short stories (the crimson and blue locked room series of books respectively). While most of them are rather simple in setup, I had been immensely enjoying them as well; simply because he is able to construct puzzles so well in just a small amount of pages.

    3. The Ayukawa shorts are good too, though in a way the very opposite of the Awasaka shorts. It's basically the difference between the Father Brown stories, and Crofts: the A Aiichiro stories are more imaginative, and the detective relies on intuition to solve them, while the Ayukawa shorts are far more sober, and designed very precisely according to time-tables etc.