Sunday, August 26, 2018

Ladies and Gentlemen

「いや、海外の推理小説のみならず、わたしじしんがそういう事件を扱ったことがありますよ。そのときはその地方に昔からつたわってる、手マリ唄のとおりに殺人が起こったんですがね」
「わっ、スゲエ!そいじゃ、先生、日本の殺人事件もオレが考えてるより案外進歩してんですね」
 『白と黒』

"Oh, that doesn't only happen in foreign mystery novels you know. I myself have handled a case exactly like that. Murders happening precisely according to the lyrics of a handball song that had been passed on for ages in that region."
"Wow! That means that the murders here in Japan are far more progressive than I thought!"
"White or Black"

When you think of Yokomizo Seishi's detective Kindaichi Kousuke, you think of a man dressed in a traditional hakama who solves the most grotesque serial murders committed in small villages and other closed-off communities, often with a connection to old, local traditions or legends, or long-time feuds between clans. Kindaichi Kousuke's stories stand symbol for the old Japan trying to survive in post-war Japan, for the type of rural community that still holds on to the old beliefs and traditions that is quickly dying out in the face of the post-war Japanese economic miracle. The most famous of Kindaichi's adventures, like The Inugami Clan, Gokumontou and Akuma no Temariuta all deal with settings that feel outdated in the new Japan, but that are also undeniably brimming with what made the Japanese community what it was in the first place.

Yokomizo Seishi's Shiro to Kuro ("White or Black", 1974) is therefore a very strange reading experience for long-time fans, as it has Kindaichi Kousuke tackle the new type of community of Japan, quite unlike the communities of old Japan: apartment complexes. The brand new Hinode Apartment Complex is a fine example of how it's nothing at all like the old villages in Japan: while you still have a large number of people living in close proximity, individualism reigns here: people haven't lived their whole life there, but have moved from all kinds of places from Japan to this apartment complex in Tokyo; everyone has their own apartment which is completely closed off from the other occupants of the building once locked; nobody really "lives" here, as most people don't work inside the complex, but elsewhere in Tokyo and only return to the Hinode Apartment Complex to sleep.

Junko is one of the occupants of Building No. 18 of this twenty-building large apartment complex, and also an old acquaintance of Kindaichi Kousuke, as she used to work in a bar which he and Inspector Todoroki frequented. It's the help of Kindaichi she needs, as of late, poison pen letters that start with "Ladies and Gentlemen" have been going around in the Hinode Apartment Complex, which has already led to an fortunately unsuccesful attempt at suicide. Junko wants Kindaichi to find out who's writing these vile letters, but their talk isn't even over when across the street, in an apartment building that is still under construction, a dead body is found, of which the face is completely covered by tar! Construction workers were busy finishing the roof of the building, when they noticed they were leaking hot tar right into the trash chute of the building, and to their surprise a body of a woman had been dumped at the trash site, who got all the tar over her face. Going off by her clothes, it seems the victim is Katagiri Tsuneko, the proprieter of a tailor's in a shopping arcade next to the apartment complex and actually the person whom Junko suspected to be the writer of the poison pen letters, but a scrap of paper with the mysterious words "White or Black" found in Tsuneko's home shows she too was a recipient of a poison pen letter, and it might actually be the reason she was murdered.

Shiro to Kuro is one of the last Kindaichi Kousuke novels (only followed by Akuryoutou and Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie) and as said, feels very much unlike other entries in this series due to its undeniably modern setting. We do see Kindaichi work often in Tokyo and other urban settings in the short stories, but the default location for the Kindaichi of the novels remains the somewhat outdated rural community, so having Kindaichi work on a murder inside an apartment complex inside Tokyo is fresh, to say the least. Even the way the body was found is surprisingly "modern"! For we've definitely had our share of mutilated bodies in the past stories, like decapitations, burnt faces, bodies thrown upside down into a lake, bodies crushed beneath a shrine bell and more, but to use the tar of a construction site to cover up a face? The "closed community" setting and the horrible state of the discovered body is undeniably Kindaichi Kousuke's territory, but Yokomizo really succeeds in making these familiar tropes feel eerily different by use of the new, modern urban setting instead of the old-fashioned, rural setting. In that sense, I'd say that Shiro to Kuro is an excellent example of "reimagining" or "modernizing" the series.

That said though, I have to admit that the start of this novel was perhaps the best part, with especially the middle part a bit dragging in my opinion. The narrative of the middle part is mostly made up by following several of the inhabitants of the Hinode Apartment Complex, who all suspect each other of being the poison pen writer and/or the murderer of Tsuneko, and while it can be somewhat entertaining reading up on all these characters, it's also a very slow part, with few worthwhile revelations and a lot of repetition. You'll be reading about character A for example, who bumps into B, and then we follow B, but the narrative repeats things about B even though we were already told about that in A's narrative, and then the same with C, etc. Personally, I'd have preferred reading more about Kindaichi's investigation, especially as several matters regarding the investigation are hardly addressed in this middle part, even though you know it's probably going to be important to the solution. For example: the identity of the victim. Not only Kindaichi and the police, but almost everybody involved is funnily enough aware than you should never take a faceless body for granted in a mystery story, so everyone raises the question where the victim is really Tsuneko or not. It's a very important question, as the unrecognizable victim is an often-used trope in Yokomizo's work, and he seems to be aware that the reader is aware of that too. But as the middle part does not focus on Kindaichi or the police, you find out little about their efforts into establishing the identity of the victim then, even though it's a question that keeps nagging you from the very beginning of the book.

The final solution offers an okay, even if not particularly awe-inspiring explanation for the tarred face. The explanation to the murder and the poison pen letters is basically something Yokomizo likes to use a lot in his novels, and it works... well, not incredibly convincing here to be honest. It works, yes, but a bit more tangible clues for the reader, instead of convenient late witnesses who just happen to remember something at arbitrary points would've made for a more satisfying mystery story as one can't deny it feels like a lot of coincidence. Which can work in a mystery novel, but it can be very easy to rely too much on coincidence to construct "mysterious circumstances" to baffle the reader, and Yokomizo is running the borderline here. The mysterious words "White or black" found on the scrap of the torn-up poison pen letter Tsuneko received turns out to be a vital clue to the identity of the murderer by the way, but no way someone from this generation is going to figure that out. It might've been a viable clue for readers back in 1974, but even then it wasn't widespread knowledge I think, and when the contemporary reader arrives at Kindaichi's interpretation of the phrase, they'll not even go "oh yeah, I heard about that", but "yeah, never heard about that".

Shiro to Kuro thus starts off as an interesting, more modern take on the classic Kindaichi Kousuke story structure, set in the new closed community of the post-war economic miracle Japan, but with a mystery plot that is recognizable for long-time Kindaichi fans. The main problem for this novel is that there are plenty of other Kindaichi Kousuke novels that pull off similar ideas much better, so there is little going for this novel besides the, admittedly, inspired setting.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史『白と黒』

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