Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Sea Breeze

We are all rowing the boat of fate
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

I haven't seen much of Nara, now I think about it. Only spent half a day there in total. I guess I could've seen more of it when I was living in Kyoto as it's basically around the corner, but then again, a lot of Nara has to offer is basically also in Kyoto. Except for the deers of course.

Disclosure: I translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle.

A meeting with a video production company about an original direct-to-video adaptation of one of his books brings Osaka-based mystery writer Arisugawa Alice from the west to Tokyo. His publisher in Tokyo also informs him his latest book is just fresh off the presses and ready to be shipped off, so Alice decides to swing by there too to see how the thing turned out. His colleague-cum-friendly-rival Akaboshi Gaku happens to be at the publisher too, and the two have a bit of chat (Alice naturally gifts the man his latest book). Akaboshi tells Alice he's working on a new mystery novel himself, and that he himself is actually about to leave for the west of Japan, for "Nara-by-the-Sea" to do some research on the theme of his new work: mermaids. Nara-by-the-Sea is a fancy phrase to describe Obama, a coastal town with many Buddhist temples which acted as the harbor for the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto, the greatest difference with those two cities of course being that Obama lies by the sea. The following day however, Alice learns that Akaboshi's body was found at the coast near Obama and it doesn't seem likely he'd commit suicide Alice and his friend Himura Hideo, who teaches criminology at Eito University, decide to find out what happened to Akaboshi in Arisugawa Alice's Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu ("Death in Nara-by-the-Sea", 1995).

I think I mention this every time one of these series comes up, but the actual author Arisugawa Alice has two main series, both of which feature a character also named Arisugawa Alice. The Alice in the Student Alice series is a young student who acts as the Watson to the older student Egami, while in the Writer Alice series, we follow an Alice in his thirties who's a professional mystery author, who acts as the assistant to Himura Hideo, a criminologist. The interesting thing is that both these Alices write each other: the student Alice is a budding mystery author who writes about a professional mystery author named Alice and his friend Himura, while the writer Alice writes about a young student named Alice and his senior Egami. It's just a small thing that doesn't have any real bearing on either series, and it's not always mentioned either, but Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu has a funny reference where someone mentions that the Alice there had written a novel called Something-something Puzzle, which is of course The Moai Island Puzzle which I translated.

Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu is the third novel in the Writer Alice series, after 46 Banme no Misshitsu and Dali no Mayu, and also the first serialized novel Arisugawa wrote. It is obviously intended as a take on the travel mystery sub-genre: mystery stories that revolve around tourist destinations, the local culture/history and of course, the act of (recreational) traveling itself. It is a genre that is especially associated with television productions (obviously, as you can actually see the places), but also seen as a rather 'light' genre within mystery fiction, as often the mystery plots are of secundary importance, below the 'tourist' mode of the story. Travel is also an important theme in Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu: Alice and Himura travel together to Obama in the hopes of finding what brought Akaboshi there and a trace of his murderer and along the way, the reader is told a lot about local Obama history and legends. In fact, one aspect I didn't really like of this novel is that it very often dumps a lot of information on the reader that feels too much as exposition. For example, there's a part where Alice and Himura talk about an Obama-related legend concerning the immortal nun Yaobikuni (it is said that you become immortal if you eat mermaid's meat), but you basically get to read an encyclopedia entry. This happens several times, where information that would've been more appealing to read in the form of an interactive discussion is presented as dry information (there's a part about The Exorcist too), and it results in a reading experience that is simply not as pleasant as one'd hope at times.

Travel also plays an important in the mystery plot. It doesn't take long for the story to focus on the alibis of the various suspects, and the attentive reader should notice right away the story is heading for an alibi-cracking plot, given the extreme focus on times and locations in the story (the importance of the alibis and the question of who could've murdered Akoboshi at that time and place is also emphasised a few times by Alice and Himura, so it shouldn't come as a surprise). The solution to it all is rather disappointing. There are basically two clues that point in the direction of the murderer (motive isn't a clue by the way) of which one is rather simple and basically nothing more than semi-trivia, and that would've fared much better in a short story, rather than a novel. The other clue is sorta okay, but very hard to imagine things would really work out that. It's especially hard to imagine in this time and age: perhaps it was more convincing in the early nineties of Japan in the certain field of industry this relates too. The circumstances that allowed this murder to happen in the first place are also a bit hard to swallow, and the actions of a certain character are just accepted as is without giving a convincing reason about why they would ever want to do that.

There is a second murder about halfway through the novel and tt features a method that has very little convincing power. There's an episode of Columbo that does the same actually, but it's similarly kinda hard to swallow there. The method also features something that wlll feel out-of-date. Of course, novels are always a product of their time, and I don't mind at all when I see things in novels that are obvious from a time I didn't know, but for some reason, I feel very differently about things and technology I myself do know and have used in the past, and that are outdated now. To me, part of the murder method feels like something from yesterday, but I can imagine that people from a generation younger than me will have no idea what they're talking about, yet it's also not far enough ago to feel "oh yeah, that's how things were done back in those days". Or maybe I'm just getting old....

Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu thus isn't one of the high points in Arisugawa's oeuvre. It has an idea that might've worked better in a short story rather than a novel, but little of the rest of the novel really managed to impress. It is slow due to the many expositions and focus on alibis and while one can derive some entertainment from Alice and Himura's usual banter and perhaps the travel mystery angle on the town of Obama, there's never really a moment that really makes the reader sit up straight to see what's coming next. The Writer Alice series is much more popular than the Student Alice series and sadly enough, this has also its influences on the output, as while all the novels in the Student Alice series are really, really good, the Writer Alice is less balanced with more distinct higher and lower points, and Umi no Aru Nara ni Shisu is one of those novels that simply isn't as good as some of the other novels in the same series.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『海のある奈良に死す』

1 comment :