Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Murder Is My Business

"My brother is my brother. And I am myself." 
 "Asami Mitsuhiko ~ The Final Chapter~"

Yes, it's time for my annual review of a mystery novel set in Fukuoka.

Uchida Yasuo (1934-2018) was a very prolific and well-known mystery author who passed away earlier this year. Uchida, Nishimura Kyoutarou and Yamamura Misa are often grouped together as hyper-prolific authors, who specialize in so-called travel mysteries: mystery stories often set in touristic destinations, with plots that involve local specifics, like local trains in the case of Nishimura, and local legends in the case of Uchida. The work of this trio is also often adapted for television. Uchida's most famous creation is Asami Mitsuhiko, a 33-year old freelance writer who travels across Japan for his work for the magazine Travel and History and who also has a born gift for stumbling across murder cases, and his inate curiosity and intellect won't allow him to ignore these crimes. Which often gets him into trouble with the local police, who usually end up taking Mitsuhiko to the police station. The subsequent scene is a staple of the Asami Mitsuhiko series, as it's only then when the higher-ups at the local police station learn that Mitsuhiko is in fact the younger brother of the Director-General of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the National Police Agency, which usually leads to Mitsuhiko's hurried release and a lot of apologies, even though Mitsuhiko himself doesn't really like to rely on his brother's function to get bailed out.

Hakata Satsujin Jiken ("The Hakata Murder Case", 1991) is the 47th entry in the series and starts with Mitsuhiko helping out at a historical dig in the city of Fukuoka, which is also known by its old name Hakata. The body Mitsuhiko digs up however isn't a few centuries old, but just one or two years and only half-decayed. This is of course a job not for archaeologists, but for the police and they quickly realize the body is that of Katada, the head of the Kyushu Division of the Eikou Group who had been missing for a year. The department stores and supermarkets of the Eikou Group had been expanding aggressively across Japan with their affordable, mass-produced products and the successes it had already booked on its path to become the number one department store and supermarket chain in the southern island of Kyushu had all been the product of the brilliant marketing mind of Katada, until he suddenly disappeared. Now his disappearance has become a murder, suspicion falls on the Amanoya Department Store, as they benefited the most from Katada's literal elimination from the department store war. Sengoku of Amanoya's Information Office is the prime suspect, as he knew Katada personally and was seen arguing with Katada on the day of his disappearance, but Mitsuhiko receives a strange request from his brother: usually the Director-General of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the National Police Agency would tell his younger brother to stay out of trouble, but this time he tells Mitsuhiko to find out who killed Katada and why, and most importantly: save Sengoku.

Yes, this is an ugly cover. I usually praise covers I really like, so let's do the same for ones I really don't like. I don't even understand the composition. I mean, yeah, sure, there are women in this novel... but is that the only connection between the cover and the actual contents of this book? Even now I've read the book I don't understand the reason for this design. 

Like I mentioned, I picked this book out because I wanted to read a mystery tale set in Fukuoka. To be honest, Hakata Satsujin Jiken was a bit disappointing in that regard, as we don't see much of the geographical setting that is Fukuoka. Ten to Sen featured the neighborhood of Kashii and Kashiihama for example, while Houkago Spring Train featured several landmarks from Higashi-ku and downtown prominently. The Fukuoka in Hakata Satsujin Jiken in comparison felt less pronounced. That said though, the department store war that is the main theme of the book is based on something that had happened in reality in Fukuoka: the Eikou Group and the local Amanoya Department Store from the novel are easily recognized as a thinly disguised Daiei Group (a chain that operates throughout Japan) and Iwataya Department Store (the oldest department store in Fukuoka). I hadn't at first even realized that Iwataya was based solely in Kyushu, with the Fukuoka store as its main store: I often visited Iwataya during my time in Fukuoka (the bread store!), but never realized that Iwataya wasn't to be found elsewhere in Japan. So that's typically Fukuoka, I'd guess, but I think on the whole you don't really get a 'local feeling' from reading this book, especially not if you're not familiar with Fukuoka, as you don't get a good sense of local landmarks.

I have only read a couple of the Asami Mitsuhiko novels (and seen a few of the drama adaptations), and they're usually whodunnit stories. Hakata Satsujin Jiken isn't one really. To be honest, I have trouble categorizing the novel in terms of mystery plot, as it's definitely not really giving you a fair chance to guess whodunnit, but it's not about an "obvious" problem like a locked room murder or a perfect alibi. In essence, you're given a lot of suggestive and cryptic puzzle pieces, like Christie-esque "she had that look on her face" recallings of previous meetings or hearing parts of conversations etc,  all elements that eventually help you figure out why Katada was murdered, as well as other enigmatic events that occur over the course of the novel, like the disappearance of an Amanoya floor receptionist and rumors of company spies within Amanoya. Eventually, Asami reveals how all the puzzle pieces fit together, but even then the story's a bit chaotic. I think that the central, binding theme behind the various events and murders is a good one, one that has parallels with the 3DS game Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony and which remains fairly neatly hidden until the end, but the unfocused storytelling doesn't really help, as the moment Asami explains the whole case, you don't have that catharsis feeling of seeing all the pieces fall in their proper place, but rather one of 'okay, that is one way to connect the pieces but that's more-or-less guesswork rather than actual detecting, right?'. Granted, guessing is also something that Christie utilized in her work, but her plots work better with the intuitive mode, as they are usually based on something simple, but flipped around or something like that. The plot of Hakata Satsujin Jiken isn't simple in form however, so you don't get that 'aha' feeling that the intuitive mode can bring.

Hakata Satsujin Jiken is on the whole, an unremarkable mystery story. There's an original theme for the background story (the department store war), there's a good idea for a mystery there somewhere, and for fans of Mitsuhiko as a character, this novel has some funny and interesting moments to offer too (the unusual request from his brother, and Mitsuhiko's usual warm welcome from women), but the structure is just too unfocused, with too many puzzle pieces that don't even look like they're from the same puzzle, and where the final picture is not that one of a neat form with straight lines, but one with little curves and bumps.

Original Japanese title(s): 内田康夫 『博多殺人事件』


  1. Will you review the new lupin iii ?

    1. I'm running /horribly/ behind, so it's not something I have planned for the near future :/