Wednesday, October 24, 2018

This Won't Kill You

"We're sorry to bother you at such a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then."
"Police Squad"

It's not like I write a review on every piece of mystery fiction I consume, but still, sometimes I really don't want to write about a book, or just wish I had read something else instead. Usually, that's not even for bad books, but simply books I feel indifferent about. It's usually also reflected in the quality of the review, so err.. yeah, sorry in advance.

Sakaguchi Ango (1906-1955) was a prominent novelist and essayist in early post-war Japan, who also wrote several mystery stories. His first, and also most famous mystery novel is Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken (1948), though many people might know his name through the 2011 anime mystery series Un-Go, which was also based on his writings (though in a completely different setting than the original work). I haven't seen Un-Go myself, and my own experience with Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken was that it was a rather tiring novel, as it featured like thirty characters with everyone having some motive to kill someone else and more shenanigans like that. So he kinda fell of my radar, but now it's time read a few of his short stories. Noumen no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Noh Mask", 1976) collects eight mystery short stories by Sakaguchi, originally published between 1950 ~ 1955. These stories were most famously written by Sakaguchi as an intellectual game for his own entertainment, as he had read everything that was available to him at the time.

To be honest, I found this collection to okay-ish, at best. Most of these stories are very short, but the mystery plots and tricks are seldom really surprising, and are often far too obvious, as the ideas behind them are too simple. Take for example Shougo no Satsujin Jiken ("The Noon Murder Case"), where a writer is shot to death in his home at noon (duh), with only possible suspect in the house, who of course denies having killed the man. The solution to this conundrum is almost ridiculously simple, and very likely the first answer to pop up in the reader's mind as they read the story. Some others included in this collection, like Yama no Kami Satsujin Jiken ("The Mountain Deity Murder Case") and Kage no Nai Hannin ("The Undetectable Culprit") are far too simplistic too, or barely a mystery story (a story with a proper mystery, and a logical conclusion/solution to that mystery). These stories are all written around one core idea,but this core idea is never what you'd really want from a proper mystery short story, but something far, far simpler. The title story Noumen no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Noh Mask") is about a man who died in a fire in a manor, with a blind masseuse as a vital witness, but again the most uninspired way is taken to deal with this familiar trope of mystery fiction.

Nankinmushi Satsujin Jiken ("The Nanjing Bug Murder Case") is a story I want to highlight not because it's such a good mystery story (it's not really), but as an oddity in Japanese language. The story starts with an elderly policeman and his daughter (who is also a police officer) chasing after two men who had left the home of a beautiful pianist in a rather suspicious manner, but not only do the father and daughter lose the two men, they also find out the pianist was killed in her home and that it was determined she was "Miss Nanjing", a notorious dealer in drugs and smuggler of "Nanjing bugs". I had never heard of the "Nanjing Bug", and looking it up tells you that Nanjing Bugs are the Japanese name for bed bugs. Which made no sense, as why would someone deal in bed bugs? It took me a while for me to learn that long, long ago, small wristwatches for ladies were called Nanjing Bugs. And that was a more sensible object to smuggle. Anyway, sometimes you come across really weird slang in these post-war stories. As a mystery story, Nankinmushi Satsujin Jiken is sadly enough not as interesting.

Senkyo Satsujin Jiken ("The Election Murder Case") and Shinrei Satsujin Jiken ("The Spirit Murder Case") are somewhat similar in the sense that they ultimately focus on the question of motive. The first story is about a factory owner who recently has decided to run for Diet member. His campaign is extremely strange though, and it seems he's not really trying to become a Diet member, but why is he holding a campaign then? A journalist suspects something dirty is behind this all and this results in a story that features a surprising, and original motive, but that lacks convincing power. Shinrei Satsujin Jiken features a murder during a seance: the Scrooge-like victim had never given his offspring much financial help, but lately, he's told his four remaining children that their oldest brother, who had died in the war, had come to him in a dream: he had actually survived the war and was living in Birma, and got married there and had children. Yet the dream also revealed his eldest son would really die soon, so now his father wanted to use a spirit medium to trace his son's whereabouts in Birma to find his grandchild. The other four children can't believe their old man would go all that trouble to chase after such an impossible story, yet a spirit medium is invited to find out the whereabouts of the Birman grandchild. It's during the seance, held in a pitch-dark room, that the victim is stabbed to death. The solution of how is not that important, though I have to say the motive is extremely original. It makes no sense why a certain character thought a certain action was best taken in this way, but still, I was really surprised by the motive behind the murder and it was a properly clewed one too. Certainly one of the best stories of this otherwise disappointing collection.

Pitcher Satsujin Jiken ("The Pitcher Murder Case") is the longest story in this collection I think, and also the most "traditional" as a puzzle plot mystery story: it has no less than two diagrams and even a Challenge to the Reader! The titular baseball pitcher is having an affair with an actrice, who has a rather stubborn husband: he will only divorce her for a very high stack of cash. The baseball pitcher is an upcoming star, so he decides to contact some scouts here and there in an attempt to sell himself to a new team to get the necessary sum of money. He eventually manages to secure a new contract, together with the sum of money he needed in cash, but he is murdered the same night, with all the money gone. As a whodunnit story, with a true Challenge to the Reader, Pitcher Satsujin Jiken is a bit simple, as there's basically only one base clue that points to the identity of the murderer, and from there it's a straight line to the finish. There's an alibi trick in this story too, which works pretty well in conjunction with the whodunnit part of the story, but again, it's all a bit too easy. As a pure puzzle plot mystery, Pitcher Satsujin Jiken is easily the best of the whole bunch, but even then, it leaves you wondering whether it couldn't have been just a bit more than what was actually served.

In the end, I didn't manage to say much about Noumen no Himitsu save that overall, the stories are just too simple and not particularly inspiring or original, and I guess that in a way, this rather sloppy review reflects that. There's just little to say about this collection, as you will have seen most of what appears here in other stories, only better and/or worked out in more impressive forms. As for Sakaguchi Ango's work, I think the only significant mystery story by him I haven't read are the ones that form the basis for the anime Un-Go, but I do not know whether I will ever read the original novel, or watch Un-Go, as up until now, my experience with him have not been bad per se, but not exceptionally entertaining either.

Original Japanese title(s): 坂口安吾 『能面の秘密』:「投手殺人事件」/「南京虫殺人事件」/「選挙殺人事件」/「山の神殺人事件」/「正午の殺人事件」/「影のない犯人」/「心霊殺人事件」/「能面の秘密 」

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