Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Case of the Rich Woman


"As you don't even see through the truth of something as simple as this, I assume, ma'am, that you are a fool?"
"Please Take Your Shoes Off At A Murder Scene"

A while back I decided to read, and review Kishi Yuusuke's short story collection Kagi no Kakatta Heya even though I already knew the contents more-or-less. I had seen the TV drama series which was partly based on the collection, but as quite some years had passed since I saw the series, I figured now was as good as any time to read the original book. Reading Kagi no Kakatta Heya reminded me of a similar case, of a book I had bought, but not read as I had seen the TV drama adaptation already.

It was in 2011 when I first read a work by Higashigawa Tokuya, and a few months later, I caught the TV drama Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner"), which was based on one of his novel series. The show was absolutely brilliant and I soon started to read a lot more of Higashigawa's works, though I didn't write much about Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de back then: a short first impression of the TV drama, a review of the theatrical film and a review of an audio drama were basically all I had, until I reviewed the third Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato volume in 2015. But today, I go back to that very first short story collection of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner", 2010). Houshou Reiko is a young female Homicide detective who unknown to most of her colleagues (and especially her arrogant and womanizing superior Inspector Kazamatsuri), is in fact the insanely wealthy sole heiress of the Houshou Group, which has a hand in pretty much everything. Each night, after a hard day of work, she likes to enjoy her luxurious banquet, as she ponders out loud about the cases she's working on. Her butler Kageyama seems to have a knack for detecting too, as he is always able to solve the most mysterious cases just by listening to his mistress. Kageyama however also doesn't hold back with the verbal insults towards his mistress, as most of the cases seem so simple to him, that it appears his mistress must be 'dense', 'even more stupid than the lowest-level amateur around', or something worse.

While I think all of the six stories collected in this volume were also featured in the TV drama, I had forgotten just about enough of them for most of these to feel fresh to me. The overall mood of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series however is something nobody is likely to forget, and it is one the TV drama also managed to capture perfectly. Higashigawa specializes in comedy mystery, with almost comic-like characters and funny banter, but don't let his jokes fool you: Higashigawa is really good at hiding clues and other important elements in his comedy, and that combined with a good sense for constructing mystery plots, from locked room mysteries to the more deduction-based stories, makes his work always a joy to read. The Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series is distinctly different from some of his other series like the Ikagawashi series and the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, as Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato takes on an armchair detective format, with Kageyama helping his mistress (accompanied with some verbal abuse) with her cases at home. Interestingly enough though, it's Reiko who sits in the armchair, while Kageyama, as her butler, is of course the one standing.

The opening story, Satsujin Genba de wa Kutsu wo O-nugi Kudasai ("Please Take Your Shoes Off At A Murder Scene"), is the one story I have mentioned several times on this blog, as it was also the source material for both the audio drama and the first episode of the TV drama. I still consider it one of the more memorable stories, even though the story seems so simple: a young woman was found murdered in her room, but what seems so mysterious to Reiko is the fact the victim was found wearing her boots. Wearing your shoewear inside your home is a big no-no in Japan (as it'd ruin the flooring), so while it seems like a trivial matter, it's still extremely weird for the victim to be found like this. The chain of deductions Kageyama manages to create based on this fact and other testimonies from the victim's neigbors' is convincing however, and quite satisfying, especially with a hint that builds on another aspect of Japanese culture.

Koroshi no Wine wa Ikaga Desu Ka ("How About A Killer Wine?") has Reiko working on a case that at first seemed like a suicide, but might actually be murder: a wealthy elderly man was found dead in his room, and poison was detected from his glass of wine. As the bottle itself didn't contain poison, and the victim was notoriously fuzzy about clean glasses, it doesn't seem likely anyone but himself could've poisoned his glass. His children had protested heavily against his intended marriage with his housekeeper, which might've driven him to suicide, but some small matters have Reiko suspect this was foul play. The trick behind how the glass of wine was poisoned isn't that impressive: it seems like rather straightforward way to poison the wine for me. More impressive is the way Kageyama then proceeds to deduce the identity of the murderer, by focusing on the actions the murderer must've taken. The hinting is a bit crude and one could argue that the reasoning is a bit too easy in rejecting some other possibilities, but it's an okay story.

Kirei na Bara ni wa Satsui ga Gozaimasu ("Murderous Intent Is Present in Beautiful Roses") starts with the discovery of a dead woman in the rose garden of Fujikura Kousaburou. The victim had been brought to the Fujikura home by Kousaburou's son, who intended to marry the woman, despite protests of his parents and Toshio's brother-in-law. Kyouko was now dead however, placed on a rose-covered pedastal in the rose garden. The one question that's on the detectives' mind is of course why the woman's body was in the rose garden. This story is fairly similar to the previous one, as it wants you to deduce why a certain action was taken, and then use that knowledge to deduce who the murderer was. This story is much better plotted, with both a good reason for why the body was found where it was found and an excellent structured whodunnit plot that allows you identify the murderer. The story does require you to deduce the existence of a certain object not mentioned before, but it is actually fairly well-telegraphed.

In Hanayome wa Misshitsu no Naka de Gozaimasu ("The Bride Is Inside The Locked Room"), Reiko is initially not involved as a police detective, but as the heiress of the Houshou Group, and as a personal friend, as her friend Yuri is getting married. The ceremony is held at the bride's (large) home, and while Reiko is not exactly happy that Yuri got married first, she still wishes her friend the best. When Yuri doesn't come back from her short rest, Reiko decides to look for her in her room, but it is locked from the inside, with no answer at all. When the door is finally opened with the spare key, they find that Yuri was stabbed in her back. Reiko's fast actions save Yuri's life, but the question is how the assailant managed to escape this second floor room, as the door was locked, and there were no footsteps found beneath the open balcony door. As a locked room mystery, people might be a bit disappointed by this one, but man! the clue towards the identity of the bride attacker is absolutely brilliant! I don't remember having seen this in the TV drama (I probably just forgot), but this clue is devilishly subtle and yet daringly in your face. In fact, this might be one of the best clues I've seen this year.

Futamata ni wa O-Ki wo Tsuke Kudasai ("Please Be Careful For Cheaters") brings the strangest crime scene in this collection, as the victim was found completely naked in his room! His clothes are nowhere to be found, so it stands to reason the murderer took them, but why? As he was seen in the flat elevator with a woman by his neigbor minutes before his death, and another witness saw a woman leave the apartment soon after, the police suspects a woman in the life of the victim was the culprit, but it appears the man was having relations with multiple woman, so which of them did it? The puzzle revolves around disagreeing descriptions of the woman who was last seen with the victim, but once you realize why those testimonies differ, the story leads to a very satisfying reason for why the victim was found naked, and it also gives the reader a nice final puzzle in figuring out which of the women was the murderer. Excellently clewed and executed,  and also one of the funnier stories to visualize.

Shisha kara no Dengon wo Douzo ("Here's A Message From the Dead") is about a rather particular dying message, as the message was erased before the police could get to it! The president of a money lending company was murdered, her head bashed in with a trophy of one of her sons, but the circumstances that led to the discovery of the murder are what made it so extraordinary: around nine in the evening, the bloody trophy was thrown from the garden into a room on the second floor, breaking the window. It had everyone in the house gather in the room, save for the victim who was then found. But why was the trophy thrown into that room, and what did the erased dying message say? This is perhaps the most complex of the stories in this collection, but within the same page count (and these are pretty short stories), so it feels a bit rushed at some points. Like seen in some of the other stories in this collection, Higashigawa likes to hide clues in utterances and interpretations of the used language, though it's not as elegant here as in the earlier stories. Still, it leads to a good set-up that allows the reader to reasonably deduce what the dying message said and who the murderer is.

Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de is thus a more than entertaining volume of well-constructed mystery short stories. Higashigawa excells in mixing comedy with a good mystery plot, and the short format, combined with the fast dialogues and funny scenes really work great. In terms of mystery plotting, Higashigawa shows he's very good at classic whodunnit plots, where he challenges the reader to deduce who the murderer is (usually from three suspects), based on actions the murderer must've taken while committing the deed. Once you recognize the pattern, you have an idea what to look for, but Higashigawa shows in these six stories he's also very capable of coming up with original variations that you aren't likely to see through in time. So a fun read, even if I already knew the plots from the TV drama.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『謎解きはディナーのあとで』:「殺人現場では靴をお脱ぎください」/「殺しのワインはいかがでしょう」/「綺麗な薔薇には殺意がございます」/「花嫁は密室の中でございます」/「二股にはお気をつけください」/「死者からの伝言をどうぞ」

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