Saturday, December 1, 2018

Memories of Murder

「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

Without letting go of your hand,
I will not turn around
Hoping for that is all I can do
But one day, I will certainly be judged
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes you start reading a book expecting it'll lead to an interesting review. And sometimes, those expectations don't come true.
After the publication of his latest short story Whip the Dead, mystery author Ayukawa Tetsuya and his editor are shocked by the review of an influential critic, who accuses Ayukawa of plagiarism: his story has more than a few similarities with the short story The Unfinished Manuscript, which was written by the female author Ishimoto Mineko and published ten years ago in the now defunct magazine Zero. Ayukawa assures his editor he based Whip the Dead on an unpublished story he himself wrote thirteen years ago, during a period when he was a starting author, sending manuscripts here and there in the hopes of getting published. He eventually lost sight of the story, assuming it disappeared in a desk drawer of some magazine editor, but now Ayukawa suspects that Ishimoto found, and plagiarized his story ten years ago, resulting in his predicament now. Hoping to restore his honor and position as a mystery author, Ayukawa and his editor set out to find Ishimoto Mineko and set things straight in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Shisha wo Muchi Ute ("Whip the Dead", 1965).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was a highly influential post-war mystery author, who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries, from the impossible crimes in his Hoshikage Ryuuzou series to the alibi-deconstruction tales of his Inspector Onitsura series. Later in his life he would also become an important editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice making their debuts in the special publishing label named after Ayukawa. Shisha wo Muchi Ute however is basically a parody of himself, as "Ayukawa Tetsuya" stars in the tale, being accused of the heinous crime of plagiarism!

Starting with this very meta-opening, Shisha wo Muchi Ute remains a moderately funny and interesting parody, and pastische of not only Ayukawa, but the whole post-war industry of Japanese mystery fiction. As Ayukawa and his editor try to track down Ishimoto Mineko, all kinds of episodes strongly related with the real history of Japanese mystery fiction are told, from the rise and fall of pre- and post-war magazines for mystery fiction and the phenomenom of writer salons, to observations about how editors and publishers used to work. Ayukawa (the author, not the character) is obviously basing this on his own experience, and he gives an interesting look into how mystery writers lived in the early post-war period. A story like that of an rookie author initially plagiarizing Craig Rice successfully because it was hard to get information on foreign works soon after the war is something that sticks with the reader for example, and Ayukawa also has a lot of mystery authors appear, or at least name-dropped, throughout the novel (both male and female), though with slightly altered names. Some of them are still known, but there are also plenty of names which are long forgotten now, or were even long forgotten by the time Shisha wo Muchi Ute was originally published! Shisha wo Muchi Ute is thus an insightful look in the turbulent history of mystery fiction soon after World War II.

The mystery plot however... is not that attractive. Up until now, I've only seen Ayukawa come up with very intricate puzzle plots, with impossible crimes, perfect alibis or mathematically precise whodunnits. Shisha wo Muchi Ute is more a detective-adventure, with the character Ayukawa chasing after the elusive Ishimoto Mineko. The story has Ayukawa tracing old editors who used to work at Zero and digging in people's memories, but the core mystery plot is not at all like what I'm used to with Ayukawa's work and to be honest, it's not really that interesting. A few deaths occur during Ayukawa's investigation, which might or might not be murder, but they do hardly anything to make the plot really exciting, or alluring, and by the end of the novel, I realized that the mystery plot was not engaging at all. The ending has quite the surprise and while it is hinted at, I'd argue the hinting was a bit weak.

I described this book as a parody, as it is obviously parodying Ayukawa himself (the character Ayukawa is definitely Ayukawa himself, and not another entity who happens to have the same name, like the Ellery in the Ellery Queen novels or the Alices in Arisugawa Alice's two Alice series). The comedy in this novel is not really funny though. Your mileage may vary of course, but Shisha wo Muchi Ute is not a "Haha funny" parody. Most of the work I've read by Ayukawa is 'normal' serious, but with Shisha wo Muchi Ute's unique premise, I was expecting something with a more pronounced comedic tone, but alas. Ayukawa sometimes tries for slapstick-esque comedy here, but it seldom feels more than an attempt. Recognizing all the slightly arranged names of real authors is fun though, as are some of the episodes Ayukawa relates which are probably based on real life episodes.

So Shisha wo Muchi Ute is definitely more interesting as a  dressed-up look back at the post-war period of Japanese mystery fiction, especially in regards to the writers and the magazines of that time, rather than as a mystery story on its own. You can really tell Ayukawa is digging through his own past here, in his own experiences as a writer who first started out sending out manuscripts and doing odd jobs here and there for various magazines and eventually became a professional full-time writer and editor, but the mystery plot itself is simply not nearly as engaging as the biographical parts of the story.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『死者を笞打て』

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