Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Springtime Crime

「籟・来・也」(Garnet Crow)

Spring has spring's way to live
Summer has summer's wind blowing
"Rai Rai Ya" (Garnet Crow)

Now I think about it, this is the first time I read a book in the long-running Hayakawa Pocket Mystery Book line of publisher Hayakawa. It's a line for translated (non-Japanese) novels, so in a way, it's no wonder it took a while for me to finally try one of these books (because for many of their books, I can read the original language), but these PokeMys books always caught my attention when I was Japan, as they utilize a very different size format from most other Japanese fiction publications.

'Tis the first of year of the Tianhan Era (100BC) of China's Former Han Dynasty. Yuling Ku, daughter of an aristocratic family in Chang'an, is travelling across China for her studies in literature and religious rituals and finds herself becoming a house guest of the Guan clan, so she can witness their Rite of Spring which is to be held in a few days. The Guan clan used to be a prominent family with religious tasks in the State of Chu (of the Zhou dynasty, over 100 years earlier) and while even in this new age, they can still proudly boast about their distinguished lineage, the Guans now live a retreated life in the mountains. Ku becomes friends with Guan Loushen, youngest daughter of the Guans, even if Loushen can't always keep up with or forgive Ku's arrogant and mocking attitude, derived from all the knowledge Ku obtained through her studies. Ku learns about a family tragedy that happened exactly four years ago: Loushen's uncle was the head of the whole clan, but his whole family was killed by an unknown assailant, save for daughter Ruoying, who was at Loushen's place at the time. What made the incident so horrifying was that there were no footprints of the assailant found in the snow surrounding the house. Ku, who has a reputation for solving cases, promptly comes up with several theories to this mystery, which Loushen doesn't accept, but soon the two girls are forced to face not a case of the past, but one of the present too. One morning, after the two return from washing their hair in the river, the girls discover the dead body of Loushen's (other) aunt in a storage house. But it soon occurs to Ku that this murder has some similiarities to the family massacre four years ago, as here too it seems impossible for the murderer to have escaped, with people standing at all the possible escape routes leading away the storage. Ku is asked by Loushen's father to investigate the case, but time is not on Ku's side, as more and more people die one by one in the mountains in Lu Qiucha's Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji ("Rite of Spring of the First Year", 2016), which was released in Japan last year as Gannen Haru no Matsuri.

Lu Qiucha is a Chinese mystery author who debuted with Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji in 2016. He is one of the generation that has been influenced by Japanese shin honkaku writers, naming writers like Mitsuda Shinzou as large influences on his own work. When the novel was translated and released in Japan as Gannen Haru no Matsuri last year, the book garnered quite some critical praise, and even Mitsuda Shinzou himself wrote a comment especially for the book's obi, praising the work. The concept of an impossible mystery set in ancient China with two girl detectives sounded quite interesting to me and a copy was soon purchased.

If I say "a mystery novel set in ancient China", you're likely to first think of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee series. If you start with this book expecting something like the Judge Dee series however, you might be surprised in either a pleasant or unpleasant way, as Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is quite, quite different. Of course, one major difference is the time period. The Judge Dee series takes place in the Tang Dynasty (with some Ming anachronisms), which is almost 800 years after the time period of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. In the same sense that a novel set in the 1200s is not likely to be very similar to a novel set in the 2000s, you shouldn't expect too many common points in the culture, even if it's the same geographic location.

If you have read the Judge Dee series, you might know that series is very readable, despite the setting of ancient China, which to most people will be quite foreign. There are of course historical references and the cultural differences might feel large at times, but Van Gulik wrote these novels in an accessible manner. Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is both a novel of contemporary times, as one that really feels like a story of ancient China. To start with the modern: Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is easily interpreted as a YA coming-of-age and budding-friendship story starring the two girls Ku and Loushen. Sure, the banter and fights they have might be about topics somewhat foreign to most readers, like about abusing personal servants or about the tasks and duties expected from devoted girls as daughters of families of certain social standing, but the way they banter feels like a modern YA novel. Heck, I'd say this novel is also the most yuri mystery novel I've read, with both Ku and Loushen being bad at approaching the other in a normal manner and then growing very close. At the same time however Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji also reads as a classic Chinese novel. Half of the dialogues are about classic Chinese texts on religion and philosophy, and I'm talking here about texts that were considered classics in 100 BC! As an educated girl, Ku discusses several important philosophical texts from the Chu era with other characters, which is also the moment you realize what author Lu Qiucha's major was in college (yes, classic literature). Here you're reminded of second wavers like Mori Hiroshi and Kyougoku Natsuhiko, who in their mystery novels also like to dive deep into long, very, very long discussions about very specific topics in fields like philosophy and religion. In Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji, you'll be going through countless of pages where they talk indepth about classic texts and where people quote-unquote other texts as they counter each other's arguments. It's very much like a classic Chinese story where like every other sentence is a reference or quote to someone in the past, but it's certainly not for everyone.

And yet you can't skip those segments, because they are of vital importance to the core mystery plot. Lu Qiucha was pretty ambitious in his debut novel: besides the impossible situation four years ago, he has more murders in the present, one of which also a semi-impossible situation where it doesn't seem possible for the murderer to have left the crime scene unseen, and we also have a dying message in another murder (and there's plenty of other deaths too...). Lu even has two Challenges to the Reader in this novel. Some of the individual parts are somewhat easy to guess: the family massacre four years ago for example is rather obvious, and the other impossible situation too is also rather limited in scope. The dying message on the other hand is really brilliantly done, and one of the false solutions proposed half-way through is also deviously complex and could've easily served as the true solution. However: these best parts of the book all require you to really comprehend all those literary and philosophical discussions about classic texts. I will first say that Lu is absolutely right in his Challenges to the Reader when he says no specialistic, prior knowledge is needed to solve the mystery, because he made sure that everything needed to connect the dots is mentioned within the story, but yeah, you do really go through those lengthy literary and philosophic discussions in detail and comprehend them well enough to infer their logical conclusion in order to make sense out of the dying message, or come up with that one interpretation needed for the false solution.

What makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji a very memorable novel however, is the insanely unique motive. I can't write too much about it, but it is a motive that only could've worked in this culture, in this time. It would have been hard for any random reader to just think of this motive, but again, I had to say that Lu makes tremendous efforts at properly hinting at this motive through his textual references and discussions, and while it's a concept that seems so foreign at one hand, the whole story of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji works to properly set-up this reveal. It's a completely unthinkable motive in this age, in most cultures, I'd suspect, but Lu provides the necessary context to make it work, and it definitely works like a charm, shocking as it may be, in Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. The motive is definitely the highlight of the novel and one of the most unique ones in the genre, anywhere on the world.

And in a small note, I would've liked a map! It's not necessary for the story, I admit, but some parts would've come out better I think, especially regarding the testimony of a certain witness. As the story is set around the Guan property, which consists only of several living quarters in a valley between some mountains, it would not only have made for a cool diagram, it would've helped with visualizing some of the movements of characters (as some grasp on where everybody was when exactly does help solve the mystery).

I still find it hard to really summarize what I think of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. While you can read large parts of this novel as a YA novel about a troubled friendship between two teenage girls, on te whole, it's not a very accessible mystery novel with all its indepth discussions about topics that are likely not familiar to most readers. The cultural gap is quite large, especially in the first half of the story when things move rather slowly. But what makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji an interesting read are exactly the ideas that originate from that cultural gap. Lu has written a mystery novel that works only because it's set in the first year of the Tianhan Era, because it's set in that specific culture with these specific characters. The result is a mystery novel that is not only "dressed" as ancient China, but truly a puzzle plot mystery that is firmly set in ancient China. The motive in particular is a very memorable one, but it would only work in this setting. So I can definitely recommend Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji as a unique reading experience.

Original Chinese title(s): 陸秋槎 "元年春之祭"


  1. How difficult is this one language-wise? is the writing style also within YA territory? been wanting to explore chinese mystery beyond the usual suspects for a while, but I know zilch chinese, and nothing but Xiaolong gets translated into italian...

    1. This novel is definitely harder to read than an average work of literature in Japanese (and certainly most YA novels). Lots of Chinese vocabulary featured (obviously) etc.

  2. do you like city hunter ?