Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Gates of Gloom

Deep into that darkness peering, 
long I stood there, wondering, fearing
"The Raven" (Edgar Allan Poe)
You know, I think I'll even manage to sneak in a fourth Toujou Genya review before the end of the year.

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono (2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono (2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono (2018)

Earlier this year, I reviewed Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono, which was the second short story collection in Mitsuda Shinzou's excellent Toujou Genya series. I apparently never read things in order, so this time, I'll be reviewing the first short story collection featuring the horror author/amateur detective Genya: Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009). Chronologically though, I'm completely vindicated with this choice: whereas Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono (seventh entry in the series) was set in Genya's younger student days, the four stories collected in Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono (fifth entry) are set after Genya became a professional writer and run parallel with the longer novels in this series (the second story in this collection for example is set just before the second novel). The style of the stories in this book is also slightly different from the second short story collection. In these stories, Genya usually arrives at the scene after everything has already happened and is asked to solve the case by the people involved, as opposed to being on the scene by coincidence, which is what usually happens in both the novels and the stories in the second short story collection. The stories usually therefore start a bit slow, focusing more on exposition and the horror elements of the plot, with Genya usually only appearing very late in the story. That said though, this is definitely a Toujou Genya book, so expect impossible crimes, deep insights into yokai and other supernatural folklore, many false solutions, and a nice touch of horror.

Kubikiri no Gotoki Saku Mono ("Those Who Cut Like The Cut-Throat") is set in Kubikoujichou, a little town in the outskirts of Tokyo where many former Kazoku (aristocracy) live. One year earlier, the peace in town was disturbed by a series of murders on women, who all had their throats slit by some mysterious figure. The murders all happened in a cul-de-sac alley between the manors of the Kote and Azumime families, with a small shrine at the end of the alley. Considering the social position of the people here, there was little gossiping among the people living there after the first murder and thus people underestimated the danger, leading to a second, third and even a fourth victim. Some witnesses even stated that there was nobody else in the alley when the murders were committed, as if a ghost had done it. By the time of the third victim already, the police was of course desperate to find the murderer and they had their eyes set on Kote Akitada, the grandson of Kote Akimitsu, who had fought in World War II and returned a broken man, wearing a mask to hide his hideous injuries. When the police confronted him, he fled and committed suicide in the same alley, slitting his own throat. Many months later, and Akitada's former fiancee Takako has two new admirers, even though she is still mourning for the loss of her life. Kurimori Atsushi is the son of an acquaintance of Takako's father,  who is staying as a house guest for the moment, while Kote Akiyoshi is the ne'ver-do-well younger brother of Akitada, who has fallen in love with Takako too. Takako however has not moved on, and is still bringing flowers and mourning the death of Akitada and the other four women in the alley each week. At first Akiyoshi tried to accost Takako during her visits there, but after some commotion involving the triangle of Takako - Akiyoshi and Atsushi, they agreed Takako would be left alone when in the alley. However, this didn't last too long. One day, Takako goes inside the alley, soon followed by Akiyoshi. Suddenly, both Atsushi and Miyo, a young girl living opposite the alley see a mask fly out of the alley, indicating all's not well. When they arrive in the alley, they find Takako dead -- her throat slit. The only other person in the alley is Akiyoshi, who however has no weapon on his body and a police investigation in the neighborhood show he couldn't have thrown into the gardens on the sides of the alley. The only explanation possible seems to be that a ghostly apparition must've done it, the same ghostly apparition Miyo saw several times earlier perhaps, of a white human spirit taking off into the sky from within the alley.

Miyo looks for advice from the famed writer-cum-amateur detective Toujou Genya (well, he's being duped into solving the case by his editor), who of course comes up with a solution to the case. At least, eventually, he does that, because as per series custom, he'll go through a lot of theories and hypotheses, which he rejects himself, before he arrives at the true solution.  The explanation of the impossible murder (there was only one other person in the alley, who couldn't have hidden his weapon while someone outside the alley couldn't murder Takako by slitting her throat) is... original and perhaps fair if you'd happen to know about a very specific tradition, but otherwise it's pretty hard to guess, even if Mitsuda tried to leave some other hints behind for the reader. It's an interesting trick to visualize, that's for sure, and it's indeed interesting to know it actually has a real-life basis, but very few readers will be able to make those connections and figure out how it was done in advance. Mitsuda does a great job at proposing plausible solutions, and immediately shooting them down again with again plausible explanations as always. Some readers might find it tiring to keep going through Genya's theories only for him to reject them immediately the following page (as do some characters in the stories), but Genya's method is always used in a way to properly eliminate the other possibilities before arriving at the proper solution, and elements from the fake solutions are always incorporated in the final solution, making these stories excellent study material to show how to properly write a reasoning-based puzzle plot mystery.

Maiyoga no Gotoki Ugoku Mono ("Those Who Move Like the Mayoiga") first introduces the friends Mie and Tomiko, two teenage girls who travel across the region peddling medicine and other wares. As per custom, these young medicine peddlers travel together for their own safety and for example to split the bill when they have to rent a room at an inn, but mind their own business when they're in a village. Two days ago, both the girls found a home each who'd put them up for the night, but Mie's benefactor kept her longer in the home than she had wished (the husband was out to take care of his parents, therefore the wife was happy with Mie's presence in the home). Eventually, the girls agreed that Tomiko would go on ahead early to the next village, Shimomatsu Village, as Mie didn't expect to make it until later that day and that they'd meet the day after in the temple grounds of  Oosugi Shrine in Shimomatsu Village. When they finally meet up and talk about the day they spent alone, they realize something very odd. To make your way from Uematsu Village to Shimomatsu Village, one has to pass by a peak characterized by two trees. One of them is called the "Tengu's Seat" by the people in the region. When Tomiko went across the peak in the morning yesterday, she saw nothing on the mountains beyond Tengu's Seat. Mie however said she distinctly saw a decrepit house on the mountains beyond Tengu's Seat. A third traveller then joins the girls' conversation, saying when he crossed the peak in the afternoon (after Mie had passed it), he saw no house there. This reminds the three of the folklore stories of the Mayoiga, a half-decrepit house that can appear out of nowhere and can either bring fortune or misfortune to its visitors.

Eventually a fourth traveller also joins, and the four discuss the various legends of the Mayoiga, as well try to find an explanation to why some of them did see a house beyond Tengu's Seat yesterday, and some didn't. This story is truly unlike any other story in the series, focused mostly on discussing various legends and the disappearance of the house being a fairly 'vague' problem compared to women being killed in locked rooms or crime scenes without footsteps left in the snow, but this is a pretty ingeniously plotted story, with the clews sprinkled across the various elements of the story. The 'disappearing house' trope in mystery fiction often has either a psychological, or a technical solution to it ("they didn't see it" or "it was literally moved/destroyed"), but this is a nice example of a solution that combines both types and especially the psychological aspect of the solution is brilliant, as well as really well hinted at through the bantering of the girls.

Sukima no Gotoki Nozoku Mono ("Those Who Peek Like The Gap Fiend") introduces the reader to Kanou Takako, who has recently started as a teacher at the Goji-Chou Municipal Goji Elementary School. We learn that Takako is the latest in a family line where the women have a tendency to be haunted by the "Gap Fiend", a yokai which manifests itself whenever the Kanou women stare into the gaps/crevices when a door isn't properly shut. Through this opening, the women tend to see things they shouldn't or want to see, and little good has ever come from their powers (in her teens for example, Takako saw how her crush, and her best friend got hooked up in secret). As strictly taught by her grandmother, Takako has learned to always properly close the doors around her, but one night, when Takako's doing the late evening round at school, she inadvertently stares into the darkness of an door ajar again, and sees... the school head being chased by a figure dressed like a demon, both running around. When she snaps out of it, she tries to bring it up to the head guard of the school, and when he makes a call to the school head's home, they learn the man has been killed. As the school is somewhat close to the victim's home, the teachers who were at the school that night are also considered suspects, as everyone besides Takako seems to have a grudge against the now dead school head: the school head had actually beaten one of his pupils to death during the war (a friend of some of Takako's colleagues) and was of course part of the completely crooked, hypernationalistic school system during the war and recently, it appears the victim had actually been sexually abusing his pupils at this new school. Reasons enough for wanting him dead, but it just so happens that Takako can vouch for the alibis of each of her three colleagues and the guard, as she saw them that night at set times as she made her rounds. It should be no surprise that the true murderer is indeed among those with a perfect alibi, but the solution Genya proposes is so silly, it can't be taken seriously. In some contexts, this solution might work, but it seems very questionable in this particular situation.

The title story Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room") starts with the arrival of the mysterious woman Yoshiko at the Imari home. The women suffering from amnesia suddenly appeared in the back garden of the Imaris, bringing back the young Tsukishiro who had gotten lost there. Imari Iwao obviously felt a bond with Yoshiko, as his previous two wives too were called Yoshiko. The first Yoshiko gave birth to his first son Iwao, the second Yoshiko was the mother of Tsukishiro. At first father Iwao was only entertaining Yoshiko as a guest, who seemed to have a talent for kokkuri-san, a type of table-turning. Iwao's two brother-in-laws (brothers of the first and second Yoshiko) immediately suspected this third Yoshiko was nothing more than a charlatan, but despite their precautions during the seance (tying Yoshiko to her seat; the two brother-in-laws holding the writing utensil where kokkuri-san would manifest), the seance turns into a success, with an unknown force moving the writing utensil and writing short, but cohesive answers on paper to the questions asked from the spirits. Eventually, Iwao married the third Yoshiko as his third wife, who started a whole kokkuri-san business inside the two-storied storage of the house. One day, Toujou Genya appears at the house, hoping to learn about the mysterious red box of the Imaris, which is said to kill the women in the family. In fact, it is even believed Iwao's first two wives died because they opened the cursed box. Genya obviously is also interessed in kokkuri-san, but just as they are preparing for the seance, an expression of surprise takes over Yoshiko's face and she quickly shuts the door of the storage and locks herself up inside. While everybody is surprised to learn Yoshiko has thus locked everyone outside, they figure she might have some reason to do so, but the hours pass by and eventually a locksmith is called to open the old, but sturdy door of the storage (all the windows were also locked from the inside). Inside, Genya and husband Iwao find Yoshiko lying dead on the second floor; stabbed in the stomach by a knife which was kept here. As all the windows and door were locked from the inside, it seems no third party could've snuck inside to kill Yoshiko, but there are other clues that indicate this wasn't a suicide, with for example a second knife missing from the crime scene. Genya has to figure out how this death occured in this sealed storage, and why Yoshiko looked so surprised moments before she locked herself in.

By far the longest story of the whole collection: I think it's almost as long as the previous three stories together (it takes up about half of the book). Genya is confronted with two problems: how was the original kokkuri-san seance done, and how and more importantly, why did Yoshiko die in a locked storage? The seance itself is fairly easily debunked, though it has to be said that Genya never states Yoshiko was a fraud: he only points out to the possibility it could have been done in a certain way. Supernatural elements are not explicitly denied in this series and we often get hints that there are truly yokai, ghosts and fiends active in this world: they just aren't related to the murders at hand. The death of Yoshiko is probably not exactly what most readers would expect from it. Genya actually goes through the trouble of doing a locked room lecture (ha!) to examine all the ways in which their current situation can apply to the known variants and he at the end realizes it's none of the above, but his explanation is not really different from one of the formerly named variants. The how of the locked room mystery is infinitely less interesting than the why though. The explanation of why Yoshiko suddenly looked surprised coupled with how the rest of the story unfolded is not only emotionally impressive, it's really well-hinted at through the psychology and actions of the other characters. There might be few direct clues to the solution of this case, and it's really long, but the core is definitely impressive. Genya also throws around with false solutions like they're nothing, but again, they are necessary steps to arrive at the true solution.

Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono is far from a dud, but perhaps the least interesting in the Toujou Genya series I've read until now. That says more about the exceptionally high quality of the series in general than something about this particular book though. The stories here are fairly good, and some really well-plotted with multiple (false) solutions, really sly clewing and even some surprising motives, but the other short story collection is definitely better. Had this been my first step into the series, I'd probably have been far more enthusiastic due to its tone and the depth of how the mystery plots are structured, but having read a lot more of this series I'd say it's an entertaining, if perhaps somewhat unbalanced book (with one very long story accompanied by three shorter stories, one of which somewhat silly).

Original Japanese title(s):  三津田信三『密室の如き籠るもの』:「首切の如き裂くもの」/「迷家の如き動くもの」/「隙魔の如き覗くもの」/「密室の如き籠るもの」


  1. i just love how the supernatural is used in this series to establish elements of horror and suspense but never to evade real-life potential crimes.

    i purchased the whole series thanks to you. hopefully you review more and more series like this one.

    btw do you usually purchase your books in bulk and then chip away at your backlog at your whim?

    how do you even encounter new books being released? amawon recommendations start to become obsolete since they regurgitate the same recs over and over and over once they find out your favorite genre.

    1. I have now read all the books in the series that have been republshed in smaller pocket format (review for second novel scheduled for later this year), so I'll be waiting now until the two new ones come in the small format! Happy to hear you like them too. I only started with them last year, but I got really hooked on them and devoured them in no time.

      I follow some publishers on Twitter to see their latest (pocket format) releases and just read the descriptions to see if they sound interesting. Sometimes a title mentioned by someone (an author I like or something like that) piques my interest, and sometimes I go looking for certain topics, i.e. I always try to read a mystery novel set in Fukuoka each year, so I come across all kinds of titles during my searches. I don't really buy in bulk (usually three, four novels a time at most), but I have a mysterious backlog that never seems to shrink, so even with not really frequent small orders, I always have something to read (and it helps I don't only read mystery fiction, but also play mystery games etc.).

  2. so you prefer physical over digital. i think the whole series is availabe for kind of cheap on bookwalker/kindle/kobo. ever since i purchased my kindle i have been reading more and more. it's just so practical and i don't get anxious about runing my books. not to mention the japaese paperbook format has REALLY tiny fonts. i donno how you can read comfortably. or maybe my age is starting to show lol.

    my calibre library has now 520 books and i added 40 japanese ones solely from your recommendations. i have no idea how i am gonna chip away at all of this...send help.

    even your own translations in the ellery queen magazine, i purchase through the official app.

    any new translations in store for us before the end of the year? i donno why but i feel it in my bones that you have a brand new alice arisugawa translation in the works.

    1. I occasionally read digital (OOP physical, books that I just wanna try without too much of an investment/shipping costs etc.), but I still prefer physical by far, and I find Japanese bunko a wonderful format, great for reading in bed or when traveling.

      And no news now is no news now, I'm afraid!

    2. hehe fair enough. i was teasing.

      i find it surprising you haven't reviewed the okitegami kyouko series. neither the novels nor the fantastic show. it would be right up your alley.

    3. It's one of those 'mental notes have been made long ago but I never seem to find an occassion' titles.

  3. Thanks for the review, which reminded me to dip a toe into the Tojou Genya series. Which of the novels would you say is the best, and might that be a good starting point?

    1. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono (3rd) and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono (4rd) were the best. And yep, you can start with either one (I started with Kubinashi myself too).

      Both were great and while all the novels in the series are a bit slow to get going, these two are a huge improvement compared to the first halves in the first two novels. I like Kubinashi slightly better than Yamanma, but Kubinashi has relatively little screentime for Genya compared to Yamanma.

  4. Wait, there's a disappearing house mystery in this one? I am reminded of a discussion over in The Invisible Event blog, how JJ claimed this kind of mystery only has two solutions, a good and a bad one. You clearly think this is a good solution, would you mind spoiling it (under ROT13)? Thank you.

    1. It's not really a story that lends it well for such an abstract explanation, as it's more about the set-up of the reveal rather than the trick itself:

      Nf abgrq va gur erivrj, gur fgbel hgvyvmrf obgu n cflpubybtvpny naq n grpuavpny fbyhgvba. N zbhagnva fyvqr jnf erfcbafvoyr sbe gur 'culfvpny' fvqr bs gur fbyhgvba. Ohg zber vzcbegnagyl jnf gur snpg gung bs gur sbhe geniryyref va gur gnyr, gur gjb tveyf va gur fgbel jrer npghnyyl ybbxvat va qvssrerag qverpgvbaf. Gurer ner gjb gerrf ba gbc bs gur zbhagnva, bar bs gurz pnyyrq gur Grath'f Frng, ohg gur gjb ivyyntrf ba obgu fvqr bs gur zbhagnva pbafvqre gur gerr ba "gurve" fvqr gur Grath'f Frng. Gur tveyf unq orra jbexvat frcrengryl gur qnl orsber naq tbggra gurve vasbezngvba sebz qvssrerag crbcyr, fb juvyr obgu jrer ybbxvat ng gur zbhagnvaf orlbaq gur Grath'f Frng, gurl jrer va snpg ybbxvat ng qvssrerag gerrf/qverpgvbaf. Fb vg jnf irel ybpny sbyxyber gung perngrq guvf pbashfvba.

      And this on its own is just part of the story, in reality it revolves more about the four travelers.

    2. Man, Shinzou really loves his folklore! Maybe it's the way you explain it, but man, yeah, I agree that the psychological side of the explanation IS brilliant. Do you happen to know if the author's also a folklorist, or is it just results of very well-integrated deep research?

    3. I believe it's research: his Genya novels always have a bibliography list at the end.