Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Clue in the Antique Trunk

We are all rowing the boat of fate
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life is Like a Boat" (Rie Fu)

To be honest, if I were to fish something out of the canals of Amsterdam, I wouldn't be expecting anything good in the first place...

It was a late August day in 1965, when a child noticed a suitcase floating in the canal of the Jacob van Lennepkade in Amsterdam. The men around lift the suitcase out of the water, but to the great shock of them, the smell and color from the suitcase immediately them it's no treasure they found, and they immediately notify the police. The contents of the suitcase are determined to be the torso of a man: the hands and legs are missing, as is the victim's head. It's obviously a murder and Inspector van Berkum is put on the case. While the hands and face of the corpse are missing, clues like clothing and the brand name of the suitcase suggest a Japanese link, leading to a search for a missing Japanese male. This man is eventually found in Belgium, where a businessman Sakazaki, who recently arrived in Brussels as his trading company's European local man, hasn't been seen since a while by his landlord and other acquaintances. The joint investigation between the Dutch and Belgian police forces isn't going smoothly however, and when the prime suspect dies in a car accident, it seems the case is destined to go unsolved forever. That is until several years later, a Japanese journalist and Dr. Kuma Ukichi make their way to the Netherlands to see if they can clear the name of the prime suspect in Matsumoto Seichou's novella Amsterdam Unga Satsujin Jiken (1969) which was released in Dutch as De Amsterdamse Koffermoord (1979).

This novelette by Matsumoto Seichou, father of the shakaiha movement of realistic, socially aware mystery fiction in Japan, is based on an actual murder case that happened in Amsterdam in 1965, where indeed the body of a Japanese man was discovered, assumed to be the missing Kameda Yutaka. The case was never solved, but the sensational details of the case were of course too good to forget. This novellette by Matsumoto Seichou was written a few years after the case (and he apparently even did fieldwork), but there have been other Japanese mystery writers who found a bloody muse in the case of a Japanese man being cut-up in pieces fished out of the canals of Amsterdam: Arisugawa Alice (Gensou Unga) and Tsumura Shuusuke (Gisou Unga Satsujin Jiken) for example have drawn inspiration from this case too.

Matsumoto's story is clearly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which it also references. The first half of the story is a relatively dry account of how the body was found, and uses news articles and other sources to explain the efforts of the police investigation. I gather that Matsumoto was sticking relatively close to the actual case here, even if he did change the names of the people mentioned. Like with Marie Roget, the idea is that while the 'appearances' of the case may have been changed for the story (small details, names etc.), the important details of the tale are left as they are and that the story is thus like a thought experiment. In the second half, the duo of the narrator (a business journalist) and Dr. Kuma Ukichi are introduced, who travel to the Netherlands and Belgium on behalf of the deceased suspect, hoping to bring a new light to the case.

Which, unsurprisingly, they do (it wouldn't be much of a detective story, right?). Don't expect a mindblowing reveal based on long chains of deduction with a labyrinthine puzzle plot, because that's precisely what Matsumoto didn't like, but the story does a good job of presenting a story that can, more or less, be deduced beforehand. Most of the important information is presented in the dry accounts of the first half, and while the narrator and Dr. Kuma ask around a bit after their arrival in Europe, the attentive reader can definitely make an educated guess as to the truth behind the Japanese torso. Matsumoto makes clever use of contradicting news reports here to string the reader along, while it gives an interesting answer to one of the biggest hurdles of the investigation: why was the body decapitated and were both hands cut off, while the at the other hand, the murderer didn't seem very occupied with the idea of really hiding the victim's identity considering the suitcase and clothes. The answer Matsumoto provides is believable, but has just enough of the romanticism a mystery story should have.

The Dutch volume De Amsterdamse Koffermoord features three other short stories by Matsumoto by the way (one of them Kao, Matsumoto's debut story), while in Japan, this story was bundled together with Saint Andrews no Jiken ("The Incident at St. Andrews").

I do confess that my own interest in Amsterdam Unga Satsujin Jiken derives for 90% from the fact it's a story by a famous Japanese mystery author, about a case that happened here in the Netherlands. The case happened long before I was born and I have never ever heard anyone talk about it in any other context, so I guess I'd never even have known about the real case if not for this story, so it's interesting read in that aspect. It has a novelty aspect to it, and the story, while nothing phenomenal, is interesting enough if you happen to have an hour go read.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張『アムステルダム運河殺人事件』


  1. Having just finished A Quiet Place last week and previously read Inspector Imanishi Investigates, I felt that Matsumoto Seichou's mysteries are more slice-of-life and procedural than what I like; I dont mind them but I find the mystery to be lacking. I dont think I have read much of 'shakai ha' mysteries to know if this is common for that genre or if it's Matsumoto san's personal style.
    However, I saw that you've written a lot about Ten to Sen, so I will definitely give it a try. Is Ten to Sen that different than his other novels?

    1. It's much more focused on the mystery. It's basically a Crofts. Same for its sequel, Jikan no Shuuzoku.