Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Greenhouse Jungle

薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る
君の中に 僕がいる
「薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る」(愛内里菜)

Roses bloom, roses scatter
I live inside of you
"Roses Bloom, Roses Scatter" (Aiuchi Rina)

Huh, I'd swear that when I read The Jellyfish Never Freezes, this series didn't really have a set series title yet, but now apparently the series is named after the series detectives. Not original perhaps, but at least it's a clear title.

The blue rose has been considered the Holy Grail of horticulture, but sometimes miracles happen. Twice even. When the news broke that a pastor had managed to grow a genuine blue rose by coincidence in the church greenhouse, people with green thumbs and academics alike were baffled and figured the man must have had a bit of help from above. What really surprised everyone however was the press conference of Professor Tenniel the following day, who too announced they had succeeded in creating a blue rose titled Abyss and the genetics scholar also seemed to imply that the pastor's blue rose was very unlikely to be a genuine blue rose. Police inspectors Maria and Ren of the Flagstaff Police Station didn't have much to do after the events concerning the inventors of the Jellyfish, but immediately after the two consecutive announcements of the blue roses, they are approached by their colleagues over at Phoenix and asked to, discreetly, poke around both Professor Tenniel and pastor Cleaveland and their blue roses. Figuring something must be up, Maria and Ren visit the two and ask some questions, but as they had no idea what was about, the two detectives can hardly be blamed for the subsequent murder on Professor Tenniel. All the people attached to the professor's lab were to attend a conference in the state of A that day, and as the professor had a second home there, the professor and one of the students would be staying there the night before, to prepare documents and drive from there to the conference. When the professor didn't arrive, the police was notified, and the two 'lucky' officers stumbled upon a horrid sight: bloody words were written on the inside of the doors of the greenhouse in the back garden, and inside, they found the head of the professor with the greenhouse key, together with the bound and gagged student. And to top off the mystery, the greenhouse had been locked completely from inside when the police found the victims. The doors and windows were all locked from the inside, and while they could theoretically be manipulated with strings, the problem is that all the greenhouse windows and walls are covered by long, interlocked rose vines: their combined weight, thorns and vulnerability make it impossible for anyone to have left the greenhouse through any place but the door, but the bloody letters on the door make it clear the doors were not opened after writing the message, and the greenhouse key was found inside the professor's mouth. The case is mysterious on its own already, but then Maria and Ren are shown fragments from a diary dated one year earlier retrieved from a house that had gone up in flames recently and they are shocked to learn how this diary details how Professor Tenniel had succeeded in growing a blue rose and was murdered in a greenhouse. Maria and Ren have to find the missing link that connects the old diary, the murders and the blue roses in Ichikawa Yuuto's Blue Rose wa Nemuranai (2017), which also has the English title The Blue Rose Never Sleeps.

Earlier this year, I reviewed Ichikawa Yuuto's debut novel The Jellyfish Never Freezes, the first novel in this series and you may remember I liked it a lot. It was a novel that was quite open in showing where it took its inspiration from: Like Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders/Jukkakukan no Satsujin (Disclosure: I translated Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders), The Jellyfish Never Freezes followed a dual narrative structure, with two simultaneously developing narratives in alternating chapters: the reader jumped back and forth between chapters that portrayed the serial murder case in real time, and chapters set a few days after, focusing on the subsequent police investigation. The Blue Rose Never Sleeps does the same: we follow Maria and Ren's investigation into the blue roses and Professor Tenniel's murder in the so-called "Blue Rose" chapters, while in the "Prototype" chapters, we follow the story of a boy named Eric who ran away from home and was taken in by Professor Tenniel and his family.

Mystery stories with such dual narrative structures often feature some kind of narrative trick aimed at the reader, urging you to assume certain connections between the two narratives even though they are not there in reality, or the other way around. The revelation that the two characters by the same name in the two narratives were actually different people or something like that is then sprung at the end on the reader. The Blue Rose Never Sleeps however starts off making it quite clear there's something not right between the two narratives. The names and people Maria and Ren find in the diary are very similar to the people involved in the actual murder case, as is the theme of the blue rose, but there are all kinds of minor differences with reality, and a large part of the mystery revolves around figuring out why the narratives are so alike, and yet not the same. It's pretty refreshing to see a mystery story which tells you right away there's something wrong between these two narratives. The reasons behind these discrepencies as revealed are at times a bit farfetched (wait, that was all done just in the hope that something else would occur?), but I have to say I was quite amused by the dual narrative and even though I was ready to suspect everything, I still didn't quite manage to evade that piece of misdirection that was created due to the dual narrative, even in essence, it's fairly simple (and even if you saw through the misdirection, there was still a lot more the reader needed to solve).

Early in the novel, the reader is 'treated' to a mini-lecture by Professor Tenniel about genetics, DNA and how to create blue roses. It can be a bit technical, and while you don't need to have a PhD in genetics to be able to solve the mystery in The Blue Rose Never Sleeps, one part of the plot does kinda involve a "Oh, by the way, this could be done with genetics too!' surprise which no reader is going to guess. It's a bit unfair, and while not directly involved with the locked room murder in the greenhouse, it's definitely an important building piece, so readers might feel a bit cheated there. The locked room murder itself is interesting. The trick the murderer used to escape from the locked greenhouse covered in thorny vines falls a bit in the mechanical category and the set-up to the reveal of the trick could've been more comprehensive, but I do like the idea and it definitely fits the theme of the roses. There are more mysteries that build upon this locked room mystery by the way: at one point, the student witness actually sees the dead professor inside the locked greenhouse, but is knocked out. When the police later found her, she was tied up inside the greenhouse herself, but that means the murderer unlocked the greenhouse to put the student inside and sealed the greenhouse again. Ichikawa skillfully builds several mysteries like that on top of the actual act of murder itself, making The Blue Rose Never Sleeps a fairly complex novel, with the locked room murder only a part of the whole picture.

You could say the book not only has a dual narrative, but also a dual mystery, as ultimately, the motive behind the murder remains quite vague until the denouement. Like I mentioned above, the backstory can be come across as slightly farfetched and contrived, but on the whole, I do like how everything tied together and how you kinda end up with a second mystery plotline. I guessed the second part of the mystery and who was behind it, but it wasn't really based on any clear evidence: I wasn't really happy when it was revealed my gut feeling was right, as I had no proof and that feeling didn't improve when Maria did manage to point out all those little things I missed that proved who the culprit was!

The Blue Rose Never Sleeps was another satisfying mystery novel by Ichikawa after The Jellyfish Never Freezes. While the sequel uses the dual narrative structure too, its application is quite different, and unlike the first novel, which took inspiration from And Then There Were None and spy thrillers, The Blue Rose Never Sleeps feels more like a "conventional" mystery story focusing on an ongoing murder investigation. Personally, I think I liked this novel better, but they're both great reads, and I do hope the third novel will see its pocket re-release soon!

Original Japanese title(s): 市川憂人 『ブルーローズは眠らない』

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