Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Secret in the Stars

夜空を見上げ一人ほうき星を見たの
一瞬ではじけては消えてしまったけど
「ほうき星」(ユンア) 

Looking up at the night sky alone, I saw a comet
But it appeared and was gone in a second
"Comet" (Younha)

First time I read something by Kurachi, but certainly not the last!

While he may have been morally right, Sugishita Kazuo knew there would be consequences for the undiplomatic, and especially physical manner in which he dealt with his abusive superior. He liked working at the marketing company, so he feared he'd be fired, but surprisingly, he was "only" moved to a completely different part of the company to give the whole deal some time to die down. Given that he liked marketing, he wasn't especially happy with his appointment to the new and small entertainment section, but it was better than losing his job. Sugishita is made manager-in-training (basically just a personal assistant) of Hoshizono Shirou, a "star watcher" and popular television personality who's been making women crazy with his handsome looks and romantic talks about the stars and constellations. Sugishita develops an instant dislike for the arrogant and showy Hoshizono, but the day after they first meet, he's already forced to go on a trip with him, as Hoshizono has been invited by the boss of a big land development company. This Iwagishi has recently bought a run-down campsite in the mountains. The original owner was a lover of camping, and wanted people to come down here in their caravans and spend a nice time in the nature, but financially, this wish was just not feasible and Iwagishi got the whole campsite, complete with ten log houses and a main building, for a dime and nickle. His plan is now to develop this campsite into a kind of leisure facility with the stars as the theme, as the location in the mountains make it perfect for stargazing. 

The camp is still in its original condition, but Iwagishi has invited a few guests who he thinks can help make his stargazing leisure facility a success: besides Hoshizono, he has also invited the highly successful romantic novelist Kusabuki Akane as well as the famous UFO expert Sagashima Kazuteru. The three guests (and their assistants, as well as two female companions) are to spend a night here at the camp with Iwagishi, to see what suggestions they may have for the facility and whether they would be could involved in some way, like having Kusabuki write a novel set around the location. The initial talks about the facility during dinner are good, but the following morning, Iwagishi is found murdered in his log house at the camp. The camp has no phone lines however, and when Iwagishi's assistant tries to drive down the mountain, he finds that the heavy snowfall of last night has completely blocked off the road. The survivors realize they are trapped by the snow on the campsite with a murderer on the loose. To Sugishita's great surprise however, he learns that Hoshizono is actually a lot sharper than he pretends to be, and together, the starwatcher and the assistant start investigating the murder on Iwagishi in the hopes of preventing more murders in Kurachi Jun's Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Mountain Lodges beneath the Shooting Stars" 1996).

I have mentioned quite often on this blog that the logic school of mystery writing, as seen in the works of novelists like Ellery Queen and Arisugawa Alice, is my favorite. Some might prefer the 'flash of inspiration' style of writers like Agatha Christie and to a lesser extent John Dickson Carr, where a small clue is supposed to tip off the detective or reader on the whole crime and you're expected to "just" suddenly see how everything fits, but I always have been a fan of the slower, and more deliberate manner of the logic school, where you add up a lot of minor clues like 1) the murderer was right-handed, 2) the murderer had to know fact X because they did action Y, 3) the murderer only learned of fact X after time Z, 4) the murderer is not one of the characters who were at A, etc. to eventually find out who the murderer was and how everythhing fits together. I spent a whole post trying to explain why I love this kind of clewing and my feelings on this have not changed: I love how this kind of plotting tries to really make mystery fiction like a game, because it makes the process more fair. This kind of whodunnit-focused novels often have you identify a list of characteristics of the murderer and compare them to the known suspects. These stories feel fair because as you slowly start to cross off suspects on the list, you usually figure out for yourself you're still missing one or two identifying conditions: perhaps you already know the murderer must be right-handed based on Scene 37, and you know they had to know about the clock in Scene 23, but it's only when you're left with three suspects and go over the story again that you realize the fact two of those suspects didn't take sugar in their tea was significant!


Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a fantastic example of the logic school of mystery writing. It might have a rather familiar story setting, with a group of people trapped in the mountains due to heavy snowfall and the murders are certainly not committed in a spectacular or baffling manner, but it's completely focused on offering a puzzle that challenges the reader to logically infer who the murderer is. The reader is actually made aware of this the moment they open the book, for this book has a very unique chapter naming convention. The chapters are not really titled: they always open with a two, three sentence notice that summarizes the contents of said chapter and notes what's important or not. For example, the first chapter literally opens with the notice that the protagonist of the story will appear there and that "The protagonist is the narrator and the Watson. They share all information they learn fairly with the reader and are not the murderer." The next chapter, where Sugishita meets with Hoshizono for the first time too starts with a notice that "the detective becomes involved with the case by pure coincidence and is not the murderer", while in a later chapter where Hoshizono and Sugishita discuss the murder and they focus on several important facts, the chapter opening states that these observations made by Hoshizono are indeed correct. The whole book is playing the game open and fair from start to finish, and it's almost surreal to see little post-its by the writer that say what's important and whether some incident was just a coincidence or not. They do make Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin an exciting read though, because at the same time, you know it really won't be that easy and that Kurachi is trying to present a puzzle that will surprise the reader with how the murderer will be identified in the end. It's also fun to go over the chapter introductions again once you're done with the book: some of these notifications might seem a bit too cryptic the first time you read them, but they make more sense once you know everything and some of them are quite clever! I played Umineko: When They Cry after reading this book, but the chapter 'titles' here are somewhat similar in idea to the concept of Red Truths in that game.

And yep, the whodunnit puzzle is pretty ingenious even with the help of those chapter openings. If you love early Ellery Queen or for example The Moai Island Puzzle (disclosure: I translated that book), you're in for a treat, because Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is exactly what you're looking for! Finding all the clues that will eventually lead you to the identity of the murderer is very tricky, but never unfair: each time one of the identifying conditions is mentioned, it's likely you'll have noticed (part of) it, and even if you didn't, you're sure to realize that they are very convincing logical conclusions drawn from what you have seen at the crime scene and in other parts of the story. It's of course ultimately combining all these facts together to form an image of the murderer which will prove to be difficult: I for one had a good idea about who the murderer was, but I really couldn't find the clues that could logically exclude everyone else besides the person I had set my eyes on, as I always would end up with other suspects based on the clues I had found! It's at these moments I love this kind of mystery fiction, where I have to decide whether I'm just on wrong track, or simply missing some kind of clue or misinterpreting a clue that would allow me to logically arrive at a different person. You'll need to identify quite a few conditions to be able to cross off all the names save for the murderer and that does mean some of these conditions are a bit easier to identify than others (and some of them feel will probably feel familiar as they're popular ideas in mystery fiction), but getting all of them is difficult and some of them are pretty clever that make good use of this particular story setting, like strange circling mark in the snow as if made by a rotating UFO's expulsion device.

In terms of appearances, Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin might feel a bit too familiar, with its tense closed circle situation in the snow, and the familar story beats like the surviving people becoming suspicious of each other, attempts to get through the snow to find help and more, but I think Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a great showcase that it's possible to write a great tale of mystery and logical reasoning even when using familiar building blocks: Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is easily one of the best mystery novels I've read this year, because it's so dedicated to offering a solvable logical puzzle, where the reader is rewarded for activally thinking along and trying to figure out whodunnit by carefully considering the clues and considering the precise implications of each action of all the characters. Some readers might feel this book feels a bit too like a puzzle, but for me, this is exactly the kind of mystery story I love. 

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知 淳『星降り山荘の殺人』

15 comments :

  1. I don't really have a strong preference between Queen-school stories or intuitionist ones. I tend to read more Christien/Carrian ones, if not merely because I'm partial to impossible crimes. On the other hand, I'm far better at actually solving Queenian novels (like The Moai Island Puzzle, for example). One of my favorite things about mystery fiction is getting to the end of a story and seeing how all of the clues were hidden (or, if I solved it, just seeing them) which is something both sorts of mystery offer, so, ultimately, I like them both. (Although, if I had to choose, I'd have to give an edge to the intuitionists, just because Carr is my favorite mystery writer.)

    That said, I find the the more explicitly puzzle-like structure of the Queenian school to (and I know this is pretty vague) have the right shape for a mystery story. More concretely, while I strongly appreciate humor, good style, and characterization, I read mysteries for the mystery, so I like it when the puzzle is at the forefront. (I've never really understood why people complain that a mystery is too "puzzely." I mean, I kind of do, but often it's just wishing that it was more in line with the conventions of general fiction. Why complain about the thing that you only find in mystery fiction?)

    And this sounds like a great example of that game playing. I don't mind the use of familiar elements, so long as they're utilized well. (And no matter how many times it's reused, I'll never grow tired of the closed circle.) The chapter openings sound like a really neat device. They kind of remind me of The Nine Wrong Answers, only without the overt misdirection. They seem more like when a magician points one way with one hand, while palming the coin in the other. This one's definitely going on my list.

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    1. I think this book also felt 'familiar' especially because of the chapter openings, which really make it clear even to the unexperienced reader how it's following conventions of the genre (this is the scene where they gather clues, this is the scene where they talk about possible motives which are indeed relevant to the murder etc.). But it's such a great example of using the familiar tropes to present a fair-play mystery, I really think it's fantastic read. I've been reading a few more Kurachi since reading this one, and he has not disappointed me yet ^^

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    2. Interesting review, I'd love to try something that you would describe as the logic school of mystery writing.

      I'm assuming that this novel hasn't been translated into English (on the grounds that I can't find it).

      Is there something you would recommend?

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    3. Sadly enough, very few of the books I usually discuss here are available in English. I don't think anything by Kurachi has ever been translated in English even.

      As for good examples, a lot of the early Ellery Queens are the benchmark: The Greek Coffin Mystery, The Tragedy of Y and The Tragedy of Z especially really show off how the 'list of the characteristics' works. As for Japanese books available in translation, The Moai Island Puzzle by Alice Arisugawa (*disclosure I translated it and is available via Locked Room International) is a must-read of the school (Arisugawa is a big fan of Queen's work and it shows here).

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    4. I would suggest reading some of the stories that take place before Greek Coffin Mystery (which is the 4th book).

      The way how different GCM was written stood out to me since it was completely different from, say, Dutch Shoe Mystery (3rd book). Actually I would suggest picking up DSM and then after that going to GCM to see this stark difference...

      Greek Coffin Mystery has my favourite challenge to the reader.

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    5. Oh, I agree that reading Greek Coffin as an evolution of the previous three makes it an even more impressive read, though I think that as a standalone work, Greek Coffin works fine even without that context to show how those long chains of deductions (especially due to its plot structure, which probably shows off the best how the process works in stages)

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    6. I will give it a go, thanks for the tip

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  2. Ah, it just dawned on me! Kurachi Jun also wrote the short story collection "片桐大三郎とXYZの悲劇". It's also very good and I highly recommend if you have a chance to review it (a definite homage to the Ellery Queen tragedy series!)

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    1. Read it already, loved it, and the review is done and in the to-be-posted pile ;P Was it you who mentioned it some years ago here too? Anyway, it was a really funny, and well-written short story collection that did a great job at obviously being a homage to the Tragedy series, but without relying heavily on the plots of those stories.

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    2. Haha, yup, now that you did jolt my memory, I do remember recommending this short story collection :P

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  3. Personally I'm in the Christie / Carr camp, probably because I tend to enjoy msyteries that occasionally move away from the 'problem at hand' - orthodox sometimes feels too much to me like the outline of an actual novel. Guess it's perfectly fine if one's in for the mystery aspect alone, but I really like to have some meat around the mystery as well.

    Probably the reason why, as far as Japan goes, I pretty much fell in love with the whole Seiryoin/Otaro/NisioIsin company - I'm totally fine with being sidetracked from the mystery for some quality wtf moments. Also found it funny that my home country, Italy, has literally zero tradition in the Ellery style mystery - must be a cultural thing.

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    1. Ah, still haven't tried Seiryouin. Guess I should pick up Cosmic/Joker one day, but every time I remember the page count of Cosmic, I end up with other books in my shopping cart XD

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    2. Understandable. To its credit, it's a fairly light read and goes by quick.

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  4. This sounds like it’s right up my alley! 🤩 But the only Chinese translation of 仓知淳 seems to be 宛如碧风吹过. I was wondering if that might be worth getting?

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    1. I haven't read that one yet, but it's part of his longest-running series (Nekomaru sempai), which seems well received. Most of the books in that series are short stories, that one is one of the few novels it seems. Probably why they decided to translate that one, I guess ^^

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