Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Hear No Evil

All the world's a stage
"As You Like It"

More fictional detectives should use a tablet...

As the third son born in a family with a lineage of famous kabuki theater actors, Katagiri Daisaburou too was expected to become one of the best in the art, but early in his career, he decided to switch to acting in films, a choice which would change the course of history. He starred in many of the formative films of the 50s that would define Japanese cinema, and when television set started to appear in everyone's homes, he didn't underestimate the new medium and started taking roles in television dramas too. Many decades later, and there's nobody who does not know the face of Katagiri Daisaburou as he's been a household name in media since forever, and even to this day, he's often seen in commercials and other big events as one of the biggest stars of Japanese media. Only a few years ago however, Katagiri had to retire as an actor, not because of his age, but because he developed a sudden deafness, making it impossible for him to properly act anymore. He decided to quit the Thespian art, instead focusing on his own entertainment agency, which manages many of today's film stars. Nonoko was hired one year ago as Katagiri's new assistant and his 'pair of ears,' which in practice means she has to accompany Katagiri everywhere and type out in real time everything says to Katagiri on her laptop, allowing him to read the 'subtitles' from his tablet. Unfortunately for her, Katagiri does not only work at the office and she's often dragged along whenever Katagiri decides to spend some time on his hobby: assisting the police in murder investigations. In the past, the great actor has solved many crimes for the police and now he has the time, he's even more eager to stick his nose in whatever seems interesting. Kurachi Jun's Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki ("Katagiri Daiburou and the Tragedy of XYZ" 2015) presents the reader with four puzzling stories about the exploits of the deaf former actor Katagiri.

Even if you're not familiar with the original stories, the title The Tragedy of XYZ should ring bells and if you have read Ellery Queen (Barnaby Ross)'s Drury Lane novels, you're bound to recognize a lot in the summary above: a famous actor turned deaf who's an amateur sleuth? Kurachi's book is obviously inspired by the four Drury Lane novels and it's a joy to read if you like those books, but fortunately, this book is perfectly readable without any prior knowledge. Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki is not a parody of any kind and there aren't even really direct references made to the Drury Lane novels, but there's a kinds of little elements that you might recognize as being inspired by those novels, without this ever becoming too reliant on that knowledge. It's a very cleverly written book in that regards, for it's simultaneously a book for fans of the four Drury Lane novels due to the clever, but subdued references, but also for people who don't know anything about those books and they'll honestly not miss anything of importance, as all the stories can stand alone perfectly.

Take the first story for example, Fuyu no Shou: Gyuugyuuzume no Satsui ("Winter: Fully-Stuffed Malice"). Nonoko is asked to pick up a certain delicatesse for her boss on her way to work one morning, which means she has to take the dreaded Yamanote-line during the morning rush. As expected, it's like sardines in a can inside the train, with everyone pushed right into each other. Nonoko and many others get of the train at the major hub Shinjuku Station,  but she stumbles across a man who had been pushed outside the train when everyone got out. The man seems unwell, but when another person checks, it turns out the man is dead! Inspector Kawaharasaki later visits Katagiri and Nonoko with more details: the man had been poisoned with an injection of nicotine. The hypodermic needle had been found trampled inside the train, and traces in his clothes show the needle had been jammed through his coat and clothes into the body. Based on the time it takes for nicotine to start working, it appears the man had been stabbed during his morning commute and that by the time his train arrived at Shinjuku Station, he was already in critical state, not even able to stand: it was just so incredibly packed inside the train that he was forcefully kept on his feet as everyone was pushing into each other. The problem the police faces however is when and how this man was given the injection: the man lives only a minute away from his station, and after that he had only been moving between stations inside trains during the morning rush. But how does someone stab a hypodermic needle unseen, into someone else inside a train packed so insanely full there's no space for anyone to move?

If you're familiar with The Tragedy of X, you might recognize the basic premise of a man being poisoned by nicotine inside a tram. But that's basically all this story takes from The Tragedy of X, and the rest is a completely original take, focusing more on the 'impossibility' by setting this murder inside the absolutely nightmare that is the morning Tokyo rush. I've only experienced it myself for three months during a study course in Tokyo many years ago, but the Yamanote-line in the morning is nuts, as in I-can't-move-I-have-an-elbow-in-my-back-and-my-nose-is-almost-in-this-other-person's-hair packed, so I was pretty easily convinced of the impossibility of this murder scenario! The story does develop in a way you'd expect from a Queenian story, with Katagiri focusing on the logical implications and contradictions arising from the physical evidence found, and then building a chain of reasoning that ultimately explains how the murder was committed. The whodunnit aspect of the story is a bit weak, but the build-up to the explanation of how the man was injected with nicotine is great, with clever deductions being built upon the physical evidence and spatial movements of the victim to show what was possible and what not, and several characters like Nonoko proposing possible solutions, these being logically discarded, but still forming a basis for the final explanation by Katagiri.

In Haru no Shou: Kiwamete Youki de Nonki na Kyouki ("Spring: A Cheerful and Nonchalant Murder Weapon"), Katagiri is asked to assist in a murder case. An elderly, famous artist was killed with a blow on his head with an ukelele inside his home, but the police has trouble pinning the crime on any specific person. The victim was found in his wheelchair inside the storage room,  which had probably not been opened in many years. The man had been struck by the instrument, but the police can't figure out why that weapon was chosen, as there were a lot more objects inside the storage that would've been more suited as a murder weapon, like the contents of a toolkit and a baseball bat. Four generations lived together inside the house, but while the his great-grandson did see the victim enter the storage room in his wheelchair, nobody else admits to having known that the victim had been in the storage. But even so, why kill the man there, with an ukelele?!

This second story is of course inspired by The Tragedy of Y, where the victim was bashed on the head with a mandolin, but this time the question focuses solely on the matter of why the ukelele was chosen over objects that would've been much better suited as a killing weapon. The jumps in the reasoning this time are sometimes a bit too far, making some of Katagiri's deduction seem more like fantasy than based on actual fact, but overall an interesting variation on the basic idea of The Tragedy of Y, landing in a completely different region.

A spy app Katagiri had installed on Inspector Kawaharasaki's smartphone allows him to always track the police's movements, but this time, Katagiri finds himself in an unexpected situation. In Natsu no Shou: Togiretogire no Yuukai ("Summer: Half-Connected Kidnapping"), his idea was to have his 'ears' Nonoko use the app so they could just 'run into Kawaharasaki by concidence' and ask if there was any case going on he could help with, but it turns out the police are having their hands full with an ongoing kidnapping case: the babysitter was bludgeoned to death last night and the child gone. The kidnapper has already gotten into contact with the poor parents, and after sending them a morning letter announcing when they'd call, the kidnappers are now asking for a hefty money sum in exchange for the child. When the money's prepared, the kidnapper asks for the mom to follow instructions, sending her to several places where he can get a good look at her and the money and then sending her to the next place, but for some reason, the phone calls always seem to disconnect halfway through a sentence, only to call back right away and go on like nothing happened. The inspiration for this case is of course the abduction that occurs in The Tragedy of Z, but that's basically the only common point. The way in which Katagiri manages to resolve the kidnapping is rather forceful and not really convincing and there's also a part in the story that is both brilliant and undeveloped: Katagiri manages to build a very convincing line of reasoning based on a physical object that tells them the true intentions of the kidnapper, but it doesn't really manage to sound convincing because not everybody would be able to use that specific physical object, which is an essential condition for Katagiri's deduction. However, the underlying truth behind the kidnapping is absolutely fantastic, and features a horribly original reveal at the end of the story, which is likely to stick with the reader for a long time.

The final story Aki no Shou: Katagiri Daisaburou Saigo no Kisetsu ("Fall: Katagiri Daisaburou's Final Season") has Katagiri invited to a local community center to do a lecture on a deceased film director with whom Katagiri made several cinema classics. Inspector Kawaharasaki, who's not only a professional contact of Katagiri, but also a film buff who loves Katagiri's work, is of course also there. The community center is also where Katagiri will meet an old acquaintance, who's a fan and scholar of said director.  Together with the director's son, he has recently discovered what appears to be the final screenplay written by the director before his death, but he wants a second opinion by Katagiri to see if it's the real deal because he had worked so much with the director. They meet before the lecture and a quick look seems to convince Katagiri that it's indeed an unfilmed scenario, but as it's almost time for the lecture to start, they have to prepare and then move to the auditorium. It's decided to keep the screenplay inside an old safe (so old it even has a small 'airvent' because of fear children would lock themselves inside) in the office of the community center during the lecture. But both Katagiri's 'pair of ears' and Inspector Kawaharasaki can't help worry about the screenplay and return to the office. They peek through the airvent... only to find the safe's empty! But who could've stolen the screenplay from the safe?

With Katagiri in the auditorium doing his lecture, it's time for his capable assistant (and the inspector) to try to solve the mystery, and it's a fun one this time! Like Drury Lane's Last Case, this story revolves around an unpublished story by a famous artist, though this time it's presented as an impossible theft. During their discussion of the case, they actually arrive fairly soon at the only method possible to get the screenplay out of the locked safe, but what follows is what you'd really expect from a Queen-inspired story, as then the deduction shift focus to the question of which suspects would've actually have taken those specific actions, and what suspects can be discarded as it wouldn't make any sense for those specific person to take those specific actions. The logical reasoning here is great, and convincing (more than the actual theft from the safe actually). While one twist I certainly I had seen coming early on, the last one was certainly unexpected and a brilliant surprise: the book expertly built towards this 'series' finale throughout the four stories, but you won't know what's happening until it hits you. 

This is, on the whole, a pretty funny book too by the way! Katagiri Daisaburou is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, who has ruled Japanese popular culture for decades and knows it. The way everyone has to adjust to his whims is entertaining to see, as are Nonoko's attempts to function as his 'ears' and attend to his whims, while also fully realizing that her boss isn't quite normal. The stories do always feature some segments that go deeper into the career of Katagiri as an actor, with a lot of details on what roles he did and how he grew out to be the household name, but because usually only a small part of that backstory i actually relevant to the mystery at hand, you might find these parts a bit superfluous.

The four stories in Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki might take their inspiration from the four Drury Lane novels, but even without any knowledge of the Lane stories, this short story collection provides very engaging mystery plots, that as you might expect from a Queen-inspired book, focuses a lot on chains of reasoning and back-and-forth discussions about possible solutions. It's the kind of mystery I personally I like best and the grander-than-life character of Katagiri and the idea of having a deaf detective with an assistant typing out 'subtitles' in real-time are also fun, resulting in a book that's definitely found a place in the list of my favorite reads for this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知淳『片桐大三郎とXYZの悲劇』:「冬の章 ぎゅうぎゅう詰めの殺意」/「春の章 極めて陽気で呑気な凶器」/「夏の章 途切れ途切れの誘拐」/「秋の章 片桐大三郎最後の季節」


  1. Sounds like a fun novel and this review has reminded me that I have some drury lane books to read. Damn, I think imma start learning to read Japanese than to wait for Japanese mystery novels to be translated. In your opinion, is learning to read Japanese hard? - jojo

    1. I find that honestly hard to say! It depends on so much, like for example your mother tongue (Korean for one is relatively closer to Japanese than for say example English). But if you choose to focus mainly on reading, I would say it's not a language that is insanely difficult. Sure, there's the matter of kanji, but I think most people will be surprised how quickly they'll be reading manga, and from there on novels. It's not as difficult as it may seem at first.

    2. Welp its the quarantine so I think imma just try it, can't hurt to try right. And my mother tounge is malay so this will be quite challenging. But I was schooled at a Chinese school when I was a kid but didn't really learn much there just the basics. Welp anyway imma try to learn it anyway so I can savour the great mystery novels from Japan that has yet been translated and which I hope will be soon