Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Inner Circle

"A donut hole in the donut's hole."
"Knives Out"

Okay, with Inugami in title and the familiar -kan no Satsujin (... House Murder(s)), the title of today's book sounds a bit too familiar for mystery fans, I think.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, Serizawa Hiyoko and her personal maid Tsuyuri Shizuka travel through a wintery cold to the manor of Serizawa's uncle, who married into the Himuro family to attend to a curious ceremony to be held at the house. As of late, Himuro Takamine has been become involved with the Society of Man, a shady new religion who has convinced the man to hold the Ritual of the Dog at the manor. Hiyoko's excuse is that she'll be visiting her cousin Meiko, but in fact Hiyoko has been sent by her grandmother to keep an eye on things to see what her uncle is getting himself into. Upon arrival however, Hiyoko is surprised to see that Meiko herself too is determined to participate in the ritual which is supposed to call down the spirit of Takamine's late wife. The ceremony is held in a specially-built dome-like structure in the house, basically consisting of three circles within each other. Facing the structure from the front, the first door leads to a curved outer corridor which leads to the exact other side of the circle. There a second door leads inoto the second corridor (the second ring), which curves back to the front. The final third door leads into the inner circle of this structure, where the temperature is freezing. The ceremony will have Meiko praying here in the middle for hours on. However, in order to deter people from disturbing the ritual, a grotesque safety measure is built into the building: each of the three sliding doors leading deeper into the structure has a guillotine blade built into it, attached to a box on the inside of each door. Three persons are to lie down in those boxes and be locked inside, with Meiko in possession of the key. Unless Meiko herself uses the lock to free the people lying in those boxes first, anyone forcefully opening the sliding doors will decapitate the people lying in the boxes and who'd be so desperate to kill three humans to interrupt the Ritual of the Dog?

But the unthinkable does happen! While there are people standing guard outside the structure during the ritual, they suddenly hear Yuuri, Meiko's friend lying inside the first box (attached to the first door), cry out. Sensing something is wrong, Hiyoko and Shizuka approach the door only to witness how the door is slid open, decapitating Yuuri. Realizing someone inside the structure slid the door open, Hiyoko and Shizuka make their way deeper into the structure, finding everyone in the boxes is dead, decapitated by the guillotine doors. But when they arrive at the center, they are shocked to find Meiko standing in the middle, but she too has been stabbed to death and was frozen in her standing position. But there's not a single sign of the person who opened the guillotine doors from outside and there are no other exits out of this structure. But what surprises Hiyoko the most is that Shizuka confesses she was afraid this would happen: three years ago, when she worked as a housekeeper at the Yukishima family, the Society of Man had erected the same structure for the Ritual of the Dog and there too someone had managed to penetrate the triple-layered locked room. As Shizuka recounts the events that occured three years ago, she slowly pieces together what happened this time in Tsukihara Wataru's Inugamikan no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Inugami Manor" 2019).

This is the third novel in Tsukihara Wataru's series set in the late 1800/early 1900s Japan starring the maid Shizuka, a very capable housekeeper of Russian descent who at times has a tendency to fall out of her role and mock her superiors, but who nonetheless is extremely good at what she does, and that includes some occasional detecting. I hadn't read any of the earlier novels before (yep, I never read things in order), but starting with this novel didn't seem to problematic at all. I don't even know whether Shizuka is also working for Hiyoko in the other novels, or whether she's working somewhere else each time, but at the very least, you can start with Inugamikan no Satsujin without worrying too much.

I picked this one entry up because the premise sounded interesting, with a triple-layered locked room murder mystery, with a structure with guillotine doors and shady ceremonies. If you ask me what I think of the book now I have read it though, I have to admit I'm torn. It has some really neat ideas, mostly with the enigmatic structure and the guillotine doors, but at the same time, the story has characters act in rather unconvincing manners in order to make the plot work, and some of logistics behind the murder plot are rather iffy upon scrutinization, so the book doesn't quite manage to completely win me over. But to start with the fun parts first: I love the utterly nuts idea of a building with guillotine doors which force you to commit a murder if you want to open it. In the book they say they can't believe anyone could be so desperate or crazy to use those doors, but as the reader, you of course know it's soooo going to be used to kill everyone in those boxes. This is where you also realize that this book is more focused on presenting the core mystery problem with an interesting murder situation, rather than focusing on really providing a firm foundation to explain why this structure exists in the first place: if you really wanted nobody to disturb the ritual, you could just lock the doors without human sacrifices and the story hardly explains why the ritual demands the middle of the structure to be freezing cold, or why the structure is built inside another building, or why it has that particular circle-within-a-circle-within-a-circle layout. Tsukihara simply came up with an idea for a triple-layered locked room murder, and ran with it. Don't think too hard about it and just accept there's a building with guillotine doors.

The book starts in media res, with Hiyoko and Shizuka discovering the deaths inside the structure, and afterwards, the story follows a dual narrative structure, with chapters alternating between the ones set in the present (starting with the build-up to the discovery of the murders) and chapters set in the past, when Shizuka was working for the Yukishimas and the same Ritual of the Dog was held with similar results. These chapters are titled almost the same and often, events and conversations appear to be echoed between the past and the present, yet at the same time, as this is a mystery, the reader is of course aware that it isn't a coincidence that deaths occur whenever the Ritual of the Dog is held by the Society of Man, and the plot will have you wondering why this ceremony is being held again and what the true purpose is of this insane ritual. The events in the past are very similar to the ones in the present, with a figure opening the killer doors from within and ultimately finding the girl who had been praying inside stabbed. While the narrative of the past is intricately connected the narrative of the present, I have to say that in regards of the mystery plot, things get a bit rushed here, with events that seem barely possible in terms of the timeline and by the end, you're more puzzled about whether all that could really have been done and also about the motivations for some characters to act like that. 

The narrative in the present has a more solid mystery plot and forms a nice contrast with the one in the past, but here too you are left wondering about whether it was really worth it for the culprit to do all of that for those causes. I'm not the kind of mystery reader who usually fuzzes too much about character motivation, but it's really rare for me to me to think a book could have come up with a more convincing reason to explain character actions, because I'm usually very willing to just roll with the plot. The problem of the murderer opening the guilotine doors from the inside and then disappearing from the structure is good though, with some nice moments that don't just focus on the howdunnit, but also have Queenian moments that focus on the question why some objects/circumstances are the way they are and the logical implications from that.

Inugamikan no Satsujin is a pretty short novel, and due to its dual narrative structure, it has to go through events pretty swiftly, which has both benefits and drawbacks. It goes straight to business, throwing a very odd building with guillotine doors at you and people locked up boxes and frozen corpses and more, and it ultimately uses these elements to weave an entertaining locked room mystery, but at the same time, it also rushes through some details which make you wonder, hey, do things really work the way it was just said here? I enjoyed Inugamikan no Satsujin as a short read as it has some genuinely memorable moments and ideas and will also pick up some other adventures with Shizuka later, but at the same time, it's also a book that left me wondering about what it could also have been with perhaps fifty pages extra to work out some of the more rushed parts of the murder plot and the underlying motivations.

Original Japanese title(s): 月原渉『犬神館の殺人』

3 comments :

  1. Thanks for the review... This one sounds interesting, and it seems like it belongs to a wider series of novels featuring different houses or mansions? The strengths mentioned in the review make me think I'd like it, but the weaknesses also make me nervous. I tried finding if any of the novels have been translated into Chinese—but to no avail.

    Incidentally, my bundle of Chinese and Japanese mystery novels that I ordered some time ago should finally arrive at my doorstep this week... 🤩

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    1. Yeah, other titles in the Shizuka series include names like 鏡館 and 首無館, so that sounds promising :P

      That order included the Kurachi book, right? Volume 100 of Conan and the newest of Kindaichi, Age 37 are coming out next month, so I'm also looking around to see what books I'm going to add to that order ^^'

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    2. On Shizuka: there's a flame-dancing one too! 🔥💃🏻🔥🕺🏻

      Yes, this bundle of novels contain my long-anticipated Kurachi title. Or at least, as long as since I read your review of 星降り山荘の殺人... 🏠💫

      Even before this bundle has arrived, I'm already making note of titles for the next round of purchasing... 🧐

      Looking forward to your Kindaichi review! More Kindaichi is always welcome. 🤓

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