Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Crimson Love Letter

"That I will save you from the maze of deductions..."
"Deceptive Malice"

Come to think about it, I don't have many books with covers that are this... red.

As an accomplished politician and the boss of the Nire Law and Accounting Firm, Nire Iichirou had been used to controlling every aspect of his life, and that includes his family. He had always intended for his son Hisao to become his successor, but when Hisao died young, leaving behind a wife Hanako and child Yoshio, Iichirou's plans had to be changed. Yoshio, the son of his own son, was still far too young to become his direct successor, so Iichrou arranged for his oldest daughter Sawako to marry the talented attorney Harushige and have him take on the Nire family name, making him Iichirou's de-facto successor. But Iichirou also forced Sawako and Harushige to adopt Yoshio, ensuring that after Harushige, Yoshio would become the head of the Nire clan. Iichirou also arranged for his youngest daughter Touko to marry the attorney Youhei, a man who would function well as Harushige's support. Even Hanako, the widow of Hisao, was used in Iichirou's plans to solidfy his legacy, by matching her with the head accountant of his firm. So was it really a wonder that everything fell apart in the summer of 1966, when Iichirou himself suddenly died and all his children and in-laws realized they had been released from Iicihirou's shackles? 

But what nobody could have guessed, was the form this freedom would take. After one of the memorial services, the whole Nire clan gathers in the manor to have a break and something to eat, when Sawako suddenly takes ill after a sip of her coffee. She is quickly brought to the hospital. But while she's in the hospital, young Yoshio too suddenly becomes seriously ill, and not long after, both pass away. The police soon finds out that both of them have been poisoned with cyanide. The murders apparently revolve around the Nire legacy and basically all family members have a potential motive, but the method of how Sawako's coffee was poisoned remains unclear, until there's a sudden confession of the murderer! While the murderer doesn't give details on their exact motives, the case is more or less done, and the murderer is sentenced for life-time. After the double murder and the convinction of another family member, the Nire clan quickly fell apart and after divorces and early deaths, youngest daughter Touko remains the last-living Nire. However, in 2008, more than 40 years after the murder, the elderly Touko receives a letter from the person who had been convicted of the murders. They had been released from prison due to good behavior and serious health problems and in the letter, they explain that they had actually not been the murderer of Sawako and Yoshio, but that they had confessed to the murder because they realized the police was suspecting them and that the circumstances weren't good, and that if they hadn't made a voluntary confession to leave a good impression on the judges, they may had been convicted to a death sentence due to the very gruesome murders. But in the forty years they had been in prison, they had a long time to think about the murders, and in the letter, they carefully lay out a possible solution to the murders, pointing out who the real murderer probably was. Touko however notices a mistake in this theory, which allows her to propose a theory of her own and so the two start exchanging letters in an attempt to find the real murderer of the past in Miki Akiko's Giman no Satsui ("Deceptive Malice") 2020).

One of my favorite reads and biggest surprises of last year was Miki's Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well"), a book about Kaori, a secretary in a law office who'd chat and have deduction battles with... Scottie, the talking Scottish Fold cat kept at the office. Kaori and Scottie would secretly make up detective stories featuring the clients visiting the office and try to outsmart each other. It was a very cute premise, but the book was also surprisingly cunningly plotted book, reminiscent of Anthony Berkeley or Christianna Brand due to the many, cleverly set-up false solutions with great foreshadowing hidden within the amusing banter between Kaori and Scottie. The book also had a two-part structure, with Kaori confronted with a real crime happening at the law office, and the way this second half incorporated the hypothetical deduction battles of the first part for its clewing was really memorable. Anyway, I had bought the book on a whim originally, but had no regrets at all and knew I'd want to read more by Miki, and I eventually settled on today's book.

In a way, Giman no Satsui is quite similar in concept to Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau, though there's no talking cat here. But we have once again a story involving lawyers (the author worked at law offices apparently), there's the focus on false solutions by having characters firing hypotheses each other, which are rejected again only to lead to new theories and realizations etc. and the two-part structure, the first part being the set-up, but also hiding a lot of clues which are only picked up much later. The first part of Giman no Satsui however is really just a set-up of the crime scene, and doesn't really involve many deduction battles. We're presented a fairly dry summary of the core facts of the Nire clan murders, showing where everybody was and what they were doing in the hours leading up to the poisonings of Sawako and Yoshio, and the resulting events, ending with the confessing murderer being sent to prison. The narrative is rather business-like here, as this part is really focused on presenting an objective summary of what transpired on that day, but it's not very long, and the second part set in 2008 does really build very cleverly on this first part.

The second part is when Giman no Satsui becomes really entertaining, as we're treated to a series of letters written by an elderly Nire Touko and the recently released convicted murderer who claims they were not actually the murderer (something Touko was actually convinced of in the first place). They reminisence on the past forty years, but ultimately they of course end up writing about the murders. The first letter reveals the person convicted of the murder had given the matter a lot of thought while they were in prison and that they had arrived at a solution that would explain who could've poisoned both Sawako and Yoshio and why. But then Touko explains she knows something that counters that theory, but thanks to the first letter, she too got new knowledge which allows her to propose another theory, and thus the story starts building theory upon theory based on the core facts we saw in the first part, occassionally corrected by some new pieces of information we get in the letters. It's a fun parade of false solutions which very brilliantly build on seemingly insignificant clues to arrive at surprisingly convincing theories, and yet it never feels futile: each letter brings something new that shines a different light on facts you thought you already knew, and even with the rejection of each theory, you do feel you're approaching the truth. Giman no Satsui is exactly the kind of book for fans of Ellery Queen's work and the focus on building theories on the known evidence/knowledge brick by brick and adapting theories whenever a new fact is introduced. This makes this book feel different from other stories with multiple false solutions like The Poisoned Chocolate Case and Kyoumu he no Kumotsu as it's not presented as an anti-mystery.

Giman no Satsui even adds another twist about 2/3 in the book, when the exchange in letters lead to a new incident occuring, which make you look at the original 1966 murders in a completely different manner once agan. This part is done really well, with some deliciously devilishly hidden clues that hint at what really happened this time and a great conclusion to a book that's been constantly about recalibrating your thoughts on what appears to be a fixed scene, while still building on actual physical clues that have been there waiting all that time for you to finally notice them. 

So I enjoyed Giman no Satsui a lot too, even if it loses cuteness points for not featuring a talking cat. Fans of Ellery Queen, Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley will probably like this one, due to its focus on building logical chains of deductions and the many false solutions, but it'd be a disservice to Miki if I'd only say that it's just those elements that made this book: it's the actual plotting of Giman no Satsui and the way the clues are laid out and then picked up to propose the theories that make this a fun book to read. Luckily, Miki has still many books I haven't read yet, so you'll definitely see more of her work on the blog in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 深木章子『欺瞞の殺意』


  1. Interestingly, my local library has a copy of 猫には推理がよく似合う, but it's the original work and not the Chinese translation; neither has 欺瞞の殺意 been translated into Chinese.

    The good news for me is that her first 3 novels, 鬼畜の家, 衣更月家の一族 and 螺旋の底, have recently been translated into Chinese. It seems like all 3 novels either won awards or were nominated for awards, with the 1st novel securing Shimada Soji's commendation as well as the ばらのまち福山ミステリー文学新人賞 (not sure what this is though!).

    Looks like I should really get my hands on the recent Chinese translations of these novels! 🤩 Unless, of course, they're getting English translations...? I'm sure either way these novels will remain great, though my reading experience of them do vary according to the language. 😅

    1. The ばらのまち福山ミステリー文学新人賞 is a newcomer award, so it includes a publishing contract for a debuting author. I believe it's organized by Shimada's home town, and he's also the sole member of the jury to decide on the winner.

      Giman no Satsui was another contender for awards this year apparently, it was the runner-up to this year's Honkaku Mystery Award for example. So while not a winner, it seems it was received pretty well in general. Perhaps it'll be translated later in Chinese? Because it's a fairly recent book.