Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Secret Cargo

War, huh, yeah 
What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, uhh
"War" (Edwin Starr)

Just pointing back to the Honkaku Discord server, in case you missed it. Also: I should've planned these posts better, because now I mention the author of today's book twice in a row.... I recently played the second Nintendo DS game supervised by Nishimura, but I should probably not plan that post as my next...

Nishimura Kyoutarou was one of the most prolific mystery writers in Japan and a household name there, even known to people not interested in mystery fiction simply due to the enormous media output that used his name, from television films to video games. When he passed away earlier this year, he had nearly 650 books on his bibliography list. I have probably not even read three percent of that total list, and not surprisingly, most of the books I have read are the better-known ones, like Koroshi no Soukyokusen ("Hyperbola of Murder", 1971), Shichinin no Shounin ("The Seven Witnesses", 1977) and of course several entries in his Inspector Totsugawa series, like Akai Cruiser ("The Red Cruiser", 1973) and Terminal Satsujin Jiken ("The Terminal Murder Case", 1980). Nishimura will forever be associated with the "travel mystery" subgenre, which focuses on traveling (tourism) and means of transport. As you may guess, the subgenre does have have elements of the Croftian school, as it often involves alibi tricks using trains, airplanes and other means of transport, but more importantly they focus on "the country": stories are often set across various locations and areas in Japan (not just Tokyo) and so they also include a touristic element, often delving into specific local train lines, famous tourist spots or places with historical importance (which is one reason why there are so many adaptations of Nishimura's work on television).  

The first Nishimura Kyoutarou novel, and the first novel featuring Inspector Totsugawa, I ever read was, probably not surprisingly, the English release of The Mystery Train Disappears. The first one I read in Japanese however might be surprising, because it's not a very well-known book. I have seen on the internet a few people mentioning it's one of their favorites, but those mentions are rare, as with over 650 books, a story really has to stand out in order to attract the attention of many. So why did I end up reading Choutokkyuu Tsubame-gou [Event Train] Satsujin Jiken ("The Event Train Super Express Tsubame Murder Case", 1987) as my first Nishimura in Japanese? The simple answer: the book was free. There used to be a table in front of the library of all the East-Asian studies at my university, and they'd put books and magazines there they didn't need anymore, and sometimes you'd find a pile of fiction pockets too. So one day, I happened to stumble upon this book and took it with me and it was actually one of the very first books I read in Japanese. And that of course meant that I was reading this book with a dictionary next to it, as I had to look up (simple!) words every two sentences and all of that. Ultimately, I did finish the book, but never thought it was anything special, and most of it was already forgotten by the following week. But a while back, when I was cleaning up books, I came across this pocket again and decided to read it again: my first time was simply not optimal as I was still learning the language, so I thought a second read would result in a fairer experience.

The book starts in the late eighties, when Inspector Totsugawa receives an anynomous letter at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department, which seems to warn the police about death coming to the Super Express Tsubame. Totsugawa and his subordinate Kamei, as people who grew up as children in post-war Japan instantly recognize the name: the Super Express Tsubame was the fastest train in Japan before World War II, and when it started running in the 1930s, it shortened the trip between Tokyo and Kobe by an hour, making it "just" nine hours. The train was seen as a symbol of luxury and admiration for all children before and after the war. Eventually, the Shinkansen bullet trains would of course become the fastest trains in Japan, but the romantic image of the Tsubame remains strong among people who grew up in that period. But of course, the Tsubame hasn't run for decades now,  so initially Totsugawa thinks this is just a weird letter, but he asks Kamei to see if he can find the sender, but when Kamei succeeds in that task, he finds the sender murdered. They also learn that in two days, the Super Express Tsubame will actually ride again, as an anniversary Event Train: in 1940 there had been a special event celebrating the tenth anniversary of the Tsubame, and a special, super luxurious observation car had been created to host a number of special guests. The new 1987 event train has a replica of that observation car and while ride along the same time schedule as in 1940, and the guest are either the same guests as in 1940 or their children/relatives in case they had already passed away. Inspector Totsugawa suspects something must have happened in the train in 1940, which is why the murder victim sent a letter to the police warning them, so he decides to board the train himself too, as he is also convinced the murderer is among the guests. Meanwhile, he also comes in the possession of an unpublished manuscript of a reporter who was one of the guests in the 1940 event, and through that manuscript, Totsugawa learns the story of a young Japanese army official who boarded the Tsubame heading for the ship heading to the China war frontlines, but who seemed to have disappeared on his way...

As I was reading this book again, I realized I really had forgotten most of this book, and while some segments seemed familiar, it was clear that reading a book when you're just starting to learn a language is probably going to result in you not remembering a book down to the details, simply because you "lose" a lot of time and focus as you try to struggle with the book at a linguistic level, having to look up words and grammar. Anyway, re-reading this book didn't reveal to me this was some kind of hidden gem, but I have to say I did appreciate the book better upon my second read, even if I wouldn't call this a must-read Nishimura work.

You might expect this book to be one of those stories where they jump between the present and past between chapters as I mentioned the old manuscript Totsugawa was reading, but in actuality the past narrative only takes up about one-third of the book, even though mystery-wise, it forms the core of the novel. Totsugawa (correctly) guesses *something* must have happened in 1940 to lead to a series of murders among the guests of the event train in the present, and indeed, in the old journalist's report he learns about a curious event, at least, from the reporter's point of view. In 1940, the Japanese army was already waging war in China and nationalistic sentiments were at a high in the country: many people were clamoring to fight Western powers like the United States to "liberate" Asia to be put under Japanese rule. This ultranationalistic, suppressing atmosphere comes alive in all aspects of the past narrative and definitely one of the more memorable points of this novel. The special guests who have been invited to the event train all have different thoughts about the war, some are absolutely against the war, while others seemingly welcome it and see everyone who dares to even pause to think about it a traitor to the country. Even the luxurious observation car of the Tsubame is seen as too decadent by some, as "luxury" was seen as a national enemy in times of war. It is under these circumstances that a young Japanese army officer forces his way into the observation car of the Tsubame during the celebration event in 1940: while the car is reserved for the train company's guests, the officer declares that he is heading to Kobe's harbor as he has been assigned to the frontlines and that as someone willing he give his life to the glorious homeland, he has at least as much right, nay, even more right to occupy the observation deck than any other person here. Considering the ultranationalistic, ultramilitaristic atmosphere at the time, nobody is able to shoo him away, so he stays in the train, though obviously as an outsider to the invited guests. The officer stays inside a private compartment during the trip, while the train stops at Kyoto and finally at Kobe, but there the reporter is surprised to see the officer has disappeared. He wanted to have a short interview with him at the end of the trip and had been extra watchful to catch the officer at the platform, but the reporter swears the officer never left the train at Kobe, or Kyoto and yet he wasn't in the compartment either. While one could just assume that the officer just managed to leave the station at Kobe without the journalist noticing, as according to the files the officer did reach China, where he died on the battlefield, the reporter still thought it was very strange. It's this seemingly impossible disappearance that Totsugawa sees as the motive for the murders in the present, and he is soon proven right, as he notices that all the guests in 1987 who also attended in 1940 initially lie about the officer being in the train and seem very evasive about his presence even after admitting he was there.

As said, the past narrative only makes up for about one-third of the book, so this disappearance isn't a really complex case: most of what happened can be guessed pretty easily as there are a few scenes that are telegraphing a bit took much, but I have to say: the reasons explaining what exactly happened in the past are really well grounded in the war sentiments of that time, and a lot of it makes only sense in that ultranationalistic atmosphere. It really builds on the idea of a society in war, where some are too afraid to open their mouths in fear of being accused of being a traitor, while others are seeing a higher cause in the war and think their actions are absolutely right. It results in a rather unique setting and this is definitely an aspect of the book I appreciated a lot more on this second read. And I am not sure if this was the intention, but for some reason this book also feels like it subverses/plays with the solution to one of Agatha Christie's better known stories (okay, *most* of her stories are well-known), and while it's not a *brilliant* play, I do find it funny how it could play with your expectations if you already knew the Christie story.

The present chapters in comparison aren't as interesting: more murders happen here and Totsugawa sees the officer's disappearance (?) in 1940 as the motive, but the murders that occur here aren't "mysterious" in the sense of how, as anyone could've committed them and it just comes down to Totsugawa having to figure out who could have some connection to the missing officer. The ending also feels a bit too convenient, with people having exact knowledge of what happened just turning up to explain things. Again, the motive here is really well-connected to the past and the circumstances there, but don't expect impossible disappearances or crafty time schedule-based alibi tricks here. The deaths here are straightforward, and mostly serve as a vehicle to tell the story of the past.

Choutokkyuu Tsubame-gou [Event Train] Satsujin Jiken isn't some kind of hidden masterpiece by Nishimura Kyoutarou, but I am happy to have given it a second chance. Of course, part of the fun for me was reading this book in just a few hours now rather than weeks with a dictionary, but I could appreciate some aspects of the book better this time now I didn't have to look up things all the time and could just focus on the narrative. The war-time atmosphere and the focus on the Tsubame are definitely the highlights of this book, resulting for some memorable moments, and while I don't think this is a book I would especially recommend to someone looking to read a Nishimura, it's definitely I can see as a Rank B book that I might suggest if you have already read the truly famous ones.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『超特急「つばめ号」(イベントトレイン)殺人事件』

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