Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Twisted Tale

"Mr. Goshima, I find the spiral to be very mystical. It fills me with a deep fascination nothing else in nature... No other shape... I'm sure you will understand how wonderful the spiral is!! It is perfect, the most sublime art!!"

Disclosure: I translated Higashigawa Tokuya's Lending the Key to the Locked Room,

Juumonji Kazuomi was a brilliant constructor who singlehandedly developed his family firm Juumonji Constructions into one of the nation's big construction firms. He often worked on unique buildings, and this was reflected in his holiday home on the small island of Yokoshima in the Seto Inland Sea. This house had a hexagonal shape, with metallic finishes on the exterior and on top, there was a large dome which served as an observation roof deck, from which it could overlook the island and the surrounding sea. Due to its hexagonal shape, the rooms of the house were all situated in the six sides of the hexagon, with a gigantic spiral staircase in the middle of the building. It was at the foot of this staircase that one morning, Kazuomi was lying dead on the floor. At first it seemed like this had been an unfortunate accident of an elderly man falling down the steps of a long staircase, but the Okayama police surgeon arrived at a very surprising conclusion: yes, Kazuomi did die because of a fall, but not of a fall down the stairs: his injuries indicated a steep drop on the floor from at least three stories high. The little blood found at the scene also suggested Kazuomi hadn't met his demise on this spot, but the police could not find any place on the island where he could've fallen and brought to the staircase, especially as this house is by far the highest building on the tiny island. The police eventually had to give up, and ruled it an accident, despite not being able to find out where Kazuomi had actually fallen.

One of the Okayama detectives working on the case was the not-so-bright Souma Takayuki, who happened to be a faaaaaaaaar relative of Yasuko, the widow of Kazuomi. Some months after her husband's death, she has invited Souma and other people to stay during the summer holiday at the house on Yokoshima, something she does every year. Among the other guests are Nonomura Toshie and her daughter Nanae: they are old family friends and Toshie's husband was a politician who was supported by Kazuomi, but now both their husbands have died, Toshie has stepped into the political world, with Yoshiko as her supporter. Long ago, their husbands also expressed a wish to unite the families, and it has been decided the beautiful Nanae will marry one of Kazuomi's sons, the eldest sons Shinichirou and Masao being from a previous marriage and Saburou being Yoshiko's son. This of course despite Nanae not really being into the idea of an arranged marriage. When Souma arrives on the island, he immediately sees how both Shinichirou and Masao, both a bit older than Nanae, try to woo her, with Toshie obviously wanting to push Nanae into eldest son Shinichirou's arms. Meanwhile, Souma also meets with another guest: Kobayakawa Saki is like himself a relative of Yasuko, and she's a private detective. Both the police detective and the private detective see how especially Shinichirou and Masao seem very intent on winning Nanae's heart, but the following morning, the two of them seem to have vanished, until they find the door at the top of the spiral staircase, leading into the roof observation deck locked from the other side. Eventually it is opened from the other side by Masao, which is when they discover the door had been blocked by the dead body of Shinichirou leaning against the door. They search the four rooms on the observation deck, but only Masao was present there and as the door was blocked by the body, it means only Masao could've killed his brother. The police is called from the mainland, but they can't come due to a storm, and while they are waiting for reinforcements to come, more mysterious deaths occur, forcing Souma and Saki to work together to find out who did it in Higashigawa Tokuya's 2005 novel Yakatajima ("The Island of the House"), which also has the alternate English title The Island of the Silver Tower.

Higashigawa Tokuya is a name that appears very often on this blog, even before I translated his Lending the Key to the Locked Room, but most of the reviews about his work are about series, like the Ikagawa City series and Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de. I was originally going to write how Yakatajima is one of those few times I wasn't reading a Higashigawa series novel, but between me reading the novel and me writing this post and me posting this review, a semi-sequel was released in 2022 titled Shikakejima. I'm not sure whether it's directly related, but the titles are very similar, and both books are published by the same publisher and feature similar covers, so at least in terms of "branding" the two books are supposed to form a series. Higashigawa generally doesn't publish books through this publisher (Tokyo Sogen Suiri) by the way, and with a somewhat sobre cover, I was wondering whether this book would have his characteristic comedic tone.

And the answer is yes. It's perhaps not as slapstick comedy like the Ikagawa City series can sometimes get, but you still have somewhat over-the-top characters like Saki (who jumps on a car the first time we see her) and somewhat nonsensical conversations, and of course, as we should expect from Higashiawa, this comedy is also used to hide important clues in rather clever ways. I would say the comedy is toned down a little bit compared to his better known series, but you don't have to expect something that is completely different in style when it comes to storytelling. Comedic mystery is of course Higashigawa's bread and butter, and if you like his other works, Yakatajima will definitely manage to satisfy you there too. I do have the feeling that some parts of the motive fall a bit flat, like it could have worked better if it had been played either more comedic, or more serious, but now it doesn't quite work with me, but your mileage may vary there.

What was a bit different however is how Yakatajima moves away from the often urban settings of his stories, offering a true yakata-mystery, a mystery set in a weird manor or mansion. In fact, last year I read his Squid-sou no Satsujin ("The Squid House Murders", 2022) and I was actually expecting such a mystery based on the title but it turned out to be something quite different. Yakatajima however has a proper strange house, with a hexagonal shape and a gigantic spiral staircase, and of course the locked room on the observation deck roof. Add in the mystery of Kazuomi's "impossible" fall to death and you have the ingredients for a mystery that's quite enjoyable to read, as the book keeps hinting at various mysterious, and that coupled with Higashigawa's smooth writing and funny situations, you'll be through this book in no time.

A lot of the mysteries that occur in this book ultimately tie back to a common underlying idea, and while I like the idea on its own, I think that people who are familiar with these kinds of mystery novels might be able to guess fairly early on what is going on. Once you arrive at the idea, a lot of the problems just vanish right away, so that's a bit disappointing, though again, I like the base idea in general and it's quite memorable. What is perhaps better in execution however is the clewing: the trail of clues that lead to the killer is quite comprehensive and much of the clues are cleverly hidden within comedic conversations and happenings, and if you're used to reading Higashigawa, you're always trying to look through all comedic conversations which actually makes spotting the real clues a bit harder. But I was quite impressed with the Queen-esque clues left throughout the narrative, with the focus not only on physical clues, but very much on concepts of 'who knew what at what time to allow them to do this?". And that works pretty well with the concept of the aforementioned 'underlying idea', which is basically howdunnit, while the whodunnit threads are a bit more subtle and not as universal as the howdunnit idea, but it does add a lot of depth to the mystery.

But overall, I enjoyed Yakatajima as a standalone novel, and it's a competently written mystery that I can recommend any Higashigawa fan. I'm also curious to the semi-sequel Shikakejima, as it ranked in the 2023 Honkaku Mystery Best 10 list (which covers books published late 2021 - late 2022), so it should be quite entertaining too. So perhaps I'll read that book this year too!

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『館島』

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