Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Still Waters

So when in tears ]
The love of years 
Is wasted like the snow
"The Forest Reverie"

I think this is the first time I read a "general" fiction book by publisher Tokuma, all the other Tokuma books I ever read where Ghibli-related...

Kaji Tatsuo (1928-1990) was a mystery author who debuted in the fifties of the previous century and basically kept on writing until his death in 1990. Publisher Tokuma started re-publishing some of his books in their label Tokuma's Selection about two or three years ago, and these books have pretty interesting covers, which was what first caught my attention. I hadn't heard of Kaji before, and actually thought initially these were newly written novels, but apparently they have been around for decades, and I saw a few mystery authors I follow on Twitter (...) be quite positive about them, so I decided to pick one up. Kiyosato Kougen Satsujin Bessou ("The Murder Villa in the Kiyosato Plateau") was originally published in 1988, so it was one of Kaji's last novels to be published. The book opens with the arrival of a group at a villa in the Kiyosato Plateau, a popular place for people with means to have a second home. The group of five sneak inside the house with a copy of the key they made earlier, and quickly lock the door behind them. This is a second home the art collector Kawakuchi Kouei had built for his son, but it is not used right now as the son (the stereotypical spoilt son who loves women) has gone missing, and the group plans to use this house for some time. The leader of this group, Katsuura quickly orders the other four to check the rooms and prepare for their stay here. Yoshinobu for example will be cooking for everyone, Ruriko (his girlfriend) helps him move the groceries inside, while Takamori and Kure (who don't really get along with each other and were already arguing upon arrival) start checking out the rooms, while Katsuura disconnects all phones except for one. While checking out the house, they find a shocked woman in one of the bedrooms: Akie tells them she's the daughter of Kawakuchi and that she decides on a whim to come here. The five tell her they have no intention of harming her, but they will be staying her for a few days, waiting for a certain phone call, and they'll be together until then. After a while, Akie learns from Yoshinobu that the five have robbed a bank. They are now staying low in the villa, waiting for their leader to pick up the money from where they hid it, so they can split the money. That is why nobody is allowed to go out of the villa (afraid of traitors), and all the phones are disconnected. They all pick a room to stay in, and Yoshinobu starts preparing dinner. Everyone is waiting for Takamori, who comes stumbling in the room late, but then falls on the floor: he has a dagger in his chest! But who could have stabbed him? Everyone was at the dining table, and they are sure there was nobody else besides Akie in the house... or are they? 

Interesting first experience with Kaji's writings! On the whole, the book follows the very familiar trope of the closed circle situation of a villa during a snowy night, though technically, this is not really a closed circle that is cut off from the world due to the snow: the group of five choose to not leave the villa, because they robbed a bank and have to stay hidden for a while in this house. This is an interesting idea for a closed circle, the "self-inflicted" closed circle (like the sect in Arisugawa's Jooukoku no Shiro), where a (believable) reason has to be given why these people don't just step out of the house and call for help from the police. It works here, I think, partially also because we have Akie, an extra character who is not part of the robbers, so they have even more reasons to not just leave while she has seen them and talked with them. I'd love to see more of these self-chosen closed circle situations actually...

As a closed circle mystery however, Kiyosato Kougen Satsujin Bessou is pretty predictable for about 80% of the book. The cast is pretty small (and the book is short), so the counter of survivors goes down rather quickly, and a lot of the murders are fairly straight-forward. There's often an element of impossibility/implausibility involved with the murders, like when one of them is poisoned, or another is found dead in the hallway even though it doesn't seem anyone could've done it time-wise, but these impossible angles are not really played up to very strongly, and most of the time it seems they shrug it off as 'oh, but perhaps it could've been done anyway'. I think the impossibility angle is kinda hard to achieve, because ultimately, the setting is just one villa, and there's only that much "unobserved" space in a house with 6 people in it, so I guess it would be difficult to really make it feel impossible, but the book tries to feel both claustrophobic, while also trying to sell some deaths as semi-impossible in a setting that's not really suited for it, so that kinda fell flat for me. When you learn the solution to most of these murders, you'll probably just shrug and say 'sure, okay, I guess that works.' (and probably shake your head at the first one). The middle murder might be the most interesting, using a rather unexpected prop in a clever way to create a kind of impossibility, and the hints pointing at the prop can be rather tricky.

But, I have to say, the book really got me at the end. The ending went in a direction I had not expected at all, but in hindsight, I have to admit it was really pretty well telegraphed. Some moments I simply thought there was weird writing, but it turns out they were clues building up to the ending. If the book had not featured this ending, it would have at best an average closed circle mystery (mostly saved by the middle murder), but I have to say this ending does pull the book into the 'oh, I think that was worth reading' territory. The misdirection works really well in this book. The motive of the murderer was not as convincing I think, it might be a 'your mileage may vary' thing, but I think that overall, the book was worth the time I spent on it.

So I did enjoy Kiyosato Kougen Satsujin Bessou as a short read. For a long time, the book develops as a rather predicatable closed circle thriller with on the whole, not really inspired murders, and while the ending may not be the kind of eye-opening conclusion you'll remember for decades like And Then There Were None, I do have to say the book will probably end up a lot better than you'll initially expect based on the middle part of the book. It's a short novel anyway, so it's not like it'll take up much of your time, but it'd be a shame if you'd give up early on it, as I did really like the ending. I'll probably try out more of Kaji's work in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 梶龍雄『清里高原殺人別荘』

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