Wednesday, April 24, 2024

The Upper Flat

“I learned (what I suppose I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back—that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a One Way Street, isn’t it?” 
"At Bertram's Hotel"

Now I think about it, it's been a while since I last stayed in a hotel...

It was Kujuu Masanosuke who made the Palace Side Hotel into one of the biggest and most succesful in Tokyo. While the hotel started out modestly as the Palace Hotel with only about fifty rooms, Kujuu's aggressive, but inspired leadership led to the organization growing into a gigantic 35-floor hotel, with two-thousand rooms and seventy event halls. Recently, the Tokyo Royal Hotel had been catching up, and even overtook the Palace Side Hotel's at the top, but Kujuu managed to arrange for a deal with Clayton International Corporation, routing their international visitors to Japan to the Palace Side Hotel to create a very steady stream of income. The deal is almost signed and done, though there are some internal objections to the deal within the Palace Side top management. So when Kujuu was found murdered in his private suite room on the 34th floor, the police had plenty of people to suspect: was it someone on the Palace Side Hotel side, or perhaps someone of the competition, who feared the CIC deal? But what puzzles the police even more, is the double locked room situation in which Kujuu's body was found in Room 3401. His suite consists of a living room and a bedroom. Obviously, the door connecting to the living room to the hallway was locked, but the connecting door betwen the living room and bedroom was also locked from the bedroom-side. The hotel room key was found on the bedside table, while the other known spare and master keys, in possession of the housekeeping captain of the 34th floor, the hotel manager or kept in the key safe, were confirmed to no have been stolen during the night, when Kujuu was killed. Hiraga, one of the detectives on the case, happens to be dating Fuyuko, who is Kujuu's private secretary and the person closest to Kujuu, as he had no other relatives. It is therefore not strange that Fuyuko becomes a suspect, but she has a perfect alibi for the murder, as she had spent the night with Hiraga when Kujuu was murdered. Early on, the police however manage to solve how the murderer managed to kill Kujuu in the double-locked room, a method which also needs an accomplice. The police don't know yet who the murderer could be, so hope the accomplice will confess everything, but the accomplice is found dead in a hotel room in Fukuoka almost immediately after an arrest warrant was issued. Finding a half-faded note in the toilet, the police eventually manage to identify a man whom they suspect killed Kujuu and the accomplice, but the man has an alibi for the murder in Fukuoka: he checked in before noon at a hotel in Tokyo to work in his room, and checked out late that night. He has no real alibi for the time he was in his hotel room, but at the same time, it would have been impossible for him to commit the murder in the fourteen hour gap, as the police can not find any trace of him having taking the train or plane from Tokyo to Fukuoka, and time-wise it would be nearly impossible in the first place. Can the police still capture this suspect in Morimura Seiichi's Kousou no Shikaku ("The Blind Spot in the High-Rise" 1969)?

Morimura Seiichi was a novelist who started out writing business books originally, but eventually moved on to mystery fiction: Kousou no Shikaku was his debut work as a mystery novelist, with which he won the 15th Edogawa Rampo Prize in 1969. I had heard his name before, but I have to admit I never looked up his work until he passed away about one year ago. That is not to even imply he was a minor novelist though, in fact, he was one of the most succesful mystery novelists in Japan. He was a member of that oh-so very exclusive club of mystery novelists who had over a billion copies of their books in circulation. To put in perspective, an extremely succesful modern-day writer like Higashino Keigo finally managed to reach that milestone last year. Other people on that list would be Nishimura Kyoutarou, Akagawa Jirou and Uchida Yasuo, writers I know and have read, but Morimura was a blind spot in my reading until now. I don't think all of his works are puzzle plot focused, but I at least knew this one was, so there was no better place to start that this book.

I have to admit this book surprised me a few times plot-wise. I had heard about this book being about a perfect alibi, so I was first surprised with a double-locked (hotel) room murder... and then I was surprised again when that double-locked room murder was solved basically two or three chapters later, after which the book focuses indeed on an alibi-cracking plot. The book opens with a cool floorplan of the 34th floor of the Palace Side Hotel, which is designed like an elongated three-pointed star... but because the locked room is solved so early in the book, you basically never page back to this floorplan, as it's not really relevant to the whole book. A weird choice, because it would have made more sense to just insert that floorplan in the early chapters, instead of at the start of the book. The locked room is solved fairly early, and as you can perhaps guess, the trick is fairly simple. In fact, it was so simple it caught me off-guard. You see, Morimura really goes into detail in his explanation of how hotel doors work, their auto-lock functions, the whereabouts of the spare and master keys and who keep watch over them and all of that, but the solution is in comparision incredibly straightforward, in comparison to the meticulous analysis of the many other (wrong) possibilities. The solution to the how will probably not impress anyone, though I have to say that Morimura's very detailed examination to write off the other possibilities was surprisingly impressive, even if the conclusion is so simple.

It was at this point, I started realizing this was very much like a Freeman Wills Crofts-inspired police procedural. The book moves very, very slow and deliberate, examining each minor step carefully and showing you one thing at a time, before moving on to the next item on the list. I also learned that Morimura in fact used to work at a hotel, which explains why his descriptions of the workings of a hotel are so detailed, which again, factors in how meticulous his investigations are when it comes to hotel affairs. He has great knowledge about procedures in a hotel, how different staff sections work with each other, the manner in which shifts being taken over, how spare and master keys are being supervised, check-in and check-out procedures, guest-staff interactions, even the way how employees from different hotels would interact with each other, all of that comes into play in this book, and each time, the descriptions and explanations are detailed, yet clear. These depictions of hotel workings are definitely a highlight of the book.

Once we arrrive at the Fukuoka murder, you get a book that very much reminds of Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen for very obvious reasons, as there too a murder occurs in Fukuoka, but the main suspect is in a complete different part of the country. In this case, the alibi of the suspect isn't absolutely perfect, as they are only seen checking in and out of the hotel before noon and before midnight, but the police can't find any traces of the suspect having taken the plane from Tokyo to Fukuoka, not even with a fake name. While there are indications of what the murderer must have done after the murder, they don't seem to match the timeline the police try to make for the suspect, as they couldn't have done and still make it back to the hotel to check out (and be seen by someone who knows him). What follows is a very slow, Crofts-esque chipping away at the alibi of the suspect. This process is slow, and is basically always two steps forward, one step back. Each time, the police think they have a brilliant idea of what the suspect could've done to go to Fukuoka to commit the murder, but then they learn it couldn't have been accomplished in that specific way, so then they have to figure out another way, leading to another new idea, and once again learning it doesn't quite work that way. This jerking around takes quite some time, and while you do feel the police are very slowly making progress, it's definitely a police procedural style, where you see that a lot of police work is just... repeating motions and slowly, but surely crossing out possibilities. The murderer's plans are muti-phased and quite complex, and I quite like that, because that explains why the police keep thinking they've got it, but then have to adapt again, but a lot of the steps taken by the killer in this book, are quite outdated. Obviously, this book was published in 1969 so I assume it would have worked like that back then, but 99% of what is done here, would not fly in 2024, and some things, I may have heard once in my life about, like I know things worked like that back then, but I had no active memory of that, so while it didn't feel unfair (that's just how things go with older books), Kousou no Shikaku is definitely a product of its time (in fact it feels very much like a Showa-era story). It's a feeling I also often have when reading Crofts, but Crofts' books are of course much older than this one, and I read plenty of books written in this period, but because this book, like Crofts' work, is so methodical and focuses so much on the details and exact workings of the infrastructure and service industry, sometimes you feel the differences in time more than other books written in the same time, but don't go in as much detail in such things.

Not a big fan of the way the accomplice was portrayed in this book at all by the way, a lot of the actions of the accomplice only seemed to help the killer, but not the accomplice, even at a time where it was clear the killer was also going to kill the accomplice after Kujuu... 

Overall, Kousou no Shikaku was pretty entertaining. The depiction of how a hotel works is the highlight for me of this book, but the methodological manner in which the crime is solved is definitely going to appeal to people who also enjoy Croft's slower police procedurals where an alibi is slowly, very slowly, but surely cracked. I definitely found this an interesting first encounter with Morimura's work, so I might read more in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 森村誠一『高層の死角』

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