Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Hand of God

"The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death."

I have to admit, I had heard of the term "Dance of the Seven Veils" before, but never knew it came from Salome!

Set in the Taisho era (1912-1924), Yuuki Haruo's Salome no Guillotine ("Salome's Guillotine", 2024) starts with the Dutchman Cornelis van Riemsdijk receiving a letter from the Japanese painter Iguchi Sakuta. Van Riemsdijk hails from a prominent family in the Netherlands, but during his father's generation, the family had some financial problems, forcing them to sell some of the art they owned. An antique table clock Cornelis was fond of had been sold to Iguchi Chuujirou, a Japanese friend of Cornelis' father. Cornelis later became a succesful investor, and now many years later, hopes to buy the table clock back from Iguchi Sakuta, the grandson of Chuujirou. Iguchi doesn't own the clock himself anymore, but is able to contact the current owner and arranges for the clock to be sold back to Cornelis van Riemsdijk during a visit to Japan. To discuss things, Van Riemsdijk visits Iguchi, who has his friend (and reformed burglar) Hasuno interpret for him. During his visit, Van Riemsdijk asks to see some of Iguchi's own art, and stowed away in his atelier, Van Riemsdijk is surprised to see the painting of the back of a woman in an orange dress. To Iguchi's great surprise, Van Riemsdijk tells him he has seen a painting with the exact same composition in the United States recently. Iguchi has never publically revealed this painting, so he doesn't understand how this could be, until he learns the other painting was found among the belongings of Yanase, a wealthy art collector who disappeared to America a few months ago: while Iguchi wasn't too close to Yanase, a lot of the other artists in the artists' assocation Iguchi belongs to did know the man well, as Yanase often borrowed money to artists in need. Iguchi then remembers that while he had been working on his painting, he had one day invited the members of the artists' association to his home, and that was the only time anyone could've snuck inside his atelier to take a look at his painting and plagiarize it. But why would anyone do that? Another mystery is the fact that behind scandalous pictures of a woman were found hidden in the frame of the plagiarized painting in America. Van Riemsdijk does like the painting however, and says he'll buy the painting if Iguchi can prove his painting is the original, and that the other is the plagiarized one.

Iguchi thus suspects one of his fellow artists must have plagiarized his painting and starts poking around together with Hasuno and his niece Mineko, an indepedent girl growing in modern Japan. It is at this time, Iguchi learns some of the members of his artists' association are involved in the forgery of art pieces. Suspecting the plagiarizing painter might be one of the forgers too, he tries to learn who they are, but then the investigation into that of theft, changes to one into murder: first Mineko happens to witness the murder of a woman in an abandoned shack in the outskirts of Nakano, soon followed by the murder on one of the artists outed as a forger. What binds these two deaths together, is Oscar Wilde's Salome: the woman Mineko saw, was dressed as Salome and the murdered artist's body was positioned in a manner to invoke King Herod. While Iguchi and Hasuno continue their investigations, more murders occur, but how are the plagiarized painting and the murders all connected?

I have to admit I was surprised when I first learned of the title of this book. In 2022, Yuuki Haruo published the excellent Hakobune ("The Ark") and in 2023, he published another book with a biblical theme: Jikkai ("The Ten Commandments"). I had expected this year's book to be something like Revelations, so imagine how puzzled I was when I saw the third book was... based on a play based on an episode from the Bible. I read Jikkai last year by the way and already have the review written and scheduled to be published in a few months, but as Salome's Guillotine is a fairly recent release, I decided to post this review first. That doesn't really matter story-wise by the way: while the three books all have biblical inspirations, the stories themselves are not connected at all (Salome's Guillotine isn't even set in the modern day, like the other two books). 

Pre-publication edit: Oh, and between me finishing this book and this post being published, I also learned that Salome's Guillotine is in fact not even the first book starring the pair of Iguchi and Hasuno! After reading this book, I picked another book by Yuuki from the to-be-read pile, which to my surprise starred the painter and burglar too. Turns out Salome's Guillotine was the third one already. So once again, I managed to read a series out of order...

Both Hakobune and Jikkai had very clear and easily understandable story concepts, the first about a group of people trapped in an underground shelter, and the second about people trapped on an island and being controlled through a set of rules, but Salome's Guillotine is very different. I have to admit at first I wasn't too charmed by the somewhat chaotic way the plot unfolded: the initial mystery is "finding out who the plagiarizer" is, but then we learn about forgeries, and then we have a plotline about Mineko just wandering about and stumbling upon a murder scene: a lot happens in the story of Salome's Guillotine, but often scenes seem to come out of nowhere, and the connection between one scene and another sometimes seems non-existent, with some events feeling incredibly random (the Mineko part for example). Even the obi (the strip of paper Japanese book often have with some marketing slogans on it) has trouble presenting a clear story, saying the book is a tale of "The death of a brilliant artist, the secret of a stage actress, cases of plagiarism and forgery and mitate murders (murders made to resemble/themed after something)." Compared to the very focused storytelling of Hakobune and Jikkai which you could explain with one sentence, Salome's Guillotine just felt disjointed. That said, it did invoke the feeling of a Taisho/early Showa-era detective novel like Edogawa Rampo would write, with mysterious or adventurous events happening in rapid succession to tell a more sensational type of story and considering this book is set in that period, I assume this storytelling style was chosen intentionally, but depending on the reader, it might feel like it takes a long time before the story starts to really focus. At the same time, this story is far more open than Hakobune and Jikkai, being set in the city of Tokyo and spanning a far longer period, so it doesn't feel so claustrophobic, and I did like that a lot, as you see more characters going about doing their business.

What is interesting is that mainly Iguchi and Mineko do try to present a lot of deductions and theorizing throughout the novel despite the seemingly disjointed events, (Hasuno is more the "I'll tell you when I am sure" type). Because so much happens, their deductions often focus on specific events, allowing for different types of deductions. We have some segments that rely on physical evidence and Ellery Queen-style of deductions, focusing on questions how people would use certain objects. Other parts, we see the detectives focus more on matters like the alibi of each suspect, or in some cases, even the psychology of the suspects. None of these parts usually allow them to point at one specific suspect with absolutely certainty, which can make these reasoning parts feel a bit "useless", but overall, the book does a good job at keeping the mystery reader engaged as it does attempt to show the reader how each part could be a part of the (admittedly rather large) picture.

Halfway through the book, I felt Salome's Guillotine was really the kind of book that could stand or fall depending on the conclusion and how it'd tie everything together, but I was already relieved when I arrived at the start of the conclusion and realized based on the page count Yuuki was going to use almost twenty percent of the total page count to explain everything. And he really did manage to present a great conclusion to the story! Books with such long denouements often tend to be in the Ellery Queen school, as they go over every event, presenting long chains of deductions and showing how each event serves as a clue to the solution, and this process usually ends up being the main focus/the most impressive part, but that's surprisingly not exactly the case for Salome's Guillotine. While it still utilizes some of these Queenian chains, the most memorable aspect of this book is absolutely the motive for the murders, and the way the motive forms the connecting tissue to all the seemingly disjointed events that occured throughout the story. It is a brilliant motive that seems so obvious in hindsight as it is dangled right in front of you throughout the whole novel, but at the same time hidden expertly, making so much of the events feel random at first. What is also impressive is that the motive is proven through Queenian deductions, something you don't really often see. While I think the underlying cause for the motive of the murders does require some guessing on the part of the reader, overall, Yuuki did a really fantastic job of explaining everything through motive.

And it also makes the very end of the book feel even more gruesome. The book's title Salome's Guillotine gains a whole new meaning once you make it to the end...

Salome no Guillotine is definitely one of the more memorable reads of this year. While the story is not as straightforward as Hakobune and Jikkai, the book offers an interesting adventure set in artsy circles in the Taisho era. While the book feels a bit chaotic at time, it all comes together in a surprisingly, but extremely satisfying manner just in time before the blade of the guillotine comes crashing down. 

Original Japanese title(s): 夕木春央『サロメの断頭台』


  1. Sounds intriguing. Will this be translated into English?

    May I suggest Richard Strauss's opera of Wilde's Salomé? The final scene still gives me goosebumps; it's at once horrifying and erotic, just as the music is tense and ecstatic and the character transfigured and abominable. If you can get hold of the 1974 Böhm film, Teresa Stratas is unforgettable. Here is her performance of the final scene, in three videos:

    Und das Geheimnis der Liebe ist grösser als das Geheimnis des Todes:

    1. Thanks for the links!

      The book was released just about a month ago in Japan, so probably early days still to tell if it gets translated! (especially as unlike someone like Higashino Keigo, Yuuki isn't an established name in English translation yet).

    2. I remain (delusionally) hopeful that, because a blurb from Yuuki with “The Ark” next to his name was included on the back cover of the English version of The Tokyo Guillotine Murders, we might see a translation of it from Pushkin Vertigo. They’re already publishing English translations of Uketsu’s Strange Pictures and Taku Ashibe’s Murder in the House of Oomari next January and May, respectively. Maybe 2025 is their big push for translations of contemporary titles?

    3. Oh, cool! I do know Kodansha is trying to push Yuki on the international market, so it'd be nice if their efforts paid off!