Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Way Up to Hades

"I have looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror, and even the skies of spring and the flowers of summer must ever afterward be poison to me."
"The Call of Cthulhu"

There are good covers, there are great covers, and there are absolutely amazing covers.

When Amy Griffith was young, she used to play with fairies at the prehistoric standing stone monument in her home town. She was caught on photograph talking to a mysterious light by a newspaper reporter, and briefly became known as the Fairy Girl, but later the adults assumed she must have lied or just imagined things. But about a decade later, the Empire has been caught up by a spiritualist rage, and having moved to the capital to make some money for her family, Amy is now known as the Fairy Lady.... but in actuality, she's just a charlatan, using cheap parlor tricks to spice up her seance sessions. When she is visited by Darren Dunglas, a professional assessor of the Imperial Spiritualist Institution, the man immediately sees through her tricks, but for some reason he does seem to think that she can actually talk to fairies, and thus he can not understand why she's relying on parlor tricks. Both of them happen to be invited by the famous mystery writer Lenard Thorndyke to visit the infamous Blasphemy Mansion, which the author recently required. The house stands in a marshland and had been in the possession of the Davenport clan. Two hunderd years ago, Bradley Davenport was head of a secret club that worshipped the devil, and they did everything blasphemous in the house, from black magic ceremonies to orgies. Artists were also given a free hand, resulting in the house not only housing satanistic imagery like a statue of the Sabbatic Goat,  a gigantic Wicker Man in the back garden, but also rather erotic frescos and statues. The secret club is even said to have opened a hole to hell itself two hunderd years ago, which is why the courtyard is now completely sealed off: every door and window originally leading or looking into the courtyard has been bricked up. Bradley was eventually executed, though the house remained in Davenport hands, but last year, the last heir of the Davenports, Seraphina, disappeared, and Lenard quickly bought the house, as he is very interested in both spirits, as well as the treasure of the Davenports which is supposed to be hidden in the house.

For that reason, he has invited a group of spiritualists (as well as Darren) to stay for a few days at the Blasphemy House, with the idea being each spiritualist will head a seance to communicate with the spirits. The invitees include spiritualists with powers like taking ghost pictures, automatic writing, channeling spirits and giving them form with ectoplasm and communicating with spirits via rapping, though Amy is quite sure everyone is a phony, just like herself. Which is why she is very shocked to see on the very first night the first spiritualist Miranda Crandon really managing to give a ghost a material form by oozing ectoplasm out of her nose. The ghost points them to a crack in the bricked up door in the main hall, which leads into the courtyard which had been sealed for two-hundred years. They find a cross with pre-Church imagery at the center, and beneath the cross, they find the remains of a woman, which are still well-preserved, suggesting the woman has only been here for at longest a year, even though the courtyard has been closed off for two centuries! A servant is sent off to call for the police, even though the trip will be perilous due to a very heavy snow storm. The following day however, somebody has set fire to the Wicker Man, having placed the body they found inside, and then someone is killed inside the chapel, even though Amy and Darren were the last to leave the victim in that room and they had been in the drawing room ever since, and anyone going to the chapel needs to pass through the drawing room. With the snow storm going on outside, they don't even know whether the police has been notified, but as the spiritualists start to use their powers to communicate with the ghosts in the house to learn what is going on, they find out something sinister is on its way. But is the murder also the result of the supernatural, or did a living person commit this crime in Teshirogi Shoutarou's Tokushinkan Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case in the Blasphemy Mansion" 2023)?

I'll gladly admit the only reason this book caught my attention was the cover art. When it was announced first, I just knew I had to read this book. Of course, a cover doesn't seem much about a book's content, but assuming the cover had something to do with the story itself, the idea of the Sabbatic Goat playing some kind of role in a mystery story was interesting enough. I had never read anything by Teshirogi before, so it was a bit of a gamble, but to start with the conclusion, I was quite pleasantly surprised by the book.

At first I thought the book was going to be like Trick, with a fake psychic/spiritualist teaming up with a more science-based male partner, going up against other fake psychics. Only, that assumption was very soon discarded, as the book makes it clear fairly early on ghosts do actually exists in this world, and yes, there are also real spiritualists who can communicate with the ghosts one way or another. We do see that these ghosts generally can't directly influence the real world: some might sense the presence of ghosts and perhaps hear voices or see ghosts, but we don't actually see ghosts attacking people or moving objects on their own, so the mystery of this book fundamentally still works, as it is clear the answer to the locked room murder isn't just "ghosts did it." Even though it is surprising to see how "normal" ghosts are in this world, though it helps we see things through the eyes of Amy: she alone is the phony psychic here, and she doesn't really believe in ghosts or even fairies anymore, so like the reader, she too is quite surprised to learn at first spirits do exist.

And yes, the fact ghosts exist in this world do lead to some interesting situations mystery-wise. At one point, we even have a set of creepy twin mediums who communicate via rapping with ghosts, and they just decide to have a chat with the victim who just got killed to ask him who killed him. Of course, the mystery doesn't get resolved so easily, but we have several people with different spiritual powers, from ghost pictures to materializing ghosts with ectoplasm to a woman who can actually "time-shift" to the past and witness events that happened centuries ago. Some of these powers are used really cleverly for misdirection, and in a way that only works in this book, because we know the powers are real. In other novels, you might think there's some kind of trick behind them, but here you know you don't have to worry about that, and can focus completely on figuring out the meaning of the various seance sessions in relation to the grander mystery.  There is a a secondary plotline, where the characters try to learn more about the history of the Blasphemy Mansion, and the time when the secret club were having their orgies and doing all their black magic ceremonies, and I really like some of the misdirection that was used here in relation to the seances.

More impossible crimes occur throughout the book, like a woman's decapitated body appearing in a theater of which Amy alone held the key, but I do have to say the actual murders themselves are relatively easy to solve: while the supernatural parts are used very cleverly in terms of design to facilitate these murders, the tricks behind them are ultimately fairly familiar, so you might recognize them early on despite the, otherwise really well-done, dressing with the supernatural. But despite that, I think this book still is a very fun read, as the imagery and atmosphere are really good and you can really feel how the supernatural elements really work with these murders. The ending by the way really moves into cosmic horror avenues, and while some parts are not as strong as other parts of the book I think, like the grander motive behind the murders, it's not something I really mind as it all fits the vibe of the book.

But yeah, I really enjoyed Tokushinkan Satsujin Jiken overall. If you look at it purely as a mystery novel, it might not be as strong as you might hope despite it having some clever uses of its supernatural themes, but as a book that tries to be equal parts mystery and (cosmic) horror, it's a great success I think and I wouldn't be surprised if this one ends up on my favorite list of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 手代木正太郎『涜神館殺人事件』

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