January in Japan: A Locked Room Mystery

Soji Shimada: Murder in the Crooked House, transl. Louise Heal Kawai

I read this for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13 hosted by Meredith. Go and see what other Japanophiles have been reading and reviewing.

The Pushkin Vertigo series has a predilection for the more classic type of crime fiction stories. They’ve published Margaret Millar, Frederic Dard, Leo Perutz, as well as the famous Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac that gives its name to the whole imprint. So I knew what to expect when I ordered myself Shimada’s locked room mystery, although the author writes in many different sub-genres, often including horror or supernatural elements. Indeed, this book is more comic than scary, although grimmer than you would expect cosy crime fiction to be. It most closely resembles a Golden Age detective story, with all the clues (including drawings) painstakingly laid out for the reader to match their wits against the renowned sleuth – who in this case only enters the story in Act Three.

Kozaburo Hamamoto is a wealthy company director who has built himself a strange house on the northernmost tip of the northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido. It is called The Crooked House, because all of the floors are uneven and sloping, there are staircases leading to some floors but not others, and the master bedroom is in a leaning glass tower accessible only by a drawbridge. There are plenty of guest rooms, but some of them are filled with all sorts of creepy collectors’ items such as life-size puppets, masks and automatons. Hamamoto has invited several guests, including one or two of his business partners, to spend Christmas 1983 with him and his daughter. There are some tensions between the guests, but nothing too untoward. Nevertheless, after the first snowbound night, one of the guests is found dead in apparently impossible circumstances, in a locked room, while all the other guests seem to have an alibi. The police is called in but they are unable to solve the mystery and, after a couple more deaths, they decide to send for the private investigator Kiyoshi Mitarai. Initially, he does not impress either the guests or the police with his exuberant style, but of course you underestimate the super-sleuth at your own peril.

This has all of the required nods to the classic country house mystery, similar to the recent film Knives Out, and it is about as plausible as the film too, and entertaining. Clues and red herrings are liberally sprinkled throughout the text, and avid armchair investigators may be able to solve part of the puzzle (I defy them to figure the whole thing out, though!). However, I did find the repetition and the insistence on carefully going through all the materials and clues a bit tiresome. I was far more interested in the psychology of the guests and their interaction, but there wasn’t quite enough of that to satisfy me.

There are some descriptions of the desolate snowy plain and the ice floes in the sea around the house, but overall this is not as atmospheric as I would have hoped from a Japanese writer.

There are many references to Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, Poe and many other Western writers, as well as links to Japanese classics which might be less obvious to readers in the English speaking world. There is a lot of flamboyant posturing and presenting of a ‘masked face’ to the world which is reminiscent of Kabuki theatre. None of the guests (or hosts or household staff) are exactly what they appear to be at first glance. And, because this is the modern world of 1983 after all, there is lot less prudish reserve in describing some of the things going on between the guests.

An intriguing (but at times tedious) read, with a rather far-fetched solution. Entertaining enough, especially on a winter’s evening, but the motivations were murky and so, overall, it was not terribly memorable.

The Devotion of Suspect X

January in JapanPerhaps this is not quite the literary work that Tony had in mind when he proposed the January in Japan reading month. It’s crime fiction, so it combines my love of a (fictional) criminal life with my love for Japanese authors. But, above all, it is a love story of a very unusual kind, something that Japanese literature excels in.

I had never heard of Keigo Higashino when I downloaded a copy of ‘The Devotion of Suspect X’. I let it sit on my e-reader for a while: perhaps the blurb ‘the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ put me off? But then I heard this novel had been nominated for awards both at home and abroad, and several bloggers I trust also gave it the thumbs up. (A couple did not like it, though, which made me all the more curious to read it.)

DevotionI am used by now to the challenges of translating well from Japanese. A simple, unadorned style becomes flat and lifeless in English and yes, the American slang was slightly disconcerting. However, setting that aside, I found much to like about this book. It is not a flashy thriller with wacky surreal elements in the style of Murakami (either of the two, Haruki or Ryu), nor is it relentlessly dark and hopeless like a Natsuo Kirino novel. This is an apparently simple story of cat and mouse, slightly reminiscent of ‘Crime and Punishment’. A murder is committed, somewhat accidentally, within the first few pages of the book. Single mother Yasuko and her daughter are distraught and rely on the help of their next-door neighbour Ishigami to cover up the crime. The rest of the book is dedicated to trying to unravel their alibi. Police detective Kusanagi feels something is not quite right about the scenario, and finally turns to his friend, physicist and amateur detective Yukawa, for help. It turns out that Yukawa and Ishigami knew each other in college, and they engage in a rather chilling battle of wits.

It’s not just the puzzle which I find intriguing (and the author manages to keep a few tricks up his sleeve), but the way in which guilt, sense of duty, obligation and affection affects these rather lonely characters and draws them to one another. I had a strong sense of sadness while reading this, feeling sorry for all the people involved, especially those who are deluded enough to believe that logic alone can triumph. The ‘unknowability’ of human feelings always interferes and spoils the best-laid plans.

This book should be more palatable to Western audiences than Kirino, yet it still retains enough Japanese characteristics to make it a quirky read, rather different from standard crime fiction fare.