6/2/19

Journey to the West: Four Detective Stories from the East

Back in March, I posted a comment on a blog-post by John Pugmire, announcing "A New Paul Halter Short in EQMM," in which I suggested he used the, as of now, uncollected translations that have only appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine to compile an anthology of locked room stories – appended with some new material. Pugmire responded there were enough stories in the pipeline that "a second anthology is distinct possibility." Eventually...

So, not content with having to wait until the 2020s roll around, I decided to treat myself to an appetizer and read the remainder of the LRI impossible crime stories from Asia.

EQMM, August, 2014
Szu-Yen Lin is a philosophy scholar at the University of Auckland, who studied aesthetics and philosophy of the arts, but, more importantly, he the representative of the Japanese shin honkaku school of detective fiction in his native Taiwan. Lin has written eight mystery novels and nearly thirty short stories, of which three have found their way to the West. Death in the House of Rain (2006) is a brilliant locked room mystery with strong overtones of Grand Guignol, while "The Miracle on Christmas Eve" (collected in The Realm of the Impossible, 2017) is a disgustingly adorable story about a father who proves to a group of children that Santa Claus exists, but Lin's first short story to appear in English has always eluded me – until now. So let's get started!

A translation of "The Ghost of the Badminton Court" was published in the August, 2014, issue of EQMM and is a very old-fashioned locked room murder in a new setting.

Szu-Yen Lin series-character is Ruoping Lin, an assistant professor of philosophy, who has made a name for himself as an amateur detective. This brings Captain Jhang, of the Hualien County Police Bureau, to his doorstep. Captain Jhang has been investigating a murder committed in the gym of Pacific Ocean University, but the case "features a rather bizarre and inexplicable puzzle" preventing the police from reaching a satisfying conclusion. So his superior advised him to consult the philosopher-detective.

The body was found in the badminton hall, on the second floor of the four-story building, on the morning after the badminton team had their weekly practice and locked up the place. Syu Jhiming, the court manager, walked around the courts, checked the windows and locked the door behind him – depositing the keys in a lock-box under supervision of Mr. Chen. A new employee without a shred of a motive to commit the murder that was discovered when the door to the badminton hall was opened the following morning. One of the team members, Jiang Weisin, lay face-up near the door "surrounded by three lines of shuttlecocks" forming "a white triangle."

Evidently, the only person who could have feasibly committed the murder is the court manager, Jhiming, but evidence suggests he had been nothing more than a pawn in a carefully contrived murder. So who did it? And how?

A long-time, semi-obsessive reader of impossible crime fiction will immediately know the crux of the locked room-trick when they see the floor plan. A trick very familiar to locked room readers, but how it was executed is a different problem altogether. The result is a pleasantly knotty problem with many moving parts and a new variation on an old locked room-trick.

I think it's to Szu-Yen Lin's credit, as a mystery writer, "The Ghost of the Badminton Court" is still the weakest of his three detective stories published in English. So I hope more will follow in the hopefully not so distant future.

EQMM, August, 2015
Earlier this year, Pushkin Vertigo published the eagerly anticipated translation of Soji Shimada's second detective novel, Naname yashiki no hanzai (Murder in the Crooked House, 1982), which is a modern locked room tale that felt like a genuine Golden Age mystery – a more than worthy successor to Senseijutsu satsujinjiken (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, 1981). Even if it missed some of its macabre grandiosity. However, these are not the only works from the hands of the doyen of shin honkaku. There are two great short stories!

"The Executive Who Lost His Mind" ("Hakkyō-suru jūyaku," 1984) was published in the August, 2015, issue of EQMM and is a bizarre, not easily defined impossible crime story, but a modern take on John Dickson Carr's classic radio-play "The Dead Sleep Lightly" (collected in The Dead Sleep Lightly, 1983) would be a fair description. In any case, the story is a minor tour-de-force.

This story doesn't feature his astrologist-detective, Kiyoshi Mitarai, but his secondary series-character, Takeshi Yoshiki, who's (as far as I could gather) an interpreter of alternative facts and here he listens to a story that could have come "right out of a tale by Poe" – which is told to him by a policeman, Yoshiki. A story that begins long before the executive director of the K Trading Company is found in his private-office "staring wild-eyed at a high-heeled shoe perched on the desk in front of him."

Shintaro Inudo is the absolutely ruthless, forty-one-year-old executive director of the trading company and he has cultivated a reputation "as something of a womanizer." This is why his private-office was so plush, because he liked to bring woman back there after his regular late-night drinking sessions. Oh, he has a wife and kids at home, but the most shameful, ongoing episode from his double-life is when he raped a young woman, Ikuko Koike, who he then continued to blackmail. Forcing her to sleep with him and giving him money. What he really got off on was the control he had over her. Their one-sided affair culminated in his private-office when Inudo took away Koike's clothes and forced her to stay there until he returned, but she had to get home before her husband returned.

So she simply vanished under inexplicable circumstances from the private-office on the top-floor of the trading company. Koike was never seen again.

Several months later, Inudo is visited by a young woman who not only like Koike, but is dressed exactly like her on the day he raped her, which twenty years ago, but this ghostly visitation is a human being of flesh and blood. Someone who knows too much and has to be silenced. So he throws the woman out of the window of private-office, on the fifth floor, but this is when the absolute impossible happened, because the body he finds below is that of a mummified woman with a completely emaciated face – two black holes where the eyes had been. Somehow, the body had rapidly deteriorated at a supernatural speed during its fall from the fifth floor window!

The solution to these series of unlikely and downright impossible occurrences is brilliantly daring and came about during "a set of amazing coincidences" stretched across several months. 

This story is not one of Shimada's intricate jigsaw puzzles (The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) or three-dimension locked room enigmas (Murder in the Crooked House), but an elaborately laid-out pattern of domino stones, linking everything together, which is revealed when all the domino stones have fallen. A pattern formed by the Merrivalean blinking' cussedness of things in general. This story is the absurdly bizarre done right. Just like Carr's The Hollow Man (1935) or Hake Talbot's The Hangman's Handyman (1942), which also deals with a body decomposing at a supernatural speed. Shimada really is a modern-day Carr or Talbot.

The third story of this review is another impossible crime story by Shimada, "The Running Dead" ("Shissou suru shisha," 1985), which was published in the November/December, 2017, issue of EQMM and has one of Shimada's grand-style tricks. One that kind of reminded me of those you often find in Detective Conan.

Kiyoshi Mitarai is back here as the story's detective and is a guest at the apartment of Genji Itoi, the owner of the jazz bar Zig-Zag, who entertains jazz players and music aficionados every other Saturday. One of the guests, Namura, performs a mind-reading act involving numerous items, mainly watches, a ring and a pearl necklace, after which they play music together and this scene has Mitarai playing the guitar – which is suddenly interrupted by a power outage. Another guest, Kubo, enters the darkened room and snatches the pearls from the table. They decide to pursue Kubo and Namura saw him climb over at one end of a T-shaped corridor, on the eleventh floor, which has no emergency staircase. Just a sheer drop to certain death, but where did the body go? Nothing is found on the street below. As if he "disappeared in midair."

The body of Kubo is found a short time later on an elevated, three-story high railway track, run over by a train, but the medical examiner found strangulation marks on his throat. 

EQMM, Nov/Dec, 2017
So how did a dead man manage to steal a string of peals, vanish miraculously from a dead-end corridor on the eleventh floor and cover the distance between the apartment and elevated railway track, in the middle of a storm, to be just in time to be run over by a train? This is patently impossible, but still happened and the problem of the running corpse reminded me of the impossible resurrection from my favorite Jonathan Creek episode, The Black Canary (1998).

Admirably, Shimada dazzles the reader with a solution as complex and involved as its premise, but, as fantastical as it may seen, it's compelling and strangely believable. I think you can put this down to human cunning and a fluke of circumstances coming together to create a truly baffling brainteaser. There's a reason why Japanese mystery fans refer to Shimada as "God of Mystery." Seriously, if more of his work gets translated, Shimada might become a serious treat to Carr when it comes to the #1 slot of my favorite mystery writers. Shimada is the iconic mystery novelist of our time and it's a crime only two novels and three short stories have been translated into English.

By the way, I loved the maps, challenge to the reader and the casual, almost bored way in which Mitarai rushes through the "obvious" solution, because he doesn't want to miss a concert on TV. And then he tells the policeman to get back to him when he has "a case that’s more complex than today's." What a way to put your detective over!

Finally, I have a short story from the 1930s to close out this review, namely "The Spider" ("Kumo"), which was first published in English in the December, 2015, issue of EQMM and collected in Foreign Bodies (2017). The story was written by Saburō Kōga, a contemporary of "Edogawa Rampo," who debuted with Shinjuto no himitsu (The Secret of the Pearl Tower, 1923) and seems to have been, like Rampo, a follower of Edgar Allan Poe.

"The Spider" is a detective story masquerading as a turn-of-the-century horror story and centers around the bizarre, isolated laboratory of Professor Tsujikawa.

EQMM, December, 2015
Professor Tsujikawa used to be a leading authority on physical chemistry, but he gave up his seat as a university professor and started research on a completely different topic, spiders, which is why had a tube-like laboratory constructed on the outskirts of Tokyo – resembling "a misshapen lighthouse" or "a time-worn fire watchtower." The bizarre laboratory was filled with "the strangest spiders from all over the world." Every time the world had forgotten the professor, the laboratory was brought back to everyone attention by two particular events. A friend and colleague from university, Professor Shiomi, fell to his death from the laboratory. Four weeks later, the professor is bitten by "a poisonous tropical spider" and is rushed to the hospital in critical condition. Where he died a week later.

Slowly, the narrator discovers that there was a cunning, but disturbed, mind behind these deaths. A mind that went to extreme lengths to commit the perfect murder.

"The Spider" is a detective story in the tradition of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898) and Keikichi Osaka's The Ginza Ghost (2017), but with a grotesque touch of Poe and Rampo. Not a classic by any means, or even baffling, but I still enjoyed it for what it was.

So, all in all, these were all good to excellent short stories with "The Executive Who Lost His Mind" as the standout of the group. I would even say it's a minor classic and they all deserve to be gathered in a brand new locked room anthology, but, hopefully, with a ton of new material. Because, you know, I have already read these ones (sorry, John). What more can I say except that I hope will be flooded the coming years with translations of these ingenious Japanese detective novels and short stories.

7 comments:

  1. Good stories, all of 'em, and you might just get your wish for more new stuff: there's a story by The 8 Mansion Murders author Takemaru Abiko listed in the upcoming July/August issue...

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    1. I know! I've already read and reviewed the story, which is scheduled to be posted later this month. :)

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    2. Dude! Have you read it somewhere else already, or do you have a connection?

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    3. John Pugmire was kind enough to let me read the story and it will be reviewed alongside a handful of other short detective stories with an international flavor (like Anne van Doorn and Paul Halter).

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    4. Sounds great, really looking forward to your thoughts.

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  2. So The Running Dead is actually a highly abbreviated version of the original story (to fit in EQMM). More than half of the story was cut (mostly the set-up of the story). Shimada sent me the edited version on paper, so when I first unpacked the bundle, all I found were pages which had been crossed out with pencil, rendering half of the bundle quite unneccesary :P

    And oh yeah, perhaps I should make an announcement post about A Smart Dummy... Personally a big fan of the tone of the story.

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    1. "Personally a big fan of the tone of the story."

      Yes, I mentioned in my review you must have been pleased with the references to Osamu Tezuka and Jack Black. ;)

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