Friday, January 3, 2020

FFB: Shimada & Yokomizo: A Showdown of Narrative Styles

Two books that were eligible for Best Vintage Mystery Reprint of the Year were the first English translations of decades old Japanese mystery novel. I read both in December and while I perhaps would’ve nominated one of them (but not both) someone else beat me to the one worthy of the award. Each is an example of fantastical plotting techniques that make Japanese detective fiction both admirable and infuriating to a diehard fan.

First let me tackle Murder in the Crooked House (1982) by Soji Shimada. Shimada wrote the brazenly audacious The Tokyo Zodiac Murders which I read decades ago long before it was reprinted. It’s a perfect example of the new vein or “orthodox” Japanese murder mysteries that incorporate puzzles into detective novels. And in this case the word incorporate is literal.

But these puzzles are not baffling aspects of the case they are the entire reason the book and story exists. To the Japanese mystery writer and those who devour this very specific type of detective novel a puzzle is a puzzle is a puzzle. Nothing else really matters. The solution to The Tokyo Zodiac Murders is in fact something I came across as a teenager in a puzzle book which has nothing to do with killing or murder. It is a simple tangram puzzle. What Shimada does is both ingenious and utterly perverse in how he adapts the puzzle as part of his solution to his murder mystery.

Similarly, Murder in the Crooked House is nothing but a puzzle. While not inspired by a tangram the plot does incorporate a ridiculous idea – that someone would construct an entire house in order to obtain murderous revenge. The reader must not only suspend disbelief and enter a wholly fantastic universe, but must accept that someone would find it necessary to spend thousands of dollars (or yen, I guess) and well as investing several years of their life in carrying out this vigilante style retribution for a decades old past wrong.

Admittedly, the revenge plot that is years in the making is a timeworn detective novel motif. This is not what I take exception to. In mystery novels like The Tragedy of X and Thirteen Women, where a revenge plot may have been the product of monomania and taken years to plan and reach fruition the murder methods are fairly simple. It is the motive that is unknown to the reader and detectives. This is the puzzle that must be worked out.

And granted there is an entire subgenre of detective novels where the murder method is baffling to the police and this creates much of the gameplay, so to speak, as the reader tries to match wits with the detective in the story. Both are trying to figure out not so much the whodunnit aspect of the crime but the howdunnit.

In both examples the puzzle is an aspect of the crime or crimes. It does not encompass the entirety of the story, it is not the raison d’être. Murder in the Crooked House is not really a detective novel at all. It is a series of puzzles with one overarching puzzle that serves as the pièce de résistance. This is not what detective fiction is about; it is an unfortunate consequence of stressing, practically worshipping, form over substance. In the case of Murder in the Crooked House form, in all its contexts, is everything -- the architecture of the fictional house becomes the architecture of the plot. Once the reader is presented with the preposterous reasoning of the murderer and the full outline of the various murder methods, however, the house's true purpose is revealed and as a direct result, ironically, the story simply collapses. There is no satisfaction in having arrived at the end and discovering that the characters were puppets, the motive was cliché, and the house itself was one gigantic murder method dying to carry out its landlord’s diabolical wishes.

As some wise guy might say in an American pulp novel when presented with one of these absurd impossible crimes: “Pulling a trigger would’ve been faster and helluva lot easier.”

On the other hand a Japanese detective novel can present us with a puzzling murder, done in a bizarre manner and still be entertaining to read, fun to match wits with the detective, and leave the reader with a the satisfying feeling of having read a true novel populated with complex people with human emotions and understandably sound motives. The crimes may be bizarre but there is an inherent logic about why they appear bizarre or why the method had to be baroquely constructed. This is the success of The Honjin Murders (1948), a thoroughly Japanese mystery steeped in the culture and mores of pre-WW2 era Japan with characters who behave according to both their own personal code of honor as well as Japanese custom.

The added bonus is that the book is a homage to the entire detective novel genre with one character an avowed mystery novel collector and reader of the “classics”. Our mystery writer narrator (the voice of Yokomizo himself I am assuming) also reminds us of his own knowledge of Western novels like The Red House Mystery and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

This is a genuine detective novel with interesting characters, while some like the matriarch Iwoko are eventually consigned to the background and the elder daughter is entirely absent from the plot, there is never any doubt that we care about the fate of the Ichiyangi family. Kosuke Kindaichi makes his debut in The Honjin Murders shining in genius-like form as he figures out just how the newlyweds were killed in the locked room on their wedding night and who did the deed. Along the way are the added multiple mysteries of what was found in a cat’s grave, a gruesome discovery in a charcoal kiln, koto strings being plucked by invisible hands, and a katana sword found embedded in the snow-covered ground with no footprints surrounding the site.

Coincidentally, we are treated to another story in which architecture is featured in the plot. The history of the honjin, the specific architecture of an annexe house (see plan at left), the importance of sliding shutters and tatami mats and folding screens are all spelled out in fascinating detail. In truth none of this is necessary to understand how the story unfolds, why the murders took place or why the method was so complex. What is important here is the search for truth not merely the solution of puzzles. What Yokomizo does so skillfully and artfully is tell us a story of a family plagued with secrets and slowly reveals this to us.

As a debut novel The Honjin Murders is not without flaws. There is an odd Victorian Gentle Reader touch in the narrative. Some of the plot revelations are misplaced and lessen the suspense and overall effectiveness as a novel. But there is much at stake in this story and there is poignancy as well as surprise in the finale.

It should be noted that Yokomizo tells his complex and affecting story in under 200 pages while Shimada’s turgid book comes to 350 pages full of puzzles but not much mystery. Narrative economy is more attractive and often more artful.

Both books are available from Pushkin Vertigo (here and here) and both are translated by the gifted Louise Heal Kawai who does an admirable job of blending contemporary styled dialogue into the Japanese flavor of the narrative sections. In the case of The Honjin Murders much of the narration often reads like miniature history lessons and Kawai makes it both intriguing and easy to understand. In my case she had me eager to learn more…and I did.

Friday, December 27, 2019

FFB: The Haunted River - Charlotte Riddell

THE STORY: Margaret and Georgie Vernam are sisters who have grown tired of living in London. They've spent much of the summer house hunting for a quaint cottage they can afford in the countryside. When they come across a bargain priced house near a dilapidated mill they feel they have found their dream hone. But the house and the mill have a dreaded past and their landlord begins acting rather suspiciously once they move in. By Christmas Day Margaret will witness mysterious events, confront possible apparitions and solve a horrid crime that almost goes unpunished.

THE CHARACTERS: The Haunted River (1877) is narrated by Margaret Vernam whose full name we do not until well into this novella. Prior to this we know her only as Peg, a nickname her sister has given her and one Margaret loathes but endures because she cannot but help but love her darling sister. Like many Victorian heroines of this late period she is a strong-willed, plain looking and sensible woman striving to be self-employed as a painter and sketch artist following in the footsteps of her much more successful painter father now deceased.

Her sister Georgie is typically the opposite of Margaret -- drop dead gorgeous, vivacious and gregarious, liked by everyone she meets, equipped with a disarming personality that even ruffians and nasty spirited children can be tamed by her gentle approach. A bit dreamy and flighty Georgie is the one who convinces Margaret to keep looking for their country dream house. It is Georgie who finds the advertisement for the bargain cottage near the mill, a remarkably spacious home with an expansive grounds, offered at a rent of only £50 a year.

The bulk of the story is devoted to the business of house hunting, wheeling and dealing with unctuous Mr. Lauston who claims he is acting as an agent for an unnamed third party. Lauston is a contradiction. He finds himself attracted to Margaret's business acumen and enjoys negotiating with her, but he almost immediately reneges on many of their agreements. As the story progresses Margaret will discover he has ulterior motives and -- like any true unctuous Victorian character -- he guards a secret in his past.

Scattered through the the narrative characters relate the past of the haunted mill, the horrible events that happened by the river banks and the legends that keep the locals away from the property. Only Margaret will be witness to events related to those stories of the past. in one of the earliest scenes she creates a painting with a strange man standing by an oak tree. When her servant looks at it she is aghast that Margaret has painted an exact likeness of Mr. Dingley, the former mill owner, who died several years ago. More surprising is that the reader knows that Margaret painted the man from life as she saw him standing by the tree while she was painting at her easel outdoors in the bright sunshine of a summer afternoon.

In the final third of the novel the sisters encounter a poor old woman being taunted by cruel children. Georgie manages to stop the rock throwing and foul language and the two of them take the woman into their home. She tells them yet another story about Mr. Lauston's niece Clara. Filled with the typical trappings of Victorian sensation fiction -- a child born in secret, shame and guilt ridden characters, child abduction, and incarceration in an asylum -- it is a truly horrible tale she tells. Margaret is appalled. Clara we learn is the victim of a Collins-like conspiracy reminiscent of the fate of Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White. It will fall to Margaret to set all things right late one night in the house when a strange woman, dripping wet and barefoot guides Margaret to a secret location in the house where some all important documents have been hidden.

Ultimately The Haunted River is indeed a ghost story as well as a sort of occult detective tale with Margaret acting as an accidental detective and her Watson turning out to be a ghost. Or was she real? The final 30 pages of the story are rife with thrilling set pieces, heightened emotions and evocative writing. Best of all the final ghostly apparition actually appears on Christmas Day in true Victorian tradition.

INNOVATIONS: Unlike the conventional Victorian ghost story writers who confined their hauntings to indoor settings with creaking staircases, darkened corridors and shadow filled homes Charlotte Riddel dared to write of ghosts and apparitions appearing in broad daylight. And not only broad daylight but in the wildness of outdoors. She would specialize in what S. M. Ellis called "open air" ghosts and enjoyed writing stories about haunted farms, forests and in the case of this novella a river.

QUOTES: At all events, whenever the evening was fairly fine, I paced the garden path slowly, watching and thinking as the evening closed and the darker shadows stole on.

Even in the daytime one could scarcely distinguish where the ivy began and the laurels ended; where the barberries had their roots and the rhododendrons fought with clustering briony and the fatal convolvulus for life; but when twilight came the whole corner of the bridge resolved itself into one dark mass of dense foliage.

Two or three times on the evening after Anne told me of Miss Lauston's story, I fancied I heard a stir and movement amongst this greenery, that when I stopped to listen I felt something more animate than the leaves was moving in the cover.

Each time I passed I gave the boughs a shake, so strong was the fancy upon me, and at last I parted the branches, and thrust my arm amongst the tangled creepers.

As I did so, something rushed out, so swiftly, so suddenly, that I started back affrighted. Something soft and cold touched my cheek. Something brushed my dress. Something lithe and shadowy flitted between me and the imperfect twilight in the open garden beyond, and then was gone.

THE AUTHOR: Charlotte Riddell (1832 - 1906), published under her married name as Mrs. J. H. Riddell, was one of the most prolific writers of short stories and novels in the mid to late Victorian era. She was the first women to write about the City and business life as Arthur Waugh recalls in One Mans' Road. He reminds us that nearly all of her income from her various publishers was lost by her "hopeless husband" a civil engineer who spent her money "on patenting impracticable stoves" among other foolish ideas. She wrote in a variety of genres including romance, domestic melodrama and sensation fiction. But she is perhaps best known for her supernatural fiction, both in long and short form. There is much written about her life on the internet and in long out of print biographies. The best info on Charlotte Riddell is found in Richard Dalby's introduction to the Sarob Press reissue of The Haunted River which draws from an essay by S. M. Ellis in his biographical work Wilkie Collins, LeFanu and Others (Constable, 1931). Ellis had a remarkable correspondence with Charlotte Riddell in the the last months of her life related to tracking down a copy of The Haunted River.

EASY TO FIND? According to Richard Dalby The Haunted River was for decades the most difficult of Mrs. Riddell's Christmas ghost stories to obtain in an original edition. Despite the efforts of E. F. Bleiler uncovering copies of The Uninhabited House and reprinting that novella and issuing an entire volume of her short stories with supernatural content The Haunted River languished in the "Limbo of Out of Printdom" until the 21st century. It was first printed in a limited edition of 300 copies by Sarob Press in 2001 which quickly sold out. Only a few copies of that edition are currently offered by online used booksellers but are all now priced in the "collector's market" range. Luckily, by 2012 all of Riddell's supernatural fiction had been uncovered and reprinted. Leonaur Ltd. took on the monumental task of publishing a three volume set of Charlotte Riddell's entire output of supernatural fiction. The Haunted River can be found in Collected Supernatural and Weird Fiction of Mrs. J. H. Riddell: Volume 1 (2012). All three volumes are still in print and available from the usual mega-retail websites who deal in books.