Galileo: Intuition vs Logic in a Japanese Impossible Crime Series

What’s this you say? A Japanese impossible crime TV series based on the works of Keigo Higashino? Yes please!

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Galileo (ガリレオ) explores the relationship between rookie detective Kaoru Utsumi – first introduced to English readers in Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint – and University physics professor Manabu Yukawa, as they team up to solve complex cases. What’s not to love!

Each episode features an impossible mystery: young boys astrally project themselves to give alibi’s to accused murderers, people die in locked rooms with the only clue being that fireballs are seen leaping across the room from the building opposite, secret messages float on water then disappear when grabbed at, and much more. Each crime has some route within a scientific hypothesis, and Yukawa, known lovingly by the police force as ‘Galileo’ for being a ‘weird’ scientist, arrives at the solution through some kind of testable method, after furiously scribing an equation wherever he may find himself, which can then be demonstrated in his university laboratory.

The series is exactly what you would expect from a prime time Asian drama. Melodramatic performances, knock-about and groan worthy humour, parodied characters and crazy music choices. But within that is some really sophisticated writing and some high level plotting, clueing and original impossible set ups.

The characters Utsumi and Yukawa are based on two series detectives from contemporary, Japanese mystery writer Keigo Higashino. However, apart from their job titles, the complex crimes, and the fact Yukawa drinks instant coffee, that’s pretty much where the resemblance to the books ends. But it doesn’t make the series un-enjoyable, and the writers are consistent with what they have created, and after the first two episodes (it seems like they needed to warm the general viewer into the series) the writing and the crimes get much more serious, chilling and eerie. Each episode can be seen as a short morality tale with a theme explored through each paranormal or impossible situation: is it right to sympathise with a serial killer? Is it right to commit suicide if it benefits others? Is it right to allow people to keep false beliefs if it comforts them? And the overarching theme of the whole series: logic against intuition and emotion. It was a tough choice, but to warm you into watching this series, here are my top 5 episodes from the 10 in this first series, in order of appearance:

‘Moeru’ (Burns) – Ep 1

The opening episode of the series begins with a group of young social layabouts causing havoc in a quiet area of town. A man looking at them out of his window lifts his phone, types in a few digits, and the groups leader freezes on the spot, his head bursting into flames. Great visual clues throughout and the witness of a little child to a strange occurrence during a lantern festival bring Yukawa and Utsumi to the incredibly complex solution. But just when you feel like things are tying up too neatly, and the crime seems outlandish, there is a sudden twist which changes your perspective on the entire event, and makes the solution totally believable.

‘Sawagu’ (Poltergeist) – Ep 3

Utsumi gets a call from Yukawa, asking her to help find the missing brother-in-law of one of his students. The man, missing for over a week, was known to enter the house of a recently deceased old woman. The house now seems to be occupied by a cast of suspicious characters. When Utsumi breaks in to investigate the walls are covered with handwritten protective signs against spirits, and a few moments later the entire house shakes violently throwing objects everywhere. Is it the spirit of the old woman, or a message from the missing man? The solution to the poltergeist activity is super simple, but it’s the why it happened at the exact time of the death and disappearance which makes it so clever.

‘Shiru’ (Foresight) – Ep 6

A cracker of an opening scene leads into the only semi-inverted mystery of the series, the premise and setup of which could have been lifted straight from a Higashino story. (Who knows maybe it is, we don’t have a huge amount of translations here!). A newlywed is drinking with his beautiful wife and best friend when he receives a strange call. After looking at the number, he pretends to answer a business call and slips into another room. An affair is revealed and the woman on the phone says that he had promised to marry her. He says it’s impossible, and with that she tells him to look out of his window. Pulling the curtain aside he looks to the flats opposite, and there is the woman, stood on a chair, her head through a noose. She says he has five seconds to decide or she will hang herself and begins to count down. The man in desperation pleads, but she reaches one, and kicks the chair away. Utsumi is called to her flat to see the body and clear the scene, but a few passing strange objects show that things might not be what they seem. This was definitely my favourite episode from the series, the clueing, pace and plot are just perfect.

‘Miru’ (Spiritual Sight) – Ep 8

A famous chef is stabbed to death (over 270 times) in her cooking school kitchen, but at the exact time of her murder she is seen by her sister, standing outside the window of her apartment seemingly warning her of her murder. The apartment is over 30 kilometres away, and impossible to reach in the time frame. This isn’t the strongest mystery in the series, but some lovely clues – including why a button on a cd player would make music go fuzzy – and again the reason why things happened in the way they did, make it convincing and memorable.

‘Utsuru’ + ‘Hazeru’ (Transcription and Explosion) Ep 9-10

Utsumi is forced to do a police talk at a local secondary school during their school festival. Afterward she is looking around the school art exhibition when she encounters an unbelievably life-like (or should I say death-like) sculpture. A plaster cast face suspended in a gilt frame titled ‘Death Mask of a Zombie’. There is a commotion in the crowd looking at the work, and a woman claims that the cast is the face of her son, registered missing for the last month. The boy who made the piece is called forward and says he made the piece from a metal cast he found near the local nature pond, which he grabs from the shelf. The metal cast has the shape of the man’s face perfectly moulded, including evidence of a bullet wound in the centre of his head. This brilliant start sets up a twisty plot which pits Yukawa’s intellect against an evil relation from his past life.

You can watch the whole series online here on Viki, a site much like Netflix but for asian drama. If you are happy with adverts every 15 minutes you can watch it for free, or if you pay a small fee you can watch without. Unfortunately one episode (Ep 4 – Kusaru) seems to be missing and I’m not sure why, but hopefully they’ll resolve it.

And let me implore you to read Higashino’s books. They are very much worth your time, and are subtle, social and enigmatic reads. Detective Utsumi is also one of my favourite detectives I have read, and how she is set off against the other members of her team is brilliant. You can read more about that here in my review of the impossible crime novel Salvation of a Saint.

Japanese Golden Dozen: Ellery Queen, Intruiging Mysteries from Japan

A magical find from my last London second hand bookshop walk.

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This collection from Ellery Queen catalogues the best detective story writers from Japan at the time of publication. Ellery Queen was the moniker of detective fiction writers and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Published in 1978, Lee had passed away by this time and the back cover shows an image of Dannay. This must have been one of the last big collections Dannay produced as he would also pass away only 4 years later. This copy to my surprise was actually printed in Tokyo by the Charles E. Tuttle company, who are still publishing asian fiction, mystery and poetry. As the title suggests there are 12 short stories in this collection and a lot of hits (and some misses), here are my top 5 in order of appearance in the book:

1 – Too Much About Too Many – Eitaro Ishizawa

This semi-impossible short story reads like a forerunner to Keigo Higashino, and concerns the poisoning of a glass at an end of year office party. 13 suspects on Friday the 13th, but all the suspects speak highly of the victim who was loved by one and all. The chilling denouement makes one think of Agatha Christie’s Endless night.

2 – A Letter From the Dead – Tohru Miyoshi

A columnist for a small town newspaper receives a letter to his office from an anonymous author writing from ‘The River Styx’, saying that they were murdered but no one knew it except them and the murderer. There is a return address and postmark which show upon investigation that the letter was sent after the author had died in an apparent suicide. The columnist tracks down the address and visits the widow, and I thought there was going to be a brilliant locked room set up when she would only speak to him through the letterbox. He passed the letter through the letter box and after a moment she started groaning in pain. But alas she wasn’t dying in impossible circumstances (we can’t have everything) but groaning as she recognised the handwriting as her husband’s, although it seemed impossible. The ending is convincing and satisfying.

3 – Cry from the Cliff – Shizuki Natsuki

This was the absolute crown of the collection. A gorgeously written story which perfectly uses a small cast of characters and beautifully described locations to explore a semi impossible stabbing on a beach cliff. The prose are deceptively spare and have inspired me to seek out more of Natsuki’s books. Only a few of her novels have been printed in English, and I would value hearing from others if you have read any of them. Natsuki has often been called the Agatha Christie of Japan, which she begrudges, and this fascinating interview from 1987 shows how she defied gender traditions to become an author, and that she also wrote all her books out by hand!

4 – The Kindly Blackmailer – Kyotaro Nishimura

An absolutely killer opening where a barber has a strange new customer turn up at his shop, who tells him “I’ll be dropping in here, often”. The mysterious man reveal the barbers name and says that he has knows a lot about him. Then drops the bomb shell: “for instance, I know that three months ago, when you were driving a light truck, you ran into a little kindergarten girl.” Holding out his shaving razor blade, a million thoughts run through the barber’s head, and from here develops a twisty blackmail plot with a bag full of mixed motivations.

5 – No Proof – Yoh Sano

This must be one of the most intriguing ideas for a crime short I have ever read. A team of Japanese business men and women head to the roof of their office block for a celebratory new year group photo. The photographer, a co-worker, pretends to be focusing the camera under a piece of cloth, but is secretly putting on a rubber monkey mask. As he shouts cheese, he jumps from behind the camera, scaring one and all, snapping the photo of their terrified faces. They realise they have been party to a practical joke and are laughing away when one member keels over, dying of a heart attack. His last moment immortalised on photographic film. The question… did the photographer knowingly cause his death, and if so, how on earth can it be proved with any credibility? Over three meetings a cast of police officers and detectives named only officer A,B,C and onwards, wrestle out the many moral and legal twists of the case, the motives of which turn out to be much more complex than they think. Really enjoyed this one, highly original.

How this collection came around is another mystery in itself. Queen in his foreword says that he was asked by the Suedit Cooperation to put this collection together. However I can’t find any information about this company anywhere, and the company name looks strangely un-Japanese. At the end of each story is also a gorgeous hand drawn miniature Illustration, but I couldn’t see any accreditation to the artist.

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Illustrations for: Too Much About Too Many, No Proof, and Cry From The Cliff.

The book explores a lot of uniquely Japanese themes, and it’s slow and social pace are really satisfying once you get into the mysteries, but at the same time some of the stories are too slow paced to hold you. Of the last four pieces, the first three go down the erotic route, and The Vampire by Masako Togawa is definitely not safe for work, or for reading on the train as I was at the time! Although these three stories do speak to the history of erotic literature in Japan and are not badly written. The final story of the collection was just a shade too dark in its comedy for my tastes, but a nice concept.

If you see this on your journeys, grab it, it’s a real Japanese gem.

 

She Died a Lady: Carter Dickson (1943)

 

The date, 1943. The author, Carter Dickson. The story, a classically macabre and unique mystery from the master of the impossible crime.

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The singular Rita Wainwright has found herself tangled in an love affair with young american actor Barry Sullivan. Not being able to take the secrecy of hiding it from her husband, and knowing that they could never be together, the pair decide to make a suicide pact, and throw themselves from the top of the 70 foot cliff at the end of her garden, fitting called Lover’s Leap. The scene is thoroughly examined and only two sets of footprints are left in the damp earth that leads to the edge. But when their bodied wash up it turns out they did not die from falling 70 feet onto a bed of rocks, but were both shot in the chest at close range. The gun that they were shot with is found, and it is impossible that either of them fired it themselves.

Golden Age writer John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. She Died A Lady was his 17th novel under the Carter Dickson banner, featuring his Dickson series detective, the hilarious Sir Henry Merrivale.

Carr was on top form with his scene descriptions and use of prose here. Lines like: ‘The sky was lead-coloured; the water dark blue; the headlands, at bare patches in their green, like the colours of a child’s modelling-clay run together’, set atmospheres that linger long after the page they appear on. Equally, the characters were quickly and powerfully established, described as to be implanted in your head. All unique without feeling parodied or unnatural, with a sharp dose of humour thrown in.

The real strength of this book though, is the plotting. It’s an absolute roller coaster when it comes to directions and threads being weaved together. For example, about half the way in, just when you think you know what is happening a secret is revealed which is so absurd and shocking it knocks you sideways. After Carr let’s the shock settle in, he shows you how it seamlessly links to everything you have seen so far. To finish, he drops the killer and the solution in a high paced denouement, which leaves you needing a to take a day off.

The solution to the impossibility as with all Carr’s best works, is devilishly simple. Though, for me, there were a few too many theoretical mechanics involved, and it was related to specific things from the time period that you may not be totally familiar with. However there was one simple idea, clued so well in a throw away line (which was so obvious on reflection), that left me smacking my forehead for weeks.  I can see why this book is as well respected as it is.

I had heard about Carr’s poor handling of women characters on occasion, but was yet to experience it. Having recently read the amazing ‘Till Death Do Us Part’, and reflecting on other classics like ‘The Judas Window’, where his women are some of the strongest, plot moving and developed characters, it was difficult to find this less well handled. There are only so many times I can hear the narrator describe the body, face or lip shape of every woman. Although on reflection I am starting to wonder if it was the narrator’s view of these females that we are being thrust into, as his descriptions are consistent with his character as a kind of bumbling, slightly out of touch older male? I was almost coping with that, but then this line dropped as if from nowhere: ‘Though it is dangerous to make generalities, this was far from being the first time in my life when I have observed the absolute incapacity of any woman for telling the truth when truth becomes unsuitable. There is no intent to do wrong in this. To the female sex, it simply does not matter. Truth is relative; truth is fluid; truth is something to be measured according to emotional needs, like Adolf Hitler’s.’

Unless I have deeply misunderstood this line (I have read it over and over) this was simply too much for me, and left a sour taste, even accounting for the time of writing. It seemed to be totally incongruous, and written without enough irony, even if it was a character attribute or parody of the narrator himself. I’m not sure, and would like to hear some thoughts from readers on this. It is (although weirdly shocking) a small moment, and as the brilliant feminist, media critic Anita Sarkeesian always says, it is possible to still enjoy a cultural work while being critical of certain elements of it.

A final thought about this, there was also some interesting gender reflections when Rita Wainwright is maliciously called a ‘theatrical’ woman by certain characters and therefore not taken seriously, her name being dragged through the mud. This idea becomes subverted as the narrative goes on, and people are shown up for judging a book by its cover. Speaking of which the title is really brilliant, and when revealed in the book it’s a real shocker, relating to these ‘theatrical’ reflections and subversions.

My conclusion, grab and read this book. For the plotting, for the feeling of the mystery rippling throughout, the clues that niggle at the back of your head and the tensions coming left right and centre. But as for the difficulties, the reader is warned.

I am submitting this review as part of the Crimes of The Century series by Rich over at Past Offences, this month in celebration of classic detective fiction published in 1943 . 

What are you reading? WWW Wednesday

What have I been reading this past few weeks, and what’s coming up next on the book pile? To show you lovely readers, I’m getting involved with the WWW Wednesday meme over at the brilliant Taking on a World of Words blog.

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The Three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?

What did you recently finish reading?

What do you think you’ll read next?

Here we go!

What am I currently reading?

I am super excited to be half way through Nine and Death makes Ten by Carter Dickson. A classic golden age impossible crime mystery, that takes the award for my favourite title for a crime book.  Set against the backdrop of WWII aboard the ‘HM Edwardic’, the ship is forcibly on blackout in protection against attacks. This so far has created a literal and figurative darkness over the artificially lit cabins, making way for a ingenious impossibility related to a set of bloody fingerprints that match no one aboard the ship. 

I am also at the start of contemporary crime novel Tana French’s The Trespasser. Having read many glowing reviews I wanted to give this book a go and it’s brilliant so far. The black female lead, the caustic Antoinette Conway, is super refreshing and very well written.

What did I recently finish?

Just closed the last page of a The Japanese Golden Dozen. A very curious and enigmatic collection from the 1970’s by golden age crime writer and anthologist Ellery Queen. I found this treasure on my last London second hand bookshop walk. The book catalogues and translates some of the best detective fiction writers from all over Japan. There are some misses (and shockers!) but a lot of hits in this collection, my review of this will be up in my next post.

What do you think you will read next?

Well… this week I found possibly my best hall of golden age impossible crime novels from a single secondhand bookshop visit. Dropped in on the off chance and got myself 8 titles! These books are all penned by golden age writer John Dickson Carr, who produced over 80 novels in his time, almost all of which have impossible crimes or elements (also under the pseudonym Carter Dickson, see above). I am a big fan of Carr and a few of these are considered classics so I’m pushed for choice! On the contemporary crime front I have also ordered to my local library Sarah Hillary’s first novel Someone Else’s Skin. And keen to get on Sara Paretsky’s feminist crime series with her first book Indemnity Only.

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Spoilt for choice!

What’s on your to read pile, and what top books have you read lately? Anything you want to recommend me?

Twain, Hemmingway, Dickens: Crime Writers?

Sometimes I come across a book so curious I have to pick it up. Ellery Queen’s Book of Mystery Stories is just that book. Its very existence is so fascinating I had to write about it.

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Most followers of this blog will know who Ellery Queen is, but if not let me introduce you. Ellery Queen was the moniker of crime fiction writers, editors and anthologists Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. They wrote some 30 novels and short story collections featuring their main character, also named Ellery Queen, a writer and amateur detective who helps his police inspector father solve complex cases. They also had a huge impact on editing and anthologising crime.

This anthology originally published in 1952 under the title ‘The Literature of Crime’ seeks to show, in Queen’s words, that ‘few people realise – few critics, too – that nearly every world-famous author, throughout the entire history of literature has tried his hand at writing the detective or crime story’.

And the list of names in this book is extraordinary. Queen brings together short crime stories from none other than Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, Aldous Huxley, Pearl S. Buck, Walter de la Mare, Charles Dickens, John Steinbeck and Fannie Hurst to name but a few.

What made me pick it up, was the foreword by Queen, in which there are some fascinating facts. For example in discussing Mark Twain Queen says ‘Twain’s writings in the detective-crime field are almost wholly unappreciated’ explaining that Twain wrote over 6 detective stories through his career, and that he was ‘the first writer in history to see the plot possibilities of fingerprints… Yes, both in the short story and the novel… as a means of criminal identification.’ And in Huckleberry Finn, often ranked as one of the top 100 books of all time, Twain wrote in the lady detective Mrs Judith Loftus, who uses the gender norms of the time as to uncovering Finn’s disguise. 

And most fascinatingly: ‘did you know what was book Mark Twain was writing at the time of his death? A mystery novel, entitled Jim Wheeler, Detective.’ Truly wonderful stuff. The unfinished Jim Wheeler manuscript is housed in the New York Public library having never been published, but I guess it would be a frustrating read having no ending.
What I find interesting about this collection is that it shows the complexities of the crime form were not snubbed by some of the world’s most famous authors.

Masterworks: Till Death Do Us Part, John Dickson Carr

 

If you have never heard of the name John Dickson Carr before, let me introduce you. Carr was generally regarded as one of the greatest writers in the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction, and is known as the master of the locked room mystery or impossible crime genre.

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John Dickson Carr, and under his pseudonym Carter Dickson, wrote over 70 novels, almost all of which are impossible crimes or have impossible elements. Agatha Christie famously said of Carr’s work: 

“Very few detective stories baffle me nowadays, but Mr. Carr’s always do.”

And one of the other queens of detective fiction Dorothy L Sayers wrote of Carr:

“Mr. Carr can lead us away from the small, artificial, brightly-lit stage of the ordinary detective plot into the menace of outer darkness. He can create atmosphere with an adjective, alarm with an allusion, or delight with a rollicking absurdity.”

And that is definitely true of his 1944 novel Till Death Do Us Part. In what I have written here I have purposefully described the plot very little, so as not to spoil your reading if you are yet to start this book. Anything I give away would slide something out of this Rubik’s cube of a novel that is so well pieced together you must have every element in all it’s delicious freshness.

I will say this much: the tale begins with the newly engaged couple, mild mannered Dick Markham and the sanguine Lesley Grant, both madly and hilariously in love, arriving late to a small village fete.  All seems charged with laughter and jollity, until a storm approaches and an encounter with an alarmingly accurate fortune teller leads to the revelation of terrible hidden histories. These rumours set the pace for a possible four locked room murders so thrilling as to have you on edge of your teeth from start to finish.

Till Death Do Us Part is pieced together so well that it left me baffled as to how Carr could have constructed it. The huge amount of ideas he places in each chapter never get overwhelming, and just when you think you know what’s happening he throws you in another direction, but each thread ties together without losing speed or agility. It reads like a high paced thriller, but with space enough for locations to tremble with an underlying horror and for clues to be laced everywhere. A lot of this pace rests in the perfectly formed size of cast. This allows for the suspicion that Carr has seeded in each member to grow to a maddening fever pitch as the plot twists further and further around. Similarly well formed is the small amount of locations, each being so well described while at the same time humming with clues and plot movements, each of which, by then end, you feel you know so well.

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John Dickson Carr himself.

I was equally amazed at how many ideas and extra solutions Carr knocks down and brings in as he goes. On page 212 of 224 (in my copy) Carr has one character reel off a possible set up, motive and solution to the murder in one line that could have made the plot for an entirely separate novel.

The solution to the main locked room scenario (which I am happy to say I guessed) is in a way the oldest trick in the book, but with a twist, that twist being one of my favourite types. It has been said elsewhere that one element is a little too technical, but in the end I found it satisfying. And just when you thought that element might not be needed it was explained and encased inside a lovely piece of misdirection – which called to the idea of G.K.Chesterton’s Father Brown story ‘Sign of the Broken Sword’  – and made it totally acceptable in the context, again showing off Carr’s flair and ability to ram a book with 100 ideas.

I can see why Till Death Do Us Part has been so widely praised, and I think it’s the first time I have felt on completion of a detective novel, that I could have picked it straight back up and started over again.

 

The Sherlock Holmes of China: Robert van Gulik’s Chinese Gold Murders

The hard hitting detective Judge Dee has been called the Sherlock homes of China. But interestingly, the T’ang Dynasty mystery stories of Judge Dee were penned by a Dutchman.

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On my last second hand book walk through London (see here for the guide) I was very fortunate to come across a copy of The Chinese Gold Murders by Robert van Gulik. A locked room mystery set in 7th century China, following the exploits of Judge Dee and his first cases as the new magistrate of the fictional Chinese city of Peng-Lai. After the second world war broke out the author, Robert van Gulik, lived in China as a representative of the Dutch government. Here he became an expert on Chinese translation, art, literature and culture. While in Japan before the war he came across the book ‘Dee Goong An’ (The Cases of Judge Dee) in a second hand book shop. The book, written in the 18th century by an unknown author, was an early piece of Chinese detective fiction based on De Renjie, a real life country magistrate who lived roughly between 630-700 AD. van Gulik was so taken with the anonymous book that he decided to translate it into English, and after it’s publication he went on to pen his own series of Judge Dee mysteries. The Chinese Gold Murders being his fourth Judge Dee novel written in 1952.

To begin, I have never read a crime novel with so many crimes! Judge Dee comes up against an impossible poisoning, the victim’s ghost now seeming to be haunting the corridors of the tribunal, a woman who vanishes from a muddy pathway, a man beaten to death and thrown into a river, two victims stabbed to death in their beds one of which consequently disappears after being buried, a prowling weretiger mauling victims in the woods, smuggling of arms and a headless monk. And that’s all on his first two days on the job!

However, van Gulik neatly weaves this all into three distinct cases each solved in order through the book. This rule of three, van Gulik writes in his postscript, follows that of the traditional Chinese detective novel where the sleuth would solve three or more cases in succession.

There are so many threads and clues going I was worried that van Gulik wouldn’t manage to keep the plot afloat, but he ties things together throughout. There are some lovely riddle and enigma like clues which reveal themselves convincingly at the books close. A particularly nice scene is where Judge Dee is dragged along to a Chinese melodramatic street performance of a number of traditional mystery plays. The last two stories of the play, showing the cases of another ancient master detective ‘Judge Yu’, show how a murderer is revealed by the clue of a secret message being hidden in an almond shell. However, it’s not the secret message that is the real clue, but the almond itself, as the real murderer liked almond milk. This is obviously preposterous, and is hammed up to great effect in the farcical street play, but the idea of ‘not the thing inside the but the thing itself’ then links to a very real clue happening in one of Judge Dee’s complicated cases. This and other inside-out ways of looking at things are very satisfying elements throughout.

As a historian of Chinese culture, van Gulik is faithful to the historical setting, and the book reads as much like a historical diary as well as a crime novel. Set during the development between opposing Confucian and Buddhist worldviews this tension becomes a backdrop to many of the cases. Also taken as running subplots are the high level of patriarchy evident in the culture of the time, alongside the ethics of sex and gender. The buying and selling of wives and prostitutes is all shown, and sexist remarks abound, which Judge Dee smashes down or subverts. van Gulik also illustrated the novel himself, with 10 line drawings completed to mimic the traditional Chinese print style.

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Two of van Gulik’s illustrations from the Chinese Gold Murders

As well as the difficult sexist characters, I did find the book was too slow paced in places. The book begins at high speed but there is some drudgery and dryness in the middle when getting through the more technical aspects of historical exposition and case details, particularly after the impossible poisoning was resolved about half way through. Though the pace picks up again towards the end and the final reveal scene in a huge temple meeting is worth getting to.

To focus on the impossible situation itself for a moment, as this blog is designed to, the poisoning had a convincing and well plotted set up. The original magistrate of Peng-Lai is poisoned in his library locked from the inside. Poison is found in his teacup but all of his tea making equipment is kept in a locked cupboard which only he has access to, and no one was seen entering or leaving the building at the time. I felt that the mechanics of the solution were a little unconvincing, and I’m not sure if it would actually work. Two semi-alternative solutions were produced through the book, one which included the slamming of a door, which I actually would have preferred as the solution. But this ends up being a recurring motif which becomes more and more important and creepy and it makes sense that it therefore only pointed to the final solution. Interestingly, van Gulik writes in his postscript that the idea for the impossible poisoning, of which he modified, was based on a much older story from the original anonymous ‘Dee Goong An’ stories, the motif for which is very reminiscent of a Sherlock novel, even though the Sherlock story was written 100 years later.

What also warmed me to this book were the unresolved paranormal elements that van Gulik chose to leave us with. He doesn’t give us any doubts that the crimes were explainable, but that Judge Dee may in the end have had some ghostly help along the way. That refreshing element gave it the little edge that it needed to round off. Looking forward to finding more of this series and trying them out.

Contemporary Macabre: Jonathan Creek, Daemons’ Roost

After another hiatus, and 20 years since the first episode of Jonathan Creek aired on our screens we were treated to possibly the final Creek story ever, Daemon’s Roost. 

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The plot and main impossibility centre around a horrific mansion house (Daemon’s Roost) which, according to legend, was once owned by Sir Jacob Surtees. A seemingly satanic powered individual, complete with hidden chamber, Surtees has the ability to apparently levitate his victims across the room (no strings attached) sending them from a cage and through the air into a fiery furnace.

150 years later the mansion, now decaying was bought by corny slasher horror film director Nathan Clore, specifically for all it’s macabre history. But this decision turned to tragedy as two of his step daughters and their mother die under strange circumstances. Alison, the only daughter left, now grown up, is summoned to Daemon’s Roost to learn the truth about what happened to the rest of her family. But before she arrives Clore has a debilitating stroke rendering him paralysed and unable to communicate.

We are told that Creek had assisted Alison’s husband Stephen Belkin 6 years previously with what has come to be known as ‘The Striped Unicorn Affair’. A nifty locked room murder where by Stephen’s first wife, who had been receiving death threats, is finally told she will die in her bedroom that night. Stephen indeed wakes to find her lying dead, her bedside glass of water having been poisoned besides the fact that Stephen’s glass and the brand new bottle of water contain no poison, and the doors and windows are all securely locked from the inside. Alison, knowing Creek had solved the case calls him in to work out the truth behind her mother and sisters tragic deaths.

But after Creek’s arrival at Daemon’s Roost events take a more tragic and sinister turn, as the legend of Sir Jacob Surtees satanic killings is reenacted. Alison having been knocked out finds herself in the rumoured underground dungeon and is forced to watch Stephen levitated across the room and into the fire.

I felt the whole episode was something of a return to form for Renwick. The solution to the satanic levitation murder was satisfying and fiendishly simple, and the neat solution to the ‘Striped Unicorn Affair’, it’s subsequent subversion, and then it’s link to the motive and solution for the death at Daemon’s Roost lifts those plotting elements from good to brilliant. It’s this kind of thing that shows that Renwick has still got the flair to weave a complex mystery that has always made Creek so popular.

What I like about this episode, and with much of the Creek series as a whole is Renwick’s mixing of time periods in his impossible situations. Much of the problems over the Creek series blend both contemporary settings alongside the historic macabre. Objects like the thrice stolen 90’s answer phone tape in The Problem at Gallows Gate (1998), the clunky PC monitors of episodes like The House of Monkeys (1997) and the sharp glass shelf and modern book titles of the ‘Striped Unicorn Affair’ embed the mysteries in the moment, making them ‘of the time’. These writing tools serve to charge and activate the mundane and the everyday with mystery and horror. This is one of the great powers of the locked room mystery genre. Where simple locked rooms become sinister dark cages, glasses of water become fierce and sharp and something so simple as why a book would be too far forward on a shelf is imbued with twisted and cryptic meaning.

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The Problem at Gallow’s Gate – Pure 90’s

These deeply domestic environments coupled with decaying haunted settings has been a Renwick tool of old. As with the moody Satan’s Chimney (2001), The Grinning Man (2009) and the series classic The Black Canary (1998). This coupling has the effect of butting up the contemporary alongside ghostly British histories in a way I have always admired.

But there were some holes and difficulties in Daemons Roost, mostly in terms of plotting and motivation. The no-consequence death of the returning ‘House of Monkeys’ killer was hard to swallow and was a very ‘convenient’ plot device. The more ‘phoney’ wordplay throughout the episode was a stretch, and there seemed to be a lot of padded out extra twists and turns that, although tied together by Renwick, could have been left behind. However with 32 episodes under his belt, it’s amazing that Renwick can pull ideas and solutions out of the bag.

In conclusion I felt this was a satisfying return to form for Renwick and Creek, with a few bumps along the way. And if this turns out to be the final episode, and Creek’s last bow, then it is a fitting ending to the whole 20 years of impossible mysteries. It makes me wonder if anything might ever take it’s place?

 

Haunted Objects, Gender and Impossible Poisonings: Salvation of A Saint by Keigo Higashino

In recent weeks I have begun making my way through the books of Japanese author Keigo Higashino. Having teared through the brilliantly tense, inverted thriller The Devotion of Suspect X (2011), made way for me to read the second in the Detective Galileo series Salvation of A Saint (2012). I prioritised it as it is also a locked room mystery!

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Yoshitaka Mashiba, a big time CEO, runs his marriage much like his business. Yoshitaka has forced an agreement with his wife, famous tapestry and patchwork artist Ayane Mashiba, that if they can’t have children within the first year of their marriage, that they should separate. The book opens with Yoshitaka telling Ayane that time is up. He makes it quite clear that he is ready to move on, and that she should be too. Ayane, zoned out it a seemingly psychological defense mechanism, stares at a selection of white pansies ‘Not particularly showy flowers, but they’re tough’, she speaks in her head. It’s a subtle but weighty premonition of the book’s tensions to come.

Needing to get away, Ayane decides to leave Tokyo and spend the upcoming three day weekend with her parents in Sapporo, Northern Japan. She leaves the keys to her house with her young, committed studio assistant Hiromi. But when Hiromi enters the house on the second day of the weekend to find Yoshitaka lying dead in the living room, a poisoned coffee cup by his side, with all the doors and windows locked from the inside, save for one small opening in the upstairs bathroom not big enough for anyone to enter, the puzzle really begins.

Having just been thwarted by her pragmatically cold husband, suspicion immediately falls on Ayane. But how could she have poisoned her husband when she was thousands of miles away in Sapporo at the exact time Yoshitaka died? Enter Manabu Yukawa, a university physics professor, known lovingly as Detective Galileo, alongside police detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi, to explain how not to just to solve but to prove the perfect crime.

An interesting sub plotting tool, is Higashino’s take on the themes of ‘female intuition’ and the classic idea of poison being a woman’s weapon. This is an interesting angle to work with, and represents a lot of contemporary questions about gender, and gender roles. There are arguments throughout the story between old a new school ways of looking at a women’s involvement in a crime and discussions about whether the young and brilliant female detective Kaoru Utsumi (one of my absolute favourite detective characters in recent years) can detect more easily the motives of the suspects because she is a woman or because she is brilliantly observant. All this discussion is then further muddied by the fact that the lead detective on the case, Kusunagi seems to have fallen for their main suspect Ayane, and keeps trying to defend her in his wearied mind.

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Japanese Edition

Higashino gives us a strong introduction to junior detective Utsumi. We observe her first through Kusunagi’s eyes, where she happens to not be in the house observing the crime scene, but standing on the front lawn looking up at the flowers on the first floor balcony. When she finally makes her way to the body she wanders off during the chief commissioner’s explanation of the death, only to be found later staring at a cupboard where she notices that 4 champagne glasses are missing from the shelf. What looks to Kusunagi like absent mindedness, and a rejection of authority, sews wonderfully plotted seeds in our minds, and Utsumi’s incredibly detailed observances turn out to be crux points in solving the riddle of the poised coffee cup. Detective Galileo of course sees Utsumi’s brilliance, presenting her with many a challenge to draw out the young detective’s abilities. Interestingly, the Japanese TV series Galileo (ガリレオ) based on the books of Higashino, have Galileo and Utsumi as the lead characters, solving complicated crimes as a double act. 

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Masaharu Fukuyama and Kou Shibasaki as Galileo and Utsumi.

Another thing that Higashino does so well in Salvation is to draw out a foreboding and haunted sense of setting. Higashino does this through the use of a minimal cast of characters (hot housed together page after page), through a minimal amount of locations (which we constantly re-enter) and through his repeated use of objects as a site of haunted and imbued meaning.

The central crime, is an impossible poisoning, a lethal dose of arsenous acid, a brutal and convulsive poison, somehow present in a cup of coffee. This event and its memory then become the haunting elements as Higashino has his characters constantly drinking coffee, visiting tea shops and passing cups to each other throughout the rest of the book. There is even one moment where Detective Kusanagi, having spent time jumping from tea shop to tea shop decides to opt for a tomato juice, the taste of which burns his tongue due to all the tea he has drunk.

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The theologian and novelist G.K.Chesteron, author of the legendary Father Brown series of crime stories written in the early 1900’s, wrote a short essay titled ‘In Defense of the Detective Novel’. The centre of the essay takes up this idea of how the axiomatic structure of the crime story has a particular ability to imbue things with resonant meaning, the ‘romantic possibilities’ of objects and cities. The Detective novel he states:

‘…declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace… The lights of the city begin to glow like innumerable goblin eyes, since they are guardians of some secret, however crude, which the writer knows and the reader does not. Every twist of the road is like a finger pointing to it; every fantastic skyline of chimney-pots seems wildly and derisively signalling the meaning of the mystery…’

The use of the word ‘derisive’ (mocking) here is poignant in describing how detective stories, and maybe even more so impossible crime stories, carry so much of their power. Higashino’s characters constantly drinking and tasting these fluids don’t just haunt the book, but are a kind of mocking play with the reader, a continual reminder of what is not known (the solution) against what is known (the clues). It’s as if everyone is being poisoned over and over. Poisoned not just by fluids, but by ideas, doubts, and misplaced affections which affect the characters judgement and reason, something which they try to grasp onto, as they work to solve a crime which is at it’s heart a logical puzzle of deeply in need of solid reason. These fluids and liquids of ideas, teas and coffees, seep through the book, much like the poison seeps through the cup and into its victim. It’s a constant dark and playful reminder of what is consuming the characters.

As usual with Higashino, and with any good locked room mystery, the solution (and in this case the title) only make sense in the last few pages. The solution itself is incredibly cheeky, and I’m not sure how other impossible crime fans would feel about it, but over time it has grown on me. All the clues are indeed there for the observant reader!

I recommend Salvation of A Saint and the first book The Devotion of Suspect X to anyone wanting a taste of thriller with enigmatically puzzling elements.

Where are all the Locked Rooms? Crime Fiction and Morality: Part 1

The heart of the traditional crime novel and the traditional locked room mystery is wonderfully, and essentially a morality tale. A tale of good and bad, with justice prevailing at the denouement. This is a deeply satisfying and important type of storytelling, and appeals to our humanity. But many modern crime works are not traditional ‘whodunits’ but ‘whydunits’ with the dark motivation of the killer being the centre of the story. Is the apparent lack of interest in the golden age locked room mystery, something to do with the time period that we find ourselves in?

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Otto Penzler is an editor of many crime collections, including the huge anthology of short stories ‘The Locked Room Mysteries’, published by Black Lizard in 2014, and is also the proprietor of the Mystery Bookshop in New York. In writing for the Independent about the seeming disappearance of the traditional Locked Room genre Penzler puts it like this:

‘Many modern readers don’t have the patience to follow the trail of clues in a detective story in which all suspects are interviewed… until all the suspects are gathered for the explanation of how the crime was committed, who perpetrated it and why they did it. It is not realistic and was never intended to be. It is entertainment, as all fiction is… or should be.’

If Penzler is right, the ‘Impossible Crime’ is the genre of crime fiction which you could say requires the most patience of all. Could I see in my own city of London, a commuter sardined in high-paced commute trying to piece together the clues to work out how a man was shot in an empty room, with the only entrance watched, to then have the still smoking gun delivered in a package only minutes later?… (Joseph Commings’ X-Street Murders if you’re interested) Maybe not… But then again, maybe I could.

There have been a number of modern Locked Room mysteries twisting their way into our minds in recent years. The BBC series Death in Paradise, originally penned by Robert Thorogood, has had 4 impossible problems. One of my favourites being the last episode of the most recent series 5 (as I write this) titled ‘Flames of Love’. This episode, written by Matthew Barry, puzzles on a victim shot in a room where the window is locked from within and her body is propped up against the inside of the door leaving no way for a killer to get out. Mark Gattis’ modern Sherlock series has contained a few impossible situations, notably where one victim was stabbed while inside a locked shower cubicle, with no weapon or assassin to be found. And casting our mind back a few years you could have seen an impossible crime every week with David Renwick’s Jonathan Creek series. There is a new 90 minute Creek episode on the way, so there is more to come from Renwick. (Check my last post for more details – I am a big Creek fan!)

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But with the exception of Creek many locked room stories today are still few and far between, usually used as openers or punctuation points to a series, and are mostly in the TV format. Comedian Miles Jupp wrote an article for the BBC saying that locked rooms still had a strong appeal, but had his doubts as to whether they could make a resurgence in the world of paper and print:

‘So could the locked room mystery stage a similar comeback in Britain? Not necessarily, according to publisher Daniel Mallory of Sphere, who consigns the locked room mystery to the world of the “cosy” crime thriller.’

The question here is, why? What is holding the impossible crime novel back (other than maybe the time needed to read one) and why would a publisher not see it as a viable investment? Well in many ways, why should they? The form itself could be seen as somewhat of an outdated one.

The height of the locked room mystery came during the reign of the classic fair-play detective novel, known as the Golden Age of detection (or GAD for crime buffs). Think Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, G.K Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, all between the two world wars. These writers and many others formulated the classic ‘whodunit’ style of puzzle fiction, with plotting, clueing, misdirection and sometimes pages with a ‘challenge to the reader’ to work it all out before the detective does. The addition of the locked room, then, made these books not just a whodunnit but a ‘howdunit’, taking the puzzle element to it’s highest point.

Much popular modern crime writing does not fall easily into either of these two categories. We could call many contemporary crime stories a ‘why-dunnit’. We can find out who the killer is on the first page, sometimes the book or TV series is from the point of view of the killer themselves. What is important is why they did it, their psychology. The more brutal, thrilling and serial the murders are, and the more twisted the killer’s motives, the better. Even if their motive is that they simply just like killing (maybe the darkest motive of all).

So then, the modern psychological thriller (fast paced, gritty, psychological) and the Golden Age locked room mystery (social, contained, complex and moody) could seem like worlds apart. But essentially, as ‘crime fiction’, there are a number of things that still link these time periods together. For the purpose of this post I will discuss just one: morality.

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In our current pluralistic culture, ideas about morality and justice are (importantly) being called into question and are therefore more difficult to grasp onto. It’s not a wonder then that so much of popular crime fiction deals more with the motives behind the killer in question. For example, if someone is simply psychotic, how do we understand what they have done? Or if murdering someone seems almost essential in the narrative situation, then how do we and the other characters relate to the perpetrator, as in the brilliant inverted crime thriller The Devotion Of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino. In this novel a horrible, abusive ex-husband re-appears tormenting his ex-wife and daughter, consequently being murdered in self defence, all of which we see. The enduring grip of the narrative is then about how to cover the crime up, because surely the wife and daughter are really innocent in these confused circumstances?

The thrill of many modern popular crime books comes in what lies behind the killer or what ties the killings together, the reader trying to psychoanalyse and unpick the brain of the murderer, and in that way it’s an interesting reflection on our own time period. To think that in a epoch where we are statistically safer than ever, but at the same time all the ills of the world are so easily available to watch at the click of a trackpad, we should land on such a gritty form of popular storytelling is striking. Although if you read Endless Night by Agatha Christie (not too late at night) or Margery Allingham’s stories you will see something of the horrific psychotic killer and the most brutal and gory of murders even within the golden age of detection…

But above all this, as we read a crime novel or watch a crime series we still have that same impulse that drives the whole crime genre: simply wanting to work it out. Even if modern crime works are less about means and opportunity in favour of motivation, our propensity as humans to get to the truth and to see justice prevail is not extinguished. And therefore the essence and the very beginnings of the crime novel, as both morality tale combined with puzzle, still remains at its heart. Even if the puzzle is less about how killers can escape from locked rooms, and more about how the murderer’s brain locks together.

However, in saying all this I want to acknowledge some generalisations on my part. There are many writers today still working in and around the golden age style. Take for example Sophie Hannah, and the TV series’ Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Dr Blake Mysteries and Death In Paradise. There are also many modern thriller’s with fair play elements, like Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series, the as mentioned Higashino novels and the American Sherlock TV series Elementary to name a few examples in a big list. But much of the books that make it into big posters on the platforms of train stations, are of the fast paced, often inverted, psychological crime thriller.

In regards to the title of this post where all the locked rooms? it could seem that the psychological thriller genre has all but taken over the golden age locked room format. But… there is indeed a contemporary locked room novel scene bubbling, and it may surprise you to hear that to access it, we need to look to Europe and the far east.

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In 2007 the noted locked room anthologist Roland Larcombe brought a group of crime fiction experts and translators together to create a hypothetical library of the top 100 locked room mystery novels. In the final results a huge 40 percent of the books chosen were French titles. The full list can be found here. Arguably the first Locked Room Mystery proper the fantastic The Mystery of The Yellow Room was written by french author Gaston Leroux, who then went on to pen The Phantom of the Opera. Continuing from there is the legacy of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. In their own right they both wrote many famous locked room novels, which appear on the top 100 list by Larcombe. And together under the nom de plume Boileau-Narcejac they wrote, among many other works, the noir classic Vertigo, adapted by them for cinema at the request of Alfred Hitchcock. Interestingly, these works by Boileau-Narcejac alongside other french authors like George Simenon could also be said to have been the start of the ‘whydunnit’ genre, where the killers and criminals are more interesting than the detectives. Other writers such as the hyper prolific Paul Halter, who has written some 40 Locked room mysteries in French, continue to carry the impossible crime mantle right up to the present day.

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And to search further afield in Japan, the classic detective novel and the locked room mystery are absolutely thriving. Take for example the wonderfully complex and brutal Tokyo Zodiac Murders by Soji Shimada where an artist is killed by an unknown weapon within his studio, locked from the inside. His 6 daughters then all go mysteriously missing from a bath house, their body parts found scattered all over Japan, set out by a riddled code.

But the problem here is, barely any French or Japanese locked room novels get a translation into English. This could leave English readers thinking that the locked room book is all but dead, when in many cases it is most definitely alive! So, maybe the locked room mystery genre hasn’t vanished as much as we might think, and every time one makes it’s way into the UK many seem to love it. Who knows, maybe we will see a resurgence in the world of books. But they may have to be translated from Japanese or French first!