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.

 

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.