The Invisible Guest: Oriol Paulo (2016) – Can Thrillers and Locked Rooms work together?

A man stirs from unconsciousness, sprawled on the floor of his hotel room, as he hears the police banging against the door. Coming to, he finds his mistress lying dead in the bathroom, she has been bludgeoned to death. Calling out to the police for help they break down the door and storm in. The problem? All the doors and windows are locked from the inside, the door was watched, and there is no one else in the room. The man is arrested as the only suspect, now about to stand trial for murder.

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This delicious problem is presented in the brand new Spanish impossible crime thriller The Invisible Guest by Oriol Paulo. The Spanish title is ‘Contratiempo, the literal English translation of which is ‘Against Time’, which I think would in some ways have been a better name, and I’ll explain why. The film opens with Adrián Doria, a hugely successful young business man, receiving a late night call at his apartment where he is now under house arrest for the murder. Doria’s high powered lawyer has employed the services of Virginia Goodman, a prestigious defence attorney who has never lost a case. Goodman comes with the news that a witness with a new piece of evidence has emerged for the prosecution. The judge has called for the witness to testify that same night, which means that Doria and Goodman have only three hours in which to figure out how the crime was committed and compose a solid defence, or he goes to prison for murder. She starts a stop watch and places it one the desk, the untangling begins.

A great hook right? The locked room angle and the ticking clock have you on the edge of your seat from the off. Goodman asks Doria to explain the events from the start as they happened, which gives us a very natural piece of exposition to bring us into the crime and it’s surrounding story. The film develops into a cleverly layered set of extremely twisty plots that build into a number of big crescendos. A lot of the ‘detection’ is done by Goodman as she tries to unpick the motives, and double cross purposes of all involved. She tests and pushes Doria to his limit to draw out every angle on the case possible, and the detection is focussed as much on intuition and feeling – “What does this puzzle say to you?”- as much as does on ratiocination and the deconstruction of evidence.

There are a couple of absolutely killer scenes, and there is one plot point in particular -when one victim’s phone rings… I won’t say anything more – which is heart in throat stuff. The cast is also sparse, which works both for atmosphere and plotting. The cinematography is beautifully moody, with a gorgeous blue and green hue haunting the whole film, across a very limited number of locations. I had heard about this film over at the Golden Age Detection group on Facebook, but didn’t think we would get an English release. So I was chuffed when my wonderful sister told me that it was now on Netflix! I urge my readers to give it a go.

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However, I do have a number of criticisms about this film, and that brings me to the title of this post. The Invisible Guest seems to suffer from the problem of trying to do to many things at once, therefore watering down each aspect in turn.

The hook of the three hour time limit, which kicks us off with a bang, is not really used as the plot moves forward. We now and again get a shot of the stop watch, but otherwise the tension is not capitalised upon, which limits the urgency of solving the crime. Therefore, what could have been a brilliantly claustrophobic dialogue between Doria and Goodman across the apartment table, ends up falling a little flat.

The same then goes for the locked room problem. Because Paulo has tried to create a surprise twist by twist plot, the complexity of the locked room starts to get consumed, and the intellectual focus of the impossible crime that opens the film gets lost. This is then apparent in the solution to the locked room itself. When I got to the end, I watched the set up back a number of times just to make sure, but I honestly don’t think it is fairly clewed (would really appreciate your thoughts on that readers), which is a shame because there is some really solid clewing elsewhere. And in the context of what has been set up I’m not sure the solution would be full proof and actually possible. Carr used a very similar solution idea in one of his short stories, but did it better because it was really believable in how it occurred.

And as for the twists, there were so many that they start to loose force, and therefore I could see the final revelation coming a mile off. This meant that what could have been a powerful tying together of threads lost it’s punch because of predictability.

What I will say in it’s defence is that the motive for the twists and the locked room are solid, if  a little outlandish, which is not an easy thing to get right. Therefore it makes me all the more sad that these elements are crowded out by the film trying to be too clever for it’s own good.

So after all that, my question is, can a locked room and a thriller style plot really mix? Does the speed and twisty nature of modern thriller writing work alongside the slow and methodical nature of a locked room problem, or will they always be bumping heads?

I guess a simple answer would be yes, of course they can, as pretty much anything can happen with good writing. There are many stories yet to be penned, so there is nothing stopping it happening. If we look at books like Till Death Do us Part and She Died a Lady by Carr, they are mind blowing in their pace, and shocking plot turns with impossible problems being the absolute centre of the plot. But then in my opinion these books are more thrilling than thriller if that makes sense? So, is it that the elements needed to create a modern thriller are just too different for the elements needed to create a brilliant locked room puzzle? I guess the bigger question is what is the authorial context that makes a thriller work the best and the same for a locked room story? Let me know your thoughts.

Do give The Invisible Guest a go, there is so much to like, and I really enjoyed seeing a screen writer deal with a modern locked room problem. If you loved it and the locked room solution let me know, I’m ready to be wrong! You can watch the trailer here to get in the mood:

 

 

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But is it a Locked Room Mystery? The case of the impossible alibi.

Recently I was having a chat with a friend about impossible crimes (believe me this doesn’t happen that often), and though not a big reader they loved the series Death In Paradise. In response to my statement that I liked the impossible episodes of the series so far, they said “but aren’t all the episodes impossible crimes, because no one could have done it?”

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In the intro to his brilliant CADS magazine number 74, editor Geoff Bradley writes a lovely off-hand piece about Death In Paradise, and its wave of bad press despite it’s popularity, (something I considered in this post). In his intro he also calls the stories of the BBC series ‘impossible crimes’.

Both these examples got me thinking. The idea that these stories are all being considered ‘impossible crimes’ seems to be because usually everyone has an alibi. This point of view doesn’t just apply to the TV series, but also to novels I have seen in discussion online. Some have suggested a novel as an impossible crime or locked room mystery because all the characters claim to be elsewhere at the time of the murder.

At the risk of treading some old ground covered by JJ somewhat in this post from last year, (it’s worth reading his post to see how he defines the terms ‘locked room’ and ‘impossible crime’ generally), I want to add my voice into the mix on this more specific point. I do not think a novel or episode of detective fiction counts as an impossible crime or locked room mystery simply if all the characters have seemingly solid alibis, and that is your complete set up. Why do I think this? Well, I think it’s something to do with the fact that an alibi and the impossible or locked room element of a novel are two very different things, with different roles.

Alibis are often created to be broken or solidified and therefore, even if seemingly watertight surely they can’t be the edges of an impossibility for the fact that most of the time they don’t hold up under scrutiny, or are meant to be broken down. Another problem is that the alibi can also be a lie. Many characters may say that they weren’t there or provide themselves with a place to have been, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. I think for a story to qualify as an impossible crime or locked room mystery something impossible has to have taken place, not just that there is a murder in an easily accessible location or within a generally plausible murder situation and everyone says ‘I wasn’t there.’

Seeing as Death In Paradise was the beginning of this thought process, let’s take the set ups of two episodes from series one as an example. Episode 1: ‘Death in Paradise’ tells the tale of a British detective shot while locked inside a solid steel panic room. Only the police know the code to the door, and when they get inside he has been shot at close range, no weapon and no murderer left within. The killer has somehow vanished into thin air. Therefore the physical circumstances under which the murder occurs are baffling and not able to have taken place, in other words an impossible crime. In Episode 3: ‘Predicting Murder’ (the series masterpiece I think) a woman is found poisoned in the classroom of a local school. There are two shot glasses on the teacher’s desk, and a bottle of strong drink, with only hers and the head teachers fingerprints, and only her glass poisoned. For the time of the murder however, the head teacher has an unbelievably rock solid alibi: “So let me get this straight, your alibi is that you were doing charity work, in an orphanage surrounded by nuns.” And so does everyone else who was involved in the school. This I would say, however, is not an impossible crime. The murder method and setup while complex, are not ‘impossible’ to occur, in that anyone could come and go into the room as they wished, even someone outside the cast of suspects could be responsible, and although they have alibis they were not all continuously watched, and it doesn’t mean that they are not lying or conspiring together. It seems as if complicated or tricky murder set-ups are being confused with an impossible or locked room set-ups.

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‘Predicting Murder’

But maybe I am on shaky ground here? Alibis do often provide or hold together an impossibility. We could take the most classic locked room trope of the ‘first on the scene’ as an example. Used countless times over the years, here the alibi is: ‘We were all together when we broke down the door and the victim was found stabbed inside’, which is also the crux of the impossibility/solution ‘you were there, but when you went to examine the victim, who was only incapacitated, you stabbed them without anyone realising.’ Here then the alibi and the mechanics of the impossibility serve each other. Another example could be Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint (2008), we know who the murderer is, but we also know that she was on the other side of Japan at the time of the murder, so how on earth did she do it? Her alibi is, in essence, the impossibility.

Here I could run into even more problems, in that sometimes an impossible crime story is only such because a character’s testimony says so, but they are later found to be lying. Does that then mean the novel has changed from impossible to not? Or as was discussed a little in the comments on JJ’s post, Carter Dickson’s Judas Window (1938), one of the most important locked room mysteries ever written, requires us to believe that the central figure is innocent for the impossibility to even be there.

But in saying all this, I believe my point still stands, because I would say the impossibility in the ‘first on the scene’ scenario suggested above is: that they were stabbed in a room locked from the inside, but the killer managed to vanish away. Perhaps it’s the circumstances of the type of murder itself, rather than the alibis of those involved taking priority? Maybe it’s something to do with a mix up between the ‘howdunit’ and the ‘whodunnit’ and where final boundaries lie?

So what do you say? I would love to hear your thoughts on what you think constitutes a locked room proper, and how alibis play into that, as I try to traverse this rather narrow, icy path of definitions (leaving no footprints as I go).

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.

 

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?

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.

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.