#305: Murder in the Red Chamber (2004) by Ashibe Taku [trans. Tyran C. Grillo 2012]

Murder in the Red ChamberIt’s been quite some time since I looked at a really meaty impossible crime novel here on The Invisible Event, and a recent sweep through some Eastern treasures thanks to Locked Room International’s The Realm of the Impossible whetted my appetite for something from that culture.  This “Western crime fiction based on a Chinese classic” — that being Dream of the Red Chamber (1791), which itself runs to  multiple volumes and several thousand pages — seemed tailor-made, then.  A powerful dynasty, multitudinous impossibilities, and a dose of historical context sounded perfect; so I’m a little sorry to report that it didn’t quite work for me.  Go ahead, roll your eyes if you like; I’ll explain below.

The problems are several.  Firstly the translation is awkward and oddly repetitious, with sentences like “only the smoke rising from the street rose beyond the state umbrellas held high” abounding — surely that first “rising” is plainly superfluous to even the most basic proof-reads.  In one of the opening acknowledgements, translator Tyran Grillo makes clear the huge amount of research that has gone into catching the appropriate themes and motifs within this, so I’m not doubting the sheer volume of effort expended, but it’s nevertheless a difficult read still, as if content matters far more than delivery.  And this is only the beginning of my problems.

I’m further stymied by the fact that there’s no clear point of view; generally in a book this is fine — I don’t like it, but assume a sort of third-person personal overview — but then you get moments like this (following the first death, so no great spoilers):

“Oh, respects to my future father-in-law…How are you, sir?”

“I am saddened to inform you that I will not be fulfilling that title by which you address me.  My daughter, Ying-chun, is dead.  See for yourself.  Her body is right over there by the water!”

Sun Shao-zu froze in his tracks the moment he glimpsed Ying-chun’s corpse through the growing crowd.

Shang-rong wondered who this man might be that he could speak to Jia She in such a manner.

Now, we’ve just been told twice precisely who this man is — he’s betrothed the to dead woman, daughter of the man he’s speaking to…so where’s the confusion?  Possibly Shang-rong didn’t hear that greeting…but then he heard enough of the rest of the speech to wonder about the manner of what was said…gaaaaah, it’s stuff like this that kept taking me out of the narrative time and again.  Whenever I put it aside and started to concentrate, my focus would be burked by something like this happening over, and as such I never settled into what was happening.

And this would be fine — several impossibilities, remember — if the novel moved at any sort of pace.  Yes, I get that it’s doubtless full of references and crossovers with that classical work, but when the first 25% of your novel can be summed up by saying “These people are incredibly influential and rich, they’re phenomenally good-looking, and they have a big garden; also they’re really really good-looking” then you need a better editor.  When the murders start in chapter 4 we begin to get somewhere, but even then it’s a looong time between crimes, whioch I stil can’t quite explain.  And when issues like the excerpt above, and repeated references to just how damn attractive and striking all these immensely powerful and attractive people are, stumble in all over the place, well, I only have so much patience.

And how are those murders?  Well, the opening one is probably the best, but it’s not impossible by any stretch even though the solution is rather sublime.  The vanishing of killer and victim for a locked room, and the floating of some ethereal shape above the building, and then the appearance of said victim in a locked courtyard is all…fine, but not developed enough in the text to really sink in, and the solution is something of a cheat.  Then a body appears in a flower bed, which I thought was reasonable if basic; someone disappears from a locked carriage, which is one of my least favourite types of solution; and finally someone is attacked by a pond…which is…well, I was pretty disappointed already by this stage, so I just sort of sighed and shrugged at that one.

But, here’s the thing: the motivations for these crimes is brilliant.  Even in my jaded, resigned frame of mind, the line where the reason for all these crimes being committed in this manner is spelled out gave me a kind of chill that I’ll remember for a long time.  I doubt it’s an original motive, but it’s unlike anything I’ve encountered for a very long time indeed, and was a much-needed burst of freshness at the end of a long, arduous, frustrating experience, a lagniappe that doesn’t make the effort worth it, but was welcome because it was so unexpected.

So, well, perhaps this is the best type of novel that the initial restrictions would allow anyone to hew…we’ll never know.  I sort of feel Ashibe needed to pick a lane: yes, some people will really appreciate the depth of this crossover, but I’m also guessing that such readers will be a very small part of his audience (though I could be wrong…) and the rest will just be…bemused.  Had he not styled it a “Western crime fiction” himself I’d happily say that was the point and my ignorance leaves me on the losing team.  As it stands, however, it’s difficult not to feel that Rudyard Kipling may have had a point after all.

star filledstar filledstarsstarsstars

See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Murder in the Red Chamber is far from being a classic in its own right, but the large scope of the story, the maze-like nature of the plot, the plethora of impossible situations and the final explanation definitely makes the book worth a shot. In particular if you’re a fan of locked room conundrums, historical mysteries, foreign crime novels, pastiches or simply loved the source material that Ashibe drew upon for this book.


For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Long Divorce because…hmm, well it’s something of a spoiler.  Trust me on this; in order to enjoy both books fully, you really don’t want to find out the link here!

26 thoughts on “#305: Murder in the Red Chamber (2004) by Ashibe Taku [trans. Tyran C. Grillo 2012]

  1. Small note: his family name is Ashibe, not Taku.

    I have quite some novels by Ashibe, not this one though (I do have the Japanese paperback lying somewhere around here). Ashibe absolutely loves literature and history, and it’s often an underlying theme in his books. The writing style for each of the stories in his two-volume series Exhibition of the Great Detectives all all fit perfectly for example, and the way he uses (literary) history for his mystery plots is also quite amusing (though at times it makes his works less accessible).

    So I have a feeling that in terms of writing style, in regards to the example you quoted, it might just be that Ashibe’s just writing very close to the original writing style of Dream of the Red Chamber. I haven’t read that book either, but I have read other Chinese classics (like The Three Kingdoms and Journey to the West) and they often have a somewhat jumpy mode of narrative. These books aren’t novels in the modern sense of the world, so they often have a Homeric take on narration and the characters behave much more (melo-)dramatically than you’d expect. At least, I had the same with a book by Futaro YAMADA, which was also a mystery take on a Chinese classic, where I found it difficult to see what was “possible” in that literary world and what was not: flimsy disguises might work in works like Homer or these Chinese classics for example, but wouldn’t fly in more modern works of course. Emphasizing the surprise despite the character obviously having overheard the details sounds like something that’d fit right in with the classic mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was thinking about what you said Ho-Ling and also what you wrote JJ that maybe it’s a style thing that makes the text seems jumpy, or different to the western reader.

      I guess the problem is that is was labelled as ‘A Western detective story’ – I wondered if this thing that the publisher forced in? I am going to read Murder on Mt. Fuji soon by Shizuko Natsuki and I recently read that for the english translation the main character was changed from a Japanese woman to a white American woman to appeal more to the market (bluurgh!).

      Do you think a similar thing was happening here?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Urf, that sounds like horrible meddling. This is a case of simple excisions here cleaning up a lumbering and cumbersome text. No problem withsomthing being faithful, as I say, but it definitely needs to pick a lane as to what its prime motivation is. A shame, because it could have been excellent.

        Liked by 1 person

        • That is frustrating, content over actual narrative flow as you said. It feels akin to my experience reading So Pretty a Problem by Duncan, and a few of the stories in Miraculous Mysteries from the British Library classic collection, where you are constantly being held back by the writing. Nothing is more frustrating in a genre that requires serious movement!


          • Early attempts that this sort of thing don’t bother me when this narrative stagnation occurs — I’m more tolerant of it in Poe or some of the Keikichi Osaka stories because they’re trying something new. But by the time a genre is in dull enough swing to be recognisable in form and content this type of prevarication really needs culling.

            Part of the problem I have with so many modern crime novels is how many of them have started employing it again — the cumbersome and laboured revelation of dull points that can be built more carefully or avoided all together. I’ve just in the last five minutes given up on a book from the last few years that does exactly that…and it’s considered one of the good ones! Alack, a new dark age is upon us…!

            Liked by 2 people

            • I recently gave up on a supposedly great book for exactly the same reason, holding back information for chapters that when it is revealed is so mundane or hardly relevant as to make you wonder why anyone would think it was mysterious in the first pace.


        • Which betokens another issue with the translation, right? I mean, Asking would know what he meant, so this is another literal or too faithful rendering of that, arguably. Hmmm, if I’d known the problems were going to start this early then I needn’t have bothered 🙂


    • Thanks for the name correction; I noticed as I was about to post it that I’d typed “Tashibe” and in an early-morning fug corrected it in the wrong way.

      As I acknowledge, I can believe that there’s a huge amount of effort gone into the aping of themes and, as you suggest, styles ofthe classics Ashibe is calling on; it’s my cultural ignorance that means I miss out in that regard. But, at the same time, the translation for a Western audience that doesn’t know this anything like as well could address some of the smaller issues — things like the repetition and the awkward (and, it must be said, unnecessary) phrasing can be removed from the Western translation without too great a loss of theme or structure or intent. Too much fidelity ends up being a barrier at times, which is why narrative stories are rarely true to life: facsimile is fine, but sketch is often better!


      • “Too much fidelity ends up being a barrier at times..”
        I agree.
        As a challenge, I decided to translate the Paul Halter novel La Malédiction de Barberousse to English, which I have since completed. I found that at several places if I translated too literally, it would read really clumsy in English. Hence at these places I resorted to intelligent translation rather than literal translation.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Ashibe does have a tendency at times to indulge too much in his bibliophilia and love for literature, which often results in works that go *just* too far in some areas, which is why I said it sometimes makes his works a bit inaccessible. The last book I read by him tended to over-explain 1930s Osaka for example, citing bus lines and mystery magazines and running serializations at the time. Though that is also what gives his books a unique feeling. I can’t judge for this particular book, and I do understand your argument, but if for example all of Athena’s feathered words would have their wings clipped in a similar pastiche, my knee jerk reaction would be to say that it needs to be there, as it’s part of the work’s original goal. The story would of course work even without all of Homer’s fixed expressions, but it’d still be different.

        The issue here is of course overall accessibility vs. faithful to the original concept, and going for a compromise is probably the sanest thing to do, but I can already hear my inner geek screaming that it’s just not the same w/o the weirdly specific (style) references. This specific book is inside a incredibly small niche as a detective that builds on a Chinese classic, so I think editing/cutting would’ve been the easier/most sensible way out, but I can see why one would prefer to keep it close to the original style.


        • To be fair, this sort of fidelity is immensely difficult to maintain even when the text is well-known or referenced heavily throughout (see Storm by Boris Starling for a modern example of that). My thesis is, if you’re writing a murder mystery then it must first and foremost be a murder mystery: fewer callbacks in order to facilitate a stronger, faster, better plot is a decision there should be no hesitation over.

          But, then, how many novels have I written and had published to widespread acclaim? Take a guess…


  2. haha I’m not sure Bev will allow withholdings of links lol (Though if I get desperate I might use this idea myself lol)
    Thanks for taking the bullet with this one. Like you I enjoy trying out mysteries from other cultures, but it seems like this one is one to avoid.


  3. Firstly the translation is awkward and oddly repetitious

    Ho-Ling already mentioned that this might be due to Ashibe imitating the original writing style of Dream of the Red Chamber and can confirm his experiences with Journey to the West. Your complaints about that classic Chinese epic would very likely mirror what you said here about Murder in the Red Chamber. Particularly the painstakingly accurate, tersely translation that counts four volumes of 500-pages each. It takes it time to set up the story and is very repetitive in nature. So maybe the book deserves an extra star for accuracy? 😉

    By the way, what did you think of the massive family tree? I mentioned in my review that you had a problem with the confusing genealogy of the central family of another detective novel and how the family tree in Murder in the Red Chamber dwarfed that one. I expected some more commentary on that.

    Oh, and you’re wrong about the impossible appearance of the body in the flower bed. That was a great one.


    • My main problem with the confusing genealogy in that other book (Deadly Reunion by Jan Ekstrom) was how it just dumped on you in the opening, like, five pages thirteen people and their near-thirty relationships to each other without any context. Here there’s so much repetition, and so many asides into the relationships of people who live in the hosue that the cart isdriving past, that youo can’t help but get a clear fix on how they all relate to each other. That was no problem, and helped by the Chinese form of the names throughout which kept the various people largely distinct. If anything, this is a book that other unwieldy casts could learn a lot from!

      And, look, I may intime reverse my opinion on this overall now I know what to expect from it. I won’t reread it any time soon, but I’ll acknowledge that what I was expecting was not at all what I got and that could be a factor in my unenjoyment. On current experience, I go in much more for shin honkaku than straight honkaku, but given enough time I can love anything that’s doing what it should. I’m just not convinced yet that this one is doing what it should 🙂


  4. The point I pick up on that’s so frustrating is that I LOVE a great motive, and I feel sad that I will be missing out on that (because I sense that this book is not for me). If you ever run across the same sort of thing in a better novel, let me know!

    As I mentioned in a message to you, just looking at the floor plan at the front of Death in the House of Rain is giving me hives! Am I ready for this?!? 🙂


    • I might need you to send me scans of those plans, since flipping back and forth in the Kindle version — Santosh implies paying attention to the plans is very important — is probably going to give me RSI.


  5. “really, really good-looking” Well, how could it be a proper tragedy if they were all just kind of average and prone to zits? 🙂
    I agree the style is a little stilted and hard-going but I kind of expected that so, didn’t mind it as much as you. I was struck by the bleak picture of society this showed, particularly for women.


    • Historically, women didn’t have the best time of it anywhere in this era, did they? Thankfully everything is all asorted out now on that front. Oh, hang on…

      In a semi-related note, a friend of mine was discussing the misogyny of Game of Thrones with another friend, the second of who was defending it on historical grounds. My first friend pointed out that they didn’t seem too worried about historicasl fidelity where the dragons were concerned and, once I’d finished laughing, I’ve never had the slightest urge to watch that show purely because of that exchange alone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s a great show, and the strongest, most interesting characters are the women. But there’s no denying the misogyny, and your friend’s comment about dragons was a marvelous retort! Historical grounds, indeed!


  6. That’s a great line. I’ve not seen Game of Thrones either, but there is a tendency in certain types of fantasy to confuse ‘strong women characters’ with ‘women in fetish gear and a sword’.


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