It’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.