So, the obvious question in light of this entry into the Reprint of the Year Awards 2020 as organised by Kate at CrossExaminingCrime is: can these stories originally published between 1954 and 1961 be considered a reprint if they’ve never been published in English before? To which I ask: if they couldn’t, would they be in the running for the Reprint of the Year Awards?
Today, or over the coming days, all manner of reputable Golden Age detective fiction bloggers — and Brad Friedman — will be putting their reputations on the line by trying to convince you that their choice of a work of crime and/or detection republished during the dumpster fire that was 2020 is the best of its kind. Then next week, they’re going to do it all over again, and then the following week you get to vote for your favourite(s) and a winner will be decided.
Given my avowed fascination with the impossible crime in fiction, as well as the late in life love affair I have started with the works of Freeman Wills Crofts, it will be no surprise to many of you that I have chosen The Red Locked Room (2020) by Tetsuya Ayukawa as the hat I shall be tossing into this ring. The back cover of this edition invites comparison with both Crofts and John Dickson Carr, the arguable doyen of the impossible crime, and so all I need to do is wax lyrical about the delights of the impossible crime stories — ‘The Red Locked Room’ (1954), ‘The White Locked Room’ (1958), ‘The Clown in the Tunnel’ (1958), and ‘The Blue Locked Room’ (1961) — and pour out joy unconfined on the complexities of the alibi stories — ‘Whose Body?’ (1957), ‘The Five Clocks’ (1957), and ‘Death in Early Spring’ (1958) — and we’re done.
Except, it’s not quite going to go like that.
Someone telling you how great a book is always runs into the problems of subjectivity. The classic example for me is that I simply don’t understand the praise lavished on Death on the Nile (1937) by Agatha Christie: I think it’s…fine, but nothing close to the masterpiece many seem to herald it as. But this is also what’s so great about reading, reviewing, and especially discussing books — we read the exact same words (mostly…) and yet undergo a unique experience as a result. So, to a certain extent, a bunch of us telling you that our selection is the best book republished in any calendar year is folly of this highest order: there are at least two books due to be nominated that I’d probably put among the worst I’ve read this year, and no amount of someone telling me I’ve missed the point is going to change my mind on that front.
Allow me, then, to break new ground in the Reprint of the Year Awards by telling you that the mysteries in The Red Locked Room aren’t really that great. We’ll take a moment here for a few of you to throw your hands up in despair and to remind you of the subjectivity of opinions where the quality of a prose work is concerned, and with that out of the way we can now look through a few of the problems I see in them.
Taking the collection generally, these stories run into the problem that an Agatha Christie short story collection has in that the same trick is used so much that it becomes a little tedious. This absolutely lies at the feet of the editors than Ayukawa, but it’s still something to consider. Of the seven stories here, a surprisingly large number of them (I’ll not say which ones or how many, in the hope that I’ll preserve some surprise for anyone else who spots it) can be boiled down to a two- or three-word phrase in order to explain their mysteries. And while it’s not fair to hold this against the stories, it’s weirdly distracting one you spot it, and it very much took me out of proceedings.
However, the individual stories themselves could also be good, regardless of the company in which they’re put, right? They could, but Ayukawa is so damn prolix that these things run on for, in most cases, about twice as long as they should. Events unfold in such a weird hotchpotch of a way that a lot of the time you’re not even sure who the story is focussing on, and then the narrative breaks off at weird points without resolving issues only to casually throw in the resolution as an afterthought several pages later (Utako Ui going to identify the body in ‘Whose Body?’ being the most egregious example of this). This is no mere infelicity in translation — c’mon, Ho-Ling Wong is magnificent at this by now, having done incredible work for the likes of Alice Arisugawa, Yukito Ayatsuji, Keikichi Osaka, and Takemaru Abiko for Locked Room International, capturing the individual voices of those authors brilliantly (you know this because of how distinctly those books read) — and so I’m prepared to say it’s a feature of Ayukawa’s prose.
In much the same way that so many modern crime novels are churned out with Agatha Christie comparisons emblazoned on every spare inch, I’m not entirely sure that the complexity here is anything close to Crofts’ league, not are the impossibilities — once you spot that common theme and get a sense of how they were planned — in Carr’s bunker. Easily the best scheme is ‘The Five Clocks’. but there’s no detection: we’re simply sat down and told how it was worked rather than how the detective worked it out — it’s marvellous, but done so disinterestedly that it becomes difficult to engage. The essential misdirection in ‘Whose Body?’, too, is very clever, but Ayukawa needs more the focus and skill of Osaka (in particular) to bring this home to the reader in a less verbose manner. In solidly two or three of the stories the detective, having explained the workings of the crime, sees that witnesses are confused and so has to explain it again — one presumes because Ayukawa thought it wasn’t clear to the reader (it was to this one…). That’s…not a good sign.
And so an obvious question remains.
If I’m not a fan of the stories, what the hell am I doing nominating this for Reprint of the Year?
What this collection does magnificently — magnificently, better than any book I’ve ever read in the genre — is capture a culture in a time of transition. The introduction by Taku Ashibe does a wonderful job of placing the honkaku revolution in Japanese crime writing in the appropriate context, and of making it clear just how much upheaval was going on throughout the country in the wake of the Second World War. Osaka was writing honkaku in the 1930s, and we know that Western-style literature was virtually contraband for a while in the East — see Seishi Yokomizo’s delight at the detective fiction found on a character’s bookshelves in The Honjin Murders (1946) — and Taku reels off just a few names here (Biggers, Christie, Crofts, Milne, Queen, Van Dine) that would obviously go on to be very influential. Yes, a paucity of Western-style detective stories would of course result in literature that doesn’t quite meet the expectations of my Western weaned brain, but Ayukawa is actually fairly late to the party — and he’s read The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson, at least, so he has some idea of the standard he’s working within.
It’s away from merely aping the masters of this genre, however, and instead dropping little hints about the quotidian existence of the average Japanese citizen that this really flies. The occasional question may be raised by some of this (“[H]e had given the stereotypical apology about how sorry he was that his lack of supervision had led to his subordinate becoming a murderer” is a fascinating sentence for the idea that this happens frequently enough for such an apology to be stereotypical…!), but most of the details that creep out around the edges of our characters’ encounters enrich the picture of post-WW2 Japan in a way that many textbooks would fail to convey so memorably.
“Envision if you will a man who is respected as a gentleman, and who prides himself on such a reputation, being stabbed by a woman,” we’re told at one point — driving home the importance not of justice but of chivalry…something echoed later on when a detective realises that he has for the first time “been invited into the private dwelling of an adult female” and looks around him as amazed as any child at the zoo. Elsewhere a discussion is had about a man refusing to acknowledge his responsibilities at having got a young woman pregnant and the options she has regarding abortion:
[He] couldn’t believe his ears. What had once been a major crime before the war, was now being done by everyone. And they didn’t even feel ashamed, daring to talk about it in front of others.
Of course, it’s not all progress — “Back then, it was still possible to see Mt. Fuji through the pines covering the area, but now it was covered with houses and stores, and those memories had been expunged” — and the callousness with which Western troops simply swept in and took over buildings of particular significance or beauty (“Before the war, it had been a well-known luxury building, but — as often occurred after the war — it had been requisitioned as lodgings for American army officers…”) without much care or consideration of what damage was done or wreckage left behind (“… and most of the ground floor had been converted into one large hall”) is communicated with the bland statement of fact, showing the shame of its ubiquity.
Culturally, too, there is the bleeding in of Western influences within these Western-influenced tales: musical groups being formed on the back of the lucrative business of performing Western styles of music like jazz, and even singing in English “even though they couldn’t differentiate between Ls and Rs.” — “It’s a shame to see how Tokyo has changed” Chief Inspector Onitsura opines at one point, and to a certain extent that feels very much like the theme of these stories more than the eye-catching comparisons which make it so appealing in the first place.
I could very much have kept my opinions about these stories to myself, but at the end of the day that’s all they are: my opinions. The collection might compel itself to you on account of the stories and you, dear reader, may well love them all — I hope you do. However, whatever you take from Ayukawa’s plotting and writing, it’s the picture of Japan at a period of unimaginable change, and the excitement and terror that comes with that, which makes this such a fascinating read. We all have our niches in which we like to read, and part of the richness of older fiction has always been for me the cultural, technological, and social dynamics and breakthroughs that determine the setting of a story, and it was wonderful to pick up on so much of that while immersed in the death, mayhem, and criminal ingenuity on display here. It is the not for the subjective quality of the stories, but rather the objective ambient — forgive me — corona of cultural enrichment that I consider this to be the best reprint 2020 has brought us.
Hopefully you agree, and will vote accordingly when the time comes — but, at the very least, I strongly urge you to read this collection and come to your own conclusions regarding the above. And then, naturally, come and shout at me on here if you disagree.
A post with links to all this week’s nominations can be found here at Kate’s blog.