Technical difficulties have precluded an episode of In GAD We Trust this week — apologies — and so instead we return to the occasional series in which I pretend that it is for TomCat‘s benefit that I track down and read modern impossible crime novels.
Ghost of the Bamboo Road (2019), the seventh entry in Susan Spann’s series featuring Master ninja Hiro Hattori and Portuguese Jesuit priest Mateo Ávila de Santos, also marks the first time I’ve read one of these impossible crime novels for TomCat’s benefit only for it to turn out not to feature an impossible crime. That’s not the book’s fault at all — the synopsis mentioning a 16th century setting, ghostly sightings in an isolated village, and a brutal murder in the snow made me suspect that the novel may have featured an impossibility without the publisher realising it — but I wanted to mention it up top so no-one felt misled. Is there, then, any sense in reviewing it under my Finding a Modern Locked Room Novel for TomCat banner? No, but that’s why I read it and time is short given the need for a quick replacement for that ruined podcast episode, so here we are.
Also, it sort of does feature an impossibility, albeit accidentally. But we’ll get to that later.
The series, or this part of it at least, seems to be structured around an over-arching mission in which Hiro, Mateo, and Mateo’s housekeeper Ann are travelling to parts of Japan to warn members of a clan possibly deployed on clandestine operations that their identities are known and their lives therefore at risk. It’s a good idea, allowing the trio to indulge in the classic mystery trope of wandering into town with one prupose and then getting caught up in a mystery that delays them and provides the majority of the plot for a standalone adventure. In this case, a landslide several months ago having swept away the usual travellers’ route up a mountain, we find ourselves in a tiny, isolated village along the old route where, on the anniversary of her daughter’s murder, the owner of the local ryokan, or guest-house, is found murdered in the nearby graveyard.
For reasons will be shared in due course, the denizens of the village believe the perpetrator of this act to be a vengeful yūrei spirit that has been hunting members of the village at night for some time now. Mateo, intent on bringing some rationale to proceedings, is keen to investigate; Hiro is not so sure it is worthwhile.
“These villagers will believe in ghosts no matter what we do.”
“Not if we find the killer and prove the ghost does not exist.”
“But…you believe in ghosts.”
The Jesuit drew back. “I do not.”
“You pray to one every day.”
From here, we fall into fairly familiar classic mystery tropes: a round of interviews with the closed circle of people living in the village before a second murder at the halfway point, followed by more mysterious happenings before the legend of the yūrei is unravelled and a corporeal hand identified as the killer. And the comfort of the familiar provides a clear-sighted background against which Spann is able to showcase her superb historical eye and (to my ignorant self) cultural awareness in a way that feels both illuminating and necessary. The easy way the text is littered with off-hand societal tidbits from the era without ever needing to veer into heavy-handed explanation is one of the most brilliantly successful elements of this tale — if you want to see historical fiction done right, this is a wonderful example.
Her cast is also fascinating and mostly well-drawn. I love Hiro’s response to being told what he suspects will be a tedious and unimportant story, and the contrasting way the samurai’s awareness of his own culture is used to inform Mateo of important facets of superstition and history. Equally, the villagers, while held in the thrall of what they believe to be a murderous ghost, aren’t quite the idiot yokels it would be possible to dismiss them as:
“What if I told you yūrei are not real?” Father Mateo asked.
Mume considered the Jesuit’s question. “Why do you know a rite to make them go away if they are not real?”
The first half, up to that second murder, does a great job of making the unfamiliar seem like home, and deepening the mystery so that the stakes feel tangible, the air of panic well-marshalled, and the killer very hard to spot indeed even in the minute cast presented to us. However, the later stages of the novel do begin to slip away from Spann, it feels, with very little in the way of actual plot development achieved other than by more interviews, more listening at keyholes, and the convenient presence of a Old Man of the Woods who I have no doubt is historically accurate but brings nothing to the plotting besides a few (maybe just one?) handy shortcuts that could have been reached if Hiro’s detection involved more than just relying on suspects having compromising conversations within earshot.
The solution when it comes makes sense, but also leaves some rather key aspects unaddressed. For instance, following that first murder, Hiro follows what he suspects might be the killer’s footprints in the mud and snow, at first puzzled by seemingly large gaps in the trail until realising that “the person must have jumped from stone to stone across the boulders that dotted the slope like islands in a steep white sea”. Soon thereafter, however, the footprints simply end so that “the dirt…pockmarked with the tracks of foxes, deer, and squirrels held not a single human print”. I imagined we’d see something like the situation from Aleksis Kivi’s Seven Brothers (1870) as contained in The Realm of the Impossible (2017), but instead this turn of events is never addressed. It’s suggested that the responsible party might have reversed their course and stepped in the footprints…but we’re never told if this happened and, given the probable source of the marks, it seems rather unlilkely.
There are also three unexplained ghostly sightings: the elderly Saku claims to have seen the yūrei “gliding through the trees” while emitting a green light, and Mateo sees the spectre twice, but beyond the person who turns out to be responsible saying essentially “Oh, I dress up like a ghost to throw people off” it’s never addressed how the effects are achieved (and, yes, that “gliding” could mean “walking peacefully” rather than “flying silently” — the sort of confusion you’d hope an editor would spot — but I’m reasonably sure Mateo’s sightings also require some explanation that is not forthcoming…yes, I should have highlighted them, whaddaya want from me?). It’s a shame that the hooks from which so much of the interest is generated end up snapping and falling to the floor in this way, because the setups are wonderful and the conclusions would carry more weight if they addressed them fully.
Overall, Ghost of the Bamboo Road is a flawed but fascinating example of how historical settings need not be familiar to be integrated intelligently into the mystery framework. Spann writes concisely, her prose pared back from maximum efficiency so that the rare moments of lyricism really land (“Gathering darkness transformed the ground beneath his feet into a ragged quilt of black and gray, with patches of indigo where the snow reflected the last of the failing light”), and her ability to tell you much with very little is something many authors would do well to study. Only the plot-fiend in me comes away disappointed here, with too little of what unfolds feeling well-motivated or even fully addressed in the closing stages. Those of a more sensible persuasion might have a great time with this, however, and I’ll certainly not rule out a return to the earlier stages of Hiro and Mateo’s journey in the hope of tighter construction there.
Here’s the Post-2010 Crime Fiction Bingo Card, too, since I know you’re all itching to see it:
Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery ‘for TomCat’ attempts: