Monday, September 16, 2013

The Fourth Side of the Triangle

「落ちよ 時の狭間に!ゴールデン・トライアングル!!」

"Saint Seiya"

Now that I think about it, this blog passed it third birthday two weeks ago. Well, technically, the blog itself already started in March 2009, but the switch from posting about studying in Japan, to posting (sorta) regularly on (mostly Japanese) detective fiction, was somewhere around September 2010. Heh. I am probably the most surprised of all about me still writing this blog. Anyway, and now for something not completely different, namely another, ancient mystery.

The title of Shimada Souji's Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") refers to a copy of the Great Pyramid of Khufu made of both stone and glass, situated near New Orleans, facing the Gulf of Mexico. The monument was made by Paul Alexon, a scholar, who needed his own pyramid to prove a revolutionary theory regarding the Great Pyramid. Paul died however, leaving his pyramid (and adjoining tower-annex-living-quarters) to his brother Richard. The odd structure is now to be used as a film set for the Hollywood movie Aida '87, starring famous Japanese actress Matsuzaki Reona. Richard is also on the set, trying to hit on Reona. The first night of filming, during a hurricane, Reona swears she saw a strange creature walking near the pyramid, though nobody else of the staff saw the beast. And then the next day, Richard is found dead in his bedroom at the top of the tower next to the pyramid. The police is astounded to discover that not only was the room completely locked from the inside, the man also drowned to death on top of the tower. The police orders a stop on the filming of Aida '87 until they crack the case, but figuring that might take too long, Reona decides to ask an acquaintance, Mitarai Kiyoshi, to solve the case for her.

As much as I love Shimada's Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, I can't but say that Suishou no Pyramid is a highly flawed story. It has a very clear and easy to explain problem: it is unnecessary long. The book itself is over 700 pages, but there are many, many parts that feel as nothing more than bad, bad filler. Examples: the first 200 odd pages are dedicated to two narratives, one set in ancient Egypt, one on the Titanic, that have no significant relation to the actual case. The narrative of the actual case starts after this overly long and unneccessary prologue, but it doesn't end there. From there until the end the book is filled with passages that don't seem to serve any purpose in terms of the plot and I think the basic story could have easily been done in 300 pages, instead of more than the double. This is the biggest problem Suishou no Pyramid has, and it made this a very tiring reading experience, which could have easily been avoided. I really have no idea why it's written the way it is.

Because get rid of all the superfluous parts, and you're left with a great locked room mystery. People who have read other stories in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series like Naname Yashiki no Hanzai, Shissou Suru Shitai or Aru Kishi no Monogatari will know that Shimada Souji's impossible crime plots are... grand. I remember once watching the first, and then the last episodes of the animation series Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. In the beginning of the series, small robots fight each other on earth, but by the time of the final episode, gigantic combining robots use complete planets and galaxies as weapons. This difference in scale is also detectable here. Shimada Souji has a tendency to come up with mysteries of a completely different scale: whereas 'normal' people would use needle and thread to create a locked room murder, Shimada will use steel wire and jackhammers. And still make it work. The same holds for Suishou no Pyramid, where Shimada will baffle the reader with one of the most impressive solutions I've ever seen to a locked room murder.

Shimada's stories do sometimes feel a bit artificial at times though. I didn't think it was very obvious in Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken, but Naname Yashiki no Satsujin is probably a good example of a greatly executed locked room mystery, but which feels very forced and artificial at the same time.The same holds for Suishou no Pyramid, up to an extent. The setting of a gigantic glass pyramid in the United States is a bit artificial, of course, but this time, Shimada actually plays with this characteristic of his novels and it has very entertaining results. It works mostly if you're familiar with Shimada's works though, so I wouldn't recommend this novel if you've never read his novels before. In fact, it might be a little bit hard to get into, with the above mentioned stray narratives, and the fact that the series detective Mitarai Kiyoshi 1) appears very late in the story and 2) the introduction here isn't enough to really capture enough of his essence as a character.

Between the unneccesary passages and sub-plots, there is also quite some interesting information and background research on pyramids and in particular the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Fun if you're interested in ancient Egypt and it really adds to the mystery. The way the mysteries surrounding the Great Pyramid connect to the locked room murder in the present is surprising and definitely the highlight of this novel.

Cut away half of the novel, and you'd have a fantastic locked room mystery that also interacts with Shimada's earlier novels on a meta-level. But as it is now, it has too much excess luggage, which really hurt the core story. Suishou no Pyramid is one I can only recommend by adding a lot of 'but's and disclaimers. Which is a shame, because the core is really solid.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『水晶のピラミッド』

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