Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Quick One

 「As the Dew」 (Garnet Crow)

Aa, aa, cries the wind and the sun sets
But it seems there is still some love left between us
"As the Dew" (Garnet Crow)

And as I read another mystery series out of order, I wonder how many people actually try to read novels in order? For example in storyline chronology, or in order of publication? I usually just read whatever I managed to get my hands on, and if I got the luxary of choice, whatever seems more interesting, with little regard for order...

A Aiichirou series
A Aiichirou no Roubai ("The Discombobulation of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Annoyance)
A Aiichirou no Tentou ("The Fall of A Aiichirou" AKA A Is For Accident)
A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou" AKA A For Abandon")

I was very enthusiastic about Awasaka Tsumao's A Aiichirou no Roubai one year ago, a short story collection with a touch of Father Brown. It had some fantastic impossible crimes and still remains one of my favorite short story collections ever. The complete A Aiichirou series consists of three collections (and one spin-off volume), and you'd think I would read the second volume after the first, but that would make too much sense. So today, A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou", AKA A For Abandon), which collects the final adventures of A Aiichirou, a handsome, but somewhat clumsy photographer. When faced with murders or other baffling situations, Aiichirou occasionally seems to be muttering complete nonsense, but that nonsense always turns out to be the one and only, plain, sober truth amongst the chaos brought forth by crime.

I praised the first volume for its impossible crime stories, but the A Aiichirou series has more than just that. The same holds for this final volume. The collection for example opens with Akashima Sajou ("On the Sands of Akashima"), which takes place on an island owned by a sect-like organization. Nudity makes one free of the worries of modern society, the organization proclaims, so everyone has to be nude on this island. Of course, nudity itself isn't a crime, so the mystery only starts when a gangster suddenly arrives on the island to kidnap one of the guests. An observation by A Aiichirou however poses a completely different look at the happenings on the island. Iibachiyama Sanpuku ("On Mount Iibachi") similarly has A Aiichirou show that a tragic car crash on a mountain was not just a simple accident. Both stories have situations that may be criminal / out of the ordinary (kidnap / crash) at isolated places (on an island / in the mountains), but aren't what they seem. Both these stories are constructed very neatly, with the necessary information available and never too farfetched (I thought the first A Aiichirou story, The Flight DL2 Incident, was less convincing, even though it follows the same basic idea).

Haita no Omoide ("Memories of Toothache") and Aka no Sanka ("A Song In Praise of Red") are the (initially) non-criminal variants of the pattern above. Haita no Omoide is almost hilarious, as it follows three men, one of which A Aiichirou, going up and down the dental department of a hospital. The descriptions are funny and keep the reader interested even though there's no crime happening, but a shocking truth is revealed at the end of the dentist's trip. Maybe not as convincing as the two stories mentioned above, but I enjoyed this story enormously. Aka no Sanka is very similar, where a interview with the parents of a succesful artist is at first sight very normal, but A discovers a hidden truth about the artist. Not as interesting as Haita no Omoide, I thought.

A while back, I noticed a discussion on Twitter about how to define a certain type of story. The whodunnit, howdunnit and whydunnit seem obvious terms, but how to describe a mystery story where only at the end, it is revealed it was a mystery story (i.e. the stories mentioned above). My thoughtful contribution to the discussion was whatthehell by the way. They can be fun, but the core story must have its own interesting points, because there is no mystery (at first sight) to keep the reader hooked and the story must make sense in hindsight, which might not be easy.

But A Aiichirou no Toubou isn't just whatthehell stories, there are also some impossible crimes. Kyuutai no Rakuen ("A Spherical Paradise") is a relatively well-known story about a rich, but slightly jumpy man: he is busy constructing the ultimate shelter, consisting of a small metal sphere, placed inside a fire/earthquake/flood/rapture-proof cave which will keep him safe. The sphere has already been made and on the construction site, even though the cave hasn't been finished yet, but one day the man climbed inside the sphere and locked himself inside. After a while or so, his family members and the construction crew become worried because there can't be much air left inside, and decide to cut the sphere open together with the police, only to find the man has been murdered. Great situation, though I have seen the trick performed in other stories already, which kinda takes away the impact of the story. Well done for a short story though.

Kaji Sakaya ("A Liquor Shop Owner and Fire") follows a man who had always dreamed of becoming a firefighter, and Aiichirou, who would rather stay away from a fire. The two however end up helping at a fire. The murdered body of the woman who lived in the house is discovered and Aiichirou
 and his companion's suspicion fall upon the man they saw inside the house moments after the fire broke out. There is just one problem: the two are also quite sure they didn't see the man come out of the house, and no one else, not even a dead body, was discovered in the house. A rather classic solution, but storytelling makes this one of the better stories in the volume.

Soutou no Tako ("A Two-Headed Octopus") is unlike the previous two a fairly straightforward mystery. A diver is shot just as he prepared to go under water from a boat, and the smoking gun is found on the ground of the base camp on shore.The story has some interesting elements like a search for a Nessie-esque mythical beast in a lake, but the main trick is rather easy to guess, and I kinda feel like the trick wasn't possible to pull off anyway. In that sense, sorta an impossible crime. 

The final story of the volume, and the final story of the series is titled A Aiichirou no Toubou ("The Flight of A Aiichirou") puts the cameraman in the center of the story. A mysterious person has been following A Aiichirou since the first stories, and A's pursuer has finally caught up on him. A Aiichirou and a travelling companion check into a small inn on a snowy day. The two enter their rooms, located in an annex building out in the garden. A's pursuer however knows Aiichirou is inside and closes in on the target... only to found out Aiichirou and his travel companion have escaped from the annex building. But even more baffling is the fact the duo managed to accomplish their flight without leaving footprints in the snow surrounding the building! A Aiichirou no Toubou is a very amusing ending, which puts A Aiichirou in the shoes of the 'criminal' for a change and it is a pretty decent impossible escape story too. What's more, it forms an actual ending to the series, as some minor threads of plot that had been shattered over a variety of stories finally come together and the mystery surrounding the strange A Aiichirou is unveiled.

Overall a good short story collection with a nice variety of mystery. Not as impressive as the first volume in the series, but definitely worth a read. In general, the A Aiichirou series does really belong among the best of Japanese detective fiction in short form. Oh, and don't worry, a review of the second volume will also appear. Some day.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『亜愛一郎の逃亡』: 「赤島砂上」 / 「球体の楽園」 / 「歯痛の思い出」 / 「双頭の蛸」 / 「飯鉢山山腹」 / 「赤の賛歌」 / 「火事酒屋」 / 「亜愛一郎の逃亡」


  1. Hi,
    I just discovered this author who is a specialist of locked room murders
    His name is Norman Berrow
    Just look at the titles of his novels!

    they sound like things Shimada or Yokomizo whould write!

    1. I'm sure I've seen the name once or twice on some of the other mystery blogs that focus on more obscure English writers, so a Google search should give you some more information about his books.