Here we are at the start of 2021, and the Western world is facing an existential crisis of enormous proportions while the Eastern world seems to have things pretty much under control. I’m speaking, of course, of the efforts of thirty or so bloggers to transform public opinion in America and Europe as to the brilliance and cultural significance of classic murder mysteries. While, as I’ve explained to you over and over again, in Japan they’ve got things right! The Golden Age never died there! In fact, it flourishes, and to add insult to injury, it’s the young people, the college students forming Murder Clubs on every campus and sitting in their dorm rooms writing one best-selling mystery after another, who have taken up the GAD mantle and run with it. I used to give away Agatha Christie novels to my students for free – that is until I caught one of them using their book as a coaster!!!
It’s nice to begin the new year with a new translation of a shin honkaku mystery novel. Once again, we have John Pugmire at Locked Room International to thank for this. Once again, he is aided and abetted by talented translator and equally adept blogger, Ho-Ling Wong. In fact, this is their second collaboration of 2020, as Ho-Ling also translated the Tetsuya Ayukawa short story collection, The Red Locked Room. (I admit to having struggled with these tales and hope to return to them at a later date.)
Before snatching up Lending the Key to the Locked Room, I knew nothing about it or its author, Tokuya Higashigawa. Sadly, the LRI edition provides no introductory information, so what I knew I’ve gleaned from Ho-Ling himself. Higashigawa is one of the most popular current honkaku authors in Japan and serves as President of the Honkaku Mystery Writers Club of Japan (think Detection Club – and it gives annual awards and everything!). Lending the Key is his first novel, written when he was around 34, and is part of a loosely connected series of mysteries centered around the same city: Ikagawa, or “Squid River” City. His most famous series, according to the back cover, is the After-Dinner Mysteries.
One assumes that a common aspect of honkaku fiction is its meta-fictional occupation with the history and tropes of GAD fiction, which we’ve seen as early as The Honjin Murders (1946), where author Seishi Yokomizo makes one of the characters a mystery buff and takes us on a journey of his library. In more modern examples, like Yukito Ayatsuji’s The Decagon House Murders (1987) the characters are members of a college mystery club who continuously compare the horrific time they’re having to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None – which is smart because on page one we meet the killer on an island cliff, making the very same comparisons.
I always find self-reflexive art fun, a good thing because the meta-aspects come flying off nearly every page of Lending the Key to the Locked Room. What’s more problematic for me is that this is a comic mystery and the problem with comedy is that it nearly always loses something in the translation (I remember a French friend going to great lengths to convince me of the hilarity of Belgian jokes). In his rollout on his own blog announcing his translation of this book, Ho-Ling talks about his love for comic mysteries, and of Higashigawa’s in particular. This might account for the fact that a lot of Higashigawa’s works have been much adapted for film and television and are very popular. I have to say that much of your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much it tickles your funny bone. I wasn’t very tickled.
There’s something a bit like Commedia dell’arte about the relationships between members of the detective team (and we get two of them here): Ryuhei, the main character, is a variation on the classic fool. Everything he does is wrong, everything bad happens to him, and yet he carries the sympathies of the reader and manages to find the help he needs to get out of the terrible scrapes he gets himself into. He gets that help from his brother-in-law, private detective Morio Ukai, whose ad in the Yellow Pages reads, “WELCOME TROUBLE!” Ukai is the clever one – except when he’s not – and his efforts to help the hapless Ryuhei have their ups and downs. At one point, he promotes Ryuhei from his client to his Watson, and that double purpose describes our protagonist well.
Meanwhile, the “proper” detecting team of Chief Inspector Sunagawa and his assistant Shiki is like the classic commedia relationship between the master, who takes all the credit but doesn’t like to do the work, and his able servant, who suffers the indignities of his master’s superiority but plods along, doing the work that must be done. The novel flips back and forth between the efforts of both teams to solve a double murder, and while I have a feeling the dialogue contains a lot of humor that flies over my head, sometimes in quite awkward ways, at least the whole thing flows breezily enough. Besides, aren’t we all in these for the plots anyway? Well, not exactly, but at least the set-up here is intriguing enough:
Ryuhei is a college film student whose girlfriend believes he lacks ambition and dumps him. In a drunken stupor he threatens to kill her, unfortunately in a very public space. Ryuhei decides to focus on his love of films, especially film mysteries, and goes to spend the evening with his friend Kosaku Moro to watch a movie. Moro, a professional filmmaker who has dangled the promise of a job before Ryuhei’s nose, has remodeled his apartment to feature a soundproofed screening room. He’s the perfect host, allowing Ryuhei to pick the movie (one of his favorite old thrillers, Massacre Manor), inviting the student to take a bath (!) and running out to get a bunch of snacks and sake for the two of them to enjoy.
While they’re enjoying a fine evening, Ryuhei’s girlfriend falls off her apartment balcony a few short blocks away and is found dead. Further examination shows that she was stabbed before she fell, making this murder. Fortunately, Ryuhei has an alibi in his friend Moro. Unfortunately, he finds Moro stabbed to death in his bath, with the apartment door chained from the inside and the only viable suspect in his death – yup, his friend Ryuhei.
In case you think I’ve given away too much of the plot, this is exactly what is summarized on the back cover of the book. So we’re left with an intriguing premise wrapped in a comic novel that, to me, is not so funny, filled with self-reflexive references that sometimes work and sometimes irritate. The author himself complains that matters have gone on too long! At the point in the novel where Ellery Queen might have issued his “Challenge to the Reader,” Higashigawa writes:
“The quick-witted reader will probably have guessed that this story that tends to repeat itself will soon come to an end. Of course, even readers who are not that quick could probably tell that, considering the number of pages remaining, it wasn’t likely that more dead bodies would turn up.”
Ultimately, you can embrace the humor or not, accept the manga-like antics of the characters or not, and figure that enjoyment of Lending the Key to the Locked Room really depends on your reaction to the solution to this set-up. I have to say that the artificiality of this answer will not change the mind of any GAD naysayer who complains about such things. The motivations, the planning, the massive incorporation of coincidence – it’s all a surefire teeth-grinder if you’re not into this stuff.
I have to admit that, while I am most definitely into this stuff, I rolled my eyes quite a bit. As a mystery reader, I can appreciate the cleverness of it all at the end, but I don’t buy it for a second. As an armchair detective, I cry “Foul!” most loudly at the unfairness of the author in withholding certain facts, in depriving us of some of the most basic tenets of a mystery (um, suspects? motives?) in order to focus purely on the “how.”
As a result, I figured out three-quarters of this solution because it was the only solution available (and therefore it was especially galling that not one of four sleuths ever gave it a mention until the end!); the rest of the answer was impossible to determine, for reasons outlined above. There is one Christie-like clue towards the end that works, but it’s tied to such a wild coincidence that it was a bit spoiled for me. The motive for one of the murders was actually quite clever, but I think that, in the hands of a Christie or a Queen, perhaps, it could have been set-up so much better. (In fact, one of these authors did do something similar in one of their later books.) I wonder if the opaqueness of it has a cultural significance . . . (Sorry if my wonderings here are themselves opaque, but I don’t want to spoil anything.)
You can judge the humor by your own tastes. You can see how high or low your ire is raised by the lack of fairness of it all. The set-up is good, and the solution is clever, and it’s all wrapped in a well-translated package that makes for a quick read. My gratitude to Ho-Ling Wong, via LRI, for unlocking this vast collection of Asian mysteries for us, volume by volume, knows no bounds. I may find myself more wary of comical honkaku in the future, but I look forward with great eagerness for the next title to come my way.
Here’s another point of view from TomCat!