Murder in the Crooked House by Soji Shimada

A remote, snow covered mansion; a group of people arriving for a Christmas house party; a seemingly impossible locked-room murder; a detective whose methods are unusual and unorthodox. These may sound like the ingredients of a classic British Golden Age mystery, but Murder in the Crooked House is actually a Japanese novel first published in 1982 which Pushkin Vertigo have now made available for the first time in an English translation by Louise Heal Kawai.

I was really looking forward to reading this book as it sounded like just my sort of thing, and it did get off to a great start. The descriptions of the Ice Floe Mansion in northern Japan are fascinating, with its sloping floors and drawbridge leading to a leaning tower (which gives the house its nickname, the Crooked House). Inside, the mansion resembles a fairground fun house with a maze of rooms, unusually positioned staircases, and a room containing a collection of Tengu masks and mechanical dolls, including a life-size Golem which is said to get up and walk around at night.

This weird and wonderful building is the home of retired businessman Kozaburo Hamamoto, who has invited his family and friends to spend the Christmas of 1983 with him. The guests include his daughter Eiko and her two suitors Togai and Sasaki, his great-nephew Yoshihiko, and a former business partner Eikichi Kikuoka, who brings several of his employees along with him. On their first night in the Crooked House, one of the guests is found dead inside a locked room, Kikuoka’s secretary is terrified by a face at her top-floor window, and Golem appears to have thrown himself into a snowdrift outside. The local police are baffled; there seems to be no explanation for any of these incidents and no obvious motive either. It is only after several more murders take place and the brilliant detective Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives on the scene that the truth is finally revealed.

Murder in the Crooked House is a very clever murder mystery. I found the culprit easy to guess – there was only one person it could have been, in my opinion – but what I didn’t know was how they carried out the murders. The solution is certainly very original and although Shimada states in a ‘Challenge to the Reader’ towards the end of the book that he has given us all the clues we need to solve it, I will be impressed if any reader has actually managed to work out the exact method used by the murderer! However, the cleverness of the novel was also one of the things I disliked about it.

The book contains a number of diagrams showing floor plans and layouts of rooms and sadly these weren’t included in the ebook I received for review, which obviously wasn’t the finished version. Although Amazon’s ‘Look Inside’ feature came to my rescue and allowed me to at least see the plan of the house, I think even if I’d been able to study all of the diagrams I would still have found the plot overly complicated. As well as a lot of importance being placed on alibis and who was in which room at what time, there’s also a lot of discussion of distances of windows from floors, positions of ventilation holes in walls and which rooms can be reached from which staircase. I do like mysteries with puzzles to solve, but I felt that this one became too technical – too concerned with the details rather than with the characters and their motivations. As a result, the characters seemed to lack depth and didn’t feel like real people to me, which wasn’t helped by the dialogue which felt a bit stilted, although that could have been due to the translation.

Most of the novel is written in the third person, so I was surprised to find that, when Kiyoshi Mitarai arrives at the Crooked House well into the second half of the book, the perspective switches to the first person (from the point of view of Kazumi Ishioka, Mitarai’s friend who has accompanied him to the house). It seemed unusual to have such a change so far into the book, but I got used to it quickly enough. Although this is the first novel I’ve read by Shimada, I’ve learned that this is one of a series of mysteries featuring the partnership of Mitarai and Ishioka, as a sort of Holmes and Watson. I would possibly try another book in the series – the first one, The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, is also now available in English and presumably some of the others will follow.

Thanks to Pushkin Vertigo for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 6/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton

For many years, Amaterasu has been grieving for the loss of her daughter and grandson, believed to have been killed when the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Even now, Amaterasu still struggles with the feeling of guilt – why did she survive when they did not? – and with the need to find someone to blame. When a stranger comes to her door, claiming to be her lost grandson Hideo, she is unable to believe that it’s truly him. To prove he really is who he says he is, he gives Amaterasu a package of diaries and letters which shed some light on what happened all those years ago and help her to decide whether this man could possibly be Hideo.

As Amaterasu sits and reads the papers she has been given, she is forced to revisit moments from the past which she would rather forget and in the process comes to know more about her daughter Yuko than she did while she was alive. It’s obvious from the start that the villain of the story, as far as Amaterasu is concerned, is Jomei Sato, Yuko’s lover, but we don’t know at first why she dislikes him so much and why she believes he played a part in her daughter’s death. Before we can make sense of the chain of events that led to Yuko standing in a cathedral in Nagasaki which was destroyed when the bomb fell, we have to go back in time to see the beginnings of Yuko’s relationship with Sato – and then further back again to discover Amaterasu’s own personal story and to understand what makes her feel the way she does.

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding is a beautifully written novel dealing with a subject which I’m sure must have been difficult and emotional to research and to write about. Although Jackie Copleton didn’t actually live through the bombing of Nagasaki herself, her descriptions of the bombing (or pikadon, from the Japanese words for flash and boom) and its aftermath are vivid, intense and shocking. This is not just a novel about war, however. The events of that terrible day in August 1945 are just one part of the story, along with other topics and themes such as family, love, forgiveness and how different people cope with loss and heartbreak.

My knowledge of Japanese history and culture is very limited so I can’t really comment on the accuracy of the novel, apart from to say that it all seemed convincing enough to me! Every chapter begins with a Japanese word or term and its English translation, each one giving us some insight into one small aspect of Japanese life. Sometimes the relevance of the word and its definition to the chapter which follows is obvious, but sometimes I had to think about why a particular word was chosen to represent a particular chapter.

This was an interesting read (especially as it’s one of my goals to read more historical fiction set in Japan) but, with the exception of the pikadon chapter, I didn’t find it quite as moving as I’d expected. This could partly be because of the structure of the novel – the story takes the form of Amaterasu’s memories interspersed with short extracts from Yuko’s diaries and Sato’s letters, and this meant that I was always very aware that I was reading about events that were already in the past, rather than actually being there with the characters sharing their experiences as they happened. I think it might have been this lack of immediacy which stopped me from fully connecting with the characters on an emotional level.

Still, I thought this was a very impressive novel, particularly as it is Jackie Copleton’s first. I would say that I enjoyed it, but ‘enjoyed’ is not really the right word to use given the subject of the book. Instead I’ll say that it is fascinating, gripping and informative and I would be very happy to read more books by this author.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer

the-shoguns-queen Japan, as I discussed in my recent Historical Musings post, is a country whose history I know very little about. Lesley Downer has written several books about Japan, including a quartet of novels set in the 19th century; I remember reading about one of the others on The Idle Woman’s blog a few months ago, so I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Downer’s latest book, The Shogun’s Queen. This is the final book in the quartet to be published, but it’s the first chronologically so even though I haven’t read the other three I didn’t expect to be at any disadvantage.

After a brief prologue, the novel opens in 1853 with Japan on the cusp of change. Until now, the country has been largely insulated from the outside world and apart from some limited contact with Dutch traders, Japanese ports have been closed to the west. The sight of barbarian ships approaching, then, causes panic, fear and confusion. What do the barbarians (westerners) want and what will they do if Japan refuses to agree to their demands?

It’s during this turbulent period that our heroine, Okatsu, is adopted by the ambitious Lord Nariakira of Satsuma and taken into his household, where she is renamed Atsu. Adoption, in Japan at this time, is a way of raising a woman’s rank and improving her marriage prospects, so a few years later Nariakira arranges for Atsu to be adopted again, this time by his brother-in-law Prince Konoe. His ultimate aim is to marry Atsu to Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun, and in 1856 this aim is achieved. Nariakira hopes Atsu can use her position as Iesada’s wife to influence the Shogun’s choice of a successor – but as Atsu gets to know her new husband she discovers how difficult that task will be.

The approach of western ships means Japan is facing a new set of threats, dangers and opportunities, so strong leadership is desperately needed. I’m not going to say too much about the character of Iesada, but as soon as he appears on the page it is obvious that he can’t possibly be that strong leader. Poor Atsu; although she does begin to feel affection and even love, of a sort, for the Shogun, it is not a normal or happy marriage and it would be difficult not to have sympathy for her. Iesada’s mother is a cruel, manipulative woman who resents having to relinquish any of her control over her son, and this makes it almost impossible for Atsu to carry out the instructions she has been given by Nariakira.

As if Atsu’s situation wasn’t already bad enough, she has been forced to separate from the man she truly loves, Kaneshige, and doesn’t expect to see him again, knowing that once she enters Edo Castle as the Shogun’s wife she will never be allowed to leave. As I’ve said, I knew nothing about this period of Japanese history before I started reading, and I was fascinated by the descriptions of Atsu’s life, both before her marriage, when she lived in the Satsuma domain, and later, in the confines of the Women’s Palace in Edo (the former name for Tokyo). It was also fascinating to read about the ‘barbarians’ – Americans and Europeans – and how they and their culture appeared when seen through Japanese eyes.

I would have no hesitation in recommending The Shogun’s Queen to readers who, like myself, are looking for an accessible introduction to the history of 19th century Japan. A lack of familiarity with the period is not a problem as Lesley Downer makes everything easy to follow and understand; the book also includes a map, a list of characters and a detailed afterword in which the author provides more information on the historical background and gives us an idea of which parts of the novel are based on fact and which are largely fictional (such as the relationship between Atsu and Kaneshige). First and foremost, though, this is a gripping and entertaining story with characters to love and characters to hate. I enjoyed it and will be exploring Lesley Downer’s other books, as well as continuing to look out for more novels set in Japan.

I received a copy of The Shogun’s Queen from the publisher for review.

Historical Musings #20: Exploring Japan

Historical Musings In previous Historical Musings posts, I’ve confessed to a lack of knowledge of the histories of certain African and European countries and was pleased to receive so many intriguing suggestions for future reading. This month’s post is on a similar topic, but much more specific as this time I’m asking about just one particular country rather than a whole continent!

shogun I’ve recently finished reading Lesley Downer’s The Shogun’s Queen, one of a quartet of novels set in nineteenth century Japan. The book tells the story of Atsu, the wife of Iesada, the 13th Tokugawa Shogun. I have yet to post my full thoughts, but for now I can say that I found it all fascinating; everything that happened in the novel was completely new to me and as I read, I couldn’t stop thinking about how little knowledge I have of Japan’s history. In fact, the only other historical novel I can think of that I’ve read set in Japan is Shogun by James Clavell (set much earlier than the Lesley Downer book, in 17th century feudal Japan).

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet I read Shogun a few years before I started blogging in 2009, and I was convinced that, surely, I must have read something else set in Japan since then! A search through my blog archives, however, shows that I haven’t – although I have read some books that touch on various aspects of Japanese history and culture. For example, the gardener Aritomo in Tan Twan Eng’s The Garden of Evening Mists is Japanese and the story is set partly during Japan’s occupation of Malaya. China Dolls by Lisa See and Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford both explore the fate of Japanese Americans during World War II, while Ghostwritten by Isabel Wolff features the story of a character who was interned in a Japanese camp in Java. Other than these few books, Japan doesn’t seem to have featured in my reading at all in recent years.

So, my question this month is:

Which books would you recommend to someone who knows almost nothing about Japan’s history? Fiction, non-fiction and classics…any suggestions are welcome!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

The Garden of Evening Mists The Garden of Evening Mists is set in Malaya and is narrated by Teoh Yun Ling, a Straits Chinese woman who, at the beginning of the novel, has retired after a long and successful career as a Supreme Court Judge in Kuala Lumpur. Returning to the Cameron Highlands area of the Malayan Peninsula – a very special place for Yun Ling, being the site of both the garden of Yugiri (‘evening mists’) and her friends’ tea plantation, Majuba – she makes the decision to write her memoirs, even if that means remembering things she would rather forget.

In a series of flashbacks, we go back with Yun Ling to the 1950s, during a time of conflict known as the Malayan Emergency. This is when she first comes to Yugiri and meets its creator, Nakamura Aritomo, the former gardener to the Japanese emperor. Yun Ling hopes Aritomo will design a garden in memory of her sister but he refuses, offering instead to take her on as an apprentice so that she can learn how to do it herself. At first, she finds it difficult to be near Aritomo (she and her sister, Yun Hong, were both imprisoned in a Japanese camp during World War II) but as they work together in the garden Yun Ling slowly begins to come to terms with the traumas of her past.

This is the second novel by Malaysian author Tan Twan Eng and enjoyed a lot of success following its publication in 2012 – the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won both the Man Asian Literary Prize and the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. Having now read it, I agree that it’s an excellent book and deserved its success. Until recently, I had very little knowledge of Malaya (or Malaysia as we now know it). Now I have read two books in two months (The Separation by Dinah Jefferies was the first) and I’m finding it a very interesting country to read about. The Garden of Evening Mists covers three different periods in the country’s history: the Japanese Occupation of the 1940s, the Emergency of the 1950s, and the more recent past, probably the 1980s, in which Malaysia is an independent country.

We wait a long time to hear what exactly happened to Yun Ling and Yun Hong in the Japanese camp, but we do find out eventually – although certain details continue to be withheld or only hinted at. It’s understandable as this is Yun Ling’s own story to tell and she can choose what to say and not to say; some memories may be too painful or uncomfortable to bring to the surface. It was the wartime sections of the book that I found the most gripping and emotional, however. I was particularly moved by the story told by Tatsuji, a Japanese art collector who visits Yun Ling in the present day, about Japan’s kamikaze pilots.

This is not just a book about war and suffering, though. Gardening, as you might have guessed from the title, also plays a big part in the story. Gardens are usually peaceful places to sit or to walk – and reading about gardens feels peaceful too. I don’t have a lot of interest in gardening myself but I was fascinated by the descriptions of Yugiri and the techniques used by Aritomo to create illusions of depth and distance. He puts so much thought into where to place every rock, every stone. As well as gardening, Aritomo is also a master of other art forms including woodcuts (ukiyo-e) and tattooing (horimono), and these were interesting to read about too. Other aspects of Japanese, Chinese and Malaysian culture are also covered in the novel, such as storytelling and mythology. But most of all, this is a book about memory: memory and the act of forgiving and forgetting.

There are so many ideas and themes packed into this wonderful novel and I’ve only managed to discuss a few of them here. I haven’t even mentioned how beautifully written it is and how cleverly it is structured. As I read, I wanted to go back and read earlier passages again because things were taking on more and more meaning as more layers were revealed. It’s that sort of book.

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I read The Garden of Evening Mists as part of A More Diverse Universe hosted by Aarti of BookLust. The event doesn’t end until Saturday 27th September so there’s still time for you to join in.