Sunday, September 9, 2018

Keigo Higashino: Hakuba Sansō Satsujin Jiken,白馬山荘殺人事件, 1986

Makoto and Naoko, two close friends, make a trip to Hakuba Sanso's guesthouse, an L-shaped building in the middle of the mountains, where Naoko's brother, Koichi Hara, found the mort, a year before. Naoko is not registered at the board with his real surname but with another, not to make clear his consanguinity with his brother and be able to carry out investigations in all calm: in fact both are not persuaded of the motivation of death given by the police: suicide. The boy is true that he was rather introverted, but the sister is persuaded that he would never have done such a gesture, especially since he had never given rise to manifestations of violent depression. However, if the police gave that reason, it is because the young man was found in his room, closed from the inside, and with the window tightly closed, and after doing experiments he stated that he could not be in any way locked up from outside
However, the two friends, who are acquainted with two couples and a series of individuals, more or less strange, they learn of the existence in the board, a series of incisions, one for each room, each bearing one of the nursery rhymes by Mother Goose, both in the English version and in the translated Japanese version; and they also know of the strange testamentary disposition of the owner of that house, an Englishwoman, a widow, who at her husband's death, had sold her for a little money, to a Japanese friend of her husband, who wanted to set up a pension there: substance, he should not have moved those paintings from the rooms. 
Each room has a particular name. 
Naoko comes to know his brother before dying he was interested fiercely to those nursery rhymes, so as to get the original English book of Mother Goose, even if the book had not been found any trace.
To these strange nursery rhymes, which according to him should have been read according to a precise order, and would have concealed a hidden meaning, we add other questions (which we call Subplots): death two years before a jeweler, Kawasaki, terminally ill cancer, escaped from a house in winter with a box full of precious stones and diamonds, destined for an illegitimate child, and taken refuge near that pension, which had been found in the escarpment of a stone bridge, collapsed in the middle, as if it was slipped on the ice; a strange statue of the Madonna, with two horns; death, while the two friends live in retirement, of one kind, Oki. In truth, before Oki was found dead, also smashed in the escarpment under the bridge, the two girls had found under the bridge a new axis of wood, heavy and stable that maybe someone could use as a walkway to go beyond the bridge , maybe Oki. When they find him dead, the police also find an axis, which is not what the two girls had found, but another, old and worm-eaten, with the man's footsteps. It is evident that someone, trusting the darkness, had changed the axis placed under the bridge, and Oki thought it was his, had used it, breaking it and he dying.
Naoko confides in Muramasa, the police inspector, who seems to be less intelligent than you think until he discovers something the girls had not thought about: the charcoal, the place beyond the bridge. Waiting to see how the charcoal can be connected to the rest, the two girls make a discovery: every first line of the nursery rhyme does not end with a comma like the other verses, but with a dot. Reading every first sentence next to that of each of the nursery rhymes present in the various rooms, they understand to have a text, in practice a coded, hidden code.
And so they understand the final message that alludes to something buried where in a certain period of the year the shadows of the two stumps of the collapsed bridge, lengthen and for a moment return it whole. When they go there, they find waiting for the inspector and his attendant, who have understood everything: a wooden box is there but it is empty.
At this point the Inspector, as in an Anglo-Saxon novel, summons all the inn's clients and staff in a room of the same and exposes the facts, solving the problem of the closed room and obviously identifying the guilty, indeed .. guilty. Because the murderer had an accomplice. Responsible also for the other two deaths.
The story would end here but leaves a great question to the careful reader: if the pension existed before the jeweler arrived, and also the nursery rhymes, how could they refer to a place back in time? To this not indifferent question remedied a double ending, in which Makoto and Naoko, reviewing their solution of the nursery rhymes understand that they made a mistake and that instead of the sunset to observe the shadows, we talk about dawn, when the shadows are reunited in another part of land. Even here they find a chest, bigger and inside a skeleton, that of a child, the son of the old owner of the pension, the Englishman who had sold everything to Kirihata before killing herself. It is no coincidence that one of the nursery rhymes referred to a sentinel, to someone buried under the bridge, heir to a medieval macabre tradition, that of burying a person alive inside the foundations of a bridge or a castle, for a sort of magical protection.
A triple final, will explain the presence of a piece of iron, found by those who was with Naoko and Makoto at the opening of the box, and promptly concealed, witness of the death of a child during a blizzard, and then of an English lady , which had also cost the happiness of another person.
A noteworthy novel by Kigashino, it appears for a constantly sad atmosphere rather than macabre, and for an overflowing fantasy that excites .

The novel distinguishes 1 plot, substantively, that is, the death of Koichi Hara inside a locked room, and various subplots that depend directly or indirectly on the plot: the nursery rhymes, the death of the Kawasaki jeweler and the disappearance of the precious stones with him, the death of the child of the old mistress of the board and of herself for suicide, the death of Oki during the adventure of the two girls in retirement.
Everything is explained in detail, even the improbability of finding a poison as rare as aconitin.
The mechanism of the locked room is very interesting:


Koichi Hara had been found poisoned in his bedroom, whose window was closed from the inside, and the door itself, and the door that communicated with the corridor was also closed, because the room consisted of a bedroom and of a living room outside it. The time of his discovery was in three differing moments: first Takase, a young employee had found the bedroom door closed, then he had also closed the door that led to the corridor, and finally he went to open both with a passe-partout finding the guest died. Now, as I understood, after reading and rereading the passage several times, the killer poisons Harata's coke; then he leaves the accomplice in the bedroom, and the latter closes the door from the inside with an automatic lock and the window with the bolt. The killer goes to call Takase and reminds him that Hara still did not show up for dinner. Both go and find the bedroom closed from the inside. Then the killer convinces Takase to go and see Hara through the window, but of course it's closed. All to make Takase understand that both doors and windows are inaccessible. Meanwhile, Takase comes knocking: the accomplice is still in the room. After Takase leaves, the accomplice reopens the bedroom door and goes to close the door on the corridor; then through the bedroom window, she comes out leaving it ajar and returns to the house. Half an hour later, the killer returns from the window, closes the window and the bedroom door behind him and hides behind the sofa. Meanwhile, the accomplice convinced Takase to enter using the passe partout. After opening the living room door, and then the bedroom door, he slips out from behind the sofa and leaves, managing to materialize behind Takase, as if he were coming from another retirement environment. And that's it! It 'another of those large closed rooms that for their spectacularity and difficulty, must necessarily need a staging in which two people necessarily enter, acting in turn to make up.


For convenience I divided the action between murderer and accomplice, but in reality, it is more likely that the accomplice has murdered Koichi while the other has caused the death of Osaki who blackmailed them. Basically we have two subjects united by a criminal pact that murder according to the opportunity. The solution as we see is very interesting. However, it leaves a glimmer, which for me makes the solution a bit weak: the passe partout. The existence of a passe partout, and the fact that the rooms are opened by Takase, reduces the impossibility of a lot: here we do not have doors closed from the inside by latches and / or keys inserted inside, but closed doors with locks to shooting. Ultimately, anyone equipped with passe partout without making the abattoir described, could enter and exit comfortably. In order for this to not occur, both Takase and Kirihara, respectively an employee and owner of the pension, should have been eliminated from suspicion. Not only. Anyone could have entered with the pass partout, if dependent. And Kurumi, the maid, are also employees; and the chef. So they should have been eliminated from the suspects too. What the novel does not say enough is about the passe partout: about the impossibility that it could also be used by others; and about the innocence of Kirihara and Takase.
Beyond this weak point, the novel is a riot of mysterious situations, a true beauty.
Hakuba Sansō Satsujin Jiken unlike the later novels, more psychological and stronger, proceeds in the direction of Mystery Anglo-Saxon inspiration, indeed almost a tribute. Obviously it puts of his: it is seen above all in the atmosphere, in the descriptions always very vivid, in the landscapes and in the typically Asian references (the two sections of the collapsed bridge are compared to two dragons, mother and son who look at each other 'other). But the reference to the Anglo-Saxon themes is very clear: The nursery rhyme of Mother Goose, already used in novels by Agatha Christie, S.S. Van Dine and Ellery Queen.
Now that Christie, Van Dine and Ellery Queen, have influenced the Japanese Mystery writing culture, it is an established fact; and also in a rather marked way. So how can we not recognize the influence of some of their novels on this of Higashino?
Among the three novels (There Was an Old Woman of 1943, by Ellery Queen; The Bishop Murder Case by Van Dine, 1928, which should have been originally called The Mother Goose Murder Case; A Pocket full of Rye, 1953 by Agatha Christie), what may have had more weight is precisely that of Agatha Christie: in fact in both novels, the victim of the plot, is killed by a poison: aconitin as in the case by Higashino, yew tree poison in that by Agatha Christie. And in both cases, these poisons are very little known and difficult to obtain even if deadly: aconitin is obtained by distillation of the roots of the aconite, a blue-flowered plant; the yew tree poison, by distillation of leaves, branches and seeds of the yew tree, called the tree of death (the magic wand of Valdemort, in Henry Potter, is made with yew wood). Another clue that leads us to Agatha Christie, is the figure of the Inspector Muramasa. In fact, on page 111 we read: "Naoko thought that the man looked like the famous investigator Poirot. Not that his image overlapped perfectly with that of the famous character, it was the scene that evoked it: it seemed to her that she had already seen it ".
For the Locked Room mechanism, if I have to tell you the truth, it brought me back to mind, but it's probably just an association of ideas, Derek Smith's first room of Whistle Up The Devil, also because of the window's function. the participation of an accomplice in the success of the plan.
What is striking is how I said the sad atmosphere that pervades the story. Now the Japanese novels are usually sad, melancholic. I do not know if it's a trait of their own, or if this aura of heaviness is derived from the 1945 nuclear bombardment. I do not know. The fact is that usually novels and Japanese stories are certainly not happy. And they are normally full of blood. Here instead there is a different event: not even a drop of blood.
The Locked Room does not condition the whole novel, but, exposed at the beginning of the story, is abandoned and replaced by a whole series of events, above all the mystery of the nursery rhymes, only to be resumed at the end when it is explained: a bit 'as the same procedure that we see exhibited in Alan Thomas's masterpiece: The Death of Laurence Vining. From this point of view it seems a mystery of the thirties; and another feature that brings us to the best Anglo-Saxon tradition, is the map that we find described, as Takate sketched by desire of Makoto and Naoko. And then the explanation of Muramasa and the identification of the culprits, made while a meeting in the hotel lounge in front of all the actors of the drama: another peculiar feature of the Anglo-Saxon mysteries.


1 comment:

  1. Mind you: I read the Italian translation from the Japanese. However, when translating a book, the translator is licensed to include the translated text within the scope of his translation contract. It means that almost never a translation, even if integral, is really integral. Here is because you should read the book in its original language. But reading Japanese is impossible. Very few Westerners know it. And then we resort to treaductions. Why do I make this preamble? Because in the novel the relationship between the two friends Naoko and Makoto is particular. Both I and an acquaintance of mine thought the same thing even if we did not compare ourselves before: that the relationship between the two could be of a lesbian type. Even if the Italian translation does not show this. Because one of the two has the female hairstyle while the other looks like a male, because one of the two has a very protective attitude towards the other defending it from the advances of the other guests of the board, and also for an incise at the beginning of the novel , in which Dr. Masuda, addressing them, exchanges them for a couple of lovers.
    So I turn to my Japanese Facebook friends who read the novel in the original language: is my guess wrong or Higashino alludes to a lesbian relationship between the two girls?