2019-02-06

The Ginza Ghost - Keikichi Osaka

This collection of short stories, nearly all of the impossible crime variety, was published by Locked Room International in 2017, in translation by Ho-Ling Wong (of The Case Files of Ho-Ling fame). Osaka wrote these tales over a period of 15 years, during the 1930s and 1940s. Some feature a couple of different series detectives, while others are stand-alone stories.

I had mixed feelings about this collection. We'll come to my opinion on the specific stories below, but my main problem was with the writing. I don't know whether it is Osaka's writing style or the translation - though I've read other translations by the same translator where I didn't have the same problems, which points to the author in this case - but it was a tough slog to read. I had to put it down every few pages, which meant that I couldn't generally finish even one story in a sitting. However, it should be said that comparatively, LRI's publications have more words per page than most other books, so that's at least part of the explanation.

Still, there were definite qualities in the plotting and the explanations of the various impossibilities, so let's get down to specifics.


We begin with "The Hangman of the Department Store", the first story Osaka ever wrote. A man is found strangled to death and with several mysterious wounds on his body. It seems he was thrown to the ground from a department store roof. According to witnesses, there was no opportunity for anyone to enter the store, but at the same time it seems none of the people inside the building could have been responsible either.

It's a pretty fine problem Osaka has created here, and seeing that it's his first story I'm okay with the solution. There's some innovative enthusiasm here, though like some other stories here there's some coincidence required for the solution to work. But definitely a good start to this collection.

In "The Phantasm of the Stone Wall", a woman is murdered on a walkway in front of her home, and witnesses see two men flee from the scene along the road. However, a man walking in the opposite direction claims that he saw no one pass.

This is yet another great set-up, and I think Osaka found a good solution to the impossibility here.  Finding the culprit isn't all that hard, if you've read a couple of impossible crimes before, but the explanation to the disappearance is clever and innovative.

The third story is "The Mourning Locomotive", wherein we're told about a specific locomotive that regularly manages to run over pigs on its travels, always with the same drivers.

Here's where the wheels start to come off. This story is bonkers. Yeah, you might call it innovative, but to me it just doesn't work. People just don't behave this way - unless the differences between Japan and Sweden are bigger than I imagine. The preface says that this is Osaka's masterpiece, but I definitely disagree.

Osaka seems to have liked lighthouses, because "The Monster of the Lighthouse" is just the first story to feature such a structure. In this particular story, the top of the lighthouse is destroyed by a large rock and an octopus-like monster is seen diving into the sea. And at the same time, the lighthouse keeper disappears without a trace.

So, some obvious horror and/or supernatural elements in this story. I definitely felt this worked better than the previous story. It has to be said, though, that the specifics of the solution are a bit convoluted and require a bit of coincidence.

There's more supernaturalisms in "The Phantom Wife" where a servant tells the story of how his mistress took poison after having separated from her husband. The husband is haunted by this event, avoiding everything associated with the wife and looking more ill with each passing day. And then one day the servant finds him dead and the killer seems to have superhuman powers, as he wrenched the iron bars of the window out of their sockets.

We're back to stupid again here. This is not an impossible tale, and therefore there's not even the mitigating factor of a thoughtprovoking impossibility. The attempts at trying to apply supernatural explanations for the murder make me roll my eyes, and the final solution is so, so dumb.

"The Mesmerising Light" is by comparison a much more mundane tale, where a car disappears from a stretch of road between two toll stations. And then it turns out that a guest has been murdered in the home of the car's owner.

The solution to the impossibility of the vanishing car is good, perhaps even great. Osaka's explanation probably would have worked in the real world. But the rest... No, I'm not impressed. The motive is pretty hokey and the bit about the age of the culprit is both non-fair play (because of cultural differences) and super stupid.

In "The Cold Night's Clearing", a teacher is called to a colleague's house, because a young student has found a horrible crime scene there. The colleague's wife and her cousin are both found dead, murdered after a violent struggle. But not only that, the six-year-old son of the house is nowhere to be found, and outside the house is a single track from skis which just suddenly end in the middle of a field...

This is a lovely set-up, which is why it feels like a cheat when the explanation comes. It turns out that the whole thing is not an impossible situation at all, our narrator simply didn't tell us everything. It's a fairly powerful story nevertheless, with a sad and tragic ending. So much potential squandered here...

"The Three Madmen" are all inmates at an asylum, and one morning the staff wakes up and finds that they are all missing, as is the chief doctor. He is found some time later, horribly mutilated and with his brain missing.

Yeah, so that's a fairly grisly business. Still, that leads the reader's thoughts towards a certain conclusion... The main thing this story has going for itself is the way it's narrated, which creates an almost surreal atmosphere. If not for that, I think almost everyone would see through the misdirection here.

We return to the world of lighthouses with "The Guardian of the Lighthouse". In this story, there are two families sharing the task of lightkeeper on a remote island: a husband and wife, and a father and son. The husband has been taken to hospital, and his wife accompanies him. When he's recuperated, the father takes the boat to fetch them back to the lighthouse, but they are delayed over night because of a storm, and when they return the son has vanished. And yet the lighthouse has been functioning the whole time...

This wasn't too bad - a bit prosaic, but Osaka manages to squeeze out some thrills by the way he's describing events. The explanation to the disappearance is quite plausible, and also quite poignant.

"The Demon in the Mine" gives us a problem where a man is left behind during a fire in the mine, when the rest of the workers get to safety behind a fireproof door. When everyone returns, one after one are murdered, and it seems as though the man left behind is picking off those who were responsible for shutting him in the mine.

This was quite possible the cleverest story in the collection. There's some extra sense of danger in the story because of the terrible conditions down in the mine. And Osaka conjures up some fine misdirection before revealing who the killer is. I'm not going to say that it couldn't be deduced beforehand, but the whole thing's still quite impressive.

In "The Hungry Letter-Box", a man posts a letter in a letterbox, but then remembers he forgot to put on a stamp. The letterbox is locked, and cannot be opened until the next morning when the mailman comes - and yet the letter has disappeared when the box is opened!

This is a tale with a lighter touch, and it's all the better for it. The explanation to what's going on is quite workable. The motive for it all is more or less impossible to work out, on the other hand.

The final story here is the story that gave its name to the whole collection, "The Ginza Ghost". In it, two women are killed, with witnesses saying that one of them killed the other and then killed herself - however it turns out that the woman who the witnesses say died first survived the other by more than 30 minutes. But surely it couldn't be a ghost who killed?

Another pretty clever explanation here, and the misdirection Osaka employs works very well. A good finish to this collection.

Conclusion

There's some very bright spots here, but also quite a lot of messy stuff. There's some overreliance on superstition here, and I don't know, maybe it's a cultural thing, but I just don't see how so many people, particularly professional police officers, should be so gullible and believing in that stuff. In many of the cases here, the only reason that the truth isn't found is because everyone focuses so hard on the supernatural things.

One example is from the final story, "The Ginza Ghost" - I'm not sure that the whole thing would stand up to scrutiny. There's just one thing that makes the witnesses identify the killing woman, and seeing that it's all a big contradiction, surely the police should be able to reason out what actually happened? But perhaps I'm just a bit too annoyed with some of the trappings here.

My preference is for the stories that don't focus too hard on that stuff and rely more on "normal" mystery tropes with an investigation and deductions from the available facts. For a reader who enjoys stories with ambiance, this collection will surely be even more impressive.

But it should also be said that most of the stories here have parts that are very good, it's just that I find that Osaka seldom manages to get everything to work.

Seeing that this is a collection of impossible mysteries, I will use a couple of the better ones for my project: "The Phantasm of the Stone Wall", "The Demon of the Mine" and "The Ginza Ghost".

Out in the blogosphere, most of the words on this collection have been very kind:
TomCat praises it effusively on Beneath the Stains of Time, while J. J. is very complimentary in his review over on The Invisible Event.

Meanwhile, Aidan over on Mysteries Ahoy joins me in taking a more reserved stance, though we're not entirely in agreement on which stories deserve praise and which do not. It seems everyone except me likes "The Mourning Locomotive"...

6 comments:

  1. I'm a fan of the weirdness worked in here -- 'The Monster of the Lighthouse', 'The Hungry Letter-Box' -- and would be interested in anything else Osaka wrote. I know what you mean about the possible cultural crossovers sometimes distracting from the "usual" mystery trappings, but I get to read plenty of "usual" mysteries and welcome something not cut from normal cloth.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm glad you liked it so much. I will agree that from time to time it's interesting to read things that seem a bit off the beaten path. I just found it a bit too much here. There are other Japanese mysteries that worked better for me in that regard.

      Delete
  2. I completely agree with JJ here and compared the stories in my review (thanks for the mention) to the turn-of-the-century detective fiction of L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, especially their short story collection A Master of Mysteries, which you should review. To my knowledge, it's the very first volume of impossible crime fiction that moved away from the secret passages of the 1800s.

    I'm not exactly sure what your problem is with "The Mourning Locomotive." If I remember correctly, you're referring to the obsession of one of the characters? But how do you expect an obsessed person to behave?

    "There's some overreliance on superstition here, and I don't know, maybe it's a cultural thing, but I just don't see how so many people, particularly professional police officers, should be so gullible and believing in that stuff."

    You'd be surprised. There are skyscrapers in Hong Kong with so-called dragon holes in them to prevent the building from blocking the path of a dragon, which is believed to be bring bad luck. I believe China leaves enough room between their high-rise buildings so dragons can safely fly between them. And that's happening today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, and I know about Korean "fan death" as well. But just like too much overt religion, too much overt superstition gets to me. It's a quirk of mine.

      I don't have the book handy at the moment, but as for "The Mourning Locomotive", I seem to remember that this was the story with the narrator who was incredibly hard to follow because from one paragraph to another he jumped to something completely different with just an "anyway" or similar - incredibly difficult to follow.

      However, as I've watched "Detective Academy Q" for a couple of days, I've come to realise that this is actually how parts of that story are narrated as well - incredibly jumpy non sequiteurs. Maybe it's a cultural thing again.

      Also, the whole bit about leaving a pig on the railway tracks. Ehm. Maybe that is what an obsessed person does, I don't know. It's not something I want as part of a solution to an impossible crime, to be honest.

      I guess it's imaginative and all, but I like my impossible crimes to have a solution that is more grounded than that. You've probably noticed that I'm not too fond of too much melodrama - that's my main sticking point with the early Carrs, for example.

      On the subject of Meade/Eustace... So far, all their impossible stories have been disappointing to me, as you might have seen from my discussions on them here and there on the blog. There's just one story of theirs I've liked, and it's not been reviewed here - yet! (But it will appear in a coming post.)

      I will celebrate them for their part as trailblazers in the impossible crime genre, as I will with Futrelle and Chesterton, but on the whole I'm not entirely impressed with their works. But I see that Project Gutenberg has their collection available. I might check it out since it's free. :)

      Delete
  3. This is actually my next review, so it'll be interesting to compare opinions! I liked "The Cold Night's Clearing" a lot more than you did apparently. Where did you see a cheat? I thought it was an amazing story and I got the collection assuming every story would be like it! An elegant reversal.

    I think I enjoyed "The Mourning Locomotive" because of how...banal the motive is, once all is said and done. The melodrama of the ending gets in the way a bit, but. "The Demon in the Mine" cheats near the start, but is definitely good. I'd argue you can see Osaka (and the Japanese detective story as a whole) developing into what we recognize as Golden Age mystery stories.
    Very interesting stories, on the whole.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is a bit spoiler-y, so be forewarned:

      S
      P
      O
      I
      L
      E
      R

      The bit I found a bit of a cheat is the fact that when the narrator arrives at the house where the murders were committed, he reveals nothing about the "lay of the land" - we are specifically not told that there are tracks, let alone ski tracks, on that side of the house as well. Had we been told that, I'm fairly certain it would have been much easier to question why the ski tracks at the back of the house had to be leading _away_ from the house.

      Delete