Book review: 『不連続殺人事件』by Ango Sakaguchi

不連続殺人事件(ふれんぞくさつじんじけん)
Title: 不連続殺人事件(ふれんぞくさつじんじけん)
First published: 1947
Published: 2021
Publisher:
Format: Digital
Page Count: 323
Translation: The Nonserial Murders, by Shelley Marshall
First published in 1947, 『不連続殺人事件』is Ango Sakaguchi’s first detective novel. It won the Mystery Writers of Japan Awards in 1948. The novel is available on Aozora. There is a French translation by Estelle Figon: Meurtres sans série, published by Les Belles Lettres. Famous figures of the decadent literary circles of post-war Japan find themselves, as well as some uninvited guests, in the family house of the Utagawas. Many of these guests cannot stand each other…

When the book was first serialised in 1947, the author challenged the readers to find the murderer before the publication of the last chapters. He offered a financial prize, and challenged by name several personalities of the time as well as the fictional police officers of his novel. And of course, any reader could participate.

The fact that one reader of the time was able to give a perfect answer to Sakaguchi’s challenge shows that we have all the elements we need to solve the mystery. Sakaguchi himself insists on that point several times: we, the reader, are given all the elements to solve the crimes. As such, this is a perfect whodunnit, which I think is quite rare. As Ango Sakaguchi said when he revealed the names of the winners, many detective novels are disappointing, and even though I would not go as far as saying that 99,99% of them fall into this category, 『不連続殺人事件』surely does not.

人間性を不当に不合理に歪めて、有りうべからざる行動を実在させそれを、合理的に解けと云ったって無理である。私は日本のみならず、全世界の探偵小説の九十九パーセント、否、九十九、九九パーセントぐらいが不合理なものだと思っている。

To find the solution, we are provided with everything that the police officers of the novel have access to. Unfortunately, it is easy to be overwhelmed by the amount of information we are given. This is what happened to me, and this is why I decided to read the novel in parallel with the French translation. The Japanese was quite difficult to begin with, but trying to sort every bit of information and lead my own investigation was almost impossible to do in Japanese: too many characters (all introduced at the same time!), too many murders, too many alibis to verify and too many clues.

屋敷の見取り図の画像

To give you an example of what I mean by too much information, this is the map that is provided by the author. Floor and building maps play an important role in detective novels, but I have always assumed that they were there to help the reader, not confuse them 🤔 When Ango Sakaguchi says that we have access to the same elements than the characters, he means it literally. This is the “real” map of the villa, not a simplified version made for the reader. (I have read a lot of detective novels, but I never saw a map with 56 indications!)

But… you have no choice but to investigate yourself, because no one else is doing it. There are police officers and even a character who is here as a detective, but they never investigate, or if they do, we don’t see them doing it. As such, this novel differs from classic detective novels where we follow the investigation of the fictional detective. The role of the police is clearly to give us, readers, all the elements we need. The police officers appear after the murder to collect every character’s alibis but then, they just don’t do anything with this information. Even the other characters do not seem particularly interested in solving the crime, and our narrator does not do much either.

This is barely surprising, given that most of them are writers. As one character states in the novel, writers are similar to criminals, not to detectives (it follows that it is the reader who should assume the role of the detective):

文学者は、大概、大犯罪者ですよ(…)天才的な先生方は全然探偵の能力なしに、徹底的に、ただもう、大犯罪者の素質だけをお持ちなのですな.

And the characters of this novel are not easy people to be with. Some of them cannot stand each other and make it clear every time they have an occasion to do so. They are arrogant, proud, rude and even insulting when addressing certain characters, if not violent. They are constantly quarrelling, and to be honest, the dialogues and the relations between the characters were the most difficult things to understand in Japanese to me.

This is why I made a character map (pdf) for anyone who wants to read this book in Japanese. The story is very complex and if you don’t have a clear vision of people’s relationships to each other (attraction, resentment, general dislike), then the story and the dialogues become very difficult to understand.

I did not manage to find the solution, but I had fun trying to.

Finally, I should add that I found Estelle Figon’s translation to be truly excellent. The text is full of pep and a real delight to read!