Review - VERTIGO, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
"Do you think it's possible to live again, Monsieur? ... I mean ... is it possible to die and then ... live again in someone else?"
Being a huge Hitchock fan this book particularly intrigued, but even if you’ve never seen a single Hitchcock film in your life, VERTIGO is an engaging, fascinating, and frequently beautiful book. If you are also a fan of the film, then there is greater nuance here than the film, and plenty to conjecture about for the reader.
Set at the start of World War II, the central character of Flavières is troubled by many things, not just the need at one point to flee the war’s encroachment. He seems, on the face of it, a man who was destined to be obsessed with the wife of his friend. Her behaviour whilst mysterious, is mesmerising and her beauty in the eyes of Flavières incomparable. His obsession and the moral dilemmas presented to him by her husband’s insistence that he continue the friendship are understated, yet beautifully illustrated.
The reasons posited for her behaviour are unexpected and yet oddly believable, but nothing is ever that straight-forward and VERTIGO delivers some twists and turns and stings in the tail that make it end up sitting somewhere between a mystery and a morality play.
Beautifully translated with nary a bump to be detected in the language, VERTIGO is complicated, clever and another of those wonderful, one sitting reading experiences.
Review - THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS, Soji Shimada
Astrologer, fortuneteller, and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai must in one week solve a mystery that has baffled Japan for 40 years. Who murdered the artist Umezawa, raped and killed his daughter, and then chopped up the bodies of six others to create Azoth, the supreme woman? With maps, charts, and other illustrations, this story of magic and illusion, pieced together like a great stage tragedy, challenges the reader to unravel the mystery before the final curtain.
Honkaku is a subgenre of Japanese Crime Fiction that came into being sometime in the early 1920's. The original definition was "a detective story that mainly focuses on the process of a criminal investigation and values the entertainment derived from pure logical reasoning". The term was coined to clearly differentiate Honkaku mystery fiction from other subgenres and it was used for both local and Western writers, although a distinct Japanese form became increasingly common in the 1950's.
Adding depth to long tradition, the author of THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS, Soji Shimada has written over 100 mystery novels.
Knowing the background to the form isn't required to understand the structure of this novel, although it does help to realise that it is informed by such a rich tradition. Written in a number of parts or acts, THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS firstly introduces the reader to a bizarre prologue - a note written in the mid 1930's by artist Umezawa outlining detailed plans and justifications for the murder of six of his daughters and nieces to create the figure of a supreme goddess Azoth. Disturbing and frankly very odd, the voice in this section is manic.
In the next part, 40 years on from the date of the note, the reader discovers that the six daughters referred to in the plan were indeed murdered, mutilated exactly as outlined. Which would have been a straight-forward case had one other daughter not predeceased her relatives, and Umezawa himself died before the girls. This is revealed as Kazumi Ishioka explains the background of the mystery that has baffled Japan since it occurred to his friend and self-styled detective Kiyoshi Mitarai. There investigation occurs in two parts from here - and along the way Mitarai accepts a threat / challenge which means that he must not only solve the puzzle, but do it to a schedule. To do that Mitarai and Ishioka travel through Japan, following where the clues lead them.
Those clues are laid out in a very traditional manner allowing the reader to discover them as the main detecting characters do. In an interesting touch the point at which the detective has solved the puzzle, the story switches to a note from the author letting the reader know that they now have everything needed as well. And it is actually solvable if you really pay attention, and take a logical and considered approach (this reader kind of worked out who, but admits it was more by good luck than good management, mathematical formula of any kind being the ultimate mystery after all).
Because the point of this style of novel is to present a puzzle, there's not necessarily a lot of character development alongside that, although the final resolution is markedly sad and moving. The detecting pair's travels around Japan do, however, give it a strong sense of place as well as many insights into the culture and customs of the country. The centrality of the Zodiac to the mystery does mean that some of the patterns - such as the dates of birth of the victims, the relationship of them to the structure of the Supreme Goddess to be built, and the layout of the closed room mystery in the murder of Umezawa are made more fathomable by the insertion of diagrams.
Puzzle upon puzzle THE TOKYO ZODIAC MURDERS is intricate and utterly fascinating, as an example of Honkaku and the culture from which it sprang, as well as providing sufficient puzzles to be solved to keep a reader happily occupied (and slightly confused) right to the last page.
Review - THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA, Piero Chiara
When the sad, beautiful Signora Giulia goes missing without a trace from her Lake Como villa home, it is her husband who reports her disappearance to the detective Sciancalepre, and so the search begins - one that takes Sciancalepre beneath the tranquil surface of local bourgeois society, a world of snobbery and secrets, while mysterious shadows lurk in the grounds of the family villa . . . As his investigation gathers pace this atmospheric classic detective story becomes a thrilling game of legal cat and mouse.
Wonderfully evocative, THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA imparts much information about the society in which it is set in a short, but beautifully balanced novel.
When Signora Giulia goes missing, police detective Sciancalepre follows the investigation with dogged determination over a number of years. For much of this time it seems that the Signora has simply vanished into thin air. No body is found, nor are there sightings of her that lead to more than new questions. Coming from a small village as they all do, there is however, much gossip about her taciturn, older lawyer husband; about her marriage; and the possibility that she had a much younger lover.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA is a fascinating book - immersed as it is in the place from which it comes, it gives the reader a feeling of being in somewhere completely different, despite it being translated for accessibility. Sciancalepre is somebody that you feel that you'd know if were to come across him in a little cafe, the same with the Signora's husband and his eventual estrangement from his daughter, and the way that he withdraws from his life with his wife, leaving their shared home is quite moving. The way that he starts to appear quietly in the night in the garden of that house, only to be seen by his daughter and new son-in-law is restrained in the telling, but moving nonetheless. Obviously this is a man who is hiding something - but is he the killer of his wife, or does he still mourn for her?
As well as those character study elements, there's a nicely twisting plot here with lots of possible answers to the fate of Signora Giula, some of which the reader will guess, some of which will come as a surprise. Combine that with the perfect ending for this style of novel (and one most definitely not for fans of absolutes) THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SIGNORA GIULIA is a taste of Italy, granted without the elaborate food descriptions of more well known series, but with everything else you could possibly ask for.