Monday, January 17, 2022

My Annihilation, by Fuminori Nakamura


Soho Crime, 2021
originally published as Watashi no Shometsu, 2016
translated by Sam Bett
257 pp


My Annihilation is yet another book I'm reluctant to label as simply crime fiction -- there are layers upon layers to unfold during the reading, and as the author himself notes in an afterword, in this novel he is exploring 
"questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to exist in the world,"
as well as the question "what is a self?"  

It doesn't take too long to become completely immersed in this novel, which begins in "a cramped room in a rundown mountain lodge," where our narrator is considering the "various forms of identification" in his bag, all belonging to someone named Ryodai Kozuka.   In a corner of the room is a white suitcase which he did not bring there, and on the desk is a manuscript, which he believes just might be Kozuka's life story.  As he begins to read, he finds a warning:
"Turn this page, and you may give up your entire life," 

but the narrator reveals that he has "no intention" of giving up his "old life;" all he wants is Kozuka's identity.   Noting that while Kozuka may have left some "unfinished business" behind, he assures himself that "it was no business of mine."    It's at this point (and we're only on page four) that I realized that it may have been a smart thing to heed that warning, but on into the manuscript he goes.  

What he discovers within is unsettling, at best.  It begins with Kozuka's narrative about his childhood experiences, about which after only one-third of the way through, the narrator observes a similarity to his own story.  Reading on, he comes to a passage where Kozuka, looking back, notes that 
"... It doesn't even feel like this is me. It's all so blurry, like something shrouded in a distant fog.  But evidently somebody is going to take my place. Someone willing to take over for me, accepting all the horrors ... I'm going to be saved."  

This bit obviously disturbs the narrator, but only momentarily;  continuing on he comes to the story of  real-life serial killer  Tsutomu Miyazaki,  "one of the most infamous criminals in Japan."  And while the narrator asks himself "What was all that about?"  we know that there are certain things that link both Miyazaki and the author of the manuscript, which I won't mention to avoid spoilers.  Yet for our narrator, nothing seems more important at the time than opening that white suitcase, until he is interrupted by the ringing of a bell to his room.  That's when things, if not weird enough already, start to take the reader far, far down the rabbit hole.  

Without spoiling things for potential readers, what actually emerges here is a sinister plot for revenge,  and I must say it's one of the creepiest I've encountered, with the actual mystery behind it all taking a number of  surprising twists and turns before all is revealed.   Underlying this novel is the answer to the question of "what is a self,"  to which the author responds that  "Under a particular set of circumstances, it becomes impossible to tell."  Using various forms of textual material throughout the novel, the author runs with this idea, revealing just how easy it is "to get inside a person's head," an idea at the very heart of this story.  He raises questions of identity and memory, especially the ways in which they might be changed or in this case, even created. With that then comes the question of what happens to the original self that must somewhere continue to exist; this sort of philosophical/psychological underpinning  is why I noted my reluctance at the outset to define My Annihilation as just another crime novel. At the same time, it moves this book well and deeply into the literary zone, and as the back-cover blurb notes, "into the darkest corners of human consciousness."   In short, it's right up my alley.  

I love to try to solve mysteries as I read them, but My Annihilation is  one of those books where just when you think you have a handle on things, there's a shift and you realize you're completely off base.  As quickly as things change here, for me it became a matter of just giving up, going with the flow and letting things reveal themselves.   I'm not sure I'd recommend this one to all crime/mystery readers, but it's definitely for people who like their reading on the darker side.  

Monday, January 10, 2022

Act of Darkness, by Francis King


Valancourt Books, 2021
originally published 1983
305 pp


I'm actually on the fence about labeling this book as crime fiction, because really, there's so much more to it.  I mean,  there is a crime (quite a heinous one in fact), there is a bit of an investigation and a number of possible suspects who might have been responsible.  At the same time, it ventures well into the literary zone, as the author delves into and  unravels human souls, exposing people for who they really are, and it works on a metaphorical level as well.   The bottom line, however, is that it's quite good, very dark, highly atmospheric and well, anything but typical.  

Just very briefly and excruciatingly barebones so as not to spoil things for anyone who may want to read this novel, Act of Darkness is structured in five parts, and it is in the first of these, the appropriately-entitled "Omens,"  that we meet the Thompson family.   Set in India in the 1930s, they are at home  in the hill-station villa where they've gone to escape the hot summer weather of the plains.   Toby Thompson is the head of this family, although business and other matters interest him far more than his home life.  He is married to second wife Isabel, now pregnant, and they have a young six-year old son named Peter who can often be annoying and definitely curious.  Toby's daughter from his first marriage, Helen, a sort of cold young woman who feels out of place and somewhat resentful,  has recently returned from boarding school in England, and  also living in the home is Clare, Peter's governess, who likes things simple, unmessy and uncomplicated. These characters are introduced from his or her own perspective; by doing it this way King allows the reader to glean an understanding of the complexities and the tensions within their interactions with each other, and most importantly, careful readers will be able to pick out the "omens" of what's to come. 

The central "Act" of this novel is a horrific murder that happens in the middle of one night, but it's the aftereffects that are at the heart of this story.  As the author writes,
"A slow, expected death has a way of irresistibly sucking the members of a family together down its dark funnel. This death, as violent and unexpected as the explosion following the detonation of a bomb, had the opposite effect of blowing the members of the Thompson family in separate directions, however much they struggled to cling to each other." 

The murder also lays bare some of  the pent-up frustrations, jealousies and suspicions that have been simmering and chipped away at under the surface within this household.  The author absolutely excels here as he traces the effects of this crime on those left behind over the years that follow,  offering more than one or two surprising twists as he comes down to its solution.

I loved this book -- King has created an atmosphere seething with dark, sometimes violent  undercurrents running below the surface both within this family and also in India under British rule; that tension, once picked up on in the reading, just doesn't go away.  I will say that not too far after the murder, I had this sense that I already knew this story, and rifling through my brain it hit me where I'd previously experienced it.  I won't give away any hints as to what it reminded me of  (just in case), except that it was a particular and sensational crime that had occurred in England during the Victorian era.   Once it dawned on me, I was a bit upset,  thinking "well, I already know how this turns out," but as it happens, I wasn't at all prepared once the truth was revealed.  I can certainly and highly recommend this book, especially to readers who are more into the why behind  things rather than just the who.  It is a memorable story that I still see flashes of in my head  even though I finished reading it a few days ago; it's also a book that I absolutely could not put down.  

Sunday, January 2, 2022

The Village of Eight Graves, by Seishi Yokomizo

 I'm looking at the date I was last here -- September!  Yikes!   I have to say that we had an extremely rough 2021 which is actually putting it mildly, but now, thankfully, we've turned that corner and things are much better and slowly getting back to normal going into 2022.   I'll be picking up where I left off with the septimo circulo list shortly as well as with a stack of books I've sadly neglected.    Truth be told, I'm just glad to be back.  

originally published 1950
translated by Bryan Karetnyk
349 pp


Village of Eight Graves will be the third book I've read that features the somewhat shaggy-looking detective Kosuke Kindaichi, whose creator Seishi Yokomizo wrote him into a grand total of 77 novels.  Pushkin Vertigo has also published translations of his The Honjin Murders and The Inugami Clan (my favorite of the bunch so far), and there will be another one, Gokumon Island  later this year.   I've already preordered the last one, and I bought a dvd of that film as well.  I tried to find a copy of Village of Eight Graves on dvd, but I'm not all that sure I really want to pay the $60 the one I actually found goes for.   I did however, content myself with the trailer on YouTube (note: if you to and take a look at it you should know ahead of time that there are no English subtitles, but you'll get the drift).  

The story in Village of Eight Graves is set in postwar Japan, but before arriving in that time period, Yokomizo takes his readers back in time to the sixteenth century to explain how the village got its strange name.  Legend has it that eight samurai fled when their daimyo surrendered to another, taking along with them some 3,000 tael of gold.  They ended up in the village, where the people were hospitable to them until they learned that the samurai were being sought;  at that point they killed all eight, offering their heads in exchange for a promised reward.   With his dying breath, however, the leader of these warriors put a curse on the village, "vowing to visit his vengeance upon it for seven generations to come."  The villagers never did find the gold,  and six months later, the "ringleader of the attack on the warriors," a certain Shozaemon Tajimi,  went more than a bit beserk and not only killed members of his family but "every villager he came across."  Seven died, and Shozaemon killed himself, bringing the total to eight.  Believing that this attack was some sort of "retribution from those eight warriors who had been murdered in cold blood," the villagers decided to give them proper burials, "erecting eight graves where they were venerated as divinities."  

Flash forward first to the 1920s and then on to the postwar era,  as a young man named Tatsuya Terada recounts the story of  how he "embarked on an adventure of dazzling mystery and stepped into a world of blood-chilling terror."   It all begins with  the appearance of an attorney who comes looking for Tatsuya on behalf on someone who has been looking for him.  Identity satisfied, all the lawyer will tell him is that the person seeking him out is "extremely wealthy" and wants to "adopt and provide" for him.  But before he gets any further news, he receives a letter telling him  to "never set foot in Eight Graves again,"  and that if he does, "there will be blood!"  It was the first Tatsuya had heard of Eight Graves, but in another visit to his lawyer, he meets his maternal grandfather, whom the lawyer reveals is actually not the person looking for him.  However, he offers Tatsuya his true identity as the son of Yozo Tajimi, reveals that he has two unmarried half-siblings, and that neither one will ever have children. To prevent the Tajimi line from dying out, it seems that his great aunts have decided to name Tatsuya as the Tajimi heir.  But before Tatsuya even travels to the village, he is there when his grandfather dies, not a natural death, but one determined to be from poison.  This is the first of a number of strange deaths; the remainder will wait  for Tatsuya's return to Eight Graves Village, where it doesn't take long for the villagers to believe they are all done by Tatsuya's hand.  If I say much more there won't be a need to read the book, and people will likely be upset that I've spoiled things.  However,  it's when Tatsuya is taken to Eight Graves Village that not only do the deaths continue, but also that there are a number of strange, seemingly inexplicable occurrences that will test Tatsuya's mettle to the limit.  And while Kindaichi is on the scene here and there, his role remains sort of behind the scenes until the very end, leaving a 300-page plus mystery for the armchair detective reader to try and solve.  I never did but I had great fun getting to the big reveal.    

from Amazon Canada.  Kosuke Kindaichi action figure.  I want one of these!. 

One thing brought out very quickly which is extremely well done here is the effects of fear and superstition on the villagers, all stemming back to the  sixteenth-century and the ongoing belief of these people that history tends to repeat itself,  leading to exactly what some people are capable of when overcome by fear for their own lives.   The mystery (and its solution) is beyond satisfying, and there are a number of suspects from which to choose to up the whodunit game.  Like any good mystery writer, Yokomizo lays down any number of red herrings that tend to take readers down certain paths before realizing they've been had.  Unexpected twists and turns abound right up until the very end, adding to the fun and continuing to add more to the mystery itself  as well as ratcheting up the tension level for the reader.  Two things: first, my advice would be to copy the cast of characters offered at the front of the book -- I ended up doing this not too long into the novel because I found myself  constantly flipping back and forth.  Second, the story takes a bit of a turn into the realm of adventure tale having to do with the samurai gold, which was a bit off-putting until I just let myself go with it, figuring we'd get to the solution at some point -- a good decision.    And while it's not great literature, who cares? It's an incredibly fun book that will test any mystery reader's solving ability.  Definitely recommended.