Murder at Mt. Fuji by Shizuko Natsuki, translated by Robert B. Rohmer

Book Details

Originally published in 1982 as W No Higeki
English translation first published in 1987

The Blurb

January 3. Asahi Hills, a posh and isolated village set below the watchful eye of Mt. Fuji, is the home of Yohei – “Grandpa” – Wada, president of the immensely successful Wada Pharmaceuticals, and the destination of Jane Prescott. An American student, Jane has been invited to the imposing family chateau by the patriarch’s grand-niece, Chiyo, to help revise her English thesis. Feeling quite out of place in the midst of the Wada’s yearly family reunion, Jane sets to work immediately with the intention of finishing her promised task and clearing out as soon as possible.

That is, until Chiyo comes running into the living room three hours later, her sleeves drenched in blood and the irrevocable words “I killed Grandpa” on her lips.

Convinced that the murder was accidental and committed in self-defense, the Wada family rallies around the fragile girl, vowing to protect her from prosecution, and save the family name from disgrace. But the family’s cleverly and carefully laid plans go awry. The police find obvious clues that lead them directly to Chiyo. But the clues are too obvious; so obvious that Jane begins to suspect sabotage. But who would betray the gentle Chiyo in such a way?

The Verdict

This boasts a great set-up but the rushed investigation and resolution phases of the novel made it feel a little anticlimactic.

“You see, what I told you earlier was true. All the men of the Wada family have an uncontrollable lust for young ladies.”

My Thoughts

Each year the Wada family gather to celebrate the New Year at a villa near Mt. Fuji hosted by Yohei Wada, the head of the Wada Pharmaceuticals company. It is meant to be an intimate family celebration but this year a stranger joins them, an American student named Jane Prescott who has been invited by Chiyo, one of the youngest members of the family, to help her work on her English thesis.

Soon after arriving Jane is warned by a family member about the men in the family’s reputation for womanizing, noting that this is true even of those men who have married into the family. A short while later this seems to be confirmed when Chiyo emerges from Yohei’s bedroom, her arms covered in blood, saying that he had tried to proposition her and, when she threatened to kill herself rather than sleep with her Great Uncle, he attacked her causing her to accidentally stab him in the chest.

The family, each of whom are fond of Chiyo, decide to work together to try and cover up the crime. They develop a plan in which they will send Chiyo back to the city and make it appear that an outsider broke into the home later that night. This means finding ways to mask the timeline, leading to some interesting trickery. Unfortunately however all their hard work is undone when the Police arrive and we are left to wonder if someone in the family is sabotaging their efforts.

Crime fiction readers today are quite used to the idea of reading fiction in translation but when Murder at Mt. Fuji was first released in translation it was much more novel. Only a handful of Japanese mysteries had been translated at that point and so it appears that there was some concern about whether American readers would be comfortable trying something that may have felt very foreign to them. The result was not only a title change, taking us from The Tragedy of W to the much clearer Murder at Mt. Fuji, clearly establishing both the locale and it being a genre work, but there are apparently also some other significant changes to the story with a character being rewritten as an American student. For more on that see Ho-Ling Wong’s blog post about the book which I have linked to below.

Being unable to read the original work for myself, it’s hard for me to offer a take on how this has changed the work. I am under no illusions that translated fiction will be an exact reproduction of a work and I know that translators often have to make adjustments to help readers understand references or themes better. Here is feels a little more trivial because it seems to be quite incidental to the story – Jane’s background as a foreigner is rather irrelevant once you get beyond her introduction and certainly has no bearing on the plot. In other words, the change seems to be a largely cosmetic one.

The premise of this story is an engaging one that seems to fall neatly into the howcatchem school of inverted crime stories. Here we see how the Wada family come to decide on a cover-up and we are aware of each of the tricks they have used to try and make the corpse appear to have died after Chiyo left. Some of these tricks are obvious, such as the attempts to create the appearance of the intruder and to cool the body, but a few struck me as both clever and novel. This process is quite interesting to follow with Natsuki offering quite a bit of information about how time of death is typically determined. When the time comes for the police to arrive it seems that they have thought of everything and it is easy to imagine that the family might get away with their deception.

These early chapters also give us a pretty good sense of the various family members and their different personalities. Natsuki is good about explaining these characters’ relationships to Yohei though I felt less confident about how they related to one another. While this is not critical to the story, this is one of those cases where I wish that a family tree had been provided for the reader. Still, regardless of those genetic relationships I felt I got a pretty good handle on each character and their emotional relationships with the other members of the family which ends up being so important to this story.

Following several chapters of careful setup where we observe the family’s preparations, the police investigation by contrast feels rather rushed and frankly a little anticlimactic. Natsuki gives these investigations an almost comic air as we see the police repeatedly recasting the results of their investigation in different lights as new pieces of information turn up, trying desperately to spin these flip-flops as part of a cunning plan. It’s pretty amusing and I think Natsuki does generate some suspense as we wait for the investigators to connect the information they have but those hoping for a careful dissection of a crime from the investigators’ perspectives are likely to be a little disappointed. The investigators really aren’t meant to be the heroes of this story and so these chapters are merely a bridge that transitions us from one type of mystery novel to another.

I was a little conflicted about whether to discuss this as I typically try and avoid detailed discussion of developments so late in a story (at least, sans spoiler tags) but in this case it’s in the blurb and if I failed to at least mention it those of you who do not share my love of the inverted crime may pass over this one a little too quickly. So, let’s be clear: in addition to the inverted form there is also a whodunnit aspect to this story as we wonder who is tipping off the cops and why.

I feel that Natsuki executes this shift in styles pretty well, hinting at it before providing the reader with confirmation that someone must be playing a double role. It’s an intriguing idea but I think it is not really exploited to its full potential. This situation seems ideally set up to generate resentments and suspicions but instead we rush through that phase of the story with the story instead going through a further transition into thriller mode where Jane as a heroine is put in peril by the killer.

Jane is certainly a heroine that the reader can empathize with. She is an outsider who is unfortunate to get caught up in the events of that night. She cares about Chiyo, recognizing the unfairness that her friend is being discarded by a member of her family and she instinctively wants to find the party involved. That is all pretty convincing. Unfortunately the resolution is reached rather too quickly and so lacks the impact I think it would have had for a little extra snooping or some further direct confrontations with members of the family.

I do want to stress that I did enjoy my experience with this book overall. This is one of the few inverted mysteries I have encountered that attempts to explicitly discuss and work through the medical evidence of a crime scene which I think is done pretty well. The setup here is superb and I just wished that the story had been resolved with that same careful pacing and attention to detail.

I read and wrote about this book in response to the 14th Japanese Literature Challenge which I am participating in this year.
It also counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s World Traveler category as a Silver Age read.

Further Reading

Ho-Ling Wong wrote about his experience reading a translation of this translation. One of the comments in that excellent post is the source for the information about the changes made for the English language market.

Tomcat at Beneath the Stains of Time also shared thoughts on this book, saying it has ‘something completely different and very fresh to offer’ as an example of the inverted mystery.

Finally these are not related specifically to this book but discuss some of the challenges and approaches to translating crime fiction. I recently (virtually) attended a discussion between Jennifer Arnold and the translators Antonia Lloyd Jones and Peter Bush that I found interesting and which you can watch for free. I also strongly recommend the episode of the In GAD We Trust podcast where Jim chats with Louise Heal Kawai who translated The Honjin Murders and several other works of classic Japanese mystery fiction.

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