Monday, September 24, 2018

The Vampire Tree (1996/2016) by Paul Halter

I’m a little unsure of this one, honestly.

The Vampire Tree is Locked Room International’s twelfth translation of Paul Halter’s work. The first mistake they made was naming it that instead of naming it by its far superior French title, The Tree With The Twisted Fingers.

The book is less of a whodunit, and more of a Gothic thriller. Patricia Squibby, a nurse, has just married Roger Sheridan, presumably to escape her horrible name. While on the way to her husband's house, Patricia is left stranded at a train station due to a conversation with the weird horror movie victim (this part comes later) Thomas Fleming. During her wait, she learns from a kid about a child killer stalking the town, a killer that leaves shockingly little blood at his crime scenes.

Adding to the general creepiness of her stay is the Sheridan ancestral home she’s living in, which has a vicious, gnarled tree dragging against the window. Not to mention the fact that it was the hanging site and burial ground of an unfortunately named witch, Liza Gribble, who was rumored to keep herself young via a steady diet of children’s blood (which as wee all know, is quite rich in protein). Also not helping the atmosphere is the mysterious death that took place under that tree, many moons ago…

Patricia is shown a diary that belonged to Lavina, a woman who lived in the house years ago. One night after a party, her fiance Eric made some ambiguous comments about someone not liking him, before Lavina went to bed. After having a nightmare of the creepy tree right outside her window, she awoke to find him strangled outside under the tree, with no footprints in the snow. Patricia decides to look deeper into the case, and finds herself drawn more and more into Lavina's mind...

The first part of the novel mainly focuses on Patricia, Roger, and their circle of friends and acquaintances, such as David, a sculptor who is assigned the task of sculpting a wood carving of Patricia, Maude, a painter and friend of Roger (who may or may not harbor feelings of jealousy towards Patricia) and even the obligatory sin-hating reverend who creeps in people’s yards, crucifix in hand. They’re all idiots to one degree or another.

In fairness, not every single one of them are fools. One or two escape the plot unscathed, but the vast majority of the plot is driven by people being stupid. One person jokingly tells the police of their suspicions of another person, and are surprised when the police actually take the claim seriously. Another flat-out knows, or at least heavily suspects, the killer’s identity, but refuses to say for….reasons. As JJ points out in his own review, there are some good moments between the cast, such as the confrontation of Patricia and Maude, but the effect is rather diminished when the rest of the plot is driven by madness.

The mystery, sadly, isn’t all that redeeming. The resolution of the past narrative is a bit perfunctory, and while it works it’s a tad bit of an anti-climax. Not to mention the idea that you can make an accurate diagnosis of someone from a few snippets from a diary of an outside observer. The modern day as well is...weak. It’s clued, I suppose, but only really in retrospect: Once you know what happened and why, you can look back and see the clues, but I would be impressed if anyone was able to piece it together from what we’re shown in the book.

It annoys me, because the ending made me want to like the book. It edges into disturbing territory that I don’t object to seeing explored, and the reveal of what that circle in the snow near the bodies was and what it was used for is certainly creepy. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that some director of Italian giallo movies had lifted this particular plot point. It touches on elements that I find both creepy and fascinating. Even the bleak ending didn’t shake me, partially because I knew it was coming and partially because I don’t mind the occasional dark ending in my fiction, as long as it isn’t spiteful. This ending avoided that.

But in the end I can't find myself able to recommend this. Again, I got the impression that Halter was going for more of a Gothic horror tale in this one, but the tale is weak and lacks even the over-the-top melodrama of such tales. Heck, no one has much response to a child killer running around the village! I would expect police to be scattered on every corner, but no one has a response. Not even the parents of the cruelly murdered children have much, if any, screentime. I don’t expect Halter to play to his weaknesses in characterization, but I would expect an acknowledgement of the pain and agony that these parents must be going through.

All in all, there are better Halter’s out there that are much more worth your time. Not recommended.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

A Midsummer's Equation (2016) by Keigo Higashino

Finally, a Higsahino book review!
Like I mentioned in my review of Galileo, I like Higashino, and it isn’t just because I’m a Japanophile. I do think he makes an honest effort at blending the traditional fair-play mystery novel with the more character focused and driving style so popular today, and I enjoy it, even if some people can’t appreciate it. (Just kidding JJ, we all love you, or will when you apologize for what happened in Vegas. :P ) So when A Midsummer's Equation came out I was looking forward to another round of Higashino, but sadly this one rattles a tad too much.
The story takes place at Hari Cove, a seaside resort town on the verge of plunging into an economic black hole due to lack of tourism. Hope has come in the form of DESMEC, a company that wants to drill for the abundant natural resources in the area, which could give Japan a much needed boost in that area. While many are happy for the possible economic boost, there are others who oppose the environmental destruction it will bring. One of these is Natsuki, a young woman helping out at her parent’s inn. While attending an informational meeting hosted by DESMEC, she witnesses an old man nod at her...and unknown to her, that man is our novel’s victim of the week.
During the night, the body is discovered, smashed against the rocks on the other side of a seawall. The local police assume he got drunk and fell, but they discover that the victim was an ex-cop, meaning that his colleagues will have to be contacted. But when they take a look at the scene, they come to a different conclusion and demand an autopsy. The result leaves no doubt: Carbon monoxide poisoning.
From here, the narrative begins dividing itself between multiple parties. There’s the local investigation into the victim’s death, which is frustrated by the lack of any place where the poisoning could have been done. There’s also an investigation into the background of the victim, carried out by detectives Kusanagi and Utsumi (who both appeared in the previous novel, Salvation of a Saint), sparked by the fact that, among other information the victim payed a visit to the former home of a convicted murderer at Hari Cove in the past. There’s also Yukawa’s investigation at the town itself, and the narrative of Kouhei, a young boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle, owners of a local inn, and who Yukawa befriends.* Not to mention all the other characters.
This does cause problems for the narrative, as the whole thing gets a bit bogged down in all these plotlines. The characters are often keeping information from one another, and this results in a slightly bogged down story, especially when dealing with both investigations and more Japanese names I can’t seem to keep apart. This sounds like a petty complaint, and if the plot were more engaging it would be, but compared to what else I’ve read it’s a bit of a let down.
The problem is that the plot is too telegraphed. Most of the twists were, to me, quite obvious and easy to see coming. Even the final set of twists fell flat, at least compared to the wham-bang of books like Malice. In fairness, the cluing is there, and you can figure out what happened on the night of the murder, but the path to it is simply blah. The background also isn’t made use of, with the DESMEC idea fading by around the halfway mark. While I’m happy that Higashino didn’t take this chance to soapbox (too much, but he’s quite even-handed), I still wished that this played more of a role in the mystery.
All and all, this was one of the more disappointing reads. I admit, part of it was because of the expectations I had since this was a Higashino novel, but it does fall a little flat. It’s technically competent and well-written, but a tad too obvious and sadly, that results in a bit of a slog. Not Recommended.
*Oddly, this isn't the case in the show, where Yukawa hates kids. This has nothing to with anything, as the idea that a TV show will emulate the books is madness, but even so, this surprised me.