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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Murder at Mt. Fuji

Natsuki Shizuko

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To purchase Murder at Mt. Fuji

Title: Murder at Mt. Fuji
Author: Natsuki Shizuko
Genre: Novel
Written: 1982 (Eng. 1984)
Length: 235 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Murder at Mt. Fuji - US
Murder at Mt. Fuji - UK
Murder at Mt. Fuji - Canada
Mord am Fujiyama - Deutschland
  • Japanese title: Wの悲劇
  • There have been numerous film- and TV-adaptations of Wの悲劇
  • Translated by Robert B. Rohmer

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Our Assessment:

B : good ideas, but somewhat plodding

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Murder at Mt. Fuji takes place over the New Year's holidays, which eight members of the Wada family are spending in the fancy family villa near Lake Yamanaka, near Mount Fuji. It's a motley clan, headed by Yohei, the wealthy head of Wada Pharmaceuticals. His wife, Mine, is also there, but they have no children of their own and the others are somewhat more distant relatives, including their niece Kazue and her husband Sawahiko. Sawahiko is Kazue's third husband (and she is his second wife), and they have one child -- also present -- Chiyo (who is, however, not Sawahiko's daughter, but rather that of Kazue's deceased second husband ...).
       Chiyo is working on her thesis in English literature, on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, and it is due in early January. To help her with the final editing, she invited a slightly older student who has been helping her with her English, Jane Prescott -- an American who has been studying Japanese and speaks the language very well -- to spend the holidays with the family.
       Even the maids are then sent away, leaving the group of nine all to themselves. Soon enough, one of them is dead. But, in an intriguing whodunnit turn, the explanation is immediately at hand: Yohei tried to have his way with Chiyo -- not even that surprising, given how the Wada men are known for their excessive womanizing ways -- and she killed him in defending her honor:

Clearly the victim was dead and the assailant was safely in her mother's arms. Just as in some cheap thriller, the circumstances surrounding these events seemed obvious to everyone.
       The family immediately closes ranks, determined to see that Chiyo doesn't suffer for her crime. They realize they need to get her an alibi -- by having her return to Tokyo, in a way that suggests she left the house before Yohei died -- and then need to stage the scene so that it looks plausible that an outsider killed Yohei, and did so at least a few hours after the crime actually occurred.
       Staging the crime this way is not simple. They know enough about body temperature that it's important to keep the corpse cold, so that it doesn't begin to decompose as quickly as it would at room temperature, so they arrange for that. And they have to make it look like a stranger broke in, and stage a realistic scenario to get themselves some witnesses at the crucial times.
       Police detective Ukyo Nakazato leads the investigation, and is suspicious from the start. It doesn't really make much sense that a burglar would choose this time to break in -- the house stood empty most of the year -- and risk being seen, all for a relatively small haul. Still, the family staged the crime fairly well, and they're all sticking to the same story, so their version of events certainly looks plausible at first glance.
       Still, the police -- and especially the observant Nakazato -- find small discrepancies and clues that suggest a completely different scenario. Were the Wadas just careless in some of their staging, or is one of them actually trying to undo their plan, trying to ensure that the crime is uncovered ?
       The basic idea is a clever one, and it unfolds reasonably well -- though the cover-up and the un-cover-up seem all a bit too obviously mapped out. Some oddities of the investigation also give a forced feel to the story, as for example the police share way too much with the press, on a regular basis, rather than withholding crucial information and clues. (On the other hand, this means everyone pretty much always knows where they stand.) Superintendent Aiura, the head man who briefs the press, is presented as an almost ridiculously comic figure in how he changes his story every time, as new circumstances and evidence crop up.
       Nakazato reminds the family that Japanese inheritance law means that, under most circumstances, those who don't "bring charges or make accusations" if they know who the murderer is are also barred from inheriting ("these laws were apparently quite different from those in America", Jane realizes) -- trying to get someone to break ranks and speak up, and also providing further clues as to what really lies behind the crime.
       The premises of Murder at Mt. Fuji are clever, but Natsuki doesn't use her material to best advantage. The cover-up is both more cumbersome and unnatural than one would expect -- and the absence of emotional reactions from the family, despite the death of a loved (or, okay, not so-loved) one is also striking, especially since the family (and their guest) keep on living in the murder-scene house, as if that were totally normal. The outsider figure of Jane also isn't used to any particularly good effect.
       Murder at Mt. Fuji is satisfying in its twists but rather too plodding in its presentation, Natsuki not doing nearly enough with her characters. The basic scenario is excellent, and one can see why it has repeatedly been adapted for TV and film; the novel version is decent mystery read, but not much more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 December 2016

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Murder at Mt. Fuji: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese mystery author Natsuki Shizuko (夏樹静子) lived 1938 to 2016.

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