The Web of the Spider Woman

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The Web of the Spider Woman
Author: Natsuhiko Kyōgoku
Specifications: ISBN  978-4062735353
1408 pages
10.6 x 14.8 cm / 4.2 x 5.9 in (WxH)
Category: Fiction
Publisher: Kodansha Ltd.
Tokyo, 1996
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This is the fifth installment in author Natsuhiko Kyōgoku’s series of mystery novels and stories featuring master sleuth Akihiko Chūzenji, a.k.a. Kyōgokudō, who runs an antiquarian bookshop and is also an occultist. Beginning in 1994 with Ubume no natsu (tr. 2009 as The Summer of the Ubume), the series now runs to over a dozen volumes, including linked-story collections. The crimes Kyōgokudō solves invariably involve legendary supernatural creatures known as yōkai, which represent the mysterious forces that lurk in the deep, dark shadows of the human heart. Kyōgokudō’s friends—the novelist Tatsumi Sekiguchi, the private eye Reijirō Enokizu, and/or Detective Shūtarō Kiba of Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department CID I—are typically the ones who begin the investigations, but it takes Kyōgokudō stepping in later to finally break the case. Along the way he displays his vast knowledge of yōkai and of the many legends that surround them.

In late 1952 and early 1953, at a time when the scars of World War II have yet to fully heal in Japan, four women are killed in a series of murders spanning Tokyo and neighboring Chiba Prefecture. The victims range in age from their upper teens to their upper twenties, and in each case their eyes have been gouged out with a chisel. Although Yūkichi Hirano is initially identified as the prime suspect and gains the nickname of “Eye Gouger,” further leads appear to point instead toward multiple other suspects. But with these individuals lacking any personal motives for murder, attention turns toward a shadowy figure pulling the strings behind the scenes, and referred to as “the spider”.

Meanwhile, at the St. Bernard Catholic School for Girls on the Bōsō Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture, 13-year-old Miyuki Kure is utterly unprepared for what lies in store for her. She has heard rumors of a group at the school that worships a “Dark Madonna” and conducts Black Masses. The same group is said to be involved with prostitution and curse-killings. Now her best friend Sayoko is raped by a teacher named Honda. Sayoko determines to summon the powers of the Dark Madonna to kill Honda with a curse. But then she and Miyuki find Honda strangled to death on the roof of the school building. The shaken Sayoko attempts to kill herself by leaping from the roof right in front of Miyuki’s eyes. Miyuki passes out in shock. But when she comes to, she learns that things are not as she thought: Sayoko is alive, and it is another girl who has plummeted to her death. Miyuki is then locked up on suspicion of murdering both Honda and the other girl.

Enter Enokizu and his assistant, who have been hired to find a missing man named Sugiura, last seen on the Bōsō Peninsula; a short while later, leads in the “Eye Gouger” case bring Kiba and his CID I team to the school as well. Thanks to Enokizu’s efforts, Miyuki is cleared of the murder charges, but immediately thereafter Sayoko is found strangled to death. The strangler nabbed by Enokizu is none other than the missing Sugiura, wearing a mask of the Dark Madonna. As he drifted from one place to another after having a nervous breakdown, Sugiura had found his way to St. Bernard and taken a job as a custodian. Although he had liked Sayoko and had been the one who saved her from death by catching her when she threw herself from the roof, he had subsequently received orders from “the spider” and switched from being her savior to her killer.

Numerous parallels become apparent between the “Eye Gouger” murders and the deaths at St. Bernard, and the cases appear to be nearly mirror images of each other. But the lines linking victims, suspects, and killers are constructed in such a way that the identity of “the spider” remains unclear. Concluding that suspects and investigators alike have become puppets of the figure pulling the strings, Enokizu calls in Kyōgokudō to untangle the mysteries of the cases.

As the investigation proceeds, attention turns to the prominent local family that founded the school. The Orisaku family has had a matrilineal succession for many generations, with its daughters marrying “adopted husbands” who take the Orisaku family name. As it happens, the husbands have also all been relatively short-lived. Recently, eldest daughter Yukari and her father Yūnosuke died in unusual circumstances in quick succession, and there is reason to suspect that they were poisoned. Still living in the Spiderweb Mansion (as the dark, Western-style family home is known) are former matriarch Ioko, now in her late nineties; Yūnosuke’s widow Masako, the current family head; her second daughter Akane, 28, and her husband Koreaki; third daughter Aoi; and fourth daughter Midori, 13. Each of the women has her own distinctive appeal: the beautiful Masako exudes a cultivated grace and dignity; Akane is quiet and modest, deferential to all; the highly accomplished Aoi is active in efforts to expand women’s rights; and the fresh-faced Midori is a much-admired honor-roll student. Meanwhile, Akane’s husband Koreyuki cuts a less favorable figure: his business ventures fail, he has a roving eye, and he not only tyrannizes his wife but behaves highhandedly towards all. He also serves as chairman of the board at St. Bernard, where he ultimately falls victim to the strangler.

Kyōgokudō learns that young Midori, who is so highly regarded by both her teachers and her peers, is the one conducting the Black Masses and running a prostitution ring. But he also sees through to the fact that she is merely acting as the pawn of someone else. Midori flees to the chapel, where she encounters “Eye Gouger” Hirano hiding out and meets her demise. Hirano, who suffers from scopophobia (fear of being seen or stared at), has been assigned the role of killer by “the spider.” He is being harbored at the school by Aoi, but she, too, is being controlled by “the spider.”

The case is ultimately solved through exorcisms that Kyōgokudō performs on the suspects. All of the events can be traced back to internal strife within the Orisaku family. The family worships as its ancestral deity a god that manifests itself as a “spider woman” (jorōgumo) yōkai, and its matrilineal family precepts call for the matriarchs of each generation to actively seek out additional partners besides their husbands in producing descendants. Nocturnal assignations are officially sanctioned to ensure the continued prosperity of the Orisaku house. In Ioko’s time, however, her husband had objected, and her daughter’s husband Ihei had resisted the practice as well, threatening to undermine the longstanding power of the women in the family. It was in fact in an effort to put an end to the tradition of polyandry that Ihei had founded St. Bernard, and had used an incantation from Kabbalah teachings to seal off the sanctuary used for those assignations. The tradition has nevertheless passed down from Ioko to her daughter to Masako, and Masako’s four daughters all have different fathers. When the family servant who is Aoi’s biological father learns that Aoi has been harboring Hirano, he kills her. After rebuking him for overstepping his place—male parents have no rights with regard to their issue in this family—Masako kills him. Then she tells Akane she is turning the family over to her and takes her own life as well. The battle begun by Ioko to preserve the matrilineal bloodline and women’s control of the family appears to be over.

With characteristic incisiveness, Kyōgokudō pieces together what has actually happened: the quiet and unassuming Akane is “the spider.” While appearing to have nothing but altruistic motives, she has been cunningly manipulating the others to serve her own interests. Drawing on her pharmacological training, she personally poisoned both Yūnosuke and Yukari, but beyond that she had simply created an environment in which the others would self-destruct without her having to soil her own hands—all in order to make the Orisaku house her own.

“There’s nothing in this world that can’t be explained,” Kyōgokudō is in the habit of saying, and once again he has shown that all “coincidences” can be traced back to a single suspect. Everything that transpired has taken place according to her plan. Featuring a prominent old family trying to preserve its traditions, an elite school where there is more going on than meets the eye, and a cast of highly distinctive characters, the novel draws readers into a world all its own.