Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Stop the Clock


"I have succeeded in restoring the time."
" ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service")

So in the time between me reading this book and the review getting published, this book won the Honkaku Mystery Best 10 ranking of 2018!

In the Koikawa Shopping Arcade on the East exit of the Koikawa Station, there's a small watchmaker wedged between the butcher and the photo studio. Mitani Clockmakers is run by Mitani Tokino, a young woman in her twenties who learned the trade from her grandfather and has now inherited the shop from him. But Mitani Clockmakers isn't a normal clockmaker. Besides the normal services like selling and offering maintenance on clocks and other timepieces, Mitani Clockmakers also offers another, rather unique service. One day, a police detective walks into Mitani Clockmakers to have the battery in his watch replaced, but to his surprise, he spots a sign that says that the shop also offers an alibi cracking service. The detective inquires about the service, which according to Tokino was started by her grandfather, who was of the opinion that a clockmaker's work involved everything connected to a clock and time, and what is an alibi but a statement that someone was present or absent at a certain location at a certain time? As luck has it, the police detective is working on a case where the main suspect has a perfect alibi and intriqued by this unique service, he decides to consult Tokino on his case in Ooyama Seiichirou's short story collection Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service", 2018).

It was through the PSP game Trick X Logic that I first learned of the mystery writer Ooyama Seiichirou, as he was responsible for one of my favorite scenarios from the game. Some time later, I read Misshitsu Shuushuuka, an absolutely brilliant short story collection. What impressed me most about that collection was that Ooyama was a writer who was obviously writing in the Queen school, yet he was tackling the theme of locked room murders. These are two modes that you usually don't see together in mystery fiction, because it's prettty difficult coming up with locked room murders and other impossibilities, that are also solvable through the method of pure logical reasoning, which simply requires the reader to combine the known facts, make the logical conclusion from that combination, eliminate possibilities and identifying certain conditions which apply all to the murderer. Impossible crimes are usually focused on the how of an impossibility, while Ooyama focused much more on the logical processes required to solve the problems, resulting in one of my favorite reads of that year.

In a way, Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu feels quite similar to Misshitsu Shuushuuka in concept, as this too is a short story collection that focuses completely on one single theme from mystery fiction: in this case, the perfect alibi. An alibi can be a kind of an impossible crime, if you assume that the suspect is indeed the murderer, despite having a perfect alibi, but your mileage may vary on how impossible you think the impossibility really is. Anyway, I'm actually quite the fan of the perfect alibi story, and combined with Ooyama's plotting, I knew this book would be a must-read.

The opening story Tokeiya Tantei to Stalker no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Stalker") introduces the reader and the narrator and unnamed police detective to Mitani Clockmakers and their unique service. Curious to whether Tokino can really help out, the police detective confides in her about the case he's working on. Hamazawa Kyouko, a professor of the local university, was found murdered in her own apartment room by her sister. Her time of death is estimated based on the pictures of her lunch/snack/dinner she posted on Twitter during the day, and also medically confirmed, and suspicion soon falls on her ex-husband, who had been stalking Kyouko for money. He however has an alibi for the time of death, as he had been drinking with friends. The detective has only just finished his story, when Tokino immediately solves the case and explains how this perfect alibi of the ex-husband was created. The solution is quite original, yet convincing and also somewhat "modern", as it's partly based on foodie photographs posted on Twitter, but while it can difficult to come up with the idea of how this alibi was created, I think Ooyama did a good job at clewing, as some of them really seem obvious in hindsight.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Kyouki no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Murder Weapon"), the police detective decides to visit Mitani Clockmakers again, as this time, he has a problem that involves the alibi of a gun. A gun was found inside a mail box when the mail was collected at 15:00. It's suspected the gun has to do with the gang war going on between two gangs who have their headquarters near that mail box, but later an employee of a pharmaceutical company is found dead in his apartment, and while it seems he has no ties with organized crime, the bullets found on the scene and in his body matched those of the gun found in the mail box. Eventually, suspicion falls on the victim's superior, who does seem to have a connection with the local gangs, but he has an alibi for the time: he was having a family gathering with his cousins at the time the victim was killed and the gun was thrown in the mail box. The solution Tokino explains is quite brilliant for creating this seemingly impossible situation. The actual clewing is a bit on the weak side, so it kinda expects the reader to just guess what happened, but the solution is quite complex, and one I could even see expanded into a full novel.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Shisha no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Dead"), the narrator has a rather nasty experience: one night, he was just out on a stroll, when he was almost hit by a drunken driver. Another man was less fortunate, and hit by the car. But in his dying breath, he confessed to the narrator that he had just committed a murder on a certain Nakajima Kasumi. Having been told the address of the victim, the narrator quickly notified his collegues, who indeed discovered a body inside the appartment of the victim. With a confession of the murderer himself, the case seems all wrapped up, until the police realizes that the man, who was a mystery writer specializing in alibi tricks, couldn't be the murderer, as it was impossible for him to commit the murder, and then made it back in time near his own home get hit by the car and die. The concept of a deceased person who himself confessed to the murder still having a perfect alibi is fun on its own, but it's the decisive hint to the solution that impresses the most, as it is absolutely brilliant and incredibly cleverly hidden: it's this kind of hint I love being fooled by!  In hindsight, there's not just a "decisive" hint, but a lot of hints that point to the major realization you should make, but Ooyama's done an ace job at hiding the clews in plain sight, and this is definitely one of the hightlights of the collection.

Tokino is asked to find an alibi in Tokeiya Tantei to Ushinawareta Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Lost Alibi") rather than breaking one. Kawaya Toshiko was a private piano teacher, who was found beaten and strangled to death in her own apartment room. The main suspect is her younger sister, with whom she was having an argument about selling the parental home they had inherited together (where the younger sister is still living). She however reluctantly confesses to the police she has no alibi for the murder, saying she was probably not only asleep, but even sleepwalking during the time of the murder. The narrator does not believe the younger sister did it, so this time, Tokino has to come up with an alibi. While this is still about alibis, the search for an alibi, and in extension, the identity of the real murderer, is a welcome shift in style. This solution is a bit hard to swallow, though admittedly more than adequately hinted at (the question lies more in whether that really could've been pulled off). Once you make a guess who the murderer is based on the very limited cast though, it becomes very easy to guess what they did to create their alibi.

Tokeiya Tantei to Ojiisan no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of Grandfather") is a cute story in which Tokino tells about her grandfather and how he trained her in alibi cracking when she was young. One day, he had a challenge for her. The shop's closed on Tuesday, so he would go out that day, but he would come and stop a certain clock in the shop at a certain time (while Tokino was upstairs doing her homework). However, he would also submit evidence he was elsewhere. And that Tuesday, the clock was indeed stopped, yet Tokino's grandfather also had some photographs developed that proved he was at the clock wall in the neighboring town around the same time. Tokino's guesses are quickly elimated one by one, as the roll of film was proven to be definitely of that day (because they celebrated her grandfather's birthday the day before and photographs had been taken on the same roll, and on the clock photograph, he was wearing the handkerchief he was given as a present by Tokino herself). The solution is very different from the kind of solutions in the earlier stories, which is pretty smart: usually it might be easy to think of this particular solution, but this one is almost so simply you're likely to overlook this one due to the complexity of earlier stories!

Tokeiya Tantei to Sansou no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi in the Mountain Lodge") has the narrator hurrying back from a holiday to Mitani Clockmakers, as he wants Tokino to save a boy. The police detective was forced to use up his free days, so he had gone to a ski hostel in the mountains. There he became friends with a fellow guest, a boy in junior high who wanted to become a police detective himself. On the first night, another guest was murdered in the annex clock tower of the hostel, with footprints left in the snow proving that the victim had first gone to the clock tower, later followed by the murderer who returned to the hostel. The police detective himself had been a witness, together with the boy who was visiting him in his room, of how the victim had gone out to the clock tower late at night, but subsequent police investigation show that nobody could've followed the victim at the estimate time of the murder, save for the boy after he had left the room of the detective. What follows is a story is that is the most like the Queen-like stories of Ooyama, as the solution is based on the interpreation of the physical clues (the footprints). There's a nice reversal at play too, where after a certain realization is made, the matter of the alibis is turned completely around.

Tokeiya Tantei to Download no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Download") is perhaps the most "modern" of stories I've read in a long time. The narrator is working on the murder of Tomioka Shinji, a wealthy man, who himself turns out to be a murderer, as a few months after his murder, a skeleton was found buried in his garden. The skeleton is identified as the body of Wada Yuuichirou, an employee of Tomioka who disappeared some years ago. He was suspected to have fled because of embezzlement, but the discovery of his body on Tomioka's premises means he was likely killed to take the blame for Tomioka's crimes. The suspicion of the murder of Tomioka therefore falls on the son of Wada. The murder happened a few months ago on the sixth of December, but Wada remembers he had a friend come over to his room that night to play videogames. The friend is not sure about the exact date, though he knows he was there early December. Eventually, Wada manages to present an alibi: he downloaded a new song by a famous artist, which was only distributed on the sixth of December. It was a limited event and his friend saw both the download screen on Wada's smartphone, and even listened to the song, so that seems to prove Wada's alibi for the sixth of December, but of course, Tokino manages to poke a hole in his story. I think this is the first time I read a story where downloading something becomes an alibi, and I had a lot of fun with it! It's such a normal action in this time and age, and yet it's not something you often see in mystery fictoin, and the way it's used here is perfectly believable. The concept behind how this alibi was set-up is a bit tricky, as it depends heavily on a certain person not doing a certain thing, which is really something you can't control, but I do really like the way it was set-up.

Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu therefore ends up as an excellent short story collection that really delves into the theme of cracking the perfect alibi. There's quite some variety to be found within these seven stories and while the standard is quite high overall, there are some stories that really stand out due to their unique clewing or concepts. Misshitsu Shuushuuka didn't get a sequel, but I hope at least we'll see more of Tokino and Mitani Clockmakers in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎 『アリバイ崩し承ります』:「時計屋探偵とストーカーのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と凶器のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と死者のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と失われたアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とお祖父さんのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と山荘のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とダウンロードのアリバイ」

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writ in Stone

"Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

I was always more a fan of the ancient or classic cultures in my History class, or at least the pre-modern periods. 

Three years ago, I reviewed the manga Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure, published by the British Museum. It was the first time Hoshino Yukinobu's Professor Munakata series was released in English. The titular character is a professor in Anthropology at Tokyo's Toa Bunka University, whose research interests lie the link between legends, myths and other folklore, and actual historical events. I absolutely loved the book: Hoshino is best known for his (hard) science fiction series, but in this volume, he really managed to beautifully mix real historical and anthropological research with his own original storyline, resulting in a suspenseful historical mystery tale about the British Museum and Stonehenge. At the end of my review, I concluded I wanted to read more of the series, as Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure was actually one of the last stories published in Japan and part of the second Professor Munakata series: so there was still a lot to read. For some reason though, it took me until to actually get started on the series properly. And that of course means starting with the beginning, with the original series. Professor Munakata was first introduced to the world in 1990 in the two-part opening story The White Wings - The Iron Star in Munakata Kyouju Denkikou ("Professor Munakata's Adventures"). After a lecture at the university about the myth of the Swan Maiden and how variants of this very myth exists in various ancient cultures, from the Ancient Greeks all the way to Japan, the professor is visited by Ikago Mana, one of his students. She has brought her parents along, who want to show the professor a ceremonial sword which was discovered in the little shrine in their home village near Izumo. Professor Munakata is incredibly surprised by the object, and especially by the engraving of a certain constellation in the blade. Realizing that this sword is also related to the myth of the Swan Maiden, he returns with Mana and her parents to the village for some fieldwork, and the discovery he makes there will change the professor's life forever.

To make one thing clear from the start, not all of the Professor Munakata series can be considered a mystery story within the context of the blog. All the stories in this series do pertain to folklore and other historical mysteries which Munakata uncovers or delves deeper into, but few of the stories are told in the manner of a true puzzle plot mystery (mystery -> hints -> solution based on hints) and some of the stories even feature almost supernatural conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. That said though, the series is absolutely fantastic, as Hoshino's gripping storytelling is top-notch, and the way he intertwines real folklore research with his own original adventures is absolutely a delight. Some of the earlier stories for example involve the legends of Chiyou, the Daidara and the legendary spider Ryomen Sukuna, which Hoshino (Munakata) explores through both actual anthropological research that is both fascinating and educational, as well as his own original plots. For fans of actual historical mysteries, this series is definitely a must-read.

Occasionally, though, the stories are told in a more traditional puzzle plot format. This is definitely the case with the series opening story. Even though it involves a topic you seldom see in "conventional" mystery fiction (the meaning behind the Swan Maiden) and there is no proper crime in this story either, I have to say that The White Wings - The Iron Star is truly a well-clewed historical mystery story that does a good job at allowing the reader to arrive at the hypothesis Professor Munakata himself arrives at at the end of the story. After the professor's arrival in the village, he is shown several sites that might have bearing to his research, like the shrine where the sword was found, as well as a dried-up lake of which the name also carries a reference to swans. After a fascinating explanation of how his research involves how this proto-myth is to be found across several cultures all across Eurasia, we are introduced to a rival TV anthropologist, who has drawn his own conclusions about the discoveries made in the village and is preparing for a new show. By this time, the mystery of "what needs to be solved" might still be somewhat vague to the reader, though they definitely have access to the clues and can even already connect some of them. It's only after a certain frightful event in the night that not only Munakata, but also the reader can suddenly see how everything that happened and was mentioned throughout the story is connected.

It is not difficult for a historical mystery to become too complex for a reader to solve themselves. Any mystery story needs to provide the proper context in order to be solvable, and in the case of a historical mystery, you need to balance providing enough of the necessary context without resorting to information overload, all without burdening, or underselling the core mystery story. Which is exactly why I thought The White Wings - The Iron Star was such an exceptional historical mystery story. While some readers might know a variant of the Swan Maiden myth, it's unlikely the reader is an expert on all the variants that exists in various cultures. That coupled with the (fictional) historical artifacts found in the village and even a rival "detective" who forms his own hypothesis, you'd think the reader is at a huge disadvantage, but they really aren't. In the end, professor Munakata proposes a daring hypothesis that ties all the discoveries made in the village to the lecture on the Swan Maiden he made earlier and not only is it a fair hypothesis (solely based on the clues proposed in the story), the reader has plenty of chance to arrive at this conclusion themselves, as everything shown and told in the story logically leads to this hypothesis. There's even proper visual clewing going around that helps professor Munakata and the reader in figuring out the function of some of the discoveries made in the village, and at the end, this story really makes the reader feel like they have solved a millenia-old mystery themselves.

So while not all of Professor Munakata's stories lend them well for discussion on this blog, I think the first story is definitely a fine example of how to do an excellent historical mystery story that not only attempts to reinterpret folklore, legends and myths from across the world as actual historical events, but also using a grammar that sets its firmly in the puzzle plot mystery genre, following a set-up of proper clewing that allows the reader to reach the intended conclusion themselves in a fair manner. As for now, I have immense fun with this series (still not finished), and if more stories follow that adher more closely to a traditional mystery story, I'll be sure to follow up with another story review.

Original Japanese title(s): 星野之宣『宗像教授伝奇考1 白き翼 黒鉄の星』

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Springtime Crime

「籟・来・也」(Garnet Crow)

Spring has spring's way to live
Summer has summer's wind blowing
"Rai Rai Ya" (Garnet Crow)

Now I think about it, this is the first time I read a book in the long-running Hayakawa Pocket Mystery Book line of publisher Hayakawa. It's a line for translated (non-Japanese) novels, so in a way, it's no wonder it took a while for me to finally try one of these books (because for many of their books, I can read the original language), but these PokeMys books always caught my attention when I was Japan, as they utilize a very different size format from most other Japanese fiction publications.

'Tis the first of year of the Tianhan Era (100BC) of China's Former Han Dynasty. Yuling Ku, daughter of an aristocratic family in Chang'an, is travelling across China for her studies in literature and religious rituals and finds herself becoming a house guest of the Guan clan, so she can witness their Rite of Spring which is to be held in a few days. The Guan clan used to be a prominent family with religious tasks in the State of Chu (of the Zhou dynasty, over 100 years earlier) and while even in this new age, they can still proudly boast about their distinguished lineage, the Guans now live a retreated life in the mountains. Ku becomes friends with Guan Loushen, youngest daughter of the Guans, even if Loushen can't always keep up with or forgive Ku's arrogant and mocking attitude, derived from all the knowledge Ku obtained through her studies. Ku learns about a family tragedy that happened exactly four years ago: Loushen's uncle was the head of the whole clan, but his whole family was killed by an unknown assailant, save for daughter Ruoying, who was at Loushen's place at the time. What made the incident so horrifying was that there were no footprints of the assailant found in the snow surrounding the house. Ku, who has a reputation for solving cases, promptly comes up with several theories to this mystery, which Loushen doesn't accept, but soon the two girls are forced to face not a case of the past, but one of the present too. One morning, after the two return from washing their hair in the river, the girls discover the dead body of Loushen's (other) aunt in a storage house. But it soon occurs to Ku that this murder has some similiarities to the family massacre four years ago, as here too it seems impossible for the murderer to have escaped, with people standing at all the possible escape routes leading away the storage. Ku is asked by Loushen's father to investigate the case, but time is not on Ku's side, as more and more people die one by one in the mountains in Lu Qiucha's Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji ("Rite of Spring of the First Year", 2016), which was released in Japan last year as Gannen Haru no Matsuri.

Lu Qiucha is a Chinese mystery author who debuted with Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji in 2016. He is one of the generation that has been influenced by Japanese shin honkaku writers, naming writers like Mitsuda Shinzou as large influences on his own work. When the novel was translated and released in Japan as Gannen Haru no Matsuri last year, the book garnered quite some critical praise, and even Mitsuda Shinzou himself wrote a comment especially for the book's obi, praising the work. The concept of an impossible mystery set in ancient China with two girl detectives sounded quite interesting to me and a copy was soon purchased.

If I say "a mystery novel set in ancient China", you're likely to first think of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee series. If you start with this book expecting something like the Judge Dee series however, you might be surprised in either a pleasant or unpleasant way, as Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is quite, quite different. Of course, one major difference is the time period. The Judge Dee series takes place in the Tang Dynasty (with some Ming anachronisms), which is almost 800 years after the time period of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. In the same sense that a novel set in the 1200s is not likely to be very similar to a novel set in the 2000s, you shouldn't expect too many common points in the culture, even if it's the same geographic location.

If you have read the Judge Dee series, you might know that series is very readable, despite the setting of ancient China, which to most people will be quite foreign. There are of course historical references and the cultural differences might feel large at times, but Van Gulik wrote these novels in an accessible manner. Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is both a novel of contemporary times, as one that really feels like a story of ancient China. To start with the modern: Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is easily interpreted as a YA coming-of-age and budding-friendship story starring the two girls Ku and Loushen. Sure, the banter and fights they have might be about topics somewhat foreign to most readers, like about abusing personal servants or about the tasks and duties expected from devoted girls as daughters of families of certain social standing, but the way they banter feels like a modern YA novel. Heck, I'd say this novel is also the most yuri mystery novel I've read, with both Ku and Loushen being bad at approaching the other in a normal manner and then growing very close. At the same time however Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji also reads as a classic Chinese novel. Half of the dialogues are about classic Chinese texts on religion and philosophy, and I'm talking here about texts that were considered classics in 100 BC! As an educated girl, Ku discusses several important philosophical texts from the Chu era with other characters, which is also the moment you realize what author Lu Qiucha's major was in college (yes, classic literature). Here you're reminded of second wavers like Mori Hiroshi and Kyougoku Natsuhiko, who in their mystery novels also like to dive deep into long, very, very long discussions about very specific topics in fields like philosophy and religion. In Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji, you'll be going through countless of pages where they talk indepth about classic texts and where people quote-unquote other texts as they counter each other's arguments. It's very much like a classic Chinese story where like every other sentence is a reference or quote to someone in the past, but it's certainly not for everyone.

And yet you can't skip those segments, because they are of vital importance to the core mystery plot. Lu Qiucha was pretty ambitious in his debut novel: besides the impossible situation four years ago, he has more murders in the present, one of which also a semi-impossible situation where it doesn't seem possible for the murderer to have left the crime scene unseen, and we also have a dying message in another murder (and there's plenty of other deaths too...). Lu even has two Challenges to the Reader in this novel. Some of the individual parts are somewhat easy to guess: the family massacre four years ago for example is rather obvious, and the other impossible situation too is also rather limited in scope. The dying message on the other hand is really brilliantly done, and one of the false solutions proposed half-way through is also deviously complex and could've easily served as the true solution. However: these best parts of the book all require you to really comprehend all those literary and philosophical discussions about classic texts. I will first say that Lu is absolutely right in his Challenges to the Reader when he says no specialistic, prior knowledge is needed to solve the mystery, because he made sure that everything needed to connect the dots is mentioned within the story, but yeah, you do really go through those lengthy literary and philosophic discussions in detail and comprehend them well enough to infer their logical conclusion in order to make sense out of the dying message, or come up with that one interpretation needed for the false solution.

What makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji a very memorable novel however, is the insanely unique motive. I can't write too much about it, but it is a motive that only could've worked in this culture, in this time. It would have been hard for any random reader to just think of this motive, but again, I had to say that Lu makes tremendous efforts at properly hinting at this motive through his textual references and discussions, and while it's a concept that seems so foreign at one hand, the whole story of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji works to properly set-up this reveal. It's a completely unthinkable motive in this age, in most cultures, I'd suspect, but Lu provides the necessary context to make it work, and it definitely works like a charm, shocking as it may be, in Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. The motive is definitely the highlight of the novel and one of the most unique ones in the genre, anywhere on the world.

And in a small note, I would've liked a map! It's not necessary for the story, I admit, but some parts would've come out better I think, especially regarding the testimony of a certain witness. As the story is set around the Guan property, which consists only of several living quarters in a valley between some mountains, it would not only have made for a cool diagram, it would've helped with visualizing some of the movements of characters (as some grasp on where everybody was when exactly does help solve the mystery).

I still find it hard to really summarize what I think of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. While you can read large parts of this novel as a YA novel about a troubled friendship between two teenage girls, on te whole, it's not a very accessible mystery novel with all its indepth discussions about topics that are likely not familiar to most readers. The cultural gap is quite large, especially in the first half of the story when things move rather slowly. But what makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji an interesting read are exactly the ideas that originate from that cultural gap. Lu has written a mystery novel that works only because it's set in the first year of the Tianhan Era, because it's set in that specific culture with these specific characters. The result is a mystery novel that is not only "dressed" as ancient China, but truly a puzzle plot mystery that is firmly set in ancient China. The motive in particular is a very memorable one, but it would only work in this setting. So I can definitely recommend Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji as a unique reading experience.

Original Chinese title(s): 陸秋槎 "元年春之祭"

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Running to Horizon

走る走る俺たち 流れる汗もそのままに  
いつかたどり着いたら 君にうちあけられるだろ 
「Runner」 (爆風スランプ)

We run, we run, with sweat pouring down
But when I finally make it there, I will be able to confess to you
"Runner" (Bakufu Slump)

Every year, I try to read at least one mystery set in the city of Fukuoka, so why not start this new year with one?

The Fukuoka International Open Marathon is one of the oldest annual marathons held in Japan and its position in the world of athletics is therefore quite important. The sixty-first edition of this race however has an extra bit of glamour to it: the Fukuoka Marathon is the first of three marathons held in 2007 in Japan which will determine which athletes will be sent as the national representatives in the Beijing Olympics the following year. Victory at one of these marathons, or at least the best result among the Japanese participants, more or less guarantees you'll be picked as a member of the Olympic team. But while there are certainly participants who are competing for that ticket, it's also true that every single partipant in this race has their own goals. Some of the professionals are not only aiming for a ticket, but perhaps for a personal or even a national record time. The foreign guest runners too are eager to finish in first place in this prestigious race. But there are also amateur runners who simply want to experience what it is run a full marathon, while others participate to prove a point to someone. Everyone has their own goals and designs as they make their way to the goal, but some runners have far more complex and sinister plans in mind as they speed through the streets of Fukuoka and with all these dreams and schemes bunched together, it was only a matter of time before one star runner would become the victim of a sinister plot and die. The questions of what the truth behind this runner's death is and what is everything hoping to accomplish is what drives Torikai Hiu's Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo ("The Fierce Race - The Fukuoka International Marathon: The 42.195 km-long Mystery", 2005). The book was later retitled to the shorter Gekisou when it was released in pocket format.

I'm the first to admit I'm not a sports viewer at all in real life, but the Fukuoka International Open Marathon is one of the few big sports events I saw with my own eyes: I was living in the neighborhood Kashii in Fukuoka at the time, and the Miyuki Bus Stop near the two Kashii stations is the turning point of the marathon somewhere beyond the 30 kilometer point, after which the runners run back to the Heiwadai Stadium near Ohori Park. My dorm was only a 5-10 minute walk away from the Miyuki Bus Stop, so I caught a bit of the race back then. My knowledge that this book would likely refer (even if very short) to the neighborhood I knew was a reason I really wanted to read this novel. Of course, as the marathon route goes through the whole of Fukuoka, most of the locations mentioned were somewhat familiar to me.

I've seen Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon referred to as both a sports novel with a mystery element, and a mystery novel with a sports element, and both descriptions could work, depending on where the reader puts emphasis on. There is a properly clewed mystery plot here, but one has to admit that if you didn't know this was a mystery novel, you probably wouldn't notice it until extremely late in the novel and the novel's first impression is certainly that of a sports novel. The whole story is set during the Fukuoka Marathon, from the start until the finish, with each section counting off the number of kilometers left until the goal. The plot follows an ensemble cast of people partipicating in the race, but also a few outside the race. We get a glimpse in the minds of the three star runners Ogasawara, Nikaidou and Taniguchi for example, who all compete for a ticket to the Olympics, but also other runners in the race like one of three pacemakers in the race, as well as a runner who is competing for a ticket to the Beijing Paralympics. Outside the runners we also follow people like the police officer on the motorcycle leading the pack. All of these people have different things on their mind as the race continues, and the further we get, the more we learn about their pasts, their dreams and what they hope to accomplish in this race. It's also here where you slowly realize that some of these people are trying more than just win the race. Overall though, I'd say this novel is an entertaining read as a sports novel, diving into the heads of the diverse lot as they make their way through Fukuoka.

It takes a long time before something happens that one would associate with the mystery genre. It's only around the halfway point when one of the runners suddenly keels over while getting his drink and dies in the ambulance. Death during a marathon isn't unheard of, of course, considering the physical strain it places on the body of the participants, but the motorcycle police officer leading the pack still thinks something fishy is going on. The truth behind this part of the mystery isn't super original and this part is a bit short (as the sections with the officer's thoughts are constantly cut off by the narratives of the other cast members), but it is definitely cleverly clewed, with the hints nicely hidden within the various narratives. Had this been the only mystery element, Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon would have been a somewhat weak novel, but Torikai manages to much more with this novel. The problem: I can't write about it, as that would really give the game away. Let's say that once you reach the finish, some events and narratives that occured during the last two hours of the race take on a completely different meaning. Something big is going on and it happens under the nose of the reader. In hindsight, this is also properly hinted at and realizing how much of the various events that occured over the last 42 kilometres were in fact clues and foreshadowing is quite satisfying. So as a mystery novel, the set-up takes a long time, but I am quite pleased with the pay-off, even if you won't even realize that something is going on.

I have to admit I haven't read many sports mystery titles, but I do think this one stands out. Detective Conan has several sports-themed stories, but most of them are about bombs for some reason, and they happen outside the match themselves, with Conan having to trace bombs placed around a stadium or something like that, with the actual athletes having little direct connection to that (they usually have to do *something* to help Conan, but even then the focus doesn't lie on them). Examples would be the London story in volumes 71-72 for example, or the film The Eleventh Striker. Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter takes the form of a traditional sports film too, complete with training scenes, and is perhaps one of the best sports stories in Conan, even if it features a minor sport like competitive karuta. Queen has a few short stories too in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen I remember. What makes Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon so remarkable however is the plot truly revolves around the marathon and the various interested parties, and that the whole plot takes place over the course of the race itself, and we don't see anything before or after the race itself.

So Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo was an entertaining novel that does a good job at bringing both a sports and mystery story. If you're looking for a mystery plot however, you do need to have patience, as it takes a while to get there and it's more one of those mystery novels that you only realize is actually a properly clewed mystery novel in hindsight. If you do manage to keep up with the pace however, you're in for a short, but engaging read.

Original Japanese title(s): 鳥飼否宇『激走 福岡国際マラソン 42.195キロの謎』

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Turnabout Memories - Part 8

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"

Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Like always, I am wrapping up this year with a short overview of the posts of 2018 that stood out most in my mind. At least, as far as I can still remember them. And yeah, because of the way I schedule my posts way ahead in time, that means some of these titles mentioned I already read in 2017, and that the reviews of some of the better reads I have read in 2018, won't be posted here until in 2019. Timey-wimey stuff. And as I don't really like to make lists, there's actually not that much thought going into this post, as I just make up categories as I go along and write down the titles that sorta stuck in my head. Unlike previous years, there's no new Detective Conan volume released at the end of the year, so this will really be the last of the year! That said, I already have my reviews for the coming months all lined up, so next week, same Bat-Day-of-the-week, same Bat-Channel, there'll be the usual review. Hope to see you too in the new year!

Most Impressive Cover! Seen in 2018!
Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter

Wasn't a big fan of Unno Juuza's Hae Otoko ("The Human Fly"), but man, that cover was awesome!  I also have a weakness for the cover of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") (there's something uncanny about the art) and I absolutely adore the vivid use of colors of the covers of Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder") and the two Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner") volumes I reviewed this year. But I think the cover of Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter, the novel version of the 2017 Detective Conan film based on Ookura's original version of the screenplay, stuck with me the most. What I like about this cover is that it's of course super adorable, but also because it features art that's not like the usual Detective Conan art. Everyone knows how Detective Conan looks like in terms of artstyle, so it's cool to see a completely different take on the characters, in a style you seldom see on covers of mystery novels anyway.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The 8 Mansion Murders

Okay, like last year, it's not like there's much competition here, but I'm personally also quite pleased that I was able to translate Abiko's debut novel for Locked Room International. In 2015, I was able to work on Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, followed in 2016 LRI's release of Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle. 2017 was a step back in time with Osaka's short story collection The Ginza Ghost, but 2018 was another example of early shin honkaku mystery. What I especially like about this novel that it's easily the funniest novel I've worked on until now, and it's also a work that is so clearly a work by Abiko: if you've read other works by him, you'll immediately recognize his style of comedy. Publishers Weekly not only deemed it "one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years," but even elected it as one of the best mysteries released in 2018 in their Best Books 2018, which is of course something I hadn't expected at all.

Best Mystery Movie/TV series/other linear audiovisual media! Of 2018!
Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") (Detective Conan episodes 603-605)

Some heavy competition here.  I also saw some minor Agatha Christie adaptations which were not that special, but also an insanely fun adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as Mitani Kouki's TV special Kuroido Goroshi ("The Murder of Kuroido") went far beyond my expectations as an adaptation of a notoriously difficult-to-adapt novel. The annual Detective Conan movie, Zero the Enforcer, is not really a contender as its rather light on the mystery element, but I have reviewed several episodes of the animated TV series written by screenplay writer/storyboarder/director Ochi Hirohito which were excellent. Both Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") were both absolutely stunning as locked room mysteries, with the former was better suited for the visual format, I think. In the end, I have to say the latter was the best however, as it made use of its longer runtime to present a larger story, that not only built on the themes explored in Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, but went even further.

Best Premise! Of 2018!
Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead")

With premise, I mean the basic setting/idea on which the whole plot is built. And I came across a few interesting concepts this year. I really liked Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll ("End Credits of Fools") for example, which came up with a good idea that allowed normal school students to work on a locked room murder (they had to come up with the solution for an unfinished mystery movie). Ashibe Taku's novel Double Mystery made brilliant use of the format of the novel, with a book that you could start reading at either end, and with a set of sealed pages in the middle. Chan Ho-Kei's The Borrowed (org. title: 13.67) was an interesting trip back in time, as you went back in time in Hong Kong's history with each following story, and the temporal changes were always clearly present in the story. But in the end, I have to go with Shijinsou no Satsujin, because it's a premise that is simple, but also so alluring and you immediately start wondering about all that could be possible the moment the idea is mentioned. Because who wouldn't like a fair play puzzle plot locked room mystery that is set during a zombie outbreak?

Best Non-Mystery! Of 2018!
Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar")

Not a really fair one perhaps, as I only reviewed two non-primary sources on mystery this year. 21 Seiki Honkaku Mystery Eizou Taizen ("The Encyclopedia of 21st Century Honkaku Mystery Video") was an informative guide on (mostly) Japanese mystery productions for TV and film (both live-action and anmated). It was a comprehensive guide, but the quality of the seperate entries could differ widely. Fukui's Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi however is the seminal work on the topic of mystery manga, offering a staggering overview of the many, many, many mystery manga that have been published since World War II in Japan, all placed within the proper historical and publication context. Anyone interested in mystery manga as a genre must read this.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2018!
Glasses in mystery fiction

Did anyone notice I wrote a lot more editorials this year? Of course, usually I only write like one or two of them a year, so it's not that difficult to write a lot more than usual, but still... Most of them were about minor topics of course, like physical books versus e-books, or novels versus short stories (why am I only looking for confrontations?). I was also happy with the one about floorplans/diagrams, as usually I don't really have visual-oriented posts and I think the one about mystery-related merchandise was fairly unique too. But the one I actually thought about before writing, was the one about the various ways in which a pair of glasses can feature in a mystery story. Considering nobody commented on it, I assume it's also a very self-indulging topic, but still, as someone who loves his stories about physical clues, I really enjoyed looking at a specific item in mystery fiction that isn't even a murder weapon!

Best Plotted Mystery! in 2018!
Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless")

The buzzword on this blog this year was synergy. I first used the word consciously in my review for Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") to describe the incredible feat Mitsuda had done in this novel: while every problem in the novel, from the mysterious decapitations to the impossible disappearance, could be related back to one single underlying theme that explained all, Mitsuda had not only created several diverse applications of that theme, he had also managed to make sure that each iteration and element in the book was there not just to make the story longer, but most importantly, they were there to help strengthen the other parts. Each element in the book had several reasons why it was included, and each of those reasons basically came down to making this a better mystery novel by strengthening all the other elements. Later in the year I also read Mitsuda's Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend"), which did a similar thing, and Ochi's screenplay for Detective Conan Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") is also an excellent example of having various elements that aren't just there to have a longer story, but there to help strengthen and improve the overall mystery plot. In the end, I still think that the first novel that got me thinking about synergy in mystery fiction, is still the best example of how to really plot an interconnected mystery plot where you really can understand why each element is there and how it relates to the rest of the story.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2018! But Probably Older!
Detective Pikachu

Okay, to be honest, I didn't play that many outstanding mystery games this year. I played some minor releases, like Buddy Collection and Kiss of Murder, which were okay, but no more than that. Of the major releases, Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes") was overall disappointing as 75% of that game was just a rerelease of older material with a new coat of paint, while the prequel spin-off Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz could've used a bit more of brushing up in regards of storytelling. WorldEnd Syndrome was an interesting, and amusing mystery game, but it wasn't the type of story that really had you as the player actively investigating a case yourself. I didn't review L.A. Noire on the blog, which I did play this year, and while it has some interesting segments and ideas as a mystery game, it's also fault-ridden as it doesn't really knows what it wants to be in terms of both story and game. Detective Pikachu however was so much fun. Yes, it's a fairly simple adventure game, but the way it utilizes Pokémon and their unique abilities to create new types of mystery problems was both original and inspired and I had a blast start to finish. The new live-action film based on Detective Pikachu however.... that's going into Uncanny Valley material.

To name a few other non-mystery games that were great this year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has to be named of course, and I also had fun with the miniature garden puzzler Captain Toad. I also enjoyed the sound novel Okuri'inu, which was created by the writer of one of the greatest horror novel games ever, Gakkou de Atta Kowai Hanashi. And Ryuu ga Gotoku Kenzan! was absolutely fun as a Yakuza game starring Musashi Miyamoto!

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List 
- Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") (Imamura Masahiro)
- Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- 13-Ninme no Tanteishi ("The 13th Detective") (Yamaguchi Masaya)
- Meitantei Pikachu (Detective Pikachu)
- Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
- The Borrowed (org. title: 13.67) (Chan Ho-Kei)
- Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 3 - Routarou ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny - Mr. Wax") (Nemoto Shou)
- Youtou S79-Gou ("Phantom Thief S79") (Awasaka Tsumao)
- Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") (Detective Conan episode 187)

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Raven Chaser


"Saburou, nurture the Tree of Knowledge"
"Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz"

Last review of the year (not the last post)!

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS]
18: Prism of Eyes (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

00: Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006)
A Bright Future (2007)

It was only a full month after the death of Jinguuji Kyousuke that his grandson Saburou learned of the death of his beloved grandfather, and to his utter shock, he also found out Kyousuke had been murdered. Kyousuke had been considered the black sheep of the Jinguuji clan, head of the Jinguuji Konzern, as he had moved away from Japan to New York in his younger days to escape the power struggles within his family. In New York, Kyousuke had become a well-respected and much loved private detective. Saburou suspects his grandfather's murder may have to do with his job, so he decides to fly off to New York to find out why his grandfather was killed. In New York, he is reunited with old friends he met at summer camp when he was a kid, but also with new allies, like Kyousuke's assistant Dan and police detectives Joshua and Hal. As Saburou learns more about the life his grandfather had in New York, he also stumbles upon the last case his grandfather was working on, which may have led to his death.  With the words "Daedalus" and "The Cursed Town" as his only clues, Saburou sets out to find the murderer of his grandfather in the 2018 Switch/PS4 videogame Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz?

The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series (also known as the Jake Hunter series) is a long-running mystery adventure game series which started in 1987 with the Famicom Disk System videogame Shinjuku Chuuou Kouen Satsujin Jiken ("The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case"). The series revolves around the titular Jinguuji Saburou, a private detective who operates from Shinjuku, Tokyo. With the support of his assistant Youko, Inspector Kumano of the Yodobashi Police Station and other friends, Jinguuji has managed to solve many, many cases over the course of thirty years of game history. The hardboiled crime stories often have a focus on human drama and lean towards the social school of mystery, but will also occasionally feature puzzle plot mysteries and other classic tropes, resulting in a very eclectic form that at least greatly entertains me. The most recent game in this series is Prism of Eyes, which I reviewed in August of this year.

But before the release of Prism of Eyes, it was already announced that we'd see another entry of this series soon, though in a completely different form. Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is the first prequel/spin-off game the series has seen in its more than thirty years old history, and is set about 10 years before the main series, portraying a younger Jinguuji Saburou as a student, long before he became the ever-smoking private detective we know of the other games. From earlier games, we knew he had taken after his grandfather and that like his grandfather, he had also lived in the United States and that during his time in New York, he had first met his future assistant Misono Youko as both got involved in a certain case (as mentioned in the PSX entry Yume no Owari ni), but we never got any details about this past. Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, which is written by the same scenario writer as of Yume no Owari ni, gives us the details of Saburou's time in New York.

Why Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is touted as a spin-off title rather than as the newest numbered entry in the main series, becomes obvious the moment you look at the game. It looks nothing at all like the previous games. Sure, the character designs are always different each game, and I really like the character designs this time. But gone are the old-fashioned commands like "Look" or "Talk" which you use to interact with static screens featuring static characters, as now each location is depicted as a 360 degrees panorama picture. It's pretty to nice to actually be able to move the camera now and look all around you. Instead of choosing the "Look" command, followed by "Telephone" like in all the previous games, you can now directly move the camera towards the telephone and select it to interact with it. Functionally, it works actually precisely the same as in the old games, but it certainly looks flashier. (If you're thinking of Sherlock because of the floating text: Sherlock takes a lot of cues from game grammar). I guess the idea is that these changes allow the player to really experience the world through Saburou's eyes, interacting directly with everything and everyone, rather than using commands. I love the use of the panorama view based on real photographs by the way, which reminds of the real photographs used as backgrounds in previous games like Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma Ni.

Gameplay-wise though, Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is almost the same as the other games, providing a fairly linear experience. It's a mystery game, but most of the time you'll not be able to do any thinking yourself, as much of the story is streamlined: you can only continue in the story if you go to the right location to talk with the right person/find the right piece of evidence, and only then can you continue to the next location, etc. It's a fairly stress-free experience, but there's not freedom here. This game also introduces a so-called "Stance" mechanic (where you can react to a person with different attitudes), but in reality it's nothing but a multiple choice system, as there's usually only one correct stance to pick, and the game will eventually always force you to pick the correct stance.

New in Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz are the end-of-chapter confrontations, where Jinguuji confronts a person of interest with his findings. These confrontations are fairly simple, as you're basically asked a few questions, which you answer to with the discoveries you already made over the course of the chapter (basically, it's just checking whether you paid attention). Though these are one of the few moments where you can get a game over screen (besides a few select other points in the games), which is fairly surprising, because I don't think the series has featured a game over screen since the very first game!

So despite all the flashier looks, Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz doesn't really differ from the other games mechanically, focusing much on telling a mystery story, rather than really challenging the player with game mechanics that allow them to think for themselves, but how does it fare as a mystery story? Well, I really want to like it more than I do. I quite like the new chapter structure, with Saburou solving a major incident at the end of each chapter (previous games were more like one long story), but these incidents are usually incredibly straightforward. When you find the proverbial bloody glove with the fingerprints of a suspect, you can be sure that the clue means the murderer was indeed the owner of those fingerprints, and that it's not some kind of red herring. These far-too-simple chapter cases seldom make feel like you've uncovered something big like in the previous games, which usually started with a small incident (a missing woman or something like that) which eventually are discovered to be part of a bigger case (often involving organized crime etc). Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz does become a story with scale eventually, but the smaller chapter cases are far too short and simple, with very few shocking surprises awaiting the player. What doesn't help is it often feels like there are holes in the storytelling and direction, as if scenes or lines had been cut. Sometimes things are mentioned as if we had heard about them before (which I'm sure we didn't or at least vaguely) and sometimes, the direction of scenes is just too vague, making it unclear what actually happened until they discuss it afterwards ("Oh, so thaaat's what happened). It's especially the moments where they treat a fact as commonly known, even though it's only been vaguely alluded too earlier, where Daedalus feels off. The overall story of Daedalus has some really good emotional moments, but also some choppy moments because of this uneven storytelling. It does become a bit silly at certain points regarding the backstory, but overall, I did enjoy the story. Warning though: Deadalus starts incredibly slow and the first chapter, set in the past when Saburou was at summer camp with his friends Abby, Leo and Ben, is arguably the worst one too, so you have to make your way through that until it becomes more interesting.

Though I have to mention this: the events of how Saburou and Youko first met in New York as depicted in Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, don't exactly match the story alluded to in Yume no Owari ni, even though they're written by the same writer! Which is more than a bit strange considering the concept of this very game was to give the details about the incident that brought them together! Also: Youko is depicted very differently from how we know her in the other games. She's almost... tsundere! Funny is how Saburou is still a minor in this game, so he doesn't smoke nor drink, which are like the two things he always does in the main series (heck, the main series has a dedicated "Smoke" command, which usually functions as a "Hint" command).

The subtitle The Awakening of Golden Jazz refers not only to the awakening of Saburou as a detective, but also to the fantastic jazzy soundtracks that are a staple of the series. To be honest, at the start of the game, I thought the music was okay, but not really fitting to the series, but as you progress in the story, the music also changes and by the time you get to the end, the music does really sound like something you'd expect from the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series, so the 'awakening' of jazz as you proceed in the game was a really nice touch! The music of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou is my default 'writing' background music by the way.

To be honest, at first I wasn't really looking forward to Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, as the idea of a prequel game simply sounded rather uninspired to me. Having now played the game, I think my hesitations have shifted focus. Overall, I did have fun with this game, more than I had initially expected, and I am most definitely a fan of the graphical and music style they chose for this spin-off, but this game could also have been much more enjoyable if the storytelling had a brush-up, as many moments don't come across as intended because of clunky direction at times. I think the overall story works quite fine as a mystery story that doesn't quite feel like it would work in the main series, but perfectly as a spin-off prequel, but had the developers had more time to flesh out the seperate chapters too with more depth, I think this could've been a much, much better game.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ダイダロス:ジ・アウェイクニング・オブ・ゴールデンジャズ』

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Mystery at Lilac Inn

『名探偵コナン 14番目の標的』
"A sign of 'A'"
"Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target"

Like the two Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de volumes and Kagi no Kakatta Heya last month, we have a novel today I had been postponing for several years now because I already knew the contents in some way.

The Villa Lilac was once the home of a wealthy merchant, but after his suicide, the house in the mountains of Chichibu fell in the hands of the Japan Art Academy, which offered the facility to its students. One day, the caretaker and his wife welcome a group of seven students who are to stay a few days in the Villa Lilac. The Japan Art Academy is the result of a recent fusion between a music academy and an art (as in paintings) academy, and the background difference between these schools is also reflected in members of the colorful group, who don't really all get along with each other. Part of that is because of professional rivalry, but human emotions also play a role: the first night Tachibana and Salome announce their engagement to the others, which shocks at least three people heavily. The change in atmosphere is clear, and small, but strange happening occur afterwards, like a raincoat being stolen and all the spades being taken from a deck of cards. The following day, a local charcoal burner is found dead near the villa, with the stolen raincoat. At first, the police thought it was murder, but the fact the Ace of Spades was found near the body raised some questions. But they could never have expected that more deaths would follow in the Villa Lilac, and besides every body a Spade is found, counting up as the number of murders increase in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Lila Sou Jiken ("The Villa Lilac Case", 1959).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was an influential post-war mystery writer and editor who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries. Lila Sou Jiken is one of his best known novels (Kuroi Trunk is probably the best known) and actually one I already sorta knew before I even read this book! For long, long ago, I read the short story Jubaku Saigen, which served as the prototype for Lila Sou Jiken. While a lot was changed, with complete sections omitted or changed (the setting for example was from Kumamoto to Chichibu) and the overall backstory quite different, one can still recognize the core plot of Jubaku Saigen in Lila Sou Jiken, although one of the more remarkable elements is missed, as Jubaku Saigen was also a crossover between Ayukawa's two best-known detectives Inspector Onitsura and the private detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, while in Lila Sou Jiken, it's only Hoshikage who appears at the end of the novel to explain everything.

Given the premise, it shouldn't surprise the reader Lila Sou Jiken is breathing classic puzzle plot mystery from every single page. Seven students (and two caretakers) staying at a mountain villa who are killed one by one is as classic a set-up as you can get, and with a prop like the playing cards being placed beside every body, you know somethings fishy is going on. People who have read The Decagon House Murders will certainly notice the influence Lila Sou Jiken had on Ayatsuji, with the students gathering at a remote location, the cracks of the friendship between the students showing and even a scene where they play cards together. A lot of people die over the course of this story, which is even a bit unbelievable considering the fact that after the first couple of murders, the police is at the scene to keep an eye out on the situation, and even then people die, and even then the police doesn't allow the students to move to a safer place for the time being. Anyway, many murders happen, but interestingly enough, they all get killed in different manners, and that is also a driving mystery of the plot: why is the murderer being so varied?

As you read this novel though, you might notice that Ayukawa's writing is a bit... dry. One can feel that he was focusing everything on constructing a tightly plotted whodunnit, but the result is that a lot of the events feel rather abrupt and sudden, brought to the reader just as a matter of fact. Like I mentioned, you'd expect the students, and certainly the police to react a bit more, either emotionally or with action, to the fact a serial murder is in the house and committing murders while the police's there, but the narrative brings each subsequent murder just as 'oh yeah, that happened.' The novel's not short, and the string of events that happen, but don't really happen to the characters can feel rather long because of that. Usually, when a new murder or some new mystery occurs in a novel, you're given all kinds of new information to process, or new clues that either bring new light to prior events or manage to muddle things even more, but in Lila Sou Jiken, most of it feels like discrete events happening one after another, with each subsequent event not having much effect on previous events, so by the end of the novel, you might feel a bit tired. There's variation in the murder methods, but besides that, it's just reading on as you're given new murders every few pages.

So how does Lila Sou Jiken fare as a whodunnit? I'd say this is a well plotted and complex mystery, that does suffer a bit from the aforementioned lack of real effect and consequence shown to the reader. Looking solely at the core plot, one can see Ayukawa's skill: a lot of ideas and tricks are utilized for the murders, and all of them are used very competently. One particular, physical clue I liked especially, as it's so obvious in hindsight once you think about it as it's part of everybody's daily life. Other parts of the mystery are well-done, but a bit dependent on trivia: the clue that explains how a certain poisoning was done is really impossible to get unless you just happen to know one certain, obscure fact. There's another gimmick that Ayukawa often likes to use I think (I have certainly seen it in another of his short stories), that was handled pretty well, with multiple, diverse clues that help the reader deduce a certain fact in a fair way (one clue wouldn't be fair perhaps: multiple yes). But the plot does feel a bit sterile: each event is given little time to really settle, and with so many things going on, nothing really gets a chance to stand out. A lot of these ideas would've worked very good in short story whodunnits, but now they're thrown into one novel (even if connected in a believable way), weakening the impact of each seperate element. I think you have material here for three excellent short stories, but with this novel, you know that each part is pretty smart, and that they are still connected in a meaningful way, but you still wonder, perhaps the sum of everything isn't equal or more than the parts.

That is not to say that Lila Sou Jiken is a badly plotted mystery novel, as it really isn't. Most authors would kill to come up with something as tightly plotted as this. But having read my share of Ayukawa novels and short stories, I feel that this book wasn't as "novel-like" as his other novels. That said though, Lila Sou Jiken is an impressively structured whodunnit mystery that is as classic as you can get. Lila Sou Jiken isn't considered as one of Ayukawa's best known novels for nothing, and for those who really enjoy a traditional puzzler, this is a no-brainer.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『りら荘事件』