Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Triple Mystery

Something old, 
something new, 
something borrowed, 
something blue, 
and a silver sixpence in her shoe

Welcome to another Short Shorts post, where I throw a couple short reviews in a mixer and serve it in one meal-size post. Because they wouldn't be enough seperately. Today, a new Kindaichi Shounen comic, the new Poirot novel and an old DS game.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 3 ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R 3") was released last month and contains the rest of The Murder in the Phantom School Building (which started in volume 2). Set within the ruins of a school on an island, Hajime and Super-Intendent Akechi are up against the murdering Ghostly Teacher, the newest creation of crime producer Takatoo. I was quite charmed by the start of the story, as it gave us some familiar series tropes like the island, the importance of location and maps and a treasure hunt and having read the complete story, I can safely count this as one of my favorite stories of the last few years. The story makes great use of its unique setting, and while some murders are a bit easy to solve, the biggest trick the murderer pulled off invokes the likes of Shimada Souji.

Well, there's of course that story that actually plagiarized a Shimada Souji novel in the past...

The grand trick does feel a bit artificial though, but there seems to be a reason given for that and it appears that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, as a series, will continue with the questions raised at the end of the 20th Anniversary series last year and focus on Hajime's nemesis Takatoo. With some hints of Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series and Amagi and Satou's own Tantei Gakuen Q, I am looking forward to further developments in R.

And from something new, to something borrowed.

I can't say I was looking forward to Sophie Hannah's The Monogram Murders (2014), a new Poirot mystery authorized by the Christie estate. Curious yes, but I think Poirot would have understood that the psychology behind my curiosity was not brought forth by positive expectations, but more by the urge one has to stand and stare at bizarre incidents and painful accidents. One should start with a book with an open mind, going in with obviousy negative expectations is not fair, some people might say. But then again, I don't think using the name of one of the greatest mystery writers of all time, as well as arguably her most famous creation, is really fair towards the reader. It invokes reactions, feelings, questions. Positive thinkers may think 'yay a new Poirot', while more cynical thinkers probably turn their eyes to the commercial motives behind this release. Both sides are valid reactions of course, and while I was in the latter group, somewhere I still hoped to be surprised, to be served a real, all new Poirot mystery in 2014.

But The Monogram Murders was not a Poirot mystery. It was not even a good mystery. This is a story with a man who kinda resembles Poirot because he mentions his little grey cells and occasionally uses la langue français. And also stars policeman-narrator Catchpool who is so dull and incompetent he makes Hastings seem like a nation's leading think tank. The Monogram Murders is a mystery novel, as it features murders of a mysterious character (three persons dead on three different floors of a hotel). But when I think of Christie mysteries, I think of brilliantly concise solutions that bring light to otherwise complex puzzles. A single sentence, a single word that can turn the situation around. The Monogram Murders is nothing but a convoluted mess which needs a whole group of people doing the most ridiculous things for just as ridiculous reasons just so the premise of the book (the three dead people) can come true. It is boring chaos that goes on and on.

The writing occasionally invokes Christie's style, but when the name Agatha Christie is on the cover and it claims to be a new genuine Poirot, I think I should be able to hope for not occasionally, but consistently Christie's style, or else I might as well read any other author inspired by Christie. But I think it just as bad that the mystery itself is just so bad. This wouldn't even have been a good mystery without the Poirot name.

And to end this post with something old. For those familiar with tropes of Japanese suspense/mystery TV shows, the surprisingly long title of DS Yukemuri Suspense Mystery - Free Writer Tachibana Maki - Touyako / Nanatsu no Yu / Okuyu no Sato Shuzai Techou ("A Steamy DS Suspense Mystery - The Data Files of Freelance Writer Tachibana Maki - Toyako / The Seven Spas / Okuyu no Sato") is probably not really that surprising. Free Writer Tachibana Maki is a 2008 Nintendo DS game and basically the Stereotypical Two Hour Suspense Drama in a game form: it is a (very, very simplistic) mystery plot combined with elements of.... the tourism sector. The freelance writer Maki, her camerawoman Satomi and model Yuri travel to Kinosaki, Toyako and Yufuin for articles on these onsen (hot spring) towns. And each time, the trio gets involved with some sort of crime. And of course, these unlikely detectives manage to solve the crime every time, after some humorous scenes, some thrilling scenes, some touristic scenes and strangely enough very few scenes of the women in a hot spring.

Free Writer Tachibana Maki is really a set-your-mind-off adventure, as it's basically one straight road to the end. You just click through the dialogue, choose the next location, click through the new dialogue, go to the next location etcetera. And before you know, you have solved a case. As a game, Free Writer Tachibana Maki is pretty awful. As for the story, well, the mystery plots are all really easy and light-hearted and you don't even need to think to solve these cases. Add in some cheesy acting and bland music and you have a game that in a way is a good representation of the Stereotypical Two Hour Suspense Drama: that is, not a very good production.

Is it all bad? Well, I have to admit that the writing and the characters can sometimes be funny in a I-Want-Dumb-Entertainment way. And to be honest, I sorta find the effort behind this game interesting. Because this game wasn't developed by a game company, but the major map publisher Zenrin. Which explains why the game features fairly detailed maps of Kinosaki, Toyako and Yufuin, why the game features so many photographs of the touristic attractions of these towns and why there's actually an actual travel guide to these towns included in the game. The information is probably outdated now (the game was released in 2008), but you can find hot springs, hotels, hostels, restaurants and more, all complete with prices, photographs, location (on the map) for all three towns. Heck, I can even look up which train I need to take to get to any of these locations. The whole concept of a game/travel guide developed by a map publisher is just so bizarre, it earns some bonus points for that. Too bad, it's so bad as a mystery game. There were some moments where you could see they really tried, for example when the detailed maps turn out to be crucial to solving a mystery (locations of certain places, possible routes, the layout of the roads etcetera), but these moments are very rare and usually not complex enough to really entertain. In the end, Free Writer Tachibana Maki is just a quirky, but not a good game.

And this ends this Short Short post! And no, I don't have anything blue, nor a sixpence.

Original Japanese title(s): 天城征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一少年の事件簿R』第3巻, 『DS湯けむりサスペンスシリーズ フリーライター 橘 真希 「洞爺湖・七つの湯・奥湯の郷」取材手帳』

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Unknown

Don't judge a book by its cover
- English idiom

Those with an interest in contemporary Japanese mystery fiction have probably heard of the Mephisto Award (which derives its name from the mystery/science fiction magazine Mephisto). It is an unconventional award, because there are no entry periods (you can send in your manuscript any time) and while there are no direct monetary rewards connected to the Mephisto Award, the winner does get his/her novel published by Kodansha. The jury is 'in search of the ultimate entertainment novel', which has resulted in a very varied list of prize winners, and people are often divided on their opinion of the winners, as there are so few winners that are really alike. The winning novels vary incredibly in style, and even the winners' ages go from as young as twenty to someone of the respectable age of fifty-six!

To give you an idea of the variety, a couple of Mephisto winners I've reviewed in the past: Mori Hiroshi (with Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider, 1996), Inui Kurumi (1998), Takada Takafumi (with QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu, 1998), Kuroda Kenji (2000) NiSiOiSiN (with Kubikiri Cycle, 2002), Kitayama Takekuni (with Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken, 2002) and Amane Ryou (2010). So you have something like a hard science-fiction mystery (Subete ga F ni Naru), to a historic-literary mystery (QED Hyakunin Isshu no Shu) to a light novel (Kubikiri Cycle) to a fantasy-like mystery (Clock Jou Satsujin Jiken). One could say that a lot of these novels have very distinctive worlds and characters, that the writing and setting of many of these novels share a lot of parallels with manga and light novels (emphasis on over the top characters, easy readability and aimed at a young adult ~ adolescent public) and by the time you have read several of the Mephisto Award winners, you'll start to get a feeling for what feels 'like' a Mephisto novel. but still, it is hard to guess what kind of novel the next Mephisto Awardee will be.

The fiftieth Mephisto Award was given last month to Hayasaka Yabusaka's Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case"). The foreword-cum-Challenge-to-the-Reader explains the rather strange title: we have whodunits, howdunits and whydunits, but what about a detective novel where you need to find out what the title is? This novel is probably the very first whatsthetitle and the reader has until the very last line to figure out what the title is. And of course, there's a 'normal' mystery hidden within the two-hunderd pages of the novel too. A group of fans of the free outdoor life, who got to know each other through a blog, have an offline meeting each summer on Second-Cousin Island, a private island and part of the Ogasawara islands. Members include the owner of the island (who wears a mask because of an accident years ago), a college student, an attorney, a doctor and a public servant called Oka Kentarou who serves as the narrator. This year, the red-haired Raira joins as the party as the young squeeze of one of the members and while it takes some time, the group learns to accepts her in the end. And thus a Tropical Island Fantasy starts! That is, until people start to disappear, the phones don't work anymore and one of the members is found murdered in a cave. Who brought death into paradise and also important, what's the title of the book?!

Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken is in both positive and negative sense, a Mephisto Award winner. It is a unique book in the sense that it does things I hadn't seen before and I'll remember the book for it, but it also has its share of flaws. To start off: the whatsthetitle concept is fun in theory, but is very little more than a gimmick. Sure, the 'true' title does relate to the contents of the story in an admittedly amusing manner, but you can only guess the title if you have uncovered most of the mystery, so it doesn't really add to the experience. Wouldn't it have been more fun if you could guess the title beforehand and use that as a hint to solve the whole case? Now it's bit like I'd give you The ????? ?????? Mystery by Ellery Queen and after some shenanigans with coffins with dead Greeks in them, you'd come up with The Greek Coffin Mystery. Just gimmicky. Also: it's almost impossible to search for this title on the internet because search engines think you're using the ? (○ in Japanese) as a replacement sign.

The writing can also be a bit tiring. Writer Hayasaka Yabusaka tries a bit too hard at being meta and edgy, and often ruins his own scenes. Whenever anything happens that can be related to mystery fiction and its tropes, the writer is sure to remind you of that. "Oh, an island. Perfect for a closed circle situation!". "Just to be fair, I am not an unreliable narrator". "And so the reader knows, all the doors close quietly and the staircase makes no noise". "You were probably thinking of the old ???????? trick, right?". I probably should mention that this book (for a certain purpose) indeed uses a lot of familiar tropes, from a mansion on a faraway island to weather conditions cutting all the lifelines of said island to even more specific tropes like a man in a mask. And then imagine Hayasaka commenting on that every single time. Yes, we get it. You know mystery fiction. This is meta. So move on! I have no problem with meta: in fact, I am someone who quite enjoys a meta-discussion on the genre within detective novels. But it has to fit neatly in the narrative and it need not be thrown at you every other page. But placing a spotlight on that fact constantly, pulls the reader out of the experience. Given the nature of the Mephisto Award, it can't be helped that some winners feel a bit unpolished, but of the few I've read, I get the 'newcomer' feeling the most with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken. The writing is very close to what you'd expect in light novels, and while I can quite enjoy them (Zaregoto series, Kino no Tabi), I didn't really like it here. The pacing of the story is also a bit odd, with very little happening in the first hundred pages of the story, only to throw development upon development in the couple of pages before the conclusion.

The mystery plot is... also Mephisto Award-like. Even given the simple choice of yay or nay, I'd go with the non-committed nyay. I think the fundamental idea of the mystery plot is okay, but the presentation is not completely fair. Not to say it's unfair, but even though Hayasaka did leave clues in the text, I don't think it's enough to lead to the solution. As it is now, a lot of the clues seem too open for interpretation and not doing enough to fulfill their meaning of life as a hint. I didn't solve the case before the conclusion, but I did like that I instantly understood everything the moment one single sentence was spoken. I love these mysteries where one utterance, one sentence can instantly clear all fog. There were also some instances where certain actions performed admittedly had a reason and made sense with in-universe logic, but from a reader's point of view, it seemed just like an effort of the author to be all sexy and edgy. But of course, it's part of a mystery writer's job to mask the importance of each scene and Hayasaka succeeded there in my case. Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken definitely has a memorable mystery plot, even if the road to the solution isn't without bumps and other imperfections. I can totally imagine the writer coming up with this trick one day and fueled with enthusiasm writing his novel in one go, forgetting to polish the plot a bit.

On the whole, Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken is an okay mystery novel. The whatsthetitle gimmick might not be used to its full extent, nor is the mystery and writing without faults, but I had fun reading the book and in the end, that's what's the most important, right? The core trick, the core mystery has its memorable moments, even if the presentation is a bit rough at times. But like a lot of its fellow awardees, I think opinions on this one will be varied. I think that people who often read Mephisto Awardee novels might feel more positive about the book than I do, while more 'conventional' / 'old-fashioned' readers of the genre in turn might not appreciate the book in the way I do. But I guess that's what makes it a Mephisto novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝 『○○○○○○○○殺人事件』

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Adventure of the Six Napoleons

“Come, Watson, come!" he cried. "The game is afoot."
"The Adventure of the Abbey Grange"

Takumi Shuu of Ace Attorney fame will give us a new take on Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson next year, but first up is a more traditional Holmes game.

Of all of the sixty original Sherlock Holmes stories, only four were novels. The other fifty-six stories were short stories, which is also the format that fits Holmes the best, I think. From the Adventures to the Casebook, Sherlock Holmes and his dear collegue and friend Dr. Watson came across a myriad of interesting cases that have provided short but memorable bursts of mystery and adventure to readers for over a century. Developer Frogwares too has finally embraced the short story format for their latest videogame in their long running Sherlock Holmes series. After Mystery of the Mummy (2002), The Secret of the Silver Earring (2004), The Awakened (2006), Nemesis (2007), Sherlock Holmes VS Jack the Ripper (2009) and The Testament of Sherlock Holmes (2012), we finally catch a glimpse of Holmes' less lengthy, but still captivating exploits in Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments (2014, available for a lot of systems). Follow Holmes and Dr. Watson as they tackle six independent cases and capture the criminals behind them.

Frogwares has a long history with Sherlock Holmes games and I have reviewed two of them in the past. I wasn't sure what to think of The Secret of the Silver Earring, but I quite liked The Testament of Sherlock Holmes, but I had a major gripe with both games: the presentation was all over the place, as the point of view jumped between Holmes and Watson. It was as if the developers wanted you to become Holmes, look for clues, make deductions and all, but also be Watson at the same time, playing the role of someone who is astounded by Holmes' deductions. But like Ace Attorney's Takumi Shuu already noted quite correctly: detective games want the player to be the great detective, but also want to surprise the player at the same time, leading to a contradiction. It can go wrong very easily, and Frogwares previous Sherlock Holmes games were wrong in that aspect.


But Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments improves greatly upon the experience previous games, letting go of strange POV jumps as it embraces the concept of 'becoming Holmes'. The game gives the player a chance to see what it's like to be the great detective and it's fun! The biggest feature is the new deduction system. Here you can 'combine' the hints you gathered to generate new theories/insights that in turn lead to a solution. Say, [X had access to the murder weapon] + [X had a motive] = [X is the murderer]. The catch is although every theory/insight generated is correct logically, it's up to the player to interpret them and see which are relevant to the case. For example, in some cases you will discover that both X and Y had opportunity and motive, but it is Holmes=Player who has to decide which line of reasoning to follow.

And these choices are relevant, because in a new twist, each of the six cases has several endings. Each case basically ends with the arrest of the suspect, but it is actually possible to arrest the wrong suspect, because Holmes=Player made the wrong deductions!  The game also does not tell you outright whether you were right or wrong with your arrest (you can check it if you want to though), so it pushes a lot of the in-game responsibility on the player, which is great. Are you sure you have found all the evidence, made the right decisions and arrested the criminal? Or do you have doubts, thinking you might have caught the wrong guy? These false solutions based on your own deductions really add to the thrill of detecting in this game and the most ambitious thing I've seen in Frogwares Holmes games. It really gives the player the feeling he is the detective, that his reasonings, his decisions have an impact on the world.


I've seen some people refer to the deduction system as revolutionary, which is going a bit too far. I mean, the deduction system of combining keywords to generate new insights is certainly not new (see for example, Ace Attorney Investigations and Trick X Logic), and a game system that includes false solutions, while more rare, can be found in Trick X Logic, Trick DS, Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da! and Sigma Harmonics for example. But the combination of a false solution system to a fleshed out multiple endings system (instead of a game over, try again screen) is something I had never seen before and I love it. It feels natural, it allows for more challenge and it invites replay sessions. I hope future Holmes games will utilize this system too (see this post for more detective game ramblings)

The game has some other nifty mechanics that gives the player the feel he is Holmes. The infamous Sherlock Scan (observing someone and making deductions based on htat) for example is not always useful, but always fun to do. Interesting is that the game Crimes & Punishments borrowed some visual cues from the Sherlock TV series with the Sherlock Scan, while Sherlock in turn obviously borrowed its visual cues from game grammar in the first place. The imagination mechanic, like Ace Attorney Investigations' Little Thief mechanic, allows Holmes to visualize movements, situations based on his deductions. There's even a morality mechanic at the end of each case that allows you to condemn or absolve the suspect. You don't often see that in a mystery game, but it does fit Holmes, who quite often made his own judgement at the end of a case. It's all of this that really helps Crimes & Punishments work as an engaging Holmes game.


Is it all good? Well, there are some mini-games that are kinda frustrating, though it's possible to skip them after failing them a couple of times. I think the biggest problem I have with Crimes & Punishments is that it's a bit easy. The game basically gives you a checklist of what to do, so it's fairly difficult to miss out on evidence. As a result, I think few people will actually make the wrong deductions / arrive at an incorrect ending, because they will have found all evidence and will be in possession of enough information to make the correct call. For a game that gives you the freedom to make mistakes, it strangely also does its best at pushing you in the right direction. And that is kinda working against its own concept.

As for the cases themselves, it's a mixed bunch. Of the six cases, no less than three are actually based on Conan Doyle's stories. Sure, they include some rewriting to allow for multiple endings, but still, for those familiar with the Holmes stories (+ one semi-Holmes story), it's familiar ground and two of them are actually quite similar. As for the other three stories, one is a bit non-Holmes-like, but the other two are okay. Combined with the mechanics described above though, the player is in for quite some hours of observing people, finding evidence, making deductions and slowly unravelling the mystery in the guise of the great detective.


The Frogwares Sherlock Holmes games always have great atmosphere and Crimes & Punishments is really a wonder to behold. Victorian England has never looked so good, but like always, it's the little things that really help the presentation, from the interior of the 221B Baker Street apartments to even as mundane as disguising the loading screen between locations as Holmes sitting in a hansom cab! Both visual- and audiowise, this game doesn't disappoint.

Overall, I really enjoyed Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments. Its merits lie in allowing the player 'become' the great detective, by giving him access to all kinds of neat mechanics that make him feel all empowered as a deducing machine. The atmosphere and writing is sufficiently Holmes-esque and I would say that this was Frogwares best effort at a genuine Sherlock Holmes game until now. As a mystery game, Crimes & Punishments is also interesting, with a deep deduction system that allows for faults and actually has consequences. But the game also holds you hands really tight, so you almost have to go out of your way to make wrong decisions, which weakens its own concept. But Crimes & Punishments is an amusing game overall and it oozes potential for future entries in the series.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Hunting We Will Go

「キャンプ キャンプ またキャンプ 今日もキャンプ あさっても」
『キャンプの歌』 (『名探偵コナン』より)

"Camp! Camp!  Camp Again! Today's camp and tomorrow too!"
"The Camp Song" (from "Detective Conan")

I think I've only gone camping just once, near the end of elementary school. All my other 'experience' with camping is derived from seeing it in detective fiction. And for some reason, something always happens. The most ridiculous happening? A volcano eruption.

Detective Boys Conan, Ayumi, Genta, Mitsuhiko, Ai and professor Agasa are on their way back from a short camping holiday in the Yamanashi prefecture (the former Kai/Koushuu Province), when the professor's Beetle breaks down. And what's worse, the professor strains his ankle as they were walking down the road. Luckily, the kids and the professor manage to get a lift to Kurofuchi Village, to the Kubo Inn. The Kubo Inn was once a popular inn with a hot spring, but the spring dried up some years ago and business has been bad since. The group decide to stay here for a day so the professor can recover. The children are told about the legend of the famous warlord Takeda Shingen having buried a treasure somewhere in the mountains near Kurofuchi Village many centuries ago, and try their own hand at some treasure hunting, but things go wrong when the girls Ayumi and Ai get hold of a crucial hint, and are kidnapped by two suspicious men (← of course, kidnapping little girls is kinda suspicious). Can Conan, Genta and Mitsuhiko save the girls and find Shingen's legendary treasure in the novel Meitantei Conan - Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu ("Detective Conan: The Legend of the Hidden Koushuu Treasure")?

Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu (2005) was the first of three original novels based on the Detective Conan series: later years would bring novelisations of the live action drama series of Conan, but no more original novels. This first novel in the series was written, and illustrated by Tani Yutaka, one of Conan's creator Aoyama Goushou's assistants and this book marks Tani's own debut as a writer.

And I can't describe this book but as 'a run-of-the-mill Detective Boys story'. Which is good, I think. And bad? It certainly has all the elements you'd also see in a Detective Boys story in the main series: the kids on camp, accidently stranding somewhere, hunt for treasure, a coded message... There have been dozens of Detective Boys stories ever since the start of the Detective Conan series 20 years ago that also feature these tropes, and to be honest, they're usually also more fun. Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu is a rather uninspired version of the familiar story pattern, as the main mystery isn't that exciting. At least in the main series, the mysteries are usually of a higher quality.

The main mystery revolves around a code that leads to the buried treasure of Takeda Shingen, but as this novel is obviously meant for children, the code isn't very difficult to solve. I do like that, even though the code does require information probably not commonly known by children, enough relevant background information is given throughout the text, so it's perfectly possible for the intended readers of this book to solve the code by themselves (with some hints given by Conan). I have the feeling the codes in the main series are a lot more difficult, even if it's a story involving the Detective Boys (the infamous Desperate Revival story in volume 25, for example), so while it's actually solvable this time, it might seem a bit too easy.

The story does a good job at recreating the atmosphere of the main series, again by using the familiar tropes, but because of that, it's also very easy to compare Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu to similar stories and it becomes clear very fast that this is nothing more than a mediocre story. And because Detective Conan is originally a comic series, I am tempted to ask the question, what does it add to the experience of this being a normal novel, instead of being in the comic book format? I'd say nothing, and even say that I'd much prefered it to have read this story as a comic. With some of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo novels, I at least understand that motives to tend get a bit more gruesome compared to the original comic series, so those stories couldn't appear in as a serialized series in Shounen Magazine. But with Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu, there are no real benefits to it being a novel instead of a comic.

And then it hit me. This is like a Famous Five novel. I quite liked the Famous Five actually. The books should be lying here somewhere...

It's been many years since I read the other Conan novels, but I think I quite liked the third novel, The Ejinbara Witch. I guess this might these books might be fun for kids, but if you think about it, the comic version is actually much easier to read, and more fun too, so I don't really see the added value of the novels, if the mystery plot isn't particularly strong. And as a standalone story, Meitantei Conan - Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu, definitely isn't impressive.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 (原), 谷豊 (小説、画) 『名探偵コナン 甲州埋蔵金伝説』

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Double Exposure

 Two's company, three's a crowd

I usually keep an eye out on Japanese TV for interesting mystery shows (I want to see Maya Yutaka's live mystery show!), but I have to admit that this one caught me by complete surprise. Had I not seen some Twitter trends for it, I would have totally missed it.

Last year, Edogawa Rampo's Akechi Kogorou and Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke appeared together in Fuji TV's crossover TV special Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou, based on a pastiche by Ashibe Taku. Last monday, the two best known fictional detectives from the Japanese islands reunited in a new TV special with the simple title Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou Futatabi ("Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Once Again"). Being hired to find out who is behind the attempted poisoning of Baron Ryuujou, Kindaichi Kousuke travels to a small secluded village in Nagano where the baron is revered as its benevolent lord. Meanwhile, Akechi Kogorou also makes his way to Baron Ryuujou's dwellings, because his nemesis the Fiend with Twenty Faces has threatened to whisk away a golden Tathāgata statue in possession of the baron. And thus Kindaichi Kousuke and Akechi Kogorou find themselves working side by side again to expose a silent murderer and a flamboyant thief.

I wasn't too impressed with last year's special actually, so I was quite surprised when I learned they made a sequel. The idea of a crossover between the best known fictional Japanese detectives is fun, of course and while such crossovers often stay within the realm of fanfiction and low-profile pastiches, this was a crossover written by a well known mystery writer, broadcasting in prime time and starring some big names (Yamashita Tomohisa as Kindaichi and Itou Hideaki as Akechi). But with last year's special I had the feeling that the mystery, while decent enough, didn't need the big names of Kindaichi and Akechi and that it didn't really fit either of the two. But a new year and new chances and this time we even have Rampo's the Fiend with Twenty Faces appear, so expectations were raised.


Well, the story and setting of Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou Futatabi definitely fits both detectives, especially Kindaichi. Twisted family relations, inheritance conflicts, a secluded community with a secret, old nursery rhymes, a cave, everything you expect from a Kindaichi Kousuke story. Heck, the baron even has three daughters (a small trope within Yokomizo's novels, see also The Inugami Clan and Gokumontou) and of course, Kindaichi Kousuke mysteries often involve the aristocracy (or to be exact, the impovered ex-aristocracy, but that is because most Kindaichi Kousuke stories are set after World War II). Even Akechi Kogorou seems natural in this setting and I could definitely imagine the Fiend of Twenty Faces schemng to steal a golden statue, so in the very least, I have no complaints about the setting (there's even a small confession scene that is a straight send-up to the one in The Inugami Clan!)

But you can feel the but coming, right? I think I have three problems with this special. One is that the mystery itself is incredibly easy. Sure, they usually simply mysteries for the TV format, but last year's TV special at least featured a mystery plot that was a bit more challenging. This time, the plot is both boring and simple. It feels as if they tried to fill a two hour show with enough plot for maybe fifty minutes, and even those fifty minutes would have been pretty yawn-inducing too! The moment the mystery is explained, you can't help but shrug and ask 'so?'. This would have been a bad plot in any detective show, let alone one which borrows the name of both Rampo's Akechi Kogorou and Yokomizo's Kindaichi Kousuke. Also, the plot-lines of the attempted poisoning, and the scheme of the Fiend with Twenty Faces (who hardly does anything) aren't really connected, so it feels like you're watching to parallel stories. Which is kinda a waste, because this special doesn't feel like Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou, but more like Kindaichi Kousuke AND Akechi Kogorou happen to be at the same place but they are actually working on different cases so they have nothing to do with each other (but that would be a rather long title).

A second gripe I have is that though the setting itself was good, this stage is never used to its full potential. A creepy secluded community.... but we only see maybe two minutes of that, tops. Twisted family relations... that never feel twisted enough because most family members have little screen time. A climax in a creepy cave... of which I had forgotten its existence until the very end because it was mentioned like only once throughout the show. The great nemesis of Akechi, the Fiend with Twenty Faces... but he hardly adds anything to the plot and he might as well not have been there. The Big Plot Twist at the end would also have been much better if the background setting of the village had been fleshed out more (it's also a Big Plot Twist I've seen a bit too often now too). I'll be the first to admit that I tend to focus too much on just the mystery plot, with little attention on topics like characterization and fleshing out background settings, but the original Akechi Kogorou and Kindaichi Kousuke stories were always oozing with atmosphere. The Kindaichi Kousuke stories in particular always make me feel uneasy with their human horror-like settings, but the Akechi stories too are filled with Rampo's rather addictive enthusiasm that one can sense in every page, every sentence. Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou Futatabi has the right elements, but doesn't really make use of them.


I just said I hardly look at characterization, but I really have to mention this, as I apparently forgot to write something about it in the review of last year's special: the Kindaichi Kousuke in this special, is nothing like the real Kindaichi Kousuke. Petty rivalry with Akechi Kogorou? This Kindaichi is kinda childish, which makes no sense whatsoever within the 'official' chronology of the character (compare; this special is set in the same year as Honjin Satsujin Jiken, so Kindaichi should act like the calm, attentive detective he was there. Also, most of his chidish traits should be gone having returned from a short stay in the States and recovered from a little drug addiction). I probably wouldn't have mind Kindaichi's strange characterization so much, if not for the fact that Akechi Kogorou acts mostly like he should do. It's only Kindaichi who has changed considerably and the only reason I can see for that change is to be able to score some cheap laughs. The special is based on a pastiche by Ashibe Taku, but in the case of Kindaichi Kousuke, this story does not even attempt to emulate the style or atmosphere of the original character, it seems.

Overall, my feelings for Kindaichi Kousuke VS Akechi Kogorou Futatabi are the opposite of those I have for last year's special. At least on the surface, the setting this time fits the two characters quite well, but as a mystery, this year's special is kinda forgettable. In fact, while I still remember the big lines of the mystery plot of last year's special, I can guarantee you that I will not be able to recall anything of this special same time next year. I don't know if there's a demand for it (none from my side at any rate), but if they make another special next year, I hope they get all the elements right this time.  I think a special with both Kindaichi Kousuke and Akechi Kogorou deserves that (And they should probably get rid of the Fiend; it is a bit too crowdy in this crossover despite the Fiend's minimal contribution)

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一耕助VS明智小五郎、ふたたび』

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Riddle For Puppets

ほら ti ta ta ta
ガラスの針 十二回の刻(とき)を打てば
聖なるの夜 七頭の影が
無力な人形 に手を伸ばす
『Marionette Fantasia』 (Garnet Crow)

Look ti ta ta ta
When the glass hands strike twelve
On the holy night, my shadow reaches its hand out
to the lifeless puppet
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

Clowns. Puppets. I fear them. That's all.

After a great performance at a kindergarten by ventriloquist Yoshio and his little partner Mario, kindergarten teacher Mutsuki 's interest in the shy, but gifted young man is aroused. But as the two get closer, Mutsuki discovers Yoshio has a secret: the puppet Mario isn't just a tool with which Yoshio performs his art, but is a seperate personality within Yoshio. Getting a bit too deep into ventiloquism has given Yoshio both a gift and a curse: his ventriloquism is fantastic, but unlike Yoshio, Mario has a fast mouth and can't always be controlled. But Mario is also in possession of some very impressive deductive facilities, which come in handy as Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario have a tendency to run into crimes in Abiko Takemaru's short story collection Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces From The Kotatsu", 1990), first of a four part series.

Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is the first story, and lends its name to the collection. After a show in a kindergarten, Mutsuki discovers the secret of Yoshio and Mario. The three work together to find out what the connection is between a series of mysterious events that have been happening at the kindergarten since after Yoshio's show: rabbits have died, a food bucket has been pushed over and other little, yet worrying events. And....the solution is pretty obvious, as it is very similar to that one famous short story of a very, very famous writer. The focus of this story lies not in the mystery of the kindergarten, but simply on the introduction of the main characters Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario. And even more: the writer goes some length in fleshing out the kindergarten environment, with fellow teachers and the children popping up, but they don't actually reappear in later stories:  in the afterword writer Abiko Takemaru says he had indeed first planned to use the kindergarten as a recurring setting, but for some reason it just didn't happen.

Ningyou wa Tent de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces In The Tent") is easily the best story in the collection and a fun short locked room mystery too! Yoshio is booked for a big circus-esque outdoor show with magicians, card throwers and other performers and after a great show, Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario go backstage to one of the resting rooms in the big top circus tent, where they talk with some of the performers. Then one of the performers is found murdered in his own resting room on the other side of the big top, and the only suspect is Yoshio's good friend and fellow ventriloquist Haruka, who was the only person who had entered and left that specific resting room with the victim. The entrance to the room had been under constant observation by people of the staff working nearby, so either Haruka did it, or the murderer managed to get into the observed room... unobserved. The solution Mario comes up with is simple, but good and really fits the atmosphere of the story collection: nothing too complex, but satisfying and quite memorable.

In Ningyou wa Gekijou de Suiri Suru ("The Puppet Deduces In The Theater"), Mutsuki, Yoshio and Mario happen to see the inspector they met in the previous story during a theater perfomance of Der Ring des Nibelungen. They are told about the recent murder of a CEO, who had left a semi-dying message: his diary showed that the victim had been dreaming of being assaulted since a long time ago, by someone or something he called "Siegfried". But the police have no idea whom the victim meant with Siegfried. Even after watching (sleeping through) Der Ring didn't help, so the inspector asks for Mutsuki and Yoshio for help (he doesn't know that Mario's the one who solved the previous case). A semi code cracking / dying message story about finding out the identity of the murderer based on the victim's diary  (similar to Arisugawa Alice's Yaneura no Sanposha) and it's... an okay story. Like many stories that are based on purely the interpretation of a dying message, the final solution can feel a bit arbitrary and this time, it also involves dream interpretations, but I think this was not a bad story at any rate.

And I wouldn't say that the final story, Ningyou wo Nakushita Fukuwajutsushi ("The Ventriloquist Who Lost His Puppet"), is bad per se, but definitely the weakest of the four in this collection. Yoshio is booked for a performance on TV, but the case which holds Mario disappears from the dressing room after Yoshio's show, and then Mario is found 'murdered' in the parking lot of the broadcasting studio. Who would go the trouble of 'killing' a puppet? And can Mutsuki and Yoshio solve the problem and avenge Mario's death? My main complaint about this story is that the main deduction that drives the story towards its conclusion is based on a very ridiculous prejudiced idea, which seemed only appropiate for a fake solution. Also, it's very similar to the first story actually. There's some nice bits about Yoshio having to deal with the death of his other personality, but as a mystery story, I don't really like this finale.

Overall, I think Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is a fun short story collection. The atmosphere is light and pleasant, with just a bit of main character teasing that we've come to expect from Abiko Takemaru (see also the Hayami siblings series and especially Tooru in the Kamaitachi no Yoru series). A (seperate personality inside a) puppet as an armchair detective is a pretty original and the collection, while short, is quite varied. Ningyou wa Tent de Suiri Suru in particular is quite good as a locked room mystery.

But I can't be the only one who thinks that having a seperate personality represented by a ventriloquist' dummy is a bit creepy, right? It's supposed to be cute and all, I think, but I can't help but think this will all go wrong one day and Mario will go wild.

Anyway, Ningyou wa Kotatsu de Suiri Suru is a short, but fine collection with a slightly scary protagonist, but if you don't have a fear for dolls, you should be fine.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『人形はこたつで推理する』: 「人形はこたつで推理する」 /  「人形はテントで推理する」 / 「人形は劇場で推理する」 / 「人形をなくした腹話術師」

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Publish or Perish

「認めたくないものだな、自分自身の若さゆえの過ちというものを・・・」
『機動戦士ガンダム』

"Nobody cares to acknowledge the mistakes made because of their youth"
"Mobile Suit Gundam"

I read a lot, but my reading pace always has a slow start. I usually read several books at the same time, but it usually take ages for me to go through the first hundred pages or so of any given book. But when I am past that threshold, I suddenly go full gear, and finish the rest of the book in less time than it took me to get through the first hundred pages. That's why it's kinda rare for me to have books lying around that I've read halfway through. Books where I got stuck somewhere in the first hundred pages? Sure. But halfway? I am usually going to fast to stop there... Today, a rare case of a book which was read only halfway through.

Zero Banme no Jikenbo ("The 0th Casefiles") is a mystery anthology released in 2012 with big names like Arisugawa Alice, Ayatsuji Yukito and Norizuki Rintarou. But the twist behind this anthology is that the stories collected here, were all written before these writers made their formal debut as professional writers. Most of these were written in university it seems. In a sense, Zero Bamne no Jikenbo is just a collection of 'amateur' writing, but for fans for any of these writers, these unpublished stories are of course interesting, as it shows how some writers grew from their amateur days into the people they are now. As a piece of fanservice, this anthology delivers the goods and it is also a good motivation for amateur writers now: if they see what kind of stories the professional writers now used to write, they'll probably see that everyone had to start somewhere and that all have humble origins.

I originally bought Zero Banme no Jikenbo when it was released, because it fitted with the theme of my thesis on early New Orthodox detective fiction writers. And after reading the stories and the essays by Arisugawa Alice, Norizuki Rintarou, Abiko Takemaru and Ayatsuji Yukito, I put the book away because that was all I needed for my research. In the end, it took me another year before I finally read the rest of the volume.

A large number of the stories collected in Zero Banme no Jikenbo are guess-the-criminal (hanninate) stories, which I once explained as:

These scripts are more like pure logic puzzles than 'proper' literary stories: there are unwritten rules like a Challenge to the Reader, 'there is only one murderer', 'strength of motive is of no real consequence' and 'all the hints necessary to solve the crime are in the story' (therefore, nothing/no person outside the world described in the story exists) and most of these plots are solved through a Queen-esque elimination method: determine an x amount of characteristics the murderer must have (i.e. must have been left handed, must have had access to the room, must have etc.) and see who fits (or does not fit) the profile. Some might think Ellery Queen's novels feel a bit artificial with the challenge to the reader and all, but these guess-the-criminal scripts are really taking this game-element of detective fiction to the extreme

A lot of the writers in this anthology were members of university mystery clubs (like the Kyoto University Mystery Club), where guess-the-criminal scripts are common practice. Arisugawa Alice's entry, Aozameta Hoshi ("The Pale Stars"), is a good example of how such a story works, and it just happens I have translated it a long time ago, so I refer to that post if you want to know more about that. Abiko Takemaru's Figure Four is an extremely nonsensical dying message story, but Abiko admits that he would never ever have chosen this story for publication if not for the goal of the anthology: at least you can see that not all writers started out grand and fantastic. In that sense Figure Four is a great example. And maybe it's interesting to note that the Hayami siblings appear in this story.

Kasumi Ryuuichi's Golgotha no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of Golgotha") is an example of a locked room murder done well in a guess-the-criminal format, which is difficult, because this format is more precise than a 'normal' locked room murder mystery (all the clues must be present and it must be the only answer possible). But it is also very obvious that this was a guess-the-criminal script and not a full fledged story: the solution part, given after the Challenge to the Reader, is just a dry, to the point memo saying who did it and how you can prove it. Fubousou de Hito ga Shinu no Da ("Somebody Will Die At the Fubou House" by Murasaki Yuu), with a murder happening on a Mystery Club holiday is based on fairly basic trick and the 'surprise' ending isn't really surprising, but I like how the story is obviously written for fellow (Seijo University) Mystery Club members, as it deals with club activities and the characters based (presumably) on real members at the time. Finally, but certainly not least is Norizuki Rintarou's Satsujin Pantomine ("Murder Pantomine"), a great puzzle plot story that shows why these guess-the-criminal stories, even if not 'real' literature, are so fun. And the anecdote that at the time, these scripts were read out by the writer for all members to listen to is at one hand surprising, and on the other hand not really. In a time where typewriters and wordprocessors were rare, it does make sense the writer would just write out his own copy, and then read it out to the other members. Of course, I am just used to the sight of 20~30 copies of the stories being handed out to the members present... By the way, the detective character Norizuki Rintarou appears in this story, but written with a different character for "rin" (the name was changed when the writer became a professional).

The rest of the anthology consists out of non guess-the-criminal stories. Takada Takafumi's Bachasvilleke no Inu ("The Hound of the Bachasvilles") is a nonsensical what-if variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only read the first novel of Takada's QED series, but it seems this story has very little of the QED vibe, save for the excessive referencing to the original Holmes novels (the lists of references in the QED novels are huge!). Hatsuno Sei's 14 is about a comedian being stalked by seven different people from all ages and sexes, but he has no idea why. More of a thriller than real puzzle plot mystery, but I have never read anything by Hatsuno, so no idea how this work fits within the big picutre. The same holds for Migawa Korumono's Judgement, about a murderer and a girl he picks up at one of his crime scenes. Never read anything by her, so not sure if Judgement is representative of her work in general or not.

And while I have never read anything by Kirisha Takumi neither, I have to say I was kinda surprised by his Tsuzuki Michio wo Yonda Otoko ("The man who read Tsuzuki Michio"), which was a fun inverted mystery where a certain scruffy policeman talking about his raincoat and his wife visiting Japan is messing up a perfect crime in process. Great stuff here, but it took me a bit before I recognized who this Philip was (as it's just one of his unofficial first names...). A lot of Nishizawa Yasuhiko's mysteries have a supernatural element (psychokinesis, timewarping etc) in conjunction with a totally fair-play puzzle plot, but Mushitori ("Bugcatching") is more science fiction than mystery. It's fun though: two men are in charge of monitoring a grand scale fake arrival of aliens on planet Earth: these aliens are in fact high-level androids of the US government. But what is the goal of the project, and why do some android models keep coming back with bugs that lead to self-existential doubt?

Finally, Ayatsuji Yukito's Toosugiru Fuukei ("A Scenery Too Far Away") is the story about Hiryuu Kouchi, who after the death of her mother, has been haunted by mysterious letters and other events. And I could write a bit more about it, but this story was actually rewritten as Ningyoukan no Satsujin, with most of the main plot and some names intact. They are very alike, so you really don't have to read both of them, though it is interesting to see how Ayatsuji fleshed out one of his old stories to something new and longer. This 'amateur' story was actually sold at one time, as it was included in one of Kyoto University Mystery Club's annual magazines in the past: I actually have a (digital) copy somewhere of Toosugiru Fuukei in a handwritten script!

For fans of the writers included in this anthology, Zero Banme no Jikenbo has its high points. Realizing how the young amateur writers and students behind these stories turned into professional writers afterwards can work as an inspiration for aspirant writers, as while there are quite some good mystery plots here, few stories have the refinement of professional writers (and also important, editing). And of course, a lot of the stories collected here are guess-the-criminal scripts, which aren't meant to be experienced as literature anyway. If you are familar with more than a few writers in this collection, I would recommend Zero Banme no Jikenbo and also if you're interested in seeing how guess-the-criminal scripts work (as you don't see them often in 'official' publishing), but it might feel a bit weak as a standalone mystery anthology without the context. Because when you think about it, this is just a collection of amateur writers, even if they're all professional writers now! If the novelty factor appeals to you though, great stuff here! I know I enjoyed it.

Oh, and one final note: I can only use up to 200 characters for the tags (cross-references) for each post, so I was only able to attach the tags for a few writers.

Original Japanese title(s): 『0番目の事件簿』: 有栖川有栖 「蒼ざめた星」 / 法月綸太郎 「殺人パントマイム」 / 霧舎巧 「都筑道夫を読んだ男」 / 「我孫子武丸 「フィギュア・フォー」 / 霞流一 「ゴルゴダの密室」 / 高田崇史 「バカズヴィル家の犬」 / 西澤保彦 「虫とり」 / 「初野晴 「14」 / 村崎友 「富望荘で人が死ぬのだ」 / 汀こるもの 「Judgement」 / 綾辻行人 「遠すぎる風景」