Thursday, February 11, 2016

The House of Mystery

「XYZだ・・・香!!年も離れててろくでもない男で・・・国籍なくて正式に結婚できなくて・・・だからこんな事言う資格ないかもしれんが・・・」
「ごちゃごちゃうるさい!」
「一緒になってくれ、香」
 『Angel Heart』

"XYZ! Kaori! I might be older than you and just a worthless bum...I don't have any nationality so I can't even marry you officially... perhaps I don't even have the right to ask you, but..."
"Stop talking around it!"
"Kaori. Let's be together."
"Angel Heart"

Part two of the Drury Lane review series!

Drury Lane series
The Tragedy of X (1932)
The Tragedy of Y (1932)
The Tragedy of Z (1933) 
Drury Lane's Last Case (1933)

The Mad Hatters, the newspapers called them, and mad, the Hatters were. Perhaps you could say they had a lot of "character". And even York Hatter, husband of family matriarch Emily Hatter couldn't cope any longer with his wife and his children and grandchildren and decided to take early leave from life. In retrospect. York's death was just the prologue to the tragedy which would happen in the Hatter house. The first act was an attempt at poisoning Louisa's egg-nogg, Emily's first daughter from a prior marriage who was blind, deaf and dumb. Luckily (?), one of Emily's naughty grandchildren had gulped down the egg-nogg before Louisa could and he was saved thanks to Emily's quick reaction. The other children from the Hatter marriage are not very fond of Louisa (who hogged all of mother Emily's attention because of her condition), but would any of them have stooped to poisoning their half-sister? But the mystery really starts to deepen when some months later, Emily Hatter is found murdered in her bedroom (which she shared with Louisa after the poisoning attempt), having been bashed on the head with a mandolin!  Was there someone trying to kill all the Hatters? The problem is one which troubled both Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno, and the two once again ask Drury Lane, professional Shakespeare intepreter and amateur detective to help solve Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Y (1932).

This is the second adventure of Drury Lane and like The Tragedy of X, this too is a very highly regarded mystery novel. In fact, in the most recent Tozai Mystery Best 100 ranking (of non-Japanese titles), the book ranked second place, behind Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This was the second Drury Lane book I read by the way, after Drury Lane's Last Case (which again shows I never read things in the right order). It's probably my favorite Drury Lane novel too, even though I think that in general, The Tragedy of X is regarded better than this one.

Like I pointed out in my review of The Tragedy of X, that book is very obviously a book written by Ellery Queen. The Tragedy of Y on the other hand, not that obvious. At least, not in terms of tropes and setting. In fact, if there's one thing the book reminds me of, it's S.S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1929), which was no doubt a source of some inspiration for the Queen cousins for The Tragedy of Y. The book is mostly confined to one setting (the Hatter home) and revolves about the fate of a family with a fair number of not-so-nice members, which are probably the defining characteristics of The Greene Murder Case. As I already indicated in my review of The Greene Murder Case, the book has been an influence on Japanese detective fiction, but that's definitely in conjunction with The Tragedy of Y. The two of them are probably the most famous books in their specific type of setting (family murders in a mansion), and were major infuences on Oguri Mushitarou's infamous anti-mystery Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (1934). Following this line further, we also have Yokomizo Seishi: many of his Kindaichi Kousuke novels revolve around family feuds in mansions. In a sort of branch-line we have Ayatsuji Yukito in more recent years, who focuses more on the buildings (mansions) themselves. While the setting is not typical Queen, we'd sometimes see it in some of his works, like The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933, an isolated mansion in the mountains, with fairly strange inhabitants) and The Player on the Other Side (1963, ghostwritten).

By the way, at a certain point in the story the will of Emily Hatter is presented, and the complexity of it (with all sort of clauses to protect one certain person) reminded me a lot of Yokomizo Seishi: especially The Inugami Clan, which had one of the most convoluted last wills ever (which was definitely a reason why all those murders were commited in that book). In general, complex wills usually result in murders in mystery fiction.

The story is mostly confined to the house, and with the attempted poisoning of Louisa and the bizarre murder on Emily Hatter  (a mandoline as weapon) hapening in quick succession (in terms of pages), The Tragedy of Y has a strange, pressing and somewhat creepy atmosphere. The Hatter home has quite the number of strange secrets and weird revelations hidden for the reader, one of them for example York Hatter's laboratory inside the house, which will prove to be of importance to the case in more ways than one. Now I think about it, a lot of the clues in this book are used in multiple ways (and not just "This points to X, and now you can throw this hint away"). Heh. Clue recycling. Anyway, The Tragedy of Y feels unreal, like a play, and that's why Drury Lane fits wonderfully in this story, because the whole case is just nuts. And that's why I like about it. For a very long time, nothing makes sense in this novel. And it's unsettling.

Louisa, as a blind, deaf and dumb person, is a very interesting character in this story. She is actually witness to the murder of her mother, but because of her special condition, her testimony has to rely on very different senses than the ones we usually associate with "witness". It's again an element that makes The Tragedy of Y feel bizarre and it is very effective.

In terms of mystery plot, The Tragedy of Y covers familiar ground: as in most Queen novels, figuring out the murderer is very well possible by applying logical reasoning based on the clues provided. As often in Queen novels, clues take the form of physical objects, though the deduction based on them can be about all kinds of things (for example, 'the state of an object', or 'who could've used the object' etc.). The Tragedy of Y can be a bit trickier than The Tragedy of X though; The Tragedy of X is fairly straightforward in its reasoning, but The Tragedy of Y is, as I said earlier, a bit nuts, and it is a lot more difficult to reconstruct the whole chain fo reasoning Drury Lane presents by yourself. In fact, there is one point in the chain that asks of some inspiration if you want to figure it out yourself, and that is not usually the case in Queen-like deductions. Also, at a certain point "a significant clue" is discovered by Drury Lane, which basically explains all, even though the story continues for a little while, as if it's still a mystery. It's a bit of a shame, because while the solution is shocking, it's as if the story forget they just showed you a clue that basically told you everything. That said though, the initial chain of reasoning that led Drury Lane to the murderer is still good, and The Tragedy of Y also has one of my favorite clues of all time (people who have read the book, can probably guess what it is).

And this is another thing for those who have read the book: I actually have a Korean version of The Tragedy of Y. The cover of it is almost too brilliant, as it....err, makes one certain character very very suspicious. I recommend you to only click this link if you already read The Tragedy of Y, but I think most will agree this cover might not've been the best choice.

As an experiment in deduction, The Tragedy of Y is not as neat as The Tragedy of X, even if it's still amazing for most standards. But it's the wacky and bizarre setting and characters that make this a favorite of mine and definitely the first Drury Lane novel I'd recommend anyone to read.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Great Mouse Detective

「 オレは名探偵じゃない。名探偵だ」
『名探偵ピカチュウ 新コンビの誕生』

"I'm not a detective. I'm a great detective!"
"Great Detective Pikachi ~ Birth of a New Duo"

Pikapikapikachu? Pikapika. Pikapikapikkkachu. Pi!

When it was first announced in 2013 that a detective game starring the mascotte of the Pokémon, franchise, Pikachu, was in the making, people were surprised for several reasons. One was the creepy facial mapping technology used for Pikachu. But people also got excited, especially because Pikachu's voice actress, Ootani Ikue, also voices Mitsuhiko from Detective Conan, the Detective Boys member who is way to smart for his age.  Fast-forward to January 2016, when Nintendo suddenly released this trailer of the 3DS game Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou ("Great Detective Pikachi ~ Birth of a New Duo"), together with the announcement the game would be released the following week (first week February). And people were surprised. Not by the sudden release, but by the deep, manly voice Pikachu suddenly had. I decided immediately I needed this game. Meitantei Pikachu tells the story of Tim Goodman, a young man who has moved to Lime City in search of his father, a private detective who has gone missing while working on a case. Immedaitely after his arrival in the city, Tim runs into the talking Pikachu, who was actually the partner of Tim's father Harry. Harry and Pikachu got in an car accident and only Pikachu was found. Pikachu lost his memories, but he gained the powers to communicate in human speech with Tim. Together, the two try to find out what happened to Harry.

Do I need to explain what Pokémon are? Pokémon is a popular media franchise that started with videogames, but als features animated series, theatrical releases and much, much, muuuuuuch more. The games are about the titular Pokémon (Pocket Monsters), about 700 differrent species of creatures with special powers. People use them for a variety of activities, from pets to using them for Pokémon fights and having them help with work. Pikachu, the best known Pokémon for example, is a yellow mouse species of the Electric type, capable of generating electricity for attacks.


I wouldn't say that all Pokémon games are for kids (stuff can get crazy complex in battles), but Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou is definitely a mystery game geared for kids. But that's not a bad thing. I actually enjoyed this game a lot. During the game, Tim and Pikachu will come across mysteries, which they record in their notebook. To solve a mystery, the duo needs to find evidence, both of the physical kind, as well as testimony from both humans and other Pokémon. When you have gathered all the available evidence, the game (Pikachu) will prompt you to solve the mystery, which you do by combining the right evidence (there is also non-essential evidence). As the game is geared towards the younger public, the mysteries aren't superdifficult, and can be solved just by carefully reading all the clues (and the game also nudges you in the right direction). There are no penalties for doing something wrong, they just have you reconsider your answers.

The game is called a "Dramatic Adventure", which in this sense means the game is very story-focused. You solve a mystery, the story advances, and you find yourself in a new spot with more mysteries to solve. You are always confined within a limited space (of several streets/rooms/areas) to find your clues, so it's never that difficult to find every ncessary clue. There is no way to stray from the correct path, so it's a very linear experience.


While I said the mysteries are not particuarly difficult (okay, they're easy), the game does offer something seldom seen in other mystery fiction. That is: the Pokémon themselves. And that makes this a very special detective story. Animals in mystery fiction have always been troublesome, because well, they're animals. But Pokémon do have a human side to them, and because Pikachu can talk (and 'translate' for Tim), you're actually able to get testimony from them. It adds a very original element to detective fiction, because now you have 'humanized animals' participating with the plot, which gives the mystery plot a lot of potential to do original things. Normally, you wouldn't be able to get testimony from birds. But in this game, you can get testimony from Flying type Pokémon. Meitantei Pikachu's mysteries might not be really complex, but it really is an original experience because of the use of Pokémon throughout the plot.

A while back, I wrote that a mystery starring youkai could be considered fair, because even though these are fictional and supernatural beings, they are actually well documented, meaning they have clear 'rules' and thus can be used in a fair mystery story. I'm glad to say that Meitantei Pikachu did precisely that. Pokémon are fictional creatures with extraordinary powers, but extremely well-documented and defined. Pokémon belong to certain types and learn certain powers. Within the world of Pokémon, there is the Pokédex, an encyclopedia on the many species of Pokémon. So while a talking, electricity-generating mouse might not be real, its powers and characteristics are 'defined' in enough detail in the fictional world for it to work within the framework of a fair-play mystery. Meitantei Pikachu has you make deductions based on the powers of the various Pokémon that appear within the story and therefore feels really fresh and original compared to 'boring realistic' mystery stories. And for those not very knowledgable on Pokémon: don't worry. All the clues necessary are available within the game.


Detective Pikachu deserves a special mention: he's a really fun character. Great voice-acting and animation really brings him alive and you soon forget he's basically a talking animal.  Sometimes, he acts like the cute mascotte figure he's supposed to be, at other times he sounds like a hardened private eye. As an original detective character, I think he's one of the most memorable characters I've seen in years!

The only 'but' I have for Meitantei Pikachu is the fact the game is fairly short considering the price. It's also only the first episode in a longer storyline, meaning it ends with 'To Be Continued" and leaves you with quite some unanswered questions. This first episode does end with a climax in the storyline, but to be honest, considering the price I had really expected this game to be at least one hour longer. I'll probably play the following episodes too, but I do really hope they do something about the pricing.

So while I'm not really sold on the cost/performance ratio of the game, I did really enjoy Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou as a funny, original and accessible game. Let's hope new episodes will follow soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵ピカチュウ 新コンビ誕生』

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Deus Ex Machina

「このカクテルの名はXYZ-つまり、もう後がないということさ。マスターがおれに助けを求める時の合図だよ」
「シティーハンター」

"The name of that cocktail is XYZ... meaning there's no more hope left. The barkeeper uses it as a signal for when he needs my help."
"City Hunter"

I recently re-read my The XYZ Murders omnibus, which collects The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y and The Tragedy of Z. As I haven't reviewed any of the Drury Lane novels yet on the blog, I figured I might as well write something about them, as I think quite highly of them. So the month of February will feature quite a lot of Tragedies.

Drury Lane series
The Tragedy of X (1932)
The Tragedy of Y (1932)
The Tragedy of Z (1933) 
Drury Lane's Last Case (1933)

Mr. Drury Lane is a retired Thespian known throughout the world for his interpretations of the work of Shakespeare. His estate is called The Hamlet, consisting of a castle and accompanying castle village that would've fitted the period when the Bard lived, but are horribly anachronistic in 1930s New York. Inspector Thumm of the NY Police and District Attorney Bruno find themselves at the Hamlet, because they ask for Lane's help not as an actor, but as a gifted amateur detective who has helped the police in the past. The problem: the Longstreet Murder. Longstreet was a slick broker, who was murdered in a street car, on his way back to his house with a party of "friends" to celebrate his engagement. The murder weapon was one that would remain in the annals of Fictional Crime: a cork with countless of needles covered in nicotine had been slipped into his pocket and some pricks later, the man was dead. Despite thorough investigation, Thumm has not been able to zero in on a suspect, but Drury Lane boldy asserts he knows who the murderer is based simply based on Thumm and Bruno's recount  of the case. But despite that, Lane does not reveal who he suspects, and that is of course something the Inspector and the D.A. don't really like, especially not if a second murder is committed connected to the Longstreet Murder. And that wasn't the end of Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of X (1932).

It's common knowledge by now, but for those who don't know: the Ellery Queen cousins (Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee) made their debut in 1929 with The Roman Hat Mystery. In 1932 however, they came up with a second pen name, Barnaby Ross, who'd be responsible for four novels starring the amateur-detective Drury Lane. For a while, the Queen cousins played with these two identities (even having "Ellery Queen" and "Barnaby Ross" debating with each other), but eventually the gig was up and nowadays the Drury Lane novels are known as Queen novels. The Tragedy of X is the first of the novels and also one of the best regarded books written by Ellery Queen. In the most recent edition of the Tozai Mystery Best 100 (for non-Japanese novels) for example, the book ranked in at 14 as the second Ellery Queen work (The Tragedy of Y ranked in at second place).

This was a re-read by the way, which happened under the better cirumstances than the first time I read the book, actually. While it's the first of the Drury Lane novels, it was actually the last one I read because I never read things in order, and I don't remember why, but it took me ages to get through it because of circumstances, so the book, as a whole, never left much of an impression on me except for some specific scenes (though I still thought it was a good book). I learned to appreciate the book a lot better this time around though.

I wonder how long it took for people back in the day to notice The Tragedy of X was written by Ellery Queen? Because the thing is rather obviously a Queen product. It reminds especially of The Roman Hat Mystery. Ellery was the detective in Roman Hat, and Lane obviously the one in The Tragedy of X, but both books are actually structured around the police investigation: Roman Hat was all about Inspector Queen's investigation while The Tragedy of X mostly follows Inspector Thumm's efforts, occasionally interrupted by very short actions of Lane. This focus on the police investigation, and not on 'the great detective' can also be seen in the dynamic between the Inspector and the District Attorney in both books. Bruno in The Tragedy of X is a very important person in the investigation, but who of us still remember District Attorney Samson, who appeared very often in the earlier Queen novels? At some points the narrative does switch over to Lane though, who does a bit of sleuthing himself, though in retrospect, it appears to me some of that could've been done through the official channels anyway, despite Lane saying he wanted to keep some things secret from the Inspector and the D.A.

The whole premise of the first, and the consequent murders is also typical Queen. A lot of the early Queen novels had murders in strange, and often fairly public spaces. A murder in a theater, a murder in a department store, one during a rodeo show. The Tragedy of X starts off with a murder committed inside a packed street car, but follows up with even more deaths on means of public transportation. Because of that, we see another typical Queen device in The Tragedy of X: having to confine a lot of potential suspects and search each of them for clues, in the form of an object. Similar to how everyone in the Roman Theater was detained for search by Inspector Queen, Inspector Thumm also uses the 'search everybody and everywhere' command often in this novel. Queen loved this trope and has written many stories where there is a specific search for something and The Tragedy of X betrays its writer in that respect also. The Tragedy of X is a bit special in the sense that it does not make clear why Thumm's search will prove to be important until later, while in The Roman Hat Mystery, it was made quite clear what the inspector was searching for (hint: it's in the title).

In a sense, The Tragedy of X is a very over-the-top novel, and much more... energetic than most of Queen's other novels. The book starts right off with a mystery, and that's something we often see with Queen. But more deaths follow, accompanied by trails of clues and red herrings and the story basically is running at max speed until the very end. Few (early) Queen novels are as engaging as this one. One of the is The Greek Coffin Mystery though, which was published in the same year. Like that book, The Tragedy of X is divided in several 'acts', which keeps the reader's eyes glued to the pages. But this is also done by some weirdly grotesque devices: the murder weapon (the needles coated in nicotine sticking out of a cork) for example is one of the most bizarre, yet effective murder weapons I've ever seen. And there are some gruesome parts later in the story too (the second death in particular), which make this a captivating read.

But most of all, Queen's hand can be felt in the method in which Drury Lane solves the case. At the foundation, The Tragedy of X is "simply" a variation of a very classic trope of mystery fiction. But Lane arrives at that conclusion with the same logical reasoning we expect from an Ellery Queen novel. For a deeper (and more chaotic) write-up on the types of clues in Queen novels, I refer to this post, but in general, the "correct" way of solving a Queen novel is to figure out the characteristics we know the murderer must have and then see which of the suspects fits the pattern. Of course, figuring out those characteristics isn't as easy as it sounds, and demands quite some thinking, but it's usually a lot fairer than expecting the reader to point out the murderer by a sudden flash of genius. The Tragedy of X in particular is very memorable, because it is actually possible to figure out who the murderer very probably is at the very start of the book, as Drury Lane himself also states. The rest of the adventure mostly helps confirming his thoughts. While I think it's quite possible for a reader to correctly guess the murderer, I doubt many will have gone through the complete deduction chain Drury Lane presents at the end of the book, which is really the highlight of the book and a great example of logical reasoning in mystery fiction. This is obviously also the reason why it's so well-regarded.

Also of importance for Queen fans: The Tragedy of X has a dying message. The dying message was a favorite of the Queen cousins, and especially often seen in the short stories. I think The Tragedy of X might even be the first dying message of Queen, from the top of my head? The other novel I strongly associate with dying messages is The Siamese Twin Mystery, but that was published in 1933. The one from The Siamese Twin Mystery is much more interesting though.

The Tragedy of X is one of the better known books by Ellery Queen (Barnaby Ross) and rightfully so. It's a wonderful experiment in deduction and even though at the core, it's actually a very familiar problem, the execution is daring, impressive and memorable. Definitely of the must-reads of Queen.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Murder From the Bridge

「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"

And so, my first review of an Ayatsuji Yukito novel since the publication of The Decagon House Murders. *Insert disclaimer message that I translated the novel in English* But as I have been writing reviews for Ayatsuji novels years before I translated that book, I like to think I can still write these things without too much bias...

Ayatsuji Yukito has been a succesful mystery writer ever since his debut with The Decagon House Murders. His House/Yakata series has been received with much acclaim, he has been involved with other projects like TV and videogame productions and all is fine.... until one day he is visited by a mysterious young man "U", who feels awfully familiar to Ayatsuji. The young man presents him a "whodunit" script, a tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where participants are only given the first part of a mystery story, based on which they must deduce the criminal. Ayatsuji is not particularly charmed by "U"'s cheeky attitude, but takes on the challenge. And as he is being tricked, fooled and played with by "U"'s story, Ayatsuji slowly starts to recognize something of himself in "U" and the sort of mystery stories he writes in Ayatsuji Yukito's short story collection Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down", 1999).

I hope the summary is clear enough, but Dondonbashi, Ochita is a very meta-concious short story collection, as the author Ayatsuji Yukito himself stars as the main protagonist! At the essence, Dondonbashi, Ochita is a 'whodunit' collection. A whodunit is a game-esque tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where stories are split in "problem" and "answer" chapters: readers are challenged to solve the case based on the "problem" chapter, which contains all the necessary hints to determine the criminal. Written and unwritten rules include "there is only one criminal", "strength of motive is of no importance", "nothing outside the text exists", etcetera (see also this post). Ayatsuji Yukito was a very proficient writer of whodunits during his time at the club and its influence can therefore be felt throughout his works.

It's therefore quite amusing to see Ayatsuji being challenged himself with whodunit stories by the not-so-mysterious "U" (who is obviously a younger, more cheeky and childish Ayatsuji, as the initial comes from Ayatsuji's real name). Over the course of the collection, Ayatsuji gives harsh critiques on "U"'s writing style, for example pointing out that the characters feel artificial or that his writing is too dry, but that's exactly the critique Ayatsuji originally got when he himself debuted with The Decagon House Murders. The conversation between the "older" Ayatsuji and "young" Ayatsuji ("U") therefore reveal a lot about how much he has changed since his debut.

The stories are set across various points in Ayatsuji's career, and contain references to many of his works: from his House series to lesser known projects as the PlayStation game YAKATA - Nightmare Project and local TV drama shows. While there are no real spoilers, I do think that Dondonbashi, Ochita has more to offer if the reader has read a fair amount of Ayatsuji's work, as a big part of the book comes from its meta-approach.

As for the whodunit stories themselves, they are fun, but as Ayatsuji himself comments: they are not 'literature', but fairly dry stories that just give you the necessary info to solve the murder. Whodunit stories are by tradition in form closer to a game than actual literature, so some readers might feel the stories are just too boring, because sometimes they resemble lists of data. Because of the bare-bones set-up of most stories, I will write next to to nothing about the actual storylines: even that would spoil the fun a bit. The first two stories Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down") and Bouboumori, Moeru ("Boubou Forest is Burning Down") are definitely the best of the bunch: Ayatsuji is a master in getting the reader off-guard and twist endings, and these two are excellent examples of them. The solutions to these two stories wil have you cry foul play and say this is absolutely nonsense, yet you will also realize that Ayatsuji was absolutely fair and that there were more than enough hints pointing at those solutions. Dondonbashi, Ochita is also interesting in that it's actually also an impossible crime story, which you don't often see in these game-like whodunit stories. But still, you can't deny the data-lists-esque approach to the stories: especially the fact that all the important lines are bolded every time makes you think you're just going through a check off list of facts rather than reading an actual story.

Ferrari wa Miteita ("The Ferrari Saw") and Izonoke no Houkai ("The Fall of the House of Izono") are not linked to the "U" plot device and I think also weaker: they are solid whodunit plots, but they miss the grand shock factor of the previous stories (Ferrari has one, but is rather obvious, I thought). The last story, Igai na Hannin ("The Unexpected Murderer") has "U" challenge Ayatsuji
with a story Ayatsuji himself wrote (but forgot about). The story is based on a TV short drama Ayatsuji wrote for local TV stations (Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou also wrote one each). It's is a very short story that is built around a neat trick, but I've seen Ayatsuji use a very similar trick (in a different context) in a different story, so I caught on quite fast. I think that the basic trick has a lot more impact in this version though.

Dondonbashi, Ochita is a neat short story collection that features some of Ayatsuji's more trickier, but (purposely) blandly written stories. The stories can feel a bit childish, but are always completely fair and it takes no trouble picturing Ayatsuji grinning as he wrote these stories, with the simple goal of catching the reader by surprise. However, I think that the surrounding meta discussions about Ayatsuji and his novels really add to the enjoyment of this book. On the other hand though, I doubt this book is truly enjoyable for readers who have never read any other Ayatsuji novels, nor to people not familiar with the game-like 'whodunit' stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『どんどん橋、落ちる』: 「どんどん橋、落ちる」 / 「ぼうぼう森、燃える」 / 「フェラーリは見ていた」 / 「伊園家の崩壊」 / 「意外な犯人」

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Murder on Air

"All the world's a stage"
As You Like It

About four years ago, broadcasting station NHK started with what has become an annual event: Nazotoki Live ("Mystery Solving Live"). What makes this mystery TV show unique is the focus on interactivity: viewers back home can participate with the show through the interactive button on their remotes, and try solve the case themselves from the comfort of their own couch. The show includes not only of a mystery drama part, but also includes a live broadcast from the studio, where three studio guests try to solve the case, together with the other TV viewers. At set times, the drama part is paused, and the guests and viewers at home are asked questions related to the mystery drama. Everyone has a few minutes to think and answer. Correct answers result in points and the guests and the home detectives naturally all aim for a perfect score. After the intermezzo, the drama will continue again, and so forth until the whole mystery has been revealed.

Mystery author Ayatsuji Yukito was a studio guest for the second episode of the show, but this time, he was asked to write (and do a guest cameo role in) the fourth show, broadcast on two consecutive nights (23-24 January 2016). Also surprising was the appearance of Takumi Shuu as one of the studio guests: Takumi is the original creator of the Ace Attorney game series, so a person familiar with mystery fiction, as well as mystery fiction in the form of games in particular.

Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of the Locked Room of the Square House") isn't just the title of this year's show, it's also the title of the latest episode of the in-universe TV show Kigurumi Detective. While the script isn't finished yet, the basics are already decided: a man obsessed with cubes and squares is murdered in his mansion, inside the study which was locked from the inside. The members of Detection Club CATS, Miko (the brains) and Momo (photographer), as well as Momo's brother (policeman), are helping the production as 'experts' on the genre. The wealthy uncle of the director of the show also gave the studio permisson to film in his mansion, providing the perfect background. But the filming isn't going smoothly: the scenario writer won't finish the script, several of the crew members have personal issues with others and Miko even has to study for her university entry exams. But the biggest problem is of course when someone is found stabbed to death inside the study. Precisely like the episode the crew was about to shoot, the victim was found stabbed to death in the study, which was locked from inside. Can Miko and Momo, and more importantly, the viewer figure out who the murderer is?


This was the first time I watched the show (not live though), and it was a very unique experience. Shows like Ellery Queen, Furuhata Ninzaburou and Anraku Isu Tantei already featured elements of interactivity. Ellery Queen and Furuhata Ninzaburou always asked the viewer if they managed to figure it out too right before the detectives revealed the solution, and Anraku Isu Tantei actually gave viwers a whole week to think and send in their solutions. What makes Nazotoki Live unique is of course the fact it's a live show. This also translates to the way the show is structured. The shows I mentioned above only asked their questions at the end of the show. Nazotoki Live however constantly draws the viewers, and the studio guests, out of the drama to test them on their thinking. The story is structured to have several 'Thinking Points', where the studio guests have to show their deductions. For example, the first 'assignment' the studio guests got was to deduce how the locked room murder in the Kigurumi Detective episode was committed. They (and the viewers back home) are given about ten minutes to think things over and decide on their ideas. The drama then continues, revealing whether the guests got it right or not. Repeat a couple of times until the last question, which is of course: Whodunit?'


The show takes on a very game-esque structure. The guests are given cards to help them with their deductions. Character Cards naturally have all the characters (suspects) of the show, while Data Cards record all the revelant facts to the case. Guests have to answer the questions with these cards (for example: "Who Is The Murderer?" or "Based on What Fact Does Miko Think It Might Be Murder?"). TV viewers also have access to the same cards, either through the interactive menu on their TV or via the official website. The use of 'data cards' is something you see extremely often in mystery games: from the Ace Attorney games (which uses "evidence" and "profiles") to the Detective Conan games and many, many more. The cards are very useful, because there's just so much information. This is where the older show Anraku Isu Tantei dropped the ball, being way too complex without supplementary materials to help the viewer. That said: I think that the show is still a bit difficult if you only watch the TV broadcast. The Data Cards are really handy to get everything sorted out in your head, so it's advisable to have a smartphone or laptop near you with the official website on your browser.


The presence of the three studio guests is also very entertaining. I once wrote a post about how it's fun to observe how people tackle mystery fiction each in their own way. In that post, I talked about Game Center CX, a TV show where a comedian plays videogames and comments on them. Nowadays "Let's Plays" videos have become popular: footage of people playing games and comment on what they're doing. Nazotoki Live has elements of that, as we follow the three studio guests as they think out loud about who the murderer is. And it's pretty fun to see everyone arriving at different conclusions for different reasons. One of the reasons I watched this episode was because I wanted to see Takumi Shuu (creator of the Ace Attorney games) in action, and you could clearly see he was used to thinking 'according to mystery fiction rules', while Makita Sports, who has been a studio guest for all four episodes, deduced based on his experience with the show ("That wouldn't been good TV-wise"). The viewer is also shown the results of the polls of the participants back home, but those are not as interesting: it's much more fun hearing the studio guests explain their choices, rather than seeing a bunch of graphs.


And to bring it back to the actual mystery plot of the show: it was a very fair, but also complex whodunit plot, as expected from Ayatsuji. The plot features fairly 'standard' whodunit procedure: figure out the characteristics of the murderer and eliminate all the persons who do not fit the profile until you have your murderer (see also this post on clues in mystery fiction). Shikakukan no Misshitsu was an excellent example of how to do a deep, but also very fair mystery plot, which you can solve as long as you carefully consider the meaning of each clue. Whodunits like this actually don't need much imagination to be solved, because at the root, they are constructed like puzzles and have a very mechnical feel to them. Turn a puzzle piece around often enough and you're bound to see where it fits. Both the guests in the studio and the viewers back home have more than a fair chance at solving the mystery themselves with the material available to them and in fact, the studio guest come really, really close.

What deserves special mention is the last scene of the first episode. It features a brilliant reveal that should go in the canon of visual mystery fiction. It manages to turn everything, all your deductions up to that point, up side down without even one word spoken. Ayatsuji excels in these moments, where he can create a turnabout with minimal tools. Everything in your head changes, but it's never confusing; you instantly understand why everything is different now and it's very satisfying. What's also interesting is the setting of a film crew: Ayatsuji used this device together with Arisugawa Alice several times when they wrote Anraku Isu Tantei.

Shikakukan no Misshitsu was in several ways a very entertaining watch. The mystery plot itself was great and really makes fantastic use of its medium. And the way the show focuses on 'the solving' aspect is also very amusing: thinking along with the studio guests gives a stimulus you wouldn't get otherwise. I wonder if similar shows exist outside Japan?

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive 四角館の密室殺人事件』

Sunday, January 24, 2016

再生 -Rebuild-: the Writer Alice series

Last week a TV adaptation of this particular series started on Japanese TV, so I thought this was a good time for a new Rebuild post, which serves as an introduction to some of the longer series I discuss here. Links to all related reviews, short introduction, discussion on general series tropes, it's all here.

Writer Alice / Himura Hideo series (Author: Arisugawa Alice)
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") [1992]
Dali no Mayu ("Dali's Cocoon") [1993]
Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") [1994]
Sweden Kan no Nazo ("The Swedish Mansion Mystery") [1995]
Brazil Chou no Nazo ("The Brazilian Butterfly Mystery') [1996]
Eikoku Teien no Nazo ("The English Garden Mystery") [1997]
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("The Castle of Screams Murder Case") [2001]
Malay Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railroad Mystery") [2002]
Swiss Dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Clock Mystery") [2003]
Kisaki wa Fune wo Shizumeru ("The Queen Sinks The Boat") [2008]
Nagai Rouka no Aru Ie ("The House With The Long Hallway") [2010]
(Because the series is quite long, I've only listed the titles I've actually reviewed)

The Writer Alice series, alternatively known as the Himura Hideo series, is about mystery writer Arisugawa Alice (a male) and his friend Himura Hideo. Himura teaches criminology at Kyoto's Eito University, but his keen mind is also recognized by the police, who often ask him for help with difficult cases. Himura considers his cooperation the police to be 'fieldwork' for his research. Alice is his close friend, whom he first met when they themselves were students at Eito University. Himura often asks Alice to accompany him during his fieldwork, because occassionally Alice being a mystery writer actually comes in handy, but mostly because he is a friend he trusts (despite the many jokes at Alice's expense) and can use as a sounding board.

Note that the narrator shares the name Arisugawa Alice with the (pen name of the) writer of the books, like Ellery Queen. To keep them apart, I refer to the actual writer as Arisugawa on the blog, while I use Alice for the character (I similarly use Ellery for the character, and Queen for the writer-duo).

Whereas previous Rebuild posts looked at major series tropes, I'd say that the Writer Alice series is actually quite diverse, with no real major series tropes. Sure, the series is of course loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes model with a brilliant detective and his writer sidekick (Himura still lives in his student apartment room, with the elderly landlord granny taking care of him), but the cases themselves are about all kinds of mysteries: sometimes it's about solving traditional locked room murders or serial killings, but at other times Himura and Alice are wrecking their brains on secret codes or other less criminal mysteries. Because of his work, Himura is often asked by the police for help with criminal investigation, but occassionally his students bring (less criminal) problems to him, and even Alice himself has a tendency to come across little problems while writing his books. The Writer Alice series probably has something to offer to every fan of the genre, in both novel form as short story form. On the other hand, I'd say that the quality of the series isn't always consistent: there are some really great stories that invoke the Ellery Queen spirit for example, but some stories don't show as much ambition. Hit or miss is too harsh, but sometimes it's hit or meh. It's also a very long series.

One interesting trope might be the setting of most of the stories though. Himura's homeground is in Kyoto, as he teaches at Eito University (which is based on the actual Doshisha University). Alice lives in nearby Osaka, so most of the stories in the series are set in the Kinki (Kansai) region of Japan. Many mystery novels are set in Tokyo, but in the Writer Alice series, you're more likely to see a scene set at Namba Station than at Shinjuku Station. Note also that Alice speaks in Osaka dialect (even though the narration in the books is always in standard Japanese). The series therefore has a distinct Kansai feel to it.

The relation between Himura and Alice is also a focal point of the series. The constant teasing between the two also betrays how close the two are, and it has attracted a fairly large female fanbase, from what I gather. Sherlock has done the same in more recent years with its portrayal of the Sherlock & Watson dynamic, but the Writer Alice series has been doing this for many, many years. It's definitely no coincidence that the audio dramas of this series were produced by Momogre / Momo & Grapes, which mostly caters to the female fanbase with a love of coupling men. The bickering between Himura and Alice is also a part that betrays its Osaka roots however, as well, people from Osaka are known / stereotyped as rather talkative and easygoing.

There is no real overarching storyline for this series, so you can pick up any book and start from there. Personally, I think the first novel, 46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") was a fun novel, so you might as well start there, but it really doesn't really matter which book you pick up.

Note that Arisugawa actually has two series that both have an Arisugawa Alice as its protagonist. Besides the Writer Alice series, there's also the Student Alice series, which stars a student with the same name (See also this Rebuild post of the Student Alice series). Interestingly enough, each Alice supposedly writes the other Alice. So the Alice from the Writer Alice series writes the Student Alice series, while in the Student Alice series, that Alice is writing the Writer Alice series. Confusing? It sure is! What's interesting though is that while this series does take on a Sherlock Holmes model, Alice isn't writing about his adventures with Himura. Most detective + writer sidekick stories usually have the writer basing his stories on their adventures, but in this series, they have little to do with each oether.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Death of the Living Dead

「君死にたもうことなかれ」 
与謝野晶子

"Prithee do not die"
Yosano Akiko

Once again time for a Short Shorts post, where I write shorter reviews/thoughts on multiple mystery media, as opposed to longer, focused reviews. Mainly because I can't think of enough (relevant) material to fill a complete post with. Short shorts are usually only posted once in six months or so here, but this is the second post within the month! Anyway, just two topics for today. 

The latest volume of Detective Conan, volume 88, was released over a month ago, so I'm a bit late with this review. The volume starts with the last chapter of The Secret of the Big Couple, which was fairly disappointing. The first two chapter of this story, collected in volume 87, were absolutely hilarious. This final chapter focuses almost solely on explaining who the murderer of the restaurant owner is and how it was done. The trick was fairly original, but read on its own, this chapter is incredibly boring, especially given how fantastic the first half of the story was. Maybe I should read the story in one go. The volume also ends with an incomplete story, The Girl Band Murder Case, where Sonoko's idea to form a girl band with Ran and Sera Masumi brings them to a rehearsal studio. A murder is (of course!) committed there, and the suspects are all members of another girl band practicing at the studio. I'll have to wait for volume 89 in April for the conclusion of this story, but to be honest, it looks like one of those fairly predictable stories that are technically well constructed, but not really memorable. Okay, there's the namedropping of a Black Organization member called Scotch, but that's it (No, it's not a real spoiler. They actually put that little fact on the obi of the volume).

Volume 88 features only two complete stories. The Suspect Who Uses Too Much Condiments brings us back to the (relocated) ramen noodle restaurant from Deadly Delicious Ramen from volume 73. The police recently chased a robber who killed his victim down to the restaurant, but they have no idea which of the three regular customers present is their prey (the three regulars all arrived around the same time). Of late, the three have also gotten new eating habits: one uses a lot of pepper in his food, another uses a lot of soy sauce, and the last a lot of vinegar, but how does this relate to the crime? Overall, a fairly chaotic story. I loved the setting (Deadly Delicious Ramen was one of my favorite stories of the year!), but even I'd say this story feels more like a collection of random ideas with little cohesion. Also: it's strange this story follows right after The Secret of the Big Couple, because they have one point that is really similar.

The Tragedy of the Zombie Mansion on the other hand features Hattori, which is always good for bonus points. Kogorou drags everybody along to a mansion where an old zombie film featuring his favorite idol Youko was filmed. They come across a small filming team, who reveal they're here to film material for a trailer for the sequel to that film (not starring Youko though). But mysterious thing happen: the producer apparently commits suicide, while later his dead body is seen killing another staff member. And then the whole mansion is attacked by a horde of zombies! What's going on? A lot! I'd say this was a decent story, but nothing more than that. The main trick of the dead coming back alive is fairly flawed, as there's absolutely no way nobody wouldn't have noticed that! There's also a bit about an impossible disappearance from a room that was better, but even still not particularly inspiring (though I thought the hint was quite clever). Overall, I'd say that volume 88 was a bit disappointing: there were only two complete stories and only one of them was okay. Oh well, let's hope April's volume is better.

Last week, the TV drama  Rinshou Hanzai Gakusha - Himura Hideo no Suiri ("The Clinical Criminlogist - The Deductions of Himura Hideo") started. The series is based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. Himura Hideo is an university teacher of Criminology, who often helps with official police investigations (as his "fieldwork"). He is accompanied by his best friend and mystery writer Arisugawa Alice. While I don't like all the books in the series, I do enjoy the series overall, so I was quite curious to this adaptation of the series. The first episode was based on the short story Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken (" -The Castle of Screams- Murder Case"). Like I already mentioned in my review of the audio drama adaptation: it's an okay story, but nothing more than that. A bit underwhelming for a series pilot, but at least the episode already gave us some glimpses of what will follow (there was a set-up for Shuiro no Kenkyuu / "A Study in Vermillion" for example).


But I'm still not sure what to think about the series in general. One thing I really loved was that the series has a distinct Kyoto flavor. Himura teaches at Kyoto's Eito University (= thinly disguised Doshisha University) and the series features a lot of nice shots of the ancient capital of Japan (the opening has a nice Kyoto-atmosphere too). But some of the director's ideas didn't set too well with me. The series blatantly tries to copy Sherlock for example. They dress Himura in a long dark coat, show him in manic states, show text from a laptop on the TV screen for the viewer and more. Heck, they even have Himura jump off into the dark in a dream sequence. To be honest: it only hurts this series, because this isn't Sherlock and it shouldn't even need to try to emulate that series. Also, the Himura in the TV series is a bit different from the one in the books (I've read). There's a bit of Sherlock's Sherlock in him and for some reason Himura's catchphrase has become "This crime isn't beautiful", even though that would seem like the last thing Himura from the books would ever say! Alice was okay though in the first episode, and it was fun hearing him refering to some of the stories he wrote (which are the books known as the Student Alice series). Anyway, some good, some bad.

And that's it for today. A new volume of The Young Kindaichi Case Files R was released a few days back, but I'm still not sure whether I'll wait for the next volume to do them in one go, because stories in that series often span two volumes. Considering the publication schedule, I might wait until the next Conan volume (in April).

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第88巻, 有栖川有栖(原) 『臨床犯罪学者 火村英生の推理』