Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Adventure of the Dancing Men

"There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet."
"His Last Bow"

I've reviewed only one mystery game this year, it seems (and a couple of other game-related materials). Huh. Still have a few more planned for this year, but still, that's surprisingly few game reviews this year.

The greatest challenge facing the Meiji government in Japan around the turn of the 19th century was the modernization of all facets of the country, including its legal system. One year ago, Naruhodou Ryuunosuke made his way from the Japanese capital to Victorian London to study as British law as part of an official government exchange mission. He became friends with the brilliant, yet very eccentric Mr. Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, the renowned detective whose exploits have become known all over the world thanks to the stories published in Strand Magazine. Ryuunosuke eventually made a name for his name in Old Bailey, as he learned that wherever on the world, defendants will always need the help of defense attorneys to stand by them in their time of need. The truth behind the at times zany, but always complex cases Ryuunosuke solved not only showed that London's perhaps not the bright place he imagined it to be, but little could he have guessed that all the adventures he had over the last year would all intersect and come together to reveal a truth about the darkness that envelops modern, enlightened London. Standing in court to protect other asks for courage from a defense attorney, but does Ryuunosuke also have the resolve to remain there even in the most difficult of times in the 2017 Nintendo 3DS game Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo ("The Grand Turnabout Trial 2 ~ The Resolve of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke").

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is a direct sequel to 2015's Dai Gyakuten Saiban, a spin-off game of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney game series. In this series of comedic adventure mystery games, you take up the role of a defense attorney solving cases and revealing the true culprits behind murders in the courtroom. The original series was conceived by Takumi Shuu, who would eventally leave the main series for side-projects like Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban. He brought us Dai Gyakuten Saiban in 2015, which was a spin-off game set in the London of Sherlock Holmes, who also played a big role in the story. The sequel Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was long-awaited, mostly because the first game was clearly just the first half of a story: many plot points were not resolved in the first game, and this left a pretty bad aftertaste for what was in fact a fun game, but which was clearly not "complete". Whereas previous games in the series were always designed as standalone games, Dai Gyakuten Saiban simply could not stand on its own with all those unanswered questions and hooks, so fans were quite eager to see how Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 would turn out.


The essence of Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is of course still same as always. The core has always been built around solid mystery plots with a good touch of comedy, set in the courtroom, featuring the so-called contradiction system. The player, as defense attorney Ryuunosuke, needs to point out contradictions between witness testimony and evidence. Pointing out a contradiction leads to new testimony, which in turn leads to new contradictions and by slowly unraveling the thread like a True Columbo, the player eventually figures out the identity of the true murderer. In the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, you'll also occasionally have to reason with the jurors in order to turn their guilty vote in one of not-guilty, which you of course do by pointing out contradictions in their lines of thought. Nothing has been changed in these mechanics for this second game, but you don't have to fix what's not broken, right? Finding contradictions by carefully comparing what the various weird witnesses claim, and the evidence you have at hand is still a great feeling, as you really feel that you, as the player, figured out what's wrong. I reckon that's how Columbo is feeling all the time. As you solve each contradiction one by one, you also gain better understanding of how each case unfolds, rather than havng a detective character explaining everything at the end of a tale in the denouement. Few games have come up with better ways to translate the "puzzle solving" of mystery fiction into such an intinuitive game mechanic.


Sherlock Holmes plays an important role in the Dai Gyakuten Saiban games, not only as a character in the story, but also as a game mechanic. The Holmes in these games is quite comedic, with a very silly side to him (don't forget, the stories in Strand Magazine are fiction!), and that side to him is also reflected in his deductions. For Holmes once said "From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." and that is basically what Holmes does in this game. He presents brilliant deductions based on very small clues. The problem: He's usually looking at the wrong clue, which means that while his method is good, his starting point is usually wrong, which results in him arriving at very surprising (yet "brilliant) conclusions (to use the example above, he's supposed to start with a drop of water, but deduces a desert based on a grain of sand). In these scenes, you're supposed to 'guide' the flow of Holmes' deductions the right way by ever so gently indicating the correct clue/starting point. It's a very fun mechanic, that reminds of mystery writers like Queen, Brand and Berkeley, who often show in their books how chains of deductions can change completely just by adding or removing one single clue. Conan also often does the same by 'nudging' Kogorou in the right direction in Detective Conan. The presentation of these scenes is excellent by the way, showing off how Holmes' mind works in a very extravagant way, and there is one scene in particular in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 that is absolutely amazing.

So you use these mechanics (together with simply talking with all the suspects/investigating the crime scenes) to solve various cases over the course of the game, which brings us to the mystery plots. We are treated to familiar tropes like fantastical, yet baffling locked room murders (especially locked room murders, now I think about it), and most of the cases make excellent use of the setting of late nineteenth/early twentieth century, with some of them very unique to the time period. Efforts are of course taken so the 'modern player' knows what's up, but the fact that these cases work because they are set in that time period is definitely worthy of praise. There are some unique settings, like a Chamber of Horrors in a wax museum or a shabby apartment building with walled-up windows because of window tax, but also a case revolving around a daring scientific experiment gone wrong, which adds a bit of a steampunk feel to the setting. The London of this game is definitely not historically accurate in every detail, but the world-view is consistent enough for every player to know what is possible, and what is not, and that is the most important for a mystery story.


What I thought was unfortunate though was that a lot of the core mystery plots in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 were very easy to identify, as they come from fairly well-known stories. Of course, Takumi Shuu has often used famous tricks and scenes from mystery fiction in his game as a homage/reference (the original three Gyakuten Saiban games have several scenes straight out of Columbo for example), but in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2, it is overly clear where the core trick came from, especially as the source material is not particular obscure. So each time, I was hoping it would turn out not to be the same as story X, only to find out that it was basically exactly the same as story X. I thought this was a shame, as Takumi is usually very capable of building much more around a basic trick, while this time, it seems the effort to rework these ideas into more original concepts was not as intensive. So while the main plots of this game make good use of the time period, I can't deny that it's also because they are based very obviously on stories that actually date from that time period. That said though, Takumi also makes sure to play with the fans' expectations of how things will go. It's something he already did in the first Dai Gyakuten Saiban, but he does the same in this second game (though arguably not as effective).

The experienced mystery fan, or specifically the Holmesians with us, will have a lot of fun picking up on the numerous references to the Canon though. Some familiar names are used in surprising ways, and there's even a very daring take on Holmes lore revealed near the end of the game. Some might find it lacking in respect for the original stories, but I absolutely loved it as an original way to play with the whole idea of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and it's one that fits perfectly within the world of Dai Gyakuten Saiban (which doesn't pretend it's the ultimate interpretation of Holmes anyway. It's simply an original take on the character and everything around him).


As I mentioned earlier, the greatest point of criticism aimed at the first game was the fact that it was clearly just the first part of a longer story, with many plot points addressed, but simply unresolved. The marketing campaign for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 was thus very eager to emphasize that all the mysteries would be revealed in this second game, which it fortunately did. I can safely recommend people who played the first game and felt dissatisfied about the story to play this second game, as it really does answer all the pertinent questions you may have. But this second game also made clear that this story was really not meant to be split in two. Writer Takumi basically admitted in an interview that the scale of the story he came up with was too large for one game, but that doesn't mean it was a story fit for multiple parts/games. He simply wrote too much. Each of the games is quite long (I ticked in at around 24 hours for each game), so you could hardly expect them to have put everything in one single game, but the story structure makes it clear that most of the episodes originally belonged together, but were sliced up in two episodes, and in some instances, spread aross the two games. One episode in Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 is closely related to an episode from the first game for example, but they would've worked much better had they been in the same game in terms of hinting, and in fact, I suspect that they originally did belong back-to-back, or that they were actually one story. The way Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 relies so much on references (plot points/clues) to the first game, and especially the manner in which foreshadowing/clues are structured, make me suspect that this was always meant to be one big story.

There are of course mediums that split their story in two or more parts in an effective manner, for example the two live-action Death Note films or Rurouni Kenshin: Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends, but that does not hold for Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2. I also think the structure of the Gyakuten Saiban series might have hindered the development of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series. Traditionally, each game has always consisted of distinct episodes (which may or may not also have interlinking story elements), but I feel that some parts of the Dai Gyakuten Saiban series would've worked better as a contineous story, rather than arbirary seperating them in episodes. So following the Sherlock Holmes model, I think a "novel" structure would've worked better for some elements than the short story collection model.


Another reason why the two Dai Gyakuten Saiban games feel like they were originally one set is the extensive reuse of assets. Many characters, locations and music tracks return from the first game, making it difficult to differentiate them. The new tracks are all great, but there are only relatively few original compositions, so that's a bit disappointing. So while it really does look and sound great, there's also a great sense of déjà vu, again weaking the feeling that you're truly playing something new, instead making it feel like you're just playing the continuation of something that shouldn't have been split up in the first place.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo is an excellent mystery game, but it can not stand on its own. It works because there is a Dai Gyakuten Saiban that posed the questions answered in this sequel. The game offers, on the whole, interesting and captivating mystery plots that make good use of the unique setting, and it also plays a lot with the Sherlock Holmes character for surprising results, but from start to finish you feel that this is simply the second half of a story. So I can only recommend the game if you've played the first game. Together, they form a fantastic series of mystery games that rank among the best, but its ambition is also what makes each individual game not as strong on its own.

Original Japanese title(s): 『大逆転裁判2 -成歩堂龍ノ介の覺悟』

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Time Hollow

The days and the months are drifting by
As though they didn't notice seasons changing in the breeze 
They all look the same but I sense something's there
"Time Hollow" (Mouse)

It might be because of where I live, but I've never really understood the preference of some cultures/societies for the am/pm denotion of time, rather than a twenty-four clock. Why would you choose to say 08:00, but add am/pm to specify what you really mean because 08:00 on its own is confusing and you know it, while you could also use 08:00 and 20:00: two distinct denotations of two distinctly different points in time. It's way more efficient!

It was attorney Morie Shunsaku's assistant Tomoka who was the most excited about her boss's latest gig, even though she wouldn't be involved herself. Morie had agreed to take over a certain task from one of his colleagues, and this task brought Morie all the way to the countryside, to the ancestral home of the Amachis. Keijirou had inherited the place as the head of the family after the death of his father, immediately followed by the death of his older brother. Keijirou had remained single until death, and poured all his attention to collecting antique Japanese clocks: at the time he died, his home was full of restored Japanese clocks, and there was even a clock tower with the traditional Japanese time system. Morie is sent to this Japanese Clock Mansion to read Keijirou's will, but little did he know that his task would be the start signal for murder. Morie wakes up in the middle of the night after the reading, and he is witness from his room in the annex to a struggle going on in the main mansion, which eventually becomes a murder. But he learns to his great surprise there was no murderer inside the room where it all happened when the door was forced open, even though Morie had his eyes on the room right up to the moment the other group entered the room in question. The police quickly learns of Morie's reputation as a gifted amateur detective, so they ask him to think along too in Ashibe Taku's Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Japanese Clock Mansion Murders", 2000).

Right from the start Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin lets you know that you are indeed reading a very, very classically-structured mystery novel. The characters themselves are luckily meta-concious enough to notice that 1) a reading of a will for a wealthy family with complicated interpersonal relations and shady pasts, coupled with 2) a mansion filled with Japanese clocks and a genuine clock tower in the countryside and 3) a mysterious bandaged man appearing in the house, well, this combination can not end well. If you're faced with these elements, yes, you are very likely a fictional character in a story highly inspired by Yokomizo Seishi's novels. Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin might be written in 2000 (the paperback version I read dates from 2004), but in terms of atmosphere, it's definitely a throwback to Yokomizo's postwar classics.

Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin, and Ashibe Taku's Morie Shunsaku series in general, is usually fairly reserved when it comes to playing the meta game compared to works from other writers like Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice, whose books are usually filled with references. In comparison, Ashibe usually keeps references to other mystery novels just below surface (usually through comments made by assistant Tomoka). Ashibe does know his stuff though (as seen in his The Exhibition of Great Detectives series among other), but he chooses to not indulge too much into that in this particular series. Still: even without the references you can clearly tell Ashibe likes his classics, as Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is brimming with familiar tropes and elements. The book is never really surprising, and a lot of situations feel, well, not clichéd perhaps, but a bit too familiar. Is that a bad thing for a classic puzzle plot mystery? Not per se, but I have to admit at times the book almost felt more like a parody, because it was so straight a take on classic tropes that it felt almost as a critique. Perhaps it's just me, and perhaps I've seen too many of these situations, but the basic outline of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin felt at times more like a Stereotypical Japanese Mystery than a genuine Japanese mystery, and I doubt that was the intention.

As a mystery tale, Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is a reasonably complex one, with multiple murders including an impossible one (with a disappearing murderer) and one has to praise Ashibe for connecting a lot of loose elements into one, consistent plot. There are a lot of things going in terms of the mystery plot, and some of the ideas are pretty clever. There is a pretty subtle misdirection trick early on in the novel for example, and another with a certain kind of secret message (which by the way is basically impossible to translate in a natural manner). Most of these elements are on their own not very surprising, but by expertly linking them together, Ashibe manages to come up with a satisfying plot. Craftmanship is something that can change simple ideas in great execution, and I think this novel is an example of how to use plotting effectively.

The one big problem of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is also its greatest strength. I have noted in previous reviews of Ashibe's works that his stories often entail a lot of historic research, especially in regards to bibliophilic topics. While the main theme of this particular story might not be about literature, it is clear that Ashibe did read up on the topic of Japanese clocks, and pre-modern time systems in Japan. Japanese clocks are pretty unique, we are told, as whereas most cultures adopting Western clocks also adopted the Western two-times twelve hours system that go with those clocks, Japanese engineers used the Western mechanics to show Japanese time (which was quite different, with "hours" with variable lengths depending on the season). The start of Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin is admittedly a bit slow, as Morie (and the reader) are given a lecture on ancient Japanese time systems, but like I often feel about this side of Ashibe's work, I I thought it was pretty interesting. I already knew a bit about it, but I thought the topic engaging, and of course, I knew it'd pop up later in relation to the main mystery.

And that's also the problem, because when you have a story about a mansion filled with Japanese clocks, and you're given a lecture about it, you can bet it will be of importance to the mystery plot. Considering the theme, I think most people can make a fairly good guess about the role of the Japanese clocks, and that kinda spoils the surprise of the novel. Ashibe boldly references another, fairly well-known mystery novel that used a similar idea (though in a completely different manner), which shows even more of his cards (I have a review of the book in question, but I'll refrain from linking to it). The actual trick behind the main mystery is...too complex for its own good by the way. It's clever, yes, but the puzzle asks so much of the reader, you're inclined to just give up and nod to what you're told. Puzzle plot mysteries are fun, but there's a line between a fun puzzle plot, and a puzzle plot that becomes a chore. Here, large parts of the puzzle almost feel like a chore, even though I can see that on a structural and contents level, it's a crafty one.

So I'm a bit divided on Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin. I can't deny it's a very cleverly structured puzzle plot mystery, even if the premise is undeniably a bit too familiar, but the main theme and mystery of the novel are also a bit too clever for its own good, weakening its own position. I wouldn't recommend the book to someone as an introduction to Morie Shunsaku, I think, as it feels a bit uneven because of the points raised above, but it is certainly not a bad, nor even mediocre mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『和時計の館の殺人』

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Sing A Song of Sixpence

"No lesser crime than murder will suffice."
"Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories"

Not that this is a bad cover (to the contrary!), but I do miss the bold use of the color yellow of the previous two volumes.... 

Urazome Tenma is almost an urban legend at his high school, as while he's easily one of the top students there, Tenma seldom interacts with his fellow classmates and the few that do know him, mostly know him for being incredibly lazy and selfish. What even fewer people know however is that he's actually living on the school grounds, as he's secretly confiscated one of the club rooms after having run away from home. Most of his free time is spent on his hobbies, like watching anime, reading manga or sleeping. But that Tenma's actually capable of miracles if he sets his mind to it, as was proven in the few months before the summer holiday of his second year, as he managed to solve the impossible murder that happened inside his school's gymnasium, as well as a gruesome murder that was committed in the local aquarium. Aosaki Yuugo's Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") details a series of smaller adventures that Tenma and his friends encountered during the summer holiday after the previous two cases happened.

Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") was originally published in 2014 as the third book in Aosaki Yuugo's Urazome Tenma series, and the first short story collection in this series. I read the paperback version, which was released in 2017. The book, as well as all the stories included, all feature alternative English titles by the way, which are not direct translations of the original titles. Aosaki is an author who is obviously inspired by Ellery Queen, and the previous novels all featured alternative English titles named in the Queen spirit ("The [Color] [Noun] Mystery"). In this book, the stories have English titles in the spirit of Ellery Queen's early short story collections The Adventures of Ellery Queen (and The New Adventures of Ellery Queen), and thus feature the title format "The Adventure of...".

The book opens with Mou Isshoku Eraberu Donburi ("A Rice Bowl Where You Can Choose One Extra Dish"), which carries the alternative English title The Adventure of the Missing Chopsticks. I had already read this particular story earlier this year, and even wrote a review about it, and there's little I want to add to that. It's a brilliant short story that presents a very normal, but puzzling mystery (Why did a student dump their tray and half-eaten rice bowl just outside the school cafeteria, even though it'd have taken no effort to bring it to the drop-off point?) as a meticulously constructed logic puzzle for the reader to deduce this seemingly nonsensical deed was done. It is a perfect example of the everyday life mystery, that changes an innocent, almost meaningless circumstance to an amusing mystery story by simply asking "Why?" and "How?" about things you normally wouldn't think twice about. The mystery also fits the school setting of this series perfectly, much more actually than the murders we saw in the previous two novels.

The title story Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery"), or The Adventure of the Summer Festival, is set at a summer festival held at a shrine. Yuno's brother (a policeman) has to swing by with some drinks for the local policemen on guard here, with Yuno tagging along to enjoy the festival mood and food. She meets with Tenma at the festival, as well as with schoolmate Kaori and Tenma's younger sister Kyouka. During their chats however, they realize something weird is going on at this festival, for a great number of food stalls at this festival are returning all of their change in 50 yen coins, instead of the more common 100 yen coins. But why?

A surprisingly normal, yet weird puzzle, but one with roots in reality. For this story is actually a variation on a real-life mystery the author Wakatake Nanami encountered once when she was working part-time in a bookstore. Each Saturday, a man would appear with twenty 50 yen coins, asking her to exchange it for a thousand yen bill, with no explanation as to why. This enigmatic incident later formed the basis of a collaboration work published by Tokyo Sogen, with both professional mystery authors (like Norizuki Rintarou and Arisugawa Alice) and amateur writers offering their reasons to Wakatake's conundrum. A second volume was also released, with even more possible solutions.

But back to Aosaki's story. The problem is deliciously innocent yet puzzling, because whether you get your 200 yen change back as four 50 yen coins or two 100 yen coins shouldn't really matter, but it's still a problem that will slightly bug you. While the story revolves around such a 'nonsensical' problem, the actual plot structure is quite good, with proper hinting and even false solutions to put you off-guard (with adequate hints and proof to show why the false solutions are wrong). The solution is also wonderfully innocent, yet convincing enough to what at first sight might seem to be a rather mundane occurance.

Harimiya Eriko no Third Impact ("Harimiya Eriko's Third Impact"), or The Adventure of Rieko Harimiya, stars the titular Eriko, once a problem child who bullied others, but who of late has been trying to become a better person, or at least not a bully anymore. Part of the reason for her change is that she recently started dating Saotome, who's one year younger than her. Saotome is also the only boy in the school's brass band, and they are also rehearsing during the summer holiday at school. Eriko learns that the last few days, Saotome has been sent out to buy water for everyone to drink during their practice sessions, but that every time he returns, the girls have locked the room, forcing him to cry out loud for them to open the door for him. Eriko suspects he's being bullied by the other girls in the band, but can't really accuse them of anything considering her own past. Desperate, Eriko decides to ask Tenma to figure out why they're bullying Otome and to solve the problem for her.

This reminds me, the previous two novels were filled with both obvious and obscure reference to manga and anime, because of Tenma's hobbies, but as he isn't the main character in these stories, there are actually fewer of these references in this book. Or at least, I noticed fewer of them. The Third Impact from this story is obviously a reference to Neon Genesis Evangelion however. As for the story itself, it features a mystery that is obviously very strongly connected with the school setting (suspected bullying), but the truth behind the case is also wonderfully fitting, and is ingeniously hinted at through various hints and happenings that occur throughout the story. The everyday life mystery is a difficult genre, as it is difficult to have puzzling situations and solutions that are both mundane yet alluring. While the problem in this story might seem a bit too mundane, the solution is really convincing, but with just enough of wonder to surprise the reader.

Tenshitachi no Zanshomimai ("A Visit During A Lingering Heat By Angels"), or The Adventure of the Twin Angels, is about a curious incident described by a senior member of the school's Theater Club in one of his idea notebooks, with the writer claiming that he really experienced the following tale. He was one day dozing off after school soon after the summer holiday was over, but then made his way over to his classroom on the second floor, only to see two of his female classmates in a passionate embrace standing near the window. He quickly backed away, turning back to the hallway. But after some time, he decided to go in anyway, only to see the two girls had disappeared, even though he had his eyes on the classroom door all the time. So how did those girls leave that room completely unseen? The solution was something I had not thought off, though I think that Japanese readers have an advantage here, as it involves a certain custom not as common where I grew up, but more so in Japan (in fact, I first experienced myself in Japan too). Once you think off it, the mystery of the disappearing girls makes a lot more sense, and once again the hinting is impeccable, with careful wording and seemingly innocent statements always coming back at the end of the tale to explain what happened in a logical way.

The final full story in this volume is Sono Kabin ni Gochuui wo ("Please Mind That Vase"), or The Adventure of the Silent Vase, which stars Tenma's younger sister Kyouka, who studies at an elite junior high. She's having a talk with her friend Himemari in a classroom when it is discovered that the flower vase placed in the hallway outside the classroom was broken, with the shards, flowers and water spread all across the floor. As a member of the student council, Himemari obviously has to investigate who broke the vase, until she realizes something strange is going on: neither she nor Kyouka had seen anyone pass through the hallway while they were in the classroom, nor had they heard the sound of the vase breaking. So did it break on its own, silently? The story is very similar in idea to the earlier two novels in the series, as it focuses on the movements (and alibis) of characters and there's even a diagram of that section of the school for the reader to trace the movements of everyone involved, but the story feels a bit too hasty for its own good. The basic idea behind this story is to figure out who could've broken that vase without anyone hearing it, but the reader is given next to no time to contemplate the problem themselves, and the mystery itself feels much more 'constructed' than the previous stories, which felt much more natural and in line with the everyday life mystery. This story on the other hand features a character who acts just like the culprit in a complex mystery story with almost uncanny knowledge about the movements of all the other characters in order for them to commit that heineous crime of breaking a vase unseen and unheard. While this was in a way the M.O. in the two novels in this series, it really doesn't fit the tone of the other stories in this volume. So it's a bit too smart, a bit too 'conventional crime'-esque.

The volume also contains a very short bonus story, Sekai Ichi Ikokochi no Warui Sauna ("The Worst Sauna To Be In"), which is not a proper mystery story, but shows a bit more insight in Tenma's relation with a certain family member. I suspect it might also serve as 'laying the ground' for the fourth book in the series.

While the last few stories were not as strong as the first few, Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo has proven itself to be an excellent short story collection that mixes impressively structured detective plots with incidents that seem mundane at first sight, but prove to be vexingly puzzling, resulting in very alluring everday life mysteries. The school setting is used to its fullest, and the volume also fleshes out the various characters and school setting better than the previous two novels, making this series a richer environment. I for one can't wait to read the next volume!

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾 『風ヶ丘五十円玉祭りの謎』: 「もう一色選べる丼」 / 「風ヶ丘五十円玉祭りの謎」 / 「針宮理恵子のサードインパクト」 / 「天使たちの残暑見舞い」 「その花瓶にご注意を」 / 「世界一居心地の悪いサウナ」

Monday, July 31, 2017

The Rules of a Gentleman Thief

「いつ何時なりとも、ポーカーフェイスを忘れるな」
『まじっく快斗』

"No matter the time or place, never forget to put on a poker face."
"Magic Kaito"

The gentleman-thief KID has been a very popular character in Detective Conan ever since his first appearance in volume 16 of that series and has proven himself to be a flamboyant rival to the pint-sized detective, who uses his gift for disguises and a whole reportoire of fantastical illusion tricks to stage impossible capers. Whether it's walking on air or teleporting to the top of a building in an instant: anything seems possible with this magician-thief, and it usually takes all of Conan's wit to fight back. In recent years, KID has also found a rival in the stinking rich Suzuki Jiroukichi, who has sworn he'll catch the thief, usually by luring KID with some big jewel he purchased into the most crazy security contraptions he can come up with, but the thief always manages to break through these security measures like it's nothing, even if at the end of the day Conan always manages to see through his tricks.


What some people might not realize is that KID is actually not a character from Detective Conan. He actually predates Conan, and starred as the protagonist of Magic Kaito, the very first running series Aoyama Goushou ever worked on. As we mostly see the cool side to KID in Conan, some might be surprised to learn that the KID in Magic Kaito is quite different, as it is more a comedy-adventure series filled with slapstick humor. Magic Kaito started in 1987 and introduces us to Kuroba Kaito, son of the world famous magician Kuroba Touichi and a gifted magician himself. Kaito is shocked to learn his father was also once known to the world as KID, an elusive phantom thief who could commit the most wondrous of crimes. His father died eight years ago during one of his show performances, but it appears he was actually murdered by a mysterious gang who wanted KID to find the Pandora Jewel, a legendary jewel said to hold the secret to immortality. Kaito thus decides to don the costume of KID himself to find the Pandora Jewel first in order to lure out the gang that killed his father.

What makes his capers difficult however is the fact that his childhood friend Aoko is the daughter of Inspector Nakamori, who was once the nemesis of the original KID and now of the second KID. Kaito is also classmates with some strange characters like a genuine witch and Hakuba, a genius teenage detective who is hailed as a modern-day Holmes and who more-or-less knows Kaito is KID, which usually leads into the most crazy of situations as Kaito juggles between his work as the phantom thief and the increasingly difficult effort of keeping his secret identity safe from the outside world. The tone of Magic Kaito is quite different than Detective Conan, as Kaito fights off witches and/killer robots/death traps as a thief while pretending he's just a normal student, usually resulting in rather hilarious situations as Kaito's both lives collide (for example: having a date with Aoko as an alibi while pulling off a caper). There is little of the cool-headed, charismatic KID from Conan to be found in the early chapters of Magic Kaito.

While Magic Kaito was a moderate success as Aoyama first series, it was put on a side-track when his comedy-action series Yaiba hit off in 1988. Magic Kaito was not cancelled though, but put on hiatus, and Aoyama did indeed return for a few chapters to Magic Kaito in 1993-1994. But then Detective Conan started in 1994, which put Magic Kaito on hiatus again. KID's appearance in Detective Conan volume 16 was actually a big surprise for longtime readers of Aoyama's works, as it was only revealed the worlds from his two series would crossover at the very end of the chapter, as he had purposely avoided the word "KID" throughout the story until his actual appearance. KID's popularity grew with each appearance in Conan, but this also meant that Magic Kaito could not return to a regular publication schedule. Nowadays, Aoyama creates perhaps one new Magic Kaito story every five years or so, which means that it takes decennia for new (collected) volumes to appear. There was a fourteen year gap between volume 3 and 4 of Magic Kaito for example. There have been two seperate anime adaptations by the way: a limited series titled Magic Kaito, which aired irregularly in Detective Conan's slot between 2010 and 2012, and Magic Kaito 1412, a series seperate of Conan which aired in 2014-2015.

But imagine my surprise when the previews of Detective Conan 92 showed that Magic Kaito 5 would finally be released in July 2017! It has been ten years since the last volume, and while KID's been appearing quite regularly in Conan, it's still great to see him appear in his own series, as that has a very different feel to it. Volume 5 collects three stories originally published irregularly between 2011-2017, as well as a bonus story that has never been published in a magazine before. Some of the stories had already been adapted for television in the Magic Kaito 1412 series by the way. The book starts with The Phantom Lady, a story I actually already reviewed in the past, as I had read the serialization! There's no real caper going in this tale, but provides some insight into how Kaito's father became the phantom thief KID in the first place. A sinister figure lures Inspector Nakamura (in truth a Kaito in disguise) and his daughter Aoko to Touto Tower, as the fiend's convinced that Nakamura himself is KID. The man reveals he had a run-in with KID eighteen years ago and wants revenge, which makes Kaito realize that this man is actually talking about his father. We are then treated to a flashback that reveals how Kaito's father Touichi first donned the costume and became known to the world as a phantom thief, while also juxtaposing his adventure with his son's own predicament with the same opponent eighteen years later. We see a bit of the more ridiculous action of this series which wouldn't fly in the Conan manga series (it would in the film universe though...), and while this is no caper story, it's still an interesting one for those curious to Magic Kaito's backstory. The story is also a prelude to the Ryouma story in Detective Conan 70 by the way, revealing the true meaning of KID's message in the final pages.

Midnight Crow is the best story of the collection and pits KID against two new enemies. First is Harry Nezu, an infamous exposer of magicians who says he'll not only prevent KID from stealing the black diamond Midnight Crow, but also capture him with the help of the police. Meanwhile, another phantom thief appears and to Kaito's big surprise, this Corbeau is dressed exactly like him, but in black. Corbeau claims to have studied together with Kaito's father Touichi as his fellow disciple, and that he basically has the same goal as KID, to find the gang responsible for his death. Corbeau challenges KID to see who's the more worthy successor, claiming he'll steal the Midnight Crow despite Harry's precautions and dares Kaito to figure out how the caper'll be pulled off.

Now I think about it, there are a lot of masked thiefs appearing in Magic Kaito besides KID... We had Chat Noir and Nightmare in the previous volume, the Phantom Lady and Corbeau in this one... Anyway, this is a great caper story, and quite similar to the ones we usually see in Detective Conan. We are presented with seemingly inpenetrable security measures for the Midnight Crow with credits to Harry Nezumi and the Metrolitan Police Department, but Corbeau manages to get away with the diamond anyway. Usually Conan would solve the crime, but this time it's up to Kaito to expose a fellow magician's tricks, and it's serious business for Kaito as this Corbeau seemingly holds a connection to his father. The way the Midnight Crow is revealed to be stolen is absolutely brilliant, showing how a sizeable diamond can disappear even though it's inside a closed receptable, with a man sitting on top of the case, in a room filled with guards, that is super-cooled to slow the swift fingerwork of any magician-thief. Not only is the method of the theft properly hinted, this story also shows off Kaito as a gifted magician himself, as he excels in piercing right through stage illusions. And while the story feels like a KID-caper like they appear in Detective Conan, the details of this case make it much better suitable for Magic Kaito, as it shows us the miracle from the side of a rival thief to Corbeau, rather than one of the "protectors" of the jewel like Conan would be.

Sun Halo on the other hand feels much more like an early Magic Kaito story. KID's latest target is tthe Sun Halo, a jewel imbedded inside a Buddhist statue. But things go awry, and Kaito (as KID) and Aoko (daughter of Inspector Nakamura, but also Kaito's childhood friend) get captured by an unknown party. Aoko is reluctant to help her father's archnemesis (not knowing that KID is in fact Kaito), but as KID was stabbed in his stomach protecting Aoko during their capture, the two have to work together to get through a series of Escape-The-Room-esque environments. The big elements like someone-has-captured-KID-forcing-him-to-do-something and Kaito-desperate-to-hide-his-identity-from-Aoko are familiar tropes from the early series, but things you rarely see in KID's appearances in Conan, so it was fun to have that classic feel back again, even if the story itself is rather average.

Volume 5 of Magic Kaito ends with Sarigenaku Lupin ("A Nonchalant Lupin"), an old one-shot manga by Aoyama which served as the prototype of Magic Kaito. It was never actually published in a magazine actually, though this story was also once printed in a certain version of an Aoyama Goushou stort story collection. I have an older copy of that book, without Sarigenaku Lupin, so I was happy it was included in Magic Kaito 5. The story is rather ridiculous, involving a troublemaking student Rupan who, while stealing school exams, discovers his school has been illegally accepting students, and a school director who is trying to force Houmuzu Aoko, one of his students and daughter of Inspector Houmuzu, to marry the son of a notorious villain in order to get the Inspector on his side and to prevent Rupan from spilling the beans on him illegally accepting students. It's utterly nuts and not particularly good, but fans of Magic Kaito can easily see how Sarigenaku Lupin eventually evolved into Magic Kaito.

So for the fans of Magic Kaito, this fifth volume has some interesting stories to offer. The "new" batch of stories give us a bit more insight in the backstory of Magic Kaito, and while the series has obviously been influenced by Aoyama's work on Detective Conan, one can still feel that Magic Kaito is its own series, distinct from Conan. Fans of KID can thus enjoy a completely different side to the character usually not seen in Conan. I for one though hope that the next volume won't take another ten years, as three, four stories every ten years is just far too little!

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『まじっく快斗』第5巻

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Most Crucial Game

から紅に染まる渡月橋
導かれる日願って
川の流れに祈りを込めて
I've been thinking about you
I've been thinking about you
いつもこころ君のそば
「渡月橋 ~君 思ふ~」(倉木麻衣)

The Togetsukyou-Bridge is colored crimson
Oh I wish for the day that we'll be led here
Sending my prayer along the stream of the river
I've been thinking about you
I've been thinking about you
My heart is always by your side
"Togetsukyou ~Thinking About You~" (Kuraki Mai)

Drawing manga for a weekly is a pretty stressful job, as the average manga artist has deliver about twenty pages each and every week, which means they not only have to plan, plot and illustrate the chapter of the week, but also plan all the storylines ahead together with their editors, do research and more. And sure, the really succesful artists will have assistant to help with backgrounds or inking, but still, it's a lot of work. Which makes that more impressive that Aoyama Goushou will be publishing the thousandth Detective Conan chapter  in next week's Shonen Sunday (first week of August)! He originally thought this series would only last for a few chapters when he first started in 1994, and he never could've guessed his series would grow out to be such a mammoth in the world of Japanese entertainment.

Volume 93 of Detective Conan starts with the final two chapters of Three Detectives and Hyakunin Isshu, which started in the previous volume. Conan and Hattori are having a short break in the restaurant Poirot, located right beneath the Mouri Detective Agency. A small group of friends is also having a drink there, but then the lights suddenly go out, and when the lights return, the people present inside Poirot are shocked to see that one of the friends has been stabbed in the back. But to the great surprise of Conan, Hattori and secret agent Amuro (who works part-time at Poirot), they also learn that none of the others have blood on them, even though the stabbing was so gruesome that even Conan and Hattori, sitting at the table next to the victim, had splatters on them. The resulting story is a fairly basic which-of-the-three-suspects set-up, though with a strange execution. It is more-or-less an impossible story, in the sense that it appears that none of the suspects could stabbed the victim without getting some blood on them, but strangely enough, this part of the mystery does not form the focus of the story, as the three detectives basically figure out that part out almost instantly with almost no clues and swiftly brush that away, shifting the main problem to that of opportunity, as it appears like the person who's most likely to have done it, couldn't have committed the murder they way the detectives think they did. This struck me as very odd though, as the problem of opportunity is a lot less interesting and inspired than the problem of how the stabbing was done, while the clewing of both pillars were a bit poor. The opportunity problem is poorly clewed, because it involves the use of a bit of trivia, while the clewing for the stabbing was apparently less elaborate because it was demoted to secundary importance, even though it's actually quite original. So Three Detectives and Hyakunin Isshu turned out as a story with some good ideas, but where the execution was unbalanced. The story also introduces us to another new face who I think is an important character in the 2017 Detective Conan film, The Crimson Love-Letter, but I haven't seen that one yet (waiting for the home-video release near the end of the year).

The Kisaki Eri Kidnapping Case is easily the most entertaining story of this volume. Kisaki Eri, mother of Ran and succesful lawyer, has been kidnapped by a gang of three men, but she manages to temporarily escape from their clutches, though still unable to leave the building they're helding her captive. She also managed to steal the phone of one of her kidnappers during her escape, and while she doesn't dare talking on the phone for fear of being heard and found by her kidnappers, she does manage to contact Ran with a chat app. The kidnappers however quickly catch on and use Eri's own phone to chat with Ran too, making it impossible for Ran, Conan and Kogorou to figure out which of the messages is coming from the real Eri and which ones from the fake. What follows is a thrilling game of hide-and-seek with the kidnappers hunting for Eri in the building and sending fake messages to Ran to confuse them, while Eri is trying to figure out where she is so she can tell her husband and Ran. The story re-uses some elements from previous stories (Eri uses a trick a murderer used in an earlier story to hide herself), but it's overall a nice change of pace, with a more action-packed story (this would've been perfect for the movies!) and some nice ideas involving how Conan figures out where Eri is, and also the use of a chat application as a tool in a detective story. Whenever chat rooms/applications are used in mystery fiction, you can bet that there will be the not so shocking revelation that somebody was pretending to be someone else. This story however tells you right from the start that this is the case, and uses it as the starting premise to do much more original things with it.

Match-Up Of The One-Eyed is another camp story with Conan and the rest of the Detective Boys, but this time, they are joined by their assistant-teacher Wakasa instead of Doctor Agasa. We as the readers have known since her first appearance that something is up with Wakasa, and it appears Conan is also starting to suspect that his new teacher might not be all she seems at first sight. The kids become friends with the members of a basketball club who are out camping too, but one of them rather prefers locking himself up in his tent to enjoy some beers and comics than sit outside with the others. While the Detective Boys and the other member of the basketball club are having a curry dinner outside, the loner's tent suddenly catches fire, and the others are sadly enough not able to save their teammate. As the fire started inside, with the tent locked from the inside, and with witnesses having seen the victim moving around inside the tent until the moment the fire broke out, it appears that this was just a sad accident, but Conan suspects this was murder, an opinion shared by Police Commissioner Kuroda, who "happened" to be camping there too and totally not stalking Conan and/or Wakasa. The mystery of the fire is a bit too brilliant for its own good. It's a great idea, that it certainly is, combining a locked room tent with a fantastic manner to start the fire, but I wish the story offered a few better hints. The decisive hint is given in such an unnatural manner, it feels like Aoyama just gave up on natural clewing and decided to brute-force one in the plot. The story is by the way also connected to the ongoing storyline involving the unknown character RUM, as both Police Commissioner Kuroda and teacher Wakasa seem to fit the description Conan has of the elusive Black Organization member.

The final story included in this volume are the first four chapters of The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa, which is basically a sequel to a story from volume 31, as this story follows the same plot in a way: a murder happens during an important inter-school kendo competition, with Hattori being a contender for the gold. The victim is a judge in the competition, which means he's an experienced swordsman himself, which in turn means that the person who was capable of cutting his neck in just one move must've been a talented swordsman themselves. While three suspects are quickly detained, Conan and Hattori have trouble figuring out who the murderer is, which is not helped by the fact that while there's a witness to the murder, this witness is completely blind and only heard bits and pieces of what happened. Without the conclusion it's hard to tell how the mystery plot will end up (though it does neatly involve all sorts of things related to kendo) and there's a lot here for fans of Aoyama's works, as like the story in volume 31, The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa is basically also a crossover with Yaiba, a hit comedy-adventure series which Aoyama created before Detective Conan. The volume 31 story featured the genius swordsman Okita, who returns in The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa as one of Hattori's greatest rivals in the competition, while the perhaps the most dangerous character from Yaiba makes his first appearance in Detective Conan too in this story.

Detective Conan 93 was on the whole a decent volume. No real duds in terms of mystery plots, but also no particularly memorable ones, save for the kidnapping case, I guess. It's only natural that things go a bit slowly now, after the revelations made in the previous volume, and the camping story does tie back to the ongoing RUM investigation, but it'll probably take a while for things to really get moving again. That said, this volume offers fairly diverse stories and even volumes of Conan without any really impressive stories still tend to be much better than your average mystery story.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第93巻』

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ashes and Diamonds

'Tell me, Commander, how far does your expertise extend into the field of diamonds?'
- 'Well, hardest substance found in nature, they cut glass, suggests marriage, I suppose it replaced the dog as the girl's best friend. That's about it.'
"Diamonds Are Forever"

I don't think I have mentioned it here before, but I absolutely loved The Famous Five when I was a kid. I think I still have most of the novels somewhere. Anyway, they may have been quite formulaistic, but at the time, I thought they were wonderful as mystery adventure stories. But I don't remember myself reading many other children's mystery fiction when I was a child actually. I watched Scooby Doo! (heck, I still watch Scooby Doo!), but can't really recall any other series.

Bad news never comes alone, the saying goes, but sometimes the opposite holds as well. Judy Bolton, daughter of a doctor and an accomplished amateur detective, was not only proposed to by her childhood friend Peter, she also received news that her recently married friend Irene, who lives in New York, became the mother of a healthy child. Because a recent break-in in her father's practice also supplied Judy with a clue directing her to New York, she decides to combine her visit to Irene with further investigation into the break-in. At the hospital, Judy learns that Irene had become close friend with Jane, who gave birth to a child on the same day as Irene. The two mothers prepare to leave the hospital together, but then chaos strikes: the diamond of Judy's engagement ring falls from its setting, while Jane and her baby disappear. But true horror gets a hold over Judy when she realizes Jane and Irene's babies got mixed up. Judy has a busy day planned as she has to solve the break-in at her home, find her missing diamond, and retrieve Irene's newborn in Margeret Sutton's The Name on the Bracelet (1940).

Actually, I did not read The Name on the Bracelet, as you might have guessed from the cover art. What I read was Judy no Suiri ("Judy's Deduction"), a Japanese translation published in 1980 as part of children's fiction publisher Kin no Hoshisha's Girls - World Mystery Masterpieces Selection line. As the title suggests, this series consisted of thirty translated mystery novels written for girls. Other authors/house pseudonyms featured in this series were Carolyn Keen (Nancy Drew), Clair Blank (Beverly Gray) and Frances K. Judd (Kay Tracey series). The translation of Judy no Suiri was later revised and published by another publisher, who gave the book new art and a new Japanese title: Kieta Diamond ("The Lost Diamond").

Like I said, I wasn't really familiar with juvenile mystery fiction when I was a child, so I had never heard of the Judy Bolton Mystery series before, actually. The first novel in this series was released in 1932, only two years after the debut of the much more popular Nancy Drew. Unlike the way Nancy Drew was written though, author Margeret Sutton did actually write all 38 novels herself and while Judy never became as well-known as Nancy, it appears that Judy has been received fairly well by its readers, as Judy was apparently seen as a more realistic, and better role model for girls than Nancy. Nancy Drew of course nowadays still persists in a way in popular culture, with both new books, and new games being published even now, while Judy Bolton is perhaps not forgotten, but certainly not a big player anymore.

As for why I read this book... The East-Asian library of my university would sometimes clear out old books, which you could pick up for free. I sorta liked the old artwork on the cover and inside, so I took it along, though it took me quite some years to actually read it (at the time, I had no idea the book was a translation of the Judy Bolton series).

The Name on the Bracelet is the thirteenth volume in the Judy Bolton series, and as a mystery novel it's... not particularly exciting. Like a lot with juvenile mysteries, the plot is fairly compact, which means a lot of events hinge on (series of) coincidences. The break-in at the Bolton practice for some connection to the disappearance of Jane in New York, even though the chances of those two cases ever intersecting should be close to zero. Despite the Japanese title, Judy doesn't need to deduce much on her own, as not more than once she's just plain lucky that events turn out in her favor. That's perhaps the biggest disappointment. Judy, in the end, doesn't really detect a lot in this story. It is a juvenile mystery, so I don't expect highly complex plots, but I do wish that Judy's investigations were more clearly a direct result of her own actions, rather than coincidence. It kinda takes away from her agency as a (series) detective, I think.

Though I have to stress, I love the neat line art in this book. The way every illustration features a signature suggests it's original art from an original (American) publication, though the artstyle does look very different from the American covers I can find....

Anyway, The Name on the Bracelet is a rather mediocre mystery novel, even if you keep in mind it's a juvenile mystery. Based on this one single book, there's little I can comment on the similarities and differences between the Judy Bolton and Nancy Drew series (I have only read one or two Nancy Drews), but as a standalone book, this one is forgettable.

Original title(s): Margaret Sutton 『ジュディの推理』

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

She Sailed Away

We are all rowing a boat of fate 
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life Is Like A Boat" (Rie Fu)

Note to self: need to try Russian food some time.

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Receiving fan mail was by no means a rare happening for actress Reona, but even she had to raise an eyebrow when she got Kuramochi Yuri's letter. One reason for Reona's surprise was that the letter had been delivered to her almost a decade late, as it had been sent to her former agency in Japan before she moved to the States, and it got stuck there. The other reason for Reona's surprise was the contents. Yuri wrote the letter on her deceased grandfather's behalf, as he begged his granddaughter to ask if Reona could go Charlottesville, Virginia, USA to locate a certain Anna Anderson, to tell Anna he was sorry for what happened in Berlin, and that it all could've been avoided if they had the photograph at the Fujiya Hotel in Hakone. Reona has no idea however who this Anna is, and why she was asked to pass on the message. A few phone calls also tell her the letter reached her too late: Anna Anderson had died in 1984, soon after the letter had been posted, and Yuri herself also died in an accident. Reona asks her friends Mitarai Kiyoshi (amateur detective/astrologist/neurologist) and Ishioka Kazumi (writer) if they could look into this curious request. The photograph mentioned in the letter shows the foggy arrival of a Russian warship in Lake Ashi near Fujiya Hotel in 1919, but it is an utterly impossible one: for how could a Russian warship have landed in a lake up in the mountains in 1919, a lake with no shipyards, no access to the sea and not even modern roads at the time! With their interests thorougly piqued, Mitarai and Ishioka chase after the mystery of Anna Anderson and the impossible photograph in Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case Of The Russian Phantom Warship", 2001).

Narrator Ishioka starts his tale about this adventure noting that this was a unique case for him and Mitarai, as it did not involve murders, or even death. And yes, Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is indeed probably a book very different from what you'd expect from the series, especially if you've mostly read the English releases, like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. For Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is not a classic detective story with an ingenious puzzle plot that dares to challenge the reader to solve its mysteries. This book is a historical mystery that mixes fiction with fact. You may noticed from the links in the summary already, but the Anna Anderson in this novel was a person who actually existed. She was the best known of all the people who claimed they were Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia. And yes, that means that this novel is about the mystery of Anastasia, the famous heir of the Romanov family of whom it was rumored she managed to escape the massacre of her family.

I guess that the term historical mystery could refer to two types of stories (which aren't mutually exclusive per se). A mystery tale could be set in a historical setting (for example the Judge Dee stories), or the tale could be about a mystery that occured in history ("Where did the hidden treasures of the Templars go?"). The latter of course don't need to be set in a historical setting themselves. Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken obviously belongs to the latter category and is a fairly entertaining example of the genre. I hardly know anything about Anastasia and the final days of Imperial Russia, to be absolutely honest, but the tale told in the pages of this book, which mixes facts and fiction, is entertaining at least. Mitarai, as a fictional character, deducing conclusions based on facts from 'our' real world is also an interesting sight, like Dupin's comments on the Marie Rogêt case (which was based on the real murder case of Mary Rogers). I have no idea whether the theories posed in this novel could survive close academic scrunity, but I for one enjoyed the tale about the alluring mystery of Anastasia with the changing world politics as its background.

The question is though, did this story need feature Mitarai? Yes, some of the deductions Mitarai makes about trauma in the brains and stuff are obviously ideas that 'belong' to him (as he is a neuroscientist), and there are some elements in this story that keep in firmly in the mystery genre, but still, most of the book consists of lectures on history. First it's a long history on Anna Anderson, then it's a history lesson on the Fujiya Hotel, then it's a historical account of the final days for the Tsar and his family... A lot of the time, it's just one or two people telling long tales from the history books. I am not sure whether this story needed the fictional world of Mitarai Kiyoshi, as it could've worked just as well without him. The character Reona also appears in other Mitarai stories by the way, like Atopos and Suishou no Pyramid.

The one element that is clearly something fit for a mystery novel is the titular Russian phantom warship, which apparently appeared in a mountain lake in 1919, despite the mere idea of that happening would've been impossible. In fact, the sheer scale of this mystery (a Russian Imperial warship making its way to a lake in the Japanese mountains) is exactly something Mitarai is used to solving. The actual solution however is... not something you'd expect from a mystery novel, as there were no hints available to the reader at all, and Mitarai just suddenly drops a surprising truth on both his allies and the readers. Sure, the explanation of Mitarai to the phantom warship is absolutely historically sound, but the truth behind the title is really not presented in the form of a mystery novel, as it does not follow the structure of mystery -> clues -> logical solution based on the clues. It's just sprung upon the reader now.

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken is an interesting historical mystery on Anastasia, yes. However, it's definitely not what you'd expect from a book in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series. The puzzle plot mystery elements are far to weak for that. I have the feeling Shimada wanted to write a book on Anastasia, and thought it'd appeal to his readers better if Mitarai was involved with the case, but I think adding Mitarai only hurt the story as intended, as the fusion feels a bit forced. The fact a lot of the story involves plain info dumping, instead of a more engaging narrative is also a bit disappointing, as the material itself is interesting.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『ロシア幽霊軍艦事件』