Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Miss Mystery

I Miss You Miss Mystery
「Miss Mystery」 (Breakerz)

I miss you Miss Mystery
I want to know everything about you
I will reveal everything
And break down your alibi
"Miss Mystery" (Breakerz)

Strangely enough, this isn't my first book I got from South-Korea. I am making a guess though that this will be the first and only English write-up of this book out there... Also: this is actually the first book I started and finished in 2015. All of the books I posted about before, and for months after this post, were read in 2014...

A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou (original title: "Gyeongseong ui ilbon eo tamjeongjakpumjip") is one of the most interesting and odd book releases I know off. Like the title says: the book, released last year in South-Korea, is an anthology of detective stories written in Korea during the period the Great Korean Empire was colonized by Japan. Most of the writers featured in this anthology were Japanese living in Keijou (Seoul as it was called during the colonization) at the time, I think, but the book also features the very first detective story in Japanese written by a Korean. The 22 stories and essays (dating from 1927~1937) are scanned from their original sources (mostly magazines) and while it can be a bit difficult to make out the writing sometimes, the fact you can read everything like it was originally printed (together with the original illustrations) does add to the 'authentic' feel. The book ends with a postface that gives a paragraph or two about each story and the publishing background.

Now you know why I think this is an interesting release, but why odd? Well, except for the postface, everything in this book released in South-Korea, is completely in Japanese. As said, the contents consist of scans from their original sources and that means they were all written in Japanese. So yes, most people in South-Korea wouldn't even be able to read this book, even though it was published there! And even for those who do know Japanese, this book features pre-war Japanese, which has different spelling rules and can be quite difficult to read if you're only familiar with post-war Japanese. Add in the fact that the topic of the book, detective stories from Keijou, is probably not that popular and I really have to ask the question: who came up with the idea of publishing this book, in this particular form, in South-Korea? Heck, the contents of the book is from right-to-left (Japanese), even though the cover and binding is actually made from left to right (Korean)! I'm probably just missing some insight that explains the genius plan behind this book.

And a friend from South-Korea bought this curious book for me, so I can read it here in the Netherlands. Don't you just love overly complex international stories? My friend knows Japanese too by the way and she thought the book almost unreadable, to give you an idea of how common pre-war Japanese is.

I won't be discussing all of the 21 stories + 1 Edogawa Rampo essay in the anthology. Not only would that make this review way too long, I'll have to be honest and say that a lot of the stories are not particular good. Which for some stories, is even too nice a way of describing them. There are some stories that fall in the 'wide' crime genre, and some of the stories are literally: "A heinous crime happened. It was never solved. The end". So I'll just mention those that left an impression.

The book starts with Kui ni Tatta Mesu ("A Knife as a Stake"). The story was written by Kim Sam-gyu between 1929 - 1930 and is known as the first detective story written by a Korean in Japanese. The story starts with the murder on the heiress of a wealthy family, who is stabbed with a knife, which also holds the Spade of Ace card. This first victim is soon followed by more dead, each also being stabbed together with playing cards. The resulting chase for the unknown serial killer is a bit boring to be honest and the identity of the murderer is rather disappointing because there was just too small a cast and everyone ended up being related to the case for some reason or another. More interesting as an anecdote in history than stand-alone detective story.

The anthology features a great number of stories by the Keijou Detective Hobby Club (Keijou Tantei Shumi no Kai), which I think is a club of detective fiction lovers and writers. I say think, because the commentary included in the book that probably explains more about the club and its members is one of the few things in Korean. Which I can't read. Most of the club stories are relay-stories. Onna Supai no Shi ("Death of a Female Spy") starts out as a fairly amusing story where a female spy who infiltrated a communist group/revolutionaries is killed. Each new installment basically turns the story around and while it definitely does not seem like there was any planning done on the story, I had a couple of laughs seeing how each writer seemed to be intent on 1) turning everything the previous writer did around and 2) making things as complex as possible for the next in line. It's even more obvious with Mittsu no Tama no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Three Jewels"), which starts out as a Lupin-esque story where a man is suddenly given three jewels that appear to be the key to a horrible secret, which turns into a Russian melodrama in the second installment and finally the last installment which tries to make sense out of the two previous installments.

The anthology also features two Japanese translations of Sherlock Holmes stories. While Nazo no Shi ("The Mysterious Death") is a straight translation of The Speckled Band, the translation of Silver Blaze (under the title Meiba no Yukue, "The Whereabouts of the Famous Horse") is a bit more interesting. While the story is still set in England, everyone actually has Japanese names. I'd understand if the complete story had been moved to Japan, but why change the names, but keep the setting of England? It'd say it's even a bit distracting to have "Horimi" watch for curious incidents of dogs in night-time.

Houseki wo Nerau Otoko ("The Man Who Wanted The Jewel") by Sagawa Harukaze (better known as Morishita Uson) is a wonderfully hilarious story where a police inspector happens to learn of a jewel heist by a infamous thief and lays a trap for him. The story is short, but satisfying and invokes the spirit of the famou French gentleman thief.

Tenkyoushuu Daijuuichigou no Kokuhaku ("Confession of Asylum Prisoner No. 11") by Yoshii Nobuo (of the Keijou Detective Hobby Club) is another hilarious story of an asylum patient telling how he came to cry out "the wind is blowing, the wind is blowing!" which got him admitted in the mental hospital. It starts out so dark, but the ending is fantastic. It is not a real detective or crime story, but it certainly made me laugh. Ijiwaru Keiji ("A Spiteful Detective") by Yamazaki Reimonjin (kinda guessing the reading of the given name) too is a funny story about something that appears non-criminal at first, but ends with a little twist. His story is subtitled "a detective sketch", so that gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

A lot of the stories are "crime" stories and while as pieces of fiction, they don't impress at all, I do have to say I found these stories interesting as relics of the past, because I normally would have never even thought of trying these stories. With the stories dating from 1927~1937, it's funny to see how many of these stories feature communists and left-wing activists as a source of evil. There's also a faint anti-foreigner tone to be found at times. I don't think people would nowadays read these stories just for fun (I wouldn't), but presented in this form, I thought it was fun to read these stories for a chance, instead of the time-proven classics of yore. Another element that really made you feel these stories were from another time and space was the censoring! Sexual expressions were censored, but that made some stories actually appear more erotic than they probably were. (Ex: "And then he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX her.").

It is not directly related to the contents of the book, but I had fun reading pre-war Japanese. I had read some short stories before, but never something as long as this. It's not completely different from modern-day Japanese, but it takes a while to adjust to the alternate spelling conventions and more complex characters. Still. it only makes me wonder more why a book in pre-war Japanese is published in modern-day South-Korea.

While not all stories of A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou are as amusing, I quite enjoyed the book overall. While I have some questions about the specifics behind this publication and I really have to wonder how many people bought this book, I think the book does offer an interesting look in an otherwise overseen element of both Japanese and Korean detective fiction history.

Original Korean title: "경성의 일본어 탐정 작품집"
Original Japanese title(s): 金三圭 「杭に立ったメス」 / 山崎黎門人、阜久生、吉井信夫、大世渡貢 「女スパイの死」 / 山岡操、太田恒彌、山崎黎門人 「三つの玉の秘密」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 芳野青泉(訳) 「名馬の行方」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 倉持高雄(訳) 「謎の死」 / 秋良春夫 「捕物秘話」 / 青山倭文二 「水兵服の贋札少女」 / 青山倭文 「犯罪実験者」 / 総督府、野田生 「青衣の賊」 / 末田晃 「猟死病患者」 / 森二郎 「共産党事件とある女優」 / Y・黎門人 「彼をやっつける」 / 白扇生 「闇に浮いた美人の姿」 / 倉白扇 「暗夜に狂う日本刀 脳天唐竹割りの血吹雪」 / ヒアルトフ・アルクナア 伊東鋭太郎(訳) 「夜行列車奇談」 / 佐川春風 「宝石を覘う男」 / 木内為棲 「深山の暮色」 / 山崎黎門人 「意地わる刑事」 / 山崎黎門人 「蓮池事件」 / 吉井信夫 「癲狂囚第十一号の告白」 / 古世渡貢 「空気の差」 / 江戸川乱歩 「探偵趣味」

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Sign of Three

「愛をとりもどせ!!」 (クリスタルキング)

Even if you bind my burning hart with chains, it's no use
I knock down everyone who stands in my one with just one finger
"Take back my love!" (Crystal King)

I have a whole bunch of unread Edogawa Rampo volumes lying around here. It's basically my emergency kit: whenever I have nothing else to read, or I want to read something I know I can get through quickly and still have some fun with, I pick up one of these volumes. And so today, another of Rampo's novels.

In Edogawa Rampo's Akuma no Monshou ("The Crest of the Devil", 1937~38), an unknown enemy has threatened to wipe off CEO Kawate Shoutarou and his family of the face of this world. Because the famous detective Akechi Kogorou has left the country for other business, Kawate decides to hire Professor Munakatari, another private detective who has been making a name for himself as being at least the equal of the great Akechi Kogorou. But even Professor Munakatari has to admit that this case is a lot more complex, and the secret adversary much more dangerous than he had assumed. Without breaking even a sweat, the avenger manages to kill one of Munakatari's assistants, do the same with Kawate's youngest daughter and stage a disappearing act with the elder sister from a guarded room inside a well-secured house. The only clue Munakatari has is the murderer's fingerpint: this mark of the devil with three distinctive swirls appears on every crime scene, like a face laughing at Kawate and Munakatari.

Akuma no Monshou was originally serialized in the magazine Hi no De from September 1937 until October of the following year, with Yokomizo Seishi as its editor. Rampo was also busy with the serialization of Shounen Tantei Dan in the same period by the way, so it was a productive time for him. Wthin the oeuvre of Rampo, Akuma no Monshou holds a B-rank in terms of name I think: it's not as known as other works by Rampo, but it is certainly not an obscure title (I even have a comic version of it by The Accidents' Yamada Takatoshi).

But this is definitely not Edogawa Rampo at his best. A lot of the plot consists of reusing elements of other, and usually better stories he had written in the past and considering Rampo's strange fascination for mirrors, Akuma no Monshou ironically feels like a laughing mirror version of these stories. Mirrors appear in the form of a mirror house in this novel by the way, and you'll see a lot of other familar Rampo tropes too, but their use never feels original. It's all an inferior version of what Rampo had already done a lot better in the past. People hiding in stuff? Done better in The Human Chair. Public display of dead bodies and themes of voyeurism? Done better in The Dwarf. Mirrors and lenses? The Hell of Mirrors. A long detective story? Kotou no Oni was much more entertaining and it doesn't even come close to the excellent novella Nanimono (translation here). Every element in Akuma no Monshou has been done before by Rampo himself and much better.

And while I have the feeling Rampo was aiming for a traditional mystery plot with Akuma no Monshou, it's so full of silly stuff it is hard to take the novel seriously. The plan of the avenger is unneccessary complex and time-consuming, half of the plot is held together through threads of coincidence and luck and even though I absolutely love Rampo's work in general, even the sillier ones, I have difficulty finding something that really sets this novel apart from other Rampo stories in a positive way. The only part remotely interesting is the way the three-swirl fingerprint keeps turning up everywhere as the symbol of the avenger, but even that isn't really as terrifying as it could have been.

In general, Rampo has problems with longer stories. His novels were usually serialized, and he often just winged the plot together as he went (Kohantei Jiken for example). Because of that, a lot of stories feel very episodic and never really well planned out. This doesn't mean all of Rampo's longer works are bad: sometimes the chaos works (it certainly worked out for something like Ougon Kamen for example) and as the Lupin novels also show, episodic events do add a sense of thrill and adventure to the overall story. But Akuma no Monshou is an example of how it sometimes kinda falls apart and you're left with something, while not absolutely unreadable, is still not close what it could have been.

Personally, I have to admit that this has been a good lesson because for some reason, I've liked practically all I've read of Rampo. Even though I know he wasn't always at his best when at the writing table: there are actually quite a lot of his stories that were received quite badly when they were published and Rampo himself is the first to admit that a lot of his work isn't as good as it should be, one can read in his memoirs. But for me, Akuma no Monshou was the first story I just didn't manage to really like. Ah well, at least now I am sure I am not just a blind Rampo fanboy.

Akuma no Monshou is a very mediocre work by Rampo. You can find practically all of it, in a better form, in Rampo's other works. You're better off reading those stories, and if you have already, then there's no need whatsoever to read Akuma no Monshou.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩 『悪魔の紋章』

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A Family Affair

"She's bloody dying and all you bring us is lupins. All we've eaten mate for the last four bleeding weeks is lupin soup, roast lupin, steamed lupin, braised lupin in lupin sauce, lupin in the basket with sauted lupins, lupin meringue pie, lupin sorbet. We sit on lupins, we sleep in lupins, we feed the cat on lupins, we burn lupins, we even wear the bloody things!"
"Dennis Moore" (Monty Pyton)

Today: two Lupins for the price of one!

A reported robbery at the home of Gaston Gournev-Martin brings police detective Guerchard on the scene. He discovers the Duke of Chamerace in the neighbourhood and suspects that this so-called Duke is in fact the infamous thief Arsène Lupin. Despite Gournev-Martin's own testimony that the Duke of Chamerace is indeed who he claims he is, Guerchard still suspects that Arsène Lupin is behind the Duke's facade. When Arsène Lupin announces he is going to visit a party of the Duke, Guerchard (who is also told to solve the Lupin case within a week) decides to pay an unannounced visit, in the hopes of catching the phantom thief and proving that the Duke is nothing more than a thief in the 1932 film Arsène Lupin.

Arsène Lupin is based on the same-titled four-part play by Maurice Leblanc (literary father of Arsène Lupin) and Francis de Croisset. The play was also novelized by Leblanc himself with the same title. It is one of the Lupin stories I haven't read yet, so I started with the film without knowing what to expect. What is usually the case with Lupin: anything can happen.

And overall, I thought Arsène Lupin was quite amusing. The stars of the film are definitely the Barrymore brothers, who stand opposite each other as the Duke (John) and Guerchard (Lionel). There are the usual Lupin shenigans of one knowing the other is Arsène Lupin, yet not able to prove that and these confrontations come alive by the acting of the brothers. This tension is definitely the best part of the film. The story itself is a bit smaller than other Lupin stories, but that's because the original story is based on a play, I think. As a result, there are a lot of one-on-one scenes, and the story never reaches a really exciting climax.

Sure, there's a rather big heist planned at the end of the film, but it almost seems like an afterthought, as the tone is quite different from the rest of the story, and it never feels as big or brilliant a heist as we're used to in other Lupin stories. Like I said, I haven't read the original book/play, so I don't know what exactly is original to the film and what isn't, but I suspect the last part is a film original. I mean, I know the real Arsène Lupin isn't always a nice guy, but he would never threaten to sell a girl off into white slavery.

Anyway, an amusing watch with the gentleman-thief. And sometimes it's good to know the family trade stays alive after several generations. In Japan, Monkey Punch's Lupin III series has been a staple and important part of Japanese popculture since 1967. Lupin III is the grandson of Arsène Lupin, but while still a thief capable of the most amazing feats, he's usually less of a gentleman. Actually, it depends on who is writing him. Lupin III is everything from a James Bond to Robin Hood, depending on the production. Miyazaki Hayao (of Studio Ghibli)'s early film directing career includes The Castle of Cagliostro for example, an adventure film starring a heroic Lupin III. A more recent adventure of Lupin III is the crossover film Lupin III VS Detective Conan (2013), which pitted the legendary thief and his gang against the pint-sized detective.

Lupin III (2014) is a recent live-action film adaptation of the successful franchise. The Works is a international gang of thieves with several notable young up-and-coming members, including Lupin III (grandson of the legendary Arsène Lupin), Mine Fujiko (a femme fatale) and Jigen Daisuke (crackshot and bodyguard). One day, the Works is betrayed by one of its members who steals the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra, leaving Lupin and Jigen with no home and the desire to steal back what was taken from them. Lupin and Jigen soon make a name as internationally wanted thieves, who are occasionally helped and occasionally betrayed by Fujiko. They finally discover the whereabouts of the Crimson Heart of Cleopatra, which is being kept in a high-security building/safe called Ark of Navarone. Enlisting the help of several fellow thieves, including the swordsman Ishikawa Goemon, Lupin III and his gang set out to retrieve their loot, while being chased by Interpol detective Zenigata.

The franchise of Lupin III has been going on for a long time with a variety of productions, so I wasn't too surprised the live-action film was once again about the first time the Lupin gang (Lupin III, Jigen, Goemon and Fujiko) come together to work as a team. Over the history, the Lupin gang has had many first encounters, and all different, so I wasn't at all bothered at the Uncle-Ben-Must-Die-Again approach to the franchise.

But that doesn't mean that Lupin III is a good film. On paper, the story isn't that different from most Lupin III (animated) specials of the last couple of years: an action-packed film with a heist as its background setting (it's not really a heist film though, just an action flick). On screen, the story just didn't really work. And that's not because I don't like live-action adaptations of manga/anime source material. In fact, I can quite appreciate them (the recent Rurouni Kenshin trilogy was quite impressive for example). But the production team must get the tone right: a tone that fits with the franchise, but also with the live-action format. Lupin III fails to succeed here.

The action scenes are chaotic and shoddily taken: you are given a split second shot of something, only for it to be replaced by another shot at another angle / level of zoom of the same action, leaving the viewer in confusion of what the hell is going on. The more fantastic action scenes don't always work: a car chase scene on the highway hits the right tone most of the time, but then the presence of Goemon (a swordsman who can cut everything) kinda ruins the scene (in fact, I think that Goemon doesn't work at all in this film). Goemon cutting everything in a cartoon or comic, okay, but it just doesn't really translate well into the real world. The Rurouni Kenshin films struck a great balance between reality and slightly fantastic battles (jumping several meters up in the sky etc.) consistently throughout the three films, but the fairly realistic tone of Lupin III clashes with the cartoony comedy it occassionally also tries to utilize. A group of three enemy enforcers has the same problem: they are obviously inspired by cartoon designs (their clothing is ridiculous), whereas the rest of the cast is dressed in a fairly sensible manner (and still true to their original designs).

But Lupin III is also not a very surprising film. It's actually quite predictable, and again, that doesn't automatically mean it's bad (because I am quite OK with formulaistic approaches), but there was very little I truly enjoyed in this film running more than two hours. One of the few scenes I really loved is at the beginning, when Lupin and Jigen make their way out of a gang hideout with their loot on their backs: the scene is obviously inspired by the opening of The Castle of Cagliostro and gave me a big smile and the hope this could be something good, but alas.

Also, the film was shot with an international cast, and the version I saw had everyone dubbed in Japanese (including some of the Japanese actors!), which was kinda distracting. Oguri Shun did an excellent Lupin III though (who also did Kudou Shinichi in some of the Detective Conan live action TV specials. Meaning he would be both Lupin III and Shinichi if they would ever do a live-action Lupin III VS Detective Conan).

Lupin III is a rather mediocre adaptation of the famous franchise. It occassionally hits the right tones, but doesn't more often than it does. And I heard a sequel was already under production. Huh. I hope the next film manages to come up with an atmosphere that fits Lupin III and its own live-action framework.

Original Japanese title(s): モンキー・パンチ(原) 『ルパン三世』

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

A Sea of Troubles

「君という光」 (Garnet Crow)

I like watching the jellyfish floating on the waves
Always as if my mind flies off to some world far away 
"A Light Called You" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes it's weird switching reading languages halfway through a series. This is actually the first time I read Crofts in English instead of Japanese...

Inspector French series
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)
Fatal Venture (1939)

Chance brought travel expert Henry Morrison on board of a scheme hatched by barrister Bristow of a cheap holiday liner that cruises along the British Isles. Bored millionaire Stott in turn was responsible for the necessary financial means and the idea of turning the cruise ship into a casino ship. The cruise ship would go up and down the coast line of the British Isles allowing for one day excursions on the mainland, while at night the ship would move outside the British territorial waters and the gambling rooms would be opened. Fullfilling the wish of the wealthy British well-offs of exploring the hidden attractions of the homeland, as well as providing the thrills of the roulette table, the project becomes an instant success. But not all is well on the floating heaven and one day, Money-Bags Stott is murdered during one of the day excursions on the mainland. But with wronged business partners, vengeful business rivals and inheriting relatives around, it's not easy finding the right man. Fortunately Chief Inspector French and his wife were already on board of the wicked ship and French wouldn't be French if he didn't make quick work of the Stott Slaying Scheme in Freeman Wills Crofts' Fatal Venture (1939).

My third Crofts and the first that isn't an inverted mystery. Yet it follows the same basic pattern seen in the other books I read: we follow the adventures of a young man busy with some kind of business scheme, a murder happens and French appears late in the story to unravel a deadly intrigue (and Fatal Venture does have some elements of the inverted mystery). While I loved Mystery on Southampton Water, I was, while not disappointed, not very impressed with The 12:30 From Croydon. How did Fatal Venture fare?

Not bad, actually, but I am not sure if for the right reasons. Fatal Venture is clearly split into two parts: the first part is about how the business plans between Morrison, Bristow and Stott came to be. I love this part. You see the three coming up with the idea, slowly gathering information to see if it's doable, outwitting rivals and finally setting sail with their seaworthy goldmine. It's thrilling, it has a sense of adventure and.... it has absolutely nothing to do with a mystery. It's a swashbuckling account of three men coming up with a neat business scheme, but that is it. The story moves into the second half with the murder on Stott, but then you realize that the first enterprising half has very little to do with the actual murder mystery. Even if the first hundred or so pages of this book had been compressed in a five page explanation, the mystery plot wouldn't have suffered at all. No crucial hints, no foreshadowing, nothing. Heck, the murder isn't even commited on board of the cruise ship!

The second half features an alibi-cracking mystery with French and while it's an okay plot, I think the trick was much better suited for a neat and clean short story, rather than extending it with almost hundred pages of introduction that weren't really necessary for the trick to work in the first place. And I don't mind short story tricks being extended into longer stories per se, but I expect the plot to be made a bit more complex to compensate for the larger amount of pages in such case: a red herring here, a sub-plotline there, maybe two mysteries.... I don't expect two stories that genre-wise don't really feel connected stuck together. Because that is it. Fatal Venture feels like two stories, only one of them a mystery. And strangely enough, I liked the non-mystery part better.

In the three Crofts' I read, young men in business have all played a large role in the story. This is actually the first time that business actually goes well however, which was a nice change of pace after the depressing "I need money or I'm finished and others will go with me" stories of Mystery on Southampton Water and The 12:30 From Croydon. I also think I know understand why I found The 12:30 From Croydon less entertaining than Mystery on Southampton Water, despite their similarities (see reviews). In Croydon, problems with the business of the protagonist were basically solved with the murder and the inheritance. In Southampton Water, the business problems don't go away after the murder though and it stays a point of fear throughout the novel. So in Southampton Water, you have the dread of both Inspector French hunting the protagonist and the future of the business, while in Croydon, it's actually just the police. Sounds like a small difference, but I thought Southampton Water was a lot more entertaining. The build-up of Fatal Venture might not be related to the actual murder mystery, but the question of whether the scheme is going to succeed is urging the reader to go on, and by the time the anxiety surrounding the business is dispersed and we know it's become a success, we're given something new in the form of Stott's murder.

I had a great time with Fatal Venture, but strangely enough not because of the mystery plot. Is the mystery bad? No, but in the form as it was published, Fatal Venture is basically one business novel and a slightly too long mystery short story. If you want a focused mystery novel and/or don't like reading about business schemes and such, Fatal Venture is definitely not for you. I enjoyed the book, but I can definitely understand if people don't like this one.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Just a Hunter

Love you, love you 世界は
The end of days!!
「鋼の救世主」 (JAM Project)

Love you, love you, the world
is just waiting for you
The end of days!! 
"The Steel Messiah" (JAM Project)

I finished the wonderful Dr. Sam Hawthorne series last year, but that doesn't mean I won't read more of Edward D. Hoch's mysteries. Today, a poor Hoch I bought around the time I bought my very first Sam Hawthorne book, and which had to wait until I finished that series.

Simon Ark is a mysterious man, who claims to be walking around Earth for two-thousand years now. He does more than just walking of course: his goal is to find and fight evil in all its forms. The protagonist, a journalist (and later editor), first meets Simon during the coverage of a mysterious mass suicide, where all 73 inhabitants of a small isolated village jumped off a cliff together. Since then, the two have become friends and while we never know for sure whether Simon is really as old as he says he is and whether the rumors of Simon once being a Coptic priest in Egypt are true, we do learn one thing about Simon in Edward D. Hoch's The First Casebook of Simon Ark: he sure knows about people and the evil schemes they can concoct. Simon travels the world researching the Occult and Supernatural and he occasionally comes across strange cases that seemingly involve Powers of the Other Side, but he ironically always proves that behind these strange, impossible murders, disappearances and other mysteries lurks not the devil, but simply the hearts of wicked men.

Yes, Tokyo Sougensha always has awesome covers for their Edward D. Hoch books.

Simon Ark was Hoch's very first series detective, as he starred in Hoch's 1955 debut story, The Village of the Dead. And because Simon Ark is already about two-thousand years old, a couple more or less years don't matter: Hoch had Simon Ark appear in stories all the way up to 2008, for a total of 61 adventures. The First Casebook of Simon Ark (the English title of Simon Ark no Jikenbo I) is the first of five volumes published in Japan that sadly enough don't cover the entire series yet. Each of the volumes contains a random selection of Simon Ark stories. This first volume for example features both Hoch's debut story from 1955, as well something more recent like The Faraway Quilters from 2003. These Japanese volumes are not based on any of the earlier English Simon Ark releases, as far as I know.

The Dr. Sam Hawthorne stories were highly standardized impossible crime stories, set mostly around one setting. While most of the stories were really good, they were practically all made with the same LEGO blocks and the background settings of the stories tend to seem very much alike. This is definitely not the case with the Simon Ark stories. Yes, most stories do feature some kind of supernatural or occult element, be it the mention of devils, some occult book or magicians, werewolves or other fantastic beings. But the stories are set all over the world, with different people and background settings and types of mystery. Sure, it's often an impossible crime, but definitely not always and the reader is always kept on his toes because you don't really know what's coming until you're actually in the story. It's something I kinda missed in the Sam Hawthorne series, so I quite enjoyed that in The First Casebook of Simon Ark.

I'm not doing write-ups on all the stories, because they are kinda short and I might spoil too much just by writing about them. But to pick a few out: Not really impressed by the opening story/Hoch's debut story, Village of the Dead. It has potential, sure, as it's a great setting (the mass suicide) and there are hints here and there about something really supernatural, but it lacks convincing power. The S.S.S. deals with a shady religious society which kinda reminds of the faux cults and psychics in Trick: the story is a great whodunnit for the amount of pages. Master of Miracles is probably the most Sam Hawthorne-esque story in this volume, with an impossible disappearance set in a small community (a woman and her car disappears from inside a car wash). Somewhat easy to solve, but quite entertaining.

Random thought: a globetrotting priest solving impossible crimes with a supernatural and occult tone.... Simon Ark is like a palette swapped Father Brown. Slightly darker Father Brown.

One of my earliest encounters with the mystery genre was Scooby-Doo! and I still love it when supernatural elements (or the suggestion of) make it into a detectives story. So you can imagine that I quite enjoyed The First Casebook of Simon Ark. But it's not just the occult tone of the series: while I have to admit that not every story is as good as the other, there are quite some well written mysteries collected in this volume and I think that most readers will be quite pleased with this first meeting with the mysterious Ark.

Original title(s): Edward D. Hoch 『サイモン・アークの事件簿』: 'Village of the Dead' 「死者の村」 / 'The Vicar of Hell' 「地獄の代理人」 / 'Day of the Wizard' 「魔術師の日」 / 'Funeral in the Fog' 「霧の中の埋葬」 / 'The Man who Shot the Werewolf' 「狼男を撃った男」 / 'The S.S.S.' 「悪魔撲滅教団」 / 'The Touch of Kolyada' 「妖精コリヤダ」 / 'The Society of the Scar' 「傷痕同盟」 / 'Master of Miracles' 「奇蹟の教祖」 / 'The Faraway Quilters' 「キルトを縫わないキルター」

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Death Comes as the End

"It's our problem - free philosophy Hakuna Matata!"
"The Lion King"

It took me almost two years to work up the courage / spirit to go through today's book. The prologue was just too dense to get through. Of course, when I finally got past the prologue, it turned out to be not nearly as bad as I had feared. 

A distressed call screaming murder brings the police to the doors of the mansion owned by the wealthy Jewish financier François Dassault. Dassault however refuses to let the local cops inside and uses his connections to get Inspector Maugars in his house, who will hopefully help hush up what Dassault calls an unfortunate lethal accident that happened on his premises. One of Dassault's guests tripped and hit his head on the stone floor, it seems at first sight, but when Inspector Maugars discovers a knife wound in the dead man's back and a broken knife with the SS emblem on it, the case turns into a murder case. And a screwy one too. For one, it seems that Dassault's guest was not a voluntary guests, as the lack of luggage, the bare minimum of furniture in the room and the locks on the door suggest. And even more crazy is that after questioning all those in the house, it seems the man was stabbed in a triple locked space: (1) the third floor room in which the victim was discovered was locked from the outside, the third floor can only be reached from the second floor (which also houses the safe with the room's key), and (2) the staircase to the second floor was under constant watch by several witnesses on the ground floor and finally, (3) the only exit out of the mansion was also being watched. And the case seems to be connected to a group of Yewish people who survived the concentration camps... A most difficult situation, but Yabuki Kakeru (friend of the Inspector's daughter Nadia) is convinced he can bring light to the case with his phenomenology in Kasai Kiyoshi's Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu ("A Locked Room for Philosophers", 1992)

Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu is the fourth book starring Yabuki Kakeru, a Japanese student of philosophy who solves baffling crimes and mysteries through phenomenology, i.e. the analysis of structures of experience and conciousness. It is worth noting that Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu was published almost ten years after the third entry in the series, and while I have not read any of the other novels, it is said that Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu is a turning point for the series with a slightly different tone. Oh, and the long period between the third and fourth book certainly didn't stop Kasai from starting Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu with a long prologue where Kakeru and Nadia talk in detail about their previous adventure, including delicious spoilers, and discuss a bit of philosophy, so Reader Be Warned: the first sixty pages of this book can be difficult to get through.

But then again, what is sixty pages of a story that consists of 1100 pages spread over two volumes? It's certainly not the longest detective I've read (hello Jinroujou no Kyoufu and Ankokukan no Satsujin), but short, it is not.

The triple locked room murder happens early in the story and is great. It has the allure of one of those matryoshka dolls, with a locked room in a locked room in a locked room and Kasai adds enough twists and turns and fake solutions to the plot to keep the locked room mystery entertaining. Especially the way in which series detective Yabuki Kakeru manages to use the Amazing Powers of Philosophy to solve the crime is fantastic and like most of the best locked room murders: the solution itself is actually amazingly simple. And as if that wasn't enough, the story features another triple locked space mystery, one that happened in the past in a concentration camp. While the solution to this past murder is not nearly as elegant as that of the first one, these two mysteries do keep Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu going at a good pace for a fairly good time.

A fairly good time, I stress, because I have to be honest, I didn't enjoy all of the book(s). While this was the first novel by Kasai Kiyoshi I have read, this was certainly not my first encounter with him. I think that anybody who does any serious research on Japanese detective fiction will come across his name very early in the process, as he is also the author of a seminal series of books on the history of Japanese detective fiction and basically impossible not to know if you want to research Japanese detective fiction through the fields of sociology, philosphy and literary history and even formalism. So this might be my first meeting with series detective Yabuki Kakeru, I have been familiar with Kasai Kiyoshi and his thoughts on detective fiction for a good six, seven years now and we haven't always been the best of friends. I have the same with Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu.

There are quite some discussions on philosophy in this story, partly because Kakeru is in fact an international student in France to research philosophy, but an important philosopher who is Martin Heidegger in all but name also plays an indirect role in the plot and sometimes the characters start discussing the meaning of death and Dasein for a lot of pages and while I understand some do love philosophy, it's just not a field of interest to me. Especially not because I have read a lot of Kasai's ideas on philosophy in his academic works on detective fiction (the points he discusses in Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu will be very familiar to those who have read Kasai's Tantei Shousetsu Ron books). That said, I can imagine that someone with an interest in philosophy enjoying the discussions. I for example loved it when Kyougoku Natsuhiko wrote about folklore studies on youkai in Ubume no Natsu, which others might have hated. At any rate, philosophy does play a part in the themes of Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu, as the title A Locked Room for Philosophers suggests, so it's not just pedantry like in Kokushikan Satsjin Jiken. But considering this is a 1100 page story, with quite some talk on a discussion I do not particular like, so you can imagine I did find it a bit tiring. Heck, I think the book could have been half the length it is now and still work. But mileage may vary.

The funny thing about series detective Yabuki Kakeru is that he uses philosophy (phenemonology) to solve crimes. Which means he usually needs to see the whole phenomenon if he actually wants to analyse it. And yes, that in turn means he usually can't solve a crime until all elements of a crime have revealed itself. Kakeru can explain serial killings, but he can't stop serial killings because his method involves analyzing the meaning and connections of the whole picture. Kindaichi Kousuke also has a nasty habit of not being able to save anyone until the end of a case, by the way.

If you asked me if I enjoyed Kasai's Tetsugakusha no Misshitsu, I'd say "Yes, but...". It is a locked room for philosophers, which I am not, but the core locked room mystery is indeed well constructed. I am not sure whether it helped that I was already quite familiar with Kasai's academic works though. At one hand, it was kinda reading the same story again, but on the other hand, it did make the philosophic talk a bit more easier to follow because I knew where Kasai was going to. I think I might read some of the earlier novels in the series (which are less taxing, I heard), but I don't think I will read any of the later novels, if they all follow the tale as told in Kasai's academic work on detective fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 笠井潔 『哲学者の密室』

Thursday, January 29, 2015


『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』

"Ever heard of a Hollywood movie where one hour in, the actress playing the heroine still hasn't made an appearance, no hijack or building hijack has happened, not even an alien showing up?"
"That's absolutely impossible"
"Ever heard of a mystery novel where halfway through, nobody has been murdered yet, and the great detective still hasn't made an appearance?"
"That's absolutely impossible"
"Psycho Logical - The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke"

I mentioned I had read the prologue of Arisugawa Alice's Sweden Kan no Nazo at least six times. I think I've read the prologue of today's book even more often! And of course, when I finally got through that hurdle, I sped through the story in record time...

Zaregoto series:
『クビキリサイクル 青色サヴァンと戯言遣い』 | Deheading Cycle: The Blue Savant and the Nonsense Bearer
 『クビシメロマンチスト 人間失格・零崎人識』 | Strangulation Romanticist: Human Failure - Zerozaki Hitoshiki 
『クビツリハイスクール 戯言遣いの弟子』 | Hanging High School - Disciple of the Nonsense Bearer
『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』、『サイコロジカル (下) 曳かれ者の小唄』 | Psycho Logical - The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke (Part 1) / Kouta's Bluff (Part 2) 

The narrator and Kunagisa "Dead Blue" Tomo make their way to the research facility led by Shadou Kyouichirou, which lies somewhere far away in the mountains. Their goal is get Utsurugi "Green Green Green" Gaisuke out of the facility. Utsurugi used be a member of Tomo's team of hackers which surprised the world several years ago, but is for some reason now working for professor Shadou. Forced to work might be a better expression. Anyway, negotiations with Shadou don't go very well, even if Tomo and the narrator do get a chance to have a talk with Utsurugi and everyone agrees to continue the talk the following day, but plans change when the following day, Utsurugi is found murdered in his own research building. And with murdered, I mean that his eyes were poked out with a scissor, his stomach was cut open and his arms sawed off. What's more baffling is that the logs show that nobody had entered or left their own research building, meaning that nobody could have murdered Utsurugi. Can the narrator and Tomo find out who killed "Green Green Green" and how the murderer managed to commit a locked room building murder in NisiOisiN's Psycho Logical?
Psycho Logical is the fourth book in NisiOisN (Nishio Ishin)'s Zaregoto (joke, nonsense) series and is split up in two volumes, Utsurugi Gaisuke no Zaregotogoroshi ("The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke") and Hikaremono no Kouta ("Kouta's Bluff"). The zany light novel series stars an unnamed narrator who has a tendency to get into strange adventures and murder mysteries thanks (?) to his curious friends and acquaintances, among them the genius hacker Tomo and the "World's Strongest Private Contractor" Aikawa Jun. But despite all the locked room murders this series features, the biggest mystery remains the narrator himself. He has a distinct speech style where he talks around, in, out, besides and over any topic, earning him the name of "nonsense bearer". Add in the fact he is quite negative and easily lies to everyone (including himself and the readers) and you have one of the most unreliable narrators in fiction ever. I quite like his narration, but I can imagine it can be a bit tiring too and the fact you can never really get into the narrator's head, might be a bit distracting for those who want to focus on the story and the murders.

Setting-wise, Psycho Logical is similar to the first book in the series, Kubikiri Cycle: a locked room murder mystery with the narrator and "Dead Blue" Tomo in an isolated setting (Tomo wasn't present in the second and third book). Thematically, there are also similarities, including an on-going discussion on geniuses, but a quick look at the two titles immediately shows the biggest difference. Kubikiri Cycle was NisiOisiN's first book and was a murder mystery with quirky characters. As the series continued, NisiOisiN slowly expanded the world of Zaregoto and by Psycho Logical, one could say that the characters are the main, the murder mystery is just a side course. Psycho Logical gives a look into both the narrator's and Tomo's past and the relation between the two and the actual murder of Utsurugi Gaisuke doesn't happen until the very, very end of the first book. The focus of the series has definitely shifted by now and because I heard that the mystery element is all but gone in the last two titles in the series, I think this is the last time I'll do a Zaregoto review here.

Psycho Logical's locked room building murder is quite fun, I think though. Sure, it keeps in the tradition of a certain trope I already mentioned in my review of Kubikiri Cycle, but I quite enjoyed the idea behind the locked room mystery and is definitely quite original. And because I already did a spoiler section in that review, another one:

Spoilers for Kubikiri Cycle, Kubishime Romanticist, Kubitsuri High School and Psycho Logical!! (Select to read):

It's actually quite interesting to see how parts of the human body are being used again and again in this series: as a step, as a transporting vessel, as a key and now as a piece of rope (in the narrator's solution). I don't know if NisiOisiN is trying to say something, but the constant de-humanizing of the err... human body in this series is somewhat disturbing. Now that I think about it, unlike Danganronpa, practically all of the geniuses and super-humans in this series are mental geniuses. I guess that Aikawa Jun is a physical monster, but she is also feared for her mind and not just her raw power...

The setting of the scientific facility and the heavy security reminds me of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru / The Perfect Insider. I don't think it's a really rare setting in mystery fiction (if anything, the use of keycards / logs / security cameras et cetera make it ideal for it), but I can't actually remember other stories with a similar setting except for that one Kindaichi Shounen story...

I will admit that I am overall a very pragmatic mystery reader. If you have browsed this blog, you have probably noticed that I mainly focus on elements like structure, plot and tropes. The way a story is written, let's say the literary qualities of a story, usually don't matter to me that much. But I absolutely looooooove NisiOisiN's writing style! The wordplay, his roundabout way of talking, everything. Each of his Zaregoto books have been filled with quote-worthy material (something I am very grateful for). And even if you're not very proficient in Japanese, it's still very readable: the vocabulary itself isn't very difficult, but NisiOisiN's just has a great sense of playing around with written words. Like the series title says, it's all nonsense and jokes, but great nonsense and jokes.

Overall, I quite enjoyed Psycho Logical. Sure, the murder mystery appears quite late in the story, but it is a fun, even if simple locked room murder and the narration is still absolutely fantastic. But, as it seems the mystery element basically disappears in subsequent books, I think this will be the last time I'll write about the Zaregoto series on this blog, even if I might still read them just to see how the series ends. But for now, I've read enough nonsense.

Original Japanese title(s): 西尾維新  『サイコロジカル (上) 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』  / 『サイコロジカル (下)曳かれ者の小唄』