Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Black Coffee Rag

『探偵神宮寺三郎 Innocent Black』

"It's snowing..."
"Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black"

I listen to a lot of videogame music, but usually only from games I've actually played. I think that Innocent Black's soundtrack is one of the few I knew inside-out years before I even got to experience the game. It's that awesome.

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series
The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation]
Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]
The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance]
Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable]
The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS]
Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]

Private detective Jinguuji Saburou is hired by Ninomiya Akio, a distressed father who wishes to find his daughter Hazuki who has run away from home. When Jinguuji finally manages to trace Hazuki, he finds out she ran away because she witnessed a very strange happening going on in her father's hospital, and she suspects the vice-president of the Ninomiya General Hospital might be stealing medicine as a side business. Jinguuji starts a new investigation at the hospital, where he finds another client: an elderly mother recently lost her son, who had gone missing two years ago. She never saw him alive anymore, because he recently died of breath failure in a park, and his body was brought to the Ninomiya General Hospital. The mother wants to know if her son really died of breath failure and what he had been up the last two years. Digging deeper, Jinguuji discovers that the son's death and the medicine theft are in fact connected and h starts to realize that some horrible secret ties together the Ninomiya General Hospital, a group of homeless people and a local crime syndicate in the 2002 PlayStation 2 videogame Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black  ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Innocent Black").

I've been a big fan of the Detective Jinguuji Saburou videogame series for years. The series started on the Famicom Disk System (a peripheral of the Japanese NES) in 1987 and saw its most recent installment in 2012, making it actually one of the oldest game franchises still active. The basic setting has not changed since the first game: every installment the player is presented a hardboiled detective story starring private detective Jinguuji Saburou, his capable assistant Misono Youko and police detective Kumano, usually set at the edges of underworld of Shinjuku, Tokyo. Occasionally we see more of an extended cast, like the forensics expert Miyoshi Shiho or local crime syndicate captain Imaizumi, and sometimes the story moves to locations outside Shinjuku, but the player can always expect a very story-driven experience with a plot that deals with realistic social problems and the people who are stuck between 'normal' society and the underworld.

The Detective Jinguuji Saburou series got a big blow in 2000 however, after the release of the seventh installment of the series. Data East, the original developers of the series, went bankrupt and many thought that this meant the end of the series. Fortunately, the company WorkJam bought the rights to the series (and still owns them), and WorkJam's first own Detective Jinguuji Saburou game was 2002's Innocent Black. This game is thus seen as a turning point for the series.

Overall, Innocent Black is a well-made entry in the series and a great hardboiled detective game. Gameplay-wise, it's the same old command-style adventure it's been for over 20 years. As expected from the Detective Jinguuji Saburou series, Innocent Black features great character designs and most importantly, fantastic music. All installments of the series have been praised for their catchy jazzy tunes and Innocent Black definitely upholds that tradition and brought some of the best songs of the whole franchise. Illustrator Terada Katsuya's designs look great too and in the visual and auditory departments, this game is really remarkable. Story-wise too, Innocent Black manages to do most things very good: as always the story starts with a small case for Jinguuji (locating Hazuki who ran away), but manages to grow out to something much bigger, without feeling too farfetched. The plot of most Detective Jinguuji Saburou are often best described as social school stories, as they are often rich in social commentary, but it definitely works for the series and Innocent Black features one of the more devilish schemes I've seen in videogame plots. I think that I can wholeheartedly recommend this game to anyone who wants to play a detective game on the PS2 with a catchy story.

Is it all perfect? Well no. One thing I thought very disappointing was that compared to the three previous games (Mikan no Rupo, Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni), Innocent Black was a much more linear experience. Note that the series has always been somewhat linear: you usually advance in the story just by talking to the right people or being at the right place at the right time. The mentioned titles however all experimented with more interactive presentation, like parallel narratives that allowed you to experience the story with multiple characters, or giving the player certain deadlines in which he needed to move the story forward. In comparison, Innocent Black is incredibly linear, as you simply move from hotspot to hotspot to advance forward. I don't find linear games bad per se (in fact, depending on the plot, it sometimes works out better), but the above mentioned titles were the Jinguuji Saburou games I played most recently, so the sudden change was very detectable. This linear direction has been maintained in practically all of the Jinguuji Saburou games WorkJam has developed, with two notable exceptions: Shiroi Kage no Shoujo (the player needs to make deductions every now or then that can potentially lead to a game over) and Ashes and Diamonds (branching storylines).

Innocent Black is also a rather controversial topic among longtime fans of the series, because it tried to do something surprising about the longstanding relation between protagonist Jinguuji Saburou and his beautiful and capable assistant Youko.Without going into spoilers, I can tell you that I too was not pleased at all with what WorkJam was going for and in fact, they had to fix that in the next game, Kind of Blue, probably not in the least because of the negative backlash. Kind of Blue is the only Jinguuji Saburou game I haven't played yet, but I hope to, because Innocent Black did leave a somewhat bad aftertaste because of this particular, but important plotpoint, that didn't even had proper development.

Innocent Black is a game that does a lot right and features a really captivating detective story. It is however also a very linear experience, even compared to earlier installments of the game, and I think that for longtime fans, Innocent Black also feels incomplete with its successor Kind of Blue, because a significant problem is not resolved within Innocent Black's narrative. In that respect, it is an unsatisfying experience, perhaps. But overall, I thought the plot to be interesting and the fantastic music definitely helps.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵神宮寺三郎 Innocent Black』

Saturday, May 16, 2015

番外編: The Decagon House Murders

No quotes as an introduction? A post title that isn't a reference? Yes, this is one of those rare service announcements on the blog. Prior announcements included messages about me writing prefaces or having translated short stories, so this time...?

One of the most referenced novels on this blog has always been AYATSUJI Yukito's The Decagon House Murders ("Jukakkan no Satsujin", 1987), a novel inspired by And Then There Were None, about a group of students with nicknames like "Ellery", "Carr" and "Agatha", who are targeted by a murderer during a stay on a small, deserted island with a strange ten-sided house. The Decagon House Murders showed that it was still possible to write good puzzle plot mysteries decades after the so-called "Golden Age" ended. In fact, the release of the book was like a traffic light turning to green, as many writers followed in Ayatsuji's footsteps, hailing in a renaissance of puzzle plot mystery novels in Japan (the shin honkaku, or "new orthodox" movement).

Publisher Locked Room International will be publishing the first English-language version of The Decagon House Murders this July and I had the pleasure of being the translator of the book. It's a book I always wished more people would read, but of course I had never dreamt I'd have the chance to translate it. But sometimes, the stars align at just the right time. It's one of the most influential mystery novels of the last thirty years in Japan and SHIMADA Soji wrote a special introduction for the English release, so this is a release no fan of detective fiction shouldn't miss. Which is something I say not as the translator of the book (okay, partly, I do), but as someone who has been a fan of the book since many years ago and who went all the way to Kyoto and joined the Kyoto University Mystery Club mostly because of how much I enjoyed The Decagon House Murders.

Publishers Weekly gave The Decagon House Murders an early positive starred review and selected it as one of their Best Summer Books 2015 line-up, which is certainly not a bad start! My own review of the book can be read here. It dates from a few years back and long-time readers might have noticed that it was around that time that I started to blog more consistently/often about Japanese detective fiction and that's no coincidence.

Anyway, The Decagon House Murders will be out in a bit in less than two months, so True Believers, keep an eye out for it.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Loose Truth

"Oh, you mustn't ask me that yet. I shall have to chew it over a lot more before I can make a connected and logical story of it. Besides, the best detectives always hold up their brilliant solutions for the most effective moment (surely you know that)."
"Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery"

I might not know much about graphic design, but I'm pretty sure that a white font on a light-blue background for a cover isn't the best of ideas.

Mystery writer, amateur detective and Daily Courier correspondent Roger Sheringham and his cousin Anthony change their holiday plans when Roger is sent by his newspaper to Ludmouth Bay, Hampshire, to report on the investigation of Inspector Moresby. Moresby is investigating the death of Elise Vane, who was found beneath the cliffs in a less-than-living state. While most people think it was a mere suicide, Moresby's presence alone shows that there might be more behind the death of Mrs. Vane, but Moresby's very careful with what he says and tells Roger and Anthony nothing newsworthy, so the two have to investigate the mystery themselves. They soon find out that the victim (?) was not a very nice woman and there were not just a few persons who had reason to bump her off. Off the cliff. And so Roger and Anthony work together to solve the crime and outsmart Moresby in Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery (1927).

Okay, was I the only one who read the title and expected a mystery revolving around a weather vane?

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is the third novel in the Roger Sheringham series, of which I have reviewed the later The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) and Jumping Jenny (1933). Those two novels were fantastic novels that explored the limits of the Great Detective as the bringer of truth, revealer of all, with multiple solutions and other shenanigans confusing both reader and Roger. Depending on your point of view, you could even consider those books anti-mystery novels, as they undermine the idea of that a detective novel could bring the truth. Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is in comparison quite tame, but is definitely written in the same spirit as The Poisoned Chocolate Case and  Jumping Jenny.

Unlike one false solution after a false solution after another set-up of the latter two books, Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery's plot is fairly straighforward, with Roger and Anthony arriving in Ludmouth's Bay and slowly uncovering more about Elise Vane's death, occasionally bouncing off theories with each other and Inspector Moresby. The latter is a rather plain policeman, who is simply doing his work in the best way he knows and his plainness works well opposite Roger Sheringham's "great detective. Those who have read more books in the series, can probably guess how this rivalry will end, but still, it's fun.

And while the plot does have its share of twists and turns as it nears the last page, including some false solutions, it is not nearly as anti-mystery-esque as other books and I think this book leaves a less cynical aftertaste (that is, it's  Roger Sheringham, so of course it's still quite cynical, just not so over-the-top as later books). Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery does not try to undermine its own premise too hard and is thus easier to enjoy than the later novels.

I do like that once again, the core mystery (the death of Elise Vane) is actually a very simple one. Trial and Error and The Poisoned Chocolates Case had at the core fairly simple deaths as the starting point, which only became more and more complex as new evidence showed up which allowed for new theories to be developed. Berkeley's critique of the infinite possibilities of evidence and theories feels more acceptable as the case itself becomes more and more simple: even the most featureless situation can be blown up to the most incredible story just by imagination deductions.

Roger Sheringham and the Vane Mystery is an enjoyable detective novel that might not be as memorable and ambitious as later books in the series, but certainly no less fun. Considering it's less crazy, it might even be a better entry point in the series.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Seven Days A Week

Hello Mr. my yesterday 云っておくれよ 
「Hello Mr. my yesterday」(Hundred Percent Free)

Hello Mr. my yesterday, please say to me:
"We'll meet again the moment your dream comes true"
 "Hello Mr. my yesterday" (Hundred Percent Free)

Some Japanese pockets feature some great cover art, but there are also the 'artsy' ones I almost never understand, or like (like this one). Todays cover is not horrible and I get the weekday references, but still... what is it?!

The death of mystery writer Raiki Raito left behind quite some questions. He may have died in his own study (locked from the inside), but was it really suicide? What about the rumours of him having been working on a new book the year before his death? And most important, what did he mean when he claimed to have discovered "the ultimate trick"? These questions also fly around in the heads of the participants of a monitoring panel for a hotel event: the hotel owns Raiki's house, the Mystery Mansion, and is planning to use it as the stage of a murder mystery event and has invited several people to try out their game. A magnificent reward awaits the winner: the location of Raiki's "ultimate trick". Among the participants are Ishizaki Kouji, our protagonist and mystery fan, and the two high school students Miria and Yuri, who were invited as representatives of a high school mystery club (little did the hotel know that the club is a fake club, only set-up to receive financial benefits for club activities from school). Can these three solve the murder mystery event and figure out what Raiki Raito's secret was in Ishizaki Kouji's Nichiyoubi no Chinmoku ("Sunday Silence", 2000)

This book was the debut novel of Ishizaki Kouji and the winner of the 18th Mephisto Award (for more about the award and the type of novels that win, see this post). As with a lot of the Mephisto Awardees, this is a fairly meta-conciousness novel; mystery writers killed in locked rooms, the "ultimate trick" (reminiscent of the ultimate locked room trick in Arisugawa Alice's 46 Banme no Misshitsu) and this time, a very literal game-approach to the mystery, as most of the story is about the murder game organized by the hotel. And of course, be ready for countless of references to other mystery novels (a great number of them also originating as Mephisto Awards).

This is a very lighthearted mystery. This is because of both the characters and the plot. To begin with the characters: the real detectives in this story are Miria and Yuri who act most of the time as stereotypical high school students who just wanna have some fun and like to make fun of everyone and everything. Heck, they only accepted the invitation for the event because of the free stay and food, not because they have an interest in detective fiction. Ishizaki Kouji (the character in the story, not the actual writer) is usually the victim of Miria and Yuri's jokes and this atmosphere of joking and teasing stays from start to finish. Miria and Yuri are also written extremely alike and there's almost seems there's no reason for them to be two different characters, though they have been split into two as to avoid the romantic implications of a thirty-ish Ishizaki Kouji and one high school student hanging out together for three days in a hotel.

But they also turn out to be a bit more intelligent than seems at first and they have a great hand in solving the mystery event, as well as figuring out the secret behind Raiki Raito's death. For most part, the mystery consists of a missing link story, where the participants of the event have to figure out what the (staged) murders are hinting at. This is solved at about two-thirds of the novel, leaving the rest for solving the secret of Raiko Raito and the 'ultimate trick'. 'Both' plots are... not bad per se, but a bit light... The first plotline is a fairly doable missing link story and actually has several layers of solutions to it, making it quite enjoyable (some solutions are kinda silly, but there's a perfectly good explanation for them). But the second missing link plotline is almost impossible to solve because it's so farfetched, making it not fun at all. Also, the secret of the 'ultimate trick' is kinda disappointing for something ultimate, making the last third of the novel not nearly as entertaining as the first two thirds (the two parts also feel a bit distinct, instead of feeling like one whole story).

Overall, Nichiyoubi no Chinmoku is entertaining enough, but it's not nearly enough to really fill one's stomach. It needed a bit more impact to really make an impression. Miria and Yuri are fun though and I gather that Miria, Yuri and author-avatar Ishizaki Kouji return in other stories too, so I might try those some time.

Original Japanese title(s):  石崎幸二『日曜日の沈黙』

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Beware the Beast from Below


When I'm selflishly convinced about things
They often tend to backfire on me,
But even so I want to live on, more for tomorrow than today
"Not Alone" (Deen)
By now, I might as well rename the short shorts posts. The idea was to do shorter reviews on multiple things in one single post, but nowadays it's just the most recent volumes of Conan and Kindaichi Shounen every four months.

April is always a big month for Detective Conan. A new volume is usually released together with the annual film, and occasionally extra merchandise is released too. Last year had a new 3DS game for example. No games this year though, but a new volume was released mid-April (+ shipping and stuff usually means I'm two, three weeks behind with my review). Detective Conan 86 obviously does not have the impact the previous volume had (which was basically catharsis after many years of world building), but overall I thought it was an okay volume. The volume starts off with the conclusion to A Mystery Sunken in A Midsummer Pool, which started in the previous volume. The mystery of a dead body suddenly appearing in a hotel pool is surprisingly easy to solve, as I am absolutely sure I have seen the same basic idea at least two different times in other detective manga also. Nothing more than a filler story, even if we get another hint at the 'main' story, as it seems that everyone's favorite female high school student detective apparently has some (never before revealed) ties with one of the main characters of the series.

The second story, The Boy and the Nice Lady, has the Detective Boys discovering a dead body (when don't they!) in her apartment room. A little boy who had become friends with the victim was asked by her to keep an eye on her door as she was expecting three different visitors who could mean trouble. And she was right, for she was found hanging from the ceiling. The story is a bit more complex than the usual three-suspects-which-of-them-was-it and I definitely enjoyed it for that, though I was not that big a fan of the overall story (which seems overly convoluted).

The Inn With the Kamaitachi has Hattori and Kazuha join the regular gang as they investigate a photograph of a kamaitachi, shot at an inn in the Nagano Prefecture. The youkai appears to be running over a hot spring in the picture, which would definitely mean something supernatural is going on. Things start to get really creepy when people are indeed attacked by an unseen 'wind sickle' and finally, the old owner of the inn himself is killed by an actual sickle (the Grim Reaper kind of sickle). I have a feeling Hattori & Kazuha often appear in stories featuring ghosts, and they are usually fun. This one is OK; the main trick of the kamaitachi running over the hot spring is pretty ingenious, even if a bit unlikely and the overall atmosphere is good. The final story, The Kawanakajima Murder Case will continue in the next volume, but already shapes up as an interesting cop-killer story, as the members of a detective unit are killed one by one, with as most likely suspect, the one-eyed police detective Yamato.

Overall a decent volume with two amusing stories, though I have to admit that the last, incomplete story caught my attention the most. But with Aoyama's recent hiatus (because of an operation), I guess the release of the next volume, and the one after that, might take a while.

And as always, a new volume Kindachi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaici Case Files R") followed right after Detective Conan's latest release. Volume 5 surprisingly starts with The Student Akechi Kengo Case Files, a short story starring series regular Superintendent Akechi in his younger years. In the past, Akechi has also starred in his own spin-off series in his high school, as well as his early police days, but this time Akechi appears as a second year university student. Akechi visits a university festival to find Rena, his old upperclassman at high school and nowadays a popular radio personality of the university radio club. Their old teacher is worried that Rena might be in some trouble and hopes Akechi can help her. Sadly enough, he's too late, as a corpse is found at the festival and Akechi suspects that Rena killed the victim to get out of said trouble. However, Rena has a perfect alibi: she was presenting a live radio show during the murder.

The story is short, but good. I thought the trick was quite ingenious, even if a bit predictable because it is not the first time Kindaichi Shounen has featured such a scheme (so it might be a bit easy to see through). The semi-inverted approach is something we often see in the shorter Kindaichi Shounen stories, though those are usually a lot more funnier too (this one is not particularly laugh-inducing). Oh, and two points: for those interested, Akechi Kengo is also starring in a currently-running spin-off series, but illustrated by a different artist. Two: This particular story had a rather big problem when it was originally serialized: due to the paper and ink quality, a large of part of the solution was actually unreadable in its original publication in the magazine Shounen Magazine (it was written on a blackboard, so white on black background). Not sure if someone got fired for that mistake, because readers probably would want to know the explanation of a murder plot.

The rest of the volume is filled with a good part of The Antlion Trench Murder Case, which has Hajime, Miyuki and newsreporter Itsuki trapped in basically the most ridiculously designed building ever in the middle of a desert. Seriously, the Kindaichi Shounen series has featured quite a lot of weird buildings For The Sake of Plot, and I can appreciate a well designed building, but I can't even start to enjoy this story because of how little sense the building makes. And the story does have some interesting points, with a professor doing research in fears and traumas and machinery monitoring everyone's vital signs. But just looking at the building makes my head hurt. Anyway, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 5 has a good start with a short, but good story, but the longer one is just not as amusing.

And that was it for this short short. Hmm, I have the feeling these short shorts aren't as short as they used to be, so I might have to rework this corner the next time. 

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第86巻, 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第5巻

Monday, May 4, 2015

Bloody Murder

消えぬように とどめてゆく
「忘れ咲き」(Garnet Crow)

But people always look back
And stand still at the sceneries they've come across
Hoping they don't disappear
"Wasurezaki" (Garnet Crow)

Edogawa Rampo is commonly seen as the father of the Japanese detective story, but it was Kuroiwa Ruikou (1862-1920) who paved the way for the now succesful genre industry. Kuroiwa was a newspaper journalist/editor, writer and translator in a time of transition for Japan, who might have less 'name impact' than Rampo nowadays, but his name is still one you can't ignore. As a newspaper man, Kuroiwa had a clear political agenda and he also set up his own newspaper (the Yorozu Chouhou, one of the earliest gossip newspapers, aimed at the masses), which did quite well not only because of its accessibility and social criticism, but also because Kuroiwa published serial fiction in the newspaper, which drew quite a public.

Kuroiwa's translations were freely rewritten translations and often used to present his own political ideas. Among his serial translations are for example Dumas' Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (famously translated as Gankutsuou, "The King of the Cavern", still a common Japanese title for the book) and Hugh Conway's Dark Days, which became Houtei no Bijin ("The Beauty in the Courtroom"). He published over a hundred translations, many of them of detective novels, which is why Kuroiwa is considered one of the most important names in Japanese detective fiction history.

Kuroiwa eventually also started to write his own stories and Muzan ("In Cold Blood", 1889) has the honour of being not only Kuroiwa's first original detective story, Muzan is actually the very first original Japanese detective story (The alternate title is Sansuji no Kami, Tantei Shousetsu ("Three Strands of Hair, A Detective Story")). The short story starts with the discovery of a severely wounded corpse in a river in Tsukiji and two policemen are set on the case: veteran cop Tanimada and the rookie Ootomo. Based on the nature of the wounds and the knowledge he gathered in his many years in service, Tanimada deduces that the victim was killed in a row by a woman and quickly heads out to find la femme. Ootomo on the other hand focuses on the three strands of hair clenched in the victim's hands and using scientific analysis and logical reasoning, arrives at a different conclusion than Tanimada. Which of them is right?

I will admit right away that I think Muzan is more interesting as the first Japanese detective story than as 'a detective story' on its own, but it does has its interesting features. First of all, I find it extremely interesting that this story features not one, but two police detectives as the detectives. I had kinda expected a Great Detective and his Assistant in the spirit of Dupin and Holmes, but here we have two common cops, just on another case. Amusing is how Ruikou places the two detectives against each other: one veteran cop who 'knows' the world and takes on each cases trusting his own instincts, and a rookie cop, who despite his lack of experience, has a very sharp and keen mind and basically uses forensic methods to detect. The trope of two 'rival' detectives is one I have always appreciated, especially if both parties use different techniques to detect, and this is done wonderfully in Muzan. Ootomo is interesting as he has more in common with Great Detectives like Dupin and Holmes in terms of method, but still obvious just a man within the organization who needs to the support of his superiors to act. Tanimada on the other hand is not portrayed as just a hardheaded cop though, even in the juxtaposition with 'modern techniques', Tanimada shows that experience is indeed also necessary. Setting these positions as equal is something I had not expected and I was pleasantly surprised.

With Muzan, you'll also get a bit of the melodrama Kuroiwa was famous for in his (translated) novels. The ending consist of a long, a very long confession and explanation of how everything came to be and how the victim turned into a corpse and I have to say I thought this was quite boring, especially as it takes up a not unconsiderable amount of the total page count.

As a detective story in its own, I find Muzan an okay story, but nothing more than that. I like the concept of the two detectives, as said above, but the deductions feel a bit forced at times (especially those surrounding the three strands of hair!) and the ending is rather anti-climatic.

Muzan is interesting as a point in detective history because of its existence, rather than for its contents, but for anyone interested in Japanese detective fiction, I think it does provide an amusing short read. You can read the text at Aozora Bunko (the Japanese Project Gutenberg), though those who have never read Meiji-period literature before might find it a bit hard to get through.

Original Japanese title(s): 黒岩涙香 「無惨」

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Grandest Game In The World

"Suppose he's one of those very clever coots you read about in detective stories-"
"Especially yours," muttered the old man.
"-especially mine," nodded his son, "And Rex's, and John's, and Miss Christie's, and other practitioners of the delightfully improbable. And suppose he's playing a game with you-- us."
"The Player On The Other Side" (Ellery Queen)

Just a few more Queens left before I've gone through them all!

The four York cousins all had their own 'castle' in the corner of York Square, a private place that symbolized continuity, decency and all things proper, right in the middle of New York. A will of Nathaniel York, Senior (who was the York) bound the four to the Square, but great financial benefits awaited them for being chained there. Of course, you can only inherit if you're alive and anyone who has read any detective story can guess what's going to happen. With the board set and our pieces in place, the invisible opponent moves his first piece: Walt, the handyman of the Yorks, is sent a letter by "Y" who asks him a favor. A deadly favor. Ellery and Inspector Queen first learn of this game in progress with the murder on Robert York and Ellery takes the seat on the other side of the board to detect The Player On The Other Side (1963).

The Player On The Other Side is a late Ellery Queen novel, ghost-written by Theodore Surgeon and extensively revised by both of the Queen cousins (Dannay and Lee). For what it is worth, it does feel like a regular Queen most of the time and builds on the themes that had been going on in the 'proper' Canon in an interesting, if not always  satisfying manner.

The novel starts with Ellery lamenting that time and technology has caught up on him and that he, as a detective, is not needed anymore. The York case brings Ellery back in the game, and it's a game he is very familiar with. Whereas a lot of Queen novels featured twist endings where it is revealed that everything, including a scapegoat murderer, had been manipulated by the real murderer, we are told right away in The Player on the Other Side that Walt is being controlled by "Y", the titular Player on the Other Side. It does bring a slightly different dynamic to reading this Queen for me, because I usually read later Queens distrusting everyone and everything like I'm suffering from paranoia, as I always anticipate a twist ending.

I do have to say though, The Player On The Other Side, feels a bit predictable, even in its twists and turns. A lot of elements have been used in earlier Queens already: a private square in New York has been used already in the series (The Greek Coffin Mystery), just like the slighty disfunctional family (There Was An Old Woman), a family called York (The Tragedy of Y), mysterious letters sent to the victims ("The Mad Tea Party", The Finishing Stroke) and like I mentioned, the Manipulator (would be kinda spoilerish to mention specific titles, I guess). I guess that this story is exactly what Ellery wished for, 'a case like always', but it feel too familiar at times.

Loyal Queen readers won't have any trouble figuring out most of the mystery behind the letters sent to the victims, I think, as it's a theme that popped up quite often in later Queen novels (in fact, I thought it kinda strange that it took Ellery that long to figure it out). Overall, I don't dislike the solution, but it is definitely not perfect: the hinting is a bit weak and while I am usually the last to complain about motives, especially a Queen novel, this time the motive behind the murders is quite important to the solution, and it's... well, not convincing here. Thematically, I can see where the Queen cousins and Surgeon were heading for and I do like the idea, but I feel the execution could have been a bit more neater, a bit more clearer.

Overall, The Player On The Other Side is a decent Queen novel though, ghost-written or not. I do think it's a novel better read in the context of other, later Queen novels, or else the solution might seem a bit too farfetched, but on the other hand, a lot of elements do seem a bit too familiar if you've read more Queens. All well, three more Queens to go!