Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Secret of the Old Clock

『Confused Memories』(円谷憂子)

Time to live, time to lie
Time to cry, time to die
"Confused Memories" (Tsuburaya Yuuko)

I have a tendency to read mystery series, I noticed lately. Of the writers I regularly read and review, I don't think there's even one where I'm solely reading non-series. I just enjoy having a framework and recurring characters, I think, as you kinda know what to expect when you read a certain series in terms of style of plotting etcetera.

(Disclosure: I translated Norizuki Rintarou's short story The Lure of the Green Door)

So while I have read quite a few of short story collections by Norizuki Rintarou, Shiramitsushi no Tokei (2008) is actually the first time I read a non-series book written by him, as all the other books I've read by Norizuki were part of his Norizuki Rintarou series, which is about the same-named mystery author who solves crimes with his father Inspector Norizuki in a totally Ellery Queen-inspired set-up. The ten stories collected in this volume however here are not part of any series, save for the last story, which is an early version of what would later be rewritten to a series novel. The ten stories were originally published between 1998 and 2008 in various magazines, and range from suspense thrillers and pastiches to not-really-mysteries.

To start with the conclusion: don't expect the pure puzzle plot mysteries like the ones we know and love from the Rintarou short story collections. The stories where Norizuki really shows off his love for Ellery Queen and for logical reasoning, for classic mystery tropes as the locked room mystery, the true whodunnit and other brilliant and surprising ideas, as well as engaging and funny short stories are to be found in those short story collections. Shiramitsubushi no Tokei features a variety of styles I myself hadn't seen Norizuki utilize before, and I know the reception of this volume is fairly good because there's variety in here, but save for the title story and maybe two or three other stories, few of them are what I would consider "typically" Norizuki. Which isn't a bad thing per se, but I certainly don't think this volume is indicative of Norizuki's plotting talent. It's, to borrow Monthy Python's words, something completely different. It's like only reading Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot short stories, and then reading Witness for the Prosecution for the first time. It's just different, and perhaps not what you attracted you to the author in the first place.

Shiyouchuu ("Occupied") is inspired by Stanley Ellin's short story The Moment of Decision, and features a locked room situation, though it is not a locked room mystery. I can't write too much about it, as the story is basically building up to a punchline, but it involves an arrogant writer, his rather hopeless editor and a vengeful waitress at the cafe where the writer and his editor are meeting. Again, it's not really a mystery story, just a playful story that plays with the notion/concept of what a locked room murder is.

Double Play is a story I had already read some years ago, as it was included in the lackluster anthology Futoumei na Satsujin. It deals with a murder exchange, with our protagonist having just about enough of his wife when another man pops up at the batting center, asking our protagonist whether he wouldn't want to kill his uncle for him, offering to kill the protagonist's wife instead. This is a suspense story that is admittedly well-written, but it's a shame it wasn't written as a true puzzler, as a bit more build-up to the ending (more clues/foreshadowing) would've made this story better in my opinion.

Shirouto Gei ("Amateur Skill") is a fairly short story where a man accidently kills his wife after a row about her spending a fortune on ventriloquism lessons and a dummy. This wasn't the first time the two had a loud fight though, so this fatal fight alarmed the neighbor. As the husband realizes the neighbor isn't really put at rest just by him saying everything is alright and refusing to let the neighbor to see his wife, he quickly hurries to hide his wife's body as he's sure the neighbor will call the police. As he tries to fool the two detectives though, it seems the dummy has other plans for him.... A surprisingly funny short, but again not much of a puzzler, more a story that builds to a punchline.

Nusumareta Tegami ("The Purloined Letter") is not a pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin series, but of Jorge Luis Borges' Death and the Compass, starring the detective Erik Lönnrot. This story is set before Death and the Compass, and has Lönnrot trying to solve the puzzle how his nemesis Red Scharlach managed to steal an letter of indiscretion written by the wife of a general, to a man she had fallen in love with. The wife had taken lengths to protect her letter to the man, with her locking her letter inside a special box, which was locked by a padlock of her own. After receiving this package, her lover locked the box himself with his own padlock and sent the box (with two padlocks now) unopened back to the wife, who then unlocked her lock, and sent it back to her lover for him to finally open the box. Yet somehow Red Scharlach managed to get hold of the letter which was at all times protected by at least one lock. The solution is rather obvious though, especially with the opening quote, and it's actually the same idea as another story in this collection, only in another context.

In Memoriam and Neko no Junrei ("The Cat Pilgrimage") are both not mystery stories, but stories that feature curious and surprising settings. In Memoriam is a short short of just four pages, about a secret club of authors who, as a game, write obituaries for collegues who are still alive. Neko no Junrei is the almost fantasy-like tale about the "cat pilgrimage", a journey cats undertake when they reach a certain age to a cave near Mt. Fuji. Sometimes, the cats run away from home for a month or two to go on the pilgrimage, but sometimes, worried owners make use of guided cat pilgrimage tours to bring their own cat to their destination. The story is about a couple making up their mind whether they'll allow their cat to go or not.

Yonshoku Mondai ("The Four Color Problem") is a pastiche of Tsuzuki Michio's Taishoku Keiji ("The Retired Detective") series, of which I have read nothing, but it is apparently about a police detective who sometimes talks about some cases with his father, who is a retired policeman himself. This time, the son is working on the strange murder of an actress, who starred recently in the action superhero series Time Task Force ChronoRangers as Chrono Blue. Leaks of photographs secretly taken of her and the female co-star who played Chrono Pink undressing and using the shower have been going around, and while an assistant-director on the ChronoRangers team had to take the fall, it appears that was just a studio cover-up, and the actress suspected that one of the four male leads (who played Chrono Red, Chrono Green, Chrono Yellow and Chrono Black) was behind it all. It appears she had confronted the person she suspected, who then stabbed her in the stomach. However, the actress hadn't died immediately, and for some reason, she pulled the knife out of her body to carve an X in her arm, and she removed her watch and necklace too. But why? It's one of those dying message stories that depends on rather specific knowledge to make any sense, and while Norizuki tries to set-up the decisive clue, it still doesn't take away from the fact that you won't be able to solve this unless you happen to know about a certain piece of trivia.

Yuurei wo Yatotta Onna ("The Woman Who Hired A Ghost") is a pastiche of Tsuzuki Michio's Quart Gallon series, which in turn was a pastiche of Ed McBain's hardboiled mystery I'm Cannon - For Hire (credited as Curt Cannon). Gallon was once a private detective who nearly committed a double murder after finding his wife and his best friend in the same bed, and now he lives in the Bowery, deprived of his credentials. Which doesn't stop people from trying to hire him anyway. A woman hires Gallon to find out what's wrong with her husband. The husband has been lost in thought the last week, and even bought a gun 'for protection', even though nothing has happened in the artists' shop he runs. An okay hardboiled story, but the title gives the game away, I think.

Shiramitsubushi no Tokei ("Leave No Clock Unturned") is the title story and the masterpiece of this collection. "You" find yourself waking up in a small, round room completely encircled by a hall as part of a job interview for a leading think tank. There are no windows in these rooms and the temperature inside is completely computer-controlled. In the hallway, "you" find 1440 different running clocks, each indicating a different time down to the minute (12:00, 12:01, 12:02 etc.). "Your" assignment: figure out which of these 1440 clocks is indicating the correct time, within a time limit of six hours! This is a true puzzler, with a truly devilish conundrum, for how are you going to find out the correct time if there's a clock for every minute of the day, which are obviously all running as you're working on the problem, and you can't even look outside to guess what time it should be! Norizuki however shows a perfectly logical manner to find the correct clock among the 1440 clocks. Shiramitsubushi no Tokei does feel more like a logic puzzle or quiz rather than literature, I admit, but man, this is what you'd expect from a mystery writer who places so much emphasis on logical reasoning like Norizuki! 

Two Of Us has an interesting backstory: it was originally written for the Kyoto University Mystery Club's club anthology Souanoshiro, which is sold at the annual campus festival in November. I have actually seen the original version of this story myself in one of the old Souanoshiros while I was in Kyoto. The story does feature Norizuki's characters Rintarou and his father Inspector Norizuki, though the spelling of Rintarou's name is different, as Norizuki Rintarou changed the spelling of his name when he became a professional author (if you go through the old Mystery Club magazines, you'll only find the old spelling). Two of Us was eventually rewritten to a full novel in the Rintarou series titled Ni no Higeki. Neither the novel, nor this original short story version would count towards my favorite Norizuki's to be honest, as the emphasis in this novel lies far more on the human relations than the deductions of Rintarou. In fact, for the true logic puzzlers you're off much better with the Rintarou short stories, as save for some early entries, the novels never really manage to be as awesome as the short stories in terms of pure puzzle plots.

So personally, I can't say Shiramitsushi no Tokei was my favorite Norizuki short story collection, with a very simple reason: all the awesome puzzle plot short stories we saw in the Rintarou short story collections weren't to be found here. If you are not as puzzle-plot focused as I am, you might enjoy the sheer variety of this collection, and at any rate, the title story Shiramitsubushi no Tokei is really a masterpiece, but in general, I'd say try out Norizuki's other short story collections before coming here.

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎 『しらみつぶしの時計』:「使用中」/「ダブル・プレイ」/「素人芸」/「盗まれた手紙」/「イン・メモリアム」/「猫の巡礼」/「四色問題」/「幽霊をやとった女」/「しらみつぶしの時計」/「トゥ・オブ・アス」

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Model Crime

"But you see, you didn't look like you were the boss here."
"I'm often told that."
"The Last Volume"

I don't remember when I first heard of mystery author Ookura Takahiro, but I know quite a few years passed between me first learning of him, and me actually getting to know something written by him.  Surprisingly through, my first experience with Ookura was through Detective Conan. Ookura was the scriptwriter for the 2017 Detective Conan theatrical feature The Crimson Love Letter, but in the lead-up to the release of the film, he also wrote the screenplay for episode 829, The Mysterious Boy, of the animated TV series, which was the first time I had seen anything created by Ookura. The Crimson Love Letter was an excellent mystery film (and the novel version written by Ookura was also okay), so I grew very interested in seeing more of Ookura's work, and what better way to start than with one of his more famous creations? And yes, I know he's also working on the 2019 Detective Conan: The Fist of the Blue Sapphire, but the trailer didn't really manage to hit the right places for me quite yet.

Fukuie is a small woman with short, black hair and a pair of frame-less glasses who is often mistaken for a college student, but she is in fact a lieutenant of the Metropolitan Police Department, in charge of homicide investigations. Despite her unassuming appearance and sometimes even careless habits (she often forgets her police badge), criminals are warned not to underestimate this woman, as she has a keen eye for details, and no matter how crafty a plan might be, you count on in it that Lieutenant Fukuie will not only figure everything out, she'll also be sure to come up with some way to actually arrest the criminal with proof. Whether you're a librarian trying to save the library from being sold off or an actress killing off her blackmailing rival, Lieutenant Fukuie will always find the weak spots in the criminal's plan and bring everything tumbling down in Ookura Takahiro's short story collection Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu ("The Greetings of Lieutenant Fukuie", 2006), which also carries the alternative English title of Enter Lieutenant Fukuie.

The Lieutenant Fukuie series is one of Ookura's best known series, especially as it has also seen TV adaptations. Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu is the first book in the still-running inverted detective series. As in the tradition of all great inverted mystery fiction, each story is told from the perspective of the culprit, who carries out their murderous plan. At first, their plans seem foolproof, but then the lieutenant appears, and starts picking out small contradictions left here and there. It might seem Lieutenant Fukuie is just guessing, but by the time the culprit realizes how crafty Fukuie really is, it's already too late and for the reader, the fun of the mystery lies in not guessing whodunit, but how Fukuie is going to figure out what really happened. The Lieutenant Fukuie series is obviously heavily inspired by Columbo, though something interesting has to be mentioned here. Ookura has penned several official novelizations of Columbo in the past and while Ookura was credited as "translator" for these novelizations, he was the person who actually wrote these novels (the prose) especially for the Japanese market. These novelizations were based on the original screenplays of existing episodes, or plot outlines for unfilmed stories, which Ookura then had to expand into a novel-form. For these books, people like Columbo creators Levinson & Link, or other screenplay writers were credited for the "original work", though technically, they didn't write the specific novel form of these stories, which were entirely Ookura's invention and don't exist outside Japan. In a way, it's no wonder Ookura would later write his own inverted mystery stories about a police lieutenant.

By the way, the animation sequence accompanying the fiftieth ending song of Detective Conan (La PomPon's cover of Zard's Unmei no Roulette Mawashite) has the regular cast dressed as characters from several famous police and detective TV dramas, and Ran is featured as Lieutenant Fukuie, looking in her bag for her police badge as always.

One thing I find difficult about writing about inverted mystery stories is figuring out how much I should write about the plot actually, as in most inverted stories, a lot is already revealed to the reader. In fact, the fun in these stories often lies in the fact that although the reader knows more about the facts of the case than the Lieutenant, she'll usually still out-think you. In order not to spoil too much, I'll keep my summaries for the four stories rather short. The volume opens with Saigo no Issatsu ("The Last Volume"), which stars Amamiya Sachiko, head librarian of the Enamito Library. Enamito Kousuke was during his life a true connoisseur of books and when he retired, he had his secretary Sachiko become head of his own library, but after his death, the library became the property of his son Hirohisa, a no-good bum who is keen on selling off everything as soon as he can to get some money. Sachiko plans to kill Hirohisa in order to save the library, and she dresses the scene so it looks like Hirohisa had snuck into the library himself in order to steal some rare books to sell. This first story is a not particularly baffling, but still entertaining mystery, with a few different points that attract the Lieutenant's attention which a careful reader will also notice. Some of these contradictions are presented quite open (fact A and fact B don't mesh), but some also require the reader to make another, logical assumption (if both fact A and fact B are true, that must mean fact C), and this also keeps the reader on their toes in this fairly short opening story.

In Occam no Kamisori ("Occam's Razor"), Lieuteant Fukuie is investigating the murder on associate professor Ikeuchi, who was seemingly killed by the same robber who has been roaming the neighborhood lately. The questions Fukuie has about the murder however lead her to Yanagida Yoshifumi, a university teacher who used to teach scientific investigation at the police academy, and who has actually taught Fukuie herself in her rookie days. What makes this story interesting is not only the fact we have an expert in crime investigation who commited the murder, the story is also written in a way so not everything about Yanagida's plan is explained right from the beginning, leaving also a few things for the reader to find out as they read on .For example, Yanagida steals a pack of cigarettes from the victim in their first scene, before the murder occurs, but the implication of that isn't explained until later. 

Aijou no Scenario ("A Scenario of Love") is about the actress Ogino Mariko, who's being blackmailed by her rival actress Kakinuma Emi to give up on a certain audition. Mariko kills Emi by feeding her sleeping pills, and then leaving Emi's car running in the garage so she'd suffocate. That way it'd seem Emi had simply taken her usual sleeping draught without switching her car off. A receipt of the things Emi bought at the convenience store gives Fukuie more than enough leeway to suspect this isn't just an accident. While the true motive of the murderer isn't really well-hinted at, I'd say that as a mystery, this short story works reasonably well with more than enough well-clewed parts that explain why Fukuie would start having her doubts about the whole case.

In the final story Tsuki no Shizuku ("Moon Tear"), Tanimoto Kichirou, owner of the Tanimoto Sake Brewery, kills his rival Satou of the Satou Brewery. The two had very different approaches when it came to sake: the Satou Brewery was producing in masses, but connoisseurs couldn't stand their awful sake, while the Tanimoto Sake Brewery did everything the old-fashioned way to maintain quality, but they could hardly produce enough to keep the company floating. Satou was trying to kill off Tanimoto Sake Brewery once and for all by adopting a cost leader strategy, which Tanimoto couldn't survive for long, so Tanimoto Kichirou killed Satou, making it seem like Satou had snuck into the Tanimoto Sake Brewery to spy on their sake and had fallen into one of the empty sake tanks. The decisive hint that shows Tanimoto killed Satou is quite brilliantly hidden within the text, and perfectly fitting for the story. Looking at this core mystery plot, I think this one is the best plotted one, with a really interesting situation for the reader to solve even though they should know more than Fukuie.

By the way, it's interesting how Lieutenant Fukuie is quite the nondescript character most of the time. While the spotlight's supposed to be on the culprit in Columbo, Columbo actually always has a presence on screen whenever he's in the scene. That doesn't really work with novels though. Mitani Kouki's novelization of his own Furuhata Ninzaburou series (also inspired by Columbo) shows this difference very well: while on the television screen, Furuhata has countless of quirky traits and commandeers every scene he's in, he's actually almost a traitless figure in the novel version, who appears only to put the pressure on the culprit. By putting as little emphasis on the detective character, the focus shifts almost completely to the psychology of the culprit and to how they view the detective. This is also more or less what happens in the Lieutenant Fukuie series, where Fukuie seldom becomes more than the woman with short black hair and frameless glasses who has an eerie smile on her face as she talks with the suspects.

Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu is on the whole a capable mystery story collection that really manages to scratch that itch for Columbo-esque inverted mystery stories. There's also surprising variety in these stories, so I am quite curious to see what other adventures Fukuie has in the following volumes and I'm sure I'll be seeing more of her soon here.

Original Japanese title(s): 大倉崇裕 『福家警部補の挨拶』:「最後の一冊」/「オッカムの剃刀」/「愛情のシナリオ」/「月の雫」

Friday, March 8, 2019

Sisters in Crime


"In the name of my grandfather, who they called a great detective in "that ancient past" of yours."
"The Case Files of the 37-year Old Kindaichi"

Man, I really miss the old days when new Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen volumes would be released every three months like clockwork: with the earlier hiatuses in Conan's serialization and Hajime doings his cases on a biweekly format now, releases for both series have been incredibly slow and irregular these last two years.

The new series starring detective manga icon Kindaichi Hajime started last year, with the teenage detective now a 37-year old man, and his adventures serialized in the biweekly magazine Evening (instead of the weekly Shounen Magazine), aimed at a slightly older audience. The Tower Block Madam Murder Case is the story that takes up all of the third volume of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of the 37-year Old Kindaichi"), and a bit more to be exact: you'll find the first chapter of this story in the previous volume and it also appears an 'aftermath' concluding chapter will follow in the fourth volume, but the main murder plot plays out within the pages of this volume, so I thought I might as well write a review now, instead of waiting until June. Kindaichi Hajime, 37 years old, takes a day off from his mind-numbing work at Otowa Black PR to help his neighbor Momoka (to be exact: his attractive neighbor who is also a single mother). Momoka runs a small catering service and she desperately needs an extra pair of hands to help out at a small party organized by Misaki, who in the past has helped Momoka out by introducing her to some good clients. Misaki's party is a small informal gathering with food and karaoke for her neighbors who all live in the same luxurious high rise residential complex. While ostentatiously, these women get along well as good neighbors, there's a certain 'caste' system in this mini eco-system with the women who live in the more expensive apartments on the top floors standing at the top of the hierarchy, and it's Misaki who rules from the very tip of the pyramid. Three women of the lower floors have more than enough of Misaki's passive-aggresive ordering around, flaunting with her money and other actons with which she asserts her superiority over them, and the trio decides to kill Misaki. The plan is to murder Misaki during the party and make it seem she committed suicide herself by jumping from her apartment up on the 38th floor. Props for their plan include a fake SNS message sent from Misaki's smartphone to her "friends" just before she "jumps" (is thrown from the building) and an elaborate scheme to create an alibi for the three conspirators during the party. Of course, these three couldn't have known that that middle-aged waiter at their party used to be feared as a brilliant teenage detective...

The first story in this series, The Utashima Resort Murder Case, was in essence a more than familiar sight for readers who have been following Hajime since his younger detecting days. A series of murders on a remote island (Utashima, no less!), semi-impossible settings due to perfect alibis for everyone, etc. The story managed to add in some great comedy in the moments when things didn't exactly go like in in Hajime's teenager days, but overall, the story was what you'd expect from the series, even if it takes places twenty years in Hajime's future (note that the story doesn't actually take place in the future: the stories in all the Kindaichi Shounen series take place kinda around the time of original publication). In that sense, I'd say The Tower Block Madam Murder Case has something more original to offer to the reader, even if the core mystery plot is a bit simple. The whole case takes places in a high class apartment complex, with camera surveillance in the elevators, special high-speed elevators for the top floors, German-made keycards that open the doors to the private apartments, and most importantly, a story that revolves around the grudge and jealousy women can harbor and a close look at the mini eco-system of the inhabitants of an apartment complex. Quite different from the usual faraway isolated crime scene Hajime used to visit and it actually kinda reminds of the novel Shiro to Kuro, an adventure of Hajime's grandfather Kindaichi Kousuke, which was also set in a very different setting from what you'd usually expect from his adventures.

Another point of interest is the fact that this is an inverted mystery story. Inverted stories are not incredibly rare in the various Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, but this format was usually reserved for the short stories. I think this is the first time we've seen an inverted long story in this series: most of the scheme of the three murderers is revealed to the reader long before Hajime even starts suspecting something is going on. You have an advantage over Hajime as the reader, so part of the fun now is also figuring out how Hajime's going to figure things out.

The core mystery plot however is rather simple: many of the hints that give the game away to Hajime will also seem obvious to the reader, especially as they have an inherent advantage over him, being shown both sides of the crime. Most of the hints that help Hajime figure out it was not a suicide, but a murder are easy to pick up and not particularly original, not even only seen from the context of this series. There is another aspect to the crime, that is bordering to an impossible situation: we know the murderers somehow schemed to make it seem Misaki had gone to her apartment on the 38th floor before the party, but the conspirators are never seen on the security cameras going up to the 38th floor, nor going back down to the party, so how did they pull this off? Part of how this is done is told to the reader directly through the inverted format. The way this side of the crime is solved by Hajime doesn't work quite well in comic format and had this been a normal detective story, this wouldn't be really fair, but in this case, the reader had absolute knowledge a priori anyway. The part to the elevator trick that isn't explained explicitly has to be solved by both Hajime and the reader themselves, but I can't imagine it would a very large obstacle: the hinting is almost too good, so it won't be difficult to figure out how it was done.

So the overall story is rather simple, though I have to say I did have fun with it. Like most of the inverted stories in this series, The Tower Block Madam Murder Case has a rather humoristic undertone: with Hajime constantly pointing out strange points to the "suicide", the three women who committed the murder try to come up with all kinds of excuses and other plans to make sure the police will let things slide swiftly, and this results in some funny, panic-stricken actions, like the scenes you see in the spin-off series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Gaiden - Hannintachi no Jikenbo (which retells the old stories from the POV of the criminals as a parody series) The fact the murderers are still actively working on their plan as Hajime's trying to solve the crime, also adds an extra sense of thrill. Hajime's subordinate Hayama, who's helping out with the catering service too, serves as this series' Miyuki for the moment and delivers some light touches, while we also have a familiar face acting as Hajime's new connection in the Metropolitan Police Department (as his usual ally, Inspector Kenmochi, is already retired of course).

So Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo 3 is by no means an exceptional volume, but both the tone and setting serve as a nice change from the usual menu for this series, and it works as a simple, but entertaining enough mystery story. The next volume is scheduled for a June release, but I suspect it will not contain a complete story, so I will probably wait with my review until the whole story is released (which will probably be nearer the end of the year). 

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第3巻

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Appointment with Death

Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant
De Vita Caesarum  

"Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you."
"The Life of the Caesars"

I love the cover art of this book!

Jarimistan is a small nation in the Middle-East which only a few decades ago shifted its focus from oil to a new foundation of the national economy. The Jarimistan Terminal Prison is a unique facility, as it houses those who have been sentenced to death from not only Jarimistan, but all over the world. Nations can transfer their condemned to Jarimistan for a fee, so they don't have to maintain a death row themselves. The thousands of inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are offered relative freedom: their only obligations are an 8-hour daily activity (with some salary) and classes to learn the Jarimistan language, after which they are free to themselves. (Light) alcohol and cigarettes can be bought, internet can be freely used and even a midnight stroll across the square is allowed. However, death for any of these inmates can come at any time, as the Sheikh of Jarimistan decides on a whim when the death sentence will be executed, only four days before the fateful day. With people of so many nationalities thrown together under such special circumstances, it's no wonder that the Jarimistan Terminal Prison has become a society of its own. One of the new arrivals is Alan Ishida, an American who was sentenced to death for murdering his parents and attempting to burn them together in their house. He is soon taken under the wing of Old Schultz, who is not only the oldest inmate, but also the person who has lived longest within the confines of the prison walls. In the many years he spent here, this head inmate of Prison Wing 2 had gained a reputation as a keen-minded problem solver, who has even earned the respect of the guards and management of the prison. And though they are destined for execution, it seems there's definitely a need for the presence of Old Schultz and Alan in the prison, as strange happenings do occur inside the four walls as depicted in Torikai Hiu's interlinked short story collection Shi to Sunadokei ("Death and the Hourglass", 2015), from an impossible double murder inside a cell block with guards inside, to the legend of the one man who managed to escape the inescapable prison.

My first review of this year was of Torikai Hiu's Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo, which I only picked because it was set in the city of Fukuoka. I had never even heard of Torikai before, but the novel was a nice surprise, as it was a very entertaining sports novel with a solid mystery basis. I decided to see what else Torikai had written, and my attention was immediately drawn to today's Shi to Sunadokei. Impossible situations and other mysteries to be solved inside a prison setting, and a special prison too, with only death row inmates and from various countries? I had read mysteries set in prisons before, like Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Z, and the Kindaichi Shounen story Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken, which was set in a cram school that was originally a prison. With rules that govern the inmates inside and guards everywhere, a prison is a very alluring setting for a mystery story, so I knew I had to make this my next Torikai.

Maou Shafo Dolmayan no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Magic King Shafo Dolmayan") starts with the farewell speech of Shafo Dolmayan, a refugee from Central-Asia who had roamed Europe as a magician and freak show, but who was sentenced to death after a mishap in an oil state. He is scheduled to be executed tomorrow, as is a Japanese soldier-of-fortune, but the next day, Old Schultz and Alan are informed that both Shafo and the soldier-of-fortune were killed that night. The event raises many questions: How did the murderer enter the special death row cell block as there was a guard standing outside all night? Where did the murder weapon go? Why was the soldier-of-fortune killed with a clean cut, but Shafo horribly stabbed countless of times across his body and limbs? And most importantly, why kill two people who were scheduled to be executed anyway? A very fun opening story. Some of the hinting is a bit too obvious, so it shouldn't prove too much trouble to deduce where the murder weapon went and as a result, how the murders were committed, but this is a very well plotted story, with several hypotheses posed throughout the story, which keeps the reader on their toes and the motive of why these murders were committed in the first place is really well done, with surprisingly good hinting and set-up ( and there's even a very good fake solution in regards to the motive).

In Eiyuu Chen Weizi no Shissou ("The Disappearance of the Hero Chen Weizi"), Old Schultz and Alan are given three days to solve the disappearance of Chen Weizi, the one man who managed to escape from Jarimistan Terminal Prison. Chen was a Chinese surgeon whose liberal thoughts and support to rebels eventually earned him a death sentence. As a doctor, he was already a very popular man among his fellow Chinese inmates, but his escape from the prison several months earlier made him a hero among all prisoners. Inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are under observation through two systems: besides the watchful eyes of the guards, inmates also have a microchip implanted in them, which gives them a horrible electric shock should they ever enter places they shouldn't be. Nobody knows where this implant is as the patients are always under the influence of anesthetics during the operation, so removal is impossible. Chen Weizi however had somehow overcome these two hurdles, and what's more, he managed to escape on a bright night with a full moon and strangled the strongest and most fearsome guardsman in the whole prison on his way out. There's been no sign of Chen since his escape, but political pressure from China (where most of the inmates of Jarimistan Terminal Prison come from) has the Sheikh of Jarimistan desperate to find out what happened to Chen as soon as possible. This is the best story of the collection, as Chen's escape really seems impossible considering all the security measures going on. Of the two obstacles in Chen's way, one is relatively easy to guess how it was beaten, but the other is really brilliantly done, with a wonderful explanation for why Chen chose that particular night to escape and that guardsman as his victim. The conclusion is quite cynical too, fitting perfectly with the whole collection.

The inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are treated relatively well, but even so, some guards occasionally forget they are in fact working with humans and abuse their position. The Jarimistan Terminal Prison is therefore subject to an annual inspection, where the inmates can talk directly with the visiting inspector to talk about their living conditions here. Kansatsukan Gemaya Kaled no Toukai ("The Self-Effacement of Supervisor Gemaya Kaled") introduces us to Gemaya Kaled, the veteran supervisor who has been doing this job with pride and joy for many decades and who will retire immediately after his inspection this year has finished. During his inspection of Wing 2, Adamson, an American inmate, tells Kaled about Mubarac, a guard in Wing 1 who not only abuses the prisoners there, but even rapes them. Adamson had originally been in Wing 1 himself, until he bribed himself to Wing 2. Kaled promises to look into this, but he is murdered that night in his office. Schultz and Alan are also asked to think along, though the case seems clear as day: Mubarac's fingerprints were found on the knife that had been stabbed into Kaled several times, a witness had heard Mubarac enter the office and have a row with Kaled and another witness saw Mubarac leave some minutes later, after which Kaled's body was found. And yet Schultz has his doubts about what happened, and for good reasons too. As a mystery, this story is very easy to solve, as some of the wording used makes it very clear what must have happened, but I did like the clue Schultz points out that supports this solution: this supporting clue is easy to miss, but makes so much sense in hindsight.

Hakamori Lagba Garpo no Homare ("The Honor of Gravedigger Lagba Garpo") starts with Marco, an Italian inmate who's friends with Alan and Schultz, telling how he heard that the gravedigegr Lagba Garpo was seen eating a corpse he had dug up. Lagba is a Tibetan who despite his many years here has not learned the common language Jarimistanese, making it impossible for anybody to communicate with him. While most people would hate to be digging graves for their fellow inmates each and every day, Lagba does this daily task faithfully and few others would be so good for the job. Marco, Schultz and Alan check out the graveyard, and indeed find a freshly dug-up grave, and inside they see that the arms of the body inside have been cut off. Schultz warns the other two to keep silent about this, but this becomes impossible when Lagba is discovered right as he's busy mutilating another body. Sotojor was an immensely popular inmate, so many were shocked to hear Lagba was using his shovel to cut Sotojor's arms off and cut open his chest. Schultz does not believe Lagba was trying to eat Sotojor, but what were Lagba's intentions then? I like how one clue is used as the foundation of a fake solution, but given a completely other, and far more original interpretation in the true solution, but it is a bit hard to guess what Lagba's true motive is if you don't have knowledge about a certain custom. If you do know it, you might be able to guess what's going on here, but it is a lot harder without that knowledge (as it's hardly hinted at), though I have to say this is a thematically very strong story.

Joshuu Maria Scofield no Kaitai ("The Immaculate Conception of the Female Prisoner Maria Scofield") is the shortest story in the collection, and has Layla, the female doctor of the women's quarters visit Dr. Haji of the men's quarters, as well as Schultz and Alan. Maria Scofield is a woman who has lived in the Jarimistan Terminal Prison for over thirteen months now, but for some reason she's become pregnant. No men (guard or prisoner) are allowed in the female quarters and Maria even claims she's a virgin and never ever had relations with a man before, so how did this impossibility occur? This story is perhaps at its best when Alan is proposing all kinds of realistically sounding hypotheses of how Maria could've become pregnant now which are shot down by Layla one by one but after the first half, the story changes when Alan is brought to the women's quarters to have a talk with Maria herself. The story reveals itself to be something quite different than seems at first sight. Is it really still a mystery story? Yes, I guess, as in hindsight, there's a really cleverly formulated sentence at the start of the story, but both the length and the type of story make this the least interesting of the whole collection.

About two years have passed since Alan Ishida was transferred to the Jarimistan Terminal Prison, but now his time has come in Kakuteishuu Alan Ishida no Shinjitsu ("The Truth of Death-Row Inmate Alan Ishida"). With only four days left in his life, Alan Ishida decides to tell Schultz about the crime that brought him here. He was sentenced to death after killing his parents and attempting to set their house on fire, but Alan says while he did kill his (step) father in a rage, it was his father who killed his mother. As Alan tells Schultz about his past however, he realizes something about these events he had never done before, and with the deductive skills cultivated in his time spent with Schultz, he decides to reveal his conclusions at his farewell speech. The realization of Alan is rather easy to guess considering all the previous stories, but one has to admit this was really well set-up. One important clue is only mentioned in this story, but that only becomes meaningful when you realize you have to combine it with various minor, almost insignificant events that occured over the course of all the previous stories. This 'bringing the whole thing together' moment is quite fun and while the conclusion takes on a different tone from the rest of the puzzle plot mystery book, the cynical twist at the very end is one that really fits this collection well.

Shi to Sunadokei is thus a very entertaining short story collection that not only offers a very unique setting, it uses that setting to bring very alluring mystery plots. The prison is mostly used for impossible situations, but there's not only the expected impossible murder or impossible prison break, but even an impossible pregnancy, and the other stories leave an impression especially because they are set in this death row prison. I for one have no doubt this short story collection will turn out to be one of my favorite reads of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 鳥飼否宇 『死と砂時計』: 「魔王シャヴォ・ドルマヤンの密室」 / 「英雄チェン・ウェイツの失踪」/ 「監察官ジェマイヤ・カーレッドの韜晦」/ 「墓守ラクパ・ギャルポの誉れ」/ 「女囚マリア・スコフィールドの懐胎」 /  「確定囚アラン・イシダの真実」

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Turnabout Power vs. Supernatural Power

「The Real Folk Blues」(山根麻衣)

One eye looks at tomorrow,
While the other eye stares at yesterday
"The Real Folk Blues" (Yamane Mai)

Late November last year, I reviewed Imamura Masahiro's debut novel Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"), which I friggin' loved: it was a mystery novel that took on a very classic approach with its closed circle situation and impossible crimes, but set under extremely unique circumstances. I was already late to the party, as it was widely lauded as the hit mystery novel of the year  in its release year of 2017 and its popularity certainly didn't wane in the following year. In fact, 2019 will see both a live-action movie adaptation and a manga adaptation of the bestseller, so I think that the work will eventually find its way, be it in the form of the original novel or one of the adaptations, to the English-language market.

It was announced around the time I was reading the first novel, that Imamura was working on the sequel, and that it would be published soon, in February 2019. This time, I didn't wait a few years to come across a nice discount campaign, and bought the new book on release day (and finished it on the same day... more or less). Magan no Hako no Satsujin ("The Murders In the Box of The Devil Eye", 2019) takes place a few months after the events in Shijinsou no Satsujin. In the previous novel, Hamura Yuzuru (first-year student of Shinkou University and the narrator) became friends with Kenzaki Hiruko, a second-year student who, unknown to the public, has solved many criminal cases over the course of her life. After the crazy circumstances in which they had to deal with multiple impossible murders in a hostel near Lake Sabea while having to literally fight for survival, Hiruko decides to investigate how that all could've happened, and she learns of a mysterious letter that had been sent to the occult magazine Atlantis: apparently, the anonymous letter had foretold several major deadly incidents in Japan, months before they even happened, including the sudden outbreak near Lake Sabea. Another letter hints at where the prophesy came from: their destination is the abandoned settlement of Magan, where Sakimi lives, an old woman who can supposedly see in the future.

Hiruko and Hamura travel to the small village of Yoshimi deep in the mountains, as you must pass through Yoshimi to get to Magan. To their great surprise, they not only find a gate blocking the road from the bus stop to Yoshimi, but when they slip through, they find that the village itself is completely empty. Well, not completely, because several other outsiders happen to arrive in Yoshimi at the same time, including a journalist of the magazine Atlantis, two high school students of whom one also seems to be able to see in the future too, and a former inhabitant of Yoshimi who's back for the day to visit her parents' grave. Baffled by the disappearance of the people of Yoshimi, the group crosses the bridge across the river to go to abandoned Magan, to the windowless, box-like building where Sakimi and her help live, to ask about what happened to the people of Yoshimi. Here they learn that Sakimi's prophecy  has foretold that in the two days starting tomorrow, two men and two women will die in Magan, and that is why everyone in nearby Yoshimi left. But as some of the vistiting group try to make their way back, they find the bridge back to Yoshimi has been burned down for some reason, and now everyone is trapped on this side of the river, in Magan. At first, not everybody seems to believe in the prophecy, but the following morning, one of the group is buried in a landslide after an earthquake. While this incident might still seem like a mere coincidence on its own, the following murders that happened under seemingly impossible circumstances suggest that Sakimi's prophecy is destined to come true, flinging the party staying in Magan in a whirlpool of fear.

After I finished Shijinsou no Satsujin, I really wondered how Imamura was going to write a sequel to that novel. Was he going to build further on the specific circumstances he used in that book, or perhaps go a completely different way? The answer is that Imamura, perhaps wisely, decided to go a completely different way. We don't see those beings from the first novel anymore, but the reader will not be disappointed by Magan no Hako no Satsujin despite that, as the novel definitely builds on the underlying foundations what made the first novel so good: it combined a classic, closed circle murder mystery story with completely unique (and not particularly realistic) circumstances, to create an immensely original, but also entertaining, and clever detective novel. This time, the unique situation is of course that everything occurs because the prophecies of Sakimi are real. We actually have two people who can tell the future in this novel, Sakimi who prophesied four people will these in the coming two days, while one of the high school students is able to make sketches of incidents happening in the very near future (within ten minutes). Whereas in other mystery novels, you'd usually find out that these people are frauds or something like that, Magan no Hako no Satsujin makes sure you realize that these prophecies are real and thus these insights into future events actually become part of the deduction process. For example, early on in the story the high school student Toiro is both suspected, and partially cleared from suspicion of poisoning Sakimi, because her sketch of the crime scene before it happened, also included an object she couldn't possibly have known about, with the deductions and accussations all revolving around how those objects still made their way in her sketch.

In a way, the concept behind the prophecies isn't very different from what was done in the first novel: Imamura locks his whole cast up in a closed circle situation, and then has a supernatural/unnatural phenomenon threaten our cast. What makes his novels different from most other closed circle mysteries is that the threat isn't simply a force of nature, like a snow storm or the raging sea or something like that, but something out of the ordinary. What's more, Imamura is sure to make use of these unique special circumstances to come up with situations that can only exist because he's utilizing these unique ideas, resulting in mystery stories that are in the core recognizable, but also like something you have never seen before. The core mystery plot in Shijinsou no Satsujin could not have worked if not for those special circumstances, and that is also true for what happens in Magan no Hako no Satsujin.

That said, Magan no Hako no Satsujin is likely to leave less of a visceral impression on the reader at first, as the threat of... those beings was far more intense that the threat of a prophecy. Whereas the first novel felt quite dynamic, with barricades being forced open and the survivors being forced to move around, this novel feels calmer (relatively speaking, of course), as the prophecy itself isn't going around breaking down doors and attacking people. The deaths in the novel are also less gory, though the first clear murder is still quite brutal, with someone shot by a shotgun. This situation is the main problem of the novel perhaps, as the deductions surrounding this death are what allows Hiruko to figure out who the murderer is. The investigation initially focuses on the semi-impossibility of the situation, as everyone seems to have an alibi: nobody was away long enough from the dining room to break open the locker with the shotgun and kill the victim. However, this problem later turns in a more Queenian investigation when Hamura focuses on the physical clues left on the scene, and this part is quite ingenious. The deduction chain based on one physical object left on the crime scene allows one to identify the murderer, and opens up possibilities to solve the other deaths. There's also a situation with footsteps leading to a waterfall, but none back: this one is a bit simpler in design, but a bit tricky to uncover beforehand (as there are basically no real clues indicating what had exactly happened). Another death is quite subtly clewed through physical clues, not as clever as the first one, but still very nicely hidden within the text.

What makes Magan no Hako no Satsujin a unique read however is that the premise of the prophecies being true, is unmistakenly a fundamental part of how this mystery is plotted. I won't spoil too much as obviously, these prophecies spoil the story, but for example, several characters act in certain ways because they know the prophecies are true, and this is also reflected in the deductions made by Hiruko, but also the other characters, and the result is a detective story that can't exist without this shared reality of the existence of foresight. It's not as in-your-face as in the first novel, where you could immediately point out how those beings were involved in the mystery, but by the time you get to the end, you'll see how the theme of foresight is an integral part of the plot, with each of the murders happening or made possible only because the premonitions will come true.

The overall structure of this novel might be trickier than the first novel though, as even after an initial climax, the remaining number of pages betray there's even more to be solved by Hiruko, even if it's not obvious there's something else lurking beyond the obvious. This part was nicely done, even if the hints were a bit more obvious to pick up on. Even so, even this part makes fantastic use of the premise of the prophecies being real.

With the waves and impression the first novel left, I couldn't help myself drawing comparisons with that book in this review of Magan no Hako no Satsujin. The overall impact of this second novel is definitely not as shocking, but Imamura once again manages to write a tightly plotted, fair play closed circle murder mystery, which once again is made possible, and memorable because of extremely unique and special circumstances. The prophecies aren't just for decoration, but are a fundamental element in just about everything, making this a read you just won't find elsewhere. As this novel does build upon the story and characters introduced in the first novel though, it's recommended to read the novels in order. I for one can't wait to see what Imamura will cook up next in the third novel!

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘 『魔眼の匣の殺人』

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Ghost in the Machinery

「最後の列車を待つ 疲れ果てた真夜中のホーム」

"Waiting for the last train / on the platform in the dead-tired night"
"Fighting Pose Song" (Baba Toshihide) 

One of the little things I like, but seldom use in Japanese trains are those turning seats! The ones in the trains of the Eizan line in Kyoto are especially cool, as you could turn them to the windows to admire the falling fall leaves.

Akagawa Jirou is one of the most prolific and famous mystery writers in Japan, best known for his light-hearted detective stories with a comedic tone, like the Tortoise-Shell Cat Holmes series. He was especially active from his debut in the late seventies until the late eighties, and there have been numerous adaptations of his work on television, the silver screen and even videogames. He made his debut in 1976 with the short story Yuurei Ressha ("The Ghost Train"), which is also the title of today's book: the short story collection Yuurei Ressha ("The Ghost Train", 1978) includes five stories in Akagawa's long-running Ghost series. The book opens with The Ghost Train naturally, which introduces us to the protagonists of this series: Chief Inspector Uno from the Metropolitan Police Department is given a few days "off" to spend in a small resort town with a hot spring. He is to look informally into a certain mysterious incident that happened a few days ago: the eight passengers who stepped inside the very first train that day disappeared, as an empty train arrived at the second station in the line. There's nothing but mountains and forests between the two stations and a search gave no results. At arrival in town, Chief Inspector Uno starts poking around, but he's not the only one interested in the case: he also runs into the female college student Nagai Yuuko, who is a fan of detective stories and hopes to solve the case herself. And to Uno's surprise, this active and lively girl is
more than just words.

To start: what's up with Akagawa Jirou and couples with an age difference? Uno (in his forties) and Yuuko (early twenties) flirt a bit around in the first two stories and end up dating, but the middle-aged man and female college student couple is something that happens a lot in Akagawa's stories. Tantei Monogatari, Satsujin wo Yonda Hon.... The female college student is usually the detective character by the way, but for some reason she's always being courted by a man about twice her age.

Anyway, back to the story collection. The opening story Yuurei Ressha certainly has an alluring mystery, with eight people disappearing from a running train. One shouldn't expect some kind of grand trick to this disappearance though: the solution is rather mundane (yet practical). The beef of the story lies with figuring out why this happened, and I quite like the motive. Some events that happen feel rather like a lucky break for the detecting couple, but overall an okay story. Yuurei Ressha was also adapted as a videogame by the way: Akagawa Jirou no Yuurei Ressha ("Akagawa Jirou's Ghost Train") was released in 1991 for the Famicom, and has some surprising names attached to it, like Ikeda Misa doing the scenario and Dragon Quest composer Sugiyama Kouichi responsible for the music.

The second story Uragirareta Yuukai ("The Betrayed Kidnapping") is set some time after Yuurei Ressha. Uno and Yuuko hadn't seen or spoken each other since the train case, but their reunion is not a happy one: Uno is asked to head the investigation into a kidnapping case of the teenage daughter of a businessman. Yuuko happens to be the tutor of the girl, making her a part of the investigation too. As a mystery story I think the conclusion is not as shocking as intended and it's pretty easy to guess who the true kidnapper is, but there's a very good piece of misdirection going early on in the story. In Kooritsuita Taiyou ("The Frozen Sun"), Uno and Yuuko are staying in a resort hotel, when Uno runs into an old friend: a skilled pickpocket who has since reformed. The two recognize another man, a notorious blackmailer, and Uno suspects the man's blackmailing one of the other guests at the hotel, a mother of three. Uno, Yuuko and the ex-pickpocket plan to get the blackmailer to back off, but to their great surprise, they find him dead in his hotel room balcony. And what's more surprising: the man froze to death even though it's summer! The truth behind how and why the man was frozen to deeath is quite hard to swallow, as it's incredibly hard to imagine things could've gone this way, but I have to admit it was pretty shrewdly clewed.

In Tokoro ni yori, Ame ("And locally, rain"), Yuuko has to arrange a number of guest lectures for the university fair and she manages to have her boyfriend Uno do one about his police work for free. While discussing the plans with her supervising teacher, the body of the teacher's assistant is found in the cellar of the faculty. At first it appears he just fell from the staircase, but for some reason, the man was dressed in a raincoat and boots, even though it was not raining outside! Later, another assistant is found murdered near his home, and he too was dressed in the same outfit. How are these deaths connected? The truth behind the various deaths isn't that difficult to guess, but the truth behind the raincoat and boots was pretty inspired and aptly clewed. In the final story, The Festival of The Good Folk Village, Uno and Yuuko hope to spend New Year in a resort town, but an avalanche prevents the train from proceeding any more. Uno runs into a fellow police officer from the Metropolitan Police Department, who says his home village is around here, and he invites Uno and Yuuko to "The Good Folk Village", a small community up in the mountains. The two are welcomed extremely warmly by the people there, but slowly, Uno and Yuuko sense there's something wrong with the village, but what? This story doesn't really work as a detective story for the reader to solve, and has more common ground with horror stories.

Yuurei Ressha is on the whole not a story collection that will leave a very big impression, but it's never really bad either. The comedy between playful Yuuko and the older Uno is pretty fun to follow, and while the individual stories are never masterpieces, there's usually one or two ideas to be found that I at least thought pretty good. The Ghost series is one of Akagawa's long-sellers by the way: there are 24 short story collections and 2 novels, published between 1978 and 2017. I don't have any plans to read more of the series for the moment, but perhaps, if they happen to cross my path...

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎『幽霊列車』: 「幽霊列車」/「裏切られた誘拐」/「凍りついた太陽」/「ところにより、雨」/「善人村の村祭」

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Dragon's Secret

「明日 僕は龍の足元へ崖を登り 呼ぶよ「さあ、行こうぜ」」
『 銀の龍の背に乗って』(中島みゆき)

"Tomorrow I will climb the cliff to the feet of the dragon and cry out "Let's depart!"
"Climbing on the Back of the Silver Dragon" (Nakajima Miyuki)

The discovery for me last year was Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series. Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are easily two of the best mystery novels I've read in years, and while perhaps not completely at the same level as those two, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono too was a devilish experience in impressive mystery plotting. The series manages to mix brilliant mystery plots with deep insights into local folklore, religions and history together with a distintive horror tone, resulting in absolutely amazing novels. And that meant of course I was sure to read more of the series this year.

The Hami region in Nara is a small, secluded area that is characterized by Mt. Futae, Lake Chinshin located at the foot of that mountain, and the Mitsu River that springs from Lake Chinshin. Four communities eventually settled around Mitsu River, all making a simple and sometimes harsh living from farming. Sayo Village, Monodane Village, Saho Village and Aota Village all exist solely thanks to the blessings of Mitsu River (which feeds the crops), so it is not strange that the people here came to see the river as a deity that determined the future of their lives here. The Mitsu River is therefore worshipped, and feared as a force of nature called Mizuchi, or the Water Spirit, which is believed to be a dragon-like being which resides at the bottom of Lake Chinshin. All four villages have shrines dedicated to the Water Spirit, being the Mizushi Shrine in Sayo, Mizuchi Shrine in Monodane, the Suiba Shrine in Saho and the Mikumari Shrine in Aota, and the four shrines and their priests are effectively the major authorities in this region, with Sayo's boasting the longest history in its divine tasks. The shrines are in possession of seven artifacts said to be parts of Mizuchi, being the Horn, Nostril, Fang, Scale, Bone and the Lightning of Mizuchi.

As life in Hami is so dependent on the Mitsu River, it's no wonder that the most important task of the four shrines is to safeguard the water levels of the river. The human-built dams are manually controlled by the shrines, but in times of unusual draughts, or in unusal wet periods, the shrines have to resort to divine measures, and perform the Ceremony of Mizuchi, which can be either a rain making or rain stopping ritual, depending on what the people of Hami are facing now. Each time, a different shrine is chosen to perform the ceremony, which is held on Lake Chinshin. The Kami-Otoko, a chosen priest, is to go on the lake in a special, covered boat with an opening in the bottom, where he is to sink barrels with offerings for Mizuchi into the lake, all under the watchful eyes of the dancing maid and the priests of the other shrines playing music on the shore. The ceremony is succesful once all six barrels of offerings are sunk to the bottom, but this can be a very perilous ceremony, as at times barrels will come back floating up, and then the Kami-Otoko will have to dive down with the barrel himself to have it swallowed into a dangerous underwater tunnel in the lake. 23 years ago, Mikumari Tatsuo vanished during the Ceremony, believed to have been sucked into the tunnel himself. 13 years ago, Mizushi Ryuuichi was found dead inside the boat with a horribly contorted expression on his face, as he had apparently died of a heart attack in fear of some terrifying sight. It is in 1954 when horror mystery author Toujou Genya and his editor Shino make their way to the Hami region, having learned the Ceremony of Mizuchi will be performed soon to pray for water. Toujou travels across Japan to learn about local folklore, religions and legends, and finds that this is a unique opportunity to witness the ceremony. This year, the ceremony is performed by Mizushi Ryuuzou, younger brother of Ryuuichi who died thirteen years ago. Everyone on the shore looks on as they see the boat rock on the lake surface as each of the barrels is thrown in, but nothing happens even after all six barrels were thrown overboard, and when the captain of the boat takes a look inside the closed, covered room of the small boat, he cries out to the shore that Ryuuzou has been murdered! When they make it to the boat, Genya and the others find that Ryuuzou was stabbed through his chest with the Horn of Mizuchi, one of the artifacts held in the Mizushi Shrine. But how could Ryuuzou have been stabbed by anyone, as the whole lake was under observation during the ceremony? Genya soon suspects this all has to do with the death of Ryuuichi thirteen years ago, but also with a strange storage house Ryuuji (father of both Ryuuichi and Ryuuzou) has kept hidden from everyone and the true, unknown history of the Hami region in Mitsuda Shinzou's Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009).

I always try to keep my story summaries as brief as possible whenever I write a review, but with the Toujou Genya series, I always end up having to sketch a lot of the background story for my summaries to make any sense. This is also done in the series itself: it always takes ages for the novels to actually get to the introduction of a genuine mystery that has be solved, as usually the first half of the novel is needed to prepare the mise-en-place with all the unique religions, insanely complex human relations etc. It was actually something I somewhat complained about in my review of Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. I do have to say though, Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, the fifth novel in the series, has been by far the easiest read, despite it not only being the longest entry in the series I've read until now, here too the murder on Ryuuzou doesn't occur until the halfway point of the book (around page 350, of more than 700 pages in the pocket paperback). Yet the story never felt as slowly paced as previous novels. The writing is less winding on the whole I think, so in terms of reading experience, I might say this novel may be the "most pleasant" way to start the series, even if I think Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are, on the whole, better mystery novels (though Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono is really good too).

I'll refrain from talking about the theme of synergy this time, as I have done that enough in my reviews of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, so let's talk about something else: the theme of folklore interpretation. In order to even try to solve the cases that happen in the Toujou Genya series, it is imperative to understand the underlying logic and dynamics of the various rites and folkloristic rituals that form the nexi of the plots in these novels. Themes like spirit mediums, Rites of Adulthood and Shrine Visits to appease vengeful spirits might sound like elements that don't belong in a mystery novel, where logic should prevail, but in the Toujou Genya series, it is necessary to understand why and how these rituals are performed and what the underlying meaning is behind these rituals. For whether you believe in Mizuchi or the kami Aohime or not is irrelevant: it's the human actions, and the human interpretation behind these phenomena that are of importance in the logical processes needed to solve the murder cases in this series.

Most of the mysterious events that Genya faces in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono revolve around a certain realization he has regarding the Ceremony of Mizuchi, and it's that realization that not only allows him to deduce who the murderer is of Ryuuzou, but more importantly, why. This realization is excellently hinted at. While there are no real physical clues that points to this, the way Mitsuda has used so many elements to hint at this hidden truth behind the Ceremony of Mizuchi is more than impressive. From linguistic hints to associative hints where you recognize one certain action in another, to even brazenly stating the fact as is (of course in a disguised way): Mitsuda does more than enough to nudge the reader in the right direction. Again, this all has to do with religious and folkloristic themes, and it's easy to just wave them away as 'sure, it's not real', but what Mitsuda always does is leaving more than enough clues to allow the reader to comprehend the underlying logic behind these rituals (why are these rituals performed in this manner for what purpose?), and even recognize contradictions in the religious logic behind the rites, which eventually guides you to the truth. Once you have that realization in this novel though, you're still not there, as while that gives you the motive (a very understandable one, considering the horrid truth!), it still doesn't give you the identity of the murderer.

There we have another Toujou Genya staple, the fake solution. Genya's method of deduction consists of first listing a lot of questions that bother him (I think he has like forty questions listed in this novel concerning various incidents) and then just say what comes to mind. He simply comes up with theories and hypotheses as he goes, and when people come up with counterarguments or proof that what he says can't be true, he'll just dismiss what doesn't work, and continue to build his theories in a different direction. That means he can easily spend five pages building a certain theory, and immediately discard it on the next page to try something else. In fact, I think that in this novel, the whole section with both the fake and real solutions in the end take up like a hundred pages together. And the thing is: all the fake solutions are really good solutions. They are really well argumented, and it's usually only by a small detail you forgot that you have to give up on them. Any of these solutions would have made most mystery writers think they have a brilliant solution and totally ended their novel with that, but Mitsuda easily discards five-seven of these brilliant theories to come up with one that's even better. And Mitsuda wouldn't be Mitsuda if he would be using the fake solutions both to steer the reader into the right direction, as well as the wrong direction at the same time. A good part of the denouement of this novel is spent by identifying what characteristics the murderer must answer to, and while Mitsuda is definitely not lying when he presents that list of characteristics, he's also brilliantly leading you away from the true solution. His writing is always very tricky, both "kind" in the sense he's playing really, really fair in terms of clewing, but also very sneaky as he's a master in misdirection and he's usually simultaneously helping and deceiving you. Speaking of that, there's an excellent piece of misdirection where a certain line seems not particular meaningful, but takes on several different meanings once you reach a certain point in the chain of deduction. It kinda reminded me of that one line in Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou in how brazenly it is uttered and yet so likely to not be noticed by the reader until it is too late.

If taken completely seperate from the story, the main locked room murder situation of this novel, where Ryuuzou is stabbed with the Horn of Mizuchi even though nobody could've approached him while out on the lake in the closed-off section of the boat, features a clever, but perhaps not entirely shocking trick behind it. However, taken in the complete context of the story, this murder works really well. The motive, means and opportunity behind this murder are unique in the sense that they are not only derived all from the core (religious) theme of this novel, they are also completely concentrated in this main act of murder. There are actually a few other murders that happen in the latter half of the story, though none in particularly impossible situations, but they are mainly a device to push the story forward, and to serve as both hints and misdirection to the identity of the murderer. But again, it's the way Mitsuda manages to flesh out a unique background story and motive based on folkloristic themes, that is also perfectly clewed and actually logical in argumentation, what makes this series in general, but also Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono in particular, an impressive read.

By the way, the series is specifically called a horror-mystery series, and there are actually also some minor (horror) elements that remain unexplained in this novel, as it happens in other novels too. These events do not have direct bearing on the core mystery plot, but there is always a hint of the supernatural in this series (to give a simple example, the Ceremony of Mizuchi basically always works and one of the characters talks about a past event that involved him possibly seeing some monster). These minor, unexplained horror elements should not be any reason not to read these novels though for their mystery plots, as you'd be missing out on something fantastic.

This novel is not directly connected to previous novels (save for some references early on to Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono which happened several months earlier), though there is a nice link with the first novel in the series, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. Certain names mentioned in Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono will take on a completely different meaning if you have read the first novel and while it was not necessary, I am glad I read Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono before this novel (especially as I always read these things out of order).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono to be another impressive mystery novel in the Toujou Genya series. Perhaps surprisingly, I did find this novel easier to read that the other entries I've read, and while both Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono are among the best mystery novels I've ever read, I do have to admit they feel kinda samey. In that regard I found Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, with a slightly more focused look on the underlying folkloristic background of this novel as the nexus of its mystery, a very entertaining read that managed to avoid feeling too similar to other novels in the series. Though I have to say, up until now, all the Toujou Genya novels I have read are incredibly good, and I can't believe that four novels in, I still haven't come across one that even remotely disappointed in terms of plotting. With still three novels and two short story collections unread as I am writing this, I'll be sure to return to this series soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三 『水魑の如き沈むもの』