Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Brand New Story


"I don't wanna solve mysteries anymore!!"
"The Case Files of the 37-year old Kindaichi"

The adventures of Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, and his childhood friend/not-quite-girlfriend Miyuki as chronicled in the comic series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") originally started serialization in 1992, but the series is still going strong in 2018. After the initial series, consisting of the original Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, the CASE series and a series of short stories, the series went on a hiatus (during whih the creators worked on Tantei Gakuen Q). Hajime and Miyuki then returned in 2004 for a "second season" with several series: a more-or-less annual series ran between 2004-2011, which was followed by the 20th Anniversary limited series (2011-2013) and then Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R (2013-2017). Save for some select stories set in the past, these series were all about Hajime and Miyuki as 17-year old students at Fudou High, the high school with a rather alarming rate of students and teachers who either end up as a murderer or a victim.

So people were quite surprised when late last year, it was announced that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R would stop serialization in the weekly Shonen Magazine (a magazine aimed at children and teenagers that has always been the home of the series) and that a new series would start in the bi-weekly Evening (aimed at a teenage/adult audience). But the most shocking news was the title: Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of the 37-year old Kindaichi). The first volume collecting the first 8 chapters was released in June 2018, and as the title suggests, this new series is about a 37-year old Kindaichi Hajime, who is not a slacker in high school anymore, but a single, lowly ranked employee of the firm Otowa Black PR. It's been twenty years since we last saw Hajime, and while we know of all his detecting exploits in his past, it seems that he has had more than enough of his share of gruesome deaths, as the 37-year old Hajime really doesn't want to solve any mysteries anymore. Fate however has different plans for him. Hajime is given the task to supervise a new dating tour organized by his firm: five eligible men and five eligible women who have had no luck in love are to spend a few days in a resort hotel on a faraway, small island, where they'll get to know each other and hopefully find a partner. The problem? Said faraway island happens to be Utashima, the place where Hajime solved no less than three seperate murder cases, which were all connected to The Phantom of the Opera. The original Opera House where all those murders took place was destroyed the last time Hajime went to Utashima, so he hopes nothing goes wrong this time, but his wishes are of course not heard. While Hajime tries to do a good job of conducting the perfect dating tour by organizing games for the participants etc., the curse of the Phantom appears to be too strong, as it doesn't take long for one of the bachelorettes to be killed on the island, but the body disappears without a trace. And that's only the start of this fourth appearance of the Phantom...

This won't be a full review of this fourth Phantom story, as it continues into the next volume which won't be released until October, so I'll only give my first impressions of this new series. Note that the series is about a twenty years older Hajime, but that it's not set "twenty years in the future". The series is set in contemporary times (of time of writing), as has always been in the case in this series (like how The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case how had everyone using smartphones and GPS functions, even though in Kindaichi The Killer pagers were like the pinnacle of consumer communication technology, even though there should only be one (1) summer vacation between those two cases). Anyway, as Evening has a slightly older audience, we see bit more graphic nudity (although for jokes) here compared to the older series, but this is still mostly the Kindaichi Shounen we know, even if Hajime's far less eager to throw himself in the mystery solving now. Which isn't actually too strange if you realize how many deaths he's seen in his younger days. It's pretty interesting to see a Hajime who doesn't want to solve the mystery himself anymore, who simply wants to do his job in a good way and who even calls Akechi for official police assistance in the case. A reluctant Hajime isn't a new concept: the third live-action drama series (starring Arashi's Matsumoto Jun as Hajime) started out like that, and the live-action drama special of The Vampire Legend Murder Case (with KAT-TUN's Kamenashi Kazuya) had a Hajime who absolutely hated being reminded of the fact he was the grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke, but I think the reluctant Hajime works best in this new series, as unlike those live-action Hajimes, this Hajime seems to be simply tired of all that excessive mystery solving, rather than just being a teenager rebelling against his talents or blood. For long time readers, we also have quite a few of cameos of familiar faces in this first volume (phew, Souta wasn't murdered in those twenty years).

I'll write a review of the actual mystery plot when the second volume's out, but I'll leave a picture here now with the goodies included with the Special Edition of this first volume: a postcard with the cover art of the very first volume from 1992, a memo pad, three clear folders with Hajime, Akechi and the Phantom, and an "invitation" to become a suspect in a future story (someone is chosen from those who send in their invitation to the publisher). I don't have much merchandise of mystery series actually, and this is the first time I got anything of the Kindaichi Shounen series (though I do have the OVA DVDs...). Anyway, as for now, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo is still the mystery series we have known for so long, only with more responsible Hajime and I'm having a good time.

But to flesh out this post a bit more, let's go back to the past: Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 2: Dokurozakura no Noroi ("The Kid Kindaichi Adventues 2: The Curse of the Skull Cherry Blossom Tree") was released a few days before Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo. Kindaichi-kun no Bouken is a new series of children's novels in the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label, which started earlier this year (I have a review of the first volume here). This series is about the adventures Hajime and Miyuki had as sixth graders, as members of the Adventure Club of Fudou Elementary. The club is supervised by their HR teacher Kanae, and the club activities include investigating and reporting on strange events. Whereas their first adventure was set on an island, this second adventure takes place at their own school. One October morning, the children of Fudou Elementary find some mysteries words written on the blackboard in the class. Hajime quickly realizes this is only part of a message, and checks out the blackboards in the other 6th grade classes to find the complete warning: "Stay away from the Skull Cherry Blossom Tree". The Skull Cherry Blossom Tree is a cherry blossom tree that stands in the corner of the playground, which when in full bloom, resembles like a skull due to some lesser-grown parts in its foliage. Lately, the school's been thinking about cutting the tree to place new playground equipment there, but this message seems to be warning the school against that. The message also reminds of one of the seven mysteries of Fudou High, the ghost story of the Skull Teacher, who was based on the teacher who planted the cherry blossom. Is it his ghost who wants to protect the tree?

Like the first volume, this is a rather mediocre mystery story, even if you consider it's for a younger audience. There is little focus, with some smaller mysteries which aren't really interesting. The idea is that the mystery should be about who the Skull Teacher is and why he's doing what he's doing, but most of the time, the novel feels like a random collection of ideas. The mystery of a Skull Teacher who suddenly appears in the corridor is okay, with good clewing, but the mystery of the children being locked up in the school basement is incredibly simple and not really well-thought out: the moment a certain observation is made by Hajime, it becomes painfully clear what has happened, making any attempts of misdirection completely useless. The motive of the culprit for doing all this is also incredibly convoluted, considering there are far easier ways to do what they set out to do. I think I compared the previous volume to the two children's novels based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, released in 2016 and 2017 and written by Takase Mie, in my last review too, but there's a good reason for that. As children's novels spin-offs of established franchises originally aimed at an older audience, they have a lot of common ground, but it's clear that the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels were so much better as mystery stories, even when considering they're for children. The two volumes of the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series up until now however are far less inspired.

Though it's kinda fun to see how the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series does try to flesh out the setting of the series. In the review of the first volume, I already remarked it was a nice touch having semi-regular Souta as one of the members of the Adventure Club (as we knew from the main series Souta had been friends with Hajime and Miyuki since they were kids). In this second volume, we even have Senke appear as a semi-rival to Hajime (Senke's a semi-regular of the early stories who first appeared in The Hanging Academy Murder Case). I mean, come on, Senke of all people!

Anyway, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo is one series I'll definitely continue to read, as it's the official continuation of the series, and it's pretty interesting to see Hajime acting differently this time. Not sure about the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series though: the two volumes up until now were rather disappointing as mystery stories and while I like how it incorporates little things from the main series, I can't say that's enough to keep me hooked. We'll see how that ends up. Anyway, the next volume of the 37-old Hajime is scheduled for October, so until then, I guess.

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1巻
天樹征丸(文)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一くんの冒険2 どくろ桜の呪い』

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Message in Red

"I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can."
"The Red House Mystery"

Oh, poor review, I usually line up my reviews chronologically, but sometimes I have to shuffle, and sometimes things get pushed back, so I think this review was written nearly a year before its publication...

Antony Gillingham spends his time wandering the world to admire all the layers of society, helped by the fact that he is in fact quite well provided for. One day, he finds himself in the English countryside when he learns that nearby lies the Red House. House owner Mark Ablett is having a house party, and one of the guest being entertained there is Bill, an old friend of Athony's. Hoping to find Bill there, Antony makes his way to the Red House, but what he finds there is more than just a friend. A murder has just occured in Mark's office, and the victim is identified as Robert Ablett, brother of Mark and the black sheep of the family, who had only arrived at the Red House moments ago after spending fifteen years in Australia. Mark however has disappeared, and suspicions are soon aimed at the master of the Red House. Antony, assisted by his Watson Bill, however suspect that there might be more than meets the eye, and the duo decide to find out for themselves what happened in Mark's office in A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922).

A.A. Milne is of course best known as the author behind beloved children's book series Winnie-the-Pooh. To be honest, I've never read the books, and I am more familiar with Disney's take on it. The Red House Mystery is Milne's only foray into the mystery genre, and dedicated to his father. I had heard good things about it, though I knew basically nothing about this novel when I first started on it besides the educated guess that it was unlikely we'd see Winnie here.

What made an impression at once was the overall pleasant writing style of Milne. The Red House Mystery is on the whole a pretty funny novel to read. Antony and Bill fulfill their respective roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson quite admirably and the chats they have as they try to figure out what's going in the Red House form a very strong backbone to the novel, that spur the reader to continue on. I had only planned to read a chapter or two before going to sleep, but by the time I noticed it, I had already finished the book in one go. Their dialogues and adventures are definitely the star of the novel.

As a straight mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is actually quite different from what I had expected. At the start of the novel, we're presented with the stereotypical English country house that is stately Ablett Manor: the Red House. We're also told about a house party with diverse guests who like to play golf and have tea and whatever people do at fancy English house parties. So what'd you expect to see is the Stereotypical English Countryhouse Murder Mystery right? What you think of whenever you think of Christie even though she didn't really write that many of those novels? In truth however, The Red House Mystery reads more like a novel released ten, twenty years earlier, as it is much closer in form to the Gothic novel than anything else. For example, the titular Red House plays a large role in the story, and Antony and Bill spend a lot of time figuring out the dark secrets it holds. The biggest secret they uncover is straight out of the Gothic novel, and while some people (Van Dine) wouldn't be too accepting of it, I'd say that the trope works well for The Red House Mystery, especially as it isn't the one-and-only-answer to every question.

There's also the matter of the incredibly small cast. The members of the house party are dangled in front of us at the start of the novel, but they are all sent away within a chapter of two, leaving us with the two detectives Antony and Bill, and one (1) suspect. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out whodunit. Most of the novel is more about Antony and Bill poking around and looking for clues without giving the game away to their one suspect, and again, this device to create tension, combined with the country house setting, makes the novel feel more like a Gothic thriller than post-1920s mystery fiction. Not that that's a bad thing (My first review of last year was about Edogawa's Yuureitou for example, and I loved that!), but it's perhaps not what some readers might be expecting. Note that despite the Gothic thriller mode, it's still a reasonably lighthearted story to read thanks to Antony and Bill's talks, as mentioned earlier.

As a mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is not particularly exciting. Perhaps the plot just aged badly, but most of the nefarious scheme of the culprit can already be guessed by the time the corpse is discovered, which is in the third chapter of twenty-two. The questions of who- and howdunit are thus not extremely exciting forces of propulsion for the plot. The hinting on the other hand is adequate, though early on, Milne uses a fairly cheap device: Antony apparently has a photographic memory, which allows him to remember insane details, but only when the plot wants him to. Tantei Gakuen Q showed how to use a character with photographic memory in a detective story in a much more natural way, without reducing it to a handy plot device that is only used when the writer doesn't know how to further the plot in a different manner.

The Wikipedia entry for The Red House Mystery refers to it as a "locked room whodunnit mystery" by the way, which it definitely is not. And no, I'm not saying it's not a whodunit because it is fairly obvious who is it. The murder in The Red House Mystery is simply not a locked room mystery and never once presented as such in the narrative itself. For some reason, collective memory seem to refer to it as one though. Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery has the same problem by the way: it really isn't one, and if you do refer to it as one, you're actually creating a lot of problems for future readers, by creating certain expectations.

Soooo, A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. All-time classic of mystery fiction? Nosirree. Looked purely at the mystery plot, it's simply too simple, too obvious. It does fit well with the Gothic thriller mode the story has adapted. But The Red House Mystery does provide an entertaining narrative though, not the least thanks to the duo of Athony and Bill, who play a splendid Holmes and Watson.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Eleventh Striker


"Hey! We have one person too many!"
"They Were Eleven!"

A few weeks back, I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, a seminal work on the history of the mystery manga genre in Japan, clearly showing how the genre evolved through an incredibly extensive look at mystery manga publications from the post-war period until the present. With over 800 different titles mentioned in the book, there were a lot I had never ever heard of, and want-to-read lists were quickly made of course. While the book obviously focused on mystery manga, as is: mystery fiction in the form of manga, the book also name-dropped some titles that aren't mainly mystery fiction, but that were still closely related to either the genre, or the development of the genre. It shouldn't surprise the reader very much that there were also thriller and horror titles dropped here and there that also had an influence on artists or series.

Still, I have to admit that there were still a few titles that were mentioned that I certainly hadn't expected in a book on mystery manga. 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was perhaps the title that surprised me the most. Fans of classic manga and anime might have heard of this title, and even if not, no manga-reading fan with an ounce of self-respect would ever dare admit to not have heard of its creator: Hagio Moto. Hagio is considered one of the most influential female mangaka, being a pioneer in shojo (girls) manga, the Boys' Love genre and science-fiction manga in the 70s and 80s. It's not even an exaggeration to state that modern manga as an art form would've looked quite differently if not for Hagio's work. My knowledge of her was perhaps why I was so surprised to see 11-nin Iru! mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar. I knew Hagio had also worked on series like Poe no Ichizoku ("The Poe Clan"), which incorporates horror and mystery genre elements, but in my mind, she was especially the pioneer on shojo and science-fiction manga, and I knew that 11-nin Iru! was one of her most well-appreciated science-fiction series. The three-part manga mini-series won her the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1976 and is widely seen as a science-fiction classic. Turns out that it was also built on a classic mystery structure.

A theatrical animated movie adaptation titled 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was released in 1986, which is mostly faithful to the source material. Warp travelling has become possible in the future, expanding the world of the humans. In mere 200 years, humans colonized over 50 planets, but they also came in contact with other civilizations in outer space. Earth, or Terra, is now part of a space alliance with three other allies, which is also head of the prestigious Space Academy. Becoming a cadet there means a glorious future and also prestige back home, so many, many try, but only a miniscule fraction of the candidates is accepted in the school. As the final test in the entrance exam, ten candidates are sent to a decommisioned spaceship: if they can survive for 53 days on that ship all on their own, they will be accepted as new cadets of the Academy. Any problems they come across they will have to solve together, with no contact with the outside world. If overcome by an obstacle they can not solve themselves, it is possible for them to contact the academy for help, but that also means forfeiting the exam. For the ten candidates who have been dreaming all their life about getting into the academy, spending not even three months on a spaceship seems doable, but there is one little problem: when the candidates left for the spaceship all donned in face-hiding spacesuits, there were definitely only ten of them, but when they arrived in the spaceship, they were eleven! Who is the eleventh candidate and what are they doing on the ship?

As I mentioned earlier, I already knew about 11-nin Iru!, at least, I knew it existed and that it was critically very well received,  but I had always thought it was a science-fiction story that focused on human drama, a mode that is strongly associated with Hagio. And in a way that's right. 11-nin Iru! is precisely that, but it utilizes a rather alluring mystery story structure to tell its story. The idea of suddenly having an eleventh crew member along is incredibly creepy, and as the ten (eleven) candidates never got a good look at each other until their arrival inside the spaceship, there is no way for any of them to know who is the eleventh wheel. Because the candidates don't want to give up on their exam, they don't want to contact the school, leaving them in a self-inflicted closed circle situation, cooped up in an abandoned spaceship with one person who shouldn't be there of whom the motives are unknown. Unlike something like And Then There Were None, the candidates aren't killed one by one, though accidents that might not be accidents do happen a few times and we also learn that not everyone is exactly who they appear to be at first, with hidden pasts for several characters, so as the story progresses, everybody does start to grow suspicious of each other, until it reaches boiling point.

Or to be precise: 40 degrees Celsius. It also happens that a poisonous plant has grown throughout the ship, which releases its toxic pollens at the temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. The climate inside the ship can normally be controlled of course, but bombs set off the moment the crew arrived at the ship not only messed the computers up, but also sent the ship in an orbit moving them closer to the nearby blue sun, edging the inside temperature slowly but surely towards 40 degrees. This combined with the growing tension surrounding the identity of the eleventh crew member makes 11-nin Iru! a rather thrilling view from start to finish.

But I have to reiterate that 11-nin Iru! isn't formally a mystery story, or at least, not a fair one. For those who want to have a fair shake at figuring out who the eleventh crew member is: you'll be disappointed as there's no proper logical process behind this story, complete with hints and clues, that allow you to deduce who the extra person is. At the end, the eleventh person more or less simply confesses to being it. The motive for the presence of the eleventh crew member is better, but again, not really telegraphed in a fair way towards the viewer. How the parallel storyline regarding the poisonous plants is eventually resolved is funnily enough telegraphed much better than the storyline of the eleventh passenger, and reminds of the climax scenes of the Detective Conan films, where Conan usually has to figure some way of escape, in a way that is always properly hinted at. Of course, I could've guessed that 11-nin Iru! wasn't likely to be a full out original mystery puzzler with clues and stuff, as they were quite rare back then, as shown in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar.

11-nin Iru! is overall a science-fiction story that uses a mystery story structure to portray an interesting cast, who have all entered the Space Academy entrance exams for their own reasons. The varied casts allows for the story to take on human drama, romance and comedy themes with ease, as well as the aforementioned mystery element, and 11-nin Iru! manages to present an amusing and diverse story through its shifting tone, yet it always feels as one consistent tale. As a not particularly long story (about 90 minutes), 11-nin Iru! is a neatly concise story that does most of what it wants to do in an adequate way, resulting in a good science-fiction movie that leans on the mystery genre.

I haven't read the original three-part manga, so I don't know whether the mystery element is stronger in that format or not, but overall, I enjoyed 11-nin Iru!, even if it was not precisely what I had expected. The really alluring premise had me hoping for a true closed circle mystery, and with a bit of better hinting, 11-nin Iru! could've become that, I think, but as it is now, I'd say that 11-Nin Iru! is a good science-fiction thriller that comes very close to also being a good mystery film, but just doesn't quite manage to do it. I'd love to see a new movie adaptation of this story that would try to sell it more as a puzzle plot mystery!

Original Japanese title(s): 『11人いる!』

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Black Orchids

林原めぐみ -『名探偵コナンラジオ 第6回』

"Could you stop yelling 'Raaaaan!' all the time in the movies?"
Hayashibara Megumi (voice actress of Haibara Ai) in "Detective Conan Radio - Episode 6"

I'm kinda bummed that the cover of the short story collection discussed today doesn't match the covers of the previous short story collections in this series (this one and this one)  at all, on the other hand: this cover is definitely much better-looking.

Nikaidou Ranko series
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001)
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004)
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)

Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Case of the Giant Ghost Mammoth", 2017)

Ranko is a young woman who has made a name for herself as a brilliant private detective, having solved countless of horrifying murder cases. Her powers of reasoning are not only appreciated by the wider public and the Japanese police force, but occasionally even foreign governments rely on her mind. She first honed her deductive skills as a high school student, when she and her brother-by-adoption Reito (Ranko was adopted into the Nikaidou family) solved the murder case involving the Magician from Hell. Reito has chronicled many of their adventures, among which Ranko's long-standing fight with the superhuman criminal Labyrinth, but also her exploits in solving the baffling case that happened in the Werewolf Castle on the French-German border. Nikaidou Reito's Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids", 2014), collects three novellas/short stories with smaller problems for Ranko to solve, like a five-layered locked room murder mystery and a mystery that lies in the faraway past.

It's been a while since I last read a book featuring Ranko! I absolutely devoured the Ranko novels in the early days of this blog, despite the sizes of those bricks (most Japanese paperback pockets I read end up somewhere around 350~500 pages long. Nikaidou's books on the other hand usually start at 600, and can go up to 900) and I think I read almost all of them (the ones I'm still missing are either brand new, or not very well received). The books have a distinct old-fashioned atmosphere: they are set in the 70s, but the many (MANY) locked room murders and other impossibilities committed in creepy mansions evoked a Carr-ish world, especially as the Ranko stories more often than not also involved themes like family curses, Western esotericism and medievalism. There was a significant change in story style though halfway through the series. What I described mostly applies in the books up until Jinroujou no Kyoufu (probably still the longest locked room mystery around). Ranko would disappear in Europe for three years at the end of that story, so the books jumped a few years back in time, to chronicle Ranko's intellectual battles against the master criminal Labyrinth, who was basically an artificial human created during World War II who had genetically engineered monsters at their disposal or something like that. And while Ranko still solved some impossible crimes in those Labyrinth novels, they were never as impressive as the ones seen in the earlier books, and her encounters with Labyrinth were often more like science-fiction horror novels with slight elements of the mystery genre, like you'd expect from mid-period Edogawa Rampo, rather than the you-aren't-going-to-get-more-classic-than-this, conventional mystery tales published before Labyrinth's first appearance. The three stories collected in the short story collection Ran Meikyuu are all set in different periods in Ranko's life, and thus also have a different tone to them.

The first story, Dorogune Hakase no Akumu ("The Nightmare of Professor Dorogune"), is set before the events in Jinroujou no Kyoufu, when Ranko was still a university student, but already a famed detective. The police wants her help in an absolutely puzzling case: Professor Dorogune, who had used his fortune to research supernatural phenomena in search of a way to revive his dear dead wife, had been found murdered inside a building, behind four locked doors, with only the victim's own footprints on the snowy path leading to the building in question! Fuyuki Mayako claimed she could teleport and control objects with her psychic powers, so the professor had the building especially designed to test her powers of teleportation, promising to bestow upon her a fortune if she was the goods. The building was basically designed like four squares laid within each other, each one smaller than the next, like four Matryoshka dolls. You'd need to go through four doors, each door leading deeper into the next square (and deeper inside the building), to reach the center square (room), which was where the professor was found dead one morning, with a knife in his back. But as all four doors were locked from the inside (with even the keyholes blocked by handkerchiefs stuffed inside), and only the footprints of the victim himself were found on the only path leading to the building, it seems that only Mayako, with her powers of teleportation and psychokinesis, could've committed the murder!

Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first: YES, the premise of this story is absolutely amazing. A four-layered locked room mystery, plus missing footprints in the snow? So basically a five-layered locked room mystery? This is what I want to see in a Ranko story! And now you're expecting me to say how disappointing the solution was and how it didn't live up to the set-up, right? You'd be right, but only partially. What Nikaidou does here is use tricks and solutions that are in no way new or original on their own: even beginning readers of the genre might have come across these ideas. But Nikaidou does show his craftsmanship in the way in which he uses those familiar ideas, as he combines very basic tricks with confidence and expertise to create this five-layered impossible murder situation. The result however is a story that fails to truly surprise at the conclusion, as almost all of the crucial parts of the solution are so recognizable. On the other hand, one have to admit that Nikaidou certainly showed skill in how he used these familiar elements to craft a locked room mystery that's still absolutely stunning in terms of premise, and far more than average in turns of clewing. I would have preferred a completely original solution of course, but at least this story manages to solve this five-layered locked room in a plausible manner, and doesn't resort to really bad solutions.

Ran no Ie no Satsujin ("The Murder In The House of Orchids") is set after the events in Jinroujou no Kyoufu and Haou no Shi, when Ranko has returned from Europe back to Japan, as a single mother raising her son Aran. She runs an art gallery in Karuizawa together with Reito, now a married man and also a news journalist. Ranko had stopped her work as a private detective so she could focus on raising Aran, but with Aran two years old now and her sister-in-law Noriko around, Ranko is starting to feel the need for mystery solving again. It's Noriko who has a mystery for Ranko: her friend Kaori is engaged with Karai Shinji, son of the famous artist Karai Leonard. Leonard was a true prodigy, but also very loose in his relations with women, often fooling around with his models. Twelve years ago, when Shinji was still a child, Leonard died due to cyanide poisoning, though it was deemed suicide. Some days later, Shinji's mother called her sister saying she had killed Leonard, and she too took her own life with cyanide, inside a locked room within the orchard house in the garden. While the scandal had been suppressed, the deaths (and possible murders) of his parents has weighed heavily on Shinji's mind, preventing him from taking the next step in his relation with Kaori. Kaori wants Ranko to find out what happened twelve years ago to ease Shinji's mind, and as Ranko is also asked to sell Leonard's remaining work through her gallery, she and Reito make their way to the House of Orchids and start digging in the past.

The story itself mentions it already, but Ran no Ie no Satsujin is very much inspired by Christie's Five Little Pigs: the plot of an investigation into the suspicious death of a womanizing artist a decade or so ago by asking the witnesses to recall the day of the death is basically the same. Unlike Christie's story though, that focused on the psychology of the suspects, Nikaidou's story is built on a core involving a locked room mystery (the death of Shinji's mother inside the locked orchid house), combined with a poisoining plot (of Leonard). I find it difficult to judge this story. My main gripe is that the story is very, very long and as the basic structure mirrors Five Little Pigs fairly closely, leaving few surprises there, and as the narrative's mostly talking about events that happened many years ago, things move very slowly. The locked room mystery is workable and very cleverly clewed, but has trouble standing out amidst the constant talking about the past, and has trouble actually leaving any impression because it's snowed in between the boring parts. The poisoning part of the story however is basically impossible for anybody to solve, at least, not with a chain of reasoning with a solid foundation, as no way anybody is going to connect those dots. There are some good points to it, but I wouldn't call it fair.

Aoi Mamono ("The Blue Monster") too is also set after Ranko's return from Europe, but while Ran no Ie no Satsujin was still mostly a story that relied on classic mystery tropes like the locked room mystery, Aoi Mamono is much closer to the Labyrinth stories, with a rudimentary mystery plot mixed with grotesque science-fiction/horror elements in the tradition of the Sherlock Holmes' story The Creeping Man. Ranko is working on a case involving wild dogs attacking and killing two Caucasian men in Kamakura. Meanwhile, two children adopted by Doctor Moro'o plead for help with the police, claiming the doctor, known throughout the town for his ecccentric behavior and strange experiments, has gone mad and tried to kill them. While Ranko does use some kind of logic to explain the strange events portrayed in this story and it's arguably based on hints in the text, one can best read this as some horror story, as it's nothing special as a mystery story. The weakest link of the collection.

As a short story (novella) collection, Ran Meikyuu actually manages to give a fairly good idea of the sort of stories one can expect to find in the Nikaidou Ranko series. The opening story, while quite smaller in scale and not as impressive in terms of originality, does remind of the earlier Ranko stories, with her working on fairly baffling impossible crimes that you'd expect from the Golden Age. The second story in turn fits the scale of the other short stories in this series, while the final story is very reminiscent of the weird horror-science-fiction-mixed-with-detective-plots later in the series. The first story is by far the best, and while I'd consider none of them timeless classics, I have to admit I enjoyed reading about Ranko again, so I might go after the couple of books I haven't read yet in the near future.

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『ラン迷宮』: 「泥具根博士の悪夢」 / 「蘭の家の殺人」 / 「青い魔物」

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Prism of Eyes

So in my review of Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery, I noted how it used the format of a physical book to bring an interesting experience: you could start from either side of the book, and it had a sealed section, which required you to cut the pages open yourself to reveal what was inside. With the ever-rising popularity of e-books, I really appreciated how the novel made use of certain qualities of the physical book which e-books couldn't imitate easily, and I mentioned a few other examples of neat ideas I had seen in physical mystery books in the introduction to the review that weren't likely to be seen in e-books soon.

The e-book as a format however is of course unlikely to disappear from our lives, as it has also brought mystery readers a lot of good. E-books, and modern print-on-demand services, have allowed rare out-of-print stories to come back alive for prices lower than a human sacrifice and your soul, and with issues like stock out of the picture, the price of e-books in general have also gone down. A handy e-book reader will allow you take a lot of books with you without actually having to carry the physical weight of each individual book, and handy features like being able to change font sizes, or to use dictionaries and set bookmarkers help the overall reading experience too. There are some other things an e-reader can't do of course (like easy borrowing and lending), and I do think that cover art has worsened a lot since the uprise of e-books, but that is a matter for another day.

For many I think portability is also a factor, as not only can an e-book reader carry more books, it is usually a bit smaller than a physical book too. As I mostly read Japanese books however, I find that Japanese pockets are usually even easier to take with me. Most Japanese novels I purchase are in the bunko format (A6), and that's a format that can easily fit in my coat jacket, and even when packed in the train or metro like a can of sardines, I can read with one hand and hold a hanging strap with my other.

I still do most of my reading in the physical format, with occassionally an e-book in between, but lately, I have noticed that my reading when dealing with e-books is less than ideal, and I wonder whether more people feel the same. While this is not exclusively something that has to do with mystery fiction, it does influence my reading of the genre. My biggest problem is that I simply remember less of what I've read when read something in e-book format. I simply don't absorb the text as good as when read from actual paper. I miss details, I seem less engaged when reading from my e-reader. When I read a physical book, I find it much easier to remember what I read, and also where/when. When you have an actual book, with pages you have to turn around, you have all kinds of things that help you remember story details and the flow of a story: from page number to the 'feel' of how many pages are left, to how many pages away you were from the chapter opening or the next chapter, or whether you read it on the left or right page (and where) and other physical markings like that one crease in the page. "Oh yeah, that happened on the right page, about halfway through the book" or "That was one or two pages after the chapter opening, right?". But when I read an e-book, it all becomes one big mess of indiscrete, nondescript words projected on a display, and I just can't read a book as well as I can with a physical book. As all "pages" on a e-book reader are projected on the same display, each page just... becomes one muddy image in my head and this extends to my memory of the story itself. With a proper mystery story, with proper foreshadowing and clewing, this is of course something less than ideal, and in general, I find myself less immersed in actually solving a mystery when in e-book form. Especially as times passes by, I notice that the memories of books I read on an e-reader some months ago, are less vivid and detailed than those of the physical books I read in the same period.

I also really miss being able to easily page through a book. I find myself going back and forth in mystery novels more often than in other books, as you'll often want to check on previous statements (which again, I can more easily remember where those passages are in the first place in physical books), but also diagrams and other useful pages. And yes, you can place bookmarkers in an e-book, but I find just placing my fingers between the two pages and flipping back and forth much more convenient than calling up a digital page one at a time, also e-books don't really allow you to check and compare two (or more) pages as quickly as in a physical book. I'll do some super-sneaky stealth-marketing here and mention The Decagon House Murders, The Moai Island Puzzle and The 8 Mansion Murders here. While I obviously worked on the translation of those books on my computer, on a screen, my own first reading experience with these books was in physical form. All three novel feature a number of floorplans and other diagrams and personally, I can't imagine myself actually checking the plans in detail and flipping back and forth if I had read these books as e-books, even though I most definitely did when I first read them as physical books and consider it part of the reading experience of these mystery stories. I've been reading the Toujou Genya novels by Mitsuda Shinzou lately, and there too I found myself constantly going back to the pages with the family trees ('cause Mitsuda has some CRAZY family trees in his book), but I might not even have bothered in e-book form because it's just not as convenient. The same with character name lists by the way: many books I read have such handy list, and I have to check them regularly as I am horrible with names, but again, I hate doing that in e-books. And you can imagine how I feel about foot and endnotes!

By the way, and this has nothing to do with the readability of e-books, but as I already mentioned The Decagon House Murders: people who have read the novel, will know there's one single sentence that turns everything around. In the Japanese version (which reads from right to left), this sentence was printed as the sole sentence on the right-hand page, so you needed to flip the previous (left-hand) page over to read that one sentence (it was the last sentence of the chapter, so the rest of the page was blank). It had a really crazy effect. I was sadly enough not able to reproduce this effect in the English translation due factors like word count and text mark-up, so I had to settle by placing that sentence at the very end of the left-hand page, which made sure the reader wouldn't see that sentence until the very last moment, as they were unlikely to see the sentence while flipping the previous right-hand page over. These games with the page layout to place certain sentences at certain spots on the page are of course also something an e-book can't really reproduce perfectly, due to the ability to change the number of words on a page and the font size.

So in general, I find myself only using my e-book reader for mystery stories if I have no other (reasonable) choice. I mean, if I can get a book for cheap digitally while a physical copy runs into the three digits, sure, I'm not going to complain, but I do notice that reading mystery stories on an e-book reader is significantly less enjoyable to me than in physical form, and I really do think it's a shame. I wonder if more people have trouble with reading e-books, or perhaps whether they find reading from an e-reader actually preferable (in terms of pure reading experience)?

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Double, Double

"Wait a minute, let me get this straight: Twice came in and shot the teller and Jim Fell."
- "No, he only shot the teller, Jim Johnson. Fell is ill."
"Okay, then after he shot the teller, you shot Twice"
- "No, I only shot once"
"Twice is the hold up man"
- "Then I guess I did shoot Twice."
"Police Squad!"

Though the uprise of e-books is certainly noticable in Japan, it's always been a strong place for physical book releases, which is why it's not that uncommon for publishers to go just a bit further than a standard book release. For example, it's not that rare for manga (which are usually printed in greytones) to include one or two pages printed in color on better quality paper. Or for us mystery-readers: the fold-out map! Sometimes, when a diagram for a mystery story is just too large to be printed on one page, or too detailed to for a normal two-page spread (because it's hard to tell what's on the inside margins), publishers will print the diagram on a double-sized page with a fold. Other neat little things I've seen with physical releases is for example the use of different fonts for different narratives within a novel (something not possible with a lot of e-books as usually you can't have different fonts for different sections within one e-book), or even the use of different-colored paper for different narratives (the Japanese deluxe edition of the fantastic horror-manga The Drifting Classroom uses different colored pages depending on whether the part's about Earth, or the other world). The latter is of course something that no e-book can even hope to replicate, and while my experience with them is fairly limited to standard releases, I don't think many publishers working with a print-on-demand model can really pull something similar off.

One of the more interesting things I've seen Japanese publishers pull off are the 'sealed pages': in these releases, two pages are left uncut during the printing process, resulting in a sort of envelope which "seals" all the pages between those two pages. So it's up to the reader themselves to unseal them by cutting the pages open. I've seen this used in two novels in Higashino Keigo's Kaga Kyouchirou series for example (though technically, the sealed pages for both Dochiraka Ga Kanojo wo Koroshita and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita are for the post-novel commentary and not part of the novel itself), but also in the gamebook Famicom Tantei Club: Kieta Koukeisha for example. There's something really exciting about these sealed pages: the act of actually cutting open these pages to reveal what's inside feels special. Are you really ready to do this? Once you've cut them, you can't go back! It gives a book a once-in-a-lifetime experience and obviously, buying the same book used (and cut) won't give you the same sensation as cutting the pages yourself.

Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery (2016) is an interesting novel that also makes use of the sealed pages, but in an even more alluring way. As the title suggests, Double Mystery is about two mysteries, told in two distinct stories. The gimmick behind this book is that you can start from either side of the book: if you start from the normal side (that is, from right to left), you'll start with the whodunnit Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel. Should you however choose to start from the 'back' (from the left side), then you'll start with the suspense story Non-serial Killer. Anyway, you can start at either side, but both tales end in the middle of the book, where you'll find the solution to both stories within a set of sealed pages, which you of course are invited to cut open and read once you have read both stories.

Books and literature are a prevalent theme throughout Ashibe's work: sometimes it's a bibliomystery, sometimes it's a parody or pastiche of some Golden Age detective, and at other times his stories feature countless of references to literature or historical events and facts, but "texts" are something you always have to keep in mind when reading Ashibe's work, and as a fellow bibliophile, I certainly am often very much entertained by his stories. So the concept of Double Mystery, a mystery novel that actually makes use of its own medium as a physical book, allowing you read from either end and with sealed pages in the middle, is something that makes me very excited. I can imagine someone less into "books" as a medium might simply shrug and consider it's a mere gimmick, but I absolutely love mystery tales that actually make use of the unique characteristics of the medium, be it books, audio dramas, videogames or basically anything. In that regard, I'd give Double Mystery full points, as you simply don't see these kind of attractive ideas often anymore in today's market.

As the two stories come together in the middle, and the solution to both stories are sealed within the same set of pages, it doesn't take a genius to realize that the two narratives are indeed connected to each other, but arriving at the precise relation between the two stories might prove quite tricky. The recommended reading order by the way is to start with Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel and then continue to Non-serial Killer before you go to the ending, though the reverse order is also possible if you want a more tricker reading order, the book says, so that's what I did. The two sides are both fairly short by the way, more novelettes than full-fledged novels.

Non-serial Killer is touted as a suspense story and consists of the (private) online diary entries by "Bluewildpear", a freelance journalist for Independent News Agency.  When the father of the baby she was carrying died in a car accident after being overworked, Bluewildpear was naturally sad, but still: she had already broken up with him because she didn't think he'd be any good as a father, so it wasn't as dramatic as some might've thought. Kenta might've been a nice man and he might've been sincere when he said he was going to do better now, but the work he did at the film production company Fantascope Co. showed all she needed to know about his future prospects. But Bluewildpear's interests are piqued when she learns that more people working at Fantascope had died in accidents recently from what appeared to be overwork, from a gifted animator to a producer. She starts to think that these might not be simply accidents after all and starts digging, and slowly she figures out there's something connecting all these people. What's funny by the way is that the text here is printed horizontally, from left to right (Western convention) like you'd normally see on a Japanese website, while the other story is printed with the lines vertically from top to bottom, like most Japanese fiction is written.

In Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel, attorney Morie Shunsaku is invited to a private viewing of a film that was thought to have been lost. The show will be held at the Chinese Lute Hotel, located on a tidal island, similar to Mont Saint-Michel. When Morie arrives at the hotel however, he learns that four other people were invited here too, but all for different reasons. By the time they realize they have been lured to the island, it's already too late: high tide has swallowed the road that connected the place to the mainland, making it into a true island (technically a car might make it through, but the salt of the sea water will ruin the car, so nobody wants to try it out). The one employee of the hotel has also disappeared, but in their stead the five guests find a sixth, unwanted guest: Judge Chidi'iwa. Morie knew the judge from the Nanase Incident, in which he as defense attorney more than sufficiently made it clear there was insufficient proof to convict his client, but where the judge still ruled a guilty verdict, all just to protect the 99.9% conviction rate of Japan's prosecutors. The judge's narrow-minded rulings had also ruined the lives of the loved-ones of the other four guests, and it's then that Morie realizes what is going on: in And Then There Were None ten people were lured to an island to be killed one by one, but here, five potential murderers were lured to an island to kill one and the same hated potential victim. And while Morie at first thinks it's impossible that normal people would suddenly resort to murder, he finds he's wrong when the judge is found hanged, and what's more, it appears that only Morie himself could've committed the murder!

So when you're done, you're clear to cut the sealed pages open and find out who the murderers are in both Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel and Non-serial Killer. While both stories are actually fairly simple (and Non-serial Killer isn't even a real whodunnit, but a suspense story) and there's no mindblowing trick performed here, I do have to say that Double Mystery does something neat with the double narrative structure. The two stories are obviously connected, by finding out how is done pretty interestingly, and the narrative of Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel in particular manages to pull of something that would've been impossible to in a normal, straightforward narrative, but works wonderfully in a split-up narrative. Could this only have been pulled off with two narratives that work towards the middle, instead of for example the two narratives one after another or with alternating chapters? I do not think so, but I do think the idea works better by having the actual physical seperation of the two narratives, so the way Double Mystery was printed is definitely the best way for this idea to work. The clewing in Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel is a bit lacking, in the sense that the jump from one admittedly good clue to the deduction of the decisive attribute of the murderer is rather big, but one the whole, I think that Double Mystery was quite enjoyable, that managed to elevate an okay, but short and simple mystery story to a higher level by making excellent use of the medium.

Double Mystery was thus an enjoyable read: while the core mystery plot might be not as grand as one might expect from the concept of this book, it's still a solid mystery that still makes meaningful use of the idea of having two seperate narratives and a sealed section. I can't deny that I had hoped for something even bigger, as the idea behind the book is absolutely fantastic, but I guess my expectations might've been unreasonably high. Still, the book itself managed to turn a mystery story that otherwise might've been less impressive into something bigger, and in the end, that for this story, this form might be the best and I can't deny it was a fun experience. I'd love to read more mystery stories that make use of the format!

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『ダブル・ミステリ』

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Designs in Crime

I will well and faithfully serve Her Majesty and Her Heirs and Successors according to law as a police officer, I will obey, uphold and maintain the laws of the Colony of Hong Kong, I will execute the powers and duties of my office honestly, faithfully and diligently without fear or favour to any person and with malice or ill will towards none, and I will obey without question any lawful orders of those set in authority over me.
"Hong Kong Police Oath"

I myself have also worked on books with titles that aren't straight translations from the original source title, but with slightly different titles, but sometimes, the change in titles of translated versions seems rather... extreme, and there's not even a hint of the original title left. What's even more vexing is when the original title can't even be found on the copyright page....

In the five decades of his life that Superintendent Kwan Chun-dok had dedicated to the Hong Kong Police Force, the man had acquired the reputation of having the best mind in the whole force, with his colleagues referring to him with nicknames like the "Crime-solving machine", "Eye of Heaven" or "Genius Detective". Kwan had seen it all: from the 1967 leftist riots of those who opposed British colonial rule, to the showdown with the two Shek brothers, the most wanted criminals in the late eighties and the uprise of technology and information as weapons used by the underworld in the new millenium. Even after the official end of his career, Kwan Chun-dok remained retained by the Hong Kong Police Force as a consultant, as his analytical gifts were too precious to give up. And even on his death bed, Kwan seems to be invaluable to the Hong Kong Police Force. As Inspector Lok seeks the help of his mentor one last time in what seems to be an unsolvable case, we also turn back in time to see some of Kwan's past exploits in Chan Ho-Kei's 2014 novel 13.67, which has been released in English as The Borrowed.

How susceptible are you for hype? Chan Ho-Kei's 13.67 from Taiwan was published last year in Japanese, and it was extremely well received with both mystery readers and authors, and saw loads of authors like Ayatsuji Yukito heap praise upon the novel. Seeing the title pop up all the time of course piqued my interest, and I learned the book had already been available in English for about two years with the completely different title The Borrowed, while it was also available in various European languages (often with the title Hongkong Noir). It was also then that I realized that I actually already had a book lying around by Chan Ho-Kei, the Hong Kong-born, but Taiwan-located author who also goes by the English name Simon Chan. The Man Who Sold The World (2011) had won the second Soji Shimada Award and my own take on the book was that it was an okay, but not exceptional mystery novel that did had an interesting, not-often seen setting with Hong Kong, so while I was not completely sold on Chan's mysteries, I was still planning to read 13.67/The Borrowed some time. And some time is now.

And to start with the conclusion: this is indeed a great interlinked short story collection! The original title 13.67 refers to the five decades worth of Kwan's adventures the reader is presented with: the first story is set in the year 2013, and each subsequent story jumps back in time, to an earlier period in Kwan's long career, until it ends back in 1967, in the formative years of Kwan as a detective. This plot device of the reverse chronology really gives this book its flavor: the first time we see Kwan, he's in his dying days, but we do learn about his reputation. Each following story jumps back in time and in his career, telling us more about him and his working methods. It's also neat to see characters or references pop up as we go back in time: in the 2013 story for example, we see Inspector Lok as a capable detective who would make his mentor proud, but as we return back in time we see how he was in his rookie days. Or what at first seems to be an off-hand reference to some exploit in Kwan's past career suddenly turns out to be the subject of the next story in real time. As we jump back in time, we also see Hong Kong change of course, and technological advancements are also rewinded, resulting in interesting, differing conditions per story.

What makes The Borrowed really a satisfying read is how it really succeeds in marrying the social school of mystery fiction with the classic puzzle plot. The reverse chronology is a way for Chan to show the tumultuous history of Hong Kong: sociopolitical issues like (Western) British citizens living in Hong Kong, the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong and the aforementioned 1967 Leftist Riots play an integral part in the stories, and they provide unique backgrounds and motives. But while Chan does delve into these unique socio-historical issues to Hong Kong, he doesn't forget to actually plot and clew a proper mystery. While the presentation of these stories are definitely set in the social school's distinct realism, the actual core mystery plots are what you'd expect from classic puzzle plot stories, with ingenious tricks used by criminal masterminds and a great police detective in the form of Kwan who calmly analyzes all the clues available and reasons his way to the solution.

The Borrowed is brimming with variation, as Chan skilfully uses the changing time periods of his stories to write different type of mystery stories. The opening story for example, The Truth Between Black and White, has Superintendent Kwan bed-ridden and in a coma when Inspector Lok gathers all the suspects of what seems to be an-inside-job-made-to-look-like-robbery inside Kwan's hospital room. As Kwan himself can't directly communicate anymore, a special device that can read brain waves is attached to his head, allowing the man to move a cursor to either YES or NO on a display. What follows is a unique kind of armchair detective story, as Kwan has to lead Inspector Lok's investigation while only being able to indicate YES or NO. While the scale of the conclusion of this murder case is a bit big for an opening story I think, it serves as an interesting introduction to the character of Kwan.

And as I said, one thing this book definitely offers is diversity. Prisoner's Honour (set in 2003) for example deals with what might become a gang war between two rivaling triads and the attack on a female pop singer enjoying the patronage of one of the triad bosses. While this might sound like some hardboiled gangster movie story with the police desperately trying to keep things in control, the conclusion provides a surprisingly logical solution to the problem. The fifth story, Borrowed Place (set in 1977) on the other hand deals with the kidnapping of a British child for ransom money, while the finale story deals with some bomb terrorists in the 1967 Leftist Riots. Both stories too are good examples of stories that you wouldn't immediately connect to a properly clewed puzzle plot mystery based on the premise alone, but that do manage to scrath that itchy craving for logical puzzle plots perfectly.

The best stories are the two in the middle: The Longest Day (1997) starts with the escape of the convicted Shek Boon-tim during a hospital visit. It was Kwan who got him in prison years ago, but it seems Shek was intent on sullying Kwan's last day before his retirement. While the Hong Kong Police Force is busy looking for the feared criminal, Kwan's disciple Lok is also busy working on a series of acid attacks in Hong Kong, with an unknown person throwing acid at unsuspecting shoppers from flat building roofs. The deductions of Kwan of how Shek managed to escape his guards and then elude the police chasers are properly clewed, while he also manages to make sense out of Lok's case. The Balance of Themis is set in 1989 and also involves the Shek brothers. In 1989, the (then Royal) Hong Kong Police Force was staking out the Ka Fai Mansions, as they knew younger brother Shek Boon-sing was hiding in a room there with two other accomplices, awaiting the arrival and orders of the gang's mastermind Shek Boon-tim. But somehow the gang found out they were being observed, and in the subsequent shoutout in the building, not only all three criminals were shot dead, but also six innocent bystanders, and policemen were also injured. Not only had the stake-out turned into a total failure, it appears there was a mole within the police, as in the following investigation, a handwritten note was found in the gang's hang-out that warned the criminals to flee at once, turning this into an Internal Affairs matter. The story has some neat "historical" touches (the uses of pagers by the criminals!) and the way Kwan deduces who the mole was and how they were involved with the whole plot is great, leading to more than a few surprises.

So I'm happy to say 13.67/The Borrowed turned out to be a very satisfying read. Chan manages to provide a lot of variety within this volume, both by using the unique setting of Hong Kong throughout various periods to present a stage that probably feels fresh to a lot of people, but also by writing clever puzzle plot mysteries that are firmly set within these changing time periods: the mystery plots not only utilize the time period both as a 'background' for flavor, but also by addressing issues that are unique to the time. The result is a novel that keeps on surprising the reader until the very end. I think the book's also very accessible for a variety of readers: I myself really focused on the puzzle plots, but with its focus on the police force and the Hong Kong underworld, there's also plenty here for people who like police procedural or hardboiled mystery fiction, and the unique background of Hong Kong is certain to entertain people who enjoy the socio-cultural aspects of mystery fiction.

Original Taiwanese title: "13.67"