Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scared a Lot in Camelot

"Life's a show and we all play our parts."
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Confession:  I always first look through lists with episode titles of Scooby Doo! whenever I need a title for posts on 'scary' detective stories.

Sid Thornhill, the self-made millionaire Chicken King from the United States, has recently purchased Andernut Castle and plans to move the whole building brick for brick to the new world. He invites a small party of people for one final party before the residence changes addresses together with its owner. Among the guests are Sid's son and his niece, but also the famous amateur-detective Reginald Nigelthorp. Even before their arrival, the guests joke how Castle of Grand Guignol might be a better name for Andernut Castle, but little did they know there were absolutely right. A mysterious Chinese automaton and an even more mysterious, uninvited Chinaman guest set up a stage that will also reveal a locked room murder and a man being thrown down from a window by an empty suit of armor! Meanwhile, attorney and amateur-solver-of-impossible crimes Morie Shunsaku is also witness to a suspicious death of a man who has some links to Ellery Queen's legendary short-lived magazine Mystery League and the adventure in Andernut Castle. The surprising link between these two storylines is the heart of Ashibe Taku's Grand Guignol Jou ("The Castle of Grand Guignol", 2001).

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a mystery novel that has some great ideas, which sadly enough aren't all worked out as good. To start with what I thought disappointing: the actual locked room murders aren't really that exciting. In fact, I'm pretty sure that physically, the solution to one of the murders is impossible (and even then, at best poorly hinted at). The whole dark atmosphere of Andernut Castle is great and the varied, international cast and Spooky Castle With Bloody Background and stuff are elements we know from writers like John Dickson Carr and Nikaidou Reito (especially this novel) and very enjoyable, so it's a bit of a shame that the murders are a bit bland. Also, I had to tilt my head at the end and ask myself the question, 'was all that trouble really needed, even for detective novel standards?' about certain (rather important) plot developments.

But hey, you say, what is there left if the impossible crimes aren't that interesting? Well, I'm afraid it is rather difficult to write about that without going into (spoilerific) details, which is something I try to avoid here. Basically, it has to do with the way the narrative is structured. The Castle of Grand Guignol has two distinct storylines: one about Reginald Nigelthorp and the events at Andernut Castle, and a parallel one which follows Morie Shunsaku as he investigates the mysterious death in the train. The way these two storylines eventually link together is really fantastic though. For a moment, you'll be completely baffled, until you slowly start to understand what is going on. Ashibe then continues the narrative magic and conjures up several surprises both 'in-universe' and even at the meta-level. The actual murders might not be very interesting themselves, the tale of the murders is told expertly and the way Ashibe works out his themes are very entertaining. By the time you've finished the book, you'll realize how utterly complex the story is, and it is, in a way, an explanation why the locked room murders are a bit bland (as they are of lesser importance), but still, I want to dream of a version where the locked room murders are a bit more interesting too.

The play with narrative and meta-level detections reminds me a bit of Dogura Magura, only a lot more sane. A lot more. Then again, most things are a lot more sane than Dogura Magura.

There is also a bit of literary detection in this novel, as Morie Shunsaku's storyline also involves an investigation into Ellery Queen's Mystery League, a pre-cursor to EQMM that only ran for four issues. I had never heard of it before, but The Castle of Grand Guignol has some interesting tidbits about the magazine, mixed in with some elements for its own story, including the alluring tale of a story in the last issue that ended with a Challenge to the Reader, of which the solution was never published because of the magazine being cancelled. As an Ellery Queen fan, I definitely enjoyed this part a  lot.

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a fun mystery novel, especially to those with an interest in biblio-mystery/literary detection, I think, but you might get bit disappointed if you go in expecting exciting locked room murders. I for one did really enjoy it though and I think the 'other' surprise really makes up for the bland impossible crimes.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『グラン・ギニョール城』

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Queer Dean!

I lose control 
春めく季節に まだ幼い瞳は終幕を恐れた
「浸食 lose control」(L'Arc~en~Ciel)

I lose control
In the spring-like season, my eyes, still young, were afraid of the end
"Erosion - Lose Control" (L'Arc~en~Ciel)

I don't really make it a rule of anything, but I think I've managed to write about at least one Dutch novel every year now. No idea whether more will follow this year though.

The discovery of a man shot between his eyes brings Chief-Inspector Gisella Markus to the Treekerpunt. The Treekerpunt, a recreational area once known for its natural beauty, had lately become infamous as a popular place for cruising gays to conduct different kinds of recreation. The victim was a well-known visitor of the area and examination shows he had intercourse before died. While Gisella keeps an open view on the case and makes no assumptions about the motive, her assistant Niels, a gay person himself, is convinced the murder was commited by someone with no-so-happy thoughts about homosexuals. The clashing opinions within the team about the murder, but also about the gay community seriously hamper the investigation and few discoveries have been made by the tme a second murder is commited on a gay person, exactly six weeks after the first murder in a similar place and style of execution. While still not convinced about the motive, Gisella realizes that a serial killer is on the loose whom her team might not be able to stop if they keep fighting each other in M.P.O. Books' 2014 novel Cruise Control.

Oh, and just so there's no confusion: this is a Dutch novel despite the title and it is not available in English (at the moment).

Cruise Control is the eight novel in Dutch authro M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug police procedurals, of which I've only read De Laatste Kans (you can find a lot more on the series at my collegue over at Beneath the Stains of Time). Little knowledge of the series is not a big problem though, as Cruise Control introduces a partially new cast, lead by Gisella Markus. While Bram Petersen still remains the main brains of the series (here in a guest armchair detective role), much of the novel is focused on Gisella and her team (also featuring several familiar faces from the series). There are quite some references to earlier novels, especially about the interaction between the characters, but nothing that feels too alienating. I do have to warn that there are (major) spoilers pertaining certain characters though, something hard to avoid as they all seem to develop throughout the books.

Cruise Control strikes a nice balance in the investigation into the murders as well as the rather problematic workings of the police team, as the topic of homosexuality seems to conjure up a variety of emotions within each member that don't work too well together. Obviously, the two topics are closely intertwined, but sometimes the book focuses more on the footwork, while at other times more on character interactions. It keeps the reader on their toes, though I did think the book to be a bit too long for its own good.

The investigation into the serial killing is great though. The book keeps you guessing at whether the murderer is 'simply' a gay-killer, someone trying to hide his true motives by posing as one or perhaps something complete else and little discoveries now and then help the story keep its momentum. A lot of serial killer stories in puzzle plot stories tend to turn into missing link stories, but Cruise Control isn't one formally. Still, the story is strongly rooted in fair-play puzzle plot tradition, with proper clues scattered across the book that point to the right person. Pesonally, I thought that one psychological hint was a bit weak (seriously, I think a lot of people would say that), but overall, I was quite pleased when the smokescreen disappated and all was explained. Oh, and bonus points for the book for having figures of the crime scenes.

This final point isn't about this book in particular, but Dutch books in general, but it's been a while since I bought a Dutch book and I'm still surprised at the prices. I can buy two, perhaps three Japanese pockets including shipping for the same price as one Dutch paperback...

Well, there's not left for me to say about M.P.O. Books' Cruise Control, but conclude that it is a solid puzzle plot detective novel. And as this is the latest novel, I guess all I can do is go back in the series, so expect more on the series somewhere in the future.

Original Dutch title(s): M.P.O. Books "Cruise Control"

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Invitation to Murder

 「ゲームは1日1時間」(高橋名人)

"Play games only one hour a day!"  (Takahashi Meijin)

To be honest: I've done a lot of detective game reviews here, but even I had not expected to do a Game Boy game here.

Kindaichi Hajime and his childhood friend Miyuki join their junior classmate Akira in a trip to a strange hotel near the sea called the Shiomi House. Akira was sent a strange card with an illustration of someone hanging from a tree, with the text "I am waiting at the Shiomi House". She has no idea what it means, and after a little talk, Hajime and Miyuki decided to tag along. The other guests at the Shiomi House all appear to have been summoned by the same letter, despite their denying. When Superintendent Akechi by accident also appears at the hotel for a certain case, it appears the stage is set for A Murder Story and indeed, the guests are one by one murdered by an unknown killer. Is it the wanted murderer on the loose? Or a ghost? Or perhaps someone else? Hajime will have to solve the case with the help of the player in the 2000 Game Boy Color game Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files ~ The Invitation for the 10th Anniversary~").

I think this might even be the very first game based on the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. There have been great Kindaichi Shounen games in the past (particularly the one where you play the murderer and must outwit the young detective), but also bad ones: the most recent game in particular was horrible (the crossover with Detective Conan was fun, by the way). The Game Boy (Color) is of course a fairly limited system, but luckily, that is something that seldom really hinders adventure games, as they don't need too much graphical prowess.

The game is at the core a novel game: you follow the story like how you'd read a novel and occasionally have to make choice (for example, whether to go to A or B, or to ask X or Y). These choices have influence on how the story will develop and determine whether you'll be able to solve the murders or not. At times, you are given the freedom to search the house or to ask the suspects questions, though this is strangely limited (you are only allowed an X amount of actions). This is probably the worst part of the game, as you can only guess where you can find evidence / important information even though you have only a limited amount of actions available. It'd be different if there was some kind of logic behind it, but for a first-time player, it's kinda hard to guess you need to speak with character X several times, instead of talking with the other characters, as there is no indication whatsoever that one action would be better than another.

Despite the annoyance mentioned above though, I have to admit that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ is actually a very decent detective game for the system. Depending on your choices in the prologue, the story can turn into one of two completely different scenarios (with the same basic cast, but with different murders / murderers) and each of those scenarios has multiple endings, so there is a lot to do in the game. The two scenarios are decent enough as puzzle stories: you'll be looking for clues and making daring deductions that wouldn't seem out of place in the actual Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. Each route is short though, you'll go through them in a few hours, but the replay value is really good.

Technically, the game looks pretty good, but I guess that's only to be expected considering Banpresto developed the game, a company with much experience with sprite art. On the audio side of things, the game was slightly disappointing: the music was forgettable and the scream soundbite used several times in the game hardly sounds like a scream (the first time they used it, I thought it was a musical cue, rather than a scream).

Overall, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ is a surprisingly well-done detective game on the Game Boy Color. It has a lot of content and the puzzle plots themselves are fairly entertaining too. It's one of those games that is well aware of the strength and the limitations of the platform, delivering an experience that feel just right for the Game Boy Color.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿 ~10年目の招待状~』

Sunday, April 10, 2016

番外編: The Moai Island Puzzle + The Cold Night's Clearing

No quotes in the introduction of this post? That means service announcements!

Longtime readers of the blog know that I'm a big fan of ARISUGAWA Alice's Student Alices series. I've reviewed all of the books of the series in the past, and I consider the adventures of the student Alice and his merry comrades of the Eito University Mystery Club as one of the most entertaining, and intellectually most challenging mystery series. The books mix young-adult themes with Ellery Queen-like tricky plots, complete with a Challenge to the Reader. In particular, I've praised 1989's Kotou Puzzle  ("The Island Puzzle") on more than one occassion as the book where Arisugawa in fact outdoes Queen at his own game. It has everything: a hunt for a buried treasure on an island with dozens of moai statues, a locked room murder, a Challenge to the Reader, and an incredible finale where the detective, Mr. Egami, points out who the murderer is based on a very satisfying chain of deductions. 

So I'm more than thrilled to announce that after the critical succes of The Decagon House Murders, Locked Room International will be bringing you another Japanese mystery classic: ARISUGAWA Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle is scheduled to be released coming June. And once again, I had the honor of translating the book. The title is slightly different from the original title, but hey, now it's more Ellery Queen-like! Like with The Decagon House Murders, I have to admit I feel a lot easier about praising the book on the blog now (as the translator), knowing that I had already raved about the book as a crazy fanboy in the past already! So not as the translator, but simply as someone who realllllly enjoyed the book, I say: definitely check it out, as it's simply one of my favorite Japanese mystery novels.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, which I hope is the first of more positive reviews to follow. My own review of the Japanese original can be found at this link (written many years before I knew I would translate the book), and my we-write-English-reviews-of-Japanese-mystery-novels collegues over at My Japanese bookshelf and On the Threshold of Chaos also have reviews.

Also, in other translation news: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine May 2016 All Nations Issue (on sale now) features my translation of OOSAKA Keikichi's 1936 short story The Cold Night's Clearing (original title: Kan no Yobare). OOSAKA was a contemporary of writers like Rampo and KOUGA Saburou, specializing in impossible crimes. And I'm almost afraid to say it, but Rampo had always wanted to be published in EQMM, but because of me, both OOSAKA and KOUGA succeeded in that before him... Sorry. Anyway, The Cold Night's Clearing is based on a translation I had posted on my blog earlier, with some additional revising/editing. It's an impossible crime story about a murdering Santa Claus who disappears into the sky....or something like that. Now I think about it, it's not really a story for a May issue of any magazine, though I guess it fits in the "All Nations" theme. Anyway, it's a great story no mater the weather outside. So take a look in the issue if you're interested.

And that's it for the service announcements today

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Murder With Too Many Notes


 「汝は稀人なりや?」
「シャーロック・ノート 学園裁判と密室の謎」

"Art Thou An Outsider?"
"Sherlock Note - The School Trial and The Mystery of the Locked Room"

Heh, it's more than one year since this book was released. A bit late, a bit late.

In a world of crime, you need detectives to fight evil. And while it's awfully easy to become a criminal, the role of detective isn't something one can just roll into. Takatsuka High School is a special academy that teaches its students the art of detection: the children here are the future policemen, the future private detectives or even the future government detectives. The students of this school are naturally all rather clever, but even among these Holmes-in-training, there are those that get accepted under very special circumstances, the so-called "Altermates". These Altermates are not allowed to reveal themselves or to talk about how they got accepted, but every year, a certain logic game is held to welcome new students. In a school trial, freshman teams have to 'accuse' and 'prove' a certain student is an Altermate (prosecution), while an upperclassman has to debunk their position (defense). Naru is one of the new freshmen at school, and after a certain run-in with an upperclassman, he too is forced to join in the game together with his classmate Karan. Naru himself is definitely not a normal student though, as we learn more about his past and future in Van Madoy's Sherlock Note - Gakuen Saiban to Misshitsu no Nazo ("Sherlock Note - The School Trial and the Mystery of the Locked Room", 2015).

Yep, that's a Katayama Wakako cover (see for example, Yonezawa Honobu's Petite Bourgeoisie series). I love the art, but they do have a tendency to look alike.

I was thrilled when I first read the title of this new book by Van Madoy. Detective schools? School trials? Locked rooms? Van Madoy has not done much with locked room mysteries until now, but his Revoir series was all built around the concept of private trials and logical arguments and other deductions going back and forth. It showed how much fun the action of deduction could be, that sometimes a roundabout route to the truth could be enjoyable. The concept of school trials is something you might know from Danganronpa, but I had confidence that Van Madoy could do something cool with that too, going by his earlier books.

So I have to be honest and say that I was more than a little disappointed in Sherlock Note. I think the biggest problem is that Sherlock Note is conceived as a series, but that this first volume isn't strong enough on its own, and feels incomplete and at times simply chaotic. In the first chapter for example, Van Madoy goes a great length in sketching a detective school, complete with traditions, different kinds of students and a whole world behind the detective school (for example, a group of nine high-ranking detectives called the Nine Tailors). But all these concepts and ideas are all but abandoned in the rest of the book, as Van Madoy suddenly shifts the focus of attention elsewhere. What remains is a book that is almost shizofrenic, as plotlines, concepts and other ideas are constantly 'forgotten' as the story moves on. Sherlock Note falls between a short story collection and a normal novel, but doesn't make use of the advantages of either form.

The first chapter is the most reminscent of the Revoir series, as it revolves around the school trial and the Altermates. There is some interesting verbal dueling going on that revolve around deductions, but it is never as memorable as in the Revoir series (logically, considering the length of the story). The second chapter is the most like a 'normal' detective story, and revolves around a murder in Naru's past, but which is rather easy to solve. The last chapter deals with a mad bomber, who takes Naru hostage and also involves the solving of a kind of locked room mystery (how did the bomber survive an exploding room that did kill all the other people present in the room?). This story kinda reminds of Morikawa Tomoki's stories, as you follow to parties who try to outsmart each other, each picking up on the other's schemes. While it is a sound conclusion to the book, it does suddenly take the world of Sherlock Note to places I had not expected, in a not particularly positive way.

Comics have for a long time embraced the concept of serials and the Marvel movies too have shown how to do series of films that slowly unveil a larger world. Sherlock Note appears to be the home of a larger world for the reader to explore, and the book does attempt to capture that feeling of 'mentioning things that are revealed in detail at a later point', but this is not a succesful attempt. Instead of connected lines, we just have a handful of seperate points that do little to attract the reader. There's a fine line between 'vague enough to pique curiosity' and 'vague, so not interesting', and Sherlock Note leans towards the latter.

Sherlock Note appears to be going for simpler puzzle stories, but a bigger fictional world to explore. However, this first book in the series leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and it does not really satisfy as either a standalone detective story, nor as an interesting hook for upcoming volumes. I've enjoyed all of Van Madoy's previous books, but a second Sherlock Note will have to offer a lot more, in a different way, to be interesting for me.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『シャーロック・ノート 学園裁判と密室の謎』

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Food for Thought

「あなたにとって、ラーメンとは何ですか?」
「ラーメンは人生だよ」
「あなたにとって、麺とは?」
「麺は魂だよ」
「あなたにとって、スープとは?」
「スープは命だよ」
「あなたにとって、チャーシューとは?」
「もうねえよ。肉だよ、肉」 
『グルメレポーター』(サンドウィッチマンコント)

"What is ramen to you?"
"Ramen is my life"
"What is men to you?"
"Men is my spirit"
"What is soup to you?"
"Soup is my lifeline"
"What is chaashuu to you?"
"I don't have anything left! It's meat, just meat!"
"Gourmet Reporter" (Sandwichman sketch)

Oh, how I long for a good bowl of tonkotsu ramen (katamen!), topped off with some benishouga, three slices of chashuu...

Kamoshida Tekki runs a ramen yatai stand in the Nagahama district of Fukuoka. Negishi Kyuuta is an investigatons operative of a dating agency. The two have been in a lot of trouble and adventures ever since they met in high school, and that is still true even now they are both responsible (?) adults. Tekki has made a name for himself as a rather sharp person during his wild days and that is why he is occasionally hired to help solve 'problems', often as either a detective or bodyguard. Kyuuta on the other hand has a natural knack for getting into trouble and the two are considered a formidable hardboiled duo in the dangerous streets of Fukuoka. Kitamori Kou's Oyafukoudoori Detective ("Oyafukou Street Detective") is the first short story collection featuring Tekki and Kyuuta in a series of six adventures set around Fukuoka and the island of Kyushu.

And yes, there is some sort of Fukuoka-quotum at this blog: I try to read at least one mystery novel set in Fukuoka a year (last year was the excellent Jikan no Shuuzoku). Preferably a good one too. To be honest, I was only moderately positive about Kitamori Kou's Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, but I just could't resist trying out Oyafukoudoori Detective, which oozed Fukuoka-atmosphere with its cover, the summary of the story and of course the title: Oyafukoudoori is a very well-known street in Fukuoka by the way, with lots of bars and nightclubs.

Seventh Heaven introduces us to Tekki and Kyuuta, and gives us a look into Kyuuta's work at the dating agency. Kyuuta's work brings him to a couple that married thanks to the efforts at the agency and the agency wants to use them for promotions. Kyuuta however discovers the couple in a rather dead and murdered state and instead of calling the police, he flees from the apartment building. Tekki naturally calls him a fool, but a look at some pictures of the couple reminds him that he has seen them at his ramen stand a couple of times and he remembers a strange happening during one of their visits. There is some interesting plotting and hinting going in this story, and it serves as a good introduction to the two detectives, but coincidences also play a big part in the plot.

In Chikagai no Robinson ("The Robinson of the Underground"), Tekki is hired by the "Singing Princess", a local bar owner once world famous for her singing, to track down a girl who has gone missing the last few days. Kyuuta helps along, but as they continue their search, they find out that their target's boyfriend might be caught up with something rather illegal and dangerous, making their own hunt for the girl also one not without danger. Like Seventh Heaven, this story has some good ideas, but the overall plot feels a bit dragged out and once again there are some jumps in the plot/logic that feel a bit forced. This was also the case in Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, which often had stories with good basic plots, but with weaker surrounding padding.

Natsu no Odekake ("A Summer Outing") has Kyuuta (succesfully) hitting on one of Tekki's customers during Tekki's annual hiatus. During one of his dates with the girl, he stumbles upon Tekki, who is pretending to be the son of an elderly lady. What is Tekki 's motive for doing that? I can't tell more about the story, as it would spoil the whole picture, but I think that plotwise, this is the weakest story of the collection: once again one that asks the reader to believe in coincidences a lot, but unlike the previous stories, there is little that redeems the plot, as at least the previous stories had some good ideas in them.

Hard Luck Night reunites Tekki and Kyuuta with an old classmate of theirs. Natsumi was Tekki's old girlfriend for a while, but after high school everyone kinda lost contact with each other and before you know it, you have lost a husband and moved back to Fukuoka. That same night, the murdered body of a high school girl is discovered near Tekki's stand. Despite the crowds celebrating a victory of the local baseball team roaming the streets though, it seems few people saw the girl and there are no traces of the murderer. Tekki is asked by a police detective acquaintance to keep his eyes open, in exchange for the information that the girl was actually part of a prostitution ring made up by high school students, with links to a local crime syndicate. Overall, Hard Luck Night does not really satsify in the puzzle plot department, but it's quite enjoyable as a hardboiled mystery story, that also delves a little in the background of Tekki and Kyuuta.

Oyafukoudoori Detective ("Oyakukou Street Detective") lends it title to the story collection and has Tekki tell one of Kyuuta's girlfriends about an old friend of theirs: Hide was a homeles person who earned money by pulling yatai stands to their places (yatai stands have set locations, but are only pulled out there just before night). One day, Hide was arrested on suspicion of being the arsonist who had been making the area around Oyafukou Street unsafe, yet Tekki and Kyuuta are sure he is innocent. Again, as a puzzle plot story, Oyafukoudoori Detective is not particularly satisfying, even if it is an entertaining story with some interesting deductions surrounding the reason why Hide was arrested. There are still the usual jumps-in-logic-and-plot-for-the-sake-of-the-story though.

Sentimental Driver forms a conclusion to the collection and deals with an old enemy of Kyuuta and Tekki: the two once stopped an old classmate from raping their teacher and the twarted rapist naturally had to switch schools and go away after that, but now he has returned to Fukuoka using a false name. The story takes a different turn from the rest of the collection (being much more like a traditional hardboiled detective story, rather than one with a puzzle plot approach) and includes a rather surprising ending and it works quite well as a conclusion to the volume.

A hardboiled detective set in Fukuoka with ramen as a motif? Sounds a lot like Nishimura Ken's Hakata Detective Case Files right? They do feel very similar. In terms of plot, I think that Hakata Detective Case Files reaches higher when it succeeds with its plot: the problem is that in general, it reaches lower lows, for much longer periods. Oyafukoudoori Detective is a lot more consistent in that respect. Also, the conversations between Tekki & Kyuuta are also more fun to read, compared to Yuge's monologues in Hakata Detective Case Files.

Overall, I thought Oyafukoudoori Detective was reasonably entertaining. Compared to Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, this book has a more distinct hardboiled taste, dealing with crime syndicates and the underworld of Fukuoka. And while I prefer puzzle plot mysteries (as you probably understand from this review), I have to admit that in general, I think I enjoyed this volume a lot better than Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, because at least this book was clearly meant as a hardboiled-flavored detective, which makes less demands about tightly plotted stories. Shina Soba Kan no Nazo felt like a partly-failed effort, while Oyafukoudoori Detective probably did precisely what it was supposed to do. I'll probably read the sequel too someday, as the series is just two volumes long at the moment.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『親不孝通りディテクティブ』: 「セヴンス・ヘヴン」 / 「地下街のロビンソン」 / 「夏のおでかけ」 / 「ハードラック・ナイト」 / 「親不孝通りディテクティブ」 / 「センチメンタル・ドライバー」

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Les Milliards d'Arsène Lupin

Arsène Lupin in our midst! the irresponsible burglar whose exploits had been narrated in all the newspapers during the past few months! the mysterious individual with whom Ganimard, our shrewdest detective, had been engaged in an implacable conflict amidst interesting and picturesque surroundings. Arsène Lupin, the eccentric gentleman who operates only in the chateaux and salons, and who, one night, entered the residence of Baron Schormann, but emerged empty-handed, leaving, however, his card on which he had scribbled these words: "Arsène Lupin, gentleman-burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."
"The Arrest of  Arsène Lupin"

Today, something completely different! Not a review, but a little look into the Japanese history of a very French character.

While the presence of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905, is not very remarkable in modern Western popular culture, Lupin still lives on in Japan in a curious way. Is he as well known as someone as Sherlock Holmes? That, I very, very much doubt, but the fact you can still stroll into a bookstore and find translated versions of tales of the gentleman-thief should say something. The question that might pop up in your head is: why? Forgotten is too strong a word, but Lupin is definitely not that big a household name anymore in the West, and while getting his books through the Powers of the Internet isn't that difficult, I doubt many stores in the neighborhood stock his adventures. Is there a secret behind his staying power in Japan?

Some might say that Japanese culture, or more precisely, Japanese mystery fandom, tends to focus more on the Western classics more than we do here. I think that would be a too easy, and a too careless attempt at an explanation, and one that seems to ignore the fact that Leblanc actually did write incredibly entertaining stories. Perhaps the question should be why he isn't still that famous here, rather than the other way around.

The notion of the gentleman-thief did not start with Arsène Lupin, of course. A direct literary forefather is E.W. Hornung's Raffles series, which started in 1898, and we have early examples in folklore like Robin Hood. In Japan too, there had been a tradition of folklore about thieves that were seen as heroes by the masses. There is for example Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1584), an outlaw who stole to give to the poor. His exploits became the subject of many kinds of folklore, including multiple kabuki plays. Another example would be Nezumi Kozou ("The Rat Kid"). Nezumi Kozou was the nickname of Nakamura Jiroukichi (1797-1831), a thief who managed to burgle over 100 samurai estates. His tale turned into folklore, and has been the subject of folk songs and kabuki plays (including one by Kawatake Mokuami, seen by some as one of the greatest kabuki dramatists). These characters are considered gizoku, or "thieves with honor" and are thus early examples of thieves that are considered the heroes of a tale in fiction (even if based on real events).

So it isn't strange that a concept like the gentleman-thief would be accepted in Japan. Interestingly, Raffles wasn't translated to Japanese until the Taishou period (1912-1926), while Lupin arrived in Japan much earlier. Already in 1909, the magazine Sunday featured Pari Tantei - Dorobou no Dorobou ("Paris Detective - Thief of Thieves"), based on the short story 1906 La Perle noire. Translations of various stories by various translators followed, many of them being rewrites of the original plot with new titles. The Lupin-epic 813 was for example published in 1912 with the title Kojou no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Old Castle"), written/translated by Mitsuki Shunei. So even in Lupin's early days, he was already making his name in Japan.
(See: Hasebe Fumichika (2007). Oubei Suiri Shousetsu Honyakushi. Futaba Bunko. p159-161)

The character of  Arsène Lupin was also noticed by Edogawa Rampo, who is commonly seen as the father of the modern Japanese mystery story. It's easy to see the influence of the thief in Rampo's work. Not only did he have his own detective character, Akechi Kogorou, take on the famous French thief in his 1930-1931 novel Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask"): his famous creation Kaijin Nijuu Mensou (the Fiend with Twenty Faces) was also partly inspired by the thief. The Fiend would become the main antagonist in the highly succesful children's mystery series Shounen Tantei Dan (The Boy Detectives Club, started in 1936), so the notion of the flamboyant thief with a fantastic skill for disguises had been implanted in many. And more importantly perhaps, this notion was implanted in children, meaning a new generation would grow up with knowledge of this notion. The Shounen Tantei Dan series is still source of many pop-culture references nowadays,


The biggest influence  on Lupin's staying power however is perhaps Minami Youichirou (1893-1980), a novelist and translator who'd be responsible for "The Complete Gentleman-Thief Lupin" series, which was a complete translated release of the complete Arsène Lupin series by publisher Poplar. Minami had been a teacher on an elementary school, but having found succes with writing adventure novels for children, he became a professional novelist. His first translation of the Lupin series was published in 1958, and it would take him over 20 years, until the year he died, to complete the project (though this project also included some non-Leblanc Lupin novels). What should be noted was that Minami did not make faithful translations. The Minami translation is aimed at children, so a lot of the stories were simplified, and plotpoints like adultery/divorce and such were skipped over. Some books were shortened to provide for a more streamlined experience. The result is a slightly more heroic, and perhaps 'cleaner' version of Lupin, but, thanks to Minami's own experience as a novelist of children's adventure novels, this version was also very readable, and as such incredibly well-loved by the readers. I too have read some of his translation, and they were quite fun as easier-to-read, and more focused stories.

Other publishers have also released faithful translations of the Lupin novels, but if you look on Amazon now, you'll notice that they're all out of print. Only the Minami Youichirou translations remain in print, even now, so many years after the series first started and even after 'better' translations were released. It shows how beloved his version of the stories are. And because his books are aimed at children, new generations keep growing up with his versions. Interestingly enough, even generations that have now grown up don't seem to have a particular need for the faithful translations! Also note that the Minami translations are instantly recognizable by their awesome retro covers!


Some people might also want to mention the famous franchise Lupin The Third as a reason as to why Arsène Lupin's still available in Japan. Lupin The Third, first started in 1967, is one of the biggest manga/anime franchises in the history, with multiple comic book series, TV series, even more TV specials and films and everything. Heck, an (EXCELLENT) TV series of it has ended just now in Japan, in 2016!  And yes, Lupin The Third is about Lupin III, grandson of Arsène, who's also a genius thief, so that is a link, but I think a lot of people overestimate this link. Lupin The Third borrows very little from his grandfather besides some names and the (very) occassional reference. So I wouldn't equate Lupin the Third's success with Arsène Lupin's reputation in Japan per se, even if it definitely helps to have the same name! Do note that Lupin The Third is way, way, waaaaay better known that his grandfather. There is a different recent manga based on Arsène Lupin by the way, titled Aventurier (2011-now), based on the books.

Anyway, I don't pretend to know exactly why Arsène Lupin still prevails in Japan. Then again: is there anybody who can accurately read the movements of that thief? If Ganimard can't, how can I? What I do know is that I absolutely love the character and I'm happy to see that he's still alive in Japan, in one form or another. Because what would Lupin be without a disguise?