Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Cold Reading

Please Set Disk Card
(Famicom Disk System boot-up screen)

Prologue

Takada Naoya is the young assistant of private detective Utsugi Shunsuke, a man so trusted by the authorities he's called in when the lifeless body of 17-year old Youko is recovered from a river. Naoya discovers that Youko has been strangled before she was thrown in the water, thus making it a case of murder. Because Utsugi is busy with a different case, young Naoya is put on this case, which brings him to Youko's high school. There he meets Youko's friend Ayumi, who tells Naoya that Youko, as a member of the school's Detective Club, had been investigating the school ghost story of "The Girl Standing In The Back": a ghostly figure said to haunt the school by manifesting herself behind people's backs. Naoya suspects Youko's death might be connected to this ghost story, which finds its roots in the disappearance of a student of the school 15 years ago. Whether his investigation in Ikeda Misa's Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II: The Girl Standing In The Back", 1989) is succesful, is completely up to the reader's choices.
Go to 1.

1

As you read the text on the back of the book, you realize that this is a gamebook. The name Famicom Detective Club and Ikeda Misa sound familiar too. You know remember that you already read a review of the gamebook based on the first game on this series a while back. Where do you want to start your investigation?
Read up on gamebooks and Famicom Detective Club ⇒ Go to 2.
Read Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ⇒ Go to 3.
If you have read everything ⇒ Go to 4.

2

You remember that Famicom Detective Club was once a mystery adventure game series by Nintendo. Some might be surprised that this Nintendo series was about murder cases that were steeped in legends, ghost stories and other supernatural backgrounds, but the Famicom Detective Club games used to be a fairly well-known series among adventure gamers, though Nintendo hasn't touched the franchise in decades save for ports of the old games. The first two games date from the late eighties, which was also when gamebooks were popular in Japan. The gamebook Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is based on the game with the same title, which was originally released in 1989 on the Famicom Disk System (NES) as the second entry in the series. An enhanced (and fantastic!) remake of this game was also released on the Super Famicom (SNES).

Gamebooks, or Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books, have the reader make choices as they read, which lead to branching storylines. Whereas in a normal novel, the protagonist is destined to take the left turn in the maze, in a gamebook, the reader might given the choice to go left, right or back, each choice leading to a seperate outcome (in a gamebook, each choice will lead you to a different page). Many of the choices will eventually lead to a bad ending, and only the true detective can make it to the end of the case. Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo has some extra mechanics besides making choices: you also need to collect necessary clues and useful items as you fight against time, because movement between locations, but also fruitless lines of investigation all cost time, and you only have a limited amount of time units.
Go To 1.

3

Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is set some time before the first book and details how the protagonist and Ayumi, his later colleague at the Utsugi Detective Agency, first met. The story in the gamebook is a more streamlined version of the one featured in the game, with fewer characters and some changes in how the story develops, but is at the core the same. People who have played the original game might be surprised by the changes that do exist though: some of them I had never expected, but I quite liked them in this version of the story. As a detective story, Famicom Tantei Club Part II has always been an engaging experience, as it mixes the murder investigation at a school with a more ghostly substory involving the rumors of the Girl Standing In The Back amidst a cast of rather unique characters in an engaging manner. In comparison to the gamebook of the first game, the prose of this second volume is more enjoyable, with more text before each choice, which helps fleshing out the story. Because you keep on flipping between pages as you make choices, it's easy to lose track of the story, but this book has several moments where the story gives you a breather, and helps you organize all the facts you have collected. Like in the previous gamebook, the focus lies not on figuring out who did it on your own, but on finding all the relevant evidence yourself. A classic Challenge to the Reader gives you all the hints, and then asks of you to deduce who the murderer is. It's difficult to do justice to that in a gamebook, so while the story will make all the necessary deductions for you in this book, it's up to you to actually find all the evidence needed for those deductions. Your choices will bring you along different routes, and choosing to talk with a certain person at a certain time might result in getting your hands on a crucial piece of evidence (or actually missing out on it, as you're supposed to be doing something else).

This gamebook appears to be easier than the one based on the first book. The mechanics are slightly different, but at least this second book doesn't have red herring pieces of evidence that lead to game overs once you get your hands on them. Though this book certainly isn't easy: there are still some items you absolutely need to find if you want to complete the story and it's easy to miss them. There are also many bad endings. Being taken off the investigation because you didn't find enough evidence before a certain point in the story is one of the better bad endings. In a fair number of them, the murderer actually goes after you and the murderer is rather good at err, murdering. The first book is more challenging, but in terms of overall enjoyment as both a game and a tale, this second volume manages to win.
Go to 1.

4

You have gotten a good idea of what Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is. Are you satisfied with this review?
Yes ⇒ Go to 6.
No ⇒ Go to 5.

5

The murderer suddenly appeared behind you, driving their knife inside your back. If only... you had been content with the review.... THE END.

6
 
You have decided that you've gotten all you needed out of this review.
Go to Epilogue.

Epilogue

You come to the conclusion that Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo is an enjoyable mystery gamebook that does justice to the original game. You are now also of the opinion that this should be the last review written in gamebook format. As mystery gamebooks are fun, they'll probably appear on this blog in the future again, but it'll be in a normal review format then.


HAPPY ENDING

Original Japanese title(s): 池田美佐 『ファミコン探偵倶楽部 Part II うしろに立つ少女』

Friday, June 16, 2017

Hello Mr. Detective

「この簡単な事件、俺が33分もたせてやる」
 『33分探偵』

 I'll drag this simple case out for thirty-three minutes!
"33 Minutes Detective"

Mystery fiction is at the core about the process of solving a mystery, that is to say, it's about how the initial mystery-filled situation is eventually explained. While the main problem and its solution ("the truth) are of course very important elements, one shouldn't forget that the route from the one to the other is at least as important. If you only had a problem and an answer, you wouldn't have mystery fiction: you'd have a quiz. It's the attention to to the process from A to B that makes it an actual story. Of course, there are many ways to make this journey to the truth attractive for the reader. The investigations in Queen-style stories have a tendency to seem rather clinical for example, but the way the truth is eventually revealed by methodically sifting through various strands of information and clues, by creating logical order out of data chaos has an almost cathartic sense, like slowly cleaning up a messy room. Other stories might try to entertain the reader by starting with an utterly baffling initial situation (impossible murder), and then employing an uncanny feeling throughout the story until the truth is revealed. Inverted stories like Columbo might not be about whodunit, or even howdunit, but pose an alternative mystery ("how did the culprit mess up?") and keeps the journey interesting by slowly breaking down what seems like the perfect murder. The Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games were heavily inspired by Columbo, and do something similar, but also keeps the player engaged by constantly changing the initial mystery, often making it look even stranger than initially thought, until it's broken down at the end.

A while back, I wrote about the trope of false solutions in mystery fiction, and that's of course also a way to make the journey to the truth entertaining. But even so, stories with false solutions are still following the exact same route as the other stories mentioned above: the narrative will eventually arrive at the truth. Even Anthony Berkeley's novels, which play around a lot with the notion of "truth" by bombarding you with false solutions, do eventually reveal the truth. On the other hand you have anti-mystery novels like Dogura Magura or Kyomu he no Kumotsu, which reject the notion of a single truth all together. But a commentator reminded me of a TV drama series that manages to do something completely original with this fundamental structure of mystery fiction.

Enter Kuruma Rokurou: a young private detective and enormous fan of classic mystery fiction. He's good friends with the local police inspector, who often calls for Rokurou's help whenever he's facing another murder case. The murder scenes come straight out of a detective fiction fan's dreams: a bride brutally murdered on her wedding day; murder at a school haunted by ghost rumors; small out-of-the-way communities with strange local habits; a dead body discovered during a musical performance: nobody would complain about these settings, right?  Both Rokurou and the viewer are all set to investigate the mysterious murder when.... the police arrest the murderer. Red-handed. With the knife in their hands. And a motive. And witnesses. And a confession. All questions answered. All within five minutes of the show beginning! Only Rokurou can't just let this go and call it a day. Not because he believes the arrested suspect is innocent. It's because the time slot of the TV show is, minus the commercials, thirty-three minutes long! If they'd wrap things up now, the next show would get into trouble, so no matter what, Rokurou needs to drag the case out until the show fills all scheduled thirty-three minutes! Kurama Rukurou is the 33pun Tantei ("33 Minutes Detective", 2008, 2009), not because he can solve any case within thirty-three minutes, but because he can stall any case for thirty-three minutes.

33pun Tantei was a TV drama that was originally broadcast in 2008, with a short second series following in 2009. It was revolutionary as a mystery show, as the whole premise was that even though the super-simply, obvious truth of the case was always revealed within the first five minutes, they needed to fill the time of their alloted time slot. Rokurou does this by coming up with the most outrageous hypotheses that point the finger to everyone but the obvious suspect, using every single mystery fiction trope he can think off. At the end of each episode though, he always comes back to the conclusion that the obvious suspect who was arrested red-handedly was indeed the real murderer (even though we all knew already).


So to return to what I mentioned in the introduction: basically all mystery fiction is about the journey between the starting point (initial mystery) and the destination (truth) and the sights we see along the way. In 33pun Tantei however, this journey is just an easy five-minute walk. But because we arrived too early at the destination, we decide to talk a long, loooong walk around just to kill some time.

And the way it's done is hilarious. 33pun Tantei is highly inspired by Police Squad!, copying many things from that series (the overall silly tone; the informant scenes; the visit to the lab; the cheap-looking 'driving' shots between scenes and the faux still-shot endings), but whereas Police Squad! was a parody on police shows, 33pun Tantei is that of classic mystery fiction. Each and every of Rokurou's hypotheses about other possible murderers are brimming with classic tropes, from locked room murders, complex alibi tricks using trains to twin substitutes. The problem? Rokurou has too much of an imagination. He takes each of these tropes to hilarious impossible extremes in his desperation to come up with an alternative to the truth. Ice cubes are a familiar old trope in mystery fiction, as they have the handy feature of melting, but what about a gigantic ice cube to allow someone to cross to another window, and then letting the sun melt away all evidence!?


Rokurou's delusions are really the star of the show, as they're hilariously farfetched, but always 'grounded' in well-known mystery fiction tropes. Any fan of the genre will instantly recognize the tropes, but they take on almost grotesque forms, as Rokurou twists the truth around and around in the hopes of proving someone else guilty. It's a real delight to see these over-the-top theories presented in a serious manner by Rokurou, while everybody is busy pointing out the rather obvious holes in every single one of his hypotheses. Indeed, he's always called out on it every time by both the people accused by him, as well as Rokurou's own allies. Rokurou never ever actually manages to defend his flimsy theories, and it often seems like he may not even fill out the complete thirty-three minutes of the show, but somehow, he always manages to perservere. The presentation of these "theories" is also always incredibly funny, with the accused always being portrayed as some kind of monster intent on murder (complete with "evil" make-up), coming up with the most nefarious of schemes.


While basically all episodes follow the same set-up of 1) Case is discovered, 2) Rokurou arrives at scene, 3) Real culprit is caught, 4) Rokurou declares he'll drag the case out, comes up with fanciful theories and 5) Rokurou decides the real culprit is indeed the real culprit, there's still variation to be found. Each episode has a completely different setting (based on stock settings from mystery fiction, from a villa to a TV station and a cruise ship), allowing for different kinds of mystery tropes to be employed in Rokurou's fanciful concoctions, from more Yokomizo Seishi-inspired theories in the episode set in an isolated village, to Christie-approach in the cruise ship episode. There are also some rather original settings, like that at a manzai-comedy venue hall, or one that happens in a building housing several fortune tellers.


The series was created by Fukuda Yuuichi by the way, who's specialized in comedy drama. He has also created the Dragon Quest parody Yuusha Yoshihiko ("The Hero Yoshihiko") TV series for example, and he's also working on the live-action adaptation of Gintama. As for 33pun Tantei, the lead Doumoto Tsuyoshi not only plays an incredibly funny lead in this series, but his role has extra meaning because twenty years earlier, he also starred as protagonist Hajime in the original TV drama series based on Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files"), making him an icon of Japanese mystery fiction.

In a way, mystery fiction has often taken its own tropes too seriously, so it's almost refreshing to see 33pun Tantei take everything to its ridiculous extremes. It has everything a mystery fan likes, but manages to arrange everything in such surprising, and hilarious ways each episode is just a blast to watch, even if you know that in the end, after all the imaginative theories with locked room murders and daring alibi tricks and other impossible cries, that after the thirty-three minutes, the story'll come back to that first conclusion, that the very first and most obvious suspect was indeed the culprit. But that's fine, as the roundabout way to that conclusion is still fantastic.

Original Japanese title(s): 『33分探偵』, 『帰ってこさせられた33分探偵』

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Middle Point Symphony

「聖闘士には同じ技は2度通用しない」 
『聖闘士星矢』 

"The same technique won't work twice on a Saint." 
"Saint Seiya"

I love the cover of this book. Too bad it never gets as awesome as on the cover. I'd have loved to see a more prominent team-approach to the current storyline.

The Crime Victim Salvation Committee is the organization behind the Duel Noir: a match of wits held between murderers out on revenge and detectives. The Committee sells perfect crime schemes to would-be murderers, but also invites detectives to the crime scene to solve said perfect crimes. Young detectives Yui and Kirigiri have tracking down the Committee and one of the most important figures in the organization decided to have a wager with the duo. He presents the two ladies with The Twelve Locked Room Temples, a challenge consisting of twelve locked room murders which they have to solve within one week. If they can either prevent, or at least solve all murders and apprehend the culprits, he promises to leave the Committee, which would severely weaken the organization. Picking up from the previous volume, Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 (2015) has the two detectives gathering a team of comrade detectives as they fight against the clock to take down the remaining Locked Room Temples.

It's the fourth volume in this spin-off series of the Danganronpa series focusing on the past of character Kirigiri Kyouko as she starts out as a professional detective. Connections to the main story as told in the games are fairly light, and unlike spin-off novel Danganronpa/Zero, I think this series can be read quite easily without any prior knowledge of the series. The Danganronpa Kirigiri novels are penned by Kitayama Takekuni, whom we know on this blog as a writer who specializes in highly mechanical locked room murder mysteries. The things he uses may not be Rube Goldberg contraptions, but you'll definitely find gadgets, gimmicks, and more stuff in his locked room mysteries, and this characteristic of his work remains even though he's now working on an existing IP.

If you have read my review of Danganronpa Kirigiri 3, you might remember my biggest complaint about it: It was an incomplete story. While there were also some plotlines left open in the first two volumes, they were without a doubt seperate stories that could stand on their own. The third volume introduced the challenge of the Twelve Locked Room Temples, but only one of those twelve locked rooms was solved in that volume (plus five off-screen by a third party). The volume didn't satisfy at all, as it had a great concept, but then stopped just as things were getting interesting. The third volume was in fact nothing more than a prologue, even though it certainly wasn't sold as one. Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 picks up right away from the third volume, with Kirigiri and Yui first recruiting a band of allies, among which they divide the remaining six Locked Room Temples. Do not even try to read this volume without reading Volume 3, as this volume explains absolutely nothing and dives straight into the action.

The previous volume was very shallow, as it only featured one locked room mystery. This time, we have three of them, presented through parallel storytelling. Well, actually it's two and a half. For while the case of the disappearing murderer at the Libra Girl's Academy sure looks interesting, it's not actually solved in this volume. This might a more common practice with serialized comics, with storylines spanning several volumes, but this is rather ridiculous for a normal novel, even if it's a series. I mean, the previous volume only had one locked room mystery, but at least it was solved and filed away within that volume. But to be presented only the first half of a story, and to have to wait for the next volume for the solution? That's just cheap and annoying. At the time I'm writing this review, it's been over a year since Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 has been released, and there is still not even a release date scheduled for the next volume, which (hopefully) includes the conclusion to this murder mystery (EDIT: the fifth volume has been announced and released in the period between me writing this review and actually posting it).

The remaining two (mostly) complete locked room mysteries in this volume are luckily fairly entertaining, if a bit short. One of Kirigiri and Yui's allies is sent to an abandoned school, which has been cut off from the world through a landslide. Inside the gymnasium, he finds a girl stabbed in her chest, her body placed inside a circle of candles. He also finds four students, who explain they're from their school's Mystery Club. They had been challenged by the Black Magic Club to come here, but when they arrived here (before the landslide), they stumbled upon the deceased victim, a fellow member of the Mystery Club. The detective soon deduces that it's quite possible that one of the Mystery Club members present might've committed the murder, but all four of them have perfect alibis as they were all together making their way to the abandoned school at the time of the murder.

The clueing in this story is surprisingly well done. It uses a piece of knowledge now commonly known through all those forensic science-oriented mystery shows in a very original way and the particular way in which this murder was committed was something I had never seen before. The one problem this story had, and which also holds for the other story, is that it's presented in a very concise way. While the locked room murder trick is original, the narrative allows for very little space to actually contemplate on it. More pages would've allowed for more depth in the story and the characters. Now it feels more shallow than it should be. I wouldn't call this a bad story, but there was much more potential in this.

The last murder case handled in this volume is set at the Twin Abilities Development Research Facility. Kirigiri arrives too late at this laboratory where they research the psychic and physical bonds between twins, for when she arrived at the scene, two researchers on watch had been knocked out and the two test subjects, twin brothers, were already murdered. It is a mystery how the murders were committed though. The brothers were being held in different wings of the building, and the corridors in both wings were both locked at two points each. The special locks used can only be opened by the fingerprint of the researcher registered on the lock, so you'd need the fingerprints of all four researchers to open all the locks to both wings to kill both victims. Or was the bond between the two brothers so strong that killing one automatically led to the death of the other?

In comparison to the previous locked room mysteries, I'd say that this one is not really as impressive as the ones we've seen earlier in this series (or even this volume), though I think I can forgive it because of the themes it's playing with. I can't talk about it in detail as it'd give the game away, but I can definitely understand where Kitayama was going for with this locked room trick, and while I think he does not pull it off just as well as planned, I think it's more than a good effort and an original way to play with reader's expectations. Is it really fair? Perhaps not, though I think that's also partly because of the earlier mentioned problem of the storylines included in this volume being rather short. More space would definitely have helped the premise of this story a lot.

In the end, Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 has the same problems as the previous volume, though less severely. Once again, it's an incomplete story. While we do have two fairly entertaining locked room mysteries included in this volume, we also have one murder mystery storyline which is literally abandoned midway. As this is sold as a standalone volume (for a premium price), I can't say I'm really pleased with that, especially as the following volume took over a year to be released. Danganronpa Kirigiri 4 is literally just a part somewhere in the middle of a longer storyline, with no proper introduction nor conclusion. As for now, the Twelve Locked Room Temple storyline is entertaining as a concept (even if the individual Locked Room Temple storylines are a bit hasty), but the presentation is awful, as it spans several volumes leaving the reader with bits and pieces that don't make any sense outside the larger context. I might become very enthusiastic about the whole thing once it's done and ready so I can look at the complete storyline, but as a consumer, I think the manner in which this storyline is presented to the reader is awful, and that it hurts the otherwise interesting premise. Volume 5 was released in March of this year, more than a year after the release of this volume, so I hope that volume will bring some closure.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り4』

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Crooked Hinge

潮風にゆれる髪も大好きだったけど、
ただ何となくそうよ何となく髪を短くしたのよ
あなたのせいじゃないわ
少しだけセシルの気持ちがわかったの
「セシルカット」(戸川純)

I did love how my hair dance in the sea breeze,
But for some reason, just for no reason, I cut my hair short
It isn't because of you
But I think I understand how Cecile must've felt a little
"Cecil Cut" (Togawa Jun)

Trick was a surprise hit TV drama franchise which ran from 2000 until 2014. The quirky show took on the form of a classic mystery show featuring a detecting duo of a magician and a physicist solving impossible crimes and 'supernatural' phenomena in remote villages and communities, but it was in fact a playground for everyone involved: each story was packed full with visual jokes, wordplay, parody references; the characters were all over-the-top with outrageous character tics (it was obvious every actor was just having the time of their lives hamming every line up) and even the camera would go for the weirdest angles just to surprise the viewer. The show started out as a late-night low-key TV drama, but grew out to a major franchise with four theatrical releases, and the two leads, Nakama Yukie and Abe Hiroshi are now two of the biggest acting names in Japan.

A spin-off series starring supporting character Yabe Kenzou was produced in 2010 to coincide with the release of the third theatrical film Trick 3: Psychic Battle Royale. Yabe is an incompetent police detective (wearing a very obvious wig) who'd rather not exert himself protecing the people, and he often spends his time (secretly) looking for ways to grow his hair back. He worked wonderfully as the butt of the jokes in Trick, as the useless cop who sometimes worked against, and sometimes with the two leads while they were trying to solve the case. Even in his own series, Yabe managed to do no detecting himself, as other characters usually solved his problems for him, but through miraculous luck Yabe always got the credit for all those cases, making him one of the more infamous detectives of the Metropolitan Police Department. A second spin-off series was broadcast in 2013, about six months before the final Trick film.

As Trick - Last Stage marked the end of the franchise in 2014, you can imagine how surprised I was to learn that a new Yabe Kenzou spin-off serie would be released in 2017! Keibuho Yabe Kenzou ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~ ("Lieutenant Yabe Kenzou ~ Artificial Brain VS Artificial Hair~") is a mini-series produced for online streaming, and burdens our fake-haired detective with a final assignment. Professor Deep Manabu is the creator of the highly efficient crime-fighting AI "God Eye Joe", which has been able to solve cases even faster than the FBI and Scotland Yard. Deep Manabu and God Eye Joe now intend to show the Japanese police force who is superior, and the case chosen for that end is that of the Dark Gyouji: A mysterious serial killer called the Dark Gyouji (as they're dressed as a sumo referee) is on the loose in the country, but they were last spotted near a secluded hot spring resort. Deep Manabu and God Eye Joe head for the place in order to solve the crime, but the Japanese police force can't just sit and watch, so they send Yabe Kenzou to solve the case for them. A landslide shuts the place off from the outside world, locking everyone in together with the Dark Gyouji. Can Yabe and his artificial hair beat the artificial brain?


So it was over three years since the last Trick production, but on the whole, this mini-series was exactly what'd the viewers have come to expect from the franchise in terms of presention. The familiar musical cues, the quick camera-work is all there, as well as the crazy characters, their snappy dialogue filled with wordplay and of course many references to earlier works. While the two leads of the main Trick series don't appear in person, there are some references to them, enforcing the idea that this is part of the main franchise. The three year blank did not change the feel of the series, luckily.

The main Trick series was always busy parodying the mystery fiction as written by Yokomizo Seishi, with serial murders taking place in secluded communities like cults or out-of-the-way villages. It fitted perfectly with the quirky comedy, as it allowed for characters with weird customs etcetera. The two original Yabe Kenzou series on the other hand were a parody on police series and took place in the metropolis that is Tokyo. Yabe would be facing international terrorists, spies and other big criminals, as opposed to the faux psychics that occupied the main Trick series. Keibuho Yabe Kenzou ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~'s setting of a secluded hot spring inn and a serial killer dressed like a sumo referee therefore fits the main series better than the Yabe Kenzou spin-off series in my mind, but oh well.


But despite the classic setting I have to say that story-wise, ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~ was disappointing. While Trick always did take on a parody-form, the titular "tricks" used in the mystery plots were actually always interesting, leading to engaging detective stories. The mystery plot of ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~ on the other hand is almost horribly simple. I'm afraid that this is because of the format. ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~ is a five-part streaming series, with each episode about fifteen minutes long. This means the total series is only slightly longer than any given single episode of the main Trick series or previous Yabe Kenzou spin-off series. Stories in Trick were usually two- or three-parters, so comparing them in terms of complexity might not be fair, but even the episodes in the previous two Yabe Kenzou series had more engaging mystery plots than ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~, and they were shorter! The problem is that because of the five-part set-up, each part needs to have its own mini-storyline that builds up to a climax. But they simply stretched a very basic mystery plot out, adding in uninspired 'cliffhangers' for each part and called it a day. The result: a story that overstays its welcome. The hinting is also quite horrible, and not at all like anything we'd seen earlier in the series.

What made the original Trick franchise so entertaining was that while everything involved was just fooling around in order to make it a great parody, the core was always built around solid mystery plots. If the parody elements had been taken away, you'd still have a solid mystery story. That was also true (up to an extent) for the prevous two Yabe Kenzou spin-off series, even if they focused more on parodying the police procedural. Keibuho Yabe Kenzou ~Jinkou Zunou VS Jinkou Zumou~ however has little to offer besides the comedy-coat, as the mystery plot is probably the worst of the whole series. So while I did laugh while watching the show, I don't know whether it was really worth it to produce such a series three years after the great ending that was Trick - Last Stage. If it had been a companion series to something else, okay, perhaps I could've appreciated it better, but as it is now, we just got a mediocre addition after the fact that adds nothing of unique interest.

Original Japanese title(s): 『警部補 矢部謙三〜人工頭脳VS人工頭毛〜』

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Uneasy Lies The Crown

"See, I knew there was something going on. Of course, the Big Cheese made two mistakes. First of all he didn't recognize me: Lemming, Arthur Lemming, Special Investigator, British Dental Association, and second, by the time I got back from lunch I had every dental surgeon in SW1 waiting for them all in the broom cupboard. Funny isn't it, how naughty dentists always make that one fatal mistake. Bye for now, keep your teeth clean."
"Secret Service Dentists sketch" (Monty Python)

I always wondered why people wrote lambda instead of labda for the Greek letter λ. Turns out that lambda is the modern pronuncation. I only studied Classical Greek, so labda has always been my default pronuncation. All well, another thing I learned today.
 
The students of Assistant-Professor's Kunieda's lab are working through the night on an experiment held in one of the testing facilities of T Construction. That night however, horrible murders are commited elsewhere in the facility, in an experimental lab building. Four unknown men were found shot to death in the laboratory, but that is just the start of the mystery. The laborotary building has an advanced security system, but no records can be found of the four victims ever entering the building. There is no trace of a murderer leaving or entering either, of course. Yet no weapon was found in the lab, meaning the deaths couldn't have been suicides. But the biggest mystery is that the teeth of all four men had been pulled out. Inside the pocket of one of the victims, a note saying "λ has no teeth" was also discovered. Puzzled by this locked room mystery, the students in Kunieda's lab try to solve this quadruple murder in Mori Hiroshi's 2006 novel λ Ni Ha Ga Nai, which also carries the English title λ Has No Teeth.

λ Ni Ha Ga Nai is the fifth book in Mori's G series, the sequel to his famous S&M series. The G stands for Greek letters, which has been an important link between the books in this series. In the various adventures we've seen up until now, it's been clear that a series of murders have been committed, but the motives in each of these cases has remained vague. We only know that Greek letters pop up in each of the cases, like the lambda of this book. The result of this ongoing story however is that each book feels rather incomplete though, and I'm afraid that for those waiting for more answers, λ Ni Ha Ga Nai is not able to provide them. It only raises more questions. Mori originally planned this series as a 12-part series, but you'd think that by the fifth book, we'd have slightly more answers about why all these Greek-letter-inspired murders are committed, at least compared to the first book, but that's not really the case. This is definitely my biggest complaint about this book, because like the previous ones, it's nearly impossible to look at λ Ni Ha Ga Nai on its own. Each of the books feels like they're missing one or two chapters that flesh out the story. In fact, it's amazing how little pages there always are between the explanation of the crime, and the last page of the book. You never see anything about the aftermath of solving the case, giving the reader little catharsis.

But I have to admit, overall I enjoyed λ Ni Ha Ga Nai quite well. The locked room mystery is very reminsicent of the one in Subete ga F ni Naru - The Perfect Insider (the first book in the S&M series), with a highly secured laboratory being the setting of a seemingly impossible murder and students being a part of the story, but it's definitely not just a rip-off. The trick used to murder the four people inside the building is actually quite ingenious and also very neatly hinted. I do have to say that you'd think more people would think of that trick, considering where the murders were committed in the first place but still a very memorable locked room trick.

Also, I enjoyed that architecture played such a big role in the story. The characters in the S&M and G series all study or teach architecture, but by the way they usually talk, you'd think it's philosophy. λ Ni Ha Ga Nai starts with the students working on an architecture experiment and you actually see them studying and learning about their major in this book. Architecture was only featured sorta prominently once earlier in this series, when the students mapped out a house to check for secret rooms in τ ni Naru Made Matte, but it is great to see this element of the characters finally being of importance to the plot.

The plot of the book is very bare-bones however. The murders are outlined in the first chapter, and the rest of the book mainly consists of many people discussing the case with each other, constantly coming up with different theories as to how the locked room murders might've been committed. The fact this series is a sequel to the S&M series is both good and bad. Good in the sense that there is a very diverse cast of (fairly to very) intelligent people, which can result in all kinds of different conversation partner match-ups. On the other hand, the main cast is a bit on the bloated side, with the three "real" main characters of the G series, three "veteran" characters from the S&M series and even another role for someone from Mori's V series. And that's just the main cast. Most of the book consists of them talking to each other, and there is very little that is really driving the plot forward between the opening and the ending of the case. They just talk. They come with interesting theories and even dabble in philosophy, but still, it's not a very active book.

As the fifth book in the series, λ Ni Ha Ga Nai has little surprises to offer. It's a short, easy to read novel with a good locked room mystery and chatty characters, but like all the books preceding it, only part of a larger story, which can feel incomplete read on its own. Simply based on the locked room murder trick, I'd say this one was the best until now, but I'd never recommend reading this as an entry into the series, as I can't imagine it being fun without the proper background information gained from the previous books.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『λに歯がない』

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Cat Who Wasn't There

冬が過ぎ 新しい季節が来る 君を連れて
「Winter Bells」(倉木麻衣)

Winter passes by / And a new season arrives / Bringing you along
"Winter Bells" (Kuraki Mai)

Perhaps this is not the best time for a Christmas mystery...

'T was on Christmas Eve that succesful author Arima Konoe was murdered at home. Her newly delivered safe had been opened, and all of her jewels, an unpublished manuscript and her last will were removed from it. Usually, her home only housed herself and her assistant, but that evening they were joined by Konoe's estranged daugher and her husband, as well as Konoe's nephew. The police arrests the assistant though, as it was the driver in the toolbox in his room that had been used to break open the jewelry box. His lawyer however hopes that Detective Club CATS can help them. The CATS members Hinata and Aki agree to go over the case again and find out who murdered the writer in the TV show Nazotoki Live - CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha ("Mystery Solving Live - CATS And The Murderer Of Christmas Eve").

Nazotoki Live is a unique mystery TV show produced by NHK that revolves around interactivity with the viewers at home. The drama part of the show is occasionally interrupted by a live studio part, where studio guests and viewers back home are asked questions (viewers at home can answer through their TV sets). Through this questions, the show eventually builds up to the big question: "Who did it?". Points are awarded to each answer, and a perfect score results in a mention in the hall of fame. In the past, I've reviewed the July 2015 episodes (written by Abiko Takemaru) and the January 2016 episodes (written by Ayatsuji Yukito). On Christmas Eve, 2016, the fifth show was broadcast on NHK. As always, the original idea behind the episode came from the hand of a celebrated mystery writer: CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was written by Ooyama Seiichirou, a writer specializing in locked rooms and Queen-like puzzle plots.


This episode was however very different from previous entries. Whereas previous stories consisted of two ninety minute episodes (broadcast on consecutive nights), CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was only one hour long! In the past, the combination of two episodes, as well as the questions in between allowed for fairly complex mystery plots (considering the medium). The stories were long, and had rather large casts, but the intermezzo questions (of the kind of "What was the true meaning behind the dying message?" or "Who benefits from this cover-up?") helped the studio guests (and the people at home) organize all the information available and gently pushed them towards the correct solution. In comparison, CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was a very short story, with a small cast, and few surprises.

Because of the shorter runtime, they even got rid of the studio guests segment! I actually enjoyed these segments a lot, as we followed three participants discussing their theories live on TV. In CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha, the two CATS detectives take over the role, as they too are asked the same questions as the audience. The difference is of course that now everything is scripted, and that's not nearly as fun as the old shows. Seeing other real participants thinking the case over was fun: seeing actors playing a role and discussing their (scripted) theories is just not as engaging (especially as you, as the viewer, start to suspect whether they are not trying to steer you away from the correct solution). It goes against the whole interactive theme of the show. I get that this was something they had to do to accommodate for the shorter runtime, but with little thinking time, scripted 'deduction battles' and this change in formula, one can also wonder whether it was all worth it.


That said though, it's still supposed to be an interactive show, so the official site had all kinds of handy information ready for home detectives, including a complete list of suspects, diagrams of the Arima home and even interactive panorama pictures of the crime scene. The "Evidence Cards" found on the site are the same cards they use in the show themselves, so you can never accuse the show of not being fair, at any rate (actually, very few shows are as far as this one).

On the whole, CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha was an okay mystery story, but nothing particularly impressive. If previous shows were 'novels', then this episode is definitely best seen as a short story. I was surprised that Ooyama didn't go with a locked room mystery actually and I think the way the murderer is finally revealed is a bit weak, though I do like how the story manages to switch things around near the end: at first it seems it's impossible to rule out suspects because nobody has an alibi, but Ooyama then throws something at you that turns the whole situation around. It's a neat idea, but the scale is rather small: Ayatsuji had actually done something similar (in terms of idea) in his episode, and that was much grander.

I'd say I was a bit disappointed by CATS to Seiya no Satsujinsha, and the reason for that is clear. It's too short, which means that both the mystery plot becomes shallower, and there's less time to emphasize the interactive side of the show, like having studio guests discussing their theories live and giving viewers back home enough time to think. The changes in the formula are so radical, it does not even feel like the original show anymore. My question is of course whether it's worth to do this show anymore (or use the title at least) if you change it this much.

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive CATSと聖夜の殺人者』

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

False Truth

Misdirection has of course always been a major element of mystery fiction. Mystery fiction is about a mystery (obviously), and the solving of that mystery, ideally through a logical process built on clues that have been presented to the reader. But simply presenting a mystery and a handful of clues to nudge the reader in the right direction can be a dangerous act: what if the mystery is too simple, and the reader figures out the business right away? It's here where misdirection comes into play. Red herrings are used to point the reader in the wrong direction, away from the correct trail, but which still allow the author to proclaim victory over the reader at the end, as among all those fake clues, there is still the one correct route to the collection.

The fake solution is of course the bread-and-butter of misdirection techniques in mystery fiction. If you have mystery and the explanation to that mystery, what better way to fool the reader than by creating another fake solution to the problem? For example, a crime scene that is dressed like a suicide.would technically be a fake solution already. Or perhaps the suggestion of supernatural powers at an impossible crime scene, like a locked room mystery, would be like a kind of a fake solution. The basic set-up would be to have a mystery, and then present the fake solution, and then the real solution to shock the readers.

The examples above are of course very, very basic, and most readers will not immediately see them as fake solutions. No, when I say fake solutions, most people will probably think of the kind featured in Ellery Queen novels: solutions based on clues and logical inferences that seem absolutely believable, but which turn out to be incorrect. In terms of complexity, spirit and structure, these fake solutions don't differ much from the real solutions, but are often based on imperfect or incomplete information, resulting in theories that don't mesh with reality. It's often just one or two missed clues that messe the whole theory up. Queen was of course a big fan of this device: The Greek Coffin Mystery is famously structured around several fake solutions, and a lot of his later novels too feature an initial fake solution, only to be followed by the true solution. I should mention examples like Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case or Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness") too, though these two specific examples don't really play with the device "straight, but aim to explore the device of the fake/multiple solution to its extremes.

The fake solution can of course have several origins. Often, the true criminal plants fake clues to guide the detective and other characters away from the truth. But sometimes, it's just a coincidence, with several circumstances and the stars lining up to create an evenly plausible, alternative interpretation of the clues. This difference between a fake solution created on purpose, or by coicidence can have big ramifications for the tone of a mystery story, but functionally, they don't differ very much.

And now we've arrived at today's topic, because there's an inherent problem to the fake solution. While there might be various reasons for the existence of a fake solution within the story, the fake solution is, in essence, always something that is aimed at the reader: it is directly meant to deceive the reader, to lure them in a trap and lead them away from the true solution. But obviously, the fake solution also needs to be discussed in the work itself. Someone needs to bring the fake solution up, and it has to be cleared up first before the story can move on to the true solution (and often, the true solution is in fact built upon the fundamentals of the fake solution).


The question that arises is: who should propose the fake solution?

A genuine fake solution is fairly complex: any genre-savvy reader will recognize a half-hearted attempt at a fake solution and not fall for it. In terms of complexity, it should not differ too much from the real solution. But that means that not any character in a story should be capable of making the inferences needed to reach the fake solution. As it's essentially a trap set for the reader, the character setting the trap off should be someone as intelligent as the reader, which in mystery novels is often the main detective character.

But authors like Ellery Queen and Anthony Berkeley also showed the dangers of using the protagonist to fall in the fake solution trap: it hurts the detective's credibility if they keep falling for the fake solutions. The Greek Coffin Mystery gave Ellery a very good reason to keep his mouth shut until he was absolutely sure about a solution, because that case showed how fallible he actually was. He was still prone to fall for fake solutions later in his career though. Berkeley's Sheringham on the other hand was basically created to fall for one fake solution after another, and many of his stories with Sheringham convinced he solved the case, while the real culprit is revealed to go scott-free. The fake solution and protagonists falling for them also connect to another problem of mystery fiction: if the detective is shown to be fallible, and the notion of fake solutions exist, how can we ever know for sure the final solution presented in the story is in fact correct? This problem is one that is explored in works of the authors above, but also an author like Norizuki Rintarou, but as I pointed out, this is a result of undermining the detective's authority though fake solutions.

So a different solution is The Foil Detective. If an intelligent character is needed to fall into the trap of the fake solution to serve as a substitute for the reader, but the author does not want to undermine the infallibility of their detective protagonist, the obvious solution is to create a second detective character to propose the fake solution instead. These characters are often presented as rivals to the protagonists, who think they managed to outsmart their opponent, but are then revealed to have stepped into the fake solution trap. I guess this is a variation on the Worf Effect: the Worf Effect, named after the character in Star Trek: The Next Generation refers to having an established "strong" character lose from a new enemy to show how powerful they are. The Worf Detective on the other hand is first established as a worthy detective rival, only to lose to the real protagonist in order to show their superiority in mystery-solving. The whole reason to their existence is in fact to lose, to make the protagonist character look better.


I mentioned Ellery Queen several times now, but while in the novels it was often Ellery himself who fell for the fake solution, he was spared that fate in the 1975-1976 Ellery Queen TV series. An original character called Simon Brimmer was created as the Foil Detective, as a rival detective who fell for the fake solutions, only for Ellery to show what the real solution was. The solutions proposed by Simon were often quite complex on their own, and could've made for a nice detective story on their own, but it was his fate to be the eternal loser, so each time Ellery would conjure up a clue that Simon had missed in his haste and then proceed to reveal the true solution to the tale.

An interesting example is Hattori Heiji from Detective Conan: while he is a regular member of the cast now and shown to be as sharp as the protagonist, his first appearence (The Diplomat Murder Case) actually had him act exactly like the Classic Foil Detective, falling for the fake solution planted by the real culprit. He recovered from that, but his case is an extremely rare one.


The reason why I started thinking about fake solutions and Foil Detectives though is Kizoku Tantei ("The Aristocrat Detective"), a TV drama airing right now in Japan, based on the book series by Maya Yutaka. In it, we follow a fairly capable female detective and her attemps to solve all kinds of crimes (some of them of the impossible kind), but who in the end is also upstaged by the titular Aristocrat Detective. What is amazing about this series is how each single episode has at least two solutions: the fake solution proposed by the female detective, and then the true solution as revealed by the Aristocrat Detective. Both solutions are always quite impressive, and often the fake and true solutions are closely related (the fake solution is always used as a basis for the true solution). This structure of having dual solutions does not originate from the original stories by the way, so it's in fact the screenplay writer who comes up with an extra fake solution for each episode, which is an impressive feat. But I think it's very unique to have the Foil Detective (the female detective) as the main character of the series, as she is proven to be fallible detective in each and every episode.

The Foil Detective is thus a product of misdirection, and a sad one too: their fate is to be wrong each and every time! Their only goal is to fall for the fake solution and hopefully drag the reader/viewer along with them. The Foil Detective is nothing more but a small hindrance to be stepped upon on the way towards the true solution. It just makes you feel sorry for them. Destinated to fail forever. All just because we don't want a detective story to be too easy.

Anyway, I only wanted to give these poor creations some attention, but this post has gone on for too long, so I'll wrap it up. The Foil/Rival Detectives I mentioned above are obviously just a very, very, very small selection, so are there any others you thought were particularly memorable?