Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Haunted Showboat

The show must go on

There are many mystery stories set on means of transportations, like ships or trains, but I wonder how many there are set on a bicycle. For example, what about an impossible murder where the rider is stabbed in their back, while there was someone else sitting on the carrier in the back (who isn't the murderer of course).

Awasaka Tsumao's Kigekihikigeki ("Comedia Tragedia Magica", 1982) introduces the reader to Kaede Shichirou, disciple of a renowned magician and once a fairly succesful magician himself, but he became more interested in the bottle after his wife ran off with a man, and the last few years, he's been barely able to make a living with his performances. An old friend however manages to find a job for him that might change his life. He's to fill in as a magician for the variety show held on board of the Ukon-Gou: an old transport ship refurbished to look like a paddle steamer, which will provide various forms of entertainment like revue shows and dining as it cruises along the Japanese coast. The original magician who got the contract has disappeared, while the Ukon-Gou's maiden voyage is scheduled for tomorrow, so Shichirou is hired for a month, with an option for a longer contract. He's also appointed a new assistant, Makoto, who's a young, but enthusastic amateur magician herself. But Shichirou soon regrets taking the job. The diverse entertainers on the Ukon-Gou include not only fire eaters, clowns, tigers and dancers, but also Utako, his wife who left his side. When the clown is murdered however, Shichirou sees how the manager is doing everything to keep the murder under wraps for the sake of opening day, and he realizes that the magician he was sent to replace also died under very suspicious circumstances on the ship. And the strangest thing about both murders is that the only thing connecting the two victims is that the names of both victims were palindromes, and due to the manager's hobby, several other entertainers aboard have palindromes as names.

Kigekihikigeki has an alternative English title Palindrome Syndrome, which is an apt title, though not a palindrome (or kaibun) like the original Japanese title. In the Japanese mora/syllable alphabet, ki-ge-ki-hi-ge-ki is read the same both ways, so a palindrome. Due to certain qualities of the Japanese language, like the syllable-based alphabet, but also the fact that voiced and unvoiced consonants count as the same (for example, /ki/ and /gi/ are the same), it's fairly simply to make palindromes in Japanese, and author Awasaka has a lot of fun with this. Many characters have palindromes as names, and they become potential victims of course. What Awasaka does brilliantly is hiding some of the palindromes at first. Some names are very obviously palindromes, but other people are revealed to have palindrome names too in surprising ways, that make you hit yourself on the head because you should've seen that coming. Palindromes play an important role in the story itself, but they are also important at the meta-level: the title of the book isn't the only palindrome, as all the chapter titles are palindromes too. And yes, this would be a very challenging book to translate.

As mentioned in earlier reviews, Awasaka was not only known as a mystery author, but also as a stage magician. His debut novel 11 Mai no Trump was a masterpiece featuring amateur magicians, but this time, we're presented with a professional magician (and his assistant), as well as other performers and artists in a circus-like setting. Awasaka shows once again he knows his stuff, as he expertly uses his knowledge of stage magic to spin a tale. Some of the tricks are used for the murder plots, but other tricks are simply revealed to give the reader more insight in how stage magic and illusions work. While Kigekihikigeki is not as focused on stage magic as 11 Mai no Trump, it's still obvious from reading this that Awasaka really loves his magic. We are also given a glimpse in other performances, like fire eating. And while the characters make it feel like a "normal" circus, I have to say that the show boat setting is really unique. The fact that this troupe is performing on a ship is definitely integral part of the mystery plot, making the Ukon-Gou (also a palindrome in japanese by the way: U-Ko-N-Go-U, with the ko and go being the voiced and unvoiced version of the same mora) a very memorable setting.

I do have to say I found the overall story a bit dragging. The first half of the story is very slow, and spends a lot of time focusing on Shichirou, his past and his drinking problem. His assistant Makoto is a great foil to him as the peppy girl assistant who manages to surprise her boss with her detailed studies in magic, but still, things don't move really fast. Even after the halfway point, which introduces some more suspenseful (and comedic) plot points (somewhat reminiscent of Awasaka's A Aiichirou series), the plot feels like its moving only at eighty percent speed. This isn't helped by the rather nondescript individual murders. While the murders do make good use of either stage magic or other performances (there's for example someone burning alive on stage), the tricks behind them are fairly simple. The emphasis lies on the whodunnit plot, but even that is surprisingly uncomplicated. By the time the motive is introduced, you're basically left with only two suspects, and only one of them is really viable as a suspect. There's a pretty neat hint placed earlier in the story to allow the reader to deduce which of the two it is, but the reader is barely given time to process that themselves, so that segment too felt rather underwhelming. And while the murderer did do one thing that might seem impressive/surprising to the reader, it does feel very similar to what was done in 11 Mai no Trump (which was also about magicians/stage performances), so there was a bit of déjà vu there.

Kigekihikigeki was in a way very similar to the other Awasaka novels I read the last few months, focusing on one theme or topic (in this case, palindromes) and running with in surprising ways.  And it's something Awasaka is good at, at mixing comedy, mystery and a unique topic he obviously adores. But in comparison with Awasaka's debut novel 11 Mai no Trump, which featured a similar magicians/performers setting, Kigekihikigeki feels less refined, with simpler murders and a less impressive structure leading to the identity of the murderer. I love the setting of the show boat, but as a mystery novel, Kigekihikigeki is just a decent work, compared to the masterpiece that is 11 Mai no Trump.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『喜劇悲奇劇』

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Strong Poison

I'm still in a dream, Snake Eater 
"Snake Eater" (Cynthia Harell)

Never seen a snake I think (except for in the zoo) and I sure am not planning to see one any time soon...

Kamiki Raichi is a very attractive senior high school student who practices enjou kousai, or "compensated dating". In theory, this means that older men are paying younger, attractive women for their companionship, but as a social issue, and especially in the case of Raichi, it means she's prostituting herself, as the services she renders are most definitely of the sexual kind. One of her regular clients is the police detective Aikawa Hiroshige, whom she first met during a murder investigation, which was also when Aikawa discovered that Raichi is a brilliant amateur detective. One morning, Aikawa decides to tell Raichi about a recurring dream he has since he was a baby, where he is attacked by two snakes inside a dark room. Aikawa's parents had told him that when he was a child, snakes had indeed snuck into his bedroom once, which would explain the dream, but Raichi points out a fatal contradicton in the explanation of Aikawa's parents, which prompts him to ask them what really happened. The truth however is much stranger than he could have imagined, as he is told he was involved with two utterly impossible incidents involving snakes when he was very young. One incident in which a venomous snake managed to assault Aikawa's mother (who was still carrying him inside of her at the time), kill another man, and leave a cabin without leaving any traces, and one in which a snake managed to find its way into the baby bedroom... on the twenty-seventh floor of an apartment building. It's this double mystery that Raichi decides to solve for her paying sex customer in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Souja Misshitsu ("The Locked Rooms of the Twin Snakes", 2017).

The fourth book already in Hayasaka's series starring the self-prostituting Kamiki Raichi. The series has been quite unique in its use of sex as a genuine part of the mystery plot. Usually mystery fiction only features sex to spice things up, but in the Kamiki Raichi series, sex is an integral element of the mystery. The erotic scenes can seem a bit graphic at times (though that actually softens a lot with each new book), but it's always with a cause. Occassionally, Raichi simply uses her sex appeal to get things done or to get information from suspects, but more often than not, these scenes contain subtle clues or link up in surprising manner to the mystery, and are thus always a vital jigsaw piece of the puzzle. The mystery plots of this series wouldn't work without the sex, and that is quite different from how sex is usually handled in mystery fiction. That said though, the eroticism is actually toned down a lot in this novel. Partly because most of the story consists of a flashback starring police detective Aikawa's parents, rather than Raichi herself and to be honest, the erotic adventures Raichi has this time feel less 'necessary' for the plot in Souja Misshitsu compared to previous books.

Souja Misshitsu revolves around two different impossible situations, both involving snakes. The one involving a snake finding its way to a baby room in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor is titled The Locked Room In The Sky. The window of the baby room was open, but it faces a river, and the veranda was unreachable from either the roof and the room directly below, so how did the snake fly up there? The solution is... troublesome, in the sense that it hinges entirely on some trivia you simply might happen to know. Or not. The whole plot revolves around this piece of trivia, and there's little more to it than that. The use of this concept shows almost no originality, as it's basically used as-is, which means that it is a very simple locked room, solely dependent on something that is probably not common knowledge and without any innovative repackaging of the idea. Sure, the idea of using this concept is original (in a way), but it definitely could've been polished up a bit to give it more of an unique taste.

The Locked Room On Earth is more interesting. The cry of both victims led to the discovery of a man poisoned to death, and a woman carrying a baby inside of her still suffering from a venom attack, both inside a cabin, soon after the rain stopped. Both victims have signs of having been bitten, but no snake can be found inside the cabin, nor around it (the ground around the cabin is still wet from the rain). The theory that a snake didn't do it, but that the woman used a poisonous needle to kill the man to make it seem a snake did it, and then pretended to be bitten herself too is proposed, but this leads to the same problem, as no needles can be found in or around the cabin, and the wounds show that the two victims were discovered very soon after their attack. So how did the murder weapon, be it a snake or a needle or something else leave the cabin without leaving any traces?

The solution to this conundrum has to be one of the most original tricks I've ever seen, and also one of the silliest. It's an ingenous way to poison someone, and I have to admit, unlike the solution to The Locked Room In The Sky, this problem was more than adequately clewed and brimming with its own unique take, but even so, I doubt many people will figure this one out in time, as it's simply so unexpected, so daring that I dare claim that this is one of the most original tricks I have ever seen to poison someone under impossible circumstances. It's also a trick I can only imagine happening in this series: someone like Carr could never have pulled this off. In a very vague way, it kinda reminds of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru, but only in one specific point. The biggest problem with this trick however is... that while it's absolutely original, it's not practical at all. The circumstances that led to this impossible poisoning are extremely unique, so you're tempted to cry out that this is absolutely absurd, as this could never have happened normally. And you're right.

But then again, that has always been the modus operandi of this series. Hayasaka made his debut with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken, which was the first book in the Kamiki Raichi series, and that too featured a trick so singularly unique and yet also downright silly, people felt quite divisive about it. Other stories in the series too featured surprising and almost comedic ways to use sex as a viable element in mystery fiction. In Japan, there's the term baka-mys, or "silly mystery fiction", that refers to mystery fiction that feature such silly (yet possible) solutions that can make you laugh at its brilliance and throw the book against the wall at the same time. The Kamaki Raichi series is often also considered baka-mys, and it shows especially in this novel and Hayasaka's debut novel.

Overall though, I thought that Souja Misshitsu was the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books. The Locked Room In The Sky is overall rather disappointing, while The Locked Room On Earth is highly original, but the execution is not as polished as in previous novels, leaving much room for the reader to ask questions starting with "but....". Also, because most of the book is actually told through flashbacks, we see very little of Raichi in this book, which is a shame, because she's the most interesting character to watch.While she was not in the spotlight all the time in the previous books either, her absence this time is especially felt, making this book perhaps feel a bit tedious and longer than it actually is, as it's in truth a very short novel.

So one fairly weak locked room mystery, and a highly original, but not completely convincing locked room mystery in Souja Misshitsu. It's clearly the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books, and even the link with the eroticism is a bit weaker than usual this time. But at least the main mystery felt perfectly fit for this series, resulting in a book that is not likely to end up in the best-book-of-all-time lists, but that will remain in reader's memories as "oh yeah, that's the one where the victim was poisoned by......". And that's a feat on its own, perhaps.

Original Japanese title(s):  早坂吝 『双蛇密室』

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Dark Side

"Allora, sono abastanza cattivo?"
"MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine"

"Am I badass enough for you now?"
"MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine"

I never knew Mickey Mouse lived in Mouseton until a few weeks ago. In certain European countries, like the Netherlands, Mickey lives in an neighborhood within Duckburg (the town where Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck live). Their comic adventures seldom cross, but still, the fact the Mouse lives in the city of the Ducks shows how big Donald Duck and his family are in European Disney comics compared to Mickey.

As I wrote in an article last week, Mickey Mouse often acts as a private detective in European Disney comics, where he usually gets the support of Goofy, Chief O'Hara, Detective Casey and other familiar faces from the Mickey Mouse universe. But what would happen if you put the Mouse in a completely new environment without his friends, and where the friendly demeanor of his modern depiction might literally mean the death of him? Mickey is one day informed of two shocking facts: not only does he learn that he owns half of the detective agency of his college friend Sonny Mitchell, said Sonny has also disappeared from the face of the earth. In order to find out what happened to his old friend, Mickey decides to travel to the city of Anderville, a big metropolis that also serves as the crime capital, with gangs and corrupt businesses and politicians ruling the city. Mickey might be a big shot detective who has the trust of the police back in Mouseton, but here nobody even notices a small wannabe mouse detective, and he soon learns that his old ways of detecting won't work here, as you need to be mean to survive in Anderville. Mickey realizes that Sonny got himself mixed up with something big, and now the underworld also has its eyes set on Sonny's partner Mickey, but he sure isn't going down without a fight in the Italian comic series MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine (1999-2001).

While I was reading up for my Mickey Mouse article of last week, I not only learned that most of the Mickey Mouse-as-a-detective stories I knew came from Italy, I also came across the existence of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine, a short-lived Italian comic that put the Mickey-as-detective character in a completely new setting (Anderville), aimed at a somewhat older audience than the usual comics. I also discovered that this series was also published in Dutch relatively recently (in the Disney Premium Pocket line), so I picked the corresponding volumes up immediately (the series is available in various languages across Europe, but not in English it seems).

Simply said, MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine is Mickey Mouse in Gotham City. Let that sink in for a while. Mickey as a crime fighter is not an unfamiliar sight for those familiar with the 30s/40s Mickey Mouse comics by Floyd Gottfredson, or the European Disney comic tradition that built on that, but even so, MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine really feels different due to the setting Anderville. It's a place where Mickey has no friends, where his usual tricks don't work, where the average gang member is infinitely more dangerous than any of the criminal masterminds he meets in Mouseton. The chaotic metropolis is ruled by crime and corruption. It's a depressing place, especially as Mickey can't leave the town to see his friends as he's seen as a suspect in a certain case by the Anderville Police and the only salvation left for Mickey are the rare allies he finds in Anderville. The tone of the comic is also a bit dark, but not really dark: it's still a Mickey Mouse comic, and there are also lighthearted segments with Mickey bickering with his secretary or the regulars and the cook at his usual hang-out Little Caesar.

MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine is a hardboiled mystery comic, and the cases Mickey works on often involve organized crime or corruption in the business or political world of Anderville. While Mickey still has to figure some underlying criminal plot out at times, you shouldn't expect a fair-play puzzle plot mystery of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine, as it really isn't. That said though, this series really works well as a hardboiled mystery series with Mickey. He solves cases by outsmarting small fry criminals and using his wits and his fists to win from assassins and the individual cases are interesting enough as hardboiled mystery stories, thrilling from start to finish and with some kind of mystery for either the Mouse or the reader to solve (even if it's not always presented in a fair way). Some of the more interesting stories are Run Run Run, where Mickey is forced to compete in the Anderville Marathon by a "fan" who has planted bombs along the route and Mousetrap, where Mickey is blackmailed to participate in a bank robbery to set himself up as a scapegoat. There are also some character-oriented stories that focus on Anderville and its inhabitants.

There are some missed chances for fair-play mystery plots, even if that wasn't the goal of this series. Black Mask has Mickey and a few others trapped inside the supertrain Black Mask, with one of the other passengers actually an assassin sent to kill Mickey. It's a very tense story with the assassin making several attempts at Mickey's life , but even though this could've been an excellent fair-play whodunnit, the identity of the assassin was hardly hinted at in the story. In another story, Firestorm, there's actually a fairly-clewed segment where Mickey Mouse and reluctant ally and police cop Patty manage to fool a group of hitmen who want to take out Mickey (with the puzzle presented to the reader as to how they managed to fool the hitmen in the first place), so it's not like a fair-play mystery is impossible within the hardboiled mystery structure of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine.

The series is relatively short, as low sales and the radical different depiction of Mickey (a Mickey closer to his 30s/40s Floyd Gottfredson comic depiction, rather than his modern do-gooder depiction) led to a premature conclusion in Italy, ending the series at only twelve issues, with a very forced ending with hardly any closure to it. It's almost as if the writers were told one or two issues earlier they had to end it, as basically none of the ongoing storylines in the series were resolved satisfactorily, and it basically ends with Mickey leaving Anderville right in the middle of events. It's a shame the creators weren't given a few more issues to give this series at least slightly more closure, as now it's almost like only the last eight or so pages of this series were available to wrap the whole thing up.

Overall though I really enjoyed MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine as a hardboiled mystery series that happens to star Mickey Mouse. Could it have worked without Mickey Mouse? I don't know: I didn't think this Mickey Mouse was that much removed from the Mickey I knew from the other European Mickey-as-detective stories. The setting of Anderville is used to do stories that you couldn't usually do in Mouseton, but Mickey still feels like himself, only better adapted to his new environment. For readers who are interested in seeing a different kind of Mickey, I really recommend this series with the caveat that it has a very abrupt ending.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Old Cat And Mouse Game

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the Queen. 
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you do there? 
I frightened a little mouse under her chair. 

Several years ago, I reviewed Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead (1989) which I lauded as a fantastic debut novel that managed to mix the logical reasoning school of Ellery Queen, with a plot featuring something as fantastical as zombies.  It was absolutely amazing how Yamaguchi's first novel could be so polished and brilliantly planned, as the combination between fair play, logical reasoning-based mystery plot and the setting of a world where recently the dead had started rising from their graves was surprising, original and most of all, excellently executed. Turns out though that Death of the Living Dead wasn't really his first book, though there's a weird story behind that.

For two years before Death of the Living Dead, Yamaguchi Masaya had already one book published. The catch here is that 13-ninme no Tanteishi, which also carries the English title The 13th Detective, wasn't a "normal" novel, but a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, or gamebook! Published in JICC's "Adventure Novel" series, The 13th Detective had the usual staples of the genre: at set points in the story, the reader is required to make story-related choices, which lead to branching storylines. In a normal novel, the protagonist might for example be destined to take the left turn in the maze, but in a gamebook, the reader will be given the choice to go left, right or back, each choice leading to a seperate outcome (going for the left option might send you to page 122, right to page 250, and going back to 57 for example). The 13th Detective had the reader on the trail of a serial killer, and depending on your choices you might find out who the murderer is, or be murdered yourself (or you might get stuck in a different bad ending, like giving up on the case because you get married). It was The 13th Detective that caught the eye of the influential editor Togawa of publisher Tokyo Sogen, which eventually lead to Yamaguchi's debut with Death of the Living Dead. In 1992, Yamaguchi was offered the chance to once again revisit The 13th Detective, as he rewrote the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book into a form that is closer a normal novel (but more about that later). I read this novelization, mostly because the original gamebook is crazy expensive as opposed to the fairly easily obtainable novelization.

Oh, by the way, I reviewed the two Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebooks of the Famicom Detective Club series last year, if you're interested to hear how the gamebook genre would work with a mystery plot.

The 13th Detective is set in "Parallel Britain", which is not a world where Brexit didn't happen, but a world that is sorta like ours, but slightly different in some key elements. For example: World War II appears to not have happened yet, and Shakespeare's Hamlet was in fact a comedy. A fundamental change in society is the fact that all the fictional detectives we know do exist in Parallel Britain. The successes of Sherlock Holmes and his successors like Poirot, Dr. Fell and Ellery Queen led to Edward's Law: detectives belonging to the Masters of Detective Association are allowed to lead and command any official criminal investigation for 72 hours, during which the police force must follow the detective's orders. Masters of Detectives earn points based on their exploits, with the prestigious title "Emperor of Detectives" appointed to the very best of them, making them the head of the association. The far-reaching authority granted to the Masters of Detective Association has made it the de-facto crime-fighting institution in Britain, while Scotland Yard has been reduced to a mere supporting role, with many of the "police detectives" being nothing more than punk hooligans or gang members who simply try to earn a bit of easy money as a cop.

The last few months, there have only been two topics of discussion in Parallel Britain. One is the upcoming Detective Centenary, which is to celebrate the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first published record of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. Many celebrated detectives, including Holmes' son and former Emperor of Detectives Sherlock Holmes Jr., are to attend the festivities. But fear also reigns in London, for a series of murders on detectives has been going for almost a year now. Eleven famous Masters of Detective have already been murdered and the two links between the various murders are that the murders are all modeled after verses of a certain thirteen verse long Mother Goose rhyme, and that there's always something connected to a cat left behind at the crime scenes. This has earned the detective-murderer the name of Cat the Ripper, and it is said that whoeever manages to catch Cat the Ripper, will become the next Emperor of Detective once Lord Browning finishes his term. 

And that term has ended more quickly than expected, because the unnamed protagonist of The 13th Detective (1993) awakes in the office of Lord Browning, who himself has been murdered by a strange blade-like weapon. The protagonist suffers from amnesia, and can't remember who he is and why's in Lord Browning's office together with the Lord's body, but the police, in the form of mohawk-wearing punk police detective Kid Pistols and his rainbow-haired assistant Pink Belladonna, figure the protagonist's condition, and the strange dying message "CAT IS" left by Lord Browning, written upside down, are both moot points, as the office of Lord Browning was locked from the inside, and the only person who could've committed the crime is the protagonist. And given that the Lord was working on the Cat the Ripper case, and there's a cat-related objected left behind on the scene, it appears the protagonist is in fact Cat the Ripper. The protagonist manages to escape from Kid and Pink and enlist the help of a Master of Detective, who under Edward's Law now has 72 hours to figure out who really killed Lord Browning.

It's here where the reader is clearly reminded that The 13th Detective was originally a gamebook. For even though Yamaguchi rewrote the book to omit most of the choices the reader had to made in the original, the most important choice is still intact here. The reader is given the choice between three different Master of Detectives to enlist at the end of the first chapter, leading to three distinct "routes" to the end. The reader can hire Dr. Henry Bull (disciple of Dr. Gideon Fell and expert on locked rooms and strange weapons), the hardboiled private detective Mike Dashiell Barlowe (specializing in organized crime and drug crimes) or the model-turned-detective Beverly Lewis (who has successes with solving dying messages). Each route will focus on a different aspect of Lord Browning's murder, and will lead to very different adventures and revelations for the protagonist and his detective of choice. The three routes all converge at the end for the conclusion by the way, so you don't need to be afraid you won't figure out who Cat the Ripper is by choosing the wrong detective (even though bad endings are a staple of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebook genre).

The three routes are what both make The 13th Detective a fun, but also flawed experience. To start off with the good: few books are as insanely varied as this book. Yamaguchi explains that he simply wanted to do everything in the original gamebook, which is why this story features a locked room murder, a protagonist with amnesia, an odd murder weapon, a dying message, an alibi-deconstruction plot, a code to be cracked, even a gimmick like opening the story with the confrontation scene with the murderer.... The 13th Detective is packed with tropes from mystery stories and I'm not even mentioning the references to other fictional detectives in the world of Parallel Britain. Each of the three routes are written in distinctive styles: if you choose Dr. Henry Bull, you get a Carr-like story that even features a mini Locked Room Lecture, while Barlowe's route will have you go through scenes that are familiar to the hardboiled mystery reader. Some of the ideas featured in this novel, especially the dying message "CAT IS" turns out to be an entertaining, original take on the trope

But the downside of this variety is of course that on the whole, many of the ideas feel a bit underutilized. They may not be bad, but as the book needs to handle a lot between the covers, most concepts and ideas are only given a little bit of time to develop, which often makes the book feel both hasty and superficial, even though anyone could see many of those ideas could've been explored much deeper if it hadn't been so densely packed. The rewrite from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book to regular novel is far from perfect either. Because there are three routes, a lot of text is actually copy-pasted between those routes, as it concerns vital information for the base plot. Kid Pistol and Pink Belladonna's report on Lord Browning's murder for example is exactly the same for all three routes, repeated three times, as it is necessary information for all three routes. In a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, shared sections are quite common, and one can imagine that in the original gamebook, the police's report is a seperate section, which would end with "If you're working with Dr. Henry Bull, proceed to page XX. If you're working with Mike Barlowe, proceed to page YY. If you're working with Beverly Lewis, proceed to page ZZ." In this novelization however, the same section is simply repeated across all three routes and that happens several times. Yamaguchi also didn't cut away the game-over sequences/alternative routes from the original gamebook. In this novelization, the protagonist sometimes makes a wrong choice that leads to a bad ending like him dying, but then it's brushed off as simply a "dream". It's incredibly artificial here to keep those fake endings in the novelization, and they don't really serve the plot in any way but to remind you that The 13th Detective was originally a gamebook (note that looping stories/stories with "bad endings" can result in good mystery stories, like with Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P, but The 13th Detective is not a good example of that).

The 13th Detective was also turned into a PlayStation videogame titled Cat the Ripper - The 13th Detective in 1997. It's notorious as a pretty bad adventure game, with horrible art design (which is also horribly animated), horrifying "music" (two or three tracks of maybe seven notes long) and terrible game design (incredibly convoluted puzzles and instant death traps). In fact, the only redeeming factors are its voice actors and the base story, which is actually quite faithful to The 13th Detective, save for the convoluted puzzles. I first learned about The 13th Detective by watching a Let's Play of this game, and while the game was definitely a so-bad-it's-almost-good type of game, I did recognize the entertaining mystery story beneath the weird appearance, which is why I decided to read the book.

The 13th Detective is technically also part of Yamaguchi's Kid Pistols series, which apparently stars the mohawk-bearing punk hooligan police detective and his assistant/girlfriend Pink and the mysteries they encounter in Parallel Britain. I haven't read any of the other books in this series, but they're supposed to be all short story collections, each of them patterned after Mother Goose rhymes (like The 13h Detective). The 13th Detective is a special case within this series, being the only novel and also the only one to feature Kid Pistols in a smaller role instead of as the lead.

Despite The 13th Detective's obvious flaws, which mostly derive from the fact it was originally a gamebook with several routes for the player to play through, I really did enjoy the book. It's brimming with love for the classic mystery genre and is a good mystery novel on its own too. It's very clear though that it's basically a rewritten gamebook, so the reading experience can feel very unnatural at times, but if you can get through that, you're presented with a mystery novel that is both unique and fun.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也 『13人目の探偵士』

Friday, February 23, 2018

Might solve a mystery / Or rewrite history!

"That doesn't even look like me!"
- "Does Mickey Mouse look like a mouse?"
"The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

A while back, I caught the pilot episode of the 2017 reboot of DuckTales, the Disney animated series about the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his family, somewhat based on the Scrooge McDuck comics by Carl Barks. I grew up watching the original DuckTales series like many of my generation, but this new series was at least as fun as the original series! To be absolutely honest though, I have always had a weak spot for the Duck family since my youngest days. And I think that holds for a lot of people in the Netherlands. The weekly magazine Donald Duck (which features Disney comics) is the best-read magazine for readers under 12 years, and even adults can enjoy it: the Netherlands is one of the few countries with its own Disney comic studio, where they are allowed to script and draw their own comics, which means that Donald Duck often features comics that address Dutch culture or the latest news or happenings (for example, elections or Sinterklaas), making it a joy to read for both the young and old.

Mickey Mouse is in general more popular than Donald Duck across the globe of course, but in the world of Disney comics, the Mouse's adventures are usually just not as entertaining as the treasure hunting stories of Scrooge, or the Duck-down-on-his-luck stories featuring Donald and the other inhabitants of Duckburg. However, there was one type of Mickey Mouse story that I absolutely devoured, though I think few people outside Europe are familiar with them. For did you know there's a whole comic series of Mickey Mouse as a detective?

While the tradition originated from the original (American) Mickey Mouse comics, with Mickey battling the likes of the Phantom Blot, Mickey Mouse's adventures as a private eye absolutely flourished in Europe. For a mouse who is often characterized as either a do-gooder, or a mischevous being who tries hard to clean up his own mess, the role of intelligent detective might seem strange, but I grew up watching the head of the House of M dressed in a raincoat and fedora solving the most fanciful crimes together with Goofy, Chief O'Hara and Detective Casey! I have an idea that this side of Mickey isn't really well known outside Europe, as the Mickey Mouse-as-private eye comics are mostly published in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

One story that made an enormous impression on me for example is the comic with story code D 94021, which is apparently a Danish Mickey story originally published with the title Damen i blåt ("The Lady in Blue"). (Dutchies can find this story with the title De laatste uren van Mickey Mouse in Donald Duck Pocket 37: De eerste Olympische kampioen). The story starts in media res, with Mickey desperately hunting for the mysterious woman in blue in the few hours that he has after she poisoned him. The whole story plays like a noir thriller, with Mickey trying to find out who poisoned him and tracing down every clue as the clock is ticking. Mickey has to rely on the help of a collegue for the brawn, as the poison is slowly starting to work, while the Lady in Blue keeps on taunting the mouse in his dying hours, even going as far as preparing a figure of a dead Mickey.

The story is pretty exciting, and even makes use of some visual clues to foreshadow what is to come, which is why it has always stuck with me as a very iconic Mickey Mouse story, even though many will not be familiar with this side of the Mouse. And yet to a lot of European readers, this is how they'll know Mickey. A Mickey who solves crimes, often in stories that feature visual clues and a genuine trick to some kind of jewel robbery or some other mystery. In my review of Ellery Queen's Drury Lane's Last Case, I also mentioned that I was very fond of the Italian story Topolino e il segreto di William Topespeare when I was a kid and that I only later found out it was based on Drury Lane's Last Case. So for many children, Mickey Mouse is actually a first step in detective fiction.

In the Netherlands, Mickey often acts as a detective in short one-page comics titled Mickey lost 't op ("Mickey Solves It"). These are very short whodunnit comics of just a few panels, where the reader is quickly introduced to a mystery like a robbery, and with Mickey declaring in the final panel that he knows who did it, with the solution often either printed upside-down at the end of the page, or printed elsewhere in the publication (if applicable). These mysteries are very much like Encyclopedia Brown, or for the Dutchies, like the ones the comic Inspecteur Netjes, being rather simple in set-up, but they do make good use of the visual medium, often with a visual clue hiding in the background that the reader has to relate to something said by the characters. Dutchies can read a selection of these comics on the official Donald Duck magazine website by the way!

These one-page whodunnit Disney comics have a long history in the Netherlands by the way. Different characters starred in comics in the exact same format in the past, for example Basil and Dr. Dawson from The Great Mouse Detective and the Mickey Mouse comics character Shamrock Bones (known in the Netherlands as Sul Dufneus). In fact Shamrock Bones/Sul Dufneus had a long series of mystery comics, and short stories in various Dutch Disney publications in the eighties and early nineties, though Mickey took over his role in Dutch Disney publications after that.

So while to many this might sound strange, Mickey Mouse was actually one of the characters who really got me interested in mystery fiction from a young age on. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I only got interested in mystery stories because of him as a child (as that isn't the case), but his adventures as a detective were certainly one of my favorites to read, and I suspect that the 1-page whodunnits have always made an impression on me, as the lines of reasoning based on the elimination process based on physical clues (often brought visually) used in these comics are certainly what I still hold highest in mystery fiction in general. I wonder if more people have read mystery comics from an early age on. For me, mystery comics/animation have been a constant since I was young, starting with these Disney comics and cartoons like Scooby-Doo!, and from my teens on with series like Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but it seems like most of the other mystery bloggers started with series like Conan well into their adulthood. Which is probably also probably because of availability in a language they know, sure, but let's say in general for mystery comics with a fair-play element in them. I myself can't even imagine my youth without these mystery comics.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fly by Night

flying gone 
「flying」(Garnet Crow)

flying gone
I'm falling down like I'm in a dream
"flying" (Garnet Crow)


Business brought the great detective Homura Souroku to the city of Osaka, but little did he know that he'd stumble upon one of his weirdest cases. One day he wakes up to find the whole neighborhood around his hostel making a ruckus about a horrible smell hanging in the air. Homura traces the smell back to the home of Doctor Kamoshita. A note on the gate says he's out of town for a while, but inside the police find a dead body hanging upside down above a fire in the fireplace. While searching the house, Homura also gets attacked by an unknown assailant wielding a machine gun, but he manages to make it out alive. The discovery of a letter threatening the doctor changes everything, as it is signed by someone calling themselves "the Human Fly". A letter signed by the same man had been delivered to Tamaya Souichirou, together with a dead fly. With the dead corpse found in the Kamoshita mansion, the police doesn't dare take any risks and provide for police security for Tamaya on the time his death was predicted. The man was hiding inside his room, of which the doors and windows were locked from the inside, with waiting policemen outside, yet the Human Fly managed to kill the man under these circumstances. Can Homura stop this man who can slip inside locked rooms in Unno Juuza's Hae Otoko ("The Human Fly", 1937)?

Unno Juuza (1897-1949) was a writer who debuted in 1928 and remained active until his death. While he debuted as a mystery writer, he is best known as one of the founding fathers of the science-fiction genre in Japan. And because I seldom read about authors before reading their books, I actually didn't know about this until I realized this about halfway through the book (I'll explain later). This book is the second in a series collecting Unno's stories featuring his detective Homura Souroku, combining the novel Hae Otoko with four short stories.

Hae Otoko starts out as one of those 1920-30s Japanese mystery novels that mix the detective genre with distinct (grotesque) horror and science-fiction elements that you might remember from Rampo's writings. The novel was originally published as a serialized story, so the writing can feel a bit chaotic and directionless at times (with characters appearing and disappearing and weird connections between parts) and I'm pretty sure Unno improvised a lot during the serialization. Elements like the shocking discovery of the first body, the narrator who seems to be addressing the reader directly, beautiful ladies in danger and murderers using weird names who are kind of enough to send a letter in advance to announce who they are going to kill when remind of a time long past for readers now, but were quite normal in 1920-30s Japanese mystery fiction. The story is a pleasant read, and there are some interesting impossible locked room murders that happen that should capture the reader's interest.

But then you're reminded that Unno was most of all, a science-fiction writer. While the set-up is classic enough, the solution is barely any different from having a killer-robot appear in the story who can use his magical powers to fly in and out of a locked room. I mean, Rampo had his share of "freak" characters who could do almost impossible things, like in Kotou no Oni, but in comparison to what happens in Hae Otoko, Rampo'd be like the pinnacle of realism. Last year I reviewed Rampo's Yuureitou, which had some elements that seemed a bit advanced for the time, but in this novel, we see things that aren't even possible now, even though the book was written in 1937. And that kinda kills Hae Otoko as a mystery story, as when you're suddenly presented with (30s) science fiction elements, the whole mystery plot just becomes unfair. Hae Otoko is fun to read as a variant on the Gothic horror novel using a mystery motif, but it is not a fair mystery story.

The science fiction aspect is not seen in all of the other four stories found in this volume. Angou Suuji ("The Number Code", 1938) is probably the best "pure" detective story in the book. In it, Homura is chasing after a numerical cipher used by foreign spies in their communications, and he has his hands on a clue that will lead him to the precise numbers. I am guessing Unno loved maths, as the code involves a maths problem with only a few numbers known, and Homura spends a lot of time deducing which numbers go in the blanks, but it was a bit too theoretical for me. The story ends up to be a fairly good variation on a Holmes story, but a bit predictable due to the way the story was introduced.

Machi no Tantei ("The City Detective", 1938) is a short story that combines two super-short stories with a similar theme, but they seem more like an excuse for Unno to talk about science and chemistry than actual tales. Chihayakan no Meiro ("The Maze of the Chihaya Mansion", 1947) on the other hand goes full horror, with Homura and his client finding themslves wandering inside a maze built underneath the Chihaya Mansion in their hope of locating a certain person who was seen in the neighborhood. This tale reads more like a gothic adventure story with even a slight pinch of Indiana Jones. The truth behind the case really comes out of nowhere by the way.

Dansougan ("The Crooked Face", 1947) is the weirdest story of the volume. While the story was written in 1947, the story was set in the faraway future of 1977. So in Hae Otoko's 1938, Homura was impressed the culprit could ride an automobile like a sophisticated modern man. In the 1977 of this story however, an elderly Homura has an android girl assistant, people travel by conveyer belt through town and mankind has visited Mars already. And returned. Unno was expecting a lot of those thirty years! There is a story somewhere about Homura being hired to get rid of a stalker who's been popping up near the wife of a Mars-astronaut, but nothing will beat that shock of this immense change in background setting.

Hae Otoko was thus in the end not at all what I had expected it to be. It started out as Rampo-ish detective-adventure story, but suddenly pulled the science-fiction card. And I think if you can appreciate 1930s Japanese science-fiction, there's probably something interesting to find here. I figure that people who like Hoshi Shinichi might find some resemblance in their works. I myself am not against science fiction in the mystery genre, but I think the way Unno used it in Hae Otoko was the least interesting way possible, as it does not contribute to the mystery plot itself. It seemed more like an excuse to use science-fiction horror. So not a big fan, but I imagine that if you start on this with a different mindset, a reader can actually learn to enjoy the totally wacky story, as I can at least say that Unno was an imaginative chap.

Original Japanese title(s): 海野十三 『蠅男』: 「蠅男」 / 「暗号数字」 / 「街の探偵」 / 「千早館の迷路」 / 「断層顔」

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Captured In Her Eyes

"A foolishly foolish idea born from the foolish mind of a foolhardy foolish fool."
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All"

This book reminded me I once went to a film screening of a Film Club during the university festival of Kyushu University. I think there were two short films, and you were supposed to hand in a questionnaire after the screening. I can't remember a thing about the films themselves though.

The four members of the Classic Literature Club of Kamiyama High School are still working for their project for the school festival when they are invited to see a short detective movie made by the people of class 2-F for the school festival. The story is about a group of students visiting an abandonded mine town, and the murder of one of them inside a locked room in a theater, but the film ends right after the body was discovered. The girl working on the script collapsed due to stress, making it unable for her to continue, but the problem is nobody knows what her plans were for the ending, making it an unfinished detective story. And while several of the clasmates have suggestions for solutions, it's hard to judge which one was the originally intended ending. Irisu Fuyumi of Class 2-F however, known throughout the school as the "Empress" because she's extremely good at getting the right people to work on the right things, wants the Classic Literature Club to act as observers and evaluate the suggested solutions so Class 2-F can finish their film. But it appears that perhaps the members of the club are better fit to find the real solution in Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll ("End Credits of Fools", 2002).

Gusha no End Roll is the second book in Yonezawa's Classic Literature Club series (also known as the Hyouka series, as the anime series is named after the first novel). It also carries the English subtitle Why Didn't She Ask EBA, a reference to Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The series falls under the everyday life mystery genre, which keeps itself busy with solving enigmatic events that might occur in the normal, daily life, as opposed to bloody murder. So more mysteries like "Why is that man on my bus always along for the ride for only one stop?" or "Why did that woman remain in her seat even though this is the terminal station for this train?". Obviously, it's more realistic for freshmen high school students like our four members of the Classic Litereature Club to be paining their heads about these kinds of problems, rather that of violent death.

Which is why it's funny that Gusha no End Roll is indeed about murder! A fictional one, mind you, but still. The idea of having the students detect the murderer in an unfinished mystery film is actually quite brilliant, as it allows for Yonezawa to involve his characters with a type of crime he usually wouldn't be able to. The unfinished film is set in an abandoned theater, with one of the students killed inside one of the backstage chambers which was locked. The only key available was in the manager's office next to the entrance of the theater, but to get that key you'd need to pass the hall and the hallway unseen, which would've been impossible as all students were wandering through the theater). This unfinished film is treated as a text in a historical or bibliomystery: the Classic Literature Club members, but also the students of Class 2-F use the film/text as the base for their deductions, searching each frame for a clue as to what the intended solution was. But like in a historical/bibliomystery, the text is not the only source for our detectives, and that is what sets it apart from a conventional mystery, as there is a layer "outside" the film world. While the script writer is out, the club members also interview other people involved with the filming, like one of the prop builders, to learn more about the fictional world, and about the script writer and how this film project came to be in the first place, all in the hopes of figuring out what the solution is supposed to be.

And as this is the second book I read in this series, I'm now starting to see patterns, and I can say that Yonezawa loves his multiple solutions. Hyouka already had a double-layered solution, but this one has like four or five solutions. Several involved members of the filming crew, like the assistant-director, suggest their solution to the locked room conundrum to the Classic Literature Club, all firmly based on both the "text" and their knowledge of the project circumstances (for example, the props that were prepared). These hypotheses, while grounded, are all rejected one by one based on small oversights made, though each hypothesis does add some new revelation to be used for the next. It has a Berkeley-like effect, and it's something you don't often see done this well in the everyday life mystery genre, so I could appreciate that. The solutions are also different enough to keep the reader entertained (the fake solution marathon can feel tiring at times if done badly) and it also invites the reader to read the "film text" carefully, as a lot of hints are hidden there, while the multiple solutions also show how wildly different each viewer can interpret (the importance of) a scene.

Oh, and as a side-note, the final solution is a lot easier to guess if you know your Holmes! If you're not that well-read, you might not understand a certain hint, but I think the true solution to what happened fits wonderfully with the whole theme of the book, giving true meaning to all the false solutions that came before it.

What is also interesting is that Oreki Houtarou, the narrator and main detective of the series, is shown to be a fallible detective once again. While he does get it at the end, he's not likely to get there in one step, and often falls in the trap of the false solution himself before he finally gets it. It fits his personality perhaps (he's not really a pro-active detective), but the often mistaken detective trope is not one you often see with younger detective characters, at least not seriously (as opposed to what you see in series like Scooby Doo!, where it's most definitely a source of comedy). There is something like a larger story playing across the books in the series with Houtarou's older sister trying to push her brother to be a bit more active, and the books are also slowly working towards the school festival it seems, so we might see more of Houtarou's growth in subsequent books in the series.

Gusha no End Roll is thus a very enjoyable entry in the Classic Literature Club series, as it introduces murder in a convincing and amusing manner in a series that is supposed to be about minor mysteries you'd encounter in your daily life. The result is a book that takes on very large themes in mystery fiction like the locked room mystery, text-based mystery solving and multiple solutions, but dressed like a school comedy drama. Can't wait to read the rest of the series!

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『愚者のエンドロール』