Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Matter of Form

Be our guest
Put our service to the test
Tie your napkin 'round your neck, cherie
And we provide the rest
"Be Our Guest"

A few years back, I reviewed some novels written by Dutch writer/translator/radio script writer/actor Jan Apon. I had curiously enough first heard of this author through a Japanese source: the novel Een zekere Manuel (1935) had been mentioned in a 1958 essay on European mystery fiction in the for the mystery genre important literary magazine Houseki. Apon's books don't appear often in the used book market, so it isn't easy coming across them (heck, I had to read a German translation of Een zekere Manuel), which is why I don't get to review his books as often as I had hoped.

Anyway, today's another Jan Apon novel, De gast van kamer 13 ("The Guest in Room 13", 1938), and one starring his main detective Raoul Bertin no less! The narrator meets up in Paris with his old friend and consulting detective Raoul Bertin, who has just succesfully closed a case. The two travel to Nice for some leisure, and in Nice, the duo are entertained by Inspector Vitelli, an old collegue of Bertin when he was still with the Sûreté. During an excellent dinner, Vitelli tells his guests about a curious case he's working on. The Sestinatti is a hotel on the Quai with a good restaurant, and last Sunday, the guest residing in room 13 was found dead in his room. The merchant had apparently hanged himself by hanging a cord from a hook on the wall that was originally carrying a painting. A suicide letter was found that was determined to have been written by the man, so there don't seem to be any problems, yet Vitelli's gut feeling says something is wrong, as despite the letter, the man had no reason to suddenly take his life.  His instinct is proven correct when during the dinner, Vitelli is informed that another suicide has happened in room 13 of the Sestinatti, and once again, it appeared the victim, an English student who was travelling with his French girlfriend, hung himself despite having no reason to do so. Bertin decides to help his old friend out with the case of this murderous room.

I'm actually not sure how many books Apon wrote starring Bertin: the few sources I found on the internet are either wrong or contradictory to my own experiences (I have seen both Een zekere Manuel and Het gorilla-mysterie described as Bertin novels, which they most certainly aren't). So this might be the second novel starring the ex-police detective turned consulting detective, or perhaps even the third. It's surpisingly difficult to find information about these old Dutch mystery novels.

Anyway, De gast van kamer 13 certainly starts with an interesting premise: a room in a hotel where the guests keep on committing suicide. Or it is murder, in which case the question becomes why are the guests of room 13 killed one after another? In the first Bertin novel, Paniek op de Miss Brooklyn, there was clear suggestion of the supernatural, as that story revolved around a LP which had recorded a cursed incantation of the African M-bu-ti tribe. This time, Apon doesn't do much with what could be a great premise for a supernatural tone, as the many characters are looking at these deaths in very rational ways, weighing the evidence for and against suicide or murder carefully against each other and not really leaning towards the "it's a cursed room!" explanation.

This is noticable from the way Apon handled the deaths. Somewhat disappointing, we get situations that are just not locked room murders. For example the first death, of the merchant, occured while the door had been locked from the inside.... but the balcony door was open, meaning someone could've climbed to another balcony or to the roof. The second death (of which Vitelli is informed during dinner) too is a case of something that could've been dressed by the author as an impossible murder mystery, but wasn't. If anything, Apon remains pragmatic, though the questions that weigh on the detectives' minds still hold for us readers too: why are these events happening?

One vexing, and major point of Apon's writings have always been that while the core mystery plot is always entertaining, he for some reason always manages to conjure up new clues and evidence at the conclusion of which the reader had never ever heard of before. This is sadly enough also the case for De gast in kamer 13. While it is certainly fairly easy to guess who did it based on some of the hints, Bertin also refers to a whole heap of other clues that were certainly not ever mentioned before in the narrative. Some of the hints would've been very damning, basically spelling out the name of the culprit had they been mentioned, but other hints could've been incorporated quite nicely in the story in a natural way, showing them to the reader in a fair way, so I have no idea why Apon keeps on pulling out these clues out of nowhere at the end. It's pretty drastic too this time, as the whole motive for the curious deaths of room 13 can't be deduced beforehand based on actual clues, while Bertin apparently has a whole gigantic library full of evidence he collected here and there that he forgot to mention for half of the novel. A lot of the interim deductions are also based on information we don't get beforehand, but those I can forgive because they work to further the plot, but it's a whole different story when basically all vital clues are witheld from the reader.

The thing is: De gast van kamer 13 is pretty entertaining to read as a mystery novel. It's a real page turner, and the plot, while quite simple, manages to keep you entertained until the end. But for some reason Apon keeps on writing these otherwise fun mystery novels in a way that is not fair to the reader, as Bertin is basically always cheating, conjuring up a bloody knife with fingerprints and handwritten confessions by the murderer or other damning pieces of evidence out of nowhere, which he explains as having obtained between that one scene change. But it's also always so easy to see how this could've been rewritten in a true fair play whodunnit in a relatively simple manner, making the disappointment in an otherwise good novel the greater. In short: a fun novel, but with very obvious flaws.

Original Dutch title(s): Jan Apon "De gast in kamer 13"

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Case of Identity


"She's not my friend."
"Miss Sherlock"

Huh, I've used the Sherlock Holmes tag at least once every year since I started this blog, even when I wasn't really writing about mystery fiction.

I think my own introduction to Sherlock Holmes was the series of Austrialian TV cartoons based on the novels (with Peter O'Toole as Holmes, though I watched them dubbed in Dutch), and while I don't consider myself a Holmesian by any means, Holmes has been a series close to me since. Holmes is in fact a being close to a lot of people in this world, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of appearances he still makes nowadays in various manners. Be it in a confrontation with Dracula or Cthulhu, in the twenty-second century with a robot Watson, or reimagined in the form of a mouse or dog, creators always reach back to Holmes. I have to admit that I can be a bit of a cynic when it comes to "new" interpretations of Holmes, and I still can't see how a confrontation with Dracula could work out in a positive and entertaining manner but sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised. For example, I really didn't see the use of having a Sherlock Holmes series set in modern times, but I loved BBC's Sherlock right from the very first episode, and who could've guessed that a videogame where Sherlock Holmes is always making the wrong deductions would actually be an excellent and unique interpretation of the beloved character?

That said, the first time I heard of the 2018 drama series Miss Sherlock, my expectations were really not that high, as the premise of a Sherlock Holmes-inspired show with two female leads in modern day Tokyo wasn't particularly exciting. The gender swap was something I could shrug at, as I don't really care either way, but the concept of "modern day Tokyo" was enough to sound the alarms, because I had a feeling that this drama would not be inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but by Sherlock. It reminded me of the TV drama adaptation of Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice/Himura Hideo series a few years back. It was an excellent mystery show on its own, but oh man, all the cues it took from Sherlock in terms of direction.... It's hard to not see Sherlock if the protagonist is dressed in a long coat while having semi-maniacal fits and words are projected on the screen.

And Miss Sherlock sadly enough turned out to be indeed a series that draws major inspiration from Sherlock. I mean, the coat and the projected words and stuff don't even seem that bad, but when you consider that even Miss Sherlock's theme music seems to be inspired by Sherlock's main theme, it's really hard watching this without being constantly reminded where most of the ideas came from.

But okay, if you can get past the extreme Sherlock-ness of Miss Sherlock, what do you get? Well, it's a reasonably entertaining Sherlock Holmes show. Miss Sherlock starts with the return of doctor Tachibana Wato (because: Wato-san) from Syria, where she worked as a volunteer surgeon (considering Japan has a Self-Defense Force, a logical change). She was wounded in an explosion in Syria, prompting her return to Japan. Upon arrival in Japan, she's welcomed at the airport by her old mentor and friend, but a mysterious internal explosion blows up the stomach of Wato's mentor, killing him on the spot. In the ensuing police investigation, Wato learns that Inspector Reimon has called in the consulting detective Sherlock, a rather rude and self-centered, but also brilliantly sharp woman (she took on the name "Sherlock" after a certain incident). More people are killed in the same way as Wato's mentor, but Sherlock manages to solve the case with the help of Wato, who has to move in with Sherlock as Wato's own accomodations had had a rather unfortunate mishap.

What follows is a show that is a decent and fairly amusing, but not remarkable interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Some episodes of Miss Sherlock are more heavily inspired by the original stories than others, while others feel more like they were inspired by Sherlock. There's an episode heavily based on The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire for example, but the extended twist at the end works  well enough as a way to really make it feel like a real story set in modern day Japan and a good example of a reasonably good adaptation of the original source story, followed by some original material of the production team. The episode based on The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor has a nice twist that actually feels Holmesian, though it seems rather silly to go through all that trouble for that goal. Another early story feels quite Holmesian with a seemingly meaningless act (a vandalized painting) at the start that builds up to a story of larger crime. The emphasis on the "modern" can be a bit much though, with deadly new viruses and poisons becoming the McGuffins of the episode a few times.

Eventually, the story will also build up to something larger as it approaches the grand finale. I think most people can guess that Sherlock will eventually face a "Big Bad" at the end of the series. Your mileage may vary here. I thought the concept behind the Big Bad was not only far too obvious, but also reminiscent of the lesser parts of Sherlock and I couldn't really take it serious. By the way, I have seen far too many Japanese productions with some link to Sherlock Holmes now with characters whose names are based on Moriarty....

As depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I think Miss Sherlock's Sherlock is more inspired by Sherlock's Sherlock than the source!Sherlock Holmes, but Wato works quite well in the context of the series. She's not an army surgeon like other depictions of Watson, but a private citizen, a doctor who suffers from PTSD after her experiences in Syria, and she works well as a humanizing factor, though admittedly, this also means she kinda ends up as the 'says or does something that helps Sherlock solve the case' character, with little else to contribute to the investigation.

Miss Sherlock is undeniably a Sherlock-inspired series, and that brings a certain burden. The series can be a bit uneven, and I think the first half, which is more firmly rooted in the source material, is more entertaining than the second. It works reasonably as a Sherlock Holmes-in-the-modern-day adaptation, and the gender/location changes too work well enough as something different once in a while. But while the series can be fun, Miss Sherlock has little truly original to offer, and most of the time, you'll have the feeling you have seen this already in one form or another. It's a decent series, but misses just that extra oomph.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ミス・シャーロック』

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Perfect Plot

「今宵エデンの片隅で」(Garnet Crow)

If it has no form
You can always keep on feeling that emotion
"Tonight, in a corner of Eden" (Garnet Crow)

Speaking of mystery stories about comedians, that TV special a couple of years ago starring real-life Japanese comedians like Bakarhythm, Date from Sandwichman, Hakata Daikichi (who also voice-acted in Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer) and others playing themselves as suspects in the murder of Bananaman's Himura: that was a weird special.

The second volume of Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum") brings us two new adventures of the brilliant high school student Touma Sou and his classmate Kana in this continuation of the original Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series. As per custom, we have both a "conventional" murder story as well as a non-murder story in one volume, and this second volume starts with the non-violent one. In The Naked Emperor, Touma is asked by his classmate Yuubari to help her brother. Yuubari Yuuki was one half of the rising star comedy duo Order to Leave, but two years ago, his partner stopped to go work in a normal company. Since then, Yuuki's been trying his luck as a solo comedian, but his story is not that one of success, and he has sorta made up his mind to give up on his dream, but not without going out with a bang. The last few months, he has been writing his own one-act comedy play called The Naked Emperor, which is by far the best he's ever produced according to friends and his fellow young comedians. The rumors about his fantastic play however also reach the ears of the highly popular comedian Suzuka Santa and his ruthless manager Akashi, who want to get their hands on that play so Suzuka can star in it. One day, Suzuka visits the dressing room of the venue where Yuuki and several other comedy groups are performing. He first asks to if he could read the play, but when he offers to buy the play from Yuuki, his offer is refused. When Suzuka leaves the dressing room, Yuuki discovers his (handwritten) play is gone, and suspicion obviously falls on Suzuka, but there is one problem: Suzuka was completely naked when he entered the dressing room so how could he have smuggled the play outside without anyone noticing? Touma has not only have to solve the mystery of the missing script, but also find a way to help Yuuki succeed with his play.

The 'impossible' disappearance of the script is just the very beginning of the story, and quite simple to solve, but it certainly makes an impact, as the thief (Suzuka) was completely naked and empty-handed as he entered and left the dressing room. It doesn't take long for Touma to solve this disappearance (it's really simple), but Yuuki's problems aren't solved quite yet, as he's eventually hired by Suzuka as an employee to direct and rewrite the play so Suzuka can star in it anyway (together with Yuuki and some others), and slowly, Yuuki realizes he's being bamboozled out of the play he wrote for himself. What follows is a "mystery" story of a kind you never see in Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, as we see Suzuka's manager Akashi, but also Touma himself trying several schemes to help out their respective "clients" and while everyone can guess that it's Touma who ends up victorious in the end, the kind of plan he comes up to help out Yuuki is unlike anything in the other major detective manga and almost closer to the schemes in series like Liar Game (watch the drama, it's an excellent mystery series!). It's extremely unlikely everything would go exactly as Touma had anticipated, but it's certainly possible to deduce what his plans are once you're presented the semi-Challenge to the Reader. Like In The Year of Quantum in the first volume, this story requires you to consider several facts mentioned throughout the story and combine in a purely logical manner to see how they pertain to each other and that the implications are. 

The second story, The Form of Murder, is a "normal" murder story. It's summer, and Touma's friend Sid Green, AKA Loki (whom he knows from his MIT days) has invited Touma and his assistants (yes, multiple, as more girls besides Kana wanted to come along) to Malta, where Loki's uncle runs the Hotel Geometry, a hotel for academics who need some rest. One of the guests is Alf Lets, an Oxford mathematics professor, whose wife Camilla was murdered four months ago in Malta, in the very same hotel. Her death was considered a robbery-gone-wrong by the local police, but Alf is convinced it was a planned murder, and has been searching the whole of Malta to find a clue that'll lead him to Camilla's murderer. He's accompanied by his friends the Goodmans and his solicitor Bris, who were also in Malta on the night of the murder. Seeing how Alf is exhausting himself in search of clues, Loki wants Touma to solve the murder, which indeed has a few interesting points.

The arranged marriage between the carefree, partying Camilla and the bookworm Alf was by all means a complete failure, as Camilla was getting worse and worse with his treatment of Alf and quite openly flirting and cheating on him with other men. On the night of Camilla's murder, Derek Goodman warned Alf he should divorce from Camilla, while Franny Goodman was getting quite enough of Camilla hitting on Derek. Bris too was of the opinion Camilla meant nothing but trouble for Alf, but he had no intentions of listening to his friends. That night, Camilla had a hangover and a headache, and asked Alf to get her something to help ease the pain. Alf left the hotel keys with reception as he went out to the store, and the Goodmans and Bris also went their own ways, but when Alf returned, he found his wife dead with a knife in her. The murder was committed in the period everyone was roaming around on their own, but the door and windows to the room were locked and the keys were kept at the reception desk, so even if a robber didn't commit the murder, who did and more importantly, how did they get in and out the seaside hotel room?

Unlike Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Q.E.D. stories are about 100 pages per chapter (story) due to the magazine in which it is serialized, which gives it the freedom to build a different kind of story than one that is structured around multiple chapters each about 18~20 pages, and with a mini-climax/cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. The Form of Murder however is an example where you can also sense the advantages of a more rigid structure, as The Form of Murder likes to meander a lot, and the pace is really, really slow. Having chapters like Conan or Kindaichi Shounen would've at least brought a more focused way of telling the story. The way in which the locked room was constructed was okay, even if it was a bit unclear whether that certain action was possible or not (better clewing would've been appreciated), but the story kinda stumbles over the things the murderer did, and attempted to do besides the murder, resulting in a somewhat unguided, and at times even confusing story.

Like with the first volume, I find Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou 2 to be decent, but not unique enough to get me really invested in the series. The non-murder stories, that employ the scientific field of logic are definitely what set Q.E.D. iff apart from its rivals and can be very fun, but I still haven't come across the story that'll convince me to go out and buy the other volumes. That said, I still have another volume of iff I got in the free offer, so expect a review of that volume in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. iff -照明終了-』第2巻

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Magical Mystery Enemies

"That's all magic is, an illusion."
"Jonathan Creek"

I thought it had been several years since I last read a Rampo, but it wasn't even that long ago that I read the excellent Yuureitou. Guess I forgot because it wasn't about Akechi.

After defeating the crazy murderer the Spider-Man in the novel Kumo Otoko (1929-1930), amateur detective Akechi Kogorou decided to take a long deserved holiday, resting at a lakeside hotel. There he becomes friends with Taeko, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy jeweler Tamamura Zentarou. After she returned to Tokyo, Akechi of course hoped he'd be able to meet her again, but he couldn't have guessed their reunion would come so soon: Akechi is contacted by the police, who want his help involving a mysterious threatening case. At first, Akechi refused, until he learns that it involves Fukunaga Tokujirou, the uncle of Taeko. Letters with numbers counting down have been appearing in the man's house every day now, and Fukunaga is afraid that once the countdown reaches zero, something horrible will happen. Akechi takes the first train back to Tokyo, but he's immediately kidnapped by an unknown party and during Akechi's absence, Fukunaga is murdered inside his locked bedroom by apparently a gigantic man. It seems like Akechi's latest foe can truly make the impossible possible and stopping this fiend won't be easy in Edogawa Rampo's Majutsushi ("The Magician", 1930).

After a series of short stories with the amateur detective Akechi Kogorou, Edogawa Rampo (father of the Japanese detective story) also had Akechi appear in novels. Akechi'd slowly transform from a bookish student to an amateur detective, to a dandy gentleman detective over the course of his career, with Majutsushi still being set in his amateur days, though he finally opens a true detective agency at the end of this novel. Akechi also meets his future assistant/wife in this novel, who's often an active character in subsequent Akechi novels, as well as in the Boys Detective Club series, so for fans of the character Akechi Kogorou, Majutsushi is a must-read for fleshing out his life.

Rampo had Akechi confront a terrifying, almost inhuman murderer in the thriller Kumo Otoko (1929-1930) and Majutsushi continues with that trend. In fact, most Akechi novels pit him against some kind of superfiend, like a Scooby Doo! monster, with whom Akechi will have several confrontations over the course of the story. This is also what happens in Majutsushi, where Akechi sometimes outwits, and sometimes is outwitted by a murderer who appears in front of Akechi as a circus magician, and who is hell-bent on killing all members of the Tamamura family. Besides the silly super-criminal trope, you also have the usual Rampo tropes here, like a focus on voyeurism, with several of the murders being displayed in public in all their goriness. Like I mentioned in my review of Issunboushi, exhibitionism, and a delayed realization of that plays a big role in Rampo's detective stories. In Majutsushi too, the eponymous Magician stages for some of his murders (or chopped off body parts) to appear in public, and usually people first look at it, find it odd, and only after that, it slowly starts to dawn upon them that what they just saw, was something horrible. Lenses and mirrors are also a Rampo-thing, and true enough, mirrors also appear in this story (not so curious of course, considering Akechi is fighting a magician).

As a mystery story, it's a bit like most Rampo novels, that is, not particularly memorable. Majutsushi is a serialized novel, and give it some credit, this is one of the better plotted ones by Rampo because with most of his other serialized novels, you can really tell he's simply winging things as he's going, while Majutsushi is actually reasonably tightly plotted, but still, the whole thing feels like a somewhat unambitious pulpy thriller. Most of the events that happen are just there to 'shock' the reader, even though they never really do, and the few truly horrifying scenes we get, are taken from Edgar Allan Poe stories (which Rampo also points out in his own look back at this novel). The locked room murder at the start of the novel has a silly, uninspired solution that Rampo has actually used in other novels in better ways, and other events in this novel aren't about detecting anymore, but at "look at how gruesome that is!". This is a pulp thriller, a very pulpy one at that too, but not nearly as entertaining as other Rampo pulps like Kurotokage.

There's a juvenile version of this novel by the way, also titled Majutsushi, set in the Boys Detective Club series. Rampo rewrote several of his stories as juvenile stories for this series starring the young assistant of Akechi Kogorou, Kobayashi.

So overall, Majutsushi is very typical of a Rampo serialized novel, that is, it's an incredibly pulpy story brimming with Rampo's trademark tropes. Judged solely on its mystery plot, Majutsushi does nothing particularly special, even if it tries to throw some surprises at the reader, but overall, I think this novel is most notable for its place in the Akechi timeline, establishing both the background of his future wife and Akechi's move to a professional private detective.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩『魔術師』

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Memories of Murder

「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

Without letting go of your hand,
I will not turn around
Hoping for that is all I can do
But one day, I will certainly be judged
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes you start reading a book expecting it'll lead to an interesting review. And sometimes, those expectations don't come true.
After the publication of his latest short story Whip the Dead, mystery author Ayukawa Tetsuya and his editor are shocked by the review of an influential critic, who accuses Ayukawa of plagiarism: his story has more than a few similarities with the short story The Unfinished Manuscript, which was written by the female author Ishimoto Mineko and published ten years ago in the now defunct magazine Zero. Ayukawa assures his editor he based Whip the Dead on an unpublished story he himself wrote thirteen years ago, during a period when he was a starting author, sending manuscripts here and there in the hopes of getting published. He eventually lost sight of the story, assuming it disappeared in a desk drawer of some magazine editor, but now Ayukawa suspects that Ishimoto found, and plagiarized his story ten years ago, resulting in his predicament now. Hoping to restore his honor and position as a mystery author, Ayukawa and his editor set out to find Ishimoto Mineko and set things straight in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Shisha wo Muchi Ute ("Whip the Dead", 1965).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was a highly influential post-war mystery author, who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries, from the impossible crimes in his Hoshikage Ryuuzou series to the alibi-deconstruction tales of his Inspector Onitsura series. Later in his life he would also become an important editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice making their debuts in the special publishing label named after Ayukawa. Shisha wo Muchi Ute however is basically a parody of himself, as "Ayukawa Tetsuya" stars in the tale, being accused of the heinous crime of plagiarism!

Starting with this very meta-opening, Shisha wo Muchi Ute remains a moderately funny and interesting parody, and pastische of not only Ayukawa, but the whole post-war industry of Japanese mystery fiction. As Ayukawa and his editor try to track down Ishimoto Mineko, all kinds of episodes strongly related with the real history of Japanese mystery fiction are told, from the rise and fall of pre- and post-war magazines for mystery fiction and the phenomenom of writer salons, to observations about how editors and publishers used to work. Ayukawa (the author, not the character) is obviously basing this on his own experience, and he gives an interesting look into how mystery writers lived in the early post-war period. A story like that of an rookie author initially plagiarizing Craig Rice successfully because it was hard to get information on foreign works soon after the war is something that sticks with the reader for example, and Ayukawa also has a lot of mystery authors appear, or at least name-dropped, throughout the novel (both male and female), though with slightly altered names. Some of them are still known, but there are also plenty of names which are long forgotten now, or were even long forgotten by the time Shisha wo Muchi Ute was originally published! Shisha wo Muchi Ute is thus an insightful look in the turbulent history of mystery fiction soon after World War II.

The mystery plot however... is not that attractive. Up until now, I've only seen Ayukawa come up with very intricate puzzle plots, with impossible crimes, perfect alibis or mathematically precise whodunnits. Shisha wo Muchi Ute is more a detective-adventure, with the character Ayukawa chasing after the elusive Ishimoto Mineko. The story has Ayukawa tracing old editors who used to work at Zero and digging in people's memories, but the core mystery plot is not at all like what I'm used to with Ayukawa's work and to be honest, it's not really that interesting. A few deaths occur during Ayukawa's investigation, which might or might not be murder, but they do hardly anything to make the plot really exciting, or alluring, and by the end of the novel, I realized that the mystery plot was not engaging at all. The ending has quite the surprise and while it is hinted at, I'd argue the hinting was a bit weak.

I described this book as a parody, as it is obviously parodying Ayukawa himself (the character Ayukawa is definitely Ayukawa himself, and not another entity who happens to have the same name, like the Ellery in the Ellery Queen novels or the Alices in Arisugawa Alice's two Alice series). The comedy in this novel is not really funny though. Your mileage may vary of course, but Shisha wo Muchi Ute is not a "Haha funny" parody. Most of the work I've read by Ayukawa is 'normal' serious, but with Shisha wo Muchi Ute's unique premise, I was expecting something with a more pronounced comedic tone, but alas. Ayukawa sometimes tries for slapstick-esque comedy here, but it seldom feels more than an attempt. Recognizing all the slightly arranged names of real authors is fun though, as are some of the episodes Ayukawa relates which are probably based on real life episodes.

So Shisha wo Muchi Ute is definitely more interesting as a  dressed-up look back at the post-war period of Japanese mystery fiction, especially in regards to the writers and the magazines of that time, rather than as a mystery story on its own. You can really tell Ayukawa is digging through his own past here, in his own experiences as a writer who first started out sending out manuscripts and doing odd jobs here and there for various magazines and eventually became a professional full-time writer and editor, but the mystery plot itself is simply not nearly as engaging as the biographical parts of the story.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『死者を笞打て』

Thursday, November 29, 2018

N Or M?

A while back, I made a post about floorplans and diagrams in mystery fiction, and I mentioned how excited I could become just by seeing them at the beginning of a book. Often, the floorplans are only presented at the relevant part of the story, for example when there's an investigation of a room, but I always love it when I see the plans in the first few pages of the book, even if only because it suggests location will play a big part in the story. But then I also remembered that there's another thing I love to see in mystery novels between the cover and the actual start of the story: a character list!

The dramatis personae is of course nothing but a list of the names of the principal characters in a work, often accompanied with a short one-line description of said character. The detective or Hated family patriarch who is totally going to get killed for the inheritance or something like that. Occassionally we even have authors who manage to write a witty dramatis personae. But I can feel my glee-levels rise even if it's just a plain list of names and roles. In essence, it's not much different from seeing the names of the actors of a stage play in the pamphlet, and there is indeed something overly theatrical about seeing a list of names before you have even read one word of the story. Seeing the names and their roles and relations presented in bullet point form helps create an preliminary image of the story, and it can be fun seeing your expectations be proven right or wrong. As someone who often sees the mystery story as an intellectual game, the dramatis personae also feels like a fair gesture towards the reader, by giving a proper and clear list of all the concerned parties.

Also, I'm simply horrible with remembering names and characters! I am a fan of the short story form, where the dramatis personae is not often utilized as they're not really needed practically speaking, but man, sometimes I really need one when reading longer novels. Some of my favorite reads of this year like Shijinsou no Satsujin, Toshokan no Satsujin or Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono for example luckily feature a dramatis personae, because all of them feature easily more then twenty, thirty named and significant characters! Add in the fact I often read multiple novels at the same time, and I can say I can only be grateful for character lists, as they help me remember who belongs in what story.

By the way, I am also a big fan of how names and characters are presented in the anime adaptations of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo for example has a very iconic avant-title screen, where they show all the important characters of the story in a grid. What makes this character screen especially creepy is that they grey out the characters who die each episode, so with each episode, you see more and more greyed-out panels, leaving fewer and fewer suspects. Seeing all the characters on the screen at the start of each episode also helps when a story takes four episodes to tell. What both Conan and Kindaichi Shounen also do are the floating name panels whenever a new character makes their first appearance. Name, age and profession are projected beneath the character in question, immediately explaining who they are. It's incredibly artificial and theatrical, as you have text floating in your screen suddenly near a character, but it's also incredibly handy for remembering new characters, as you see the name spelled out. Some might think it's too artificial, but I think it works wonderfully in puzzle plot mysteries, where characters are important puzzle pieces of the "game"  and it doesn't hurt to clearly label them.

By the way, I can't think of any mystery stories I've read at the moment that really make use of the dramatis personae as part of the mystery plot. I've seen mystery stories avoid them to be fair, for example, because one character is actually playing two characters at the same time and it wouldn't be fair to write down both personas in the list. But not really one where you need the dramatis personae to solve the mystery, so it'd be nice to come across one once.

Next time in my aimless musings: family trees, and how complex should they be? (*I'm not serious)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Crawling with Zombies

"They're just dead flesh, and dangerous."
"Night of the Living Dead"

Most of the Japanese books I have, are in the so-called bunko format: A6-format pockets which are both small and relatively cheap, yet still printed on reasonably good paper. While there are also novels which are printed right away in the bunko format, new novels are usually first printed in large hardcover or softcover format at a higher price point, and after three or four years, the novel is reprinted/replaced in the bunko format, which is usually half the price and the physical size. So often, I hear all kinds of great things about newly released novels but I still choose to wait a few years for the bunko release. I had been eyeing Aosaki Yuugo's Taiikukan no Satsujin since its release in 2012 for example, but waited until it was released as a bunko in 2015.

Sometimes, this wait can be excruciating however. Case in point: 2017's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"). If you had to name one novel that made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction, it would be this debut novel by Imamura Masahiro released last year. For Imamura managed to accomplish something nobody had done before, with his very first novel: take the number one spot in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings. This was the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings. These awards are all backed by different publishers, and each determine their rankings differently based on votes of critics/authors/readers, so it was no wonder nobody before had ever managed to come in at no. 1 in all three rankings. The novel alsomade off with the Honkaku Mystery Award by the way, meaning it was extremely well-received among all kinds of readers of mystery ficton. And yet I was planning to wait patiently for the bunko release, no matter how much I wanted to read the book. That is, until I came across a generous cashback campaign this week which returned half the price in store credit. And I am glad to say that Shijinsou no Satsujin is indeed one of the most entertaining mystery novels I've read this year!

Narrator Hamura Yuzuru is a college freshman who is drafted by Akechi Kyousuke into the Shinkou University Mystery Fiction Club (not to be confused with the Mystery Fiction Research Club). Akechi is not only the president of the club (which now has two members), he's also an aspiring detective who has solved a case or two on campus, earning him the nickname of "the Holmes of Shinkou". The two learn that the university's Film Club has received a mysterious note with the message "Who will be the next sacrifice?", which seems to be related to the club's annual trip to a countryside hotel, where this year, they'll shoot a short Blair Witch-type horror film as part of their club activities. Hamura and Akechi are quite surprised when they are invited by Kenzaki Hiruko to come along with this trip. Second year student Hiruko has solved several criminal cases in the past and has even been awarded by the police for her exploits, though she has kept that all a secret and it's only through his connections that Akechi knows about this. Hiruko isn't a member of either the Film or Drama Clubs, but as many members didn't want to go this year because of the mysterious letter, she's been invited to make up for the female numbers (the annual Film Club trip is also an excuse to get hooked up), and Hamura and Akechi are her tagalongs.

The Violet Villa used to be a private holiday villa overlooking Lake Sabea, owned by the parents of one of the graduated members of the Film Club. They later had it renovated into a little hotel, and now the Shinkou University Film Club can stay there for free for their summer trip, while the son of the owners and his friends also come down to meet the current Film Club members (and try to get lucky with the female members). The first day is supposed to end with a barbeque dinner and a 'test of courage', where they'll visit a creepy shrine in boy-girl pairs, but this game is horribly interrupted when the group is suddenly assaulted by... a horde of zombies! Not everyone makes it back alive to the Violet Villa, and the group of survivors has no choice but to flee up to the upper two floors of the hotel and barricade themselves against the waves of zombies waiting for them below. Cut off from the outside world, the survivors make plans on how to keep the zombies downstairs until they're saved, but while the news on television warned people to look out and be on their guard for the "strange" epidemic that started at a local music festival, the survivors couldn't have known that the zombies weren't the only danger in the hotel. In the early hours of the following morning, the Film Club's president is found dead in his room and the way his face and body had been mutilated by horrible biting marks, leaves little doubt that his death came by the hands of a zombie, but there are also several problems to this conclusion: while only a zombie could've committed the murder in such a horrible way, only a human could've performed feats like somehow opening the locked hotel room and leaving mysterious handwritten threatening notes in and outside the room! Even supposing a zombie did commit the murder on its own, how did they get through the barricade and out again without anyone noticing!? And this isn't the only violent murder to occur inside the Violet Villa while the zombies are coming closer and closer in Imamura Masahiro's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead", 2017).

So I knew of this novel since last year, but I hadn't actually read up on the story, so imagine how surprised I was when I came to the part zombies appeared in the story! Imamura comes up with a unique way to created a closed circle situation, as in this novel, the characters aren't cut off from the outside world due to storms or broken bridges, but zombies (and jammers and media blocks by the authorities to prevent people from spreading panic and false information on social media). There are some short segments that "explain" the how and why of the zombie attack, but don't mind that too much: it's all an excuse to create a unique closed circle situation for a mystery novel, and one that works really well too!

The book opens with the three-storied floorplan of the hotel and I think it kinda symbolizes how dynamic this story actually is. When you first open the book, you might read through the character list and try to memorize where everyone is sleeping in the hotel, but once the zombies come, you can forget everything. Corridors are barricaded and closed off, people are eaten by zombies, others are murdered and everyone has to move to other rooms or to other floors as the zombies slowly break through the various lines of defense and available space becomes less and less. In your mind, you're constantly updating the 'map' as circumstances change. A lot happens in Shijinsou no Satsujin and you certainly can't accuse it of being a boring mystery novel with long investigation scenes in the middle, because this is a novel that uses the form of the zombie panic movie to not only bring thrilling scenes from start to finish, but also to force frequent changes on the circumstances that help deepening the core mystery plot, for example by creating siutations where characters have to move to other rooms or by making some parts of the villa inaccessible after a while, which are all elements that will later be used in determining the culprit.

It's in this ever-changing locale that we see multiple impossible murders occur. These murders too make fantastic use of the zombie setting: one of the main problems the detectives face in this novel is the question of how and why these murders were committed, as all the murders show signs of both zombie, and human action: the horrible way in which the murders are committed could only be attributed to the zombies, and yet there's also a human hand detectable, but how could one person direct the zombies without endangering themselves or the other people? Besides an "orthodox" locked room murder, there's also a murder where the victim was dragged outside of their room, which was obviously locked from the inside, so a different type of impossible murder. What makes this novel so fun is that all the murders only work because the story's set during a sudden zombie attack. These murders could not possibly have worked if the story had been set in a "normal" world, without zombies. While the zombies are not completely explained within this work, Imamura carefully hints at certain conditions and characteristics of the zombies in this novel which you'll need to solve the case, and Imamura skillfully utilizes the zombies to create unique murder situations. As an example of how to do a good supernatural/fantasy mystery novel, Shijinsou no Satsujin gets very high marks (though I have to add that Shijinsou no Satsujin does not feel really fantasy-like, it's fairly realistic. Save for the zombies).

And while some might be turned off by zombies in a mystery novel, the way the murders are solved in Shijinsou no Satsujin show it's definitely a true, puzzle plot mystery that is intricately planned out and fair to the reader. Despite the unrealistic plot device of zombies, Imamura does a great job at both clewing and defining the capabilities of the zombies and nobody could ever accuse of him of being unfair to the reader. The mystery solving is quite Queen-like, in the sense that the deductions revolve much around physical evidence and "this culprit did this, which means they must have also been here or done that, and therefore..." lines of thought, but keeping in line with the dynamic of the zombie panic story, these deductions are never too long, and quite to the point, and while Shijinsou no Satsujin certainly isn't a simple mystery to solve, it's certainly solvable without having to keep precise notes. There is one moment that contains a very damning piece of evidence in regards to the identity of the culprit that might feel a bit unfair, I admit, but that's more in the sense of "I'd have wanted some psychological explanation for that" than really "Wait, that came out of nowhere", as it is something is definitely properly hinted at, and the implicitions are clear, even if you don't want to believe it at first.

Shijinsou no Satsujin is thus a very entertaining debut work by Imamura, that manages to mix the zombie panic genre in a wonderful manner with a classic puzzle plot locked room mystery. The unique closed circle situation and the inspired way in which zombies are utilized in the mystery plot are fantastic and I can't wait for Imamura's sequel to this novel, which was announced a while ago! Definitely a contender of one of my best reads this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘 『屍人荘の殺人』