Tuesday, December 28, 2010

「結」の章

"Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.", G.K. Chesterton, "Orthodoxy"

Norizuki Rintarou is an author who has been discussed quite often by now, so I won't bother to introduce him. Even people who can't read Japanese have had a chance to read his work, as his price-winning Toshi Densetsu Puzzle has been published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine as An Urban Legend Puzzle in the Passport to Crime series. An Urban Legend Puzzle was also my first experience with Norizuki and I have been a great fan of his work ever since. Ellery Queen readers really should at least try this Japanese Queen, as the Norizuki Rintarou stories parallel the Queen stories quite closely.

I especially like Norizuki Rintarou's short story collections, where many of the best short stories of the new orthodox school can be found. I've discussed the first collection, Norizuki Rintarou no Bouken ("The Adventures of Norizuki Rintarou") before, and I might re-read Norizuki Rintarou no Shinbouken ("The New Adventures of Ellery Queen") for a review in the future, but the topic for today the third short story collection, Norizuki Rintarou no Kouseki ("The Exploits of Norizuki Rintarou"). Yes, that title not based on an Ellery Queen novel, but on the Conan Doyle/Carr Holmes pastiche.

And I've actually already discussed two of the five stories in this collection already. Equal Y no Higeki ("Equal Tragedy of Y") was originally written for the anthology Y no Higeki ("The Tragedy of Y"), while ABCD Houimou ("The ABCD Line") was an original story for the anthology ABC Satsujin Jiken ("The ABC Murders"). So I refer to those reviews for more about those two stories.

And while those two stories were obviously written with a certain theme in mind, it seems Chuugoku Kagyuu no Nazo ("The Chinese Snail Mystery") wasn't, according to the afterword. Even if the reader would think otherwise. Anyway, the Queenish title is no coincidence, because what did Norizuki Rintarou discover when they finally broke open the office room of the famous detective writer Kanuma? A room where everything was upside down. Chairs, the desk, the computer, all upside down. And a piece of rope attached to the floor with a loose in it. Kanuma, who should have been in the office, is found hanging from the ceiling in the room beneath the office. Yes, it's Norizuki's take on Queen's locked room The Chinese Orange Mystery. But with a definite snail theme. I've learned more about snails and how they reproduce and stuff than I would ever want to know. In Japanese. But as Norizuki says himself in the afterword, locked rooms are not his forte and while Chuugoku Kagyuu no Nazo isn't really a bad story, it certainly isn't a very strong story either.

Both Toshi Densetsu Puzzle (An Urban Legend Puzzle) and Ishindenshin ("Tacit Understanding and Hanging") follow the same set-up, which is a parallel of how Ellery and Inspector Queen work. In both stories Chief Inspector Norizuki asks his son to help him with some case he is working on and by analyzing the facts and discussing the case, Rintarou arrives at the truth. This armchair/consulting detective model is one I especially like (c.f. the Puzzle Club stories by Ellery Queen) and actually one of the reasons why I prefer short stories (this model doesn't work really well in long stories).

Toshi Densetsu Puzzle is a story, that in my eyes, does almost everything great. The theme of the story, urban legends is a very interesting one and just like with Chuugoku Kagyuu no Nazo, Norizuki gives quite a bit of interesting background information on the theme. The story also proceeds at a nice pace and is just done almost perfect. The one negative point is that the trick of the story can be seen through almost immediately if you are not taken in by the blind spot Norizuki is trying to create. The writer himself confesses it's a rather easy story, but this is overall a great story.

The setup of Ishindenshin is the same, but the story itself is not as interesting. Chief Inspector Norizuki has trouble figuring out a murder on a young woman, who had been hanged in her room in order to make it look like suicide. Working through the many strange points of the case, father and son finally arrive at the truth, but is it a good one? The motive (in particular, the way the motive was set up) was one I hadn't seen before and it was distinctly modern, so I wasn't really prepared for it. A certain leap of thought had to be made if you're not familiar with a certain field, which I didn't really like. I think the main problem was a very sound and interesting one, so maybe I would've liked this story if I actually knew *that* existed.

But Norizuki Rintarou's exploits were overall quite interesting. I am a little disappointed with the lack of bibliophilia this time and most stories seem too strongly connected to other, major works, so it lacks a bit of its own identity compared to the previous collections, but still a solid work that shows that orthodox detectives are still very much alive in this world. 

Original Japanes title(s): 法月綸太郎 『法月綸太郎の功績』/「イコールYの悲劇」/「中国蝸牛の謎」/「都市伝説パズル」/「ABCD包囲網」//「縊心伝心」

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Des Pas sur la neige

"Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition--and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do--clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth--the naked shining truth."
"Death on the Nile"

Christmas means murder. Well, actually, it doesn't, but I sure associate the winter season and Christmas with murder. Because they are made for each other. A body lying in the middle in a field of snow, with no foot tracks. A group of people locked up in an old mansion because of a snow storm. A murderer who like Santa seems to be impervious to the laws of nature, popping up here and there. Christmas at its best!

So I do try to read winter-themed detectives in this season every year. Fortunately, there are many, many snowy-themed detectives out there. This year, I chose a book by Shimada Souji to be my Christmas detective. Shimada, one of the giants in the modern Japanese detective world, is actually one of the few New Orthodox (Golden Age styled) detective writers who has been translated into English. His The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (originally: Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case")   is an excellent book. Nay, better than excellent. It is one of those books that any detective fan should read. It does everything right: characterization, setting, the tricks. The Tokyo Zodiac Murders was the first novel to feature the astrologer annex detective Mitarai Kiyoshi (whose family name you unfortunately write as "honorable toilet"). A brilliant, if somewhat eccentric mind. Like most great detectives.

The second novel featuring Mitarai is Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion"). I'll begin by saying this is another excellent book. Not as impressive as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, but oh so fun. The setting is snowy, snowy Hokkaidou. A strange mansion stands lonely on a clif near the sea. The reason the Drifting Ice Mansion is called strange, is because it is built slanted. Inspired by the Tower of Pisa, the Drifting Ice Mansion actually leans a bit, at the same angle as the replica Tower of Pisa which stands besides it. Everything in the house is bolted to the ground, table legs have been cut off so they don't slide away on the floor. And owner Hamamoto has fun everytime guests trip and fall. 

It is to this place that Hamamoto, a succesful business man, has gathered a small party of guests, mainly comprised of business contacts to spend Christmas and New Year with. But in true Christmas Murder Style (C), nothing stays merry. Christmas marks the beginning of a series of murders, horrible murders. One guests is found stabbed in a locked room, with no footsteps in the snow leading to his door. And for some reason a human-sized doll, which belongs to Hamamoto, is found lying outside in the garden. Was it the doll that running around on the roof , as one of the guests says she saw in the middle of the night? The police arrives at the scene, but they are not able to prevent a second locked room murder the same night. Everyone has an alibi. Except for the doll. A doll named Golem, who according to the store Hamamoto bought it from, was named after the legendary creature because he too is actually a living doll. As the police is able to do nothing, one man is sent for. Mitarai.

Who of course solves the cases brilliantly. I really enjoyed this book. It felt quite Carr-ish, with the locked rooms and of course the doll. Heck, even the Slanted Mansion itself seemed to eminate an aura of evil. A hint of Queen with a Challenge to the Reader. Yet, it somehow missed the stunning -wow- factor of the previous book. Because of how the trick of the locked rooms is done, you'll quickly catch on who the murderer is and how. I don't know how detective writers write their books, but this is one which was clearly built around one brilliant trick Shimada had, who then kept building on it till he had a novel-length book. But because the book hinges on that single trick, an acute reader will see through most of the events as soon as he sees through the main trick.

Which might sound negative, but Naname Yashiki no Hanzai is still an excellent book. The main trick is among the more original tricks I have seen in my life and if I hadn't known this book was first published in 1982, I would have sworn it was a detective actually written in the Golden Age. Especially as this novel is relatively clean (as in: no cut-up bodies like in The Tokyo Murder Case), made it seem like one of the classics of the good old age. A revised version was actually published in 2008, but I picked up the original one. It was cheaper.

I haven't read that much Shimada yet, besides the mentioned two novels I've only read the novellettes P no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of P") and Suzuran Jiken ("The Case of the Lily of the Valley"), but it seems like Shimada likes a big scale to his tricks. He doesn't use small psychological tricks, he doesn't uses the sleight of the hand, Shimada's stories are full of mystery and big and bombastic and everything nice. Perfect for Christmas. 

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『斜め屋敷の犯罪』

Monday, December 20, 2010

「ジッチャンの名にかけて!」

「 みんな5年前のままじゃない。やっぱり変わってるんだ・・・そして、これからも・・・・」
『金田一少年の事件簿:雪影村殺人事件』

"Nobody is like they were five years ago. Yes. Everyone has changed... And they will keep changing...",
"The Casefiles of Young Kindaichi: The Yukikage Village Murder Case"

I usually don't discuss manga here. Not because I don't like the medium. Neither because comics don't belong here (because they do!). I deal with detective fiction here, as the site description says in the sidebar, which includes a wide range of different media. Besides books, movies, TV-series and games have also been discussed here. And the alert reader surely has noticed I read Meitantei Conan ("Detective Conan") and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Casefiles of Young Kindaichi"). So why are they not discussed here?

Mostly because of the way the medium is set up. Stories are often quite short, which I think is harder to discuss than a single story. Another problem, especially in Conan, is the fact that stories are often spread amongst several volumes, and I don't really like discussing a single part of a story. Yes, I am still thinking about how I'm going to discuss Nikaidou Reito's four-part Jinroujou no Kyoufu ("The Fear of Werewolf Castle"), the longest detective story in existence.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo though, is slightly easier to discuss though. Most stories since the reboot in 2004 have been longer, two volume stories. The only problem is that scriptwriter Amagi and illustrator Satou produce only two volumes a year. It just takes so long for a new story. But it is better than nothing at all, I guess.

 This year's Renkinjutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Alchemy Murder Case") is once again a rather classic Kindaichi Shounen. The story? Kindaichi is one of the three finalists in a TV programme with a lot of money at stake. These three finalists, together with three TV personalities, are gathered at Alchemy Mansion to shoot the footage for the final strage. The Alchemy Mansion, located on an island (of course!) was once the home of self-proclaimed alchemist, who had disappeared many years ago. As the TV crew make their preparations for the shooting, one of them is killed by a mysterious man dressed like... a man with a mask and a cape (I guess he is supposed to look like an... alchemist). And a sword. A giant sword. More murders occur and Kindaichi has to solve a locked room murder, the mystery of the disappearing murder weapon and prove his actress friend Reika is not the murderer. The elements that make up the bread and butter of the Kindaichi Shounen series.

At this point, I am not expecting new story set-ups in the Kindaichi Shounen series, I'd rather think I'd somehow not like such a change in the series. It's just something I'd expect from the series. So what kind of story did scriptwriter Amagi build with the classic elements? A solid classic story with few real surprises (on a meta level), which ranks among the better stories since the reboot. 2006's Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken ("The Jailgate Cram School Murder Case") is still the best since the reboot in my opinion, but Renkinjutsu Satsujin Jiken's use of the location and space for the creation of the mystery reminded me of the better Kindaichi Shounen stories.

The biggest problem I have with this year's volumes is the amount of fanservice it provides. Not the sexual-type of fanservice. But while appearances of him and her and such and so from the series' past can be fun, using it too much just cheapens the experience. It feels like almost every story since the reboot has relied on the nostalgia factor to a certain extent, which is just a shame. Go create new classic characters!

The same holds for Meitantei Conan 70. While I won't discuss it in detail, appearances of both KID and Hattori in a single volume is sort of overkill. Even if both stories are actually quite good. KID's flirt with the Ryouma boom in Japan is kind of entertaining and the Hattori story, which takes its cues from The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes series) and The Inugami Clan (Kindaichi Kousuke series), is one of the more interesting stories of the last few years! But still, using both Hattori and KID in quick succession just cheapens the experience.

And yes, I decided to discuss manga this time because I couldn't keep up with the one-post-a-week rate. It's not really cheating as I abide to the rules! Trying to finish a (snowy) detective novel before the new year though! 

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸、さとうふみや『金田一少年の事件簿 錬金術殺人事件 上・下』/青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン70』

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"But now I am very humble and I say like a little child: 'I do not know...'"

「密室は、今や黄昏だ。密室は滅びだ。この二つの文字は、もはや、人々の追憶の中にしか存在し得ない。だいたい、密室そのものが、密室にせねばならぬ理由を欠いているのだ。そんな密室が、現代に生き残れるはずがない。」,明智小五郎,『名探偵に乾杯』

"The locked room, it is in its twilight years. The locked room is dying out. Soon, it will only live in the memories of man. Locked rooms often lack a reason to be locked rooms. Such locked rooms can not survive in this day and age." Akechi Kogorou, "Cheers to the great detectives"

And then there were none. Curtain for Nishimura Kyoutarou's Meitantei series. And I will stop with the bad puns now. Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Simenon's Maigret and Edogawa Rampo's Akechi Kogorou have had their share of fun solving crimes together, but there is an end to all good things. The era of great detectives have passed. People don't read detective stories starring great detectives anymore; they long for hardboiled detectives, the normal man as detective! And so the four detectives slowly fade away from existence. And then Poirot demises. Ragnarok for the great detectives.

At the beginning of Meitantei ni kanpai ("Cheers to the great detectives"), Akechi Kogorou hosts a small memorial party on his private island for their recently departed friend. Guests naturally include Ellery Queen and Maigret, as well as Poirot's dear friend Captain Hastings. But un-invited guests also arrive at the island: a small crew of reporters, dragging along a shaman. A young couple happened to have trouble with their boat and somehow managed to swim to Akechi's island. And the most surprising one: a young man who claims his name is Hercule Poirot Junior. A man who claims he is the son of Hercule Poirot and Cynthia Murdoch.

I put the book away at this point. I was hesitating to continue. The chapter preceding Junior's appearance was awkward enough, with everyone debating on whether Poirot had a love life or not. But someone claiming to be the son of Poirot? Who knows what kind of madness Nishimura would come up with in the following chapters?

Junior says he can prove his story with two things. One: he has a manuscript with him written by Poirot, a critical assessment of the detective story. Two: he has inherited his father's little grey cells. Naturally, Hastings doesn't believe a word of Junior's story and in the end, the party decides to communicate with Poirot's ghost through the shaman, to ask him whether he really had a son.

I put the book away for a second time.

During the seance, a murder is commited. Junior comes up with a great deduction, which turns out to be wrong. Akechi, Ellery and Maigret do nothing. A second murder is commited, in a locked room nonetheless. Junior comes up with a great deduction. It turns out to be wrong. Akechi, Ellery and Maigret do nothing. Rince and repeat for several times. And in the end, Akechi solves everything. And an alternate solution for Curtain is proposed.

Yes, Meitantei ni kanpai is a tedious, awful book. Not only was the whole concept of Hercule Poirot Junior ridiculous, it was executed ridiculous too. Why would someone raised by Englishmen in South-America suddenly start using random French vocabulary because he thought his real father was Belgian? Everytime he said mademoiselle, I asked myself why. The rest of the book wasn't any better either. The locked rooms were awful and just like the previous book, the great detectives were reduced to one single entity, The Old Great Detective, who does nothing except for watching other people do stuff. The great detectives really don't show any signs of having a personality at all and it would hardly have mattered whether there were three great detectives present or one.

This is the only book in the Meitantei series that is written in the first person, by Akechi's assistent Kobayashi. Once known as the boy Kobayashi, he has become a middle-aged men with a daughter. Yes, Nishimura tried to draw parallels with Curtain. But the years and especially Nishimura have not been kind to Kobayashi, as he is reduced to an idiot. The boy who once battled The Fiend with Twenty Faces, the Robin to Akechi's Batman, is now a man who is impressed by Hastings' deductions. By Hastings' deductions!  This book is one out-of-character disaster after another.

The series had a good start. Meitantei nanka kowakunai ("Not afraid of great detectives") really was about four great detectives tackling a case togther, each using their own methods. Meitantei ga oosugiru ("Too many great detectives") was kinda busy, with four great detectives and two phantom thieves outsmarting each other, but the story was still focused on them. But Meitantei mo raku janai ("Even great detectives don't have it easy") and this book don't focus on the detectives anymore. Meitantei mo raku janai ("Even great detectives don't have it easy") is a book that laments the disappearance of the great detectives from detective novels, that sacrifices Akechi, Poirot, Ellery and Maigret for the story. And I am not even sure what Meitantei ni kanpai is. It sorta builds on the theme of the previous book, but kinda rejects it through its solution to the locked rooms. Was is it a vehicle to show the alternate solution to Curtain? If so, Nishimura coud have proposed it without imbedding it into a story. But as it is, the Meitantei series has ended in the worst way possible.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

「おそらく君たちは負ける。僕も勝てない。これは完全犯罪だ」

「理論的には考えられても、現実的にはありえない。」
『聖女の救済』
"Even if it is possible in theory, it is impossible in practice"
"The Saint's Salvation")

While I absolutely love 2005's Yougisha X no Kenshin ("The Devotion of Suspect X"), I wasn't really impressed with 2008's Galileo no Kunou ("The Agony of Galileo"). I do still keep my eyes on the Tantei Galileo ("Detective Galileo") series however and with a new Galileo novel finishing its serialization this year (Manatsu no Houteishiki; "A Midsummer's Equation"), I thought it was time to finally catch up with the series. Luckily, I was just one book behind.

So it was time for Seijo no Kyuusai ("The Saint's Salvation"), released simultaneously with Galileo no Kunou. Seijo no Kyuusai is the second novel-length entry in the Tantei Galileo series and as such, I wasn't sure what to think about the book when I picked it up. Should I expect a fine work again, because the previous book was good? Or is the bar set by Yougisha X no Kenshin too high? Yougisha X no Kenshin was a big hit in Japan and stirred up discussions on what a detective novel is and as far as I knew, Seijo no Kyuusai didn't stir up anything.

Seijo no Kyuusai begins when Mashita Yoshitaka, CEO of an IT firm, tells his wife Ayane, a famous patchwork artist, he wants to divorce her. It's been a year since their marriage, but there are no signs of her getting pregnant and that is the only reason he got married in the first place. No kids, no marriage. As they agreed to this before their marriage, Ayane accepts. Before their divorce, Ayane goes to Hokkaidou, back home to her parents to spend a weekend there. It is during her weekend away that Yoshitaka dies due to arsenic poisoning. The most likely person to have commited the murder is of course Ayane, but how was she able to poison her husband in Tokyo all the way from Hokkaidou?

Seijo no Kyuusai is a pretty decent novel. It's an orthodox detective, fairly rare among Higashino Keigo's work, but it lacks the impact of Yougisha X no Kenshin. Like all of the Tantei Galileo stories, this is a howdunnit and like the previous novel-length story, this book does not feature the laser-guided-death-trap methods of killing from the short stories. The exact sciences still set Yukuwa, nicnamed Galileo, on the right track (keyword for this novel: imaginary numbers), but the sciences are like thematic decoration; no actual knowledge of them is needed to solve this mystery. The solution? A simple, yet effective one. If Higashino tries, he is perfectly able to write normal detective novels.

My only problem with the book is the length, as the story is rather drawn out. Which ties in with Higashino's pet peeve themes: women, love and the criminal mind. Many pages of the story are used to flesh out the rather small cast, digging in their psyche like in Uso wo mou hitotsu dake. And by letting police detective Kusanagi fall in love with the suspect, Higashino creates a dual story of Kusanagi trying to prove Ayane innocent, while his (female) junior Utsumi, with the help of Galileo, try to prove her guilt. While the story starts with the actions of Yoshitaka and end with Galileo's deduction, both males, most of the story is driven by the women in this story. As Sugie Matsukoi (2009) posed in an article on Higashino's work "Women are terrifying" is the theme in Higashino Keigo's work. I think gender in Japanese detective novels has been researched before (c.f. Seaman, Amanda (2004). Bodies of Evidence - Women, Society, and Detective Fiction in 1990s Japan. Hawai'i: University of Hawai'i Press), but maybe Higashino Keigo's work might be interesting too.

While not a masterpiece by any means, I enjoyed the book and I hope the third novel in the Tantei Galileo series, Manatsu no Houteishiki will be released soon in book form soon. 

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『聖女の救済』