Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Now You See Him...

「全国の手品マニアの皆さん、マジックを見せるときは観客を選ばなくてはいけません。次の人々の前では決してやらないように。動物、子供、マジシャン。まず、動物は何が不思議なのか分かってくれません。子供はタネを見せろと必ず駄々をこねます。そして、マジシャンの前でマジックを見せるという事は、私の前で人を殺すのと同じくらい危険な事です…。ご注意を」
『古畑任三郎: 魔術師の選択』

"Magic maniacs all across the country, it is important to choose your public when you show your stage magic. Be careful not to show it in front of the following: animals, children and magicians. Firstly, animals don't understand what is so mysterious. Children always whine about explaining the trick. And showing stage magic in front of another magician, is as dangerous as killing someone before my eyes.... Please beware."
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: The Magician's Choice"

I like short stories collections. I seldom read them in order, instead selecting my stories based on the time I want to read, what seems interesting etc. But man, do I hate writing reviews for short story collections. It's hard to keep a proper line in my story / argument, making these reviews feel incredibly chaotic. And of course, they tend to get rather lenghty. Maybe I should really revise how I do these reviews. Or at least become a better writer (and no, once again I don't really proofread what I write on my blog, so I fear for quite some typos and sentences abandonded halfway).

All well, the next review should be about a novel. Of sorts. And an American novel too. That should be easy.

It took me actually quite a long time to finish Awasaka Tsumao's Kijutsu Tantei Soga Kajou Zenshuu- Hi no Maki ("Magician Detective Soga Kajou Complete Collection - The Book of Secrets"). Which was strange, because I should have been more enthousiastic about it. Well, yes the cover design is hideous, but the rest of the book's curriculum vitae was excellent! For example, Awasaka won (post-humously) first place in both the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings in 2009 with the complete Soga Kajou canon (consisting of Hi no Maki ("The Book of Secrets") and Gi no Maki ("The Book of Plays"). It won prestigeous titles. It's about stage magic. It's a short story collection. I should have loved this book immediately.

Well, I probably lost some of my enthousiasm when I discovered that this story collection wasn't like Jonathan Creek and not focused on a magician solving mostly impossible crimes. Which was kinda disappointing But the real killer was the first story in this collection, which is really not representative for the rest of the collection. But finally I picked the book again earlier this week (after 10 (!) months) and happily found out that the most of the stories here actually entertaining.

While best known as a writer of detective novels, Awasaka was also a great lover of stage magic and has actually won prizes in the past for his performances. His love for magic comes to life in the Soga Kajou series. The titular Soga Kajou was once known as the best magician in Japan, but retired from the business when she married. But she never really left the whole magic scene and she is still a welcome attending guest at various magic shows and lectures on magic. Because of her expertise on various kinds of stage magic, she is occasionally asked for assistance by the police with baffling cases, because who is better suited to explain mysterious events than someone who was known for creating mysterious events? And yes, in some way Soga acts as avatar for author Awasaka in the stories, as he writes very warmly about all kinds of magic, from rope magic to cups and balls magic and often manages to come up with interesting detective stories related to all kinds of fields within stage magic. No, Soga is not running around solving intricate locked room mysteries or other impossible crimes (well, not that often at any rate), but her knowledge of magic, the pleasant style in which in the stories are written and simply the love you feel Awasaka has for magic make these stories here worth a read.

Except for the first one. In Kuuchuu Asagao ("The Floating Morning Glory"), Soga comes across a very interesting flower arrangement at a flower arranging contest: a morning glory without a stem, floating over its flowerpot. Soga tries to purchase the wonderfully mysterious arrangement, but is told that it is not for sale. The rest of the story tells us how the background of the floating morning glory and why the flower is not for sale, but as a mystery this is a very weak story. There is no sense of mystery at all, as Awakasa doesn't even seem to place much attention to the 'mystery' of the floating flower, devoting much more attention to a background story that is only weakly linked to the flower. And to finish it off, the trick behind the floating flower is not particularly shocking. It's thus a weak mystery story, but also a very bad introduction story for this collection.

Hanabi and Juusei ("Fireworks and the Sound of a Gun") is a lot better and a favorite with a lot of readers, it seems. Soga is asked for assistance by police inspector Takenashi with the murder case of a blackmailer. The man was shot in his own room during a fireworks festival near his mansion and while the police has a suspect, he has a seemingly perfect alibi and no motive at all. Soga shows how misdirection is something not only used on stage, but also by criminals. Certainly a very entertaining story, but one important plot-point seems to be taken for granted by everyone, which it certainly is not. Basically the whole point of the story hinges on this plot-point and the extent to which the reader is able to suspend his disbelief on this point determines to what extent he'll be able to enjoy the story.

Kieta Juudan ("The Disappearing Bullet") is the first of a series of 'magic shows gone wrong' stories collected here. The shooting trick was supposed to be rather harmless: the magician was to shoot at his own wife, breaking the glass frame she was holding in front of her, but of course not hit her. Because bullets have the tendency to kill people when they enter a human body around the heart. But yes, that is of course precisely what happened. The magician is naturally stricken by grief for killing his own wife during a show, but was this just an accident or did someone tamper with the gun, bullet or something else? Soga's solution is a good one, though it depends on whether the reader is also able to solve how the trick originally was supposed to go, but the hint pointing at the true criminal was really good.

The fourth story, Birthday Rope, is one of the best stories in the collections. While it is about a seemingly more boring field of stage magic, namely rope magic, this story's structure, hinting and pacing is really good. The mystery revolves around a woman found strangled in her hotel room. Or to be more precise, the mystery revolves around the fact that the murderer apparently took the time and effort to cut away a knot from the rope he strangled the victim with when he left the room. Why would anyone take away a knot? Soga's solution is simple, elegant and Awasaka's simple, yet effective story structuring really shines here. Add in some wonderful information on rope magic and knot communication in Japan (like the Aztecs and Mayas did) and we have a great short story on stage magic.

Zig Zag is sadly not as accomplished a story like Birthday Rope. While the problem is certainly interesting, with parts of a murdered woman found in the contraption used for the Zig Zag illusion which was stored backstage, the story suffers from overdependence on coincidences. It feels unsolvable for the reader, the motive is hard to believe and simply offers the reader little to really enjoy.

Cup to Tama ("Cups and Balls") is very similar to Detective Conan's Mystery Writer Disappearance Case (volume 19), or more precisely said, the other way around. Both stories are about a hidden message hidden in a seemingly innocent manuscript. This time the code is hidden in an article about cups and balls magic, but solving that code is just the beginning of the story. While the codes are pretty fun, elegant in their simplicity like many of the Conan codes, the story is running at a very fast pace and the reader has practically no time to solve the codes themselves, as new codes keep popping up. The story on cups and balls however is very interesting and shows a lot of Awasaja's love for that old trick.

Bill Tube is interesting as it feels very different from the other stories. Soga is sorta undercover in a snow resort: she has promised to give a small group private lectures on magic during the night, while her students teach her how to ski during the day. One night, a snow storm prevents Soga, her students and another group staying in the same ski pension from going out, and as the pension owner found out Soga's identity, he asks her to perform for everybody in the pension. She agrees and shows the classic trick of the disappearing money bill. She also signs a few signatures and all is well. Until the following day, when the guests discover that pretty much everything Soga had touched last night has disappeared. Is someone trying to erase every trace of Soga in the pension? A somewhat The Mad Tea Party-esque (Ellery Queen) story, with a lot of misdirection going on, but certainly a good one and while the final explanation also requires a bit of fantasy at times, this is a good mystery.

In Juuwa no Hato ("The Ten Doves"), Soga lends ten of her trained white doves to a marketing company filming a commerical. After the shooting however, the birds are stolen. Even more strange is that Soga's doves are found in the dove cages of a fellow magician performing not far away from where the doves were stolen. Who switched the doves and why? A two-layered story, of which the first layer is definitely stronger than the second layer. Which is hinted at... sorta... but Galileo-esque expertise was certainly required to deduce that much.

I am not sure what to think about Tsurugi no Mai ("Sword Dance"). A magician is found dead the evening after a show, stabbed to death by one of the stage-swords he himself used during the show. As he had three swords and only one was left at the crime scene, it is thought that more victims might fall. Soga, who was in the public during that last show of the magician, quickly solves the case, but the story leaves some ambigeous feelings. At one hand, it once again hinges on a couple of coincidences that require quite a bit of suspension of disbelief (even for this genre!) and the hinting is also a bit questionable. On the other hand, I love the theme and the motive for the crime, which really shows how much Awasaka thought about magic.

The show to be performed in Kyozou Jitsuzou ("Virtual Image / Real Image") was grand. Making use of a film shown on a screen and perfect timing, the magician was to tell a story in which it would seem that he was able to walk in and out of the virtual world depicted on the screen on will.The story was supposed to end with him being killed by a girl on stage, after which the girl was to return to the virtual world, and that's indeed how it ended. Except that the killing was real this time. The murderer was seen by the whole public to have fled into the screen and it seems like she has actually disappeared from reality. How did she disappear? I am not perfectly sure whether Awasaka was fair in this story, and neither was he, because the final pages of this story feel very much like a too eager explanation of how perfectly fair he was. Awasaka doth protest too much, methinks. The atmosphere is perfect though.

The final story is one of the weaker stories unfortunately. Shinju Fujin ("Madame Pearl") was the nickname for the bearer of the Pearl of Venus ring and it was the Pearl of Venus the magician Jag Konumata used for his magic trick, having chosen Madam Pearl out the public to be his temporary assistent. But luck has it that a gull snatches it from his hand during the show, leaving behind a flabbergasted Konumata. How's he going to get the ring back? What is he to do? Soga tries her own hand at retrieving the ring, but discovers a strange plot surrounding the ring. A rather weak story that is disappointing as a mystery and also has weak ties to magic.

While the quality of the stories is not really even, most of the stories are interesting also because of Awasaka's inclusion of all kinds of magic-related trivia in the stories. When he shines, he's really good, which certainly makes me interested in the second part of the Soga Kajou series.

泡坂妻夫 『奇術探偵曾我佳城全集 秘の巻』: 「空中朝顔」 / 「花火と銃声」 / 「消える銃弾」 / 「バースディロープ」 / 「ジグザグ」 / 「カップと玉」 / 「ビルチューブ」 / 「十羽の鳩」 / 「剣の舞」 / 「虚像実像」 / 「真珠夫人」

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