Monday, November 28, 2011

『密室る(とじる)』

"The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. "Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked.
'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'"

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

The only reason I'm posting this review, is because I think four posts a month should be the minimum amount of posts here. About once a week on average. That's totally normal, right? All well, in two weeks I'll have time to read again, which will probably have some influence on the posting schedule. Oh, I'll think I write something about Kasai's critical work in the near future, as I actually am writing about him anyway for an end-of-term paper. Yes, totally going to re-hash material written for university.

Aaaaaaanyway. With the audio-drama of Swiss-dokei no Nazo turning out to be a pleasant surprise, my expectations for Momogore's audio drama adaption of Arisugawa Alice's 46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") were pretty high. I have actually read the original work (and reviewed it) and found it be a very enjoyable novel. 46 Banme no Misshitsu has some novelty value because it is the first work in the writer Alice series, but it was also highly entertaining because it featured A) a villa-setting with a couple of detective novel writers and editors B) on Christmas. Experienced readers / listeners are naturally aware that adding factors A and B always ends in C) murder. Murders actually. In locked rooms. To be precise, two bodies are found shoved with their heads in the fireplace. Yes, there are less nasty ways to die than that. Anyway, like with The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword, I felt no objections to backtracking a bit to revisit this first adventure of Himura and Arisugawa.

I already mentioned it in my review of Swiss-dokei no Nazo, but some stories are better suited for an audio drama adaption than others. Despite being a (sorta mechanical) locked room mystery (in comparison to the pure reasoning-style in Swiss-dokei no Nazo), 46 Banme no Misshitsu is actually quite suitable for an audio adaption, I thought, so I was quite interested in this. Sadly enough, I don't think Momogre's adaption 46 Banme no Misshitsu works out that great. The voice-actors certainly performed their roles well and the foundation of the original story survives the conversion from the written text to the audio-play, but I feel that a lot of the 'fluff' that was cut (in order to keep the length of the drama in check) was actually very important to the atmosphere of the novel. With a group of detective writers and editors in one confined space, you simply need discussions on a meta-level on detective fiction, with a villa-in-the-snow setting you need a feeling of pressure, with a The Finishing Stroke-esque (Ellery Queen) storyline with mysterious 'pranks' being pulled on the guests, you need a certain feeling of madness, you need the fluff to really work out the story. Momogre's audio adaption, while not short, could have been improved a lot (when compared to the original story) with (at least) an extra half hour of play-length, I think. As it is now, you get the main points of the story and it's enjoyable nonetheless, but you miss out on a lot too.

This seems to lean towards old 'adaption = inferior' ideas (or "the film is never as good as the book!"), but I have listened to plenty of great audio drama adaptions of detectives (I really like BBC's adaption of the Poirot stories). A lot of those dramas are actually somewhere between two and two-and-a-half hours, which really makes me think that 46 Banme no Misshitsu could have been improved a lot with more running-time, allowing the story to develop on more levels (especially the first part should have been done more carefully).

On the other hand, I have the feeling that the main audience for Momogre's audio dramas doesn't consist out of mystery readers per se, which might explain the cutting of some of the meta-related discussions in the original story.

Oh, and now for something completely different. I think this is the first time I noticed background music being used in an audio-drama. I'll admit that I usually only listen to English-language audio dramas and have only listened to a handful of Japanese audio dramas, but all of these usually only featured theme-music at the beginning and ending; background music during the play itself is pretty rare. 46 Banme no Misshitsu featured relatively quite a lot of background music, which felt really weird. It suddenly felt much closer to something like a TV-series. But I'm probably the only one who found the inclusion of background music distracting... It's not a matter of good or bad, just unexpected.

I do understand I sound very negative about Momogre's 46 Banme no Misshitsu, which am I not actually. It's just easier to write reviews when you have something to complain about. While it's a bit skinnier than the original story, this is still an enjoyable locked room mystery by Arisugawa and the voice actors did a great job brining the story to life (once again narrator Arisugawa's voice actor steals the show IMHO).

And now to look for Momogre's adapation of Christie's The ABC Murders. Though I have to admit that I'm absolutely freaked out by the Poirot on the cover art for that.

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ (原作:有栖川有栖) 『46番目の密室』

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Glass Domed Clock

"Professor! Niet te vroeg juichen! Hoe laat is het? Tingelingeling!"
"De Speurneuzen"

"Professor! It's not over yet! What's the time? Ring-a-dingding!"

Yes, I actually chose the Dutch dialogue, because the original English dialogue was not as fun.

I don't think it's healthy to cram several books by Kasai Kiyoshi (= influential critic of detective fiction) in just one weekend. Sure, his literary history of Japanese detective fiction takes an interesting angle if we compare it to other literary historians like Rzepka and Silver, and Kasai's more Formalist reading of closed circle classics like The Siamese Twin Mystery and And Then There Were None is very interesting, but it really makes your head hurt if you cram it all in a few days. Unfortunately, I don't really have a choice as I have to hand in a paper next week... Which is just the first of a series of deadlines I really have to meet. Time. I need it.

Lately, I haven't had time to actually read novels anymore, so I did the next best thing: listen to audio dramatizations of novels. 'Cause listening to dramas is considerably shorter than reading the original novels. And I can listen to them during that Twilight time of the day when you're too tired to read but too active to sleep.

Of course, there is material that is good for adaption and material that is not. For example, mechanical locked rooms can be done as audio dramas, but these often require unnatural dialogue in order to provide the listener the exposition needed to fully understand a certain structure / locale / architecture, which in a novel can be 'hidden' in regular explanatory lines. On the other hand, stories that lean heavily on pure logic, on pure reasoning seem more suitable, as these stories usually develop through through repeated questioning and answering, through pure dialogue. Which is naturally the base of any audio drama.

So Arisugawa Alice's Swiss-dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Watch Mystery") seems like a logical choice for an audio drama adaption (by Momogre (Momo and Grapes Company)). Swiss-dokei no Nazo belongs to Arisugawa's writer Alice series, where criminologist Himura Hideo and detective writer Arisugawa Alice combine their awesome powers to fight crime. And like the title suggests, the story's very much like Ellery Queen's early novels: a murder mystery that revolves around the presence / absence of a certain object, which forms the basis of all of the deductions of our detective. Here, our star is of course the titular wristwatch. Early on in the investigation, Himura deduces that the glass shards found on the crime scene came from the murder victim's wristwatch. Which has disappeared from the crime scene. Did the murderer take the watch away and why? The story at the same time takes a look at the memories of a younger Alice, as the victim and the suspects turn out to be old classmates of him and the memories they share provide for some funny moments.

As a Queen-like story, Swiss-dokei no Nazo is pretty good. The fixation on objects (or fetish, as critic Kasai even calls it) is used by Arisugawa just as interesting as the old master used to do and the denouement in particular is an impressive tour-de-force of pure reasoning simply based on the (absence of a single) object. Like done so expertly in Queen's The Tragedy of Z, the denouement here is based on an all-covering process of elimination, with Himura examining every single possible reason for taking a watch away from the crime scene until he arrives at the murderer. The setting of a small group of friends and the importance of a broken clock of course strongly suggest some relation with Queen's own short story The Glass Domed Clock.

I'll blame my own Japanese proficiency here, but the denouement was a bit confusing though. Like I said, Swiss-dokei no Nazo strongly invokes the early Queen spirit, and any reader of Queen knows that things can get complicated when we get down to the explanation. Yes, it's all logical and it all fits and stuff, but hearing multi-layered deductions based on a multitude of factos in fast-paced dialogue (in a foreign language!), took quite quite a toll on pretty much of all my mental faculties. I have the feeling that the deduction is not completely flawless like Himura (and Arisugawa) posed it to be.... but I'll read the novel one day to make sure.

The voice-acting was pretty good too. I had never heard any of Momogre's audio dramas, but they had an impeckable actor for Alice. As I have never read the original, I am not sure how much of the 300+ pages of the original story made it into the audio drama, but the drama was running at a good pace and it at least never felt like anything was cut from the story. I did had the feeling that a lot of the humor that exists between Himura and Alice (with Himura usually looking down at Alice) had disappeared. They should bicker a bit more.

Anyway, this audio drama sure has made me interested in Momogre's adaption of 46 Banme no Misshitsu, as I have actually read that one.

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ (原作:有栖川有栖) 『スイス時計の謎』

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Primitive or Abstract

「信用できるかどうかは問題ではない。問題は、裏切らないかどうかだ」
『クビツリハイスクール 戯言遣いの弟子』

"It is not a problem of trusting or not trusting. The problem is whether you'll betray or not"
"Hanging High School - Disciple of the Nonsense Bearer"

Sometimes, the hardest part of writing a post is not finding time to read a book, or finding time to write a review. Though those are actually problems I do have at the moment. Sometimes it's not even finding the inspiration to write an x amount of words. Sometimes it's just finding a good topic for the introduction that can serve as a bridge to the main topic. So when I don't have ideas for that, I write stuff like this as an introduction.

But to be honest, I was not even sure whether I should write about Kubitsuri High School - Zaregotodukai no Deshi ("Hanging High School - Disciple of the Nonsense Bearer"), the third entry in NisiOisiN's Zaregoto series. Why would I consider not writing about it, even though I discussed the excellent previous Zaregoto novel? Well, I hinted at it in the last part of that review, but even though the Zaregoto series starts out as a funky modern pop-orthodox mystery, the series slowly moves away from that premise. That change is very noticable in Kubitsuri High School, which strangely at the same time feels like a logical continuation of the last novel, as well as a drastically different novel. But as I have no other material to post about at the moment (I need time to read books!) and it does include a locked room murder, strictly speaking, I figured I might as well discuss it.

Kubitsuri High School - Zaregotodukai no Deshi starts with Aikawa Jun, nicknamed the World's Strongest Private Contractor, asking (mentally blackmailing) the narrator to help her rescueing a friend of hers. Yukariki Ichihime wants to leave her girls' academy, but circumstances make it difficult to do that without help. The narrator is not entirely sure what that means, until he discovers that the school Ichihime is attending is actually training the students to be... assasins. Every student is trained in martial arts and the use of weaponry. And the students have the mission to hunt down Ichihime, making it kinda difficult for her to leave the school.

The narrator and Aikawa manage to sneak into the school and make contact with Ichihime, but when they sneak (break) into into the principle's office, they discover that the principle has been killed. Or rather, sawed into pieces with a chainsaw. And they are pretty sure the room was completely locked before they entered it. Aaaaaand, they also realize that they have been set up, because anyone would suspect them of being the murderers, seeing as they are intruders and Aikawa used brute force to break into the office. Who is trying to frame them and why?

But in reality, the locked room mystery is not really a big mystery. The basic trick for this novel's locked room mystery is really primitive and cliched, and the smoke and mirrors of Kubitsuri High School are not nearly as effective as that of the previous novels. On the other hand, a lot of the mystery surrounding the locked room in Kubitsuri High School is done excellently by NisiOisiN's (and the narrator's) precise choice of words and playing with readers' expectations. It is amazing how easily NisiOisiN changes the meaning of a sentence by simply adding stress to words. NisiOisiN really makes wonderful use of the so-called ambiguity of the Japanese language. Japanese is a language where a lot of information can be left out as much is assumed between the speakers. For example, one does not have to repeat the topic of a sentence every time. NisiOisiN's word-tricks / word-plays make use of these assumptions, luring you into linguistic assumptions that are false. It is pretty difficult to do effectively, because a reader only has to take only one step back to see the linguistic trap, but NisiOisiN cleverly never allows you to take that one step back, always keeping you close to his fantastically written text.

Like mentioned, the emphasis of this book is on the locked room mystery though, but on the escape of Ichihime and the interactions between the narrator, her and the other students trying to capture Ichihime. Like always, the narrator appears as a very hard-to-understand person (even though it is written in the first person), easily lying to everybody (including himself). His interactions with Ichihime, who calls herself the narrator's disciple, are fun, but do not feel nearly as satisfying as the narrator's interactions with his fellow-students in the previous novel. Kubishime Romanticist had brilliant discussions and observations, Kubitsuri High School was just funny. Interesting was also how the school is first described almost as a character itself, basically a gigantic locked space where students are held and with such an enigmatic structure that everybody keeps getting lost in it, but that kinda faded away near the end (which is a shame!).

The previous novel also featured some fight scenes, but assassin high school girls fighting each other (and the narrator) with weird weapons? Yes, we are definitely moving towards a more animanga-esque story now. Yes, I know the previous novels had hints to that too, but tsundere assassin high school girls fighting each other with weird weapons is very in-your-face animanga-esque element. I really liked the off-beat characters and wonderful dialogues in the previous novels, as the balance between those elements and the mystery elements was perfect in my opinion, but in Kubitsuri High School, the mystery element has moved quite a bit towards the background. Which at one hand seems like a logical continuation of the previous novel, but I had really prefered the style of Kubishime Romanticist.

And thus I am not sure whether to continue this series. I like NisiOisiN's writings, but I don't think I like the Zaregoto-world enough to continue reading it if it is going to move away from Kubishime Romanticist's form even further.

Original Japanese title(s): 西尾維新 『クビツリハイスクール 戯言遣いの弟子』

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunset Men

「誰にもとけない問題を作るのとそれを解くのとではどちらが難しいか」
『容疑者Xの献身』

"What is more difficult? Constructing a problem nobody can solve, or solving that problem?"
"The Devotion of Suspect X"

Finding free Japanese mystery novels at the university library is always fun. Now only if I actually had to read all those books! Even this post's topic, a Higashino Keigo novel, took me almost two weeks. In the holiday, I could easily finish a Higashino Keigo novel in one or two days. Oh, free time, where art thou?

Higashino Keigo's Manatsu no Houteishiki ("A Midsummer's Equation") is the third novel-length entry in the Detective Galileo series. The previous two novels, Yougisha X no Kenshin and Seijo no Kyuujo were quite different from the short stories within the series: whereas the Galileo short stories are usually about the use of the hard sciences in murders / solving murder, the novel-length entries have always been rather 'serious' police procedurals where physicist Yukawa, nicknamed Galileo, (sorta unwillingly) helps the police with their investigations, with only a very shallow link to the sciences (making the novels also more accessible).  Manatsu no Houteishiki continues this trend, but sadly enough isn't as interesting as the previous two novels.

The story starts with Kyouhei, an eleven-old kid, going to his aunt and uncle's place for the summer vacation, as his parents are out of town because of work. His aunt runs a pension in Harigaura, a little resort town that has seen better days. Even though it's the middle of summer, the pension only has two other guests. One is Yukawa, who is a invited speaker for a panel discussion on a planned natural resources development project in the sea of Harigaura. The other guest, an elderly man called Tsukahara, is apparently an interested party too, as he shows up in the public of the panel discussion. The panel discussion is quite heated, with lots of villagers wanting to preserve the sea, like Kyouhei's niece Narumi. Others see no future in Harigaura as it is now and strongly believe that the development project will save the town.

The night after the panel discussion however, Tsukahara is found dead on the cliffs. The police at first thinks it's a simple accident, but when they discover that Tsukahara was an ex-cop and that he didn't die of the fall, but of carbon monoxide poisoning, they start to suspect it was murder. Where did Tsukahara die and more importantly, why? Did it have to do with some of his old cases? And meanwhile, the kid Kyouhei is having the worst vacation ever, as his aunt, uncle and niece are too busy dealing with the police. He does find an unexpected friend in Yukawa though, who seems to have some interest in the Tsukahara case too.

While Manatsu no Houteishiki is mostly a police procedural like the previous two novels, it feels quite different. One reason is that we have about five interested parties, with the story's point of view changing between them. Yukawa, Kyouhei, Narumi and her parents, the local police and the Tokyo police all look at the case from different angles, with information flowing from one party to another, some information being hidden from another party and yes, it's a bit too much. The story never gets confusing or anything and the constant changing ensures the story developments keep up a certain pace, but at times it also just feels like unneccesary padding out of the story.

The many perspectives on the case do make it kinda vague what the main problem of this novel is. The previous Galileo novels were clearly about an alibi trick and an impossible poisoning, but there is nothing like that in Manatsu no Houteishiki. The promotion phrase for this book was "Accident? Murder? The truth Yukawa noticed...", but even the question of accident or murder is not as important as one might think. Near the end, the story focuses on the why and how of Tsukahara's death, but it's pretty sad to see that Higashino basically reuses a plot-device he did much better in one of his other novels. The twists in the previous two Galileo novels were devilishly simple, while Manatsu no Houteishiki's trick is more like 'oh, well, yeah, that was simple and not very interesting'.

While there is little discussion on science in this novel, the interaction between Yukawa and the kid Kyouhei does give some interesting insights in Yukawa's idea of science. However, I had troubles seeing Kyouhei as a real kid in the novel. Which is maybe because he is 11, which means he is not a real kid anymore and thus can act more adult at times, but his character seemed to swing to much depending on the situation. Of course, Kyouhei is a lot more realistic than kids like Conan's Detective Boys or Edogawa Rampo's original Detective Boys (and Kyouhei isn't even playing a detective), but I would guess that realistic children are harder to create on paper than adults.

While Yougisha X no Kenshin, Seijo no Kyuujo and Manatsu no Houteishiki are about different kind of criminal problems, the three novels are in the core very similar novels. Higashino uses a similar plot-device in all three novels, he constructs a 'simple-and-therefore-effective' problem in all three novels, the police procedural angle with opposing forces plays an important role in the story development in all three novels. The 'problem' for Manatsu no Houteishiki is that even though it's a decent mystery, the other two novels are simply better at pretty much everything.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『真夏の方程式』