Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Oracle of the Dog

「たしかに、 遺体の第一発見者を疑えというのは、殺人事件の鉄則である。あまりそんな話が広まると、誰も遺体の発見を届け出てくれなくなるので、警察も、おおっぴらには言わないが」
『犬のみぞ知る DOG KNOWS』

"Suspect the one who found the dead body, that's a fundamental rule in murder cases. But nobody would come report finding dead bodies if everybody knew this, so the police does not say this out loud"
"DOG KNOWS"

Kishi Yuusuke's The Glass Hammer was one of my favorite novels of 2011. While the story certainly suffered because of the two-part structure, the solution to the triple-layered locked room murder was simply incredible, which was made all the more impressive because I knew nothing about the book or Kishi. It was just a blind purchase based on a single mention of Kishi by a friend. In retrospect, I don't even think my friend recommended Kishi as a mystery writer, but she probabl just said she liked his novels. Luckily, The Glass Hammer really made an impression.

Security consultant (and probably burglar-in-his-free-time) Enomoto Kei and attorney Aoto Junko return for more impossible crimes and locked room mysteries in Kitsunebi no Ie ("House of the Will o' the Wisp"), a short story collection and second in the series. This collection once again shows what was so fun to The Glass Hammer:  Kishi's creativity. While there is no triple-layered locked room in this collection, even the mundane locked rooms are made interesting by Kishi's fantastic use of his two protagonists. While Enomoto is definitely the detective in this series (being a thief is useful when trying to get in and out of 'sealed' spaces), Aoto is certainly more than 'just' a sidekick and as a highly intelligent laywer, she comes up with great deductions and hypotheses that many readers wouldn't even come up with. Even if the locked room situation seems kinda boring, the way the two protagonists keep making hypotheses based on the evidence, point out the faults in each others hypotheses and slowly move towards the truth is really exciting. The pacing in these stories is fantastic and I finished the book in a record time.

The titular Kitsunebi no Ie ("House of the Will o' the Wisp") is the most reminiscent of The Glass Hammer, both in structure as in story-type. Aoto is hired to defend a man living in a small village in Nagano Prefecture who is accused of killing his own daughter. The man claims that his daughter was already dead when he came back home, but also swears that there were no footsteps around the house when he arrived there (rain had made the ground muddy). A eyewitness also states that the man only came back to his home after his daughter's estimated time of death. All the doors and windows were locked from the inside, except for a window near the back, facing a forest. If there was a killer, he must have escaped there, but there are no footsteps to be found at the back either. Security consultant Enomoto is once again hired by Aoto to prove how someone could have escaped the house without leaving any traces. Similar to The Glass Hammer, the ending is told from the murderer's point of view, but this time it was just a few pages instead of half the book, so it felt less disjointed from the main storyline. All in all a great locked room mystery that keeps the reader guessing.

In Kuroi Kiba ("Black Fangs"), Aoto's client is claiming that a woman is planning to kill the pets she inherited from her dead husband. Aoto and her client meet the woman, trying to get her to hand over the pets she clearly does not want to her client. The fun part in the first part of the story is that Aoto at first assumed that her client was talking about cats, but she discovers quite late that her client was talking about a totally different kind of pet. We enter the second part when Aoto starts to suspect that one of the two killed the woman's husband. However, the police say it was an accident and furthermore, he died inside a locked room. The rest of the story unfolds as she holds a phone-conference with Enomoto in order to discover how the murderer could have created the locked room. And interestingly enough, the story actually has two locked room mysteries, as one of the pets seems to have gotten out of its holding place. As a locked room mystery, this is definitely what the Japanese call a bakamisu, a "What-the?!!-Mystery", because the first reaction you will have when you get to the solution, is "What the...?!!". This does not necessary mean that it is a bad solution, it is just so surprising that that the reader is not sure how to react (it's something I have with some of Shimada Souji's tricks, which are so grand that it almost seems silly). Also definitely not for people with a certain kind of phobia.

Bantan no Meikyuu ("The Board Labyrinth") seems like a simpler story than the previous two stories, but its plot is actually constructed quite complex. A famous shougi player is found stabbed in his hotel room, with the chainlock locking the door. Who stabbed him and how was the locked room created, seem like obvious questions, but what Enomoto focuses the most on is why the locked room was created in the first place. Once again, the constant examination of hypotheses is what makes this story. The solution does require a lot of imagination if you want to arrive there on your own power. The setting reminds of the Furuhata Ninzaburou episode Kegareta Oushou ("The Tainted King"), both stories set during an important shougi match and with shougi playing a big role in the problem itself too.

Inu Nomizo Shiru DOG KNOWS ("Dog Knows") is very different from the other three stories. The main problem revolves around the classic curious incident of the dog in the night-time, but the solution is so simple that any reader think of that. The story is also very short and the characters act so surreal, that Dog Knows might be regarded as a humorous mystery / parody mystery, but Kishi's writing style is so ambiguous here, that I'm not sure whether that was his intention. A disappointing story, but because of its length and place in the collection, maybe I should just regard it as a light bonus story.

As the second entry in the Security Consultant Detective Enomoto Kei series, this is a robust collection and certainly recommended if you liked The Glass Hammer. There was less information on security this time, which is a shame as I really liked that in The Glass Hammer, but Enomoto and Aoto's teamwork certainly makes a lot good. I definitely want to read more of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介 『狐火の家』: 「狐火の家」 / 「黒い牙」 / 「盤端の迷宮」 / 「犬のみぞ知る DOG KNOWS」

Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Ah, the days of my youth... Just like the scent of fresh lemon, you see"

「 しかしある先輩が、ぼくにひとつの福音を与えてくれた。それは、名探偵の名前は漢字三文字がよい、ということ。金田一、加賀美、二階堂。そうだ!霧ヶ峰はエアコンなどではなく、名探偵にこそ相応しい名前だったのだ !」
『霧ヶ峰涼の放課後』

"But then a senior told me something good. All great detectives have three characters in their name. Kindaichi. Kagami. Nikaidou. Yes! Kirigamine wasn't a name for the air-conditioning, it was the name suitable for a great detective!"
"Kirigamine Ryou's After-School Hours"

If I were to exclusively review audio dramas, my post-count would explode, I think! They take no time at all! Hmmm, let's go back to my homework. A paper scheduled for right after New Year is just evil (or: A Lesson In Planning: How To Avoid Doing Everything The Last Few Days).

Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni ("After School, together with Mystery") is an absolute hilarious supplement short story collection to Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series.The series is of course about a detective club at the titular Koigakubo Academy. Note that it is actually a detective club and not a detective fiction club, so the members don't discuss detective fiction there, they actually detect. Or at least, that's what they are supposed to do, but because their activities are rather irregular (despite popular belief, it is not likely to come across a case every day), the club has not been officially recognized by the school yet. And thus the members spend their after-school hours looking for cases to solve around campus. These range from 'simple' theft cases to full-blown murder cases. At school.

As a supplement novel, Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni features a different protagonist from the main series: Kirigamine Ryou, a tomboyish second year student and vice-president of the detective club. Her heart is definitely in the right place, having an almost surreal passion for finding mysteries (especially of the impossible kind) and even already having made her name-card, but she is actually usally not playing the detective part in the stories: she is certainly not dumb, but it seems there's always someone better around her (even though she's the vice-president!).  As a protagonist, she is awesome though, being both sharp and clueless at the same time and she is certainly strong enough a character to carry her own series. The setting is also fun: the mysteries are all set around the after-school campus, with club activities going on. The stories convey an actual school-feeling (without convining it to 'class' situations), which actually few mysteries set at schools manage to do (without resorting to the old school festival setting).

I had actually been waiting for Momogre's adaption of Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni, which was scheduled for today, but then I discovered that NHK already did a 10-part radio drama adaption of the book in their Youth Adventure serials earlier this year. I totally digged the Youth Adventure's adaption of Norizuki Rintarou's Ni no Higeki, so I had high expectations for this adaption. Which were totally justified. I love Asagura Aki's Kirigamine Ryou and even though the adaption may seem short, with 10 episodes of 15 minutes each, the pacing of the stories is just impeccable (which is also probably because of Higashigawa's writing style) and never feels too hasty. The original book featured eight short stories, but they sadly enough only adapted six stories (leaving out Kirigamine Ryou and the Invisible Poison and Kirigamine Ryou and the Tragedy of X, the latter being one of Higashigawa's own favorite stories, having spent 10 years (!) plotting this short story). Making it interesting to see what Momogre's going to do.

In Kirigamine Ryou no Kutsujoku ("Kirigamine Ryou's Humiliation"), our hero gets assaulted by a thief in the audiovisual materials room as she visits the E-Building, an annex built in the shape of the letter 'E'. She and some other people she meets on the way chase the thief across the building until they reach the only open exit of the building, but it seems he has disappeared: someone was near the exit the whole time and swears nobody left the building. How did the thief escape from the E-building? The solution might seem obvious, as it certainly invokes a certain mystery in a room of the yellow kind, but that's actually Higashigawa's specialty: making you think that the story's probably simple and easy to solve because it's so light-hearted and funny, but there is usually something deeper behind it. The solution is good, because it really fits the school-setting, something that not many mysteries set at school can say.

Kirigamine Ryou no Gyakushuu ("Kirigamine Ryou's Counterattack") starts with Ryou who comes across a paparazzi camera-man one day after school. The cameraman had been waiting in front of an apartment the whole day, trying to get a picture of a rising star actor and his girlfriend, both of them alumni of Koigakubo Academy. The cameraman is sure both of them entered the apartment (seperately), but needs a picture of them both together. After some events however, Ryou and the cameraman are invited to the room themselves by the woman, who says that she knows what the cameraman is thinking, but that she is not dating the actor and nobody entered her room at all. Ryou and the cameraman search the room and discover that the room is indeed empty. Was the cameraman wrong? Or did the actor just disappear from the room? Once again Higashigawa plays with the expectations of the reader/listener, luring him in a false sense of security and 'ha, I already know this trick', only for him to reveal his layered trap. It has parallels with Higashigawa's own Jisoku Yonjuu Kilo no Misshitsu, both stories featuring a room under observation and an impossible escape, but the latter story is also burdened by a rather hard-to-believe murder trick.

Kirigamine Ryou no Zekkyou ("Kirigamine Ryou's Scream") is the only story adapted that was only one episode long (15 minutes), but it was enough to convey this short, yet fun little story about a student who was attacked on the running grounds of the school. There were no footsteps around him except for his own and the girl who discovered him lying unconcious on the ground (and she couldn't have hit him, as seen from the footsteps), so who attacked the boy and how? A somewhat incredible solution, but it fits the humorous tone of the collection.

Kirigamine Ryou no Houkago ("Kirigamine Ryou's After School Hours") is a really fun misdirection story, that starts out with Ryou and her friend Nao discovering a delinquent student smoking in a little storehouse, but the story develops in rather unpredictable ways from that point on, so I don't want to spoil it. A lot of fun in this story is because Ryou (and therefore the listener) has no idea what's going on. Higashigawa did a very nice job with this story, having carefully clued everything, yet at the same time succeeding wonderfully at hiding the truth. There is actually an official web-movie version available of this story (to be found at the 'actual' Koigakubo Academy website), which I really recommend to people who want to have a taste of Higashigawa's unique sense of storytelling (no subtitles though!). The production is pretty good though and the way they did the first-person narrator thing... is just genius. And cute.

Kirigamine Ryou no Okujou Misshitsu ("Kirigamine Ryou's Locked Rooftop") features something that totally seems like an urban legend: as Ryou and a teacher are on their way back home, a girl falls on top of the teacher. Ryou checks the rooftop right after the girl landed on the teacher, but it finds it empty and the staircase was watched the whole time, so Ryou concludes that it must have been an attempt at suicide. Which the girl (who fortunately didn't die) denies, saying that she was called to the roof and pushed off there. What happened on the roof? Did the would-be murder just disappear in thin air? A somewhat flawed mystery: the solution is rather simple and a bit disappointing even, but the same elements could have resulted in a more impressive impossible crime, which they mention it themselves in the story. On the other hand, the elements that could have made this a more impressive mystery can only be made known the listener after the solving of the crime, or else there is no mystery at all. A conundrum.

Kirigamine Ryou no Nidome no Kutsujoku ("Kirigamine Ryou's Second Humiliation") is once again set at the E-Building, like the first story. And once again features an impossible disappearance. Ryou happens to find a student who was attacked in the art room in the E-Building and is then attacked herself. Her attacker runs back into the hallway of the E-Building and Ryou wouldn't be the vice-president of the detective club if she didn't give chase immediately. Like in the first story, the attacker manages to escape even though all the exits being watched. Despite the story being set at the same place, with the same type of impossible situation, this story is quite different from Kirigamine Ryou's first humiliation, featuring a totally different kind of solution and even features a second, hidden problem and thus feels surprisingly fresh.

All in all a very fun short story collection, that manages to combine humor with orthodox detective plots with great success. It works great as an audio drama too, with a great Kirigamine Ryou voice-actress. Now I'm very interested in Momogre's adaption too: as I wonder how the adaptions of Momogre and NHK's Youth Adventure differ.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉(原作) NHK青春アドベンチャー 『放課後はミステリーとともに』: 「霧ヶ峰涼の屈辱」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼の逆襲」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼の絶叫」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼の放課後」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼の屋上密室」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼の二度目の屈辱」

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Robots of Death

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics

Yes. It has finally happened. I've reviewed more English-language works than Japanese works this month. (The Japanese audio drama of Christie's The ABC Murders is a special case though). But actually having discussed more non-Japanese works than Japanese works feels.... really weird. Almost disturbing. Shouldn't do this too often.

Anyway, earlier this week I took a look at the classic in the science-fiction mystery subgenre: Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel. I doubt Asimov needs any introduction (or else I refer to wiki). The story of The Caves of Steel is set in a faraway future, where space-travel has been perfected and planets near Earth have been colonised by mankind. The descendants of these colonists, Spacers, are rich and make extensive use of robot labor on their planets. Earth itself is having troubles with overpopulation and man has started to live in so-called Cities, gigantic building complexes covered by metal that are barely able to economically sustain the millions of inhabitants inside it. Spacers have taken a rather imperialistic stance towards Earth, while Earthmen in return don't like Spacers.

The story starts with the murder on a Spacer ambassador / scientist in the Spacer outpost on Earth. The Spacers think it was someone outside their outpost (i.e. a non-Spacer) who killed their man and low-level Earth cop Elijah Baley is charged with the job. Elijah is forced to work with the Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw (R. stands for Robot) to solve the murder, all to prevent a gigantic diplomatic incident. Yes, it's a buddy cop story.

There is a locked room element to the murder of the Spacer, but I feel that it is hard to describe it without making it all too obvious what the solution is. Which makes it seem like a very obvious solution, but I have to admit that Asimov wrote a very satisfying mystery set in the future. Yes, this is definitely SF, with Asimov describing his future Earth in great detail, adding in speculations about the way human society is going to evolve and technical advancements, but we also have a very competent mystery plot. The hinting, a locked room situation, it even features false solutions. It's a very competent novel that is exactly what it was intended to be: a science-fiction mystery that is fair and fun to read.

I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the 2001 movie Metropolis (loosely based on Tezuka Osamu's manga) borrowed some its plot-elements (especially concerning robotics) from The Caves of Steel. Then again, The Caves of Steel is apparently a science-fiction classic, so that's not really surprising, I guess.... (hey, I really know nothing about science fiction).

The only science fiction mysteries I've read are The Caves of Steel and Sonada Shuuichirou's Dakara Dare Mo Inaku Natta ("And That Is Why There Were None"), but I have to admit that I like the latter better. The latter is purely a puzzle plot built on the Three Laws of Robotics, a compact thing that never feels too big to me. It was definitely set in the future with robots and all, but they were clearly just part of the mystery story. Just the three rules. The Caves of Steel is fun and there is no mind-boggling technobabble in it, but the extensive attention to the future world, to the future society do give the book a distinct 'future' feeling, something I am not too  familiar with and is thus a bit distracting at times.

But I do like the way Asimov clearly indicated what was possible in his future world and what was not. It seems there is always a need to make very, very clear what the rules are for the mystery. Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics as they are used in The Caves of Steel are a clear example, but Mitsuhara Yuri's fantasy story Hana Chiru Yoru ni ("On the Night the Flowers Scattered") also went out its way to describe the workings of the Devil Fruit in detail. The use of these non-meta rules (as opposed to the meta-rules by Knox and Van Dine) to create clearly definied mystery that still manages to surprise is something I have enjoyed for a long time. Take a look for example at the usage / interpretation of rules in the popular manga Death Note and Liar Game.

And yes, my reviews of non-Japanese works are always written this badly. Should work on that, actually. Hmm...

Friday, December 23, 2011

「古い戦術だね。細かいムジュンを突いて証人の動揺を誘う」

"Well... it's monday night in San Francisco and we're keeping our weekly date with Gregory Hood and his friend Sanderson Taylor. Tonight's rendezvous is at one this city's oldest and best restaurants - Fior d'Italia. The furnishngs are tasteful, the music discreet, and the veal à la maison, so Gregory tells me, is incomparable. Let's join them, shall we?"
"The Black Museum"

Listening to audio-dramas is for me always a race against time. Or more specifically, sleep. I only listen to audio-dramas in bed and I close my eyes to concentrate on the audio. It probably doesn't take a genius to guess that I thus often, very often, very very often fall asleep while I'm listening to audio-dramas. It usually takes me days to finish a drama, because I keep falling asleep halfway through, forgetting most of the story. So then I have to re-listen from the point I do remember. Rince and repeat. Efficient, I certainly am not.

On one hand, scripts of audio-dramas are a solution to that problem, as I can actually read the stories. The downside is of course that I miss the audial element of the audio dramas. Which in some circles is considered a fairly important feature of audio dramas. Forcing me to choose between sleep and audio though, leaves the latter with no chance at all.

I have listened to... the first part of several radio plays in The Casebook of Gregory Hood series, but I don't think I ever finished one. Or at least, never while I was awake. So the book of The Casebook of Gregory Hood, collecting fourteen scripts of the radio play, was my way of cheating me out of it. The Casebook of Gregory Hood (the show) was an invention of Anthony Boucher and Denis Green, following the amateur sleuthing adventures of Gregory Hood in San Fransisco, assisted by his laywer Sandy. I could go on telling about Antony Boucher, or repeat everything that is said in the introduction of the book and is found in every review of the book on the internet about how the show came to be, but let's be honest: I see no reason in doing because it's out there already. Yes, I am lazy.

My third-rate writing style compels me to compare The Casebook of Gregory Hood to Ellery Queen's The Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries. Not original, but it gives me a structure to build my review on. Anyway, it is pretty natural that the stories in The Casebook of Gregory Hood feel like the Queen radio plays, considering Boucher worked on that show. This is hardly a bad thing though, as Queen's show was great. Gregory Hood thus also offer fair-play mysteries with all the classic staples of the genre and is generally also very rewarding to read/listen. Plotwise, we have adventures that feature some great mysteries: a woman who comes back to life (The Red Capsule), a psychic who can predict the future (The Derringer Society), a locked room murder with our hero as the main suspect (Gregory Hood, Suspect). And to top it off, a clown gets killed (The Sad Clown). There is no shortage to interesting settings. In true Queen-style, these mysteries are solved by Hood by carefully examining the clues and coming with a logical answer a listener / reader could have deduced himself. In this sense, The Casebook of Gregory Hood is an entertaining read.

Yet I do not find Gregory's adventures as interesting as Queen's adventures. Maybe it's the characters of Gregory (playboy/connoisseur of everything/importer) and Sandy (lawyer), whom feel a bit too much like Philo Vance / Markham duo. At any rate, the stories 'feel' less memorable than the ones in Queen's The Adventures of the Murdered Moths and Other Radio Mysteries, which might be an unfair comparison. 'Cause most of the stories collected in The Casebook of Gregory Hood are good and fun. It's just that the other book, from the same publisher, in the same format, featuring similar stories is just better. Both books are good, but they are too much alike to escape the comparison in my mind.

I had forgotten though, how much fun reading a radio-script is. Writing a complete story in mostly direct quotes (conversation) is pretty difficult, but when it's done well, it results in a very pleasant read. Having read mostly Japanese novels lately, this more conversation-focused method of telling a story feels much more natural to me.

Overall, The Casebook of Gregory Hood is an amusing collection of good old fashioned fair-play radio mysteries that is good. There is a better one out there, but this book is still a very, very solid silver medalist.
 
Oh, and why I didn't write something on every single story like I usually do? I'm just too lazy. You wouldn't believe how many transformations this review went through before I ended up with this. It first started as a radio script-styled review.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

"You know my methods. Apply them"

"'It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.'

'You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty,' said I. 'Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.'"

"The Final Problem"

It had been years since I last went to the movie theaters here, but I guess it's normal to play with your cellphone during the movie, rest your feet against the seat in front of you and leave your garbage at your seat / on the floor / throw popcorn on the floor? Hmmm.....

As a friend worded so deftly, it's a Sherlockian winter. New Year will bring us the long-awaited second season of BBC's Sherlock, but our Victorian master-detective also makes an appearance at the theaters just in time for Christmas. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the sequel to 2009's Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law and while the first movie was not without its flaws, it was certainly an entertaining action movie with an original take on the characters (though opinions on whether that was good or not differ widely). Downey Jr. played himself, and while I liked the basic concept of his Holmes, he at times felt too eccentric. I loved Law's Watson though and the bickering between the two was really one of the better points of the movie. At any rate, I filed it under the 'it was entertaining enough' files in my head, but I had somehow missed that the sequel (with Moriarty!) was to be released this winter (luckily a friend told me). So with 'it's probably entertaining enough' expectations, I went to the theater. I was also geeky enough to read The Final Problem on my way to the theater and afterwards listened to BBC Radio's audio adaption of it on my way back from the movie.

The story of the movie is very loosy based on The Final Problem, chronicling the battle of Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Having deduced the existence of the Napoleon of Crime and identified him with Moriarty, Holmes tries to find the evidence to get him hanged, but you'd hardly be a Napeleon of Crime if you'd just wait for Holmes to accomplish his task. As his organisation (led by Colonel Sebastian Moran), try to eliminate Holmes (and Watson and his wife, because Now It's Personal makes the stakes seem even higher), the dynamic duo discover the diabolical deviations of the dastardly....dangerous... man.

D...?

My 'it's probably entertaining enough' expectations changed to 'this is quite horrible' thoughts right after the movie started. Because it was quite horrible. Gone was the charm of the first movie and in return we got a chaotic mess of bits and pieces of plot and forced humor. The first part was to introduce some characters like Mycroft (who only got a very short introduction by the way), to establish that It's Personal and to plant some clues for later parts of the movie, but the way this was done was just awful.

And then Holmes and Watson get on a train and everything becomes awesome.

Once the story gets past the first one-third, pacing, structuring, the humor, the action, everything becomes better (except for an abudance of explosions past the half-way point) and becomes one thrilling ride all the way to a very impressive interpretation of the Reichenbach Falls incident. The ride towards the end is really entertaining and that might be because this movie is at its core quite quite different from the first movie. The first movie was essentially a classic detective plot, with the ressurected Lord Blackwood and the serial murders being the main mystery for Holmes to solve. In A Game of Shadows, it's more about the cat-and-mouse game between Holmes and Moriarty, resulting in several skirmishes between the two parties spread across the movie. If the first movie was about one big mystery, then its sequel is about several mysteries that solved one after another, but these mysteries are definitely linked. The hints for these mysteries are done better than in the first movie, in the sense that we actually get a good look at them, but the way these hints are conveyed to the viewer are almost painfully obvious. Oh, there we have a full close-up shot of a seemingly unimportant item for more than a second. Subtle, it is not. In fact, one hint for the very last surprise of the movie is inserted in the movie so clumsily, that it feels like an after-thought.

Like I said, the interpretation of the last confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls is pretty impressive and definitely my favorite part of the movie. It is a scene that does justice to the original story, without losing the particular, more action-oriented flavor of this movie series. I'd even go as far as to say that this might be my favorite Holmes - Moriarty, or even more broadly, master-detetive vs. master-criminal confrontation scene ever. It also helps that Harris' Moriarty is awesome.

For the viewer familiar with Holmes, there were quite a lot of little nods to the canon. Some lines are straight quotations, while the inclusion of Colonel Sebastion Moran as a sniper-Dragon to Moriarty in this story is a very logical choice. But there are also less obvious nods, Holmes' final trump for example builds heavily on a little reference in The Final Problem and a story-device used in another Holmes story. The movie also actually wonderfully tries to mess with your mind halfway through the movie by recreating a certain scene from The Final Problem. I don't think most viewers would have picked up on it, but it certainly had me doubting for a second!

Oh, and Hans Zimmer's soundtrack is once again great.

All in all, I had quite some fun with this movie. The beginning is bad, but when the plot hits its stride, it's really entertaining. It does not differ greatly from the formula set in the first movie, so it's safe to say that anyone who liked the first movie is sure to like A Game of Shadows.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Turnabout Memories

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"

I love Cing's Nintendo adventure games, but why do the protagonists in Another Code / Hotel Dusk always have to play memory games at the end every chapter? Why would I have troubles with recollecting an event that happened five minutes ago? What earthly reason can there for me to have forgotten the item I just picked up ten minutes ago? I mean, my memory is bad, but I doubt I would forget the name of the man I'd been hunting for years...

Though with books and plots, that might be a bit different, especially as I read quite a bit in 2011. I decided near the end of 2010 that I would definitely get rid of my ridiculously enormous backlog of Japanese detective novels (which was around 60 books big) in 2011, so I started with a rigorous one-book-a-week schedule. Which went pretty good actually in the first half of the year. Time constraints kinda killed that schedule the last few months of the year, but still, I doubt I've ever read this many pages in one year in my life.

 (Disclaimer: not actually the books read this year)

So I am happy I have a blog to help jog my memory, because without it, making a Traditional End-of-Year List (TM) would have been pretty impossible for me. Like I would have remembered when I read which books. Hah! So it's a good thing I actually blot my thoughts down nowadays. At least memory problems are not preventing me from making a End-of-Year List.

No, the trouble lies more in selecting an abritary number of stories and saying that those books represent the best of my reading year. What's the best? The most fun? Best plotted? The most satisfying read? All of these? What about articles I had most fun with writing?  So then I decided I was not going to make an uniform list. I was just going to make up a category for everything I was happy with.

So without further ado and in no particular order (as I write this as I go...):

Most Satisfying Reading of 2011:
Jinroujou no Kyoufu ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle") (Nikaidou Reito)
What a Night for a Knight (Part One: Germany)
Hassle in the Castle (Part Two: France)
Nowhere to Hyde (Part Three: Detective)
Who's afraid of the Big Bad Werewolf? (Part Four: Conclusion)

Four massive volumes. More than 2400 pages. Jinroujou no Kyoufu is a massive work. It is an impressive work. Nikaidou Reito came up with an amazing mystery (of dare I say epic proportions) that will remain in the annals of mystery writing forever. Or at least should.

But reading this novel was particularly satisfying because of what I had to overcome. Firstly, the act of gathering all the four volumes of this (out-of-print) set was quite troublesome and in the end I bought my four volumes at separate stores in Fukuoka and Osaka. Yes, I crossed half of Japan to complete this set (well, I just happened to spot the missing volumes when I was on holiday in Osaka... but still). Secondly, it was 2400 pages in Japanese. Yes, I read books in Japanse, but the sheer volume of the story would have been impressive in English, let alone in Japanese. Reading this wasn't just a matter of reading the longest detective novel, it was a matter of reading the longest narrative in Japanese I'll probably read in this life. In the end it took me a full month, a volume a week, before I finished it, but I was so glad, 'cause the story was great and I leveled up my Japanese Reading Stats.

And while the relation between the posts and the titles isn't always as strong, I'm pretty happy I managed to link the four posts through something as awesome as Scooby Doo.

Most Surprising Tricks of 2011!
Alice Mirror Jou Satsujin Jiken ('Castle Alice Mirror' Murder Case) Kitayama Takekuni)

This one was especially surprising as I knew very little practically nothing about the novel. I had only skimmed through a review at Konton no Hazama, but it seemed interesting enough. It turned out to be a fantastic story, and one trick in particular used in this story was so impressive that I'll say that it was the most surprising trick I've seen this whole year. And I have seen quite a few of them.

Oh, and this was also where I confessed I've never read Alice in Wonderland. Which is still true.

The Glass Hammer (Kishi Yuusuke)

Another novel of which I knew nothing about. I was just going by a name a friend dropped once, and chose this particular book because it was the first in a series that had an interesting name (Security Consultant Detective Enomoto Kei). And while certainly not perfect on a structural level, the main trick of this novel is original, surprising with just the right amount of insanity.

Me no Kabe no Misshitsu (A Locked Room With Walls of Eyes) (Ooyama Seiichirou)

Funnily enough, the trick within story an sich is not particularly surprising (certainly not bad though). But the main trick is how this whole story is penned: as one of the chapters in the game Trick X Logic, it had to adhere strictly to the three rules (excluding uttered statements, every word written has to be the truth / motive is of no importance / no supernatural explanations). Me no Kabe no Misshitsu is the story that makes best use of these rules, as the story's point of view changes between all known suspects, but despite that they all seem innocent! This is a really well-structured and plotted story and the main trick of hiding the murderer using the rules of Trick X Logic is great.

Bitter-Sweetest Reading of 2011
The French Powder Mystery (Ellery Queen)

My. Last. Country. Novel. One of the best too!

The Most Insane Decision of 2011!
Detective Conan volume 01 ~ 10
Detective Conan volume 11 ~ 20
Detective Conan volume 21 ~ 30
Detective Conan volume 31 ~ 40
Detective Conan volume 41 ~ 50
Detective Conan volume 51 ~ 60
Detective Conan volume 61 ~ 70
Detective Conan volume 72
Detective Conan volume 73
Detective Conan: The Time Bombed Skyscraper
Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target
Detective Conan: The Last Wizard of the Century
Detective Conan: Captured in Her Eyes
Detective Conan: Countdown to Heaven
Detective Conan: Phantom of Baker Street
Detective Conan: Crossroad in the Ancient Capital
Detective Conan: Magician of the Silver Sky
Detective Conan: Strategy Above the Depths
Detective Conan: Private Eyes' Requiem
Detective Conan: Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure
Detective Conan: Full Score of Fear
Detective Conan: The Raven Chaser
Detective Conan: Lost Ship in the Sky
Detective Conan: Quarter of Silence
A Challenge Letter for Kudou Shinichi - Mystery of the Monster Bird Legend
Detective Conan - A Challenge Letter for Kudou Shinichi (TV)
Detective Conan: Rondo of the Blue Jewel (Nintendo DS)

Reviewing everything Conan. Not only the 15th animation anniversary releases like the Nintendo DS game and the live action series, but actually starting with volume 1 all the way up to the most recent one (well, technically a new volume was released a couple of days ago, but it hasn't arrived here yet). That's over a 70 x 180 pages of murder, mystery and mayhem! And the movies Not really sure why I did it, but this was a pretty ambitious effort that went... mostly well.

Readings That Translated Best To An Article. Of 2011!
Shounen Tantei Dan series (Boys Detective Club) (Edogawa Rampo)
Jukkakukan no Satsujin (The Decagon House Murders) (Ayatsuji Yukito)
Honjin Satsujin Jiken (Murder in the Old Daimyo's Inn) (Yokomizo Seishi)
Kakei Toshi (The Burning Metropolis) (Shimada Souji)
Murder Among the Angells (Roger Scarlett)
Akuma no Temariuta (The Devil's Ball Song) (Yokomizo Seishi)
The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case (S.S. Van Dine)

The description to the right says this blog is about "Writing about (Japanese) detective fiction, food and stuff". So I focus mostly (but not exclusively) on Japanese detective fiction. Why? Because there is so little information about in English! Here we have a booming industry, with several interesting subgenres that have developed explosively, but nobody writes about it in English! A look through the English-language literary histories on Japanese detective fiction also show a tendency to focus on pre-WWII, which is all dandy and fine and all, but we are missing a lot of literature about the post-War period, which is as interestingly, or even more interesting than the pre-War period. On the other side: a lot of literary histories tend to focus solely on historicism, leaving behind any assesment of the work as is.

While the above are just badly written pieces, I did attempt to broaden the knowledge of Japanese detective fiction in English, without forgetting to look at the works under discussion as what they are: detective novels. These works allowed me to do some background research, but also allowed me to talk about them as just fiction, as creative works that can be assesed on internal characteristics. So these are the novels that I feel translated the best to an article. It did help that most of these books were actually good too.

Oh, and an honorable mention to that one article that wasn't a review at all. Just fun to write.

Most Interesting Game. Played in 2011 But Probably Older!
Kamaitachi no Yoru (Night of the Kamaitachi) (Chunsoft)

Ah, my other hobby, gaming. Have I mentioned that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is awesome? Anyway, detective games do have a lot of flaws, but they also (ideally) give the player more freedom in advancing a story than just a novel. Chunsoft's seminal sound novel Kamaitachi no Yoru, with its branching storyline that depend on player choices, is an excellent example of how people should translate detective fiction to games, I think. Does the player pick up the clues, does the player act in time or is everything going to end in a massacre?

I enjoyed writing the Famicom Tantei Club post the best though. And the (non-detective) game I had most fun playing this year...? Probably Game Center CX: Arino no Chousenjou 2, I'm still playing the daily challenges. And I love Toriotosu. But Skyward Sword comes close.

The Readings I Had Most Fun With! In 2011!
Kubishime Romanticist - Ningen Shikkaku Zerozaki Hitoshiki (Strangulation Romanticist - Human Failure - Zerozaki Hitoshiki) (NisiOisiN)

NisiOisiN is just an amazing writer. Personally, I feel like the protagonist is eerily similar to me, which also made reading this novel a mysterious experience, but setting that aside, NisiOisiN is just a wizard with words, with expressions, with putting done seemingly nonsenical thoughts that end in mind-blowing (ok, maybe not that impressive) statements. The novel is funny, it is sad, it is depressing, it is farcical, it is everything and a bit more. Oh and wait, as a detective novel it is pretty good too! This is one novel I had fun with reading on a both a technical level, as well ason an aesthetic level.

Misshitsu no Kagi Kashimasu(Lending the Key to the Locked Room) (Higashigawa Tokuya)

Higashigawa is probably a funny person with a slight cynical, sadistal tone. At least, that is what I gather from his works. As a detective novel, Misshitsu no Kagi Kashimasu is decent, but it is Higashigawa's humorous writing and snide commentary that really made this a very amusing read. His almost poisonous tongue is also seen in Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, which also features original, decently plotted detectives that are spiced up with great humor. His stories are simply fun to read.

Most Satisfying Translation of 2011
Kirisakima (The Ripper) (Norizuki Rintarou)

While shoddingly written, Edogawa Rampo's Nanimono is to me interesting as my longest translation, but I had the most fun with Norizuki Rintarou's Kirisakima. It was a story I enjoyed very much the first time I read it a couple of years ago and re-reading showed that simply is a fun story. It's one of those rare stories that does everything good in my eyes, and in a way I enjoy the most too (Queen-ian style short story)! Publishers, maybe it's time for more English Norizuki Rintarou?

Note by the way, that I only did like four or five translations this year, and only two of them were actually detective stories

That Post I Want To Mention So I Make A Special Category For It
Kuitan (Terasawa Daisuke)

Few people here have probably read this blog from the beginning, but half of the blog was written in Japan and the other half in the Netherlands. And the pattern for this blog is that when I am in Japan, I tend to purchase a lot of novels, but have no time to read them. So I write about food (hence it is mentioned in the blog decription). I only have to time to read at the novels I bought in Japan at a steady schedule when I'm in the Netherlands.

But anyway, food is hardly mentioned (even though I love the topic) as I have been focusing on detective fiction lately, but I find it comforting to know I can always rely on Kuitan if I want to use the food tag again in combination with detective fiction. Seriously though, there should be more detectives that focus on food. It's a fun series, and in fact, I only wrote a post on non-professional detectives in August only because I wanted to namedrop Kuitan again.

And finally, The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
I am actually not sure whether this is the last post of the year, nor whether this is the last book I'll read this year. So there is a chance I'll still read a book that is super-special-awesome. That book will just have the bad luck of me having written this post rather early.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Turnabout Beginnings

"IT'S DANGEROUS TO GO ALONE. TAKE THIS"
"The Legend of Zelda"

Publishers bringing us old out-of-print mysteries in this age, you naturally deserve praise for your wonderful efforts, but you should really do something about the smell of those print-on-demand books. Seriously, they smell absolutely awful...

Anyway...

As it would be very easy to start a review of a Philo Vance novel with a reference to Ogden Nash's simple yet striking description of the detective, I'll refrain from that. Or wait, did I just reference it? At any rate, S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance series is so well-known (in the right circles), that I doubt I'll need to introduce them. So I'll be lazy and refer to Wiki. And yes, I do seem am more lazy when I review English-language material. The fact that I am doing a review of both The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case in one post though, is not because I am lazy. And in fact, it was also very alluring to make two seperate posts about them (because that would make bump up the post-count). But these two books actually work quite well together for a double review. Why? Well, while I am certainly not an expert on the complete Philo Vance canon, I am quite sure that The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case were the most influential books of the canon, having inspired countless of other writers all over the world with their amazing plots. Or, I can at least say with certainty, The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case have been a tremendous force of influence to Japanese writers. And as I like to pretend like I have knowledge of Japanese detective fiction, I should at least have read these two novels, right? Not having read these novels is like going questing without a sword! It's dangerous!

The Greene Murder Case, third in the Philo Vance series, is 'a complete and unedited history of the Greene holocaust'. The Greene family was never a happy one, with every member of the family hating the others. What made it worse was that they had to live in the same mansion for 25 years (due the conditions of old man Greene's will). The Greene mansion was a place of evil, of built-up hate, hate which ended in murder. Starting with the murder on the eldest Greene daughter (and a attack on the youngest Greene daughter) one night, members of the Greene family are being killed one after another, leaving district attorney Markham, the police and amateur detective Philo Vance with a rather bloody mess.

The Greene Murder Case is, despite some clear flaws, a very powerful novel. The story of the 'Greene holocaust' has a good pace, it is well structured and mostly fairly hinted. The story developments are quite well done: I read it in one go, which is a rare thing. Flaws however include the fact that it is pretty easy to deduce whodunnit as pretty much everybody is dead near the end of the novel and one particular trick behind a murder seemed rather farfetched. Yet, the atmosphere in the novel is really good, which is also the reason why I like this novel the best of all the Van Dine's I've read until now. It's clearly a step up from the previous two novels (which were to me so nondescript that I hardly remember anything about them).

While The Greene Murder Case is probably best known for its solution/murderer, which has inspired quite some other writers, I won't touch upon that here. No, for this blog it is far more interesting to look at The Greene Murder Case as the ur-example of a good old yakata-mono (mansion-story). While this Japanese term might suggest relations to a term like 'country house murders', a yakata-mono is distinctly more dark than the more neutral 'country house murder' moniker. The mansion in question should almost act like a character itself in the story; this might be at an actual physical level (for example, strange architecture like in Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Murder among the Angells) or at a more spiritual level, for example by acting as a place with a distictly evil vibe. Which is certainly the case with The Greene Murder Case, though another example would be the Hatter mansion in Queen's The Tragedy of Y. It is a subgenre quite popular among Japanese orthodox writers, with Ayatsuji Yukito and Nikaidou Reito being the usual suspects. I've read more Nikaidou than Ayatsuji, but for example most of the Nikaidou Ranko novels I've discussed are clearly yakata-mono, with almost monstreous architectial structures looming in the background of the story. In fact, Nikaidou's novels take more cues from The Greene Murder Case: his novels often feature families forced to live together in a place of evil mansion which ends up in a lot of murders.

The Greene Murder Case (and Van Dine in general) also had a profound influence on Yokomizo Seishi and it is not hard to see the many similarities between Greene and Yokomizo's Inugamike no Ichizoku. A family forced to live together through a horrible will of a deceased family patriarch, the absolute hate that exist between the family members, who will work together and betray each other whenever it suits them, the changing shares of the inheritance when one dies.... while Yokomizo's puzzle-plot is completely different from The Greene Murder Case (and superior, I might add), one can feel Greene's influence everywhere.

But I think it is pretty safe to say that The Bishop Murder Case was the most influential of the Philo Vance novels. As it is revealed in the first chapter already and this is really really well known, I consider it not a spoiler to say that The Bishop Murder Case is a nursery rhyme mystery. The first actually (at least, that is the consensus, which I is perfectly fine with me). The Bishop Murder Case is about a series of murders resembling Mother Goose nursery rhymes (i.e. a man called Cochrane Robin found dead with an arrow in his chest), all commited by someone calling himself Bishop.

Setting the importance of the nursery rhyme mystery plot device aside for a second, I didn't like this book as well as The Greene Murder Case. Pacing, structuring, clueing, it all felt inferior to what Greene and let's be honest, a lot of the nursery rhymes murder scenes felt forced. Yes, they mention that it was coincidental, but still, a lot of coincidences make up a pattern, and this pattern was rather hard to believe. Oh, but the part where Vance investigates an alibi by getting the records of a chess game and re-playing the game himself? Genius!

And now to the topic of the nursery rhymes, but I don't think I have to go to deep into the importance of the nursery rhyme murder to the history of detective fiction, right? It's not just the nursery rhyme motif, it is the whole concept of a series of murders to stand symbol for something else that is important; it is the concept of structuring a series of murders that is important. Yes, we have nursery rhyme murders like Christie's And Then There Were None, but the structuring of The ABC Murders is just as much indebted to The Bishop Murder Case. Loads of Ellery Queen's novels are following a certain structure that allude to something else (which may or may not be clear from the start). While the connection to the nursery rhymes are made almost immediately in The Bishop Murder Case, a lot of 'nursery rhyme mysteries' usually turn this around: they come up with a series of seemingly unrelated murders, only to reveal at a later stage that all the crimes are connected through a (often symbolic) link.

Scholar Kawana builds on critic Kasai Kiyoshi' literary history of Japanese detective fiction when she argues that the nursery rhyme murder is a distinctly post-World War theme for mystery novels, as a nursery rhyme murder motif is basically a psychological plot-device to create structure in a series of seemingly unrelated, meaningless murders (= giving meaning to every single, individual death, as opposed to the mass deaths in total war). While absolutely not without its share of flaws, Kasai's attempt of presenting orthodox detectives as post-World War literature and the non-Western-centric approach to it is certainly laudable and Kawana's analysis of Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou as Japan's first original 'nursery rhyme mystery' is certainly worth a read (full of spoilers though!:  Kawana, Sari (2007) ‘With rhyme and reason: Yokomizo Seishi’s postwar murder mysteries’. Comparative Literature Studies, 44:1-2, 118-143.)

From a less-literary history-ish viewpoint, Yokomizo Seishi's Gokumontou, as well as Akuma no Temariuta are perfect examples of how the nursery rhyme mystery was adapted by Japanese writers. In Japan, the plot-device is usually refered to as a mitate satsujin (a 'resembling' murder), i.e. a murder that stands symbol for / resembles something else, with the term mitate originating from the poetic scene, as well, yeah, poems quite often refer to X by saying Y. The mitate satsujin is even now a very popular plot device in Japan (and very much associated with Yokomizo Seishi-esque stories). Seeing Queen's popularity in Japan and the extensive way in which Queen used this motif, I would say that most of the direct influence on Japanese writers came from Queen, but we all know who Queen was based on.

And finally, two general notes on the two novels. One: what is it with Van Dine coming up with ridiculous psycho-analytic explanations for the motives of the murderers? Seriously, both these books have Vance spout some weird mumbo-jumbo about how some people are more inclined to commit murder that just rubs me the wrong way. And two: is the literary device of "S.S. Van Dine" as the chronicler of the story even needed? Even though he is supposed to be at Vance's side the whole time, I don't think he has been ever acknowledged by any of the other characters in any of the two stories. The stories are so-called accounts of real cases told to us by Van Dine fom a first person point of view, but he has no presence at all in the stories. While Ellery Queen's "J.J. MC." had a similar function, he at least never pretended to have any presence in the stories. In fact, the only time Van Dine seems to react on Philo Vance's actions in the story is in the footnotes. Not in the main body of the text. In the footnotes.

Anyway, short story: interesting books, must-reads for anyone interested in detective fiction in general and Japanese detective fiction. And surely a lot more interesting than the first two Philo Vance novels.

Oh, look, this post didn't turn out to be as horribly awful as I thought it would be.

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」

Sunday, December 11, 2011

「ユメヲミタミタイ」

ひとつの目で明日をみてひとつの目で昨日をみつめてる
『The Real Folk Blues』

I look at tomorrow with one eye, while keeping my other eye on yesterday
"The Real Folk Blues"

With the end of the year nearing, I am at one hand tempted to try to come up with a best-of-list, because looking at the past is some kind of ritual that needs to be done around this time. And as I have a) actually read a reasonable amount of books this year and b) I can actually rely on my blog instead of on my memory, it would be possible too! On the other hand, I don't really like best-of-list all too much.

Decisions, decisions.

Anyway, as I have wait for new books to arrive here, I chose a book from my pile of 'yes, I haven't read these yet, but I don't feel an urge to read them anyway' books. The lucky (?) victim was Higashino Keigo's Yochimu ("Foreseeing Dream"). And as I have reviewed loads of Higashino Keigo's novels and am usually fairly to very positive about them, one might wonder why this was on the non-priority list, but there's a simple explanation for that. Yochimu is a short story collection in Higashino's Galileo series (the second volume in the series actually), but I had knew the five stories collected here, as they were featured in the TV drama based on Galileo. So yeah, there was no real urgency in reading stories I knew already anyway. Besides that, most of the stories collected here weren't that interesting anyway. In fact, I only choose this book because I could finish it quickly.  Ah, I hope my books arrive here soon.

While the Galileo novels (Yougisha X no Kenshin, Seijo no Kyuusai, Manatsu no Houteishiki) are all quite good, the Galileo short story collection all suffer from the problem that they are insolvable for us mere mortal readers. Most of the Galileo short stories follow the same formula: cop Kusanagi handles a case that has a supernatural tone to it. A predicted murder. Poltergeists. Will-o'-the-Wisps. Those kind of things. Kusanagi asks his scientist friend Yukawa for assistance, who then comes up with a complex scientific explanation for the situation. While the 'supernatural-phenomena-turns-out-to-be-perfectly-natural-phenoma' is certainly fun, Higashino's stories end up with roughly two problems. One is of course that unless you happen to know something about the scientific theme of the week, you are screwed. The second problem is that Higashino is not as fair as he should be and that he keeps pulling information from nowhere during the explanation. Thus we have an unfairly hinted story that relies on specialist information too.

The first story in the collection, Yumemiru ("Dream"), sorta avoids this by coming up with a totally fuzzy, way too vague solution to the problem of a man who apparently has foreseeing dreams. Ever since elementary school, he had dreams about a girl called Morisaki Reimi and he has always said he would marry her. Fast-foward 20 years or so, and we have this man arrested for breaking and entering the house where high-school student Morisaki Reimi lives. How could the man have dreamt about this girl, even before she was born? Her name is very rare and all evidence shows that this man has really been talking and dreaming about her ever since he was a boy. The solution Yukawa provides however is certainly not satisfactory.

Mieru ("See") is better luckily A woman is found strangled in her house, but she was also seen at a totally different place, at the time of her murder, by her lover. Was that her ghost who said goodbye to him? Of course not, and the solution to the whole story is pretty good, but it is the story structure and page length that kinda kills the story. The story is just too short to really work out the ghost-angle, and the pacing is a bit too fast too really convey a feeling of space and bewilderment that is needed for this kind of story.

Sawagu ("Racket") is the definately the weakest story of the five. Kusanagi is asked by a friend of his sister's to locate her husband, who hasn't come back in five days. She suspects that something has happened at the house of an old lady he used to visit. The woman has died recently and her nephew, his wife and two friends of them have moved in the house, but they are acting very strange. Especially the fact that they all leave the house at eight at night, only to come back a bit later is unnatural. Kusanagi and the friend break into the house after eight to see whether her husband is being held there, but find nothing. Nothing? Well, they did discover that every night a poltergeist starts to make a racket in the house and that is the reason why the four always leave the house at eight... Yukawa comes up with a solution to explain the poltergeist phenomena which is so absolutely unfair and impossible that it frustrated me intensely when I read it, even though I already the solution from the TV drama!

Shimeru ("Strangle") is the best, though that is not saying much, it seems. A man is found dead in his hotel room, with severe strangling marks on his neck. The main suspect is his wife, as they entered a life insurance program only recently. What is making this strange though, is that the daughter says she saw a will-o'-the-wisp fly around her father some days ago. Was this a sign of his death? This time, the story is fairly hinted, though the main trick to the whole problem is pretty much impossible to deduce based on that single hint. It's a thing that kinda makes sense in hindsight, but no way a reader is going to deduce this beforehand.

Shiru ("Know") is another fairly decent story: a woman commits suicide in the apartment in the building across of her lover's apartment, with her lover and his wife being actual witness to that. The strange thing is that in the apartment next to witnesses' apartment, a sickly girl claims that she had seen the woman commit suicide two days earlier (but she admits she did see her being alive and well the day after). Was this a foreseeing dream by an hallucinating girl? Yukawa's solution to this supernatural phenomena is decent, but a bigger problem lies in another problem Yukawa uncovers at the same time. This is once again a solution that relies too much in specialist information that no normal reader is going to have. Which really hurts this story, because the main plot is actually quite decent that could have been worked to something much better.

So no, I am not really positive about this selection of stories. Having now read all the Gallileo short stories and another short story collection by Higashino, I think short stories are just not his forte. On the other hand, a lot of his novels feature tricks and plots that actually don't need a full-length novel to work properly, I think (they read very comfortably though). Higashino really should try writing novelettes.

And still waiting for books to arrive.

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『予知夢』: 「夢想る (ゆめみる)」 / 「霊視る (みえる)」 / 「騒霊ぐ (さわぐ)」 / 「絞殺る (しめる)」 / 「予知る (しる)」

Thursday, December 8, 2011

"A railway guide, you say. A Bradshaw - or an A B C?"

Mr Hercule Poirot, - You fancy yourself, don't you, at solving mysteries that are too difficult for our poor thick-headed British police? Let us see, Mr Clever Poirot, just how clever you can be. Perhaps you'll find this nut too hard to crack. Look out for Andover, on the 21st of the month.
Yours, etc.,
A B C.
"The ABC Murders"

So even though I already owned a copy of Edogawa Rampo's (excellent!) Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, I bought another one this week. Why? It was only 50 eurocents at the university library? Should I have left it there in the hope that someone with good taste would pick it up? Maybe. But I couldn't take chances. A book this excellent must be cared for and given to a proper reader.

But anyway....

Just to make it seem like my blog is about audio dramas (which it is not), the third review of a Momogre audio drama in a row! But a more... special one. The previous two audio dramas were based on Arisugawa Alice's novels, but the third of Momogre/KiKKa's mystery audio dramas is actually based on Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders. Yes, that classic, that famous Poirot story of a serial killer who kills according to the alphabet (the first victim was a person whose name starts with an A, in a town that starts with an A, etc, etc). That goold old classic which I am not going to review here, because it is like trying to write something innovative about Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd: I doubt I have it in me to actually offer new, interesting critical insights into these classics. It would probably just end up in meaningless praise (deserved praise, but not particularly adding to the discourse). But anyway, The ABC Murders is also a story that has been adapted to several media, including audio dramas. I for one very much like BBC Radio's adaption of The ABC Murders and so I was (maybe unfairly) expecting a lot of this Japanese adaption of the classic.

20 seconds into the drama however, I was very much tempted to switch off the audio-drama.

[Timestamp: 0:07] Poirot: "Please read this."
[Timestamp: 0:17] Hastings: "A letter? Now you got me. We meet again after a long time, so a love letter from Hercule Poirot?"

I did my best impression of Marge Simpson's groan here.

Was Momogre, with quite a big BL catalogue, going to add a BL subtext between Poirot and Hastings? That question was what bothered me quite bit, even though in the end it turned out that this first conversation was pretty much the only Marge-Simpson-groan-worthy line. Luckily. But still.

The overall adaption of Christie's masterpiece is pretty good though. While I do think that one vital clue's importance has been downplayed a bit in this adaption (though somewhat understandable because of the relation with the English language), the story is brought very well and for people not familiar with the original work (even if that's blasphemy), this audio drama will offer a fairly faithful adaption that brings you all the excitement of chasing the infamous ABC killer all across England together with Poirot and Hastings. In fact, it is extremely similiar to BBC Radio's adaption of the novel (and I am tempted to think it might have been used as a point of reference). 

There is one big difference though. Poirot himself has changed quite a lot. Like in the anime series Agatha Christie no Meitantei Poirot to Marple, Poirot first of all loses most his linguistic characteristics (his French Belgian accent), which to me, as someone who has studied role language and translation, is quite interesting. The second point is that Poirot has become quite a bit younger now (as seen in the cover art), resulting in that Poirot is now a young-ish gentleman who would probably be the perfect son-in-law. Or husband. Which probably has something to do with Momogre's normal audience, but on the other side, if the Christie estate allows Disney to sex up Marple, why not Poirot, I guess.

All in all an interesting experiment, this Japanese take on an English mystery classic, and the drama is certainly worth a try, but now I'm a bit worried how Momogre is to handle future mystery audio dramas that feature detective + sidekick duos.

Original Japanese title(s): モモグレ (原作:アガサ・クリスティー) 『ABC殺人事件』