Monday, January 2, 2012

The Adventure of the Three Students


"It's not so easy as you make it out to be, Mr. Kubo. That's just not possible. It's not like you're an orangutan or a chimpansee"
"Hahaha, a orangutan as the murderer!"
"Hahaha, that's just stupid. Even if such a story existed, it would be just a third-rate mystery. Everyone would laugh at someone writing that!"
"....," Kubo stopped laughing. "Are you really a member of the detective fiction study club?"
Hm? Hmm? Did I say something wrong?
"The School of the Detectives who Don't Learn"

The long awaited continuation of Sherlock was surprisingly fun. While the first couple of minutes were kinda cheap, I thought the story was actually a lot more interesting than the original Scandal in Bohemia (which I don't like that much, thus I had no high expectations for this particular episode). Might write something about all three episodes when they're done later this month, as I don't really feel like doing episodic reviews this time. Looking forward to Sherlock's The Hounds of Baskerville next week!

I've become quite a fan of Higashigawa Tokuya lately. The way in which he mixes humor with actual orthodox detective plotting is simply wonderful. His stories aren't just [detective stories] + [humour], but the humour is actually an integral part of his plots, as humor is often used as either a smokescreen or a hint (or both) by Higashigawa. I also love his protagonists, who usually act as the Watson to the detectives. They seem a bit clueless at times, but are often just genre-savvy enough to come up with surprisingly sharp observations. There's also often a slight gap between the narration of these protagonists and 'reality', which is really funny to see in text. It's the gap between [serious detective story] - [humour], the gap between [narration] - [reality] that makes all three of Higashigawa's series (the Ikagawashi series, the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series and Mystery Solving is After Dinner series) stand out in the crowd.

Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen ("The School of the Detectives who Don't Learn") is the first book in the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series. The titular Detective Club of Koigakubo Academy used to be the Detective Fiction Study Club, but for reasons unknown (to even the president) changed its name to the Detective Club, meaning that their main activity is... to detect. Because the Detective Club's activities are rather vague and irregular (unless you're name is Conan, you are not going to come across a mystery a day), the club is not officially recognized by the school and even though they have a teacher willing to be the club's supervisor, they are not allotted a classroom for their extra-curricular activities. Akasaka Tooru, transfer student and narrator of Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen was actually fooled by this, as he foolishly thought that the people present in the Literature Club room were in fact people of the Literature Club and that he was signing up for that club. Who would be so dumb as to ignore the possibility that the two persons there were actually people from the Detective Club who were 'borrowing' the Literature Club room?

One day, as Tooru, the club president and Yatsuhashi, another member of the Club, stayed late at school discussing how the most suspicious people in a locked room mystery are 1) the one who opens the the locked room and 2) the first one approaching the body and 3) the one who says it was a locked room, they happen to find a student stabbed in his chest in the nurse's room. Which was of course locked. And to make it even more interesting, the three teachers who were present there too did precisely what makes them suspicious in a locked room mystery. Our three students, for the honor of the Club, naturally try to solve the mystery themselves.

The story develops in its own pace with subplots concerning Koigakubo Academy's geinou class (a class for students who work in the entertainment industry as idols, singers, actors etc.) and another locked room murder, but I have to admit that Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen is not as good as other Higashigawa mysteries. It's still very funny, with some great slapstick-esque scenes you'd never expect in a detective and the school setting is, like in Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni, something that makes this series stand out, but its problems lie with the locked rooms and the structure of this book. The solution to the first locked room is a bit too farfetched to be credible, while the second is actually quite good, but it is introduced late in the story, resulting in lesser sense of mystery. Furthermore, the solutions to both locked rooms are more of a mechanical type (opposed to the psychological type), which is simply something that doesn't feel as fitting to Higashigawa's writing style. Higashigawa's best impossible stories hinge on some kind of (often humorous) gap between observations of the people involved and that's what is best suited to his funny writing style. The synergy between these elements is not present in Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen, making this feel like a less accomplished Higashigawa work.

The structure forms a second minor problem. Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen, because of its setting, is also a gakuen-mono (school-drama-ish) and it kinda follows the rather high-paced structuring of those works. The detecting method of three detectives (who end up as the Watson to supervising teacher Ishizaki) is quite chaotic and there is a lot going in this relatively short book. It's this chaos that makes Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen feel a lot less polished than the short story collection supplement Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni, which excelled in its simple, short brilliance.

I love the Detective Club though. It is certainly not an unique thing, as they actually exist in Japan and are thus often used in (meta)-fiction too. Jukkakukan no Satsujin for example features one heavily, but Kindaichi Hajime and Miyuki are also members of the Mystery Fiction Study club at their school, just like Nikaidou Ranko and Reito. The difference here is that the members of the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club are in fact, not really detectives themselves (like Kindaichi en Ranko), nor are they so brilliantly meta like the people in Jukkakukan no Satsujin who spout random quotes from detective fiction and refer to themselves with nicknames like Carr en Queen and act like those detectives. The members of the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club are precisely what you'd expect from high school students who are a bit of a mystery geeks: they have a lot of passion for their hobby, but not much besides that. In fact, they are the most human of them all, and certainly feel the most familiar to me.

While a bit disappointing, Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen is still a very funny book that shows that detective fiction does not have to be serious (or realistic even, as this borders on slapstick humor at times) to be offer genuine orthodox detective plots. He doesn't even have to reach out to the old parody-method. Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni is the better installment in the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, but Manabanai Tanteitachi no Gakuen is certainly recommendable to anyone who wants to laugh while reading orthodox detectives.

And hey, a post title that relates to both the introduction and the main topic of the post?! Rare indeed.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『学ばない探偵たちの学園』

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