Monday, April 30, 2012

"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic"

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?"
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

This post is slightly better then posting a picture of my pile of unread books, but only slightly. Yes, I am still reading books, but not so fast. Now I think about it, I really should buy a nightstand lamp one of these days.

So I've been a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club for a little shorter than a month now, but it is been a blast. And oh-so-relevant to this blog. Like I mentioned before, many important writers in the New Orthodox movement of detective writing originate from this club, having honed their writing (and deductive!) skills through the club activities and is thus considered an important breeding ground for future talent too. Famous old members include Ayatsuji Yukito, Norizuki Rintarou, Abiko Takemaru, Maya Yutaka and Ooyama Seiichirou, and that is when I limit myself only to writers whom I have discussed in the past already! And even more interesting, many novels of the writers mentioned above are actually based on stories originally written within the Mystery Club. So I thought it might be interesting for those outside of the club to hear about how story publication activities work within the club.

The writing activities of the Mystery Club are roughly divided in three kinds: the 'Guess the Criminal' original stories, original stories published in the internal Mystery Club Communication magazine and the annual publication Souajou (also known as Souanoshiro), which is sold at the november festival of Kyoto University. The last week, the new members were challenged with some of the older 'Guess the Criminal' stories, which are probably exactly what you'd expect them to be. Members are given a short story (fewer than 10 pages) including a Challenge to the Reader, which they have to solve within an hour. During that hour, members can go to the writer to check whether their deductions are correct. If incorrect, the writer might give some hints to push the reader towards the right direction. At the end of the session, everybody is given the final part of the story featuring the solution. It is also the time for the readers to comment on the story, so the writer can learn from it. For reference, Norizuki Rintarou's Yuki Misshitsu and Abiko Takemaru's 8 no Satsujin amongst others were originally Guess the Criminal scenarios.

And it's friggin' awesome. We did two stories this week (which I won't discuss in detail as I assume these stories are meant for members-only), but they were really good stories. As in really really good. Considering the history of the club, it shouldn't surprise that the set-up of these stories were very classic, invoking all the right tropes, without feeling dated. It was fun to see my fellow members scribbling on the pages, underlining suspicious utterances and pieces of text. Heck, it sometimes even pays off to bounce off ideas with other members! My opinion of the stories we did last week might be a bit skewed because both of them felt very Queenian, with especially Friday's one being a classic puzzle based on deducing all the characteristics the murderer had to have, but even without my Queen glasses, these stories should be considered great in set-up, hinting and writing and in my opinion could have been published as proper stories. Just imagining that the Mystery Club has a whole database of these Classic stories that non-members will probably never see is just strange. By the way, I solved both stories only partly. Yes, I definitely want to solve at least one story before I leave Japan.

I do have to admit that these Guess the Criminal scenarios are also the things that are keeping me from reading books here: it's not like I don't read detective stories anymore: only that I can't really post about them.

I am less familiar with the two other publication activities of the club (hey, I've only been here a month), but the Mystery Club Communication is a members-only magazine, featuring short essays on the genre and stories by the members. It also seems like it is a sort of an excercise for the annual publication Souajou, which also features essays and stories by (all) the members, but is naturally also subject to much harsher editing, with the word Shuraba (field of Asuras; bloody battlefield) apparently being the default term for the crunch-time leading up to the publication. With the harsher editing, it shouldn't come as a surprise that many of the famous writers' stories are also based on the stories they managed to publish in Souajou (including Maya Yutaka's debut work, several of Norizuki Rintarou's short and longer stories). In fact, publishers also seem to be interested in Souajou, as they might be able to discover a new writing star!

There are some other regularly repeated activities at the club, but I might write about them at a later stage.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

「白だ・・・」

あの日僕ら胸に残る夢を描いた
だからここで君に祈るよいつも笑顔で
『ハルウタ』 (いきものがかかり)

We drew a dream that stayed within our hearts
That is why I pray to you here, always with a smile
Spring Song (Ikimonogakari)

It is a sacred ritual by now. Going the theaters in April to see the newest Conan movie whenever I am in Japan. It usually also includes finding people to go with me and finding the right time / day to suit everyone's schedule and me looking a bit too often at the movie trailers, but I am happy to report that this year the operation was succesful this year too. Though I have to admit that it took me a bit longer than I had hoped (*gasp* I didn't even see the movie in the first week!)

Detective Conan: The Eleventh Striker starts with an explosion and many others follow. A mysterious bomber (well, it would be not as interesting if the bomber's identity was known at the start of the movie...) contacts Kogorou, telling him a riddle that is supposed to lead to the whereabouts of a bomb that is planted somewhere. Conan is of course the one to solve the riddle and while the movie might present it like a big surprise, it doesn't take a genius to take the hint of the trailer's big focus on a football match and stadium (and the fact that several J-League professionals have a guest appearance as voice actors) to deduce where the bomb is located. This is only the start of the movie though and it is up to Conan to find out who the mad bomber is and to foil his/her evil (?) plans.

The tone of this movie really feels like a continuation of the tone set in the previous movie. Both movies feature a very compact cast, so none of that fanservicey appearances of Hattori, KID or the Black Organisation. Both movies also feature some ridiculously awesome skateboarding sequences by Conan (though that trend actually started in Lost Ship in the Sky). It's like the director feels compelled to come up with even more impossibly awesome stunts with every new movie (though nothing beats the ridiculous skateboarding [and landing] in the Conan vs. Lupin III TV special). The last few movies in general feel a bit more action-oriented than the older movies (though the movies in general are a lot more action-oriented than the manga), which might or might not be a good thing.

Part of this sense of action/suspense derives from the football-setting of this movie. A lot of the story is told during a football match, with scenes of Conan's deductions/skateboarding scenes/awesome stuff being interspliced with shots of the football matches, which are animated quite dynamically for a series that is usually actually very slow and static. It is almost like watching two screens at the same time, one with Detective Conan and the other with Captain Tsubasa. Which is actually quite fun. What is also interesting is that the whole movie feels like a football match, with two distinct halves and a rest in the middle. Don't know if it was a coincidence, but considering that football imagery plays a big part in the story, I am tempted to think that the director did this on purpose.

As a detective movie, The Eleventh Striker is not that exciting though. Looking at the story structually, this is actually an interesting story with a neat trick pointing to the identity of the mad bomber, but certainly not something that should have taken two hours to tell. Most of the time is indeed filled with action scenes and LOADS OF EXPLOSIONS. Which is fun in the theaters, but I do kinda miss the more traditional detective movies like The Fourteenth Target and Captured in her Eyes. Though I have to admit, there was not a single moment I was bored.

Like I mentioned, this movie features several J-League professionals starring as voice actors, as this movie was produced with the cooperation of the J-League (yes, you should think of this movie as a promotional vehicle for the J-League and football in general). The trend of guest voice-actors in Conan movies started some years ago, but it is still something that remains very annoying. At one hand, the guest voice actors are actually voicing themselves, so I should not complain, but they could have tried to... be a bit more livier when reading their lines.

And a last bit on the music. Not too big a fan of this year's remix of the Detective Conan theme. I love Ikimonogakari's ending theme Haru Uta though!

Oh, and don't worry. At the end of the movie a teaser was shown for next year's movie. A ship drifting at the sea kinda reminded me of Strategy Above the Depths, but we'll have to wait for next year to see what's coming...

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン 11人目のストライカー』

Saturday, April 21, 2012

「読者から読者への挑戦!」

「ココからよむと犯人がわかるよ。まず、推理してみよう!」 
古書店で購入した『水車館の殺人』に挟んだあったノート。

"The identity of the murderer is revealed beyond this point.Try to deduce it yourself first!"  
 A note found between the pages of a second hand copy of The Water Mill House Murders

Aaah, Kyoto University Mystery Club, curse you for introducing me to even more writers and books I want to read! And actually having them in your room! The Mystery Club room is actually pretty awesome now I've taken a more detailed look at it. There are _a lot_ of novels crammed in the bookcases there, including interesting books like rewritten versions of Queen's The Dutch Shoe Mystery and Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolate Case, for children.

And the people are cool too. Showing the note quoted above I found in my second hand copy of Suishakan no Satsujin, a senior described it very gracefully as "a challenge from a reader to the reader!". If there's no Challenge to the Reader in the book, you make one yourself, the previous owner of my copy must have thought. I really appreciate it though!

Anyway, today is another book written by an alumni of the mystery club, namely Ayatsuji Yukito. I've already reviewed his awesome Jukkakukan no Satsujin in a long away past: Suishakan no Satsujin ("The Water Mill House Murders") is the second book in Ayatsuji's series featuring amateur-detective Shimada Kiyoshi and murder cases set around weird buildings designed by the late Nakamura Seiji (as introduced in the first novel). The Water Mill House is a castle-like building deep in the mountains of Okayama. The building derives its name from the three big water wheels set at the side of the mansion (to generate electricity). Its owner is Fujinuma Kiichi, son of the famous painter Fujinuma Issei. A car accident many years ago left Kiichi with a disfigured face, forcing him to wear a rubber mask during the day to hide his monstrous face (yes, Ayatsuji is aware of the classics of Japanese detective fiction). It is also the reason why he lives so secluded, with only his (very) young wife and some servants living with him in the Water Mill House.

Every year, a small group of acquaintances visits the Water Mill House to enjoy the many paintings of Kiichi's father that are displayed throughout the mansion. An impossible disappearance, murders and the theft of a painting make the 1985 visit an unforgettable one though. While not everyone is particularly fond of the idea, the annual visit to the Water Mill House is repeated again the following year, but this time an uninvited guest shows up: Shimada Kiyoshi, friend of the person who disappeared last year from this mansion and who wants to know the truth behind the incidents one year ago.

A lot of people seem to prefer this book to Jukkakukan no Satsujin, though I don't know really why. I for one prefer the mystery club students of the first book and the main trick too. By which I don't mean that Suishakan no Satsujin is a bad book, but I didn't like the setting as much as its prequel and this book is a lot easier to solve (especially if you have read the first book). The first book, admittedly, is hard to beat in my eyes. Suishakan no Satsujin is an excellent book actually, which especially excels in creating atmosphere by the gothic description of the Water Mill Mansion (and the Sukekiyo-esque owner of the mansion), which must be horrifying with all those pictures hanging on the walls. Or maybe I am just weak to that sort of things. I also suspect that Tantei Gakuen Q's storyline featuring the genius artist Kuzuryuu Takumi, including a set of buildings he designed, is partly inspired by the architect Nakamura Seiji of this series, as both series see the buildings as a place that attract abnormal (criminal) activity. And both architects love making secret passages and stuff.

But it must be said that when viewed abstractly/structurally, Suishakan really resembles the previous book a lot. Which makes the deciding factor for my personal views on Jukkakukan no Satsujin and Suishakan no Satsujin very dependent on the more aesthetic ways with which Ayatsuji dressed up these similar story-structures and like I said, I like the more recognizable and genre-savvy setting of Jukkakukan more than the more standard / gothic mystery setting of Suishakan

The story-telling structure of the book is pretty interesting though: the story switches between chapters set in the past (1985) and the present (1986) and is usually set up in such a way that it starts in the present time, with detective Shimada Kiyoshi asking about some events that happened last year, which are then explained in detail in the chapters set in the past. The trope of a detective solving a case that happened in the past is certainly not new, but the way it unfolds in this book works surprisingly well. In most examples I can recall at the moment, the detective in the [PRESENT] hears bits and pieces about the [PAST] case until he suddenly learns all of the [PAST] case in one turn (i.e. by finding a police file, someone telling him about it or something like that). Here it's much direct (for the reader) and therefore more engaging. Because new murders happen during Shimada's visit to the Water Mill House in the [PRESENT], the chapters set in the [PAST] and [PRESENT] also form symmetrical pairs (with events in one time period mirroring the other), much like how the Germany and France chapters of Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu resembled each other. And for those who play videogames: just think of any game with dual worlds (i.e. present/past worlds, light/dark worlds), like some of the Legend of Zelda games or something like Chrono Trigger.

And it is actually funny that this book doesn't feature an actual Challenge to the Reader (except for my own personal challenge from a reader to a reader), as structurally it would have fitted perfectly there. I understand from a writer's perspective that you would choose whether or not to insert one (and because the previous book didn't feature one, Ayatsuji might have been hesitant in adding one here), but the note I found in my copy really did add an extra dimension to the whole story structure, I have to admit!

Anyway, fun book, but I still think Jukkakukan is better. And now, to look for something in my bookcase that is not written by an OB/OG of the Mystery Club! (Also because we're doing guess-the-murderer with scenarios written by club members on Monday anyway)

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『水車館の殺人』

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Hollow Man

「いいわよ、いいわよ。美人は人殺しなんてしないのよね。嘘もつかないし、おならもしない」

"So beautiful woman don't kill. They don't lie. They don't fart. Right?"
"The 8 Murders"

I am still not sure whether it is a smart idea for my thesis topic (which I am supposed to work on here), my hobby and my club to all be about the same topic. But there are of course good parts to it. I spent the whole day reading a book, but at least I can sorta say that I worked on my thesis. And prepared somewhat for the Mystery Club meeting on Friday. And that I have something to write about on my blog.

It is no coincidence that I read Abiko Takemaru's 8 no Satsujin ("The 8 Murders") after Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game. For both of these writers are 'founding' members of the New Orthodox movement and these two books also happen to be their debut works. If you take a look in the library, you'll notice that I have reviewed a couple of Abiko's works, most of the being original scenarios for videogames (including the awesome Kamaitachi no Yoru). Yet I was never sure whether the scenario's he penned for videogames were similar to his novels, so I was interested in seeing how 8 no Satsujin would turn out. The story opens with the murder (by crossbow!) on Hachisuka Kikuichirou, the son of the director of Hachisuka Architects. The murder was commited in the Hachisuka mansion, commonly known as the "Eight Mansion", because of the strange design featuring two inner courts, resulting in an 'eight'-like shape when viewed from above. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen the murderer shoot from the room of the son of the mansion's caretaker, but the son naturally denies having commited the murder and to be honest, even the eyewitnesses themselves don't believe he could have done it. But the fact remains that his room was locked (and he was sleeping there), so it was not possible for someone else to have entered that room to shoot the crossbow.

Well, unless the murderer could fly and walk through walls, which would account for the second murder, where forensics say the arrow was shot from a place only someone with wings could have been! And because lieutenant Hayami Kyouzou is having troubles solving the case himself, he allows his younger brother and sister, Shinji and Ichio, two self-professed mystery freaks, to help him with this case. Because who besides mystery fans could solve these kind of crimes?

First thing that I noticed: Abiko really likes teasing his characters. I thought it was just something specific to Kamaitachi no Yoru, but Abiko seems to like to put people in awkard situations and see them suffering. The things Hayami's subordinate Kinoshita has to suffer is just horrible, but Shinji and Ichio are just as happy to tease their big brother about everything. There is a distinct humorous tone to Abiko's writing and while it is not as accomplished as the comedy-mystery fusion Higashigawa Tokuya offers, Abiko's stories should appeal to those with a want for a humorous (and slightly sadistic) tone to their stories. His writing style is also very easy to read through, and it should take not that much time to go through.

As a debut work of someone from the Kyoto University Mystery Club, it is tempting to compare it to books like Gekkou Game and Jukkakukan no Satsujin. What is funny is that 8 no Satsujin feels quite different from those books actually: there is no university mystery club featured heavily in the story, no closed circle setting, students don't feature as the protagonists. Heck, while Shinji and Ichio are the brains of the Hayami siblings, Kyouzou is still part of the team and he is an actual police detective, so they can't even be considered 100% amateur detectives. Is 8 no Satsujin different from the other two, or are the two books mentioned just very similar? There is of course a lot similar too: most visible in the distinct meta-conscious writing style. We have tons of references to the classics here (including a couple of references that sadly enough border on the spoiler-ific) and we even have a genuine locked room lecture, which Shinji himselves considers a continuation of especially Carr's famous one from The Hollow Man. Carr is actually referenced a lot in this story, which is understandable seeing the (seemingly) impossible crime situations here.

The impossible crimes are... kinda easy to solve however. The first one is very easy to see through because it is a very old trick. It only becomes more confusing if you add in the second murder, which again is not that surprising as a stand-alone murder, but it can work quite effectively if you manage to add it in just the right impossible-looking ingredients. Abiko is relatively succesful with that, but I have the same feeling with this book like I have with Kamaitachi no Yoru and the other stories I've read of him: he can write very entertaining, his tricks are not bad and he is certainly knowledgable about the genre, but he somehow never manages to really surprise me. I've yet to see something as imposing as Sensei Jutsu Satsujin Jiken or Jukkakukan no Satsujin. He is certainly an above average writer, but I've yet to see a trick that moves the heavens. Or something like that.

Oh, and going back to the closed circle thing I mentioned (sorry, I write these reviews just as I go, without making drafts and I really hate having to re-arrange everything again). In their debut works, Ayatsuji and Arisugawa both went through the troubles to create closed circle situations, cutting the people off from modern day forensics / police forces / other information lines. By doing this and explictly addressing this, these two writers showed that there was indeed the problem of technology and other things that upset the 'old' model of the detective novel and while their 'solutions' were kinda artificial (though Ayatsuji's approach certainly has its merits), it showed that both writers were trying to get the old model to work in modern times. Abiko's 8 no Satsujin hardly shows such ambitions and it could have been set in any time and place. Heck, I am not even sure whether it was set in contemporary times!

8 no Satsujin is a pleasant read, but not particularly surprising or impressive. It is a 'safe' story, doing the things it should do in an adequate way and it also offers some of the distinct meta-conscious, New Orthodox storytelling, but this should definitely not be a reader's first introduction to the movement.

And now I need more sleep. Why does it always takes weeks for me to get back to a normal sleeping routine in Japan?

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『8の殺人』

Sunday, April 15, 2012

「め・・・めっちゃ好っきゃねん!!!」

運命のルーレット廻して
アレコレ深く考えるのは Mystery
ほら 運命の人はそこにいる
ずっと 君を見ていた
「運命のルーレット廻して」 (Zard)

Turn the roulette of destiny
All the things I think deeply about are mysteries
Look, the person of my destiny is here
I've been looking at you all the time

Finding this note wedged between the pages of a second hand copy of Ayatsuji Yukito's Suishakan no Satsujin ("The Water Mill House Murders") made my day. It says: "The identity of the murderer is revealed beyond this point.Try to deduce it yourself first!".

It's half April, which means it is time for the annual Conan-media barrage here in Japan. The 16th movie, The Eleventh Striker, was released Friday, but sadly enough I still haven't found anyone to go together with... (I don't like going to the theaters alone). I did pick up the newest volume of the manga however and next week I'll pick up the new videogame. And I hope to find 'ways to obtain' the live action special broadcast in the weekend (I don't own a television here). Aoyama Goushou totally owns my wallet.

Anyway, Detective Conan 75! Which was actually released in two varieties: a normal release and a limited release with a small Conan figure based on the movie. I was glad to see that although it might take weeks to read a book here compared to the couple of days back home, at least my Conan-Reading-Speed (we will see whether the abbreviation CRS will be used on a regular basis from now on) is still the same. Which means a couple of hours. The newest volume starts with the continuation of the last case of volume 74 (And for sinister reasons, the case name has actually changed on the official Conan web database, between the release of volume 74 and now). The police is still trying to figure out who poisoned the son of the design bureau's president when the president herself is also poisoned in her home office in Design of Poison and Illusions (initially known as The Distorted Optical Illusion Murder Case). It is a double poisoning case here and the trick behind the first one (the son's poisoning) is actually quite neat, as it is a simple yet very effective and believable one. The mother's poisoning however is rather hard to believe. I think the trick is based on an actual scientific concept, but it just seems so... unrealistic. And it makes for a really uncertain poisoning method. Too bad, as the main theme of this story (optical illusions) is really fun and some things done here are neat, but the final poisoning leaves a slightly disappointing aftertaste.

The premise of The Great Deduction of the Fake Mouri Kogorou mirrors the concept of a story in volume 31. This time though, the fake Mouri Kogorou turns out to be not so evil (and dead): a young man has been visiting an old granny pretending to be Mouri Kogorou because his girlfriend asked him to watch over her grandmother. Having recently been the victim of a burglar, she has grown suspicious of everything, but thanks to 'Mouri Kogorou' solving all kinds of mysteries for her, she has been able to sleep well again. And then coincidence brings the fake Mouri Kogorou, Ran, Conan to a murder scene in the apartment complex next to the grandmother's house. The case itself is not too complex, though fun as a simple, yet believable alibi trick is used that almost seems to have sprouted out of the head of a creative child, while the way everyone (and in particular, the fake Mouri Kogorou) tries to keep up appearances in front of the grandmother and the suspects is very amusing.

Man, I wish I could translate. The Japanese title of The Case of Shuu, the Red Oil is actually a play on words on Char (Sha), the Red Comet, the main antagonist of the original Mobile Suit Gundam series (which has been featured in Conan quite often the last few years actually). An unknown person has been vandalizing cars, breaking into them and writing "Die" with graffiti on the inner roofs of the cars. The latest victim is officer Chiba, who joins forces with Yumi of the traffic police and... Naeko, Chiba's childhood love introduced in volume 71. Naeko is aware of Chiba's identity (he remembers his first love, but doesn't realise that he is actually working with her now) and the Detective Boys try to make Chiba realise that Naeko is his first love. In short, this is another classic Metropolitan Police Love Story. Which actually also often seem to be connected to missing link stories. Here, the police has troubles finding out what the common point is between the vandalized cars. The main mystery itself is not very exciting (and the missing link is quite obvious), but this story works if you're into Metropolitan Police Love story arcs.

The Mysterious Detective and the Nails of Destiny introduces us to another possible Bourbon candidate,  (a Black Organization member who supposedly has infiltrated the cast). The private detective Amuro Tooru lends his name of the Gundam protagonist Amuro Ray (whose voice actor is Furuya Tooru) and makes his first appearance as a suspect of the murder on Kogorou's high school friend's bride-to-be. The bride-to-be supposdely called her fiance, saying only goodbye, before she blew up her own car (and herself), but traces show that she might have been in a fight just before the explosion, which would mean that it might have been murder. I am not a big fan of the mystery, mainly because it does not seem to work with this length. It is a short, three chapter story, but I think this is one of those cases where blowing things up, making the case bigger and larger would have been benifical to the story. As it is now, the story seems to lack direction as all things had to be tidied up by the last chapter. The conclusion however, is heartbreaking.

A bit of a bland volume. The Hattori case is not that great, and while I certainly had fun with the fake Mouri Kogorou, Chiba's love story and the new character Amuro Tooru, I wasn't too impressed by the mysteries. Which should always stay the main focus of this series. All well, I hope the movie/game/TV special manages to satisfy my needs!

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第75巻

「月恋歌」

月と太陽なら私は月
君がいれば輝けるよ
「キミがいれば」 (伊織)

If I had to choose between the sun and the moon,
I'd be the moon
I only shine if you are next to me
'When you are here' (Iori)

Finally a review of a Japanese novel again! But first, something completely different.

Or not completely different maybe. As I've mentioned in a couple of posts before, I am studying for a year in Japan at the moment. And I happen to be doing that at Kyoto University, which in turn happens to be the host of one of the best known / respected mystery clubs in Japan. Activities of the club include organizing little deduce-who-the-murderer-is quizes, book discussions and a yearly big publication featuring original stories and commentaries and the club has been around since 1974. Writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru and Norizuki Rintarou actually originate this club, which explains why it is so well known to those into new orthodox detective novels.

And I think I am a member of the club now. At least, like Rouletabille said, '"I have eaten all your caviar. I am your guest. I am your friend'. Well, they didn't buy me caviar, but like most clubs the Kyoto University Mystery Club did take potential new members out for dinner, trying to convince them to join their club. Which I wanted to do anyway, so I got a free dinner and I got into a club I wanted to enter in the firt place. And I had a nice chat with people about Japanese detective novels. Which is actually really awesome. Really, really awesome. I don't think I've ever had an oral discussion where I could say that I like Queen-school writers, and having everyone nodding at that. People who have read mystery novels featuring mystery clubs might have an idea of how those conversations go (probably mostly Japanese novels), but it was really like in those novels. I will probably write more about the club later, when I've actually attended to more meetings.

Anyway, among the other new members (and old members), there were also a lot of people who were fans of Arisugawa Alice. Last week I picked up his debut work, Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game  - Tragedy of Y '88"). It is the first volume in the Student Alice series, featuring Arisugawa Alice as a young student at Eito University as the fourth and newest member of the Eito University Mystery Club (EMC). The head of the club is the enigmatic student Egami, who serves as the main detective of the series. In this first story, the EMC heads out to camp on Mount Yabuki  during their summer holiday, where they meet three other groups of students (of various universities and clubs) who had the same idea. The 17 people have a great time at the camp site, until Mount Yabuki, which is actually an dormant volcano, has the fun idea of erupting for the first time in 200 years. And that is not all, because with the eruption, people start to disappear at night and they have the nasty habit of being dead, murdered when they re-appear. And what is that dying message "Y" that keeps popping up? How is the EMC going to get out of this mess?

Obviously through pure Queenian logic. Arisugawa's debut work simply screams Queen. It naturally starts with the pen-name Arisugawa Alice, which is also also the name of the protagonist of the story, but the Queenian influence is also obvious from the dying message that seemingly defies interpretation and the closed circle situation mirroring The Siamese Twin Mystery with the forces of nature forcing the groups of students to hide in the forest every once in a while. There are even several scenes where the group decides to search through each others possessions, in the hopes of finding proof of who the murderer is, mirrorring the classic big searches often seen in early Queen novels. And besides these tropes, we have the actual logical method employed by detective Egami, whose explanation of who the murderer is and how he deduced that fact could have fitted neatly in any Queen novel.

What was interesting was that the cover of the edition I own really emphasized the "Y" dying message (as does the subtitle of the novel, by the way), but the dying message definitely fails to carry the whole plot. It is a cool dying message though, reminiscent of one of Queen's more famous dying message short stories, but quite hard to translate to English I think. Arisugawa uses a neat little trick to keep the reader in the dark regarding the meaning of the message (or at least: I was definitely in a blind spot that was a result of that 'trick'/way of writing) and that was really well done. But it is hard to center a novel-length story around one dying message, which explains why the students also have to deal with a lot more mysterious events (and the vulcano eruptions). As a result though, the importance of the dying message weakens. In fact, it is not even the decisive clue that points to the murderer. Which was kinda surprising. It is more a clue that works in hindsight. I can almost see Arisugawa coming with this cool dying message, only to be forced to diminish its role in the story in order to make it work.

This novel actually does feel a bit unpolished, or maybe I should refer to it as signs that this really is a debut work (something a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club also mentioned to me). First of all, you really, really don't need 17 students in a closed circle situation. That is overdoing it. Especially as they are all students. Yes, Arisugawa tries to keep them apart by giving them nicknames and placing them in different faculties and stuff, but seventeen is really overdoing it. Arisugawa might have fun writing them and it might have reminded him of his own experiences as a student, but it does not really work on paper (I was glad someone told me that even Japanese readers have trouble keeping all those students apart). I also had a bit of problems with the pacing. The story does start with an in media res prologue, but it takes long before things actually start, and the whole middle part is kinda slow and not very convincing (yes, it might be dangerous to move on an active vulcano, but it is probably more dangerous to stay on an active vulcano with a murderer. It doesn't take days to figure that out). Finally, there were several subplots and theories refered to which.... didn't go anywhere. Some of them might be considered red herrings, but others might have been addressed in more detail to actually strengthen the atmosphere of the story (the occult moon theories for example).

Anyway, as a debut work, Gekkou Game is not without its flaws, but it is definitely an amusing story written in the Queen-school. It's the second Student Alice novel I read and while not nearly as cool as Soutou no Akuma, I think Gekkou Game is decent enough to start with if you are into that whole reading-in-chronological-order thing.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖『月光ゲーム Yの悲劇 '88』

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

「フィルムの中のアリバイ」その1

"That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now. There was all the time I needed...! That's not fair!"

Where I pretend to make a meaningful post by showing books I've bought the first week since I've returned to Japan. I've only started in one of them though.


I've been quite modest actually (hey, I also need to eat!), so the 'damage' after one week is just:

Nikaidou Reito, Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Double-Faced Monster Case")
Shimada Souji, Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight In Strange Lands")
Nikaidou Reito, Yuri no Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies")
Mori Hiroshi, Joou no Hyakunen Misshitsu ("God Save the Queen")
Takagi Akimitsu, Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru ("Why Was The Puppet Killed?")
Kyougoku Natsuhiko, Ubume no Natsu ("Summer of the Ubume") (1+2)
Kyougoku Natsuhiko, Mouryou no Hako ("Mouryou's Box")
Arisugawa Alice, Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game - The Tragedy of Y '88")
Higashigawa Tokuya, Misshitsu ni Mukatte Ute ("Shoot Towards The Locked Room!")
Higashigawa Tokuya, Kanzen Hanzai ni Neko Nanpiki Hitsuyou Ka ("How Many Cats Are Needed For A Perfect Crime?")
Higashigawa Tokuya, Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving is After Dinner")
Higashigawa Tokuya, Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni ("After School, Together With Mystery")

All second-hand by the way. And half of them only 105 yen. I love Japanese bookstores <3 Oh, and about the 'normal' review posts: I still intend to make them, but it just takes longer for me to read here, so I think even one post a week is going to be a challenge. But I'll figure out something. I can always do more movies/series reviews. And the worst case scenario: I'll post a picture of the backlog every week to show how much the pile is not shrinking.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

『帰ってこさせられた33分探偵』

「えー、『あの泥棒が羨ましい』 二人のあいだにこんな言葉がかわせるほど、そのころはーって渋いね、菜緒ちゃん、こんなの読んでるんだ」
鞄の中に江戸川乱歩の『二銭銅貨』を忍ばせている女子高生。どうやら僕は高林奈緒子という同級生に対する認識を改めなければならないようだ。この娘、只者ではないのかも。 
「霧ヶ峰涼と見えない毒」

"Hmm, 'That's one lucky thief'. During the time these words which passed between those two.... Hey, that's sneaky, Nao! You read this too!"
A female high school student who hides a copy of Edogawa Rampo's The Two-Sen Copper Coin in her bag. It seems like I will have to revise my image of my classmate Takabayashi Naoko. This girl, she might not be just an ordinary person.
"Kirigamine Ryou and the Invisible Poison"

Still alive! I think. Reporting live from Japan. Have I ever mentioned how I always suffer quite a lot of jetlag? The last time I had it this bad... I made my first translation for this blog. It's not that bad this time, but I'm still 'off' a couple of hours from my usual schedule. Anyway, it's been a long time tradition that first days back in Japan include a search for (preferably second hand) book stores in the neighborhood. The closest one I've found at the moment is five minutes away with the bike, so I'll be swinging by often. Unless a storm suddenly decides to visit Kyoto, like two hours ago.

And the first book I bought here... is a familiar one. By now, we've seen Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni pass by at this blog as a radio drama, a CD drama and two translations (based on the radio plays). Which is quite often, considering the original work is just a single volume (and not that big either). But yes, the reason why it is featured here so often is because I absolutely love this short story collection starring the tomboy Kirigamine Ryou, the vice-president of the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club who despite being the protagonist of the stories, never seems to be able to solve a case on her own. I am not going to review all the stories again, as I already did that in my review of the radio drama, but I did mention there that the radio drama had left out two short stories from the book. Which is just enough material for a short review.

Kirigamine Ryou to Mienai Doku ("Kirigamine Ryou and the Invisible Poison") has Ryou and her friend Naoko trying to figure out whether somebody is trying to kill old man Kadokura. Kadokura is a distant (and rich) relative of Naoko and she lives with him (and his family) because it is closer to school. Some days ago, a roof tile just barely missed falling on Kadokura's head and Naoko suspects that someone in Kadokura's family, consisting of his son, daughter-in-law and his grandson, doesn't have the patience to wait for the old man to die a natural death. Just as Ryou and Naoko are investigating the case, the old man is poisoned (though he survives!) as he was drinking his coffee. His last words before he passed out were 'poison in the coffee', but forensics show that the coffee wasn't poisoned at all. So how did the would-be murderer introduce the poison to Kadokura's body and who is (s)he?

Like many of the stories in Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, this story hinges on customs, movements and other little things that are part of what we call 'common sense'. In Higashigawa's stories, the clues often hinge on either a situation that doesn't seem to comply to 'common sense', or even erratic situations that become perfectly understandable if you just apply common sense to it. The same holds for this story, though I have to admit that the story doesn't feel as satisfying as some of the Nazotoki stories.

I had high expectations for Kirigamine Ryou to Ekkusu no Higeki ("Kirigamine Ryou and the Tragedy of Ekkusu"). Why? Higashigawa himself said that it took him ten years to write the short story, as he just couldn't find a way to make his initial trick work. Anyway, the final version starts with a meteor shower party at school, organized by the geography teacher Ikegami. The party is not really a succes, but Ikegami and Ryou suddenly spot a strange flying object that emits a greenish light and flies in an erratic pattern. Ikegami immediately decides that it is an UFO (the alien kind, not the literal definition) and starts chasing it (taking Ryou along with her). The UFO disappears though and in the middle of the field where they last saw it, the duo spot the body of a unconscious woman. The woman presumably lost her conciousness because she was strangled by someone (as seen by the marks on the neck), but the only footsteps on the wet field are those of the woman. The only logical explanation? The UFO dropped the woman off in the middle of the field!

Well, there is another explanation too, of course. I have no experience in writing stories and plotting, but I have to admit that my reaction was 'did this really take ten years to write?'. Which doesn't mean that this is a bad story. Actually, it is a very good impossible crime story that is quite dense for the short page count and the atmosphere of the story is also entertaining. Strictly speaking, the solution is a (much altered) version of a well-known impossible situation, but it's done so well and originally that it really doesn't matter. A very cool story, but it doesn't need the 'ten years' story. I am sorry I brought it up.

I'm still not sure how things will work out with the blog as I'm in Japan now. There is certainly no lack of material unlike the last three months (hoho, books of 800 pages, double columns for 200 yen?), but I need time/intention to read and write. Which might be the bottleneck this time.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『放課後はミステリーとともに』:  「霧ヶ峰涼と見えない毒」 / 「霧ヶ峰涼とエックスの悲劇」