Thursday, February 21, 2013

Trouble is my Business

「昨日までなら喜んでたさ。こんな単純な事件でもないよりましだしな。どうせならもっと早く死んでくれれば良かったんだ」
高松の遺体にぺっと唾を吐き掛ける。
「明日はどうしても外せない用があるというのに」
「化粧した男の冒険」 

"If it had been yesterday, I would've been glad. Even a case as easy as this is better than nothing. If only he had died earlier". He spitted at the dead body of Takamatsu.
"But I have an important appointment tomorrow"
"The Adventure of the Man with Make Up"
  
I often take a walk around the neighborhood if it's good weather and I was quite surprised about two weeks ago when a man walked past me whose face was very familiar. It took quite some while for me to arrive at the name of Maya Yutaka, a writer I've haven't spoken to, but seen on several occasions. But I'm pretty bad with faces, so it might also have been a mistake on my part. And then, the same day, I came across the same man again at the local supermarket. And I still think it's Maya. And that was my not-very-interesting story that acts as a bridge to today's book.

Mercator to Minagi no Tame no Satsujin ("Murders for Mercator and Minagi") is the first short story collection starring Mercator Ayu, the great detective who you'll always find wearing a tuxedo and a silk hat (unlike a policeman, a great detective is never on holiday, so he's in that outfit even in the summer). He first appeared in Maya Yutaka's debut novel Tsubasa aru Yami, which features the telling subtitle The Last Case of Mercator Ayu. Yes, Mercator's first appearance was also his last, and this short story collection is thus set before Tsubasa aru Yami. But he is the same great detective. In fact, he is such a great detective that he is actually better suited for short stories according to himself, as his presence is so big that cases are solved the instant he appears, meaning that for novel-length stories, he can't appear until late in the game. Do note that while Mercator is indeed brilliant, he is not a nice person by any means, having such faith in his own talents that he for example willingly allows people to die, just so the case becomes more interesting/impressive to solve. In the end, it's all about how he benefits from a case. Working with (for?) Mercator in this collection is the detective writer Minagi Sanjou, who usually gets involved with Mercator's schemes unwillingly and deep down, Minagi actually wishes Mercator was dead.

Tooku de Rurichou no Naku Koe ga Kikoeru ("Hearing the Cry of a Blue Robin Faraway") has Minagi staying at a mountain villa, where he finds himself to be in a sticky spot because during the night, one of the guests was shot in the room next to his. The door to the hallway was locked from inside, leaving the connecting door that leads into his room as the only way out of the crime scene. Minagi swears nobody went through that door during the night, but effectively meaning that if it the shooting wasn't an accident, that Minagi was the only person capable of committing the murder. An interesting start of this short story collection, and I am using 'interesting' as an euphemism for a probably more negative word. I won't say that the story was devoid of proper hints, but it is pretty much impossible to solve for the reader because the solution requires a lot of imagination, which is only backed up by vague evidence. Maya tries something different with a common trope in the genre, but this is going a bit too far, in my opinion. I do like that when the solution is revealed by Mercator, some events and actions early in the story suddenly turn out to be something very different and darker than you'd initially expect.

Kesshou Shita Otoko no Bouken ("The Adventure of the Man with Make Up") has Mercator and Minagi staying at a hotel, where a man in a party of six also staying there is found murdered. With make-up on his face. And not the I-am-a-metro-type-of-man make up. Mercator decides to solve the case because he needs to catch a train (note: that is the sole reason he decides to solve the case). The premise of the story is reminiscent of Queen's short story The Adventure of the Bearded Lady, where the victim left a dying message by adding a beard to a painting of a lady, though the reasons behind the enigmatic actions are quite different. Kesshou Shita Otoko no Bouken is by no means a remarkable story, but it is a fun enough puzzler, which you can solve with a bit of the good old fashioned elimation method.

Shoujin Kankyo Shite Fuzen wo Nasu ("Idleness is the Mother of Evil") starts with Mercator telling Minagi of his recent advertising campaign and precisely as he predicted, an elderly rich man comes to consult him fearing something close to him might kill him. The story takes some hints from Holmes and Poirot with clients coming in and a bit of armchair detecting and the attentive reader will pick up on the hints to arrive at the same conclusion of Mercator. The most interesting part of the story, in my opinion, is the way how Mercator, in the literary role of a detective, is a major influence on crime. Don't they say that Batman is also in a way responsible for creating the weird supercriminals in Gotham City? The same can be said of Mercator, who with his absolute confidence in his role as a detective, actually helps creating crime.

In Suinan ("Flood"), Mercator and Minagi stay at a hotel in the mountains (I'm sensing a pattern!), where they meet with the ghost of the sole victim of a flood 10 years ago whose body wasn't found. And in the process also find two new bodies locked away in a shed with the word death painted on it. The solution is weird: part of the solution requires you to know that in this story supernatural phenomena can happen. Which is something that hasn't been discussed at all in any of the stories before this one. I can definitely live with supernatural elements in my detective fiction, but I need to know in what way they can influence the story, or else it isn't fair! Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban gave us proper rules to what was possible and not regarding witchcraft, and I recently read Nishisawa Yasuhiko's Nenriki Misshitsu! ("Psychokinetic Locked Rooms!"), which indeed features psychokinesis, but you are told beforehand what is possible and it is made a crucial element of the story. In Suinan, the whole supernatural thing however only works as a distraction and I couldn't enjoy this story.

I have written several times about Guess-the-Criminal short stories, one of the fine tradictions of the Kyoto University Mystery Club,  and Nostalgia has Minagi taking on a script written by Mercator himself. I won't go into the details of Mercator's script, though it does feature locked rooms and such, but I do want to mention that the writer (Mercator, and so by proxy the real writer Maya Yutaka), went all out. In the year I've spent here I've read quite some Guess-the-Criminal stories, meaning I've also seen quite some narrative tricks (by which I mean, tricks/tropes used by the writer, not per se tricks using narration). Some are quite popular, but it seems like Maya put pretty much all the tricks he could think of in Nostalgia. Which explains the title, as it almost certainly refers to the custom at the Mystery Club. On the other hand, it also means that if you are familiar with these kind of stories, you'll catch quite a few of them quite easily (I didn't make it all to the final solution though). I enjoyed this story the most.

Samayoeru Minagi ("Wandering Minagi") has Minagi indeed wandering in the mountains, after being kidnapped and finding himself in who-knows-where. He finally makes it to a house, which turns out to be the parental house of his friend Daikoku. According to his brother, Daikoku apparently disappeared, even though his friends from a painting circle all gathered here. Daikoku's brother suspects one of these friends is responsible for the disappearance and wants Minagi to help him find out who did it. Minagi however thinks it might be better to wait a bit, which later on turns out to be not a very wise decision because Daikoku's brother is found dead the following day. Realizing that this is serious business, Minagi asks Mercator for help, who quickly solves the case. The story takes some cues from a Queen radio story and is a well-constructed story that also explores Mercator as a person a bit and in the Mercator-and-Minagi-in-the-mountains series of this volume, it's definitely the story that finds the best balance in complexity and surprise. The main hint is also expertly hidden in the story.

Siberia Kyuukou, Nishi he ("Siberia Express, to the West") isn't set in mountain villa, but in a luxary train in Siberia, thanks to Mercator's probably shady connections. During the trip, the train is brought to a sudden stop due to an accident (which, by the way in the original, unpublished version was a meteorite, I've been told). The train moves on after the stop, but the next day a writer is found dead in his compartment. Mercator solves a case which I personally didn't really like that much, but it is definitely a very well planned story: the hints that lead to the solution are placed with much care for detail within the story and the reader has to be very attentive if he wants to solve the case. Furthermore, Maya makes very good use of the above mentioned train stop, giving him the space to go quite some interesting ways with deductions.

Mercator to Minagi no Tame no Satsujin is a fine collection overall, though there were some stories I didn't really like. Mercator as an almost evil detective is a fun character though, so I'll probably read more of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 麻耶雄嵩  『メルカトルと美袋のための殺人』:「遠くで瑠璃鳥の鳴く声が聞こえる」 / 「化粧した男の冒険」 / 「小人閒居為不善」 / 「水難」 / 「ノスタルジア」 / 「彷徨える美袋」 / 「シベリア急行西へ」

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