Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Scarlet Letters

Get Wild (TM Network)

"Embrace the puzzle of love you can't solve on your own"
"Get Wild" (TM Network)

Note to self: books are heavy and it is expensive to send them back home, even by boat. And you should learn by now, because this is definitely not the first time you ended up with boxes full of books to be sent to the Netherlands.

Last year's Misshitsu Shuushuuka was a parade of great locked room murder mystery shorts and I was already a fan of Ooyama Seiichirou's scenarios for the PSP game Trick X Logic, so you'd figure I'd be a big fan of him. And I sorta am. And not. Ooyama actually has very few releases, just three books under his own name and a bunch of contributions to anthologies, which makes it hard for me to really get into an Ooyama mood. Also note that two of his three books have been out of print for quite some years now. Anyway, I finally got the chance to read his debut work, Alphabet Puzzlers, a collection of two short stories and a novellette that once again showcase Ooyama's talent for writing short but strong puzzlers.

Police detective Gotou Shinji, translater Narai Akiyo and psychologist Taneko Rie all live in the apartment building AHM owned by Minehara Taku. They have the custom of gathering at Minehara's quarters to engage in intellectual games, which usually means talking about unsolved cases (of Shinji, or ones they read about in the newspapers) and then trying to deduce the solutions. Alphabet Puzzlers starts off with P no Mousou ("The P Delusion"), where Akiyo tells about her acquaintance Akemi, a somewhat elderly lady who had the habit of having afternoon tea parties at her house. Had, as in past tense, because she has been saying lately that her maid is trying to poison her and thus refuses to drink any tea except for canned tea. Which makes for horrible tea parties. Akiyo suspects it's just a delusion and convinces to Rie, the psychologist, to attend to one of these canned tea parties to see whether Akemi is suffering from some delusion. Rie thinks it's likely, but is forced to rethink her own diagnosis when the old lady is really poisoned later that day.

A somewhat dubious start. Sure, the ending is surprising and I admit that there were clues pointing to it, but it seems a bit too hard to deduce from just those hints. As a story, it feels very bare-boned and artificual, really little more than a puzzle. Which is usually not a problem with me, as a fan of puzzles and in fact, a lot of the guess-the-criminal scripts at the Mystery Club usually don't go further than this level, but when the puzzle feels unfair because of vague hints, well, then there is a chance you'll hear me complain. It is not impossible to arrive at the solution, but you do have the feeling that the readers aren't given a completely fair chance at solving it themselves.

Which is luckily different with F no Kokuhatsu ("The F Accusation"). A murder of an art scholar at a sculpture museum is troubling Shinji. The corpse was found inside the storage room, which is locked with the so-called F (fingerprint) system. The logs show precisely who entered the room at what time, but it seems that none of the suspects could have done the deed because of various reasons (arm injuries preventing from them raising the murder weapon etc.). This story is definitely constructed as a very fair puzzler and the ending has you both surprised as well as nodding in agreement, as you suddenly realize what all those little hints in the text meant. Best story in the collection in terms of fair play, length-to-pleasure ratio and readibility. Definitely the material that foreshadows Misshitsu Shuushuuka.

Alphabet Puzzlers ends with Y no Yuukai ("The Y Kidnapping"), a novellette about the size of the previous stories combined. It starts with a manuscript written by a father whose son was killed after a ransom transfer went wrong. After his son's death, he had nothing but misfortune visiting him, losing his wife to an illness and he himself being diagnosed with a terminal illness too. His last wish is for his memoires about the kidnapping, which happened many years ago, to be published, in the hopes that someone will reveal what really happened then and find out who the kidnapper was. The four amateur detectives at AHM challenge this old mystery, but the solution is not what they had expected.

The first thing that I noticed: the novel takes place in exactly the same place I'm living now. I don't just mean Kyoto, or the Sakyo Ward, I mean literally the same neighbourhood. Heck, the child was kidnapped around the bus stop which is just out of the sight from my balcony. Familiarity however isn't a sign of a good story (nor the opposite though), so how does Y no Yuukai fare? Well, this might be a personal note, but I am usually not a very big fan of kidnapping stories in the puzzler/orthodox genre. They can be exciting yes, and they can be technically very well-constructed stories, but they have a tendency to be very similar. Which is something that happens a lot with orthodox detectives, but it feels more apparent with kidnapping stories, in my opinion. The trope of kidnappers sending the person holding the ransom money from one place to another for example is getting really old and when something goes wrong during this process, resulting in a cancelled exchange, it's usually actually precisely what the kidnapper wanted. Our genre is one where tropes are reused (in various ways, I admit) probably more often than in other genres, but it feels extremely repetitive when we get to the kidnapping puzzler. The ending of Y no Yuukai is thus both surprising and not surprising at all at the same time. A decent story on its own, especially as the final story as it ties up some storylines surrounding the inhabitants of the AHM bulding, but it doesn't stray much from the formula.

Alphabet Puzzlers is a decent volume: if you're into puzzler type of mysteries, it's definitely recommened reading as the stories are all well constructed puzzlers, but it can feel a bit too artificial at times if you're not a particular fan. My recommendation: go for Ooyama's more recent works.

大山誠一郎 『アルファベット・パズラーズ』: 「Pの妄想」 / 「Fの告発」 / 「Yの誘拐」

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