"Weet jij het ook?"
"Do you know too?"
I am not a creative writer, so I had no experience in writing fiction before I wrote my guess-the-criminal story in March. Writing it in Japanese was a challenge, but the 'good' thing about guess-the-criminal (hannin-ate) stories are that they aren't really stories, in the sense of 'literary stories'. They lean more towards puzzles and as a writer, you actually want people to solve it. There are therefore written so people can solve them. Constructing such stories means pushing the readers' thoughts towards the solution through hints, without being too obvious. If a guess-the-criminal story is impossible to solve because there are too few clues pointing to the solution, then you can hardly consider it a succesful one (as anybody can construct an unsolvable puzzle).
Nikaidou Reito's novels tend be long. Very long. 600 pages seems to be a minimum for him and heck, his Jinroujou no Kyoufu is still probably among the longest, if not the longest locked room mysteries in existence. So when I came across a short story collection called Zouka Hakase no Jikenbo ("The Case Book of Dr. Zouka"), I was both surprised and excited. These short stories were very short, and I loved Ellery Queen's QBI - Queen's Bureau of Investigation, so I hoped that this book would be similarly awesome. Also, it featured doctor Zouka, Nikaidou's parody of John Dickson Carr's doctor Fell ('Fell' can be written as fueru in Japanese, which means increase. A synonyme for that word is zouka). Just look at the cover! A gigantic man who needs not one, but two walking sticks to support himself! Heck, he is even joined by a policeman called Hatori (= Hadley) in these short shorts featuring locked rooms and dying messages.
Too bad it's a total mess. The problem does not lie in the fact these are short shorts (5~10 pages long): QBI is an example of how it can work. But the twenty-or-so stories collected in this book are really nothing more than puzzles which don't even feel satisfying! To have the solution of a dying message story rely on some obscure fact or specialist knowledge, is usually already vexing enough, but there is no fun to be found at all in this book, because practically all dying message stories feature such, almost cheating, solutions. Many of the solutions can only be solved by someone who is cramming for a high school exam on history, because that's the only time you'll hear about those names and events! It's like Nikaidou just picked a random page of an encyclopedia and wrote stories using the topic of that page.
In some stories, he doesn't even try. The most ridiculous ones are the one featuring the truth and lie club: members of the truth club must tell the truth, the members of the lie club must tell a lie. Yes, these 'stories' don't even move past the realms of the logic riddle. Heck, they are less than that, because the solutions literally don't require logic: the three suspects each tell a story, and doctor Zouka tells you who hid a factual lie in his story. This isn't detecting, this is just an examination of facts!
I personally am not against such detective quiz stories. I loved them as a kid, and I have bought the more recent ones under the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo imprint. But I definitely expected more from Nikaidou Reito. Especially the dying message stories don't work. In a classic dying message story, the author presents several interpretations of the message, which are discarded based on logic, after which the correct interpretation (plus accompanying reasons) is presented. Here, Nikaidou gives you a few interpretations which are never thrown away convincingly, and he the presents the Super-Obscure-Interpretation-Nobody-Could-Have-Thought-About and then decides this was the correct solution (without any justification). The 'stories' collected here might be nothing more than puzzles, but even the solutions should be presented more convincingly: now you're left with a puzzle constructed in a way it is impossible for the reader to solve.
You know, this is all I can write about Zouka Hakase no Jikenbo. There is really nothing positive about to say about the contents. But the cover is really awesome though. I am not even being sarcastic or anything, I really love that illustration. But that's the only thing likeable about this book.
Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『増加博士の事件簿』