Saturday, March 1, 2014

Feet of Clay

探せ 追え 謎を解け
BD7 BD7 BD7 は 少年探偵団

Search! Chase! Solve the mystery!
BD7 BD7 BD7 are the Boy Detectives!

About a year ago, I raved about Morikawa Tomoki's Snow White, as an excellent example of how to implement fantasy elements like magic in an orthodox detective novel. The magic mirror that told the detective-character everything was a wonderful plot element, and the story's sense of speed and thrill was fantastic. Indeed, it's not strange Snow White was nominated for the Honkaku Mystery Grand Prize last week. And since reading Snow White, I have also been going through Morikawa's other works, like Cat Food and the non-series Two Detectives and One Watson, but we'll go back to Morikawa's main series for this review.

Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari series
Odoru Ningyou ("The Dancing Dollls")

Odoru Ningyou - Meitantei Sanzunokawa Kotowari to Golem no E wa Shinjutsu no E ("The Dancing Dolls - Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari and the E of Golem is the E of Truth") is a mouthful, so let's just call it Odoru Ningyou. Elementary school student Fumiko gets acquainted with professor Minami, who is working on the creation of a real-life Golem. The second time they meet, the professor tells Fumiko that she has succeeded in the experiment, but is now forced by the powerful, immortal Golem to create more of these beings. The professor had just managed to escape, but the Golem quickly manages to locate her, and takes her (and Fumiko) back to his lair. Furusawa, Fumiko's classmate and proud member of the Boy Detectives, enlists the help of the group leader Shima to help and stop the Golem from executing his evil plans. If only the Boy Detective's boss, the great detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari were here to help them...

Oh, and for those who haven't read the reviews of the other books in the series yet: Sanzunokawa Kotowari is an utterly evil detective who always ends up as the antagonist of the story.

Odoru Ningyou is obviously inspired by Edogawa Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan series, with a team of child detectives trying to stop a thief/murderer/Golem-intent-on-outliving-humans. It feels particular similar to the first book in the Shounen Tantei Dan series, Kaijin Nijuu Mensou, following a similar two-part structure of the Boy Detectives being forced to cope with the enemy themselves in the first half, before their boss (Akechi Kogorou, and in the case of Odoru Ningyou, Sanzunokawa) appears to finish the job off in the second half. The energy of the young detectives is felt throughout the story, and Odoru Ningyou is a light-hearted, fast-paced mystery that keeps your eyes glued to the pages from start to finish.

The main flow of the novel is what you'd expect from the Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari series: the Boy Detectives and the Golem have several skirmishes over the course of the story, with each side outsmarting the other side several times. The situation keeps changing, and you, as the reader, have to guess which side will pull one over the other, and more importantly how. In Snow White, this battle of the wits was based on creative use of the magic mirrors and this time the outcome of the battles hinge on the special powers and characteristics of the Golem (who split up his clay body and control each part). Because the story is based on clear rules (the extent of the Golem's powers are explained), Odoru Ningyou is a fair detective story, despite featuring magical elements (see also the other books in the series, but also i.e. something like Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban).

But the elements that make Odoru Ningyou fun, are also those elements we've been familiar with since the first entry in the series, and in that sense, Odoru Ningyou is also a bit too predictable. All three books are structured around a magical plot-device with certain rules (transforming cats, a magic mirror and now a Golem) and rapid-fire, fast-paced battle of wits. There's a bit of been-there, done-that feeling here, and while the theme of the Boy Detectives is done well here, I have to admit I prefer the magical whodunnit of the magical cats in Cat Food, and the more Death Note-like approach of Snow White to Odoru Ningyou's boy adventure. A personal preference of course, but it's difficult to deny these books are all quite alike (even if they're fun).

Sanzunokawa Kotowari is still an interesting plot device and character. Even though it's called the Great Detective Sanzunokawa Kotowari series, one has to keep in mind that there is no series continuity whatsoever: what happens in one book, has absolutely nothing to do with another, and they are all set in seperate worlds. One can see it as the 'actor' Sanzunokawa being (type)cast in different stories each time, so while he appears each time as the same person (himself), events and background settings of one story do no apply to another, even if it's one series. Of course, by now the reader knows Sanzunokawa is not a very nice guy, so even though he is set up as the boss of the Boy Detectives in Odoru Ningyou, everyone knows not to trust him by now. This kind of character typecasting across stories is of course famously done by Tezuka Osamu (his Star System), but not a practice you come across very often.

I'd say that Odoru Ningyou is a somewhat predictable entry in the series, but not bad per se. Personally, I prefer the previous two novels but it's an enjoyable series no matter the entry. And because there's no series continuity, it really doesn't matter where you start. If you're a big fan of Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan, Odoru Ningyou is very solid choice.

Original Japanese title(s): 森川智喜 『踊る人形 名探偵三途川理とゴーレムのEは真実のE』

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