Friday, December 25, 2015

Turnabout Memories - Part 5

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

As always, the year on this blog ends with a short look back at the posts of this year. One 'problem' is that a lot of the reviews posted in the first half of this year were actually already written in 2014 (I have too many reviews waiting to be posted...). So my memories of a great deal of the material is a lot older than one year. Oh well. As always, this post features a round up of reviews and other posts that made an impression on me this year, with categories made up as I go. And I can also assure you that I have plently of review written and waiting, so 2016 will be like always. Anyway, that's it for this year!

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Decagon House Murders

Obviously, Locked Room International's English release of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders has been a big event for me this year, as I was the translator. I first read the book myself in 2011 and loved it (see my review of the book then). Naturally, I could never have dreamt I would be the one translating it some years later. And I was happy to see that a lot of reviews were quite positive. Who'd have guessed that the Washington Post would write about "honkaku" mystery fiction one day?

Oh, and I totally forgot mentioning it here, but the December 2015 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine also featured a translation by me of Kouga Saburou's The Spider.

Best Translation Posted On The Blog! In 2015!
Muma (Kim Nae-seong)

Well, I only posted one this year. Interestingly enough, it's a translation of a Korean story, though I worked from a Japanese translation (because for some reason, I just can't get Korean in my head). Kim Nae-seong is the grandfather of Korean mystery stories, but basically unknown outside his home land, so I hope that at least this translations helps a bit in bringing him under the spotlight, even if just for a moment.

The Longest Detective Story Of 2015! In Real Time!
The Scarlet Truth Revealed in Detective Conan 85 (Aoyama Goushou)

My review of Detective Conan 85 was posted as the last post of 2014, but after the 2014 list was made, so it still counts for this year. Anyway, The Scarlet Truth Revealed is special because it's actually the conclusion to a storyline that started way back in 2007! And don't get me wrong; it's not like there was radio silence in those seven years: in those seven years, many red herrings and real clues have been left here and there throughout various other stories in the series. I think most fans already knew what was going on, but you can't deny that Aoyama did something ambitious and I'd say it was also done quite satisfactorily.

Most Interesting Game Played In 2015! But Probably Older!
Dai Gyakuten Saiban (The Great Turnabout Trial) (3DS)

Okay, there was little competition this year. Tantei Shinshi DASH! was pretty bad and the two Tantei Jinguuji Saburou PS2 games reviewed this year were certainly not nearly as good as the previous ones. Ghost Trick (DS) was a replay, so doesn't really count. But the 2015 summer release Dai Gyakuten Saiban, despite some flaws, was an exciting and fantastic historical courtroom mystery featuring an original, but highly enjoyable version of Sherlock Holmes. Gyakuten Saiban 5 / Phoenix Wright - Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies (3DS) was a very safe sequel to the series, but Dai Gyakuten Saiban manages to recapture that initial sense of excitement we all had when we first played the series. If only it wouldn't have so many obvious hooks for a sequel.

As for memorable non-mystery games I played this year: I played all three MOTHER (Earthbound) games on GBA, which were very quirky and funny RPGs with its shares of flaws. But man, fantastic and imaginative writing. Super crossover game Project X Zone 2 (3DS) had little improvements over the first game besides being slightly less tedious, but some of the new characters are absolutely golden (Segata Sanshirou is a blast to see in the story). Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is very addictive. Also: I finally played Final Fantasy VII (PS), one of the biggest icons in gaming culture. Like with Star Wars, most people nowadays know the story and all its twists even if they haven't played it, because of the numerous references to it in everything, but I still wanted to play the game. It can feel outdated sometimes, but even now, the music compositions and the background designs are something to enjoy.

But enough about games...

Best Cover Seen In 2015!
Clover Leaf (Van Madoy)

With the rise of e-books, I have the feeling that covers have become less important for a lot of people, even though I absolutely love good cover art. I've seen quite some good ones this reading year. NisiOisiN's Zaregoto series always has catchy cover art with pop colors, like in Psycho Logical. The original hardcover release of Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder") has slightly different art, but the 2015 paperback still has a very striking cover with yellows and blue tints. But I'd say that Clover Leaf's cover was the most unique of the books I saw this year, featuring art by Ogura Mayuko, whose art you can view at her website.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2015!
Clues in mystery fiction

I only made two non-review posts this year, it seems. One about clues in mystery fiction, one about language-specific tricks in mystery fiction and translation. Both are topics I enjoy, but both posts were written rather chaotically, so they may seem like the ramblings of a mad man. The one on clues is the most comprehensive though and offers a feeble attempt at posing a typology of clues in mystery fiction of the logical elimination kind. And while my 'Clue Lecture" might not be very memorable, I do think that after all those writings on locked rooms and I don't know what, it might be interesting if more people thought about clues in mystery fiction and its relation to the notion of 'fair play' in the genre.

Weirdest Book Reviewed On The Blog! In 2015!
Gyeongseong ui ilbon eo tamjeongjakpumjip ("A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou")

There's no competition here. A book published in South Korea, featuring Japanese-language mystery stories from the period Korea was a colony of Japan. I am quite certain this is the only English review of the book, and I wouldn't be surprised if it will remain so, considering the contents! Besides the novelty of the stories themselves, I also find the book incredibly interesting as someone who enjoys Japanese literature, linguistics and sociology. Also, this book was a great example of international cooperation, as a friend got me this (and she had to answer awkward questions about why she bought such a book when people at the office saw it). There's another book in the series on urban legends, folklore and stuff by the way, for those interested.

Best Trick of 2015!
Ao wa Umi to Manicure no Iro ("Blue is the Color of the Sea and Manicure") in Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan (Hayasaka Yabusaka)

A "trick" is the element of a mystery story that is the actual mystery and its solution. Like a magic trick, a trick in mystery fiction consists not only out of what the audience sees, but also the actual truth behind the magic. Looking back at the list of reviews this year, the short story Ao wa Umi to Manicure no Iro is the one story that stands out most in memory: I still remember being baffled when first confronted with the mystery, and I remember even better the shock when the truth was revealed. Sometimes, I choose the best trick of the year based on the complexity and structure of the trick, but this year, I choose the trick that made the most impression on me in terms of surprising me.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
Jikan no Shuuzoku ("Customs of Time") (Matsumoto Seichou)
Kuroi Hakuchou ("Black Swan") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
Yoru yo, Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") (Renjou Mikihiko)
The HOG Murders (William L DeAndrea)
Fatal Venture (Freeman Wills Crofts)
Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasion Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
De Laatste Kans ("The Last Chance") M.P.O. Books
Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetsu Sen ("A Selection of Detective Stories by Kim Nae-seong") (Kim Nae-seong)
The Sacrlet Truth Revealed in Detective Conan 85 (Aoyama Goushou)
Dai Gyakuten Saiban ("Great Turnabout Trial") (scenario: Takumi Shuu)

Saturday, December 19, 2015


答えはどこに隠されてるの somebody knows
 あきらめないでもうちょい考えて Question! Answer! 

The answer lies hidden somewhere / Somebody knows
Don't give up / Think a bit more / Question! Aswer!
"Q&A" (B'z)

Don't you just hate false covers? The scene on the cover of today does not actually happen in the book. The designer probably came up with this after reading golf links + dead body in the summary, but you'd think the publisher would say something about that.

A game of golf between Bobby Jones and the local doctor ends with the discovery of a man who appears to have fallen off a small cliff. While the man is still alive, the doctor declares that it's only a matter of time, so he returns to the village to make the necessary arrangements, while Bobby stays to watch over the man's last moments. Just before the man dies however, he utters the line: "Why didn't they ask Evans?" This seems to be the end of the tragic affair, but some time afer the body had been identified by his relatives, suspicious job offers from abroad arrive at Bobby's place, which are then followed by attempts on his life. Bobby and his friend Lady Frances Derwent (Frankie) suspect it all has to do with the dead man on the golf course and his last words and decide to find out what really lies behind his death in Agatha Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934).

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a title that made an enormous impression on me the first time I read it. It is a simple title, but it conjures up so many questions. Who is Evans? What didn't they ask Evans? Why would they need to ask Evans? Who are they? I had absolutely no idea what the book was about, but to me, it appeared to be one of those titles that look silly, but make so much sense in hindsight, if you know the story. I think I've known the title for more than 15 years, so I have to admit: my expectations were rather high, as I'd finally know the answer to the question.

And the answer was...a bit disappointing. Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a clever title, but I can't say the usage of it in the book is particularly smart. I had expected a dying message puzzle or something like that, but there is actually a very straightforward answer to the question and you're almost given no time to think about it once you've been given the proper hints, so this is a good example of me having way too much expectations based on just the title.

But overall, I did quite enjoy Why Didn't They Ask Evans? as a lighthearted thriller-type of novel. At least, I enjoyed a lot more than the more tedious The Secret of Chimneys I read a while back. I think it's because Why Didn't They Ask Evans? is a lot like The Secret Adversary, which I absolutely love. Like Tommy & Tuppence's first adventure, Why Didn't They Ask Evans? features a young couple (the parents of one being a vicar), who go out on an adventure that is filled with thrills and misadventures and a lot of coincidence and luck. The masquerades, the bluffing, the romantic subplots, the two novels are actually very alike. In fact: the 1980 TV adaptation of Why Didn't They Ask Evans? starred Francesca Annis and James Warwick, who would go on to co-star again in the TV adaptation of The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime a few years later (there is no such thing as a recent Tommy & Tuppence TV series. Nope).

Of course, like The Secret Adversary, Why Didn't They Ask Evans is rather simplistic in actual mystery plot (despite a locked room murder!), with immense coincidence pushing the plot forward despite a serious lack of suspects and such, but I found it fairly entertaining as something light. But you are probably looking for something different if you want something memorable or impressive.

I personally enjoyed Why Didn't They Ask Evans?, but I am very well aware that is is also a very flawed work by Christie. The Secret Adversary dates from 1922, but more than ten years later, Christie basically gave the readers a very similar work, even down to the flaws. I wouldn't put Evans high on the to-be-read-list, but it can be fun if you like Tommy & Tuppence, I think.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Jazz Toast

"I suppose it's a bit too early for a gimlet."
"The Long Goodbye"

Man, Van Madoy's (hardcover) books all have gorgeous cover art. Today's book easily has one of the best covers I've seen this year.

It's April, and Toochika Rinto has just moved from the east to Kyoto, where he'll finally start his new life as a first year student of Kyoto University. He joins the student circle Kamogawa Rampo, which organizes group strolls all across the ancient capital that is Kyoto. Here, he falls in love with his fellow member Aoka Sachi, who seems to have more interest in strange events and mysteries that pop in everyday life. One of the mysteries of Kyoto University is a tale, no, an urban legend about a bar called "No. 3" located on the main campus. The bar is said to constantly move around the campus, sometimes being located inside a classroom, sometimes in a laboratory. But the most curious fact behind No.3 is that the beautiful bartender, Souma Miki, doesn't ask for money in exchange for her cocktails: she will only make a cocktail in exchange for an interesting mystery. Follow Rinto and his visits to No. 3 in Van Madoy's 2014 short story collection Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf - Tonight, To Mystery Solving Bar No. 3").

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he is Van Madoy's (or Madoi Ban) first short story collection and his first work outside his quirky courtroom mystery Revoir series, which ended last year. At one hand, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is quite different from the Revoir series. Gone are the private trials, the many characters who kept up-oneing each other with more and more outrageous deductions which were all allowed in court as long as the other party couldn't disprove them and instead we have a short story collection in the tradition of everyday life mysteries: little non-criminal mysteries that one comes across over the course of a normal day. No murders, no theft. Of course, even if the mysteries are non-criminal, that doesn't mean they can't be perplexing or even down-right impossible. For example, we have a problem of two people could have boarded the same taxi at the same time at different places.
Like the Revoir series though, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is also distinctly Kyoto-flavoured. The story is not just 'set' in the city of Kyoto and Kyoto University: the ancient capital and the university are used extensively as the stage for the book and references to local culture, geography and other little things make this book a genuine "Kyoto Mystery" (like for example Kitamori Kou's Minor Kyoto series). Van Madoy studied at Kyoto University, so no wonder the city feels so real in this book, like it did in the Revoir series. This time, the story is about university students who actually study, so we are also treated to quite a lot of scenes set on the Yoshida campus of Kyoto University and overall, I think the book feels very recognizable for anyone who has been in Kyoto or has visited Kyoto University.

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf") is both the title story as well as the opening story and introduces the reader to Rinto, Sachi and the gang of the Kamogawa Rampo circle. On the way to a welcome party for the new members, Rinto and Sachi witness one of their fellow first-year members step in a four leaf clover Yasaka Taxi (a taxi company which has a three-leaf clover as its logo. There are only four taxis with a four leaf mark). Strangely enough though, Rinto and Sachi then witness different members step out of that same taxi at the party. When they ask those members when they stepped into that taxi, they disccover that they boarded the car at the same time Rinto and Sachi saw their fellow first-year member step in the taxi! Even stranger is that that girl seems to have disappeared, as she never turned up at the party. And as he ponders about that mystery, Rinto walks into the legendary No.3 bar, which serves rather (brain) stimulating cocktails.

A great opening story. The mystery is at the surface simple, but as you'd expect from someone who wrote the Revoir series, things are never what they seem at first, and despite the relatively short length, the plot actually does manage to go quite deep and is much more carefully hinted than you'd first guess. Personally, I also loved the familar setting (the story is set around the area of dowtown Sanjou and Shijou) and the urban legend angle on both the taxi and the titular No. 3 bar itself.

Juliet ni wa Hayasugiru ("Too Early for a Juliet") has Rinto still pining for Sachi, but have his feelings for her created a miracle? Kamogawa Rampo is having a little excursion to a Maiko Odori, where once a year maiko perform their arts to the general public and show how much they've learned the last year. Rinto's seat is in the row behind Sachi, a little way away from her, which is a bit disappointing. However, at the end of the performance, Rinto discovers he is sitting right next to Sachi! How did the two come to sit next each other, even though both were looking at the performance? The solution is a bit obvious if you have been paying attention to the behaviour of the characters in the previous and this story, but I have to say that the final conclusion and sorta twist ending were fun.

Blue Lagoon ni Oboresou ("Like Drowining in A Blue Lagoon") is set in the Kyoto Aquarium, the latest detination of Kamogawa Rampo. Rinto and Sachi meet a woman there, who knows much about the aquatic inhabitants and acts as a guide for them. During their stroll, the woman is pushed down on the ground, but when Rinto starts to chase the culprit down the walking route, he finds his target has disappeared completely. Later, the woman also disappears, leaving Rinto and Sachi only with questions. The answers however are slightly disappointing. The main 'trick' of this story is something I personally don't think is 'strong' enough to serve as a central plot device, so the story feels a bit lacking in impact, in my opinion. The hinting is done adequately, but where the other stories often featured several layers, this story feels the most simple.

Kamogawa Rampo attends the Yamahoko ceremony in Pale Rider ni Miirarete ("Bewitched by the Pale Rider"). Rinto loses sight of Sachi for a while, only to find her unconcious, having falling from her seat up high down to the ground. Rinto is not sure whether it was just an accident or a crime, so he once again sets out for the No. 3 bar to find answers. The story is set-up rather simply, but unlike the previous story, it serves just as an introduction for a thrilling conclusion that delves a bit deeper in the history of the mysterious bar. The mystery elements are rather easy to see through, I am afraid, but I thought it an interesting story that deepens the No. 3 bar lore, which also helps set up the last story.

The final story, Nanashi no Guf ni Uttetsuke no Yoru ("A Fitting Night For No Name Guf"), too sets the No. 3 bar at the center of the mystery. One night, Rinto happens to come across the No. 3 bar again, finding it inside one of the new pre-fab container rooms placed on the campus, and has a drink, before leaving again to visit a friend who lives in an in-campus dorm across from the current location of No. 3. Just an hour has passed when a fire breaks out in one of the pre-fab containers, which was of course the one where the No. 3 was located in. The students manage to extinguish the fire, but when Rinto takes a look inside, he discovers the room was empty. But how could bartender Souma Miki have moved her complete bar, including counter and countless of bottles of drinks, out of that container within the hour of him leaving and the fire breaking out?

The solution to the disappearance of No. 3 is again rather simple, but Van Madoy manages to give the story quite some depth by sticking more mystery to it and also involving the history of the No. 3 bar, and the result is a fairly deep mystery story for the amount of pages. Also, this is the only story actually set on the campus of Kyoto University and I personally saw a lot of familiar sights here. Actually, the exact area where this story is set, is where I spent most of my time during my time at Kyoto University, which may be the same for Van Madoy: it is right next to the club room of the Kyoto University Mystery Club (which also makes a guest appearance in this story).

At the end of the book, we're never really told whether Bar No. 3 is really a magical bar or not. A rather realistic history of the bar is given throughout certain points of the book, but the reader is also given the impression that there is some almost magical force surrounding the bar, attracting customers with riddles on their mind. In the end though, it doesn't really matter. Even if the bar is magical, the mysteries in the book are always solved with logic, so the 'magic' element would not interfere with Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai being a mystery book. The conclusion of the book is rather open-ended regarding the No. 3 bar, so we could well get more adventures in the future, or not.

Nostalgia for Kyoto probably also played a role, but I quite enjoyed Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he. Most of the stories are fun, even if the main tricks can be a bit simple to see through at times. Luckily, Van Madoy usually realizes this all too, and he manages to make even simple tricks appear much more enjoyable by adding layers to the story. The youth romance angle also never intrudes on the mystery plot, and works well as a running storyline. Following Rinto as he tries to get closer to Sachi is certainly entertaining. I for one am quite curious to see if we'll see more of Rinto, Sachi and the mysterious bar No. 3 in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『クローバー・リーフをもう一杯 今宵、謎解きバー「三号館」へ』: 「クローバー・リーフをもう一杯」 / 「ジュリエットには早すぎる」 / 「ブルー・ラグーンに溺れそう」 / 「ペイルライダーに魅入られて」 / 「名無しのガフにうってつけの夜」

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Le Triangle d'or

「Nora」(Garnet Crow)

We haven't said goodbye,
But still I will leave here today
Maybe I will come across a wonderful person again one day
I live on a whim and in freedom, I am a stray cat
"Nora" (Garnet Crow)

I usually try to post reviews of TV productions soon after their broadcast and often have to shuffle with my posting schedule because of that. I make an exception for this review though: this particular special was broadcast early this year, but as I only watched some months after that, and because it was related to some other reviews that were already scheduled, I decided to just put this review at the end of the queue, rather than shuffling and puzzling with the schedule.

The first murder happened three years ago. A young girl of eleven was strangled with a tie wrap on June 6th. Exactly one year later, a woman of twenty-two was murdered under the same circumstances. And last year, a female policewoman was too strangled on June 6th. She was thirty-three when she died. 11. 22. 33. All on 6/6. The police still has no clue who is behind the "doubles murders", but the wealthy Odawara Shizue has a suspicion she is going to be next: not ony is she going to turn 44 on June 6th, she also got a threatening letters accompanied with newspaper articles on the "doubles murders". She hires the private detective Horokusa Junpei, one of the tenants in an apartment building she owns, who is to protect her during her birthday party. The operation goes wrong though, and Shizue is found strangled with tie wrap in her study. The problem however is that she was the only person seen to have gone inside the room, which was locked from the inside. Helping Horokusa investigate the case is Cezaimaru Venico, an impoverished heiress of one of the most important families of the past and previous inhabitant of Odawara Shizue's mansion. And so begins her first adventure as a detective in the TV drama Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~ ("The Case Book of Cezaimaru Venico ~The Triangle on the Black Cat~").

Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~ is a TV special broadcast in February, 2015, based on Mori Hiroshi's 1999 novel Kuroneko no Sankaku (The Triangle of the Black Cat"), which also bears the English subtitle Delta in the Darkness. The book is also the first novel in his ten-volume V series, starring Cezaimaru Venico. Note that Sezaimaru Beniko would be a more usual spelling of her name: she however prefers the Cezaimaru Venico spelling and it is the V of her name that titled her series the V series.

It might also be interesting to note that the V series is connected to Mori Hiroshi's S&M series (review of the TV drama is here), even though the V series is set probably about a decade (or two) before the S&M series. In fact, most of Mori Hiroshi's series are connected, some more obvious than others. Even the 100 Years series, which is a science-fiction mystery in a future with androids, is set in the same world as the S&M and V series. I've been delving a bit into the S&M series and the sequel G series of late, so I figured I might as well take a look at this special.

And I was quite disappointed. The premise of a The ABC Murders-esque serial murderer, coupled with a locked room, sounds interesting, right? Well, the locked room murder is of the kind that may only be used if the author has thought of a very original and radical variation, because it is one of the most well-known, simple and first things you'd come up with when the words "locked room" are mentioned. It is Locked Room 101 material and no, Mori Hiroshi did not manage to breath new life into it. It's still the same old thing and anyone will probably recognize it for what it is right away (and immediately guess who the murderer is, by the way). The story continues with more death, but again it's the kind of murders we've seen for more than a century.

More emphasis is laid on the describing the motive behind the murder. It is the kind of some-what philosophical talk we also know of the S&M series, which can be quite an opinion-divider. On one hand, it is more interesting than "I needed the money!", but on the other hand, when people start to talk about the beauty of death and murder and stuff, or what it means to be human or start monologues on other philosophical motives for murders, I feel these scenes (and motives) don't always feel as convincing as the author thinks they do.

Also, I find the characters of this story a bit predictable. A large cast of various characters, including scientists, a well-connected heiress and students that work together and all contribute a little to solving the mystery? Yeah, we already saw that in the S&M series. The V series predates the G series, but the G series also features a private detective in an apartment building who hires students as his assistants. Like I mentioned, I've been reading the G series lately, so I had an enormeous feeling of deja vu as I watched this TV special.

Though I have to say: I've seldom seen a middle-aged, divorced woman with a child as a detective protagonist before.

Though still, I wouldn't recommend Cezaimaru Venico no Jikenbo ~Kureneko no Sankaku~. It's a predicatable detective TV special like you can see practically everyday in the afternoon on Japanese TV (based on own experience, I'd say that's not even that big an exaggeration). If you want to see Mori Hiroshi's work on TV, you might as well watch Subete ga F ni Naru.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣(原)『瀬在丸紅子の事件簿~黒猫の三角~』

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Now Museum, Now You Don't

That belongs in a museum.
- So do you.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Reminder to self: must go visit that mystery fiction library in Busan, South Korea if it still exists.

Professor Munakata was a long-running manga by Hoshino Yukinobu, most famous for his science-fiction work. His first adventure was published in 1990 and introduced the world to the titular professor in Anthropology, specializing in the link between folklore and actual historical events. Since then, he has been appearing irregularly, solving historical mysteries both in and outside Japan. In 2009, the British Museum published the most recent adventure of the professor (at the time), marking the very first (and still the only) English-language publication of the series. Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure starts with the professor being invited by the British Museum to hold a guest lecture. During his stay in London however, the monoliths of Stonehenge are stolen and it appears the hostage takers demand the museum to return all the art objects that have repatriation claims to their respective countries. It's up to the professor to figure out how to save the collection of the British Museum, as well as the monoliths of Stonehenge.

This was the very first time I read the Professor Munakata series, but it sure won't be the last time, because I had a lot of fun with this comic. To start off: the book itself is pretty well made. Obviously, the British Museum is not a 'regular' manga publisher, so it's a surprisingly sturdy book, accompanied by an informative foreword and an interview with Hoshino himself about the adventure and his own trip to the British Museum. The font used also betrays the fact that comics aren't the British Museum's usual work, but that's just a very insignicant complaint about an otherwise good publication.

But the story is more important, right? Well, Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure is almost the last story that was written in the series, and it shows that through its gripping and exciting storytelling, which reveal years of experience. The story manages to mix actual historical facts and the background of the British Museum expertly with Hoshino's own imaginative story of a Stonehenge hostage-taker and the result is a historical adventure of mystery and excitement unlike any other. It's very educational, as you'll learn a lot about some of the British Museum's better known possessions, but the educational parts are also intelligently woven within the fictional part of the story, and nothing is said for nothing. The story eventually leads to a crazy (in the good sense of the word!) conclusion that I want to see as a movie as soon as possible. In fact, this story would actually make for a fantastic movie, I think, similar to how The Louvre featured in All-Round Appraiser Q.

Then again, I've always had a weakness for these kinds of stories that mix history/folklore with a mystery plot, so it's no wonder I like it so much. Interesting enough, the story also touches upon the sensitive topic of repatriation of art objects (and that while this book is published by the British Museum!) Even though this story is one of the last Professor Munakata stories in Japan, it can be read without any prior knowledge of the series. Though if you're like me, you definitely don't have enough with just this one story. I'm definitely tempted to read the original Japanese version now. Readers should also check out Urusawa Naoki's Master Keaton, which might be best described as the adventures of a MacGyvering insurance investigator with an interest in archeology. 

The artwork of Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure is neat and clean, though a bit lacking in the dynamic part. Hoshino's art is well-suited for still, contemplative panels of larger sizes and looks excellent whenever he draws big shots, but some of the (minor) action in the story looks not as intense as it could've been. I guess the style also fits his science fiction stories (which aren't of the Star Wars kind, but the slower, science kind).

The fact that Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure was published by the British Museum is interesting on its own, but this is definitely a story that deserved publication. It's smart and fun and makes you wonder why no other publisher has picked up the rest of the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 星野之宣 『宗像教授異考録』:「大英博物館の冒険」

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Beast in the Shadows

A mask I wore as I approached, I was what I am not.
And though the pattern was unclear, its meaning could be bought... 
"Sins of the Fathers"

I can't say that the cover is really attractive...

In Sins of the Fathers, author and bookshop owner Gabriel Knight learned about his heritage as the last in the line of Ritters and his destiny as a Schattenjäger, a shadow hunter who fights supernatural evil. After his first adventure, Gabriel moved to his ancestral home in Germany: Schloss Ritter, a castle overseeing the town of Rittersberg. A year later, a series of brutal murders around Munchen bring him out of the castle. While the news and police seem to think the murders are the work of a pair of escaped wolves, one witness to the murder of her daughter says it was a werewolf, which means that is work for the new Schattenjäger, even if Gabriel still hasn't gotten the hang of his new job as supernatural hunter yet. Several clues eventually lead Gabriel to an exclusive men's club, which seems to hold the key to the case. Meanwhile, Gabriel's shop owner Grace Nakimura (the Japanologist in me wants to correct the name to Nakamura!) has flown over from the US and is helping Gabriel out with historical research on werewolves, which has a surprising link with Ludwig II of Bavaria. The connection between the 'mad king' and the current murders is the main mystery of Jane Jensen's The Beast Within (1998).

The Gabriel Knight series is a beloved horror-mystery adventure game series that started out on the PC. The first game, Sins of the Fathers, was a wonderful mystery story with a Voodoo background and some supernatural elements. The novelization, which was released four year later and penned by the designer of the game herself, was a bit too close to the source material, I remarked two weeks ago. While the base story was still based on an excellent mix between fiction and history, the inclusion of pretty much all of the in-game puzzles in the narrative made Sins of the Fathers feel like a glorified walkthrough at times.

The sequel to the first game was released in 1995 with the title The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery. As shown above, it sported a completely different graphic style (real-life actors and full motion video instead of animated sprites) and has been met with varying opinions, mostly regarding the acting and the interactive elements of the game. Personally, I quite enjoyed the game (the first Gabriel Knight game I played actually) and the story in particular I find very memorable. This second game was also novelized by Jane Jensen in 1998, released under the same title.

The Gabriel Knight series has always featured supernatural elements in its universe: the concept of Schattenjäger is not just a title and you can be assured that at the end of the mystery, Gabriel isn't going to pull a werewolf mask of someone's face who grumbles he would have gotten away with it if it weren't for Gabriel's meddling. Yet the stories are also genuine mysteries and I absolutely love the story of The Beast Within. Gabriel's werewolf hunting starts with some 'normal' sleuthing, like you see in any detective story and there's nothing supernatural or unfair about that. But the story starts for great heights when Grace appears on the scene and attempts to find out more about werewolves and their link to Ludwig II. Sins of the Fathers was a good example of mixing good historical research with fiction, but The Beast Within surpasses even that story in that aspect. Gabriel and Grace's storylines slowly work towards an intersection, as they hunt for the werewolf in both present and past and the conclusion is a great spectacle. This is a great example of how to use historical research to present an entertaining mystery story.

I wrote a bit about literary detection in my review of Helen McCloy's Two-Thirds of a Ghost. Grace's storyline in particular is a great example of that. In the original game, this meant you had to listen for a long time to passages of documents being read by the actress, but reading the many documents on werewolves and Ludwig II yourself as a part of the narrative is much natural in the novel. It made me appreciate more how this was set-up, as many crucial clues are spread across the documents you read over the course of the story and work great a both hints and foreshadowing. Also, it's more streamlined than in the game, so no more hours of wandering in Schloss Neuschwanstein!

My biggest complaint about the novelization of Sins of the Fathers was that it was too faithful to the original game it was based on. All of the puzzles made its way in the narrative, which was unnatural. This is luckily resolved in the novelization of The Beast Within. This is partly because the original game featured fewer puzzles anyway. The game was filmed with real life actors and puzzles would just mean more filming. Instead, an emphasis was placed on literary detection, which as I pointed out above, works great for a novelization. But Jane Jensen was also wise enough to not include all of the few puzzles that do appear in the game. People who have played the original game may for example be relieved to hear that Gabriel doesn't buy a Cookoo clock to serve as the worst distraction ruse ever in the novel.

All in all, the novelization of The Beast Within is a great supernatural mystery with good historical resarch gone into it. It is also much more enjoyable as a book than Sins of the Fathers and feels much less like a novelization of a videogame (if at all). It is true that the original story was much more suited for novelization than Sins of the Fathers though. Anyway, a great substitute for those who don't want to play the game for whatever reason (too old, not into games), but still interested in its themes.