Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Scared a Lot in Camelot

"Life's a show and we all play our parts."
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"

Confession:  I always first look through lists with episode titles of Scooby Doo! whenever I need a title for posts on 'scary' detective stories.

Sid Thornhill, the self-made millionaire Chicken King from the United States, has recently purchased Andernut Castle and plans to move the whole building brick for brick to the new world. He invites a small party of people for one final party before the residence changes addresses together with its owner. Among the guests are Sid's son and his niece, but also the famous amateur-detective Reginald Nigelthorp. Even before their arrival, the guests joke how Castle of Grand Guignol might be a better name for Andernut Castle, but little did they know there were absolutely right. A mysterious Chinese automaton and an even more mysterious, uninvited Chinaman guest set up a stage that will also reveal a locked room murder and a man being thrown down from a window by an empty suit of armor! Meanwhile, attorney and amateur-solver-of-impossible crimes Morie Shunsaku is also witness to a suspicious death of a man who has some links to Ellery Queen's legendary short-lived magazine Mystery League and the adventure in Andernut Castle. The surprising link between these two storylines is the heart of Ashibe Taku's Grand Guignol Jou ("The Castle of Grand Guignol", 2001).

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a mystery novel that has some great ideas, which sadly enough aren't all worked out as good. To start with what I thought disappointing: the actual locked room murders aren't really that exciting. In fact, I'm pretty sure that physically, the solution to one of the murders is impossible (and even then, at best poorly hinted at). The whole dark atmosphere of Andernut Castle is great and the varied, international cast and Spooky Castle With Bloody Background and stuff are elements we know from writers like John Dickson Carr and Nikaidou Reito (especially this novel) and very enjoyable, so it's a bit of a shame that the murders are a bit bland. Also, I had to tilt my head at the end and ask myself the question, 'was all that trouble really needed, even for detective novel standards?' about certain (rather important) plot developments.

But hey, you say, what is there left if the impossible crimes aren't that interesting? Well, I'm afraid it is rather difficult to write about that without going into (spoilerific) details, which is something I try to avoid here. Basically, it has to do with the way the narrative is structured. The Castle of Grand Guignol has two distinct storylines: one about Reginald Nigelthorp and the events at Andernut Castle, and a parallel one which follows Morie Shunsaku as he investigates the mysterious death in the train. The way these two storylines eventually link together is really fantastic though. For a moment, you'll be completely baffled, until you slowly start to understand what is going on. Ashibe then continues the narrative magic and conjures up several surprises both 'in-universe' and even at the meta-level. The actual murders might not be very interesting themselves, the tale of the murders is told expertly and the way Ashibe works out his themes are very entertaining. By the time you've finished the book, you'll realize how utterly complex the story is, and it is, in a way, an explanation why the locked room murders are a bit bland (as they are of lesser importance), but still, I want to dream of a version where the locked room murders are a bit more interesting too.

The play with narrative and meta-level detections reminds me a bit of Dogura Magura, only a lot more sane. A lot more. Then again, most things are a lot more sane than Dogura Magura.

There is also a bit of literary detection in this novel, as Morie Shunsaku's storyline also involves an investigation into Ellery Queen's Mystery League, a pre-cursor to EQMM that only ran for four issues. I had never heard of it before, but The Castle of Grand Guignol has some interesting tidbits about the magazine, mixed in with some elements for its own story, including the alluring tale of a story in the last issue that ended with a Challenge to the Reader, of which the solution was never published because of the magazine being cancelled. As an Ellery Queen fan, I definitely enjoyed this part a  lot.

The Castle of Grand Guignol is a fun mystery novel, especially to those with an interest in biblio-mystery/literary detection, I think, but you might get bit disappointed if you go in expecting exciting locked room murders. I for one did really enjoy it though and I think the 'other' surprise really makes up for the bland impossible crimes.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『グラン・ギニョール城』

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

My Queer Dean!

I lose control 
春めく季節に まだ幼い瞳は終幕を恐れた
「浸食 lose control」(L'Arc~en~Ciel)

I lose control
In the spring-like season, my eyes, still young, were afraid of the end
"Erosion - Lose Control" (L'Arc~en~Ciel)

I don't really make it a rule of anything, but I think I've managed to write about at least one Dutch novel every year now. No idea whether more will follow this year though.

The discovery of a man shot between his eyes brings Chief-Inspector Gisella Markus to the Treekerpunt. The Treekerpunt, a recreational area once known for its natural beauty, had lately become infamous as a popular place for cruising gays to conduct different kinds of recreation. The victim was a well-known visitor of the area and examination shows he had intercourse before died. While Gisella keeps an open view on the case and makes no assumptions about the motive, her assistant Niels, a gay person himself, is convinced the murder was commited by someone with no-so-happy thoughts about homosexuals. The clashing opinions within the team about the murder, but also about the gay community seriously hamper the investigation and few discoveries have been made by the tme a second murder is commited on a gay person, exactly six weeks after the first murder in a similar place and style of execution. While still not convinced about the motive, Gisella realizes that a serial killer is on the loose whom her team might not be able to stop if they keep fighting each other in M.P.O. Books' 2014 novel Cruise Control.

Oh, and just so there's no confusion: this is a Dutch novel despite the title and it is not available in English (at the moment).

Cruise Control is the eight novel in Dutch authro M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug police procedurals, of which I've only read De Laatste Kans (you can find a lot more on the series at my collegue over at Beneath the Stains of Time). Little knowledge of the series is not a big problem though, as Cruise Control introduces a partially new cast, lead by Gisella Markus. While Bram Petersen still remains the main brains of the series (here in a guest armchair detective role), much of the novel is focused on Gisella and her team (also featuring several familiar faces from the series). There are quite some references to earlier novels, especially about the interaction between the characters, but nothing that feels too alienating. I do have to warn that there are (major) spoilers pertaining certain characters though, something hard to avoid as they all seem to develop throughout the books.

Cruise Control strikes a nice balance in the investigation into the murders as well as the rather problematic workings of the police team, as the topic of homosexuality seems to conjure up a variety of emotions within each member that don't work too well together. Obviously, the two topics are closely intertwined, but sometimes the book focuses more on the footwork, while at other times more on character interactions. It keeps the reader on their toes, though I did think the book to be a bit too long for its own good.

The investigation into the serial killing is great though. The book keeps you guessing at whether the murderer is 'simply' a gay-killer, someone trying to hide his true motives by posing as one or perhaps something complete else and little discoveries now and then help the story keep its momentum. A lot of serial killer stories in puzzle plot stories tend to turn into missing link stories, but Cruise Control isn't one formally. Still, the story is strongly rooted in fair-play puzzle plot tradition, with proper clues scattered across the book that point to the right person. Pesonally, I thought that one psychological hint was a bit weak (seriously, I think a lot of people would say that), but overall, I was quite pleased when the smokescreen disappated and all was explained. Oh, and bonus points for the book for having figures of the crime scenes.

This final point isn't about this book in particular, but Dutch books in general, but it's been a while since I bought a Dutch book and I'm still surprised at the prices. I can buy two, perhaps three Japanese pockets including shipping for the same price as one Dutch paperback...

Well, there's not left for me to say about M.P.O. Books' Cruise Control, but conclude that it is a solid puzzle plot detective novel. And as this is the latest novel, I guess all I can do is go back in the series, so expect more on the series somewhere in the future.

Original Dutch title(s): M.P.O. Books "Cruise Control"

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Invitation to Murder


"Play games only one hour a day!"  (Takahashi Meijin)

To be honest: I've done a lot of detective game reviews here, but even I had not expected to do a Game Boy game here.

Kindaichi Hajime and his childhood friend Miyuki join their junior classmate Akira in a trip to a strange hotel near the sea called the Shiomi House. Akira was sent a strange card with an illustration of someone hanging from a tree, with the text "I am waiting at the Shiomi House". She has no idea what it means, and after a little talk, Hajime and Miyuki decided to tag along. The other guests at the Shiomi House all appear to have been summoned by the same letter, despite their denying. When Superintendent Akechi by accident also appears at the hotel for a certain case, it appears the stage is set for A Murder Story and indeed, the guests are one by one murdered by an unknown killer. Is it the wanted murderer on the loose? Or a ghost? Or perhaps someone else? Hajime will have to solve the case with the help of the player in the 2000 Game Boy Color game Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files ~ The Invitation for the 10th Anniversary~").

I think this might even be the very first game based on the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. There have been great Kindaichi Shounen games in the past (particularly the one where you play the murderer and must outwit the young detective), but also bad ones: the most recent game in particular was horrible (the crossover with Detective Conan was fun, by the way). The Game Boy (Color) is of course a fairly limited system, but luckily, that is something that seldom really hinders adventure games, as they don't need too much graphical prowess.

Edit: I checked just to be sure, but this was not the first game. The PlayStation/Saturn games predates this one actually.

The game is at the core a novel game: you follow the story like how you'd read a novel and occasionally have to make choice (for example, whether to go to A or B, or to ask X or Y). These choices have influence on how the story will develop and determine whether you'll be able to solve the murders or not. At times, you are given the freedom to search the house or to ask the suspects questions, though this is strangely limited (you are only allowed an X amount of actions). This is probably the worst part of the game, as you can only guess where you can find evidence / important information even though you have only a limited amount of actions available. It'd be different if there was some kind of logic behind it, but for a first-time player, it's kinda hard to guess you need to speak with character X several times, instead of talking with the other characters, as there is no indication whatsoever that one action would be better than another.

Despite the annoyance mentioned above though, I have to admit that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ is actually a very decent detective game for the system. Depending on your choices in the prologue, the story can turn into one of two completely different scenarios (with the same basic cast, but with different murders / murderers) and each of those scenarios has multiple endings, so there is a lot to do in the game. The two scenarios are decent enough as puzzle stories: you'll be looking for clues and making daring deductions that wouldn't seem out of place in the actual Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. Each route is short though, you'll go through them in a few hours, but the replay value is really good.

Technically, the game looks pretty good, but I guess that's only to be expected considering Banpresto developed the game, a company with much experience with sprite art. On the audio side of things, the game was slightly disappointing: the music was forgettable and the scream soundbite used several times in the game hardly sounds like a scream (the first time they used it, I thought it was a musical cue, rather than a scream).

Overall, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ~ 10 Nenme no Shoutaijou~ is a surprisingly well-done detective game on the Game Boy Color. It has a lot of content and the puzzle plots themselves are fairly entertaining too. It's one of those games that is well aware of the strength and the limitations of the platform, delivering an experience that feel just right for the Game Boy Color.

Original Japanese title(s): 『金田一少年の事件簿 ~10年目の招待状~』

Sunday, April 10, 2016

番外編: The Moai Island Puzzle + The Cold Night's Clearing

No quotes in the introduction of this post? That means service announcements!

Longtime readers of the blog know that I'm a big fan of ARISUGAWA Alice's Student Alices series. I've reviewed all of the books of the series in the past, and I consider the adventures of the student Alice and his merry comrades of the Eito University Mystery Club as one of the most entertaining, and intellectually most challenging mystery series. The books mix young-adult themes with Ellery Queen-like tricky plots, complete with a Challenge to the Reader. In particular, I've praised 1989's Kotou Puzzle  ("The Island Puzzle") on more than one occassion as the book where Arisugawa in fact outdoes Queen at his own game. It has everything: a hunt for a buried treasure on an island with dozens of moai statues, a locked room murder, a Challenge to the Reader, and an incredible finale where the detective, Mr. Egami, points out who the murderer is based on a very satisfying chain of deductions. 

So I'm more than thrilled to announce that after the critical succes of The Decagon House Murders, Locked Room International will be bringing you another Japanese mystery classic: ARISUGAWA Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle is scheduled to be released coming June. And once again, I had the honor of translating the book. The title is slightly different from the original title, but hey, now it's more Ellery Queen-like! Like with The Decagon House Murders, I have to admit I feel a lot easier about praising the book on the blog now (as the translator), knowing that I had already raved about the book as a crazy fanboy in the past already! So not as the translator, but simply as someone who realllllly enjoyed the book, I say: definitely check it out, as it's simply one of my favorite Japanese mystery novels.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review, which I hope is the first of more positive reviews to follow. My own review of the Japanese original can be found at this link (written many years before I knew I would translate the book), and my we-write-English-reviews-of-Japanese-mystery-novels collegues over at My Japanese bookshelf and On the Threshold of Chaos also have reviews.

Also, in other translation news: Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine May 2016 All Nations Issue (on sale now) features my translation of OOSAKA Keikichi's 1936 short story The Cold Night's Clearing (original title: Kan no Yobare). OOSAKA was a contemporary of writers like Rampo and KOUGA Saburou, specializing in impossible crimes. And I'm almost afraid to say it, but Rampo had always wanted to be published in EQMM, but because of me, both OOSAKA and KOUGA succeeded in that before him... Sorry. Anyway, The Cold Night's Clearing is based on a translation I had posted on my blog earlier, with some additional revising/editing. It's an impossible crime story about a murdering Santa Claus who disappears into the sky....or something like that. Now I think about it, it's not really a story for a May issue of any magazine, though I guess it fits in the "All Nations" theme. Anyway, it's a great story no mater the weather outside. So take a look in the issue if you're interested.

And that's it for the service announcements today

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Murder With Too Many Notes

「シャーロック・ノート 学園裁判と密室の謎」

"Art Thou An Outsider?"
"Sherlock Note - The School Trial and The Mystery of the Locked Room"

Heh, it's more than one year since this book was released. A bit late, a bit late.

In a world of crime, you need detectives to fight evil. And while it's awfully easy to become a criminal, the role of detective isn't something one can just roll into. Takatsuka High School is a special academy that teaches its students the art of detection: the children here are the future policemen, the future private detectives or even the future government detectives. The students of this school are naturally all rather clever, but even among these Holmes-in-training, there are those that get accepted under very special circumstances, the so-called "Altermates". These Altermates are not allowed to reveal themselves or to talk about how they got accepted, but every year, a certain logic game is held to welcome new students. In a school trial, freshman teams have to 'accuse' and 'prove' a certain student is an Altermate (prosecution), while an upperclassman has to debunk their position (defense). Naru is one of the new freshmen at school, and after a certain run-in with an upperclassman, he too is forced to join in the game together with his classmate Karan. Naru himself is definitely not a normal student though, as we learn more about his past and future in Van Madoy's Sherlock Note - Gakuen Saiban to Misshitsu no Nazo ("Sherlock Note - The School Trial and the Mystery of the Locked Room", 2015).

Yep, that's a Katayama Wakako cover (see for example, Yonezawa Honobu's Petite Bourgeoisie series). I love the art, but they do have a tendency to look alike.

I was thrilled when I first read the title of this new book by Van Madoy. Detective schools? School trials? Locked rooms? Van Madoy has not done much with locked room mysteries until now, but his Revoir series was all built around the concept of private trials and logical arguments and other deductions going back and forth. It showed how much fun the action of deduction could be, that sometimes a roundabout route to the truth could be enjoyable. The concept of school trials is something you might know from Danganronpa, but I had confidence that Van Madoy could do something cool with that too, going by his earlier books.

So I have to be honest and say that I was more than a little disappointed in Sherlock Note. I think the biggest problem is that Sherlock Note is conceived as a series, but that this first volume isn't strong enough on its own, and feels incomplete and at times simply chaotic. In the first chapter for example, Van Madoy goes a great length in sketching a detective school, complete with traditions, different kinds of students and a whole world behind the detective school (for example, a group of nine high-ranking detectives called the Nine Tailors). But all these concepts and ideas are all but abandoned in the rest of the book, as Van Madoy suddenly shifts the focus of attention elsewhere. What remains is a book that is almost shizofrenic, as plotlines, concepts and other ideas are constantly 'forgotten' as the story moves on. Sherlock Note falls between a short story collection and a normal novel, but doesn't make use of the advantages of either form.

The first chapter is the most reminscent of the Revoir series, as it revolves around the school trial and the Altermates. There is some interesting verbal dueling going on that revolve around deductions, but it is never as memorable as in the Revoir series (logically, considering the length of the story). The second chapter is the most like a 'normal' detective story, and revolves around a murder in Naru's past, but which is rather easy to solve. The last chapter deals with a mad bomber, who takes Naru hostage and also involves the solving of a kind of locked room mystery (how did the bomber survive an exploding room that did kill all the other people present in the room?). This story kinda reminds of Morikawa Tomoki's stories, as you follow to parties who try to outsmart each other, each picking up on the other's schemes. While it is a sound conclusion to the book, it does suddenly take the world of Sherlock Note to places I had not expected, in a not particularly positive way.

Comics have for a long time embraced the concept of serials and the Marvel movies too have shown how to do series of films that slowly unveil a larger world. Sherlock Note appears to be the home of a larger world for the reader to explore, and the book does attempt to capture that feeling of 'mentioning things that are revealed in detail at a later point', but this is not a succesful attempt. Instead of connected lines, we just have a handful of seperate points that do little to attract the reader. There's a fine line between 'vague enough to pique curiosity' and 'vague, so not interesting', and Sherlock Note leans towards the latter.

Sherlock Note appears to be going for simpler puzzle stories, but a bigger fictional world to explore. However, this first book in the series leaves the reader with more questions than answers, and it does not really satisfy as either a standalone detective story, nor as an interesting hook for upcoming volumes. I've enjoyed all of Van Madoy's previous books, but a second Sherlock Note will have to offer a lot more, in a different way, to be interesting for me.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『シャーロック・ノート 学園裁判と密室の謎』