Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Private Eyes' Requiem

ゆるぎないものひとつだきしめたいよ
誰もがそれを笑ったとしても
「ゆりぎないものひとつ」

I want to embrace one thing I can keep counting on
Even if everybody laughed at that
"One Unwavering Thing"

Man, I don't even look for them, but I'm pretty sure I read at least one Holmes pastische every year. Oh well, this is technically a Lupin pastiche... Oh, and I didn't manage to add even a fair amount of the tags at the end of the post, because of limitations on the number of characters. Please use the links in the body of the text if necessary.

Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes", 2000) is a short story collection by Ashibe Taku, crammed full with pastiches featuring famous detectives from both East and West. It's the first volume in a series dubbed The Exhibition of Great Detective, and I already reviewed the second volume last November. This first volume is, in the essence, the same as its sequel. The stories often feature several famous literary characters together (like the titular Lupin and Holmes) in a story that is expertly written in the style of the original works. Most of these stories also feature an impossible crime. The opening story for example, Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes"), has gentleman-thief Lupin revealing the true story of his meeting with Sherlock Holmes. In the prologue, Lupin reveals that the adventures as written in 1908's Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès were made-up, as shown by the fake Holmes name. The true meeting between the French thief and the English detective happened in 1900 during the Paris World Fair, when Lupin had only started making a name for himself. Lupin succeeds with a daring theft of a necklace from a Japanese theater troupe, but then a priceless Buddha statue is stolen from the Maison du Japon under impossible circumstances, followed by disappearing film reels with footage made in Japan. Lupin is accused of anti-Japanese sentiments and Holmes is hired by the Lumière brothers to retrieve the films. And so both Holmes and Lupin try to figure out the truth behind the disappearing Buddha statue and the true culprit behind this series of thefts.

This opening story does really read like a Lupin serial, with a dynamic story and a focus on adventure. The impossible disappearance of the Buddha statue is not incredibly surprising, but it does impress as it's firmly set in "reality", with a basis in actual history. This holds for all these pastiches actually, but especially this story is great in mixing fiction with real history. The Paris World Fair and the Lumière brothers are just some of the real world elements mixed with the Lupin-Holmes narrative, and the way it's used is actually fairly natural. There's even a guest appearance of that one Japanese author who ALWAYS gets to meet Holmes in pastiches like these. Unlike Arsène Lupin contre Herlock Sholmès, the confrontation between the two giants feels a bit more fair too. The motive behind the crimes is rather surprising though.

Taikun Satsujin Jiken ("The Tycoon Murder Case"), which also carries the subtitle The Polish Paste Mystery, is the second story in the volume, and as "Tycoon" has six letters in it, and it's followed by "Murder Case", you can safely guess it's a Philo Vance story. Prosecutor Markham asks dilettante detective Vance and his attorney Van Dine to accompany him to the murder scene of a publisher of pulp magazines. He's been offed of, as they say, in the apartment of his star writer Ramon F. Kimmel. The victim left a dying message fingering Kimmel, but the problem is that there are three Kimmels: three ghost writers published under the pen name of Ramon F. Kimmel under the guidance of the victim. The testimony of a neighbor based on a radio performance appears to be decisive clue for this mystery, but probably not in the way Markham had expected. This story reminds of me of the episode The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader from the Ellery Queen TV show, in the sense that it deals with pulp publishers and the men behind a collective name. The solution to the mystery is good, with a clever, hard-to-notice clue and a lot of focus on material evidence. The writing style of this pastiche is also very reminiscent of Van Dine (including the end notes!) and the story also features multiple guest appearances of other famous detectives (one of them is rather obvious based on the subtitle, I think). 

Hotel Mikado no Satsujin ("The Hotel Mikado Murder") is set in San Francisco. Hawaiian police detective Charlie Chan's stay in Hotel Mikado, a Japanese-run hotel, ends up in murder when a gunshot rings through the hotel.  A highly ranked military official staying secretly at the hotel is discovered inside his room, apparently having committed ritual suicide with a sword. Inside his room is also the corpse of a mysterious woman. Private eye Sam Spade also arrives at the scene, as he had been hired by the first victim for a certain job. But the case is revealed to be very different from what it appears to be by a mysterious Japanese boy working at the hotel. The motive behind this crime has similarities with that one featured in the first story. The mystery itself is okay, but the real 'surprise' is the other detective who makes a surprise appearance. At least, I think a lot of readers familiar with Japanese mystery fiction will correctly guess who that is, as the reference is rather obvious, but I did like how the story built towards revealing the fact.


Tasogare no Kaijintachi ("The Fiends of Twilight") is a straightforward Edogawa Rampo pastiche, where the Fiend with Twenty Faces is accuses of murder after the theft of a sword. Akechi Kogorou however beliefs the Fiend when he swears he does not take lives and the detective agrees to find out who else could've committed the murder inside a closed-off part of town, where only the victim and the Fiend were found. There are some interesting Rampo cameos here, but the solution behind the impossible crime (a murder in a place where only the victim and the Fiend were) is a bit childish. Though I guess it works for this pastiche, because it's based on a series for children.

Tadokoro Keibu ni Hanataba wo ("A Bouquet for Chief Inspector Tadokoro") puts Chief Inspector Tadokoro in the spotlight. Chief Inspector Tadoroko is a character who connects the worlds of Chief Inspector Onitsura and amateur detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, both creations by Ayukawa Tetsuya. Tadokoro is the one character who has worked with both these men, and he tells his public an amusing tale about how the two detectives both had trouble solving a crime: Chief Inspector Onitsura had no idea what to make of a locked room murder (the specialty of Hoshikage), while Hoshikage Ryuuzou was paining his head about an alibi trick using the railway (the specialty of Onitsura). The solution to both problems is a bit simple, but as a story that gives a minor character a moment to shine, I'd say this story is one of the best in the volume. I really enjoyed this one.

The following two stories I didn't find particularly interesting. Nanatsu no Kokoro wo Motsu Tantei ("The Detective With Seven Minds") is not a pastiche of any characer in particular, but one of styles. The narrator is called to come over to a crime scene, and then the narration style changes constantly, from 'hardboiled detective narration' to 'dilettante amateur detective narration' and 'experienced cop narration' etcetera. The story is simple, and mostly serves as a theme for this showcase of styles, and it basically is all written to prepare for the punchline. Kidan Kuuchuu no Zoku ("A Detective Story: The Thief in the Sky") is a detective story written in the style of Kuroiwa Ruikou. The writing style is really old, which makes it hard to read (pre-war Japanese) spelling and the whole story is presented as an adaptation/translation of an existing, Western story (most of Kuroiwa's works are 'free' adaptations of Western crime fiction).

Hyakurokujuunen no Misshitsu - Shin Morgue Gai no Satsujin (The 160 year Old Locked Room - New Murders in the Rue Morgue") finally features Ashibe's own series detective Morie Shunsaku, who is asked by a mysterious figure to solve a locked room murder involving a mother and her daughter who were killed in the most brutal way. And yes, we're talking about Edgar Allan Poe's The Murders in the Rue Morgue. Whereas previous stories mimicked the style of the original works, this story is more like meta-mystery, as Morie examines the original text and arrives at a new solution to the classic tale. The biggest surprise however is the identity of his client though.

Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes is on the whole an entertaining collection of pastiches. Ashibe is usually at his best when he can let his bibliophilic urges go free. He mixes real history with fictional history in an engaging way, and showcases great knowledge about the subject matter, as he manages to mix in all kinds of little trivia about the characters in his stories which are all written in distinctive, recognizable styles. The stories can sometimes feel a bit gimmicky though, because a lot of the charm of these stories basically comes down to 'fanboying'. I'd say the opening story, the Philo Vance and the Ayukawa Tetsuya stories were the highlights of this collection.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『真説ルパン対ホームズ』: 「真説ルパン対ホームズ」 / 「大君殺人事件 またはポーランド鉛硝子の謎」 / 「《ホテル・ミカド》の殺人」 / 「黄昏の怪人たち」 / 「田所警部に花束を」 / 「七つの心を持つ探偵」 / 「探偵奇談 空中の賊」 / 「百六十年の密室 新・モルグ街の殺人」

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Black Wind

涙を隠した昨日に
遠い思い出 と今なら言える 
風のラララ
「風のラララ」(倉木麻衣)

And the past days where I hid my tears
Now I can say they are a distant memory
It's the wind's lalala...
"The Wind's Lalala" (Kuraki Mai)

Ayukawa Tetsuya was a highly influential writer of puzzle plot mysteries in post-war Japan. He was especially a prolific writer of stories featuring impossible crimes of a very specific kind. Whereas most people would instantly think of locked room murders, Ayukawa instead focused on the alibi deconstruction story: stories where the culprit has an unbreakable alibi, making it impossible for them to have committed the murder, even though it seems quite clear it was them. In the past, I have reviewed books like Kuroi Hakuchou and Tsumiki no Tou for example, which I really enjoyed. Ayukawa was also an important editor by the way connected to the publisher Tokyo Sogensha by the way, and writers like Arisugawa Alice and Ashibe Taku made their debuts thanks to awards connected to Ayukawa.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind", 2007) is a short story collection by Ayukawa Tetsuya featuring stories originally published in the period between 1951 and 1975. The stories all feature Ayukawa's most famous detective character: Chief Inspector Onitsura of the Metropotan Police Department. Interesting is that even though Inspector Onitsura is the series character, he is seldom at the centre of the story. Warui Kaze for example features a couple of inverted stories (which obviously have the murderer in the center), where the inspector is only mentioned by title, never by name. But even the stories that do follow the police seldom show us the man: you're more likely to see several of his subordinates doing their job diligently, with Onitsura leading the investigation from his desk. He sometimes doesn't even appear for the finale for the story, leaving that job to his subordinates too. There have been some TV productions based on the Inspector Onitsura series, but I wonder whether he's as absent there too.

Etude in Blue (1956) starts with a scene where the director of a small company and his mistress comment on how their situation resembles the thriller movie they just saw. In the film, the director of a small company and his mistresss plotted together to kill the wife. And that's exactly what they are going to do too. The plan is to provide the director with a perfect alibi during the time of the murder, by making it appear his current girlfriend and intended victim (his secretary) was in a completely different place during the murder. The plan goes without a hitch, the conspirators think, but the police is eerily quick to catch on... As an inverted story, this is a decent, but not particularly memorable story. Like in Columbo, there is of course a major mistake left unnoticed by the murderer, which sets the inspector on their trail (a theme which is true for basically all stories in this collection). In this case, the mistake itself is a good one, and it's normal the inspector would continue his investigation from there, but there's still quite a jump between that point, and him finding out all the others details of the crime. Because this is an inverted story, we obviously don't get to see the police checking up on all the details of the case (as we already saw that from the murderer's point of view) and Onitsura explaining everything again would be repeating, but I guess a more logical structure to how Onitsura's explanation would've been better, as now he starts pointing out the things the murderer did to create his alibi, but then ends up with pointing out that mistake, which on its own does not connect to the rest of Onitsura's story.

Warui Kaze ("An Ill Wind"), Itai Kaze ("A Painful Wind") and Satsui no Esa ("Bait for Murderous Intent") are three very short inverted stories. Warui Kaze, which lends its title to the collection, is about a dentist, who happens to be visited by the man who drive his daughter to suicide. Murder ensues. The dentist comes up with a plan to create a fake alibi, but the scheme basically breaks through sheer bad luck, and it's not even possible for the reader to have foreseen that. In Itai Kaze, a husband discovers his Russian wife has been cheating him with a younger man, and the husband plots to kill the man, and make it seem his wife did it. While it is a short story and basically hinges on one single mistake, the plotting of the fatal mistake in question is actually quite smartly done, and I enjoyed this story. Satsui no Esai has a young man with a bright future plotting to kill his lover. He originally had not planned to kill her, but prospects of a marriage with a wealthy heir soon turned his feelings of love into murderous intent. The plan is to make it seem like she committed suicide on her own, but he makes one little mistake that turns everything upside down. And that's it, actually. It's really a small mistake that upsets his scheme, but rather than being impressed by how ingeneous it was, I was more thinking along the lines of "Yeah, of course he's going to forget that, it's really a small thing that very few people would think of". With stories like these, you want the police to point out a mistake that seems so stupid in hindsight, not one that seems genuinely unnoticable.

In Yoru no Houmonsha ("A Nightly Visitor"), a private detective is asked by a woman to prove the innocence of her deceased husband. A former lover who had been basically stalking him had been murdered on the night her husband died in a traffic accident. Police investigation showed that he had indeed been in the neigborhood of the crime scene, and as the other suspect has a perfect alibi and dead men tell no tales, they decide the deceased man was the murderer. The basic idea behind the alibi trick is fairly simple, and is actually seen in several of the other stories in this collection, though I did like one important part of the alibi trick, concerning a delivery from a Chinese restaurant. The way the police figure out this part of the alibi is suspect is fairly mundane, but also realistic and I could really clearly imagine how the scene'd go. 

MF Keikaku ("The MF Plan") is the plan one side of a manzai comedy duo gave to his scheme to kill his partner. Even though his partner is the reason they're not doing very well as a comedy duo, his partner refuses to break up with him, and even threatens to reveal hidden skeletons to the police if pushed. The plan is to make it appear his partner was already dead in his apartment while he himself still out of town. The fatal mistake in this inverted story is on one hand very simple: you're likely to come across it one of those solve-it-yourself mystery quiz books for children. On the other hand, the way it's hidden in the narrative is smart.

Madara no Inu ("The Speckled Dog") is by far the longest story in the collection, taking up about a quarter of the pages on its own. A female office worker receives a box of bonbons at her work. Figuring it might be from one of the many admirers she has, she puts on in her mouth, and finds out the hard way that the bonbons are filled with cyan. Police investigation initially focuses on her acquaintances and admirers, but then the police discovers that she might not have been the intended victim. While this story is a lot longer than the rest, it does feel a bit artificially long. The first half for example could be shortened greatly without any harm done to the narrative. The murderer's plan also involves an utterly complex scheme to get hold of a perfect alibi with too many elements. I think this plot would've worked either better as a full-length novel, with each of the elements having more time to get developed, or a less complex, short story.

The last two stories in the collection focus on a younger Inspector Onitsura, during his period with the Harbin police. In Nire no Kisou no Satsujin ("Murder in the Elmwood Mansion"), Elizaveta, a Russian aristocrat, calls Onitsura for help, as she found a dead body in the abandonded Elmwood Mansion near the Russian Cemetary. Elizaveta was supposed to meet with the victim, a blackmailer, for business about her deceased sister, but she found the blackmailer murdered. Later, they find out that Elizaveta's father has committed suicide that night, and that his pistol was also the weapon that killed the blackmailer. The problem however is that considering the time schedule, Elizaveta's father couldn't have retrieved his pistol from the store, murdered the blackmailer, and then gone on home to commit suicide. The solution to this problem is surprisingly simple, yet elegant. It's also the first story in this collection to emphasize the impossibility of things, even if by nature, alibi tricks are always stories about impossible situations. Oh, and on a side note, it's hard figuring out the original Russian names from the Japanese text!

Akuma ga Warau ("The Devil Laughs") is the final story in the collection and also set in Harbin. On New Year's night, a policeman is guided by a gunshot and a ghastly laugh to a street, where he discovers a dancer lying on the ground. She mutters the name of her assailant, and dies on the spot. The name of the assailant was a familiar one to the police, but when questioned, it appears he had a perfect alibi for the time of the murder: He was a block away, just stepping inside the bus, and there was a trustworthy witness present (trustworthy in the sense that the witness would have more reason to lie to get the man in trouble). The solution has Carrian qualities to it, I think, and quite well thought-off. It's not a classic, but certainly a more than decent impossible crime.

Warui Kaze, as a collection, is a bit skewed towards very short, one-idea stories that sometimes feel a bit like hit-or-miss. Well, there are not genuinely misses here, but they don't really fill the stomach either. I remember I felt the same about The Columbo Collection, the Columbo short story collection by William L. Link. There you definitely felt the difference between the one-short stories which point out one fatal mistake and then end, and the longer Columbo TV episodes, where Columbo slowly pulls on the thread, revealing more and more of the scheme. Warui Kaze basically has the same, as the conclusions to a lot of the stories feel to abrupt, even if the contents of the stories is interesting. I did enjoy the stories overall though, but I'd not recommend this as an introduction to the Onitsura character (also because he does not appear that very often).

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也 『わるい風』: 「青いエチュード」 / 「わるい風」 / 「夜の訪問者」 / 「いたい風」 / 「殺意の餌」 / 「MF計画] / 「まだらの犬」 / 「楡の木荘の殺人」 / 「悪魔が笑う」

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Down Town Game

flying fall down 
羽ばたきながら墜ちてゆくの
君の傍へ
「Flying」(Garnet Crow)

Flying fall down
As I fly, I fall down
To your side
"Flying" (Garnet Crow)

I actually quite like the cover of the book in today's review in terms of artstyle and design. If only it did not feature a clown....

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]
Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]

Toshiko had no reason at all to commit suicide. Sure, she was not particularly good at her job at U Bank, and unlike the other female workers her age, she was still single at the moment, but unbeknownst to the people making fun of her behind her back, she did manage to get herself engaged with a nice, extremely handsome younger man, who looked a lot like Tom Cruise. With their marriage planned for the following month, Toshiko had every reason to want to live. Yet for some mysterious reason, she jumped off the roof of U Bank. Her boss obviously is perplexed. Toshiko had just bragged about her boyfriend moments before she went up to the roof to water the bonsai plants there, so why would she commit suicide? Yet a witness swears he saw Toshiko go over the railing by herself, with nobody else present on the roof. With a witness present, even Toshiko's boss has no other choice but to accept it was a suicide, but soon after, another of his subordinates jumps to his death after being sent up to water the bonsai plants. This man too had absolutely no reason to die, but once again, it appears the victim jumped on their own volition, as there was nobody else on the roof at the moment it happened. Both suicide and murder are impossible considering the circumstances, yet these deaths did happen. When a third man jumps however, their boss is finally convinced that their roof is cursed. A journalist informs private detective Mitarai Kiyoshi of these strange events, but Mitarai is convinced there is a logical explanation to this series of deaths in Shimada Souji's Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof", 2016).

Okujou no Douketachi is the fiftieth story in Shimada Souji's Mitarai Kiyoshi series, which started with Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (1981), known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders. As most people reading his blog will probably know, it were the early works in this series that later inspired writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou (and many more), which in turn would lead to a new wave of puzzle plot mystery stories in Japan in the late eighties/early nineties of the previous century. If you take a look at the list above, you'll see I've only reviewed a very minor selection of this long-running series starring a genius astrologist-turned-private-detective and his Watson, the writer Ishioka. Over the course of the run of this series, there have been a variety of adventures for this duo. Early stories like The Tokyo Zodiac Murders and Naname Yashiki no Hanzai were very classically built puzzle plot mysteries for example, while works like Ihou no Kishi or Nejishiki Zasetsuki were much more character-focused. What these works do often have in common are fantastic, alluring premises, as well as a tendency for very ridiculous tricks, in a good sense of the word. I think I make this comparison every time I do a Shimada review, but whereas most people would a needle and thread to come up with a locked room trick, Shimada would use iron wire and jackhammers. This also holds for Okujou no Douketachi.

I'd say that the premise of Okujou no Douketachi is probably the best part of the book. The mysterious roof where people who have absolutely no reason to commit suicide, who even state they have no intention to commit suicide, still jump off from is a strangely eerie place. I say strangely, because this roof is situated on top of a bank, next to a department store, in a fairly lively neighborhood. Yet, despite this modern setting (the story is set in the 90s by the way), there's definitely something uncanny going on the roof, as one by one, the bank employees take the quick way down to the street. I really enjoyed the chapters that detail this impossible situation, as you feel something anti-modern slowly creeping up.

I am not as overwhelmingly positive about the how and why behind the mysterious deaths however. On one hand, the solution definitely features the over-the-top elements I'd expect from Shimada (I correctly guessed the solution), which show that imagination is more important (and more fun!) than realism in mystery fiction. On the other hand, you need a truckload of coincidence for all the events in this novel to happen. One or two events, okay, I might accept that as possible and plausible, but there's a ridiculously long chain of coincidences necessary to result in what actually happens in this story. The way Mitarai sees through that all is a bit unbelievable, because there's too much luck involved.

The unbelievable number of coincidences necessary is also connected to another 'problem' of this book. I think I had the same with Atopos, but the plot tends to meander at times and the result is a fairly long novel, but in a way, unnecessary so. I think the idea of this story would have worked much better as a short story. A short story also means a more streamlined plot, which in turn would also get rid of a good amount of coincidences the current novel form needs to work. To call it dragging, would be to overstate my feelings on the matter, but I do feel this story is a lot longer than actually needed, and all the meandering is mainly used to set up coincidence after coincidence.

What was interesting is that there are several narratives in this book that cross each other. So you'd get a few chapters of narrative A, and then a chapter of narrative B, and than back to A, etc.  The neat idea behind this is that each of these narratives has its own font. So narrative A uses font A, narrative B font B, etc. It reminded me of how the deluxe edition of the manga Houryuu Kyoushitsu (The Drifting Classroom) used different kinds of paper depending on where the narrative was (the unknown world/Earth). I really like these ideas of using the book format to bring the reader an unique experience. I did not like all the fonts used in Okujou no Doukeshi however. Especially the first one was hard to get through, as it was like a font in bold. There was another section with a very round, cute font which was also a bit difficult to read quickly through. I think there were about four, five different fonts used in total. But especially now publishers and readers use the e-reader more and more, I am happy to these kinds of design ideas behind old-fashioned printed media.

Is Okujou no Douketachi a story fit be a landmark, to be the fiftieth work in the Mitarai Kiyoshi series? As I ask myself this question, I start waggling my head about. Not really. While it has an interesting premise I did really like, the story has to twist and turn itself around to accommodate to a novel-length plot. The problems I have with the story mostly result from stretching out an otherwise interesting idea in a manner that is at best questionable. This premise would've worked much better as a short story, which is a shame. Though this book might work quite well as a TV production, now I think about it.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『屋上の道化たち』

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Like many people, I enjoy reading series. Most of the things I review here are part of a series, whether it's a novel series, or an ongoing manga series or videogames. Some are short, with for example just five to ten different installments, while others have been going for decades. One problem with longer series in general is of course that there's so much history. Take Detective Conan for example, which has been running for over two decades now. A lot of stuff has happened in the more than 90 volumes times 180 pages, and while I sometimes re-read stuff, you can't expect me to remember every little detail of each and every story.

And that's just talking about the general storyline. When we look specifically at the mystery plots, well, things get really hazy at times. Sure, the truly fantastic stories will stick around, but even then most readers will probably not remember all the characters that appeared in that one great story ten years ago, or how the murderer pulled off that brilliant locked room murder. You might remember the trick hinged on the presence of an open window in the room for example, or that the murderer used a string, but do you really remember all the details of the mystery plot and how the detective figured out who the murderer was? And that's me talking about the memorable stories: some minor stories I can hardly remember even after re-reading them.

Sometimes though, you have need to check on plot-related stuff. Someone blogging on mystery fiction for example might want to check what that one trick was in that story, or how a certain piece of misdirection was done, or the exact order of events up to the murder. With details like this, a quick read on a Wikipedia entry (if available) is often not enough, so then there's no other choice but to actually re-read the book or watch the film or whatever, and that's assuming you still have access to that particular work (you might've borrowed it from the library for example, or seen it once on TV).

Enter reference books and guides! Books on books (film/TV series/manga/etc) are not rare of course, and there are quite some works in the world of mystery fiction that are specifically about other works and series. Books on locked room murder mysteries are not particularly rare for example, and some even include short summaries about the situation and the tricks used. But even then, it's rather brief, and the focus lies on the "locked room", rather than the story in general. Strangely enough, there seem to be few guides and books on series that focus on the whole mystery mystery plot, as opposed to the more limited technical and more abstract parts (locked room, alibi trick, etc.). Is there for example a book on all the stories of Ellery Queen that give a brief overview of the plot, of the characters (character relation charts!), the mystery plot (how the murderer committed the crime), the clues and how Ellery uses them and things like that?

Case entry from Conan Drill

I have quite a few of these books for Japanese productions, actually. I mentioned how long Detective Conan was, but the publisher has also making some extra money by publishing story guidebooks once in a while, summarizing both storyline and character development plots, as well as mystery plots, detailing the murders in each story and what kind of tricks were utilized by the murderer.

The guidebook Conan Drill for example has a short summary for each story, but also a list of the most important characters. what the murder weapon was, what kind of trick was used by the murderer, what the decisive clues were. There are also extra notes to show how each story relates to the main storyline (if applicable). Heck, it even lists who the policeman in charge was! Conan Drill was a one-time guidebook and only contains summaries up to volume 40, but publisher Shogakukan has also been publishing the Detective Conan Super Digest Books for a while now, with each book summarizing ten volumes worth of content (Detective Conan 90+ SDB, summarizing the events up to volume 90 for example is scheduled for an April release). These reference books are fantastic for fans who need to check something quickly (Conan Drill in particular has some really obscure lists like one of the restaurants Mouri Kogorou visits throughout the series).

I have a similar book for Tantei Gakuen Q, summarizing the events in the manga and it's really handy if you only want to know how a certain trick was done or how the story tied in to the main storyline. I even have a handy guide for the TV drama TRICK: it was released in 2010 to coincide with the third film and TV special released back then, and it contains handy character relation charts, short pieces to highlight the key events of each story, the various (magic) tricks and illusions used by both the murderers and the protagonist and much more.

Timeline from 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016

The one I'm most impressed by with however is the recently released 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016, a rather hefty guidebook for the Gyakuten/Ace Attorney game series. The book not only has handy summaries and character relation charts for each and every case, it also lists every piece of evidence featured in a story, as well as other key events. But the big one is the case timeline: the events of each case have been plotted on their own seperate timeline, which shows exactly what all the important actors in a story did both before and after the crime. So you can check exactly on a timeline all the things the murderer did before and after the crime, and check where everybody else was at the same moment, but also when the protagonist found a certain clue and how they deduced who the murderer was. The amount of effort necessary to compile over forty different timelines (as there are over forty cases) must have been immense, but it is really appreciated.

I am not sure why these kind of reference books seem much popular with series originating from other media (like TV/games) compared to novel series. I'd love to have a Poirot guide with timelines for each story and character lists and stuff! Who wouldn't want a book on the Ellery Queen novels that feature a summary of Ellery's deductive chains and the evidence which form the foundation for that!? A book that details all the things the murderers do before Lieutenant Columbo arrives on the scene? Anyway, I want my guidebooks!

Friday, March 31, 2017

Death Note

Home, sweet home

On the topic of things left by previous tenants: I lived in a dorm when I was studying in Japan, and I remember the first time other people from the dorm came to my room, they were all surprised at the TV stand I had in my room. It was only then that I found out that thing wasn't part of the standard room furniture set! I was grateful for that thing though, as it was a great place to store my videogame consoles.

"Welcome, new tenant" These are the first words written in a black notebook which is hidden inside the closet of Room 12 of "The People's Villa", an old, run-down apartment building with sixteen rooms. The inhabitants of The People's Villa are a colorful lot, but they all have in common that they simply have no choice but to live in such a shabby place. Other tenants include an elderly puppet-making couple and their unwed daughter, an angel-like school teacher, a blind war veteran, a person claiming to be on the look for his lost wife and baby, and the nosy wife of the building's caretaker. These people are also the people who star in the memoirs recorded in the Room 12 notebook. For some reason, the tenants in Room 12 seldom stay long, partly because these tenants somehow always get involved with murder cases that happen among their fellow tenants. From a cruel murder on the blind war veteran to a ghostly tale about a couple that died under strange circumstances, it appears The People's Villa is perhaps something more than a simple apartment building. Those who find the hidden notebook in Room 12 write down their strange experiences for future Room 12 tenants to read, and together these tales form a strange record of The People's Villa in Yamada Fuutarou's Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin ("Murders Anyone Could Commit", 1958).

Yamada Fuutarou was a prolific writer in the post-war period, nowadays best known for his many historical fantasy novels on ninja like Kouga Ninpou Chou ("The Kouga Ninja Scrolls"). In fact, his ninja stories have had a huge influence on the popular image of the ninja, and in extension on the whole genre of battle manga aimed a boy audience, like Saint Seiya, Naruto and Bleach. One might even say series like that might not even exist if not for Yamada Fuutarou. But Yamada started out as a mystery writer, and has written some of the finest post-war Japanese mystery novels available. In the past, I have reviewed works like Meiji Dantoudai ("The Meiji Guillotine"), Youi Kinpeibai ("The Bewitching Plum in the Vase") and Taiyou Kokuten ("Sunspot"), which were all great. Only the last of those novels was set in the post-war period by the way, like Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin, the topic of today's post.

The set-up of consecutive tenants of Room 12 writing down their own, mysterious experiences with interacting with the other tenants in The People's Villa is truly fantastic. Each 'chapter' (entry by another inhabitant of Room 12), is, at the core, a standalone mystery story that involves the other tenants. In some entries, the Room 12 tenant is a direct part of the story, for example in the entry by someone who confesses how they plotted the death of another tenant, while in other entries the Room 12 tenant is merely an observer of the curious events. The link between these various stories is the setting of The People's Villa and its inhabitants, and it is really fun to see characters mentioned in one entry, appearing in later entries in very different roles. As each entry is written by someone else, their views on their fellow tenants obviously also differ, and this ever-changing portrayal of an otherwise  'familiar' cast is what makes each consecutive entry a blast to read. Some tenants are only mentioned briefly in some entries, but become fullfledged characters in other entries, which again strengtens the notion of different perspectives. It's also a bit funny to see how The People's Villa becomes emptier and emptier as everyone keeps on dying. It is also interesting to see how later narrators comment on entries by previous inhabitants of Room 12. Armed with the Power of Hindsight, these entries sometimes shine a surprising light on events that happened earlier in The People's Villa.

You know what, I could just explain the whole book in one sentence. This novel is simply Yamada Fuutarou's take on Maison Ikkoku. Completely different genres, but seeing all these different tenants of a boarding house interact really reminds of me Takahashi's romcom classic. There's just more death here.

As for the mystery plots, they are, at the core, fairly simple. In fact, many of the entries are more straight-up crime stories than really about solving a mystery. The strength of Yamada's writing keeps things captivating though. What should be mentioned is that Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin does fit perfectly with a theme I have seen in all of the Yamada novels I've read until now. I can't actually *name* it, because it would be kinda spoilery, but Yamada really loves writing about a certain theme, and it works great here. In fact, I think the structure of having various narrators only strengthens the execution of Yamada's theme here and really enjoyed it. If you're familiar with his works, you'll probably see the theme coming, and even if not, I think that Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin was one work where it's easy to identify Yamada's pet theme, but I still enjoyed seeing how he slowly, but surely, set the stage for the reveal. By the way, in general, a lot of Yamada's mystery plots are very much about interpretation of events, similar to Christie and Chesterton. Add in a bit of post-war pessimism concerning social (economic) conditions, but also a good heap of romanticism, and you have an idea of how Yamada's novels are.

My version of Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin was included in Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Kessakusen 1: Ganchuu no Akuma ("Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Masterpieces Selection 1: The Demon in Her Eyes"). This book also contains a wide selection of Yamada's early short stories, but most of them are also included in the short story collection Kyozou Inraku, which I already reviewed in the past.

I didn't manage to write anything substantial about Dare Ni Mo Dekiru Satsujin, but that's because giving away too much would really spoil the fun. I think that if you liked Yamada's Taiyou Kokuten, you'd also like this book, as they have similar atmospheres. The concept behind the story structure is really what makes this book a memorable one, and Yamada manages to execute the idea very admirably.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎 『誰にも出来る殺人』

Monday, March 27, 2017

Private Eye in the Distant Sea

One little Soldier Boy left all alone;
He went out and hanged himself and then there were none.
"And Then There Were None"

A couple of years back, I wrote about Fuji TV’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s classic Murder on the Orient Express. It was an interesting project, as it was broadcast in two parts: the first episode was highly inspired by the 1974 film and followed the novel quite closely, while the second episode presented the tale from the perspective of the murderer(s), starting with the motive and how everything was prepared. It was also in this second episode where director Mitani Kouki really shined, as a lot of his films are screwball comedies where things go wrong ‘backstage’, while everybody tries to keep up appearances. The hectic and chaotic hotel of The Uchouten Hotel, the constant improvising during the live performance of a radio play in Radio no Jikan (AKA Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald) and the political games to decide the future of Japan in The Kiyosu Conference are all typical Mitani settings, and his lighthearted, slightly humorous take on how the murder came to be gave his Murder in the Orient Express adaptation a unique touch, even if it was not a perfect adaptation. It would take another few years before another Japanese live-action adaptation of a Christie work would come.

Soldier Island is a small private island far off Hachijojima (an island about 300 kilometers south of Tokyo). A person named Nanao Shin will soon be opening his “Nature Hotel” there: a place of recreation far away from the stress of modern day life, where people can live freely surrounded by pure nature. Nanao has invited eight persons of interest to spend some days in his Nature Hotel: some of the more illustrious guests include former gold medallist swimmer Shiramine Ryou, mystery writer Gomyou Taku, retired actress Hoshizora Ayako and former MP Monden Senmei. The guests look forward to spending a few days at this resort and find the little touches to the “return to nature” call quite charming. For example, cell phones/tablets/etcetera are not allowed on the island (the staff are to keep their belongings in a safe) and the newspaper is only delivered once every few days by a drone. But it is during dinner that the guests, and the two staff members, discover they have been set-up: a mysterious voice accuses each of the ten people present of having committed a crime for which they were never punished and for which they will now pay on this island. The ten all deny having done such a horrible deed and consider it nothing more than a very, very bad joke, but nobody laughs when Gomyou Taku suddenly topples over, having been poisoned with arsenic. As there are no means for the survivors to contact the mainland themselves, they have to wait until the boat arrives after the storm, but as time passes by, they all get killed off one by one following the nursery rhyme Ten Little Soldiers, until nobody is left alive on the island in TV Asahi’s 2017 two-part TV special Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta (And Then There Were None).

And Then There Were None (1939) is of course widely considered one of, if not the best by Agatha Christie. The now timeless story of people on an isolated island getting murdered one by one until nobody is left has had a tremendous influence on mystery fiction in general, also in the eyes of the general public. There are also various adaptations of the story: from the stage play (written by Christie herself) to film and radio adaptations. The most recent one up until now was probably BBC’s 2015 series. Your mileage might vary, but I thought BBC’s adaptation of Agatha’s Christie’s Tommy & Tuppence series in the form of Partners in Crime (2015) was horrible, so I had little expectations for their three-part series of And Then There Were None. But that turned out to be a fantastic mini-series, which managed to portray a distinct, desolate sense of desperation as the story headed to its climax. It was genuinely scary, as people slowly but surely lost their cool with every murder. In my mind, it set a standard to which to compare other And Then There Were None adaptations with, and it was definitely on mind as I watched TV Asahi’s adaptation of the classic.


The TV Asahi mini-series Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta was broadcast on March 25 and 26, each part featuring a runtime of around two hours (making the total runtime longer than the BBC series). The first thing that people will probably notice is that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is set in present day Japan, rather than the late 30s UK of the original novel. Soldier Island now lies quite faraway south of Tokyo, while the ten little soldiers to be killed off are all complete original characters (their names are not based on the original names, like in the 2015 Murder on the Orient Express adaptation). To start off with the ten little soldiers: all the characters have completely revised (modern) backgrounds, but they still retain the original crimes they were accused off in the novel. For example, the character General MacArthur of the original novel was accused of sending a younger subordinate officer who had an affair with his wife on a mission with no chance of survival, while in this special, is now former MP Monden Senmei is accused of sending his secretary to a building he knew was the target of an imminent terrorist bombing. Most of the changes work, even though quite a lot of the characters are portrayed less bad than in the original novel (the first victim for example was perhaps not without guilt, but he was also unfortunate in this version for example, rather than being the amoral snob of the original). Like in the BCC adaptation, the characters are constantly haunted by flashbacks to their crimes and show the viewers what they really felt and thought during those times, as oppose to the façade the characters try to keep up in front of the others.

The modern setting naturally also causes some problems. It’s an issue that has long been examined in postmodern mystery novels: is the isolated, closed circle setting even still viable in the present day? It’s a theme Ayatsuji Yukito played with in The Decagon House Murders for example (which was obviously inspired by And Then There Were None), and you still see it often in Japanese mystery fiction these days, but there is no denying there’s some artificial touch to it in a modern setting (note that despite that, I love the setting. I don’t read mystery fiction for realism, I read it for entertainment). In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, we see the characters have to hand over their smart devices to follow the rules of the Nature Hotel, which is a solution that works I think. Obviously, the characters do try to make contact with the police after the first death, but by then the batteries have been removed from their devices by an unknown entity. With drones delivering newspapers to the island, one has the feeling the island is not closed off completely from the outside world, but as the story only takes a few days, I guess this idea works quite well.


A question which will probably pop up is: Is there a compelling reason for this adaptation to be set in the present day, rather than the original 30s setting? As at first sight, it only seems to weaken ‘the isolated setting’ premise. To that I have to say: yes, there is absolutely a good reason why it is set in the modern day. One problem adaptations have always struggled with is the balance between originality and being faithful to the source material. Of course, one can add originality in various ways, but the BBC’s And Then There Were None adaptation was on the whole more a faithful adaptation than one that surprised me with original ideas and takes on the source material. Original take is often taken as a negative, as “improvements” are often not what they hoped to be, but in the case of Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, I’d argue the changes helped make this adaptation at least offers a platform for a wide-sided discussion.

The original And Then There Were None novel has always had a rather existential problem. At one hand, the premise has all ten persons dying on the island, leaving nobody alive on the island, which eliminates the possibility of a murderer roaming on the island. As a narrative, this is a very strong one: you see each of them die one by one until there are none, and then this story ends. But that also means there’s nobody left to solve the mystery of who arranged for all of this. The original novel solved this by adding two epilogues to the story, where for example the police examines the murders after the discovery. I always thought this went against the premise of the story, as it introduced an outside world, even though the story until then had been focused completely on the island and its ten inhabitants. The stage play ‘solves’ this by having the mastermind explaining everything themselves on the island in the conclusion, but this too felt a bit staged. The conundrum “isolated world where nobody is left, not even somebody to explain everything” VS “opening up the isolated world to explain events” is something that probably won’t bother most people, but one that has always bothered me a bit. To bring The Decagon House Murders up again: that story did something interesting there by adding another, mainland-focused narrative right from the start, which had its pros and cons too.


Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta too embraces the open world premise. The special actually opens with a scene set during the police investigation of the island, where they have discovered ten murdered people and are now trying to find out how it all happened. They know something fishy is going on, as the island was isolated from the outside world the last few days. The special then jumps back in time to tell the story of the Ten Little Soldiers all getting killed, only to return to the police narrative for the last hour or so. It is in this part where Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta adds a distinct original touch to And Then There Were None. The original novel was, by design, always more focused on suspense rather than detection. Sure, the characters on the island sure did their best to find out who was trying to kill them (or suspecting it was one of them doing it all), but overall, it felt more like a thriller than a tale of reasoning. The same holds for the BBC adaptation, which was a dark story focused a lot on the psychological side of the characters. In Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta, the people-getting-murdered narrative is obviously inspired by the BBC adaptation, showing us a fairly grim portrayal of how the characters cope with both their direct fears as well as their hidden demons. It even has that same green hue on the screen that I very much associate with the BBC adaptation. The mode in all these versions is that of the thriller, not that of the tale of detection. When we come to Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta’s police narrative however, we are first introduced to a true whodunit mode to the old tale. The somewhat eccentric Chief Inspector Shoukokuji here leads the investigation into the ten murders and it is here where we see the biggest departure from the original novel. Not only is there a distinct comedic tone to this part (with lieutenant Tatara and Chief Inspector Shoukokuji forming a Poirot-Watson-esque pair) and are we introduced to bright, sunny weather now as opposed to the dark, grim tone of the island narrative, the mode of the tale is now a true tale of logical reasoning and detection.

The original novel ended by pointing attention to three hints the murderer(s) left during the tale that should’ve have given away they were the culprit. I have always thought those clues were rather weak and nothing more than very vague nudges, and even then they were open to discussion. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta changes these hints, replacing them with a series of original hints from which Chief Inspector Shoukokuji manages to deduce what has happened on the island. These deductions also lead to the explanation why it made absolutely sense that this production was set in the present day, rather than the 1930s. While I don’t think all the new hints work (some of them were really obvious),  I think the plot device they were going for was an original one, and I really appreciate they went for it, as it works out quite well on the whole (even if also raises some questions about how workable this really was). On the whole though, I’d say these changes turned Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta in a much stronger whodunit narrative on the whole compared to the original novel, as it starts off with the framing story of the police trying to solve the mystery of Soldier Island, rather than by focusing solely on the events on the island and adding the police as an afterthought. Whether the changed focus is for the best, is something that everybody will experience differently I think, but I was pleasantly surprised by this new take on the old story.

Minor ROT13 spoilers about why it is set in the present day (No spoilers of the identity of the murderer(s)): Puvrs Vafcrpgbe Fubhxbxhwv svaqf bhg gung gur zheqrere npghnyyl erpbeqrq rirelguvat gung unccrarq ba gur vfynaq guebhtu n argjbex bs uvqqra pnzrenf. Gur aneengvir gur ivrjref fnj bs gur gra crbcyr trggvat xvyyrq bss bar ol bar jnf npghnyyl (n qenzngvp vagrecergngvba bs gur) ivqrb zngrevny gur cbyvpr sbhaq naq rqvgrq vagb n puebabybtvpny erpbafgehpgvba bs jung unccrarq (boivbhfyl, gur synfuonpxf naq fghss jrer abg cneg bs gur ivqrb zngrevny). Riraghnyyl, Fubhxbxhwv nyfb svaqf n ivqrb ol gur zheqrere(f) pbasrffvat gurve pevzr naq rkcynvavat jung unccrarq.


In terms of casting, Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta also has some great surprises. The average “star-power” of the cast is actually quite high, so one can’t guess who the culprit is based solely on the name. But what is interesting is that most of the actors featured are actually also known for playing leading roles in mystery shows. Nakama Yukie (Shiramine Ryou/Vera Claythorne expy) is arguably the biggest name and she co-starred with Abe Hiroshi in the fantastic mystery-comedy TRICK. Sawamura Ikki (Chief Inspector Shoukokuji) has been playing Mitsuhiko in the Asami Mitsuhiko TV adaptations based on Uchida Yasuo's novels for many years now, and Yanagiba Toshirou (Ken Ishirugi/Philip Lombard expy) was the always-frowning police bureaucrat Murai in comedic police procedural Odoru Daisousasen (Bayside Shakedown). Watase Tsunehiko (Iwamura Hyougo/Justice Wargrave) deserves a special mention. The man gave a brilliant performance, but was sadly enough not able to see viewer reception himself, as he passed away after years of suffering of cancer about a month after finishing filming, and not even two weeks before the broadcast of the special. Some of his real-life ailments were included into his character actually, making it sometimes hard to see whether his acting was really just acting, or also real. Watase played the railroad-focused Inspector Totsugawa in the TV productions between 1992-2015 based on Nishimura Kyourarou’s books.

I’ll really need to wrap this review up now as it is already way too long, but I think that this post shows the strength of this adaptation of And Then There Were None. Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta is not a straight adaptation of the source material, and some might even disagree with the changes made to the setting, characters and the way the story is wrapped up, but one can’t deny it provides people a lot to talk about. It is a very competently-produced special, and the changes here and there are never out-of-the-blue, but there for very clear reasons that help set this production apart from other adaptations. This is a version that feels unique, that feels like the product of a team that does love the original story, but want to add something of their own to it too. As such, I feel that Soshite Dare mo Inaku Natta on the whole is an attempt that deserves discussion about its take on Christie’s evergreen.

Original Japanese title(s): Agatha Christie (原) 『そして誰もいなくなった』

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Grand Deceptions

Life is a game
So take the chance
And play your hand
You might just win
You never know
『相棒 Season 7のテーマ』
 ("Theme of Partners Season 7")

I'm not a big binge-watcher in general, but I'm also very bad at watching the shows I watch each week/whatever schedule the follow. In short: I am just bad at watching TV shows...

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12
Aibou 13
Aibou 14 

Aibou 15

In the fourteenth season of the long-running police procedural TV drama Aibou ("Partners"), we were introduced to Kaburagi Wataru, a bureaucrat with a golden future in the Ministry of Justice who got temporarily assigned to the Metropolitan Police Department. There he made acquaintance with Sugishita Ukyou and the Special Orders Unit. Sugishita is an eccentric, but brilliant policeman who believes in justice rather than in playing political games. The SOU, which technically can't do anything without a formal order, exists especially to keep Sugishita away from normal police business, but Sugishita will stick his nose in any case that interests him. Kaburagi supported Sugishita as his partner throughout the fourteenth season and made a career change in the season finale, so at the start of Aibou 15 ("Partners 15", 2016-2017), we find Kaburagi trying to adapt to his transformation from high-ranking government official to rookie police sergeant as he and Sugishita take on new cases to solve.

Being timely with an Aibou season review is a first for this blog! Usually I only watch a series once a new season has started (each October), but this season was the first time I actually watched it more-or-less real-time. The fifteenth season ran from October 2016 to March 2017, and was also accompanied by the fourth theatrical release of the series in February 2017 (which I haven't seen, though the two-parter of this season ties in lightly with the movie it appears).

What hasn't changed much however is the formula of the Aibou series. Once again, this 18-episode long season (of which three episodes are feature-length specials) presents a fairly diverse police procedural with a distinct tone of social ommentary. That means that the crimes in this series are almost always a result of some social injustice either happening in the 'normal' society, or in 'high' society, at the level of government organizations and the politics that drive them. As an result, the average Aibou episode is basically built around two 'cores': one is a personal crime, which in turn is then shown to be connected to some bigger social problem at hand. While crimes of the first part are of course always solved (it is a police procedural), often episodes end with a darker tone as we see how underlying social and political problems still go on as always. That said though, the episodes can be quite different in tone per episode: sometimes you get an old-fashioned locked room murder, and other times it's a straight thriller or even something cozy.


As always, I'll not do a write-up of each episode, but pick out the highlights. Aibou seasons don't really feature ongoing storylines (actual planning would've made Aibou 13 a lot better), and that's the same for this season, so that also makes it easier to zoom in on some episodes. Episode 7, Fake, is a tense thriller about the abduction and murder of two children. While the forces fight against the clock to save the kids, Sugishita and Kaburagi also poke around as they feel something is off about this case, especially as the mother of one of the children is behaving in a strange manner. The premise of the double child abductions reminds of Norizuki Rintarou's Ichi no Higeki, but the conclusion is very surprising. It's a bit cheating actually, but as a human drama story, this episode had me hooked from start to finish. Episode 8, The Woman of 100%, is about Kurata Eiko, a former collegue of Kaburagi who is now known and respected as one of the best female prosecutors in Tokyo. That is also the reason why Kaburagi and Sugishita are both very curious as to the reason why she doctored the evidence in the case of a murder on a high-ranking official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: Kaburagi and Sugishita know the witness stated something different about witnessing the defendant in her original police statement compared to her testimony in court. The mix of classic courtroom drama mystery with police procedural and even political thriller modes is surprisingly strong for a show of just 45 minutes.


The mid-season special Return is about a town that is welcoming former convicts, offering them a place to start a new life. Sugishita and Kaburagi are given a special order to man the local police station, as for some reason several police constables have gone missing there. As a mystery story, this is a long, and rather predictable tale, but I have to say: the moment the Big Bad shows their true face, it doesn't really matter. We are seldom treated to an almost cartoon-like villain in this series, like a Joker, and to be honest, they felt a bit out of place, but man, this episode was memorable because of that person. I wonder whether they'll return in the future.

The internet plays a large role in the last two episodes. Episode 17, Last Work, is about a Youtuber who apparently has murdered someone to get more views: he is uploading his videos in parts and each parts shows more of his heinous crime of abducting and torturing a homeless man. At first, people all thought it was just a hoax, but slowly the police starts to suspect something might've really happened and things of course explode once the body of the victim is actually found. This was more a human drama-focused episode than one actually based on solving a mystery, but the use of Youtubers and the social commentary provided is quite interesting.


The final episode is a two-hour long special titled Proof of Evil. Yashiro Miwako, the calculating head of the Public Relations Section of the Metropolitan Police Department, has popped up now and then across the last few seasons, but takes center stage now the media has found out through a leak that she has a half-blood daughter she had kept hidden from the public. While normally this wouldn't be big news, suspicions are the father of the child might be a Russian spy, which would make her position in the MPD very difficult to maintain. Evidence is also found that her notebook was hacked through an e-mail sent from Kaburagi's e-mail, making him the prime suspect in the leaking scandal. The subject matter is without a doubt very timely, but as a season finale, this episode was also quite boring, especially after the bloody terrorist attack on a police academy in the previous season finale. Nobody dies here, we only see police officials trying to trace the leak and investigating the identity of the father of Yashiro's daughter and then stuff happens and it ends. The problem is there is no build in tension, nor story. The climax (which happens only after nintey minutes) is weak and over before you know it, while there are no build-up, nothing to keep your attention in the ninety minutes up to that point. It's just going on and on about the unknown father and the possibility Kaburagi leaked the information without reframing the problem in any way: it's just repeating the same point over and over. As a finale, this was a very disappointing episode, and doesn't really set-up things for the next finale in an alluring way, like previous finales did.

On the whole though, I have to say I thought Aibou 15 was a pretty weak season. Few episodes were truly entertaining, there also seemed to be fewer 'straight' mystery plot stories than previous seasons and even the three two-hour specials were much weaker than usual, either by a considerable scaling down of events, or just plain drawn-out plots. I don't expect masterpieces a whole season long, but in previous seasons, I'd usually come across one really entertaining episode every two, three episodes. This time it was more like once every five, six episodes.

Aibou hasn't really changed its formula in the fifteen seasons it has run, and that makes comparison rather easy. And that makes it painfully clear Aibou 15 is a rather weak season overall. Yes, there are a few good episodes, but way too little considering the ratio in previous episodes. Most of the season is filled with paint-by-numbers episodes, or even worse, boring, dragging two-hour specials that don't even come close to the usual spectacle and sensation we see in those episodes. Let's hope the next season (which will come without a doubt) can make up for this one.

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒15』

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Unfinished Crime

「聖闘士には同じ技は2度通用しない」
『聖闘士星矢』

"The same technique won't work twice on a Saint."
"Saint Seiya"

A logical school mystery story based on Saint Seiya would be awesome. "No, you couldn't have killed him. You already once used all your techniques on him, and we all know the same technique doesn't work twice on a Saint: ergo you had no techniques with which you could kill him!"

In the previous two novels of Danganronpa Kirigiri, the young detectives Yui and Kirigiri learned about the Crime Victim Salvation Committee: an organization which hosts the Duel Noir, a game of detective vs murderer. The Committee provides a would-be murderer with means, methods (murder plans) and opportunity to exact their revenge, while also inviting a detective on the scene. If the detective manages to prove who the murderer is within seven days, the detective wins, and otherwise, the murderer gets away with murder. But now the Committee has set its eyes on the two detectives who have been doing surprisingly well in the Duel Noir. Yui is challenged directly by one of the top dogs of the Committee, who works as a 'producer' of murder plans for the Committee. She is given the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples: she has seven days to solve twelve locked room murders which are about to start. Even with the help of Kirigiri, this seems like an impossible task, so their first task is to locate the legendary detective Mikagami Rei, who might be of help to them. In a world whether neither ally, nor enemy are precisely what they seem, can Kirigiri and Yui overcome the challenge of the Twelve Temples in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 (2014)?

The third book in this spin-off series of the Danganronpa franchise, focusing on Kirigiri Kyouko in the early years of her career as a detective. Links between this series and the main Danganronpa series are fairly light, so it's quite possible to read this series on its own. You do need to read the books in order though. In fact, that is the biggest problem with Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. People used to reading comics or manga are probably familiar with the practice of storylines taking place over several volumes/issues. Longer-running manga in particular often have storylines being spread across several volumes. There is a fixed number of pages for each volume, so often, you'll find you're still in the middle of a story when a volume of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ends: the next chapters are included in the next volume. This is a common phenomenon with ongoing comic series. You don't really see this practice with novels: sure, pocket releases of novels are often split up on two or more volumes in Japan, but that is splitting up one complete story in parts (not an ongoing story), mainly profit for maximization and convenience (bulky pockets are hard to read).

Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 however is obviously just an introduction for a bigger story. The idea of Kirigiri and Yui having to solve twelve locked room mysteries within seven days sounds like a cool set-up for a short story collection about impossible crimes, right? The thing is, it takes more than half the length of this book to even get to the starting line of this challenge. Whereas the previous two books threw you right into an interesting closed circle, impossible crime story, this book takes plenty of time to get you all excited about a trial of twelve locked room mysteries to be solved, and then it has just enough pages left for one (1!) of those murders. To be continued in the next volume. It makes this volume feel extremely empty, because there is basically only one short mystery story here, and the rest is just set-up for something that isn't even resolved in this volume, and I'm not even sure it'll be resolved in the next volume. Sure, there's some other things going on too, mostly revolving around the identity of Mikagami Rei, whom Kirigiri and Yui need to find to even stand a chance to win the challenge, but it's fairly light material. Again, a story split over multiple volumes is a very common practice for ongoing comics, not so for novels. As it is now, it's a very unbalanced book on its own, as there's just too little.

Oh, by the way, the Twelve Locked Room Temples, that is indeed a reference to the anime/manga classic Saint Seiya, where the best known story arc, the Sanctuary Arc, is about our band of heroes who have to pass through Twelve Temples and defeat the twelve guardian Gold Saints there within twelve hours. So Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 feels like the story ends after they passed by the Aries or Taurus Temple.

The one impossible crime they do solve in this volume is good though, even if the pace's a bit hasty because of the fewer page count reserved for the story, compared to the previous two volumes. The murder reminds of Yokomizo Seishi's classic Honjin Satsujin Jiken, with a man being stabbed with a sword in a locked room of the annex of a traditional Japanese manor. In fact, it is obviously inspired by that story, but Kitayama wouldn't Kitayama if he didn't come up with a genius murder trick for this story. It's ridiculous, in the good sense of the word, and I myself thought it was highly original too, as I had never seen something similar before. There's a reason why Kitayama is feared for his rather mechanical impossible crime plots, and this is an outstanding example of the things he comes up with. It's not all perfect though, as the way Kirigiri deduces who the murderer was, was rather weak, which both Kirigiri and the author seem to acknowledge, as the actual 'proof' comes from the old 'make them slip up' ending that is seldom satisfying.

To be honest, I hesitated about writing the review for this particular volume. It is obviously only part of one single story. It is uneven, because I'm missing a very large chunk of the bigger picture. But then I think: 'But this book is being sold as a standalone book. And the previous two volumes were also part of an ongoing storyline, but also managed to be perfectly fine standalone books.' So I think potential readers should be made aware that this is an incomplete story. Danganronpa Kirigiri 3 does not work on its own.

There is little more I have to comment on Danganronpa Kirigiri 3. It has a great concept, it has a decent short impossible crime, but it is also incomplete. Despite the price of the book, you're getting maybe the first half of a story. And that's not really nice. I see a lot of potential to do something fantastic with the Twelve Locked Room Temples gimmick, but I guess we'll need to read the next volume to see if it really works out.

Original Japanese title(s):  北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り3』

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Magic Book

一万年と二千年前から愛してる
八千年過ぎた頃からもっと恋しくなった
「創聖のアクエリオン」(Akino)

I've been loving for ten and two thousand years
I yearned for you even more after eight thousand years
"Genesis of Aquarion" (Akino)

I have a lot of books, but I am not a collector (I am a reader). I think the oldest book I have is De Geheimzinnige Japanees (review here), which is probably over a hundred years old (can't find the exact publishing year), but I only have that thing because I wanted to read the story, not to own an  old book.

Many clients of attorney Morie Shunsaku can be deemed 'memorable', but Kuga'numa Eijirou was one of the more unique ones. His first job for Morie was a simple one: to draw up a will. For his second problem however, he did not need the attorney Morie, but the famed amateur detective Morie. Morie is to look into an old manuscript Kuganuma got his hands on: the manuscript appears to be have been used as a journal by six different persons from different places, over a period of three hundred years: the earliest part dates from 1700 and was written by a traveler in the East, while the last entry dates from as late as in 1937. What ties this six records together is that each of them contain an unsolved mystery: from a murder that couldn't have been committed because the suspect had a perfect alibi, to a walking set of armor that vanishes from a locked room in a second. Morie is supposed to look into the book, but that is not his only problem, because his client is killed right after he left Morie's offices, shot down in a cul-de-sac, of which the entrance was observed by Morie's assistant and with no footprints left in the snow by either the victim, nor the murderer. Can Morie solve all the unsolved riddles that lie before him in Ashibe Taku's Sanbyakunen no Nazobako ("A Three Hundred Year Old Box of Mysteries", 2005)?

The Morie Shunsaku series is Ashibe Taku's main series, featuring an attorney who also works as an amateur detective. Sometimes, his sleuthing is part of his main job, like in Saibanin Houtei, but he is just as likely to accidently stumble upon a mystery, like in The Castle of Grand Guignol. Ashibe basically uses the character for a variety of stories, meaning you never really know what you can expect from a Morie Shunsaku novel until you've started with it. Sanbyakunen no Nazobako lies somewhere in between the extremes: he was asked to solve the mysteries recorded in the book in his role as an amateur detective, but it's his obligation to his client (and curiosity) that has him go into the murder of Kumagawa.

Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is by any standards a very unique book. It is basically a story-within-a-story (or to be precise: six-stories-within-a-story), with the Morie Shunsaku narrative bookending the six stories recorded in the book. These six stories have no direct connection with each other: they are set in different times, different places and with different characters. We start off with a story about a traveler in the East in 1709 for example, but the next story is about the pirate ship the Sea Serpent in South-East Asia in 1721, while the one after that is in set in China in 1793. Each of these stories belong to a different genre. From a swashbuckling adventure to a Western to an record of an expedition in Africa: every story is unique and on the whole interesting enough to read on their own. Diversity is something that is defintely not lacking in Sanbyakunen no Nazobako.

The stories are obviously also mystery stories (or else I wouldn't be discussing it). The mysteries featured in the stories vary from impossible disappearances and murders to alibi tricks. What makes these narratives unique though is that the mysteries remain mostly unsolved within each seperate record. While some minor mysteries are solved, often the biggest question remains unanswered. Morie doesn't solve all of the stories until the very end of the book, in the final chapter. A problem here is that most of the mysteries aren't really that inspired. I'd say that this partly because of the unique set-up of this book. You have six stories that all feature a minimum of two mysteries (one to be solved within the narrative, one to be left unsolved until the end of the book), plus the murder in the bookend chapters. That's thirteen different mysteries and solutions. And that's not even the whole problem.

For the true unique feature is that Morie eventually explains each of the six unsolved mysteries at the end of the book and shows that each of the mysteries actually had a common factor, one that is even shared with his own murder case. So this book features thirteen problems that need to be solved, seven of which also need to have a common factor. The result however is that each of the problems is rather simple and not particularly exciting. Part of the reason why I'm not doing summaries on each of the short stories is in fact because the stories are so short, and the premises behind the problems so simple I don't think I could do a meaningful summary without spoiling something. Anyway, the solutions are usually so simple that not once do you really feel catharsis when a century old riddle is solved, and some are actually bad (the one in the story set in Beijing is ridiculous). None of the problems really have the time to build up tension because of the large number of stories. The book is certainly not short, so perhaps it would've been better if there had been less, but longer stories that could provide more complex mysteries. The fact each of the stories end with an unsolved mystery is also a bit... irritating. While you know the solution will come at the very end of the book, the fact each time you 'reset' everything (new setting/characters) for each story makes the wait for the conclusion feel even longer.

The 'connection' between the various mysteries is also suspect, at best. The common factor that Morie identifies, and which becomes a clue for his own case, feels very forced, as it almost requires Adam West Batman-logic to identify that factor in some of the stories. This hurts the overall book, because the premise is that Morie solves the six records, recognizes a pattern and applies that to his case: if the pattern is not obvious, the conclusion will fall flat.

While I don't think the experiment was a great succes, I do really like the idea behind Sanbyakunen no Nazobako. A lot of the books I've read by Ashibe Taku incorporate elements from the bibliomystery genre, and as this book is all about solving a crime through the reading of secondary texts, I think lovers of the bibliomystery genre can appreciate the effort. I also think the first story, A New Venetian Night's Entertainment, is really great as a bibliomystery. The 'murder mystery' is rather easy to solve, but the deeper reading of this text by Morie at the conclusion was fantastic. Very occasionally I see mystery stories do something similar, and when it's done well, it's really satisfying.
 
Sanbyakunen no Nazobako is a fantastic example of a great idea, but where the execution lacked. It definitely has some great moments as a bibliomystery, and it won't bore as each narrative gives you something new, but as a mystery novel it feels lacking, especially considering how absolutely great this book would've been if the concept had been executed perfectly. It might be going a bit too far to call it a missed opportunity, but there was definitely more that could've come out of this idea.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『三百年の謎匣』