Friday, December 7, 2018

A Case of Identity


"She not my friend."
"Miss Sherlock"

Huh, I've used the Sherlock Holmes tag at least once every year since I started this blog, even when I wasn't really writing about mystery fiction.

I think my own introduction to Sherlock Holmes was the series of Austrialian TV cartoons based on the novels (with Peter O'Toole as Holmes, though I watched them dubbed in Dutch), and while I don't consider myself a Holmesian by any means, Holmes has been a series close to me since. Holmes is in fact a being close to a lot of people in this world, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of appearances he still makes nowadays in various manners. Be it in a confrontation with Dracula or Cthulhu, in the twenty-second century with a robot Watson, or reimagined in the form of a mouse or dog, creators always reach back to Holmes. I have to admit that I can be a bit of a cynic when it comes to "new" interpretations of Holmes, and I still can't see how a confrontation with Dracula could work out in a positive and entertaining manner but sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised. For example, I really didn't see the use of having a Sherlock Holmes series set in modern times, but I loved BBC's Sherlock right from the very first episode, and who could've guessed that a videogame where Sherlock Holmes is always making the wrong deductions would actually be an excellent and unique interpretation of the beloved character?

That said, the first time I heard of the 2018 drama series Miss Sherlock, my expectations were really not that high, as the premise of a Sherlock Holmes-inspired show with two female leads in modern day Tokyo wasn't particularly exciting. The gender swap was something I could shrug at, as I don't really care either way, but the concept of "modern day Tokyo" was enough to sound the alarms, because I had a feeling that this drama would not be inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but by Sherlock. It reminded me of the TV drama adaptation of Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice/Himura Hideo series a few years back. It was an excellent mystery show on its own, but oh man, all the cues it took from Sherlock in terms of direction.... It's hard to not see Sherlock if the protagonist is dressed in a long coat while having semi-maniacal fits and words are projected on the screen.

And Miss Sherlock sadly enough turned out to be indeed a series that draws major inspiration from Sherlock. I mean, the coat and the projected words and stuff don't even seem that bad, but when you consider that even Miss Sherlock's theme music seems to be inspired by Sherlock's main theme, it's really hard watching this without being constantly reminded where most of the ideas came from.

But okay, if you can get past the extreme Sherlock-ness of Miss Sherlock, what do you get? Well, it's a reasonably entertaining Sherlock Holmes show. Miss Sherlock starts with the return of doctor Tachibana Wato (because: Wato-san) from Syria, where she worked as a volunteer surgeon (considering Japan has a Self-Defense Force, a logical change). She was wounded in an explosion in Syria, prompting her return to Japan. Upon arrival in Japan, she's welcomed at the airport by her old mentor and friend, but a mysterious internal explosion blows up the stomach of Wato's mentor, killing him on the spot. In the ensuing police investigation, Wato learns that Inspector Reimon has called in the consulting detective Sherlock, a rather rude and self-centered, but also brilliantly sharp woman (she took on the name "Sherlock" after a certain incident). More people are killed in the same way as Wato's mentor, but Sherlock manages to solve the case with the help of Wato, who has to move in with Sherlock as Wato's own accomodations had had a rather unfortunate mishap.

What follows is a show that is a decent and fairly amusing, but not remarkable interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Some episodes of Miss Sherlock are more heavily inspired by the original stories than others, while others feel more like they were inspired by Sherlock. There's an episode heavily based on The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire for example, but the extended twist at the end works  well enough as a way to really make it feel like a real story set in modern day Japan and a good example of a reasonably good adaptation of the original source story, followed by some original material of the production team. The episode based on The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor has a nice twist that actually feels Holmesian, though it seems rather silly to go through all that trouble for that goal. Another early story feels quite Holmesian with a seemingly meaningless act (a vandalized painting) at the start that builds up to a story of larger crime. The emphasis on the "modern" can be a bit much though, with deadly new viruses and poisons becoming the McGuffins of the episode a few times.

Eventually, the story will also build up to something larger as it approaches the grand finale. I think most people can guess that Sherlock will eventually face a "Big Bad" at the end of the series. Your mileage may vary here. I thought the concept behind the Big Bad was not only far too obvious, but also reminiscent of the lesser parts of Sherlock and I couldn't really take it serious. By the way, I have seen far too many Japanese productions with some link to Sherlock Holmes now with characters whose names are based on Moriarty....

As depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I think Miss Sherlock's Sherlock is more inspired by Sherlock's Sherlock than the source!Sherlock Holmes, but Wato works quite well in the context of the series. She's not an army surgeon like other depictions of Watson, but a private citizen, a doctor who suffers from PTSD after her experiences in Syria, and she works well as a humanizing factor, though admittedly, this also means she kinda ends up as the 'says or does something that helps Sherlock solve the case' character, with little else to contribute to the investigation.

Miss Sherlock is undeniably a Sherlock-inspired series, and that brings a certain burden. The series can be a bit uneven, and I think the first half, which is more firmly rooted in the source material, is more entertaining than the second. It works reasonably as a Sherlock Holmes-in-the-modern-day adaptation, and the gender/location changes too work well enough as something different once in a while. But while the series can be fun, Miss Sherlock has little truly original to offer, and most of the time, you'll have the feeling you have seen this already in one form or another. It's a decent series, but misses just that extra oomph.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ミス・シャーロック』

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Perfect Plot

「今宵エデンの片隅で」(Garnet Crow)

If it has no form
You can always keep on feeling that emotion
"Tonight, in a corner of Eden" (Garnet Crow)

Speaking of mystery stories about comedians, that TV special a couple of years ago starring real-life Japanese comedians like Bakarhythm, Date from Sandwichman, Hakata Daikichi (who also voice-acted in Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer) and others playing themselves as suspects in the murder of Bananaman's Himura: that was a weird special.

The second volume of Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum") brings us two new adventures of the brilliant high school student Touma Sou and his classmate Kana in this continuation of the original Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series. As per custom, we have both a "conventional" murder story as well as a non-murder story in one volume, and this second volume starts with the non-violent one. In The Naked Emperor, Touma is asked by his classmate Yuubari to help her brother. Yuubari Yuuki was one half of the rising star comedy duo Order to Leave, but two years ago, his partner stopped to go work in a normal company. Since then, Yuuki's been trying his luck as a solo comedian, but his story is not that one of success, and he has sorta made up his mind to give up on his dream, but not without going out with a bang. The last few months, he has been writing his own one-act comedy play called The Naked Emperor, which is by far the best he's ever produced according to friends and his fellow young comedians. The rumors about his fantastic play however also reach the ears of the highly popular comedian Suzuka Santa and his ruthless manager Akashi, who want to get their hands on that play so Suzuka can star in it. One day, Suzuka visits the dressing room of the venue where Yuuki and several other comedy groups are performing. He first asks to if he could read the play, but when he offers to buy the play from Yuuki, his offer is refused. When Suzuka leaves the dressing room, Yuuki discovers his (handwritten) play is gone, and suspicion obviously falls on Suzuka, but there is one problem: Suzuka was completely naked when he entered the dressing room so how could he have smuggled the play outside without anyone noticing? Touma has not only have to solve the mystery of the missing script, but also find a way to help Yuuki succeed with his play.

The 'impossible' disappearance of the script is just the very beginning of the story, and quite simple to solve, but it certainly makes an impact, as the thief (Suzuka) was completely naked and empty-handed as he entered and left the dressing room. It doesn't take long for Touma to solve this disappearance (it's really simple), but Yuuki's problems aren't solved quite yet, as he's eventually hired by Suzuka as an employee to direct and rewrite the play so Suzuka can star in it anyway (together with Yuuki and some others), and slowly, Yuuki realizes he's being bamboozled out of the play he wrote for himself. What follows is a "mystery" story of a kind you never see in Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, as we see Suzuka's manager Akashi, but also Touma himself trying several schemes to help out their respective "clients" and while everyone can guess that it's Touma who ends up victorious in the end, the kind of plan he comes up to help out Yuuki is unlike anything in the other major detective manga and almost closer to the schemes in series like Liar Game (watch the drama, it's an excellent mystery series!). It's extremely unlikely everything would go exactly as Touma had anticipated, but it's certainly possible to deduce what his plans are once you're presented the semi-Challenge to the Reader. Like In The Year of Quantum in the first volume, this story requires you to consider several facts mentioned throughout the story and combine in a purely logical manner to see how they pertain to each other and that the implications are. 

The second story, The Form of Murder, is a "normal" murder story. It's summer, and Touma's friend Sid Green, AKA Loki (whom he knows from his MIT days) has invited Touma and his assistants (yes, multiple, as more girls besides Kana wanted to come along) to Malta, where Loki's uncle runs the Hotel Geometry, a hotel for academics who need some rest. One of the guests is Alf Lets, an Oxford mathematics professor, whose wife Camilla was murdered four months ago in Malta, in the very same hotel. Her death was considered a robbery-gone-wrong by the local police, but Alf is convinced it was a planned murder, and has been searching the whole of Malta to find a clue that'll lead him to Camilla's murderer. He's accompanied by his friends the Goodmans and his solicitor Bris, who were also in Malta on the night of the murder. Seeing how Alf is exhausting himself in search of clues, Loki wants Touma to solve the murder, which indeed has a few interesting points.

The arranged marriage between the carefree, partying Camilla and the bookworm Alf was by all means a complete failure, as Camilla was getting worse and worse with his treatment of Alf and quite openly flirting and cheating on him with other men. On the night of Camilla's murder, Derek Goodman warned Alf he should divorce from Camilla, while Franny Goodman was getting quite enough of Camilla hitting on Derek. Bris too was of the opinion Camilla meant nothing but trouble for Alf, but he had no intentions of listening to his friends. That night, Camilla had a hangover and a headache, and asked Alf to get her something to help ease the pain. Alf left the hotel keys with reception as he went out to the store, and the Goodmans and Bris also went their own ways, but when Alf returned, he found his wife dead with a knife in her. The murder was committed in the period everyone was roaming around on their own, but the door and windows to the room were locked and the keys were kept at the reception desk, so even if a robber didn't commit the murder, who did and more importantly, how did they get in and out the seaside hotel room?

Unlike Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Q.E.D. stories are about 100 pages per chapter (story) due to the magazine in which it is serialized, which gives it the freedom to build a different kind of story than one that is structured around multiple chapters each about 18~20 pages, and with a mini-climax/cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. The Form of Murder however is an example where you can also sense the advantages of a more rigid structure, as The Form of Murder likes to meander a lot, and the pace is really, really slow. Having chapters like Conan or Kindaichi Shounen would've at least brought a more focused way of telling the story. The way in which the locked room was constructed was okay, even if it was a bit unclear whether that certain action was possible or not (better clewing would've been appreciated), but the story kinda stumbles over the things the murderer did, and attempted to do besides the murder, resulting in a somewhat unguided, and at times even confusing story.

Like with the first volume, I find Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou 2 to be decent, but not unique enough to get me really invested in the series. The non-murder stories, that employ the scientific field of logic are definitely what set Q.E.D. iff apart from its rivals and can be very fun, but I still haven't come across the story that'll convince me to go out and buy the other volumes. That said, I still have another volume of iff I got in the free offer, so expect a review of that volume in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. iff -照明終了-』第2巻

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Magical Mystery Enemies

"That's all magic is, an illusion."
"Jonathan Creek"

I thought it had been several years since I last read a Rampo, but it wasn't even that long ago that I read the excellent Yuureitou. Guess I forgot because it wasn't about Akechi.

After defeating the crazy murderer the Spider-Man in the novel Kumo Otoko (1929-1930), amateur detective Akechi Kogorou decided to take a long deserved holiday, resting at a lakeside hotel. There he becomes friends with Taeko, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy jeweler Tamamura Zentarou. After she returned to Tokyo, Akechi of course hoped he'd be able to meet her again, but he couldn't have guessed their reunion would come so soon: Akechi is contacted by the police, who want his help involving a mysterious threatening case. At first, Akechi refused, until he learns that it involves Fukunaga Tokujirou, the uncle of Taeko. Letters with numbers counting down have been appearing in the man's house every day now, and Fukunaga is afraid that once the countdown reaches zero, something horrible will happen. Akechi takes the first train back to Tokyo, but he's immediately kidnapped by an unknown party and during Akechi's absence, Fukunaga is murdered inside his locked bedroom by apparently a gigantic man. It seems like Akechi's latest foe can truly make the impossible possible and stopping this fiend won't be easy in Edogawa Rampo's Majutsushi ("The Magician", 1930).

After a series of short stories with the amateur detective Akechi Kogorou, Edogawa Rampo (father of the Japanese detective story) also had Akechi appear in novels. Akechi'd slowly transform from a bookish student to an amateur detective, to a dandy gentleman detective over the course of his career, with Majutsushi still being set in his amateur days, though he finally opens a true detective agency at the end of this novel. Akechi also meets his future assistant/wife in this novel, who's often an active character in subsequent Akechi novels, as well as in the Boys Detective Club series, so for fans of the character Akechi Kogorou, Majutsushi is a must-read for fleshing out his life.

Rampo had Akechi confront a terrifying, almost inhuman murderer in the thriller Kumo Otoko (1929-1930) and Majutsushi continues with that trend. In fact, most Akechi novels pit him against some kind of superfiend, like a Scooby Doo! monster, with whom Akechi will have several confrontations over the course of the story. This is also what happens in Majutsushi, where Akechi sometimes outwits, and sometimes is outwitted by a murderer who appears in front of Akechi as a circus magician, and who is hell-bent on killing all members of the Tamamura family. Besides the silly super-criminal trope, you also have the usual Rampo tropes here, like a focus on voyeurism, with several of the murders being displayed in public in all their goriness. Like I mentioned in my review of Issunboushi, exhibitionism, and a delayed realization of that plays a big role in Rampo's detective stories. In Majutsushi too, the eponymous Magician stages for some of his murders (or chopped off body parts) to appear in public, and usually people first look at it, find it odd, and only after that, it slowly starts to dawn upon them that what they just saw, was something horrible. Lenses and mirrors are also a Rampo-thing, and true enough, mirrors also appear in this story (not so curious of course, considering Akechi is fighting a magician).

As a mystery story, it's a bit like most Rampo novels, that is, not particularly memorable. Majutsushi is a serialized novel, and give it some credit, this is one of the better plotted ones by Rampo because with most of his other serialized novels, you can really tell he's simply winging things as he's going, while Majutsushi is actually reasonably tightly plotted, but still, the whole thing feels like a somewhat unambitious pulpy thriller. Most of the events that happen are just there to 'shock' the reader, even though they never really do, and the few truly horrifying scenes we get, are taken from Edgar Allan Poe stories (which Rampo also points out in his own look back at this novel). The locked room murder at the start of the novel has a silly, uninspired solution that Rampo has actually used in other novels in better ways, and other events in this novel aren't about detecting anymore, but at "look at how gruesome that is!". This is a pulp thriller, a very pulpy one at that too, but not nearly as entertaining as other Rampo pulps like Kurotokage.

There's a juvenile version of this novel by the way, also titled Majutsushi, set in the Boys Detective Club series. Rampo rewrote several of his stories as juvenile stories for this series starring the young assistant of Akechi Kogorou, Kobayashi.

So overall, Majutsushi is very typical of a Rampo serialized novel, that is, it's an incredibly pulpy story brimming with Rampo's trademark tropes. Judged solely on its mystery plot, Majutsushi does nothing particularly special, even if it tries to throw some surprises at the reader, but overall, I think this novel is most notable for its place in the Akechi timeline, establishing both the background of his future wife and Akechi's move to a professional private detective.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩『魔術師』

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Memories of Murder

「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

Without letting go of your hand,
I will not turn around
Hoping for that is all I can do
But one day, I will certainly be judged
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes you start reading a book expecting it'll lead to an interesting review. And sometimes, those expectations don't come true.
After the publication of his latest short story Whip the Dead, mystery author Ayukawa Tetsuya and his editor are shocked by the review of an influential critic, who accuses Ayukawa of plagiarism: his story has more than a few similarities with the short story The Unfinished Manuscript, which was written by the female author Ishimoto Mineko and published ten years ago in the now defunct magazine Zero. Ayukawa assures his editor he based Whip the Dead on an unpublished story he himself wrote thirteen years ago, during a period when he was a starting author, sending manuscripts here and there in the hopes of getting published. He eventually lost sight of the story, assuming it disappeared in a desk drawer of some magazine editor, but now Ayukawa suspects that Ishimoto found, and plagiarized his story ten years ago, resulting in his predicament now. Hoping to restore his honor and position as a mystery author, Ayukawa and his editor set out to find Ishimoto Mineko and set things straight in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Shisha wo Muchi Ute ("Whip the Dead", 1965).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was a highly influential post-war mystery author, who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries, from the impossible crimes in his Hoshikage Ryuuzou series to the alibi-deconstruction tales of his Inspector Onitsura series. Later in his life he would also become an important editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice making their debuts in the special publishing label named after Ayukawa. Shisha wo Muchi Ute however is basically a parody of himself, as "Ayukawa Tetsuya" stars in the tale, being accused of the heinous crime of plagiarism!

Starting with this very meta-opening, Shisha wo Muchi Ute remains a moderately funny and interesting parody, and pastische of not only Ayukawa, but the whole post-war industry of Japanese mystery fiction. As Ayukawa and his editor try to track down Ishimoto Mineko, all kinds of episodes strongly related with the real history of Japanese mystery fiction are told, from the rise and fall of pre- and post-war magazines for mystery fiction and the phenomenom of writer salons, to observations about how editors and publishers used to work. Ayukawa (the author, not the character) is obviously basing this on his own experience, and he gives an interesting look into how mystery writers lived in the early post-war period. A story like that of an rookie author initially plagiarizing Craig Rice successfully because it was hard to get information on foreign works soon after the war is something that sticks with the reader for example, and Ayukawa also has a lot of mystery authors appear, or at least name-dropped, throughout the novel (both male and female), though with slightly altered names. Some of them are still known, but there are also plenty of names which are long forgotten now, or were even long forgotten by the time Shisha wo Muchi Ute was originally published! Shisha wo Muchi Ute is thus an insightful look in the turbulent history of mystery fiction soon after World War II.

The mystery plot however... is not that attractive. Up until now, I've only seen Ayukawa come up with very intricate puzzle plots, with impossible crimes, perfect alibis or mathematically precise whodunnits. Shisha wo Muchi Ute is more a detective-adventure, with the character Ayukawa chasing after the elusive Ishimoto Mineko. The story has Ayukawa tracing old editors who used to work at Zero and digging in people's memories, but the core mystery plot is not at all like what I'm used to with Ayukawa's work and to be honest, it's not really that interesting. A few deaths occur during Ayukawa's investigation, which might or might not be murder, but they do hardly anything to make the plot really exciting, or alluring, and by the end of the novel, I realized that the mystery plot was not engaging at all. The ending has quite the surprise and while it is hinted at, I'd argue the hinting was a bit weak.

I described this book as a parody, as it is obviously parodying Ayukawa himself (the character Ayukawa is definitely Ayukawa himself, and not another entity who happens to have the same name, like the Ellery in the Ellery Queen novels or the Alices in Arisugawa Alice's two Alice series). The comedy in this novel is not really funny though. Your mileage may vary of course, but Shisha wo Muchi Ute is not a "Haha funny" parody. Most of the work I've read by Ayukawa is 'normal' serious, but with Shisha wo Muchi Ute's unique premise, I was expecting something with a more pronounced comedic tone, but alas. Ayukawa sometimes tries for slapstick-esque comedy here, but it seldom feels more than an attempt. Recognizing all the slightly arranged names of real authors is fun though, as are some of the episodes Ayukawa relates which are probably based on real life episodes.

So Shisha wo Muchi Ute is definitely more interesting as a  dressed-up look back at the post-war period of Japanese mystery fiction, especially in regards to the writers and the magazines of that time, rather than as a mystery story on its own. You can really tell Ayukawa is digging through his own past here, in his own experiences as a writer who first started out sending out manuscripts and doing odd jobs here and there for various magazines and eventually became a professional full-time writer and editor, but the mystery plot itself is simply not nearly as engaging as the biographical parts of the story.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『死者を笞打て』

Thursday, November 29, 2018

N Or M?

A while back, I made a post about floorplans and diagrams in mystery fiction, and I mentioned how excited I could become just by seeing them at the beginning of a book. Often, the floorplans are only presented at the relevant part of the story, for example when there's an investigation of a room, but I always love it when I see the plans in the first few pages of the book, even if only because it suggests location will play a big part in the story. But then I also remembered that there's another thing I love to see in mystery novels between the cover and the actual start of the story: a character list!

The dramatis personae is of course nothing but a list of the names of the principal characters in a work, often accompanied with a short one-line description of said character. The detective or Hated family patriarch who is totally going to get killed for the inheritance or something like that. Occassionally we even have authors who manage to write a witty dramatis personae. But I can feel my glee-levels rise even if it's just a plain list of names and roles. In essence, it's not much different from seeing the names of the actors of a stage play in the pamphlet, and there is indeed something overly theatrical about seeing a list of names before you have even read one word of the story. Seeing the names and their roles and relations presented in bullet point form helps create an preliminary image of the story, and it can be fun seeing your expectations be proven right or wrong. As someone who often sees the mystery story as an intellectual game, the dramatis personae also feels like a fair gesture towards the reader, by giving a proper and clear list of all the concerned parties.

Also, I'm simply horrible with remembering names and characters! I am a fan of the short story form, where the dramatis personae is not often utilized as they're not really needed practically speaking, but man, sometimes I really need one when reading longer novels. Some of my favorite reads of this year like Shijinsou no Satsujin, Toshokan no Satsujin or Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono for example luckily feature a dramatis personae, because all of them feature easily more then twenty, thirty named and significant characters! Add in the fact I often read multiple novels at the same time, and I can say I can only be grateful for character lists, as they help me remember who belongs in what story.

By the way, I am also a big fan of how names and characters are presented in the anime adaptations of Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo for example has a very iconic avant-title screen, where they show all the important characters of the story in a grid. What makes this character screen especially creepy is that they grey out the characters who die each episode, so with each episode, you see more and more greyed-out panels, leaving fewer and fewer suspects. Seeing all the characters on the screen at the start of each episode also helps when a story takes four episodes to tell. What both Conan and Kindaichi Shounen also do are the floating name panels whenever a new character makes their first appearance. Name, age and profession are projected beneath the character in question, immediately explaining who they are. It's incredibly artificial and theatrical, as you have text floating in your screen suddenly near a character, but it's also incredibly handy for remembering new characters, as you see the name spelled out. Some might think it's too artificial, but I think it works wonderfully in puzzle plot mysteries, where characters are important puzzle pieces of the "game"  and it doesn't hurt to clearly label them.

By the way, I can't think of any mystery stories I've read at the moment that really make use of the dramatis personae as part of the mystery plot. I've seen mystery stories avoid them to be fair, for example, because one character is actually playing two characters at the same time and it wouldn't be fair to write down both personas in the list. But not really one where you need the dramatis personae to solve the mystery, so it'd be nice to come across one once.

Next time in my aimless musings: family trees, and how complex should they be? (*I'm not serious)

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Crawling with Zombies

"They're just dead flesh, and dangerous."
"Night of the Living Dead"

Most of the Japanese books I have, are in the so-called bunko format: A6-format pockets which are both small and relatively cheap, yet still printed on reasonably good paper. While there are also novels which are printed right away in the bunko format, new novels are usually first printed in large hardcover or softcover format at a higher price point, and after three or four years, the novel is reprinted/replaced in the bunko format, which is usually half the price and the physical size. So often, I hear all kinds of great things about newly released novels but I still choose to wait a few years for the bunko release. I had been eyeing Aosaki Yuugo's Taiikukan no Satsujin since its release in 2012 for example, but waited until it was released as a bunko in 2015.

Sometimes, this wait can be excruciating however. Case in point: 2017's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead"). If you had to name one novel that made enormous waves in the world of Japanese mystery fiction, it would be this debut novel by Imamura Masahiro released last year. For Imamura managed to accomplish something nobody had done before, with his very first novel: take the number one spot in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi, Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best 10 and Honkaku Mystery Best 10 rankings. This was the first time anyone had managed to grab the grand spot of these three annual mystery fiction rankings. These awards are all backed by different publishers, and each determine their rankings differently based on votes of critics/authors/readers, so it was no wonder nobody before had ever managed to come in at no. 1 in all three rankings. The novel alsomade off with the Honkaku Mystery Award by the way, meaning it was extremely well-received among all kinds of readers of mystery ficton. And yet I was planning to wait patiently for the bunko release, no matter how much I wanted to read the book. That is, until I came across a generous cashback campaign this week which returned half the price in store credit. And I am glad to say that Shijinsou no Satsujin is indeed one of the most entertaining mystery novels I've read this year!

Narrator Hamura Yuzuru is a college freshman who is drafted by Akechi Kyousuke into the Shinkou University Mystery Fiction Club (not to be confused with the Mystery Fiction Research Club). Akechi is not only the president of the club (which now has two members), he's also an aspiring detective who has solved a case or two on campus, earning him the nickname of "the Holmes of Shinkou". The two learn that the university's Film Club has received a mysterious note with the message "Who will be the next sacrifice?", which seems to be related to the club's annual trip to a countryside hotel, where this year, they'll shoot a short Blair Witch-type horror film as part of their club activities. Hamura and Akechi are quite surprised when they are invited by Kenzaki Hiruko to come along with this trip. Second year student Hiruko has solved several criminal cases in the past and has even been awarded by the police for her exploits, though she has kept that all a secret and it's only through his connections that Akechi knows about this. Hiruko isn't a member of either the Film or Drama Clubs, but as many members didn't want to go this year because of the mysterious letter, she's been invited to make up for the female numbers (the annual Film Club trip is also an excuse to get hooked up), and Hamura and Akechi are her tagalongs.

The Violet Villa used to be a private holiday villa overlooking Lake Sabea, owned by the parents of one of the graduated members of the Film Club. They later had it renovated into a little hotel, and now the Shinkou University Film Club can stay there for free for their summer trip, while the son of the owners and his friends also come down to meet the current Film Club members (and try to get lucky with the female members). The first day is supposed to end with a barbeque dinner and a 'test of courage', where they'll visit a creepy shrine in boy-girl pairs, but this game is horribly interrupted when the group is suddenly assaulted by... a horde of zombies! Not everyone makes it back alive to the Violet Villa, and the group of survivors has no choice but to flee up to the upper two floors of the hotel and barricade themselves against the waves of zombies waiting for them below. Cut off from the outside world, the survivors make plans on how to keep the zombies downstairs until they're saved, but while the news on television warned people to look out and be on their guard for the "strange" epidemic that started at a local music festival, the survivors couldn't have known that the zombies weren't the only danger in the hotel. In the early hours of the following morning, the Film Club's president is found dead in his room and the way his face and body had been mutilated by horrible biting marks, leaves little doubt that his death came by the hands of a zombie, but there are also several problems to this conclusion: while only a zombie could've committed the murder in such a horrible way, only a human could've performed feats like somehow opening the locked hotel room and leaving mysterious handwritten threatening notes in and outside the room! Even supposing a zombie did commit the murder on its own, how did they get through the barricade and out again without anyone noticing!? And this isn't the only violent murder to occur inside the Violet Villa while the zombies are coming closer and closer in Imamura Masahiro's Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead", 2017).

So I knew of this novel since last year, but I hadn't actually read up on the story, so imagine how surprised I was when I came to the part zombies appeared in the story! Imamura comes up with a unique way to created a closed circle situation, as in this novel, the characters aren't cut off from the outside world due to storms or broken bridges, but zombies (and jammers and media blocks by the authorities to prevent people from spreading panic and false information on social media). There are some short segments that "explain" the how and why of the zombie attack, but don't mind that too much: it's all an excuse to create a unique closed circle situation for a mystery novel, and one that works really well too!

The book opens with the three-storied floorplan of the hotel and I think it kinda symbolizes how dynamic this story actually is. When you first open the book, you might read through the character list and try to memorize where everyone is sleeping in the hotel, but once the zombies come, you can forget everything. Corridors are barricaded and closed off, people are eaten by zombies, others are murdered and everyone has to move to other rooms or to other floors as the zombies slowly break through the various lines of defense and available space becomes less and less. In your mind, you're constantly updating the 'map' as circumstances change. A lot happens in Shijinsou no Satsujin and you certainly can't accuse it of being a boring mystery novel with long investigation scenes in the middle, because this is a novel that uses the form of the zombie panic movie to not only bring thrilling scenes from start to finish, but also to force frequent changes on the circumstances that help deepening the core mystery plot, for example by creating siutations where characters have to move to other rooms or by making some parts of the villa inaccessible after a while, which are all elements that will later be used in determining the culprit.

It's in this ever-changing locale that we see multiple impossible murders occur. These murders too make fantastic use of the zombie setting: one of the main problems the detectives face in this novel is the question of how and why these murders were committed, as all the murders show signs of both zombie, and human action: the horrible way in which the murders are committed could only be attributed to the zombies, and yet there's also a human hand detectable, but how could one person direct the zombies without endangering themselves or the other people? Besides an "orthodox" locked room murder, there's also a murder where the victim was dragged outside of their room, which was obviously locked from the inside, so a different type of impossible murder. What makes this novel so fun is that all the murders only work because the story's set during a sudden zombie attack. These murders could not possibly have worked if the story had been set in a "normal" world, without zombies. While the zombies are not completely explained within this work, Imamura carefully hints at certain conditions and characteristics of the zombies in this novel which you'll need to solve the case, and Imamura skillfully utilizes the zombies to create unique murder situations. As an example of how to do a good supernatural/fantasy mystery novel, Shijinsou no Satsujin gets very high marks (though I have to add that Shijinsou no Satsujin does not feel really fantasy-like, it's fairly realistic. Save for the zombies).

And while some might be turned off by zombies in a mystery novel, the way the murders are solved in Shijinsou no Satsujin show it's definitely a true, puzzle plot mystery that is intricately planned out and fair to the reader. Despite the unrealistic plot device of zombies, Imamura does a great job at both clewing and defining the capabilities of the zombies and nobody could ever accuse of him of being unfair to the reader. The mystery solving is quite Queen-like, in the sense that the deductions revolve much around physical evidence and "this culprit did this, which means they must have also been here or done that, and therefore..." lines of thought, but keeping in line with the dynamic of the zombie panic story, these deductions are never too long, and quite to the point, and while Shijinsou no Satsujin certainly isn't a simple mystery to solve, it's certainly solvable without having to keep precise notes. There is one moment that contains a very damning piece of evidence in regards to the identity of the culprit that might feel a bit unfair, I admit, but that's more in the sense of "I'd have wanted some psychological explanation for that" than really "Wait, that came out of nowhere", as it is something is definitely properly hinted at, and the implicitions are clear, even if you don't want to believe it at first.

Shijinsou no Satsujin is thus a very entertaining debut work by Imamura, that manages to mix the zombie panic genre in a wonderful manner with a classic puzzle plot locked room mystery. The unique closed circle situation and the inspired way in which zombies are utilized in the mystery plot are fantastic and I can't wait for Imamura's sequel to this novel, which was announced a while ago! Definitely a contender of one of my best reads this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 今村昌弘 『屍人荘の殺人』

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Case of the Distressed Lady


"I might be speaking out of line, ma'am, but you're simplemindedness is basically the level of kindergarten"
"How About A Locked Room On Holy Night?"

I very seldom read books by the same author one after another. No matter how much I might like a writer, or for example when I suddenly become hooked on a certain series, I almost always wedge another book in between. I guess I just like to have some variation, and not stick with an author for more than one book at a time.

Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de 2
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de 3
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (first impressions TV drama)
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (theatrical release)
Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (audio drama)

Today's book is therefore a rare exception. Last time, I reviewed Higashigawa Tokuya's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de, an excellent short story collection of which I knew the contents already from the 2011 TV drama adaptation. I had bought the book long, long ago, but it remained on the to-be-read pile because I wanted to forget most of the details of the drama before reading the original stories. After reading that book however, I decided to continue with the sequel, which I had bought together with the first volume back in 2012. Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de 2 ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner 2", 2011) continues the adventures of the female police detective Houshou Reiko, who unknown to her fellow officers, is in fact also the insanely rich heiress of the Houshou Group. Each day after work, while she's enjoying a luxurious dinner, she likes to lament about her well-meaning, but not particularly competent superior Inspector Kazamatsuri and the difficult cases she's saddled with, but her mysterious butler Kageyama always manages to solve the cases simply by listening to his mistress' stories. Unlucky for Reiko is that Kageyama also has a very sharp tongue and he doesn't hold back his (polite) comments about his mistress'  intelligence as he explains how it was done. This collection features another six of these mysteries to be solved after dinner.

It shouldn't surprise the reader that this second volume is simply 'more of the same'. Each story follows the same rough outline of Reiko and Kazamatsuri coming across a new murder and them questioning everyone involved, and at the end of the day, Reiko tells Kageyama everything, who solves the case like the armchair detective he is (even though he remains standing of course, as he's a butler). The stories do have a tendency to feel a bit alike after a while (especially as I read the first two volumes after another), and often revolve around a crime scene with something out-of-the-ordinary (a naked body; a victim who had her hair cut after the murder; a victim who had her boots on in her apartment even though that's not done in Japan). Usually there are three suspects, and the key to solving these stories is figuring out why the crime scene turned out the way it did, and from there deduce who it was. For those who saw the drama: I think every story here was also adapted for the series (together with the stories from the first volume), but if I remember correctly, some of the stories were mashed together for the two-part finale.

Alibi wo Goshomou de Gozaimasuka ("Would You Like An Alibi?") has Reiko and Inspector Kazamatsuri working on the murder of a 35-year old woman, who was found in the staircase of a largely empty tenant building. The coroner's report, and a sighting of a neigbor who saw her leave the apartment building, put her death between 19:45-21:00, giving the victim enough time to get from her apartment building to the place where she was killed. The main suspect is her ex-boyfriend, who dated her for seven years, but suddenly dumped her so he could date, and soon marry, the daughter of an executive of his company. The man has an alibi though, as he spent the early night with an old colleague, after which he spent two hours in a cafe, as vouched for by the owner of that coffee shop. Kageyama's explanation for how this alibi was created has some really good ideas, and some less inspired ones. The way Kageyama explains why it is very likely that the suspect is indeed the murderer is absolutely brilliant: the hint for this is hidden both in your face, but also subtle enough for anyone to read across it (I know I did). But once pointed out, you realize how obvious it should've been. The way the alibi was actually done however is far more crude, and a bit disappointing considering how good the set-up was.

Koroshi no Sai wa Boushi wo O-Wasurenaku ("Don't Forget Your Hat During A Murder") has Reiko and Kageyama vistiting Reiko's hat shop, as she's working on a case that is connected to hats. A woman had been killed in her bath tub, and it was discovered that not only the victim's phone and computer were missing, but also her hats from her closet. But who would want to steal a woman's hat collection? This is a very tricky story, but the moment Kageyama explains why the murderer would want to take the hats with them is fantastic: the explanation is logical, convincing and one can see that Higashigawa did his best at setting everything up, though it still requires a bit of imagination on the part of the reader. Once you know why, the story turns into a whodunnit, and while it's a simple one, it's expectly plotted, even complete with a false solution! Definitely one of the best stories in this volume.

Satsui no Party ni Youkoso ("Welcome To The Party With Murderous Intent") starts with Reiko arriving at the hotel where the sixtieth birthday party of the father of her friend/rival Ayaka is held. Ayaka, Reiko, as well as two other heiresses, were all members of their university's seasonal sports club, and have kept their friendship/rivalry alive all the time. During the party, the daughter of the owner of the hotel (who was also acquaintances with Reiko and her friends) is assaulted in the glass house on the roof garden of the hotel. The only thing the victim could say before she was taken to the hospital was that was assaulted by a woman in reddish dress, who she didn't know, but looked familiar. Besides Reiko and her three friends, there were only three other women who answered to the description of the attacker, but who of them was the assailant? Again a story that has strokes of true genius, but also elements that feel a bit underwhelming. One part of the mystery is basically only solvable if you know a certain piece of trivia. A different clue in regards to the identity of the attacker is very tricky, and perfectly executed here. The setting of this story is used to its fullest to make this trick possible, and it's quite easy to imagine how this would've gone. It requires the most careful of readers to even get an inkling of what is being played here.

Seinaru Yoru ni Mittsutsu wa Ikaga ("How About A Locked Room On Holy Night?") has Reiko in a somewhat bad mood on the morning of December 24th, especially after Kageyama asked what her plans were for the night. She takes the bus to her work, but runs into a woman who says her friend was killed. The victim was living in a small house, which save for the entrance was encircled by a concrete wall, with everything covered in the snow of the night before. The only tracks leading to the entrance were the foottracks to and away from the house made by the friend who discovered the body, and a bicycle track made by the victim when she came back last night. At first sight it seems the victim might've fallen from the loft, but the neighbor's testimony of having seen someone's shadow after she heard the fall that would've killed the victim, seems to suggests it was murder. But how did the murderer escape the house without leaving any traces in the snow? Like Koroshi no Sai wa Boushi wo O-Wasurenaku, this story can be tricky, as it requires you to deduce the existence of an object that has not been mentioned explictly before, but I think it's much easier in this story. Once you get to that point, it's almost a straight line to figuring out how the murderer escaped the house. The whodunnit is simple and short, but surprisingly well done, with subtle hints that allow you strike you out the people who certainly couldn't have done it.

Hanayagi Electric Appliances was a household name, even before the scandal, and then the tragedy became the talk of the town. Hanayagi Kenji having a mistress was a scandal: him dying in a traffic accident was a tragedy. But tragedy never comes alone, we learn in Kami wa Satsujinhan no Inoch de Gozaimasu ("Hair Means the Life of a Murderer"), as one morning, the housekeeper of the Hanayagi household wakes up to find something burning in the living room, where she finds a dead body. At first, she mistook the body for one of the family, but it turns out the victim was Yuuko, Kenji's niece, who often came to visit the Hanayagi home to visit her cousins. Usually, the housekeeper would recognize her of course, but for some reason, Yuuko's beautiful long, black hair had been cut and burned in the fireplace. Strangely enough, I've read a couple of stories about bodies of whom the hair was cut (here and here for example), and this one is another interesting one. Deducing why the hair had been cut can be a bit difficult, I think, though there are a couple of nice clues that hint at something big behind the missing hair. This story is definitely not plotted as tightly as previous ones, but still an okay story.

Kanzen na Misshitsu nado Gozaimasen ("There Is No Such Thing as a Perfectly Locked Room") is about the death of an artist: on the day of his demise, his niece and a freelance writer were about to enter his atelier, when they heard him cry out and something loud fall: inside the atelier, of which the wall was covered in a gigantic fresco, they found the artist with a knife in his back and a stepladder which had fallen over. At first sight, it seemed like he was working on the wall with the knife when he fell over, but it seems unlikely he could've stabbed himself in the back then. But if it was a murder, how did the murderer escape, as the two who first discovered the victim were standing in front of door of the building when they heard him scream, and there are no other windows in the atelier through which the murderer could've escaped. A story on which your mileage will probably vary a lot: I really liked the way the escape route of the murderer was hinted at, but I didn't like the escape route itself.  So the way Kageyama arrived at the solution, I thought much more interesting than the solution itself.

So while Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de 2 was not surprising in terms of story format, this volume was quite entertaining once again. Despite the short length of each of these stories, Higashigawa manages to come up with very intricately plotted whodunnit plots, with excellent clewing and also alluring crime scenes. Some of the things he manages to pull off here are really tricky, with some hints that are almost screaming in your face in hindsight, but always go undetected by the reader the first time. For people who have seen the drama, I'm afraid only the third volume has stories you don't know yet.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『謎解きはディナーのあとで2』:「アリバイをご所望でございますか」/「殺しの際は帽子をお忘れなく」/「殺意のパーティにようこそ」/「聖なる夜に密室はいかが」/「髪は殺人犯の命でございます」/「完全な密室などございません」

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Case of the Rich Woman


"As you don't even see through the truth of something as simple as this, I assume, ma'am, that you are a fool?"
"Please Take Your Shoes Off At A Murder Scene"

A while back I decided to read, and review Kishi Yuusuke's short story collection Kagi no Kakatta Heya even though I already knew the contents more-or-less. I had seen the TV drama series which was partly based on the collection, but as quite some years had passed since I saw the series, I figured now was as good as any time to read the original book. Reading Kagi no Kakatta Heya reminded me of a similar case, of a book I had bought, but not read as I had seen the TV drama adaptation already.

It was in 2011 when I first read a work by Higashigawa Tokuya, and a few months later, I caught the TV drama Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner"), which was based on one of his novel series. The show was absolutely brilliant and I soon started to read a lot more of Higashigawa's works, though I didn't write much about Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de back then: a short first impression of the TV drama, a review of the theatrical film and a review of an audio drama were basically all I had, until I reviewed the third Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato volume in 2015. But today, I go back to that very first short story collection of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner", 2010). Houshou Reiko is a young female Homicide detective who unknown to most of her colleagues (and especially her arrogant and womanizing superior Inspector Kazamatsuri), is in fact the insanely wealthy sole heiress of the Houshou Group, which has a hand in pretty much everything. Each night, after a hard day of work, she likes to enjoy her luxurious banquet, as she ponders out loud about the cases she's working on. Her butler Kageyama seems to have a knack for detecting too, as he is always able to solve the most mysterious cases just by listening to his mistress. Kageyama however also doesn't hold back with the verbal insults towards his mistress, as most of the cases seem so simple to him, that it appears his mistress must be 'dense', 'even more stupid than the lowest-level amateur around', or something worse.

While I think all of the six stories collected in this volume were also featured in the TV drama, I had forgotten just about enough of them for most of these to feel fresh to me. The overall mood of Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series however is something nobody is likely to forget, and it is one the TV drama also managed to capture perfectly. Higashigawa specializes in comedy mystery, with almost comic-like characters and funny banter, but don't let his jokes fool you: Higashigawa is really good at hiding clues and other important elements in his comedy, and that combined with a good sense for constructing mystery plots, from locked room mysteries to the more deduction-based stories, makes his work always a joy to read. The Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series is distinctly different from some of his other series like the Ikagawashi series and the Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, as Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato takes on an armchair detective format, with Kageyama helping his mistress (accompanied with some verbal abuse) with her cases at home. Interestingly enough though, it's Reiko who sits in the armchair, while Kageyama, as her butler, is of course the one standing.

The opening story, Satsujin Genba de wa Kutsu wo O-nugi Kudasai ("Please Take Your Shoes Off At A Murder Scene"), is the one story I have mentioned several times on this blog, as it was also the source material for both the audio drama and the first episode of the TV drama. I still consider it one of the more memorable stories, even though the story seems so simple: a young woman was found murdered in her room, but what seems so mysterious to Reiko is the fact the victim was found wearing her boots. Wearing your shoewear inside your home is a big no-no in Japan (as it'd ruin the flooring), so while it seems like a trivial matter, it's still extremely weird for the victim to be found like this. The chain of deductions Kageyama manages to create based on this fact and other testimonies from the victim's neigbors' is convincing however, and quite satisfying, especially with a hint that builds on another aspect of Japanese culture.

Koroshi no Wine wa Ikaga Desu Ka ("How About A Killer Wine?") has Reiko working on a case that at first seemed like a suicide, but might actually be murder: a wealthy elderly man was found dead in his room, and poison was detected from his glass of wine. As the bottle itself didn't contain poison, and the victim was notoriously fuzzy about clean glasses, it doesn't seem likely anyone but himself could've poisoned his glass. His children had protested heavily against his intended marriage with his housekeeper, which might've driven him to suicide, but some small matters have Reiko suspect this was foul play. The trick behind how the glass of wine was poisoned isn't that impressive: it seems like rather straightforward way to poison the wine for me. More impressive is the way Kageyama then proceeds to deduce the identity of the murderer, by focusing on the actions the murderer must've taken. The hinting is a bit crude and one could argue that the reasoning is a bit too easy in rejecting some other possibilities, but it's an okay story.

Kirei na Bara ni wa Satsui ga Gozaimasu ("Murderous Intent Is Present in Beautiful Roses") starts with the discovery of a dead woman in the rose garden of Fujikura Kousaburou. The victim had been brought to the Fujikura home by Kousaburou's son, who intended to marry the woman, despite protests of his parents and Toshio's brother-in-law. Kyouko was now dead however, placed on a rose-covered pedastal in the rose garden. The one question that's on the detectives' mind is of course why the woman's body was in the rose garden. This story is fairly similar to the previous one, as it wants you to deduce why a certain action was taken, and then use that knowledge to deduce who the murderer was. This story is much better plotted, with both a good reason for why the body was found where it was found and an excellent structured whodunnit plot that allows you identify the murderer. The story does require you to deduce the existence of a certain object not mentioned before, but it is actually fairly well-telegraphed.

In Hanayome wa Misshitsu no Naka de Gozaimasu ("The Bride Is Inside The Locked Room"), Reiko is initially not involved as a police detective, but as the heiress of the Houshou Group, and as a personal friend, as her friend Yuri is getting married. The ceremony is held at the bride's (large) home, and while Reiko is not exactly happy that Yuri got married first, she still wishes her friend the best. When Yuri doesn't come back from her short rest, Reiko decides to look for her in her room, but it is locked from the inside, with no answer at all. When the door is finally opened with the spare key, they find that Yuri was stabbed in her back. Reiko's fast actions save Yuri's life, but the question is how the assailant managed to escape this second floor room, as the door was locked, and there were no footsteps found beneath the open balcony door. As a locked room mystery, people might be a bit disappointed by this one, but man! the clue towards the identity of the bride attacker is absolutely brilliant! I don't remember having seen this in the TV drama (I probably just forgot), but this clue is devilishly subtle and yet daringly in your face. In fact, this might be one of the best clues I've seen this year.

Futamata ni wa O-Ki wo Tsuke Kudasai ("Please Be Careful For Cheaters") brings the strangest crime scene in this collection, as the victim was found completely naked in his room! His clothes are nowhere to be found, so it stands to reason the murderer took them, but why? As he was seen in the flat elevator with a woman by his neigbor minutes before his death, and another witness saw a woman leave the apartment soon after, the police suspects a woman in the life of the victim was the culprit, but it appears the man was having relations with multiple woman, so which of them did it? The puzzle revolves around disagreeing descriptions of the woman who was last seen with the victim, but once you realize why those testimonies differ, the story leads to a very satisfying reason for why the victim was found naked, and it also gives the reader a nice final puzzle in figuring out which of the women was the murderer. Excellently clewed and executed,  and also one of the funnier stories to visualize.

Shisha kara no Dengon wo Douzo ("Here's A Message From the Dead") is about a rather particular dying message, as the message was erased before the police could get to it! The president of a money lending company was murdered, her head bashed in with a trophy of one of her sons, but the circumstances that led to the discovery of the murder are what made it so extraordinary: around nine in the evening, the bloody trophy was thrown from the garden into a room on the second floor, breaking the window. It had everyone in the house gather in the room, save for the victim who was then found. But why was the trophy thrown into that room, and what did the erased dying message say? This is perhaps the most complex of the stories in this collection, but within the same page count (and these are pretty short stories), so it feels a bit rushed at some points. Like seen in some of the other stories in this collection, Higashigawa likes to hide clues in utterances and interpretations of the used language, though it's not as elegant here as in the earlier stories. Still, it leads to a good set-up that allows the reader to reasonably deduce what the dying message said and who the murderer is.

Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de is thus a more than entertaining volume of well-constructed mystery short stories. Higashigawa excells in mixing comedy with a good mystery plot, and the short format, combined with the fast dialogues and funny scenes really work great. In terms of mystery plotting, Higashigawa shows he's very good at classic whodunnit plots, where he challenges the reader to deduce who the murderer is (usually from three suspects), based on actions the murderer must've taken while committing the deed. Once you recognize the pattern, you have an idea what to look for, but Higashigawa shows in these six stories he's also very capable of coming up with original variations that you aren't likely to see through in time. So a fun read, even if I already knew the plots from the TV drama.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『謎解きはディナーのあとで』:「殺人現場では靴をお脱ぎください」/「殺しのワインはいかがでしょう」/「綺麗な薔薇には殺意がございます」/「花嫁は密室の中でございます」/「二股にはお気をつけください」/「死者からの伝言をどうぞ」

Monday, November 12, 2018



Even among these entangled threads
We are still connected
"Everlasting" (B'z)

I hope to do at least one other mystery videogame review before the end of the year, as the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou prequel Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz will release in December, but I can't make any promises (depends on how long the game is.

The private investigator Amagi Kojirou hasn't seen a single client in the three months since he had to open his own office, but a friend brings the womanizing detective in contact with Stoleman Kou, director of the Yale International School. Kou wants Kojirou to locate a small painting for him, which he needs for a service to commemorate his wife who died three years earlier. The painting has gone missing, but Kou has no idea whether it was stolen or simply mislaid in his house while he was abroad. Meanwhile, government agent Houjou Marina is assigned to a special undercover mission: she is to protect Midou Mayako, daughter of the Eldian ambassador to Japan. The Republic of Eldia is a small, multi-ethnic Middle-Eastern country that has developed tremendously lately, but is also torn by internal struggles between pro-monarch and pro-democracy factions. It seems Mayako has become the target of some group to put pressure on her father the ambassador, so Marina goes undercover as Mayako's personal tutor to protect her from danger. As Kojirou and Marina work on their own respective jobs however, they uncover an international plot involving the future of the Republic of Eldia and a mysterious serial killer "Terror" who always seems to be one step ahead of the two detectives in the PlayStation Vita/Windows/Nintendo Switch game EVE burst error R (2016).

EVE burst error is a famous graphic adventure game developed by C's Ware originally released in 1995 for the PC-9800 system (a kind of PC for the Japanese market). As you can gather from the summary above, it's a mystery adventure game, but it should also be mentioned that the original EVE burst error is an adult graphic adventure. Which means the game also contained nudity and explicit sex scenes. Explicit adult content is a big no-no for home console releases though, so in later ports and remakes for home console systems like the SEGA Saturn and PlayStation 2, the adult content is removed or rewritten. EVE burst error has been remade several times, and EVE burst error R is the most recent version, released on PlayStation Vita, Windows and Nintendo Switch (EVE burst error A, a version of R which does include the explicit adult content is also available on Windows). There exists an official English translation of the older Windows 98 release of EVE burst error by the way, though I played the Nintendo Switch which was released recently. As far as I know the main story is the same across all the versions (though newer versions may contain scenes not found in the original 1995 version), and while the non-adult versions don't feature the sex scenes, you have still have plenty of flirt scenes featuring skimpily dressed women shot from rather suggestive angles that horribly interrupt the pacing of the main mystery story.

As an adventure game, EVE burst error R is most of the time quite classic. You'll be using commands like "Move", "Check" and "Talk" to interact with other characters and the environment as you move between locations in search of clues and people to talk to to move the story forward. As long as you try all options, it's impossible to get stuck, and most of the time, you'll just be chasing after the story, finding the right characters to talk to. And like in most classic Japanese command-type adventure games, it can be quite irritating to figure out what to do to move the story forward. Luckily, EVE burst error R has an optional mode that gives a visual cue where you have to go next, and I really recommend this, as come on, how am I going to guess I have to first go to the school dorm to activate an inner monologue about something completely unrelated, go back to Central Avenue, and then go to the school dorm again to have character X appear in order to proceed!? EVE burst error R features nice redrawn art, but it definitely feels really like the 90s adventure it is.

Interesting however is the so-called Multi Sight System, which is unique to the EVE series. In the game, you control both Kojirou and Marina in their respective scenarios, and you can switch between the two stories at any time. So you're following two stories simultaneously. While most of the times, the two detectives pursue their own goals, at times we see the two stories intersect, and it's pretty interesting to see some events from both perspectives and it's only by seeing both sides that all the questions are answered, as both Kojirou and Marina will learn things that the other has no inkling about (though there are also times you just see the same events twice, and that can be a bit boring). The Multi Sight System is also used as a rudimentary "zapping" system as seen in games like Machi and 428: sometimes you can't continue in a particular scenario, unless you reach a specific point in the other scenario too. For example, early in the game, you'll hit a stop in the story with Marina unless you swap over to the Kojirou story, and play with him until the point where he discovers a murdered man, after which Marina in her scenario is informed of that same murder and heads out to the crime scene. In games like Machi and 428, you had "zap" between the various characters and make story-changing choices to help the others out (for example, choose to open a certain door with character X so later character Y can use that door), though in EVE burst error R, it's not about making the correct choice to help out the other protagonist, all you have to do is simply reach a certain point in the story, so in a way, it's only a mechanic to make sure you get too far ahead in either scenario. 

Is EVE burst error R an interesting mystery game though, with these systems? Err... I have to voice some reservations. First of all, both Kojirou and Marina are rather passive players in their respective scenarios, with most of the events happening to them, and giving them little space to really go out investigate the various events themselves. Once in a while, both detectives will learn fragments of useful information, but they never really manage to become active agents in their own stories. The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games are also fairly straighforward in chasing after the main mystery, but at least in those games, you feel more like a detective actively investigating a case, rather than just someone who's the target of event after event. Several murders occur over the course of the story of EVE burst error R, and you slowly learn it all has to do with the Republic of Eldia, but the furher you come, the more the story becomes like a somewhat ridiculous spy story with secret agents and conspiracies etc. At the very end of both the Kojirou and Marina scenarios however, the game suddenly takes on a different form and gives you two options: one is to replay some of the significant parts that involve the various murders (in case you'd forgotten the details), and the other option is to accuse a murderer for each of these murders. Here EVE burst error R presents a rather "classic" take on the detective game, simply asking you to name the murderer(s). As a mystery plot, EVE burst error R has some merits, but also big flaws.

What is entertaining is definitely the use of the Multi Sight System: in order to figure out who the murderer(s) are for each of the murders, you have to combine the facts you learn from both sides. The way these hints and clues are spread across both scenarios is done competently, and gives meaning at the use of two, simultaneously developing stories. On the other hand though, the solution treads into the science-fiction genre, and is not completely fair. Yes, there are events that happen in both scenarios that hint at the solution, but for example the most incriminating clue is shown on the screen literally one second before the game asks you to name the murderer(s), without any context or comment on what you just saw, and that is definitely something from science fiction we had never seen before in the story. Comparing it to WorldEnd Syndrome, which I reviewed a few months ago, I'd say EVE burst error R has more clues that actually point towards the solution, but still WorldEnd Syndrome is more satisfying as the underlying rules were clearer and did a better job at preparing the player for the supernatural background setting of a game, while in EVE burst error, you're suddenly confronted in the solution with something that up to that point, had not been shown as possible in that world in that form.

EVE burst error R is therefore a game I find difficult to recommend as a mystery adventure game. Yes, it is a classic in the history of Japanese adventure games, but it definitely also feels like an old game in terms of storytelling. As a mystery story, the game definitely tries something interesting, making good use of its Multi Sight System, but the story is also hampered by the over-the-top foreign-spy-agents-and-conspiracies backdrop and the ending that's basically science fiction, which would have actually worked perfectly if only the set-up had been better for this reveal, as the main clue as to the actual answer to all the murders now depends on a physical clue that has not been explained enough in the main story.

Original Japanese title(s): 『EVE burst error R』

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Ruined Map

"Everything you were looking for was right there with you all along."
"The Wizard of Oz"

I always try to read at least one mystery set in Fukuoka each year, which isn't actually as easy it sounds. Kyoto is another story though, as there are tons of them out there.

I'll be perfectly honest from the start, and admit I have somewhat of a bias against Yamamura Misa's work. She was of course an institution in Japan, a symbol of the popular genre travel mystery, where the protagonists travel to popular tourist spots and solve murders or other crimes there while enjoying the local food or hot springs. The little that I've read of Yamamura, and especially the couple of TV dramas based on her work I watched solidified her image within my mind as that of The Stereotypical Two-Hour Suspense Drama, with a lite mystery plot that never really impresses. So I didn't start with too high expectations in her short story collection Kyouto Satsujin Chizu ("A Map of Kyoto Murders", 1988), which is about the coroner Enatsu Fuyuko, a beautiful 29-year old woman who was recently transferred from Tokyo to the Kyoto Prefectural Headquarters. The fact that the Coroner Enatsu Fuyuko series had been dramatized for television several times wasn't a good sign in my mind either.

And I was therefore quite surprised that most of the stories included in this collection are reasonably entertaining and sometimes pretty smart. There is however one major flaw that holds for all the stories here, and it's real shame, as this collection could have been much more than it is now. The problem is that while often these stories have pretty good ideas, like a locked room or something like that, but Yamamura for some reason doesn't really give the reader a chance to solve the puzzles themselves: Fuyuko is of course the detective, but almost every single time, she refers to a clue or something like that, that allowed her to solve the case. However, we as the reader never get to see before Fuyuko talks about them! Take the opening story for example, Shoujo wa Misshitsu de Shinda ("The Girl Died Inside A Locked Room"). A girl is found asphyxiated in a small cabin outside in the garden of her home, which she used as a study room, preparing for her entrance exams. With the doors and windows locked, and her head in a bag with paint thinner, it looks at first like a suicide, but Fuyuko realizes that not only was the girl pregnant, she was also strangled very carefully as to not leave any marks on her neck. Suspicion soon falls on the boy who she was dating, but the police can't do anything unless they can prove how it was done. Yamamura here comes with an okay locked room puzzle, but also with a very neat clue that leads to the solution of that locked room mystery. The clue is original, believable and.... could have been so satisfying had we as the reader actually seen it in advance, rather than first hearing about when Fuyuko explains how the job was done. Had this been written in a fair manner,  this would have been a pretty good story, now it's more focused on the 'shock' factor, but it simply doesn't sit well, as the decisive clue really comes out of nowhere, even if it's a pretty good one.

And that's pretty much the story for the whole collection. Gisou no Satsujin Genba ("The Faked Crime Scene") is about a newly wed couple of which the wife was murdered in the study, and the husband gone. Fuyuko makes some interesting observations in regards to to the room, which allows her to solve the case, but again, we don't actually get to read about those points until Fuyuko mentions them, even though these were some pretty original clues: the one big observation she makes by comparing photographs made at the discovery of the body, and more recent ones is quite smart, and another clue that helps her identify the true culprit would've been fun to work out had it been introduced properly. In Kieta Haiguusha ("The Missing Spouse"), Fuyuko catches a program on the television about a man and a woman that has run away together: their respective spouses (a pregnant woman, and a husband and child) are hoping they will return to their homes, but the runaway husband says it's all over and refuses to come back home to his wife. Later, the runaway wife is found dead, apparently overrun by a train, but Fuyuko realizes that the evidence seems off. Like the previous story, Fuyuko manages to solve this based on a clue that would've worked pretty smart in a visual medium, but now you only have Fuyuko mention it after the fact.

Suisen no Hanakotoba wa Shi ("The Daffodil Means Death in Flower Language") is about the death of a teacher in ikebana (flower arrangement), and focuses on the alibis of two suspects: a rivaling ikebana teacher in the same neighborhood who wasn't doing as good as the victim, and the fiancé of the victim, who was in fact not only a womanizer, but also seriously dating a younger woman at his work. Again a story that would've worked better in a visual medium perhaps, but most importantly, this story not only uses a clue that is left unmentioned until the last moment, but also builds on ikebana trivia which is of course only mentioned when Fuyuko explains everything. Kichoumen na Satsujinsha ("The Methodical Murderer") starts out with the kidnapping of a child, but he is soon found murdered. Evidence left on his body, like a tire track on his apron, suggests he was run over by a car after he was dropped off by the schoolbus near his home. The clue Fuyuko conjures out of nowhere this time however is not as inspired as earlier stories.

Oboreta Onna ("The Drowned Woman") is about exactly what the title says: a woman is found drowned in her home. The mystery? She was not only naked, she was drowned in her home with the water of Lake Biwa. A more conventional mystery story, with a problem that seems interesting at first sight, but not nearly as tricky or surprising as the earlier stories in this collection. Surprising however is the start of Kubi no Nai Shitai ("The Headless Body"), as it's about the discovery of a cut-up female body, of whom the head was missing. Eventually, the police manage to identify the victim as a woman who was reported missing by her husband, but the whole premise is a bit silly as there is absolutely no way this plan could've gone undetected. The final story, Hone no Shougen ("The Testimony of the Bones"), is hardly a mystery, as side-story-esque segment early on in the story gives away the motive, which is basically the only mystery in this story: why was an elderly man killed and why was he robbed from the remains of his son, who had died in World War II in Saipan and whose remains were only recently brought back to him?

So Kyouto Satsujin Chizu ended up as somewhat of a disappointment, but not because of the reasons I had first expected. As a mystery short story collection, this is a decent one, but it could've been easily much better had Yamamura written these stories in a more fair way. The clues she uses are actually quite good, but for some reasons she chooses not to mention them until the denouement. I guess that some readers might like the 'surprise', but I at least felt that while often the core plot's good, I felt cheated, or at least slightly annoyed, these clues weren't given due attention earlier. Perhaps these stories work better in a visual format, as many of the clues are kinda visual, or elsewise easier to show inconspicuously in a show, but as a book, Kyouto Satsujin Chizu is something that could've been much more.

Original Japanese title(s): 山村美紗 『京都殺人地図』:「少女は密室で死んだ」/「偽装の殺人現場」/「消えた配偶者」/「水仙の花言葉は死」/「几帳面な殺人者」/「溺れた女」/「首のない死体」/「骨の証言」