Saturday, July 28, 2018

That's Snow Ghost

"It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast."
"His Last Bow"

I suddenly remembered I have ridden on an elephant once, at some children's festival. Weird how you suddenly recall things when writing.

Nikaidou Ranko series  
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)  
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)  
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)  
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)  
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)  
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)  
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998) 
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)  
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001) 
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004) 
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)  
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)  
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)
Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Giant Phantom Mammoth Case", 2017)

Nikaidou Ranko has made a name for herself as a young, yet brilliant detective with a strong sense of justice. She also likes to solve mysteries of either the fictional kind, or at least less bloody-serial-killings-in-locked-rooms-and-other-impossibilities kind, which is why she, and her brother Reito are also members of the Art of Murder Club. This small informal club meets once a month in Ranko and Reito's regular cafe, with the members a diverse bunch, including the owner of the cafe and Professor Speer, a German who moved to Japan after World War II. In these meetings, the members propose tales of mystery (fictional or real) and challenge the others to solve them. In an earlier meeting, Professor Speer had told about his younger days, when he was a covert agent for the German army and came across the impossible disappearance of a whole mansion in a few hours in Russia, which was also where he first met with his late wife (who is revealed to be the surviving daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia). Nikaidou Reito's Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Giant Phantom Mammoth Case", 2017) has Professor Speer reveal more his spy past during the Russian Civil War, in a sequel to the prior story.

Young Lieutenant Speer is ordered by his superiors to find "the Valley of Death" beyond Lake Baikal in Russia. The German army has reason to believe "Rasputin's Brides", a group of spirit mediums who used to serve Rasputin, are held by the White Army in that Valley. They are believed to have psychic contact with the Russian Empire in the future (which has apparently taken over the world), allowing the White Army to utilize (war) technology from the future. One of the generals of the White Army has set up base in the Valley of Death, which is believed by the people to be protected by a phantom mammoth from ancient times, capable of throwing giant boulders to crush tanks coming in. Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and secretly the lover of Lieutenant Speer, is also held in the valley. Speer's orders are to kill the spirit mediums and Anastasia, though he himself naturally wants to save his lover. Lieutenant Speer therefore, under the name of "Sergei Ephrussi", joins a certain unit of the Merchants, a group affiliated to the White Army. This unit, led by Captain Frolov, is scheduled to deliver goods to the White Army in the Valley of Death, which is the easiest way for Speer/Sergei to get inside the valley. The Red Army is everywhere though, making it a difficult trip for the Merchants to deliver their freight, especially as a mysterious person they call the "Chaser" is on their trail, who has already offed several men of the unit without leaving any footprints in the snow. Professor Speer hands the relevant diaries and documents to Ranko and the others in the Art of Murder Club, challenging them to figure out who the Chaser is, and how this person managed to commit the impossible murders.

I started reading the Nikaidou Ranko novels again this year, after a long reading hiatus. The direct reason for my return to this series was actually the release of this novel: Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken was not only the first full-length Ranko novel since 2012's Haou no Shi, it was also a special novel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, as Jigoku no Kijutsushi released in 1992. With the medicore Labyrinth saga finished, which had unfolded in the last four Ranko novels, and the fact this was released especially for the occassion, I was hoping that this new novel would be a return to the more classically structured grand puzzle plot mysteries with impossible crimes and Ranko being involved early on, like in the earlier novels, rather than the more 1920s/1930s science-fiction horror mystery adventures that made up the Labyrinth stories. Chronologically Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken was also set in the time period that featured the more classically-styled stories: this novel takes place after the short story Russia Kan no Nazo, when Ranko and Reito were still students (in the 70s), with Ranko's greatest adventure (Jinroujou no Kyoufu) still ahead of her.

The Ranko framing story is only book-ending the main body of the story however, which consists of excerpts from the diaries Lieutenant Speer (Sergei) and Captain Frolov kept during their trip for the White Army's secret base in the Valley of Death. To be honest, I felt great disappointment when I realized this was the story structure. Jinroujou no Kyoufu is the only story wherein the story-within-a-story framework worked for this series, and that's a special case, as each of the two seperate narratives were full-length novels on their own, and they were followed by two lengthy volumes that followed Ranko as she started her investigation into the two narratives presented earlier, so she had plenty of room herself. Soumenjuu Jiken and Haou no Shi however were not very enjoyable (or not enjoyable at all), as Ranko herself barely appeared on those stories, and most of those stories were more focused on bringing an 'oh-my-god-what-is-happening' atmosphere, rather than a good mystery story. There is less dwelling on gore in Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken, but still, it mostly reads like a spy thriller adventure novel, with a few mystery elements, rather than a full-fledged mystery novel.

The main problem I have with this novel is that it feels disjointed, like a collection of ideas here and there that however never really manage to become one whole. Take the titular Phantom Mammoth for example. The novel starts with a very short account by the sole survivor of a Red Army unit which had been annihilated by the ghostly monster, which obviously paints the being as an impossible mystery. But then the whole story about the Mammoth is mostly brushed away for the Merchants/Chaser story and while the "mystery" of Phantom Mammoth is revealed at the end of the story, when Sergei and Captain Frolov arrive in the Valley of Death, the "solution" given for the being is basically the most boring one you could give, and it's not like there were any real clues to that explanation. So why have the Phantom Mammoth feature in the title at all if it's actually a minor element in the story that isn't particularly good anyway?

The mystery surrounding the Chaser of the Merchants and how he twice manages to commit murders without leaving footprints in the snow is constructed in a more capable way, though still somewhat underwhelming. The Chaser pulls of the trick twice, in somewhat similar situations. The first time, Lieutenant Speer/Sergei and Captain Frolov arrive at a house where one of their unit members has been killed just moments ago. The only snowprints leading to the house are that of the victim, but there is no sign of the murderer inside despite a search by the two. The second time something similar happens is when the Merchants are invited to the home of Maiya Myskina, a former Bride of Rasputin. During the night, Myskina is murdered and decapitated, and the same happens to her daughters. The body of one of the daughters is missing, while the Siamese Twin is found in the chapel, but while the person who brought the body there left footprints in the snow, there are none found leaving the chapel, yet nobody is inside. The solution to both these impossible episodes hinges on the same concept at its core, and it's... okay, I guess. It's nothing original, but mostly an okay combination of various elements that seasoned readers of mystery fiction will know, or will likely come across quite often. It's not a particularly inspiring solution to the impossible crime though, and the impossible situations themselves are treated rather lightly within the context of the story, so it's hard to feel really engaged with them. The biggest issue I have is the rather bland clewing. The clues on their own are not original either and Nikaidou does nothing new with them and the implementation is rather disappointing. I wouldn't say I felt cheated, but it feels more like Nikaidou added the clues just so the reader can't say he cheated, rather than he really tried to make it a fun game for the reader to solve.

In the afterword, Nikaidou mentions he got the inspiration for the title of this novel, and for the contents from Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken, which was also about Anastasia surviving the revolution in Russia. While Shimada's story was more rooted in actual history, Nikaidou employs much more fantasy in his story, which is certainly an element that has been present in most of the series. The use of folklore and the occult (or the belief in the occult by certain figures) has always given the Nikaidou Ranko series a creepy atmosphere that went really well with the grand murders, with tales about subjects like the Spear of Longinus, vampires, the Pied Piper of Hamelin woven into the narrative. But the occult is seldom as upfront as in this novel, as the whole reason Lieutenant Speer is sent to the Valley of Death is because the German spirit mediums say the White Army's spirit mediums are in contact with the future and stuff. I mean, the occult itself does not infringe upon the core mystery plot of the no-footprints-in-the-snow conundrum, but still, it's a bit weird to see it so prominently, especially as it's not as much 'you can choose to believe it or not' occultism, but actually occultism (Speer for example gets a revelation through Rasputin's Brides at some point, showing him an early glimpse of World War II). We had genetically engineered gorilla-like monsters in Soumenjuu Jiken, but even that is more believable than receiving messages from the future.

So I wasn't too big a fan of Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken as a novel. The core mystery plot (the missing footprints motif) would've worked just as well as a much shorter form (novella or even short story), as as it is now, the novel feels disjointed, as the titular Phantom Mammoth is just a very small element of the story (and not a particularly good one either). There are elements that work better becauese there's the framing story and the story of Lieutenant Speer/Sergei, Captain Frolov and the Chaser, but even so, I'm not sure whether the longer length is really an improvement over a hypothetical shorter version, even if that version might not incorporate those elements as well as the current form. While not a bad novel, I find Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken surprisingly bland, especially as I had hoped that for the occassion, we'd have something more similar to classic Ranko. I have only one Nikaidou Ranko novel left unread now by the way, but the reputation of that novel is not particularly good, so I'm not sure whether I'll be reading it any time soon (especially as I have already read three of them this year).

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『巨大幽霊マンモス事件』

3 comments :

  1. Speaking of Nikaido Reito, you probably get this question a lot. But is there chance of a LRI translation for his earlier works? I remember that a couple of Shimada's short stories were considered too long for publication, but LRI had it edited down to a publishable length. Could a similar thing happen with Reito's works? I just want to keep my expectations realistic :D

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    1. As I'm only a translator, I can't speak for LRI's plans as a publisher, but I'd say you'd need to cut A LOT in the earlier Ranko novels to get to the preferred page length. Like somewhere between 25%-50% of the whole novel.

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    2. That's understandable, and thanks for the review

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