Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Burglar in the Library

"Everything in red. I keep thinking of that darned scarlet letter."
"The Scarlet Letters"

I think I'm in the minority here, but I really can't study in libraries. I always found it amazing how fellow students managed to study in the university library, because I really couldn't focus in a public space like that. Seeing people studying in family restaurants in Japan was the other extreme, of course.

Urazome Tenma series
The Gymnasium Murder AKA The Black Umbrella Mystery (2012)
The Aquarium Murder AKA The Yellow Mop Mystery (2013) 
The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery AKA The Adventure of the Summer Festival (2014)
The Library Murder AKA The Red Letter Mystery (2016)

The Kazegaoka Library serves an important community role for the Kazegaoka district of Yokohama, from meeting spot for the elderly, place where a child picks their own books to read, to studying spot for the local students. One early September morning however, two librarians find that someone has used the library in a very different manner: they find the college student Shiromine Kyousuke lying dead on the floor, surrounded by a few books which flew off the bookcase. Kyousuke, a regular of the library, was beaten to death with a hardcover copy of Yamada Fuutarou's Encyclopedia of Human Death. The police investigation soon stumbles on various problems, ranging from how and why Kyousuke snuck into the library in the first place to why he was killed in such an odd place. But what stumps the police the most is the dying message left by the victim: there was a Japanese character "ku" (く) written in blood, but the protagonist on the cover of the popular detective novel Radio Control Detective was also encircled with blood. With no explanation for the two messages, the police decides to call in their "consultant" Urazome Tenma: an incredibly lazy, yet brilliant high school student who ran away from home and is now living in secret on the school premises. Earlier in the year, Tenma managed to solve the murders in his school's old gymnasium and in the local aquarium, and even though he's right in the middle of his end-of-semester examinations, he decides to focus his mind on the body in the library in Aosaki Yuugo's Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder", 2016).

Oh, man, I love the covers in this series. Anyway, Toshokan no Satsujin, which also carries the alternative English title The Red Letter Mystery, is the third novel in the Urazome Tenma series, and the fourth entry overall. The paperback pocket edition was released in September 2018. Aosaki made his debut with 2012's Taiikukan no Satsujin, the first in this series, and his publisher already lauded him as the "Heisei-era Ellery Queen" then (little did they know at the time that the Heisei era wouldn't last that much longer). As this nickname, and the alternative English titles of his novels suggest, Aosaki is heavily influenced by the Queen school of mystery fiction: this type of mystery focuses on long deduction chains based on physical clues and on the identification of characteristics of the killer: clue A, B and C tell us that the killer must be D, E and F, and only X answers to that description. For those who enjoy a true pure puzzle mystery plot, one that really challenges you into logically deducing who the murderer must be, Toshokan no Satsujin offers exactly what you want.

Like the early Queen novels, the crime scenes in this series are set at semi-public areas, from the school gymnasium to a local aquarium. In this novel's case, we have a public library. And I say semi, in each case, there are still restrictions to the accessibility of these scenes: in the gymnasium murder case, we actually had a locked room murder, while in the aquarium case, the murderer must've been in the backyard area of the aquarium. In Toshokan no Satsujin, the public library scene is restricted because the murder occured in the night inside the library, and obviously only a couple of people could've gone inside the library at that time. The book has a nice diagram of the library to help you visualize the place, and it's actually also quite handy while deducing some of the actions of the murderer. Now I think about it, spatial movement is one of the more important factors in Aosaki's mysteries: you'll always be focusing on the actions of the murderer, but that also includes where they went in what order, as it's exactly that what usually allows you to identify some important characteristic of the killer ("if they first did X, and then went upstairs to do Y, then that means Z").

But physical evidence is always the foundation to solving the case. I can tell you right now, you are never going to solve this 100%. I mean, this is a clever book, an incredibly clever book even, and that also means the deduction chain necessary to identitfy the murderer completely is very, very long. The starting point of these chain focuses on several pieces of evidence, most notably the two dying messages, the books spread around the body and several smudges of blood around them. In order to solve this case, you'll need to develop multiple threads of reasoning based on these pieces of evidence and work with them simultaneously: sometimes you'll be intertwining these threads, sometimes you'll be following them independently of each other. I'd be impressed if you managed to get more than half of the conditions you should end up with, as these are really tricky, but well-founded deductions. Not even the one chain The Moai Island Puzzle is as complex as what's done here. What luckily makes Toshokan no Satsujin a readable experience that there is sort of a halfway point: Tenma's explanation of the case isn't completely end-loaded, but he will reveal a couple of his deductions throughout which help the reader out and result in story development, and especially one reveal in the middle is good: the reader actually has the advantage over Tenma, but even then you might not guess what Tenma's going to reveal then. As an experiment in deduction however, Toshokan no Satsujin is fantastic, as it showcases a lot of different ways of how to develop one single clue into a full chain of thought. I'd hesitate recommending it to someone who has never read such a type of mystery novel however, as the explanation part after the Challenge to the Reader is really long: there's just so much the book expects you to deduce to figure out whodunit.

The way Toshokan no Satsujin handles the dying message by the way is great. Dying message stories can be a bit of a hit or miss if they focus on the meaning of the message, like they usually do. Sometimes the solution is far too farfetched for something written by someone dying, other times the meaning is far too obvious. The meaning of the dying messages do matter in Toshokan no Satsujin of course, but Tenma actually manages to deduce quite a lot about the identity of the murderer not based on the meaning of the dying messages, but how they were made. As I've mentioned earlier in a post on clues: these type of mysteries focus on the actions and inactions of the actors involved, and the reason why certain actions (or inactions) are taken. Toshokan no Satsujin does a tremendous job showing how the circumstances that led to the creation of these messages are a clue on their own, giving the meaning of the message less importance. This alone makes this a worthwhile read.

Don't expect much of the motive though. I mean, motives almost never ever matter in these types of elimination-method-mysteries, where you're identifying specific characteristics of the killer, but even as someone who doesn't really minds weak motives, I have to say that the motive of the killer in Toshokan no Satsujin is portrayed really weakly. It basically comes out of nowhere and doesn't even really make sense. The logical prison built around the suspect is solid, but you really wonder why that suspect committed the crime in the first place. The novel also focuses much more on its recurring cast, and don't expect to learn much about the suspects either besides some basic characteristics.

Moving away from the core mystery plot (gasp!), I found this a fairly entertaining and funny novel as usual. The geeky Tenma offers loads of obvious and less obvious to manga, anime, TV drama and other outings of popular culture (really fun to see how many of these you get), and the banter between his "assistant" Yuno and her classmates about school and other stuff is always amusing to read. All the four books in this series are set in the same year by the way: Taiikukan no Satsujin and Suizokukan no Satsujin are set before summer break, the short story collection Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo is set during summer break, and Toshokan no Satsujin is as said set in early September, in the week of the end-of-semester exams (each chapter is in fact named after the exams held that day). The books can be read standalone, but there are always references to people they meet and other stuff to earlier stories (no spoilers by the way), so it does pay off to read them in order, especially as there's a very light sub-plot of Yuno trying to learn more about Tenma's background with each novel (though that's moving really, really slowly).

I had been looking forward to reading Toshokan no Satsujin for a long time now (as I waited for the pocket release...) and I'm happy to say that it definitely met my expectations as a logic-focused puzzle plot mystery. It's at one hand a very accessible novel, with a lot of easy banter and a YA vibe, but the core mystery plot is as complex as you can get, and if you're not used to this, I can imagine people getting frustrated at the enormous long chains of reasoning Tenma explains at the end. For fans of early Ellery Queen or The Moai Island Puzzle for example: this is the goods! Smart, surprising deductions based on seemingly meaningless clues, and a plot that makes good use of the public library as its crime scene. Personal favorite for this year, but it might be a bit too Queen-ish for some, despite the lighter YA fiction atmosphere throughout the novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾『図書館の殺人』

18 comments :

  1. Same, even the quietest library is sonic hell for me.

    Great review, as always. So, since we're on the topic of 'too Queen-ish', any suggestion on a starting point into Japanese mystery for someone who doesn't enjoy Queen-style deductions? Possibly something an N2 can read without tearing their hair off?

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    1. Sorry, should have pointed out - I've already read the usual suspects in English translation, of course (Decagon, Moai etc).

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    2. Higashino has lots of novels still not translated, and his writing is really easy to read.

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  2. ugh i also cannot study ANYWHERE outside my house. heck even during class work, i much prefer cozying up in my warm flat and chipping away on my lonesome.

    this review makes me wish for a localization of the book :( oh well, maybe one day i'll have the time and patience to get back into japanese.

    speaking of ellery queen, which books do you recommend in the same vein as this one? "early ellery queen" is a bit too vague for an uneducated person like me. please and thank you

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    1. Ellery Queen's own The Greek Coffin Mystery and The Tragedy of Z (under the Barnaby Ross name) would be good examples of how the deductions work in Toshokan no Satsujin, as is Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle (insert disclosure message). Very long chains of reasoning based on physical pieces of evidence and the circumstances at the crime scene, that ultimate lead to the identification of the culprit.

      Atmosphere-wise, you'll be looking at a high school youth comedy/romance anime with an otaku protagonist :P

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  3. how well did both Dai Gyakuten Saiban games do in japan ?

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    1. I don't have access to the numbers, but it's usually assumed that it didn't do really well in terms of sales.

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    2. really ? why ?

      idiotic japs, DGS games were amazing

      don't tell me it's just because Naruhodo isn't in it :/

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    3. Jap is a racial slur, so I'd appreciate if you wouldn't use it here anymore, thanks.

      Spin-offs almost always do not as good as the main series of course, and it also assumed that the first DGS game didn't do very good because while it was a good game with excellent production values, it also offered an incomplete story, and perhaps more importantly this was _never_ advertised in advance to the consumer. It left far too many answers unanswered in a rather clumsy way, something I also mentioned in my review on this blog. Like we were missing the final page of a comic we bought. Had we been told in advance that this was only one half of a story, perhaps fan feedback would've been less harsh in that regard. And with the second game a direct sequel to the first storywise, well, obviously, it's very unlikely it'd do better in terms of sales (you're not going to sell more of part 2 than part 1 of one story).

      If you have more DGS-specific comments, perhaps they'd fit better in one of those posts, rather than in the comments of this review!

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    4. jap isn't a racial slur, it's literally the diminutive of japanese

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    5. It most definitely is. Please understand the World War 2 history behind it.

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    6. "Etymology
      Shortened from Japanese, attested as a noun since 1872, and adjectivally since 1878."

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    7. And if you don't stop at the etymlogy in the Wiktionary entry, but also read the meaning: "Jap (plural Japs)(derogatory, ethnic slur) A Japanese person. "

      Look, you're absolutely free to use the word if you want, but just not here, as it is commonly considered a racial slur in the English language. We don't need to hold a whole etymological discussion in the comments of a review that had absolutely nothing to do with this topic: I'm just asking for some basic courtesy towards other readers of the blog.

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    8. then what's the diminutive of japanese ?

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  4. "Seeing people studying in family restaurants in Japan was the other extreme" B-But Persona 5 taught me that's always the optimal way to study! I had been lied to?!

    This one was an enjoyable read for me as well. Out of the three books I read so far, this one definitely was the most complex and the most involved in the logic chain department. But if you ask me, I think I still liked his first book (Umbrella Mystery) the best, simply because I had a much easier time accepting the motive of that book's culprit, which gave really good justification for all the actions that were committed afterwards. I remember the reveal of this book's culprit's identity, and I was really shocked at first and then.....kind of went "Really? Would that person A really react in that manner in that situation to person B?"

    I can't remember if you reviewed Aosaki Yuugo's short story collection. I think it was called "Knocking on Locked Room's Door"? There were like 7 short stories in that book and all of them were very high quality if I could recall.

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    1. I think that on the whole, the Gymnasium Murder/The Black Umbrella Mystery is the most balanced one out of the three novels too, where basically everything works fine. The motive in Library is really weird... I mean, all the actions before and after the murder are perfectly well founded on logical reason, but it's the exact act of the murder itself that doesn't really make any sense.

      I haven't read Knockin' on Locked Door yet, just one story (about the victim who had her hair cut short) because it had been included in an anthology, and did really like that one.

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  5. Really glad to hear that Aosaki Yuugo has written another strong entry for his Urazome Tenma series; I gather you weren't entirely persuaded by Suizokukan no Satsujin? Feeling ambivalent as to whether I should try and procure the recent Chinese translation of Suizokukan no Satsujin, or save my money for the translation of Toshokan no Satsujin...

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    1. Aquarium wasn't a bad novel an sich, but even Crofts would've agreed that Aosaki went overboard went the time schedules (of the suspects) there. I remember now that C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High had a somewhat similar thing going on in the second half of that book (lot of suspects, checking alibis down to the minute), but even that was peanuts to what Aosaki was trying to do. As a mystery novel, Library was more satisfying.

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