Saturday, January 19, 2019

The Bicycle Thief

「Over Blow」(Garnet Crow)

Stay level
Like the tire tracks of a bicycle turning round and round even as they make a curve
"Over Blow" (Garnet Crow)

Perhaps I should only read the best/recommended stories in this series and the regular Q.E.D. and skip the rest. At least the stories are never spread across multiple volumes like in Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo! And huh, I actually expected more comments on my recent reviews of that one unique Chinese mystery novel, or the highly entertaining alibi-cracking devoted short story collection... I never seem to be able to guess beforehand which reviews attract more commentators >_>

Some months ago, I picked up the first three volumes of Katou Motohiro's manga Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum"). I have already reviewed the first two volumes (here and here), and I have in general found this continuation of the Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series to be more or less what I had expected from it, based on what I had already seen and read of the original series. In terms of story structure, it's definitely exactly the same: each volume of iff contains two stories,  both a "conventional" murder mystery story as well as a non-murder detective story starring the brilliant high school student Touma Sou and his classmate Kana. The third volume, originally released in 2016, too follows this pattern. The opening story is titled The Three Assassins and first introduces us to three different women who find themselves in probably the worst time in their lives. All three women have been swindled out of their money: one lost all the money she had saved to open her own shop to a marriage swindler, another woman lost her father's apple garden and the last woman saw the money she saved for her son's studies disappear in "investments". It won't surprise the reader much that all these women have been the victim of the same man: Yamaguchi Kenji. Fraud is how the president of Art Finance Yamaguchi makes a living, and in the case of the three women, he even made sure he's personally liable for the money they gave him, as he actually doesn't own a penny. His house and assets are all, on paper, property of his company, and a lawsuit targeting him wouldn't return their money anyway. Driven by their hate, all three women appear at an art auction party at Yamaguchi's house, and unbeknownst to each other, they all share one goal: to kill Yamaguchi.

It so happens that both Touma and Kana are present at the auction party too. An acquaintance of Kana was swindled out of their precious plate too, and Kana has dragged Touma along in order to retrieve the plate. At the same time, all the three women proceed their own plans to kill of Yamaguchi... and all three manage to succeed? This story is built solely around the premise that we follow the murder schemes of all three women in an inverted mystery story style, and that at the end, we see all three women succeed with their plans. Which of course can't be the case, because as much as they would like to do it over and over again, usually a man can only be killed once, and not thrice. What makes this case even stranger that eventually the body is found in the pool, rather than the study where the body was left after the murder was first discovered. At one hand, I think the idea behind this story is interesting, as the core mystery is fairly alluring, revolving around the question of how all three murder plans could've succeeded at the same time with just the one and same victim, but it's also awfully easy to guess what more or less must have happened, given the details we are given for all three plans, as none of them are really complex, and it isn't very hard to combine the scarce elements from all three plans to arrive at what actually happened.

The second story in this volume is titled Bicycle Thief and has Touma receiving a call from the past. He is asked to be the witness to the demolition of a certain house in a small, rural village where he spent a few weeks six years ago. Six years ago, Touma was still living in the United States, but as school ends early there, his parents took him back to Japan to experience a month of Japanese school, figuring it'd be good for him. During this time in the village, Touma became friends with Sawaihara Akiyuki and even got hired by Akiyuki's brother Takahiko for a part time job, doing menial jobs for the local elderly like cutting weed or watering the plants. Takahiko's place, where he also ran his little business, is now slated to be demolished. Takahiko himself has been traveling the world on a bicycle for years now, and he only returned to this house once in a while to leave souvenirs, but nobody has seen him in all those years.  For some reason, Touma's sign is needed for the demolition company to carry through with taking down the house. As he tells Kana and his other classmates about his time i this village six years ago, Touma also recounts a minor incident that happened during his stay. One day, he found a bicycle in the bushes while he was cutting weeds. The bicycle had been stolen from the bicycle shop earlier and as there had been a witness who claimed they saw a child taking the bicycle, Touma was accused by the police of having stolen the bicycle himself. The thief was never caught, which surprises Kana, but Touma reveals that while the police never managed to trace who the real thief was, he himself knew who stole the bicycle and more importantly, why.

Hmm, a somewhat weird story. It's mostly a recount of events as Touma experienced in the past, and then suddenly Touma reveals he already knew who the thief was and why. There are some interesting elements: there is not only a false solution which seems fairly convincing, but also a hidden crime within this story, which is quite deviously hidden within the narrative, though the clues pointing to that crime are a bit too meagre and the actual execution of that scheme seems a bit risky (I know it's a rural village, but would nobody have seen X do that?). But on the whole, the story is both straightforward and rather limited in scope, and is perhaps best enjoyed as a "story set in Touma's past" than as an engaging mystery story. Reminds me though that the stories in iff feature a lot of characters with big dreams that either don't work out well. In this story, we have Takahiko who first failed his college entrance exams and then resorted to the weed cutting until he left the village on his bicycle, but then there's the three women in the first story who all had big goals in life which were taken away from them. There were those artists who wanted to go solo and a wannabe scientist in the first volume, and the comedian who had to give up his dream in the industry in the second volume... I mean, it's not strange for persons to have dreams and goals, but it's like each other story you'll find a character in this series who will have some monologue about their goals and dreams in life and it almost never works out 100% as planned.

What was interesting about this volume though was that the characters were all based on... real people! Apparently, they had a campaign where you could apply to have your name featured as a character name in one of these stories: each of these stories is followed by a page with the characters who were based on one of the participants, and all with a one-line comment coming from the actual persons. Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo has a similar campaign going on by the way, tied to the limited edition releases, while the movies of Detective Conan always feature two or three guest child voice actors (which I think are chosen through the magazine Shonen Sunday). These scenes always stand out notoriously by the way, as it's not difficult to recognize the amateur child guest actors among the professionals.

Of the three volumes I've read of Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou, this one was definitely the least interesting one. Both stories are not bad per se, but are nothing particularly clever or memorable either, and of course, there are only two stories per volume, so on the whole, it leaves next to no impression. This was the last volume of iff I got and as things stand now, I don't think I'll be making it a priority to follow this series. While never actually bad, I just miss something about this series that really makes me excited to read on. I think I would have enjoyed this series much better if I were actually following the serialization: I really wouldn't mind reading stories like these once a month as they come in as they are definitely entertaining enough, but I don't think they work as well read one after another in a volume.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. iff -照明終了-』第3巻

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Stop the Clock


"I have succeeded in restoring the time."
" ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service")

So in the time between me reading this book and the review getting published, this book won the Honkaku Mystery Best 10 ranking of 2018!

In the Koikawa Shopping Arcade on the East exit of the Koikawa Station, there's a small watchmaker wedged between the butcher and the photo studio. Mitani Clockmakers is run by Mitani Tokino, a young woman in her twenties who learned the trade from her grandfather and has now inherited the shop from him. But Mitani Clockmakers isn't a normal clockmaker. Besides the normal services like selling and offering maintenance on clocks and other timepieces, Mitani Clockmakers also offers another, rather unique service. One day, a police detective walks into Mitani Clockmakers to have the battery in his watch replaced, but to his surprise, he spots a sign that says that the shop also offers an alibi cracking service. The detective inquires about the service, which according to Tokino was started by her grandfather, who was of the opinion that a clockmaker's work involved everything connected to a clock and time, and what is an alibi but a statement that someone was present or absent at a certain location at a certain time? As luck has it, the police detective is working on a case where the main suspect has a perfect alibi and intriqued by this unique service, he decides to consult Tokino on his case in Ooyama Seiichirou's short story collection Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service", 2018).

It was through the PSP game Trick X Logic that I first learned of the mystery writer Ooyama Seiichirou, as he was responsible for one of my favorite scenarios from the game. Some time later, I read Misshitsu Shuushuuka, an absolutely brilliant short story collection. What impressed me most about that collection was that Ooyama was a writer who was obviously writing in the Queen school, yet he was tackling the theme of locked room murders. These are two modes that you usually don't see together in mystery fiction, because it's prettty difficult coming up with locked room murders and other impossibilities, that are also solvable through the method of pure logical reasoning, which simply requires the reader to combine the known facts, make the logical conclusion from that combination, eliminate possibilities and identifying certain conditions which apply all to the murderer. Impossible crimes are usually focused on the how of an impossibility, while Ooyama focused much more on the logical processes required to solve the problems, resulting in one of my favorite reads of that year.

In a way, Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu feels quite similar to Misshitsu Shuushuuka in concept, as this too is a short story collection that focuses completely on one single theme from mystery fiction: in this case, the perfect alibi. An alibi can be a kind of an impossible crime, if you assume that the suspect is indeed the murderer, despite having a perfect alibi, but your mileage may vary on how impossible you think the impossibility really is. Anyway, I'm actually quite the fan of the perfect alibi story, and combined with Ooyama's plotting, I knew this book would be a must-read.

The opening story Tokeiya Tantei to Stalker no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Stalker") introduces the reader and the narrator and unnamed police detective to Mitani Clockmakers and their unique service. Curious to whether Tokino can really help out, the police detective confides in her about the case he's working on. Hamazawa Kyouko, a professor of the local university, was found murdered in her own apartment room by her sister. Her time of death is estimated based on the pictures of her lunch/snack/dinner she posted on Twitter during the day, and also medically confirmed, and suspicion soon falls on her ex-husband, who had been stalking Kyouko for money. He however has an alibi for the time of death, as he had been drinking with friends. The detective has only just finished his story, when Tokino immediately solves the case and explains how this perfect alibi of the ex-husband was created. The solution is quite original, yet convincing and also somewhat "modern", as it's partly based on foodie photographs posted on Twitter, but while it can difficult to come up with the idea of how this alibi was created, I think Ooyama did a good job at clewing, as some of them really seem obvious in hindsight.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Kyouki no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Murder Weapon"), the police detective decides to visit Mitani Clockmakers again, as this time, he has a problem that involves the alibi of a gun. A gun was found inside a mail box when the mail was collected at 15:00. It's suspected the gun has to do with the gang war going on between two gangs who have their headquarters near that mail box, but later an employee of a pharmaceutical company is found dead in his apartment, and while it seems he has no ties with organized crime, the bullets found on the scene and in his body matched those of the gun found in the mail box. Eventually, suspicion falls on the victim's superior, who does seem to have a connection with the local gangs, but he has an alibi for the time: he was having a family gathering with his cousins at the time the victim was killed and the gun was thrown in the mail box. The solution Tokino explains is quite brilliant for creating this seemingly impossible situation. The actual clewing is a bit on the weak side, so it kinda expects the reader to just guess what happened, but the solution is quite complex, and one I could even see expanded into a full novel.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Shisha no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Dead"), the narrator has a rather nasty experience: one night, he was just out on a stroll, when he was almost hit by a drunken driver. Another man was less fortunate, and hit by the car. But in his dying breath, he confessed to the narrator that he had just committed a murder on a certain Nakajima Kasumi. Having been told the address of the victim, the narrator quickly notified his collegues, who indeed discovered a body inside the appartment of the victim. With a confession of the murderer himself, the case seems all wrapped up, until the police realizes that the man, who was a mystery writer specializing in alibi tricks, couldn't be the murderer, as it was impossible for him to commit the murder, and then made it back in time near his own home get hit by the car and die. The concept of a deceased person who himself confessed to the murder still having a perfect alibi is fun on its own, but it's the decisive hint to the solution that impresses the most, as it is absolutely brilliant and incredibly cleverly hidden: it's this kind of hint I love being fooled by!  In hindsight, there's not just a "decisive" hint, but a lot of hints that point to the major realization you should make, but Ooyama's done an ace job at hiding the clews in plain sight, and this is definitely one of the hightlights of the collection.

Tokino is asked to find an alibi in Tokeiya Tantei to Ushinawareta Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Lost Alibi") rather than breaking one. Kawaya Toshiko was a private piano teacher, who was found beaten and strangled to death in her own apartment room. The main suspect is her younger sister, with whom she was having an argument about selling the parental home they had inherited together (where the younger sister is still living). She however reluctantly confesses to the police she has no alibi for the murder, saying she was probably not only asleep, but even sleepwalking during the time of the murder. The narrator does not believe the younger sister did it, so this time, Tokino has to come up with an alibi. While this is still about alibis, the search for an alibi, and in extension, the identity of the real murderer, is a welcome shift in style. This solution is a bit hard to swallow, though admittedly more than adequately hinted at (the question lies more in whether that really could've been pulled off). Once you make a guess who the murderer is based on the very limited cast though, it becomes very easy to guess what they did to create their alibi.

Tokeiya Tantei to Ojiisan no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of Grandfather") is a cute story in which Tokino tells about her grandfather and how he trained her in alibi cracking when she was young. One day, he had a challenge for her. The shop's closed on Tuesday, so he would go out that day, but he would come and stop a certain clock in the shop at a certain time (while Tokino was upstairs doing her homework). However, he would also submit evidence he was elsewhere. And that Tuesday, the clock was indeed stopped, yet Tokino's grandfather also had some photographs developed that proved he was at the clock wall in the neighboring town around the same time. Tokino's guesses are quickly elimated one by one, as the roll of film was proven to be definitely of that day (because they celebrated her grandfather's birthday the day before and photographs had been taken on the same roll, and on the clock photograph, he was wearing the handkerchief he was given as a present by Tokino herself). The solution is very different from the kind of solutions in the earlier stories, which is pretty smart: usually it might be easy to think of this particular solution, but this one is almost so simply you're likely to overlook this one due to the complexity of earlier stories!

Tokeiya Tantei to Sansou no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi in the Mountain Lodge") has the narrator hurrying back from a holiday to Mitani Clockmakers, as he wants Tokino to save a boy. The police detective was forced to use up his free days, so he had gone to a ski hostel in the mountains. There he became friends with a fellow guest, a boy in junior high who wanted to become a police detective himself. On the first night, another guest was murdered in the annex clock tower of the hostel, with footprints left in the snow proving that the victim had first gone to the clock tower, later followed by the murderer who returned to the hostel. The police detective himself had been a witness, together with the boy who was visiting him in his room, of how the victim had gone out to the clock tower late at night, but subsequent police investigation show that nobody could've followed the victim at the estimate time of the murder, save for the boy after he had left the room of the detective. What follows is a story is that is the most like the Queen-like stories of Ooyama, as the solution is based on the interpreation of the physical clues (the footprints). There's a nice reversal at play too, where after a certain realization is made, the matter of the alibis is turned completely around.

Tokeiya Tantei to Download no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Download") is perhaps the most "modern" of stories I've read in a long time. The narrator is working on the murder of Tomioka Shinji, a wealthy man, who himself turns out to be a murderer, as a few months after his murder, a skeleton was found buried in his garden. The skeleton is identified as the body of Wada Yuuichirou, an employee of Tomioka who disappeared some years ago. He was suspected to have fled because of embezzlement, but the discovery of his body on Tomioka's premises means he was likely killed to take the blame for Tomioka's crimes. The suspicion of the murder of Tomioka therefore falls on the son of Wada. The murder happened a few months ago on the sixth of December, but Wada remembers he had a friend come over to his room that night to play videogames. The friend is not sure about the exact date, though he knows he was there early December. Eventually, Wada manages to present an alibi: he downloaded a new song by a famous artist, which was only distributed on the sixth of December. It was a limited event and his friend saw both the download screen on Wada's smartphone, and even listened to the song, so that seems to prove Wada's alibi for the sixth of December, but of course, Tokino manages to poke a hole in his story. I think this is the first time I read a story where downloading something becomes an alibi, and I had a lot of fun with it! It's such a normal action in this time and age, and yet it's not something you often see in mystery fictoin, and the way it's used here is perfectly believable. The concept behind how this alibi was set-up is a bit tricky, as it depends heavily on a certain person not doing a certain thing, which is really something you can't control, but I do really like the way it was set-up.

Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu therefore ends up as an excellent short story collection that really delves into the theme of cracking the perfect alibi. There's quite some variety to be found within these seven stories and while the standard is quite high overall, there are some stories that really stand out due to their unique clewing or concepts. Misshitsu Shuushuuka didn't get a sequel, but I hope at least we'll see more of Tokino and Mitani Clockmakers in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎 『アリバイ崩し承ります』:「時計屋探偵とストーカーのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と凶器のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と死者のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と失われたアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とお祖父さんのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と山荘のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とダウンロードのアリバイ」

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Writ in Stone

"Archaeology is the search for fact... not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

I was always more a fan of the ancient or classic cultures in my History class, or at least the pre-modern periods. 

Three years ago, I reviewed the manga Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure, published by the British Museum. It was the first time Hoshino Yukinobu's Professor Munakata series was released in English. The titular character is a professor in Anthropology at Tokyo's Toa Bunka University, whose research interests lie the link between legends, myths and other folklore, and actual historical events. I absolutely loved the book: Hoshino is best known for his (hard) science fiction series, but in this volume, he really managed to beautifully mix real historical and anthropological research with his own original storyline, resulting in a suspenseful historical mystery tale about the British Museum and Stonehenge. At the end of my review, I concluded I wanted to read more of the series, as Professor Munakata's British Museum Adventure was actually one of the last stories published in Japan and part of the second Professor Munakata series: so there was still a lot to read. For some reason though, it took me until to actually get started on the series properly. And that of course means starting with the beginning, with the original series. Professor Munakata was first introduced to the world in 1990 in the two-part opening story The White Wings - The Iron Star in Munakata Kyouju Denkikou ("Professor Munakata's Adventures"). After a lecture at the university about the myth of the Swan Maiden and how variants of this very myth exists in various ancient cultures, from the Ancient Greeks all the way to Japan, the professor is visited by Ikago Mana, one of his students. She has brought her parents along, who want to show the professor a ceremonial sword which was discovered in the little shrine in their home village near Izumo. Professor Munakata is incredibly surprised by the object, and especially by the engraving of a certain constellation in the blade. Realizing that this sword is also related to the myth of the Swan Maiden, he returns with Mana and her parents to the village for some fieldwork, and the discovery he makes there will change the professor's life forever.

To make one thing clear from the start, not all of the Professor Munakata series can be considered a mystery story within the context of the blog. All the stories in this series do pertain to folklore and other historical mysteries which Munakata uncovers or delves deeper into, but few of the stories are told in the manner of a true puzzle plot mystery (mystery -> hints -> solution based on hints) and some of the stories even feature almost supernatural conclusions that seem to come out of nowhere. That said though, the series is absolutely fantastic, as Hoshino's gripping storytelling is top-notch, and the way he intertwines real folklore research with his own original adventures is absolutely a delight. Some of the earlier stories for example involve the legends of Chiyou, the Daidara and the legendary spider Ryomen Sukuna, which Hoshino (Munakata) explores through both actual anthropological research that is both fascinating and educational, as well as his own original plots. For fans of actual historical mysteries, this series is definitely a must-read.

Occasionally, though, the stories are told in a more traditional puzzle plot format. This is definitely the case with the series opening story. Even though it involves a topic you seldom see in "conventional" mystery fiction (the meaning behind the Swan Maiden) and there is no proper crime in this story either, I have to say that The White Wings - The Iron Star is truly a well-clewed historical mystery story that does a good job at allowing the reader to arrive at the hypothesis Professor Munakata himself arrives at at the end of the story. After the professor's arrival in the village, he is shown several sites that might have bearing to his research, like the shrine where the sword was found, as well as a dried-up lake of which the name also carries a reference to swans. After a fascinating explanation of how his research involves how this proto-myth is to be found across several cultures all across Eurasia, we are introduced to a rival TV anthropologist, who has drawn his own conclusions about the discoveries made in the village and is preparing for a new show. By this time, the mystery of "what needs to be solved" might still be somewhat vague to the reader, though they definitely have access to the clues and can even already connect some of them. It's only after a certain frightful event in the night that not only Munakata, but also the reader can suddenly see how everything that happened and was mentioned throughout the story is connected.

It is not difficult for a historical mystery to become too complex for a reader to solve themselves. Any mystery story needs to provide the proper context in order to be solvable, and in the case of a historical mystery, you need to balance providing enough of the necessary context without resorting to information overload, all without burdening, or underselling the core mystery story. Which is exactly why I thought The White Wings - The Iron Star was such an exceptional historical mystery story. While some readers might know a variant of the Swan Maiden myth, it's unlikely the reader is an expert on all the variants that exists in various cultures. That coupled with the (fictional) historical artifacts found in the village and even a rival "detective" who forms his own hypothesis, you'd think the reader is at a huge disadvantage, but they really aren't. In the end, professor Munakata proposes a daring hypothesis that ties all the discoveries made in the village to the lecture on the Swan Maiden he made earlier and not only is it a fair hypothesis (solely based on the clues proposed in the story), the reader has plenty of chance to arrive at this conclusion themselves, as everything shown and told in the story logically leads to this hypothesis. There's even proper visual clewing going around that helps professor Munakata and the reader in figuring out the function of some of the discoveries made in the village, and at the end, this story really makes the reader feel like they have solved a millenia-old mystery themselves.

So while not all of Professor Munakata's stories lend them well for discussion on this blog, I think the first story is definitely a fine example of how to do an excellent historical mystery story that not only attempts to reinterpret folklore, legends and myths from across the world as actual historical events, but also using a grammar that sets its firmly in the puzzle plot mystery genre, following a set-up of proper clewing that allows the reader to reach the intended conclusion themselves in a fair manner. As for now, I have immense fun with this series (still not finished), and if more stories follow that adher more closely to a traditional mystery story, I'll be sure to follow up with another story review.

Original Japanese title(s): 星野之宣『宗像教授伝奇考1 白き翼 黒鉄の星』

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Springtime Crime

「籟・来・也」(Garnet Crow)

Spring has spring's way to live
Summer has summer's wind blowing
"Rai Rai Ya" (Garnet Crow)

Now I think about it, this is the first time I read a book in the long-running Hayakawa Pocket Mystery Book line of publisher Hayakawa. It's a line for translated (non-Japanese) novels, so in a way, it's no wonder it took a while for me to finally try one of these books (because for many of their books, I can read the original language), but these PokeMys books always caught my attention when I was Japan, as they utilize a very different size format from most other Japanese fiction publications.

'Tis the first of year of the Tianhan Era (100BC) of China's Former Han Dynasty. Yuling Ku, daughter of an aristocratic family in Chang'an, is travelling across China for her studies in literature and religious rituals and finds herself becoming a house guest of the Guan clan, so she can witness their Rite of Spring which is to be held in a few days. The Guan clan used to be a prominent family with religious tasks in the State of Chu (of the Zhou dynasty, over 100 years earlier) and while even in this new age, they can still proudly boast about their distinguished lineage, the Guans now live a retreated life in the mountains. Ku becomes friends with Guan Loushen, youngest daughter of the Guans, even if Loushen can't always keep up with or forgive Ku's arrogant and mocking attitude, derived from all the knowledge Ku obtained through her studies. Ku learns about a family tragedy that happened exactly four years ago: Loushen's uncle was the head of the whole clan, but his whole family was killed by an unknown assailant, save for daughter Ruoying, who was at Loushen's place at the time. What made the incident so horrifying was that there were no footprints of the assailant found in the snow surrounding the house. Ku, who has a reputation for solving cases, promptly comes up with several theories to this mystery, which Loushen doesn't accept, but soon the two girls are forced to face not a case of the past, but one of the present too. One morning, after the two return from washing their hair in the river, the girls discover the dead body of Loushen's (other) aunt in a storage house. But it soon occurs to Ku that this murder has some similiarities to the family massacre four years ago, as here too it seems impossible for the murderer to have escaped, with people standing at all the possible escape routes leading away the storage. Ku is asked by Loushen's father to investigate the case, but time is not on Ku's side, as more and more people die one by one in the mountains in Lu Qiucha's Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji ("Rite of Spring of the First Year", 2016), which was released in Japan last year as Gannen Haru no Matsuri.

Lu Qiucha is a Chinese mystery author who debuted with Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji in 2016. He is one of the generation that has been influenced by Japanese shin honkaku writers, naming writers like Mitsuda Shinzou as large influences on his own work. When the novel was translated and released in Japan as Gannen Haru no Matsuri last year, the book garnered quite some critical praise, and even Mitsuda Shinzou himself wrote a comment especially for the book's obi, praising the work. The concept of an impossible mystery set in ancient China with two girl detectives sounded quite interesting to me and a copy was soon purchased.

If I say "a mystery novel set in ancient China", you're likely to first think of Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee series. If you start with this book expecting something like the Judge Dee series however, you might be surprised in either a pleasant or unpleasant way, as Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is quite, quite different. Of course, one major difference is the time period. The Judge Dee series takes place in the Tang Dynasty (with some Ming anachronisms), which is almost 800 years after the time period of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. In the same sense that a novel set in the 1200s is not likely to be very similar to a novel set in the 2000s, you shouldn't expect too many common points in the culture, even if it's the same geographic location.

If you have read the Judge Dee series, you might know that series is very readable, despite the setting of ancient China, which to most people will be quite foreign. There are of course historical references and the cultural differences might feel large at times, but Van Gulik wrote these novels in an accessible manner. Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is both a novel of contemporary times, as one that really feels like a story of ancient China. To start with the modern: Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji is easily interpreted as a YA coming-of-age and budding-friendship story starring the two girls Ku and Loushen. Sure, the banter and fights they have might be about topics somewhat foreign to most readers, like about abusing personal servants or about the tasks and duties expected from devoted girls as daughters of families of certain social standing, but the way they banter feels like a modern YA novel. Heck, I'd say this novel is also the most yuri mystery novel I've read, with both Ku and Loushen being bad at approaching the other in a normal manner and then growing very close. At the same time however Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji also reads as a classic Chinese novel. Half of the dialogues are about classic Chinese texts on religion and philosophy, and I'm talking here about texts that were considered classics in 100 BC! As an educated girl, Ku discusses several important philosophical texts from the Chu era with other characters, which is also the moment you realize what author Lu Qiucha's major was in college (yes, classic literature). Here you're reminded of second wavers like Mori Hiroshi and Kyougoku Natsuhiko, who in their mystery novels also like to dive deep into long, very, very long discussions about very specific topics in fields like philosophy and religion. In Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji, you'll be going through countless of pages where they talk indepth about classic texts and where people quote-unquote other texts as they counter each other's arguments. It's very much like a classic Chinese story where like every other sentence is a reference or quote to someone in the past, but it's certainly not for everyone.

And yet you can't skip those segments, because they are of vital importance to the core mystery plot. Lu Qiucha was pretty ambitious in his debut novel: besides the impossible situation four years ago, he has more murders in the present, one of which also a semi-impossible situation where it doesn't seem possible for the murderer to have left the crime scene unseen, and we also have a dying message in another murder (and there's plenty of other deaths too...). Lu even has two Challenges to the Reader in this novel. Some of the individual parts are somewhat easy to guess: the family massacre four years ago for example is rather obvious, and the other impossible situation too is also rather limited in scope. The dying message on the other hand is really brilliantly done, and one of the false solutions proposed half-way through is also deviously complex and could've easily served as the true solution. However: these best parts of the book all require you to really comprehend all those literary and philosophical discussions about classic texts. I will first say that Lu is absolutely right in his Challenges to the Reader when he says no specialistic, prior knowledge is needed to solve the mystery, because he made sure that everything needed to connect the dots is mentioned within the story, but yeah, you do really go through those lengthy literary and philosophic discussions in detail and comprehend them well enough to infer their logical conclusion in order to make sense out of the dying message, or come up with that one interpretation needed for the false solution.

What makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji a very memorable novel however, is the insanely unique motive. I can't write too much about it, but it is a motive that only could've worked in this culture, in this time. It would have been hard for any random reader to just think of this motive, but again, I had to say that Lu makes tremendous efforts at properly hinting at this motive through his textual references and discussions, and while it's a concept that seems so foreign at one hand, the whole story of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji works to properly set-up this reveal. It's a completely unthinkable motive in this age, in most cultures, I'd suspect, but Lu provides the necessary context to make it work, and it definitely works like a charm, shocking as it may be, in Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. The motive is definitely the highlight of the novel and one of the most unique ones in the genre, anywhere on the world.

And in a small note, I would've liked a map! It's not necessary for the story, I admit, but some parts would've come out better I think, especially regarding the testimony of a certain witness. As the story is set around the Guan property, which consists only of several living quarters in a valley between some mountains, it would not only have made for a cool diagram, it would've helped with visualizing some of the movements of characters (as some grasp on where everybody was when exactly does help solve the mystery).

I still find it hard to really summarize what I think of Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji. While you can read large parts of this novel as a YA novel about a troubled friendship between two teenage girls, on te whole, it's not a very accessible mystery novel with all its indepth discussions about topics that are likely not familiar to most readers. The cultural gap is quite large, especially in the first half of the story when things move rather slowly. But what makes Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji an interesting read are exactly the ideas that originate from that cultural gap. Lu has written a mystery novel that works only because it's set in the first year of the Tianhan Era, because it's set in that specific culture with these specific characters. The result is a mystery novel that is not only "dressed" as ancient China, but truly a puzzle plot mystery that is firmly set in ancient China. The motive in particular is a very memorable one, but it would only work in this setting. So I can definitely recommend Yuan Nian Chun Zhi Ji as a unique reading experience.

Original Chinese title(s): 陸秋槎 "元年春之祭"

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Running to Horizon

走る走る俺たち 流れる汗もそのままに  
いつかたどり着いたら 君にうちあけられるだろ 
「Runner」 (爆風スランプ)

We run, we run, with sweat pouring down
But when I finally make it there, I will be able to confess to you
"Runner" (Bakufu Slump)

Every year, I try to read at least one mystery set in the city of Fukuoka, so why not start this new year with one?

The Fukuoka International Open Marathon is one of the oldest annual marathons held in Japan and its position in the world of athletics is therefore quite important. The sixty-first edition of this race however has an extra bit of glamour to it: the Fukuoka Marathon is the first of three marathons held in 2007 in Japan which will determine which athletes will be sent as the national representatives in the Beijing Olympics the following year. Victory at one of these marathons, or at least the best result among the Japanese participants, more or less guarantees you'll be picked as a member of the Olympic team. But while there are certainly participants who are competing for that ticket, it's also true that every single partipant in this race has their own goals. Some of the professionals are not only aiming for a ticket, but perhaps for a personal or even a national record time. The foreign guest runners too are eager to finish in first place in this prestigious race. But there are also amateur runners who simply want to experience what it is run a full marathon, while others participate to prove a point to someone. Everyone has their own goals and designs as they make their way to the goal, but some runners have far more complex and sinister plans in mind as they speed through the streets of Fukuoka and with all these dreams and schemes bunched together, it was only a matter of time before one star runner would become the victim of a sinister plot and die. The questions of what the truth behind this runner's death is and what is everything hoping to accomplish is what drives Torikai Hiu's Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo ("The Fierce Race - The Fukuoka International Marathon: The 42.195 km-long Mystery", 2005). The book was later retitled to the shorter Gekisou when it was released in pocket format.

I'm the first to admit I'm not a sports viewer at all in real life, but the Fukuoka International Open Marathon is one of the few big sports events I saw with my own eyes: I was living in the neighborhood Kashii in Fukuoka at the time, and the Miyuki Bus Stop near the two Kashii stations is the turning point of the marathon somewhere beyond the 30 kilometer point, after which the runners run back to the Heiwadai Stadium near Ohori Park. My dorm was only a 5-10 minute walk away from the Miyuki Bus Stop, so I caught a bit of the race back then. My knowledge that this book would likely refer (even if very short) to the neighborhood I knew was a reason I really wanted to read this novel. Of course, as the marathon route goes through the whole of Fukuoka, most of the locations mentioned were somewhat familiar to me.

I've seen Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon referred to as both a sports novel with a mystery element, and a mystery novel with a sports element, and both descriptions could work, depending on where the reader puts emphasis on. There is a properly clewed mystery plot here, but one has to admit that if you didn't know this was a mystery novel, you probably wouldn't notice it until extremely late in the novel and the novel's first impression is certainly that of a sports novel. The whole story is set during the Fukuoka Marathon, from the start until the finish, with each section counting off the number of kilometers left until the goal. The plot follows an ensemble cast of people partipicating in the race, but also a few outside the race. We get a glimpse in the minds of the three star runners Ogasawara, Nikaidou and Taniguchi for example, who all compete for a ticket to the Olympics, but also other runners in the race like one of three pacemakers in the race, as well as a runner who is competing for a ticket to the Beijing Paralympics. Outside the runners we also follow people like the police officer on the motorcycle leading the pack. All of these people have different things on their mind as the race continues, and the further we get, the more we learn about their pasts, their dreams and what they hope to accomplish in this race. It's also here where you slowly realize that some of these people are trying more than just win the race. Overall though, I'd say this novel is an entertaining read as a sports novel, diving into the heads of the diverse lot as they make their way through Fukuoka.

It takes a long time before something happens that one would associate with the mystery genre. It's only around the halfway point when one of the runners suddenly keels over while getting his drink and dies in the ambulance. Death during a marathon isn't unheard of, of course, considering the physical strain it places on the body of the participants, but the motorcycle police officer leading the pack still thinks something fishy is going on. The truth behind this part of the mystery isn't super original and this part is a bit short (as the sections with the officer's thoughts are constantly cut off by the narratives of the other cast members), but it is definitely cleverly clewed, with the hints nicely hidden within the various narratives. Had this been the only mystery element, Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon would have been a somewhat weak novel, but Torikai manages to much more with this novel. The problem: I can't write about it, as that would really give the game away. Let's say that once you reach the finish, some events and narratives that occured during the last two hours of the race take on a completely different meaning. Something big is going on and it happens under the nose of the reader. In hindsight, this is also properly hinted at and realizing how much of the various events that occured over the last 42 kilometres were in fact clues and foreshadowing is quite satisfying. So as a mystery novel, the set-up takes a long time, but I am quite pleased with the pay-off, even if you won't even realize that something is going on.

I have to admit I haven't read many sports mystery titles, but I do think this one stands out. Detective Conan has several sports-themed stories, but most of them are about bombs for some reason, and they happen outside the match themselves, with Conan having to trace bombs placed around a stadium or something like that, with the actual athletes having little direct connection to that (they usually have to do *something* to help Conan, but even then the focus doesn't lie on them). Examples would be the London story in volumes 71-72 for example, or the film The Eleventh Striker. Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter takes the form of a traditional sports film too, complete with training scenes, and is perhaps one of the best sports stories in Conan, even if it features a minor sport like competitive karuta. Queen has a few short stories too in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen I remember. What makes Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon so remarkable however is the plot truly revolves around the marathon and the various interested parties, and that the whole plot takes place over the course of the race itself, and we don't see anything before or after the race itself.

So Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo was an entertaining novel that does a good job at bringing both a sports and mystery story. If you're looking for a mystery plot however, you do need to have patience, as it takes a while to get there and it's more one of those mystery novels that you only realize is actually a properly clewed mystery novel in hindsight. If you do manage to keep up with the pace however, you're in for a short, but engaging read.

Original Japanese title(s): 鳥飼否宇『激走 福岡国際マラソン 42.195キロの謎』