Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Secret of the Forgotten City

 朝になれば City Light
「City Hunter ~愛よ消えないで」(小比類巻かほる)
Whenever it becomes morning
The city lights always disappear
"City Hunter ~ Oh Love, Don't Disappear" (Kohiruimaki Koharu)

The longer a book stays in the backlog list, the greater the chance I will simply never get started on it.

As they say, some books you don't really want to read, you just want to have read them. And that was basically how I felt as I was reading Mato ("The Demon Capital"), a novel by Hisao Juuran originally serialized between 1937-1938. Hisao was a prolific author of popular fiction and wrote in a wide variety of genres, from mystery to historical drama and comedy. Mato is seen as one of the major, modernist Japanese crime novels from the 30s, which also earned it spot 69 on the 2013 Tozai Mystery Best 100 ranking. But I honestly had trouble getting into the story from page one, and as far as I know, over these last years, I think I have read the first chapter like 5 times, each time losing interest at that point and then moving on to another book. Anyway, the book starts on New Year's Eve of 1934, when the third-rate reporter Furuichi Kajuu is thrown out of the Newsreporter Club's end-of-year party for once again overestimating his position in the media hierarchy. He ends up in a bar, where a curious customer asks him about the recent rumors of the fountain in Hibiya Park singing like a bird. Furuichi hits it off with the man, who invites him to the home of his mistress to celebrate the new year. The man turns out to be the emperor of Annam (Vietnam), who likes Japan a lot and often spends time here incognito. In the early hours of the first day of the year, Furuichi leaves the apartment building as they agree to meet up later again, but when the reporter makes it down to the hill, he finds the body of the emperor's mistress lying on the ground. Curiously, Furuichi himself is detained, as police seems to be thinking he's the emperor. Meanwhile, Superintendent Manako Akira is put on the case, but as he digs into the circumstances of the death, he uncovers there's a bigger plot going on that involves Annam politics.

What follows is a thriller that is perhaps best read from a historical point of view, because as a mystery story, it's less memorable. Starting on New Year's Eve, the story follows mainly Furuichi and Manako's seperate investigations into the death of the mistress. In terms of concept, the book reminded of a series like 24, because while the book is fairly long, the events described take place in a span of about two days. Little happens in each individual chapter therefore, as the story basically tries to present a thrilling, real-time adventure unfolding. Probably pretty cool in the 30s, but it's a slow read nonetheless, and due to the serialized nature of the novel, you often have the feeling the book is repeating itself as it goes over details again and again mentioned in earlier installments.

But the story Mato eventually tells is also less about the logical solving of a murder mystery and more about the setting of the modern capital Tokyo in the 1930s. The term Mato, or Demon Capital, originally refers to the Shanghai after the First Opium War, with the International Settlement, the French Concession and basically an international metropolis that was rapidly changing and modernizing. In Mato, Hisao presents Tokyo as the new demon capital, the largest metropolis of Japan that was rapidly modernizing and changing and nationalistic sentiments gaining power. The Tokyo of the 1930s was nothing like it was two or three decades before, with an underground dungeon being made (subways), people from all over the world going in and out and the local people too only focused on themselves and just any interesting news to distract them from real-life problems. In Mato, Hisao tells an adventure that is set in this modern new Japan, utilizing the new Tokyo to its fullest as the story moves from one point to another and immediately to the next and in that regard, Mato is certainly interesting as modern fiction about Tokyo.

If you focus only on the mystery part of Mato though, you'll get a story where, you do get answers to questions like who killed the mistress, where the real emperor of Annam went to and what's behind the murder, but the plot is mostly a rather straighforward thriller and there are few moments that truly feel clever or surprising. Heck, after a while the story just seems to go on and on without really reflecting on the plot anymore, and I'm pretty sure that that one major murder near the end of the story isn't even explained anymore, because by that time, Mato isn't really a detective story anymore, it's just an adventureous tale set in a transforming Tokyo.

I wasn't really the audience for this book, but I guess that if you're into looking into modernist depictions of 20s-30s Tokyo, Mato is an interesting read. If you for example like the depictions of the city and a changing world and culture as seen in a lot of Edogawa Rampo's work, or for example the stories in (insert disclosure warning) Oosaka Keikichi's The Ginza Ghost, you'll probably be able to find something you like along with a thriller that's clearly written as a grand, spectacle work of entertainment. It's the reason why I ultimately decided to write this review anyway instead of just skipping it, because I think there are probably also readers here who will fight the cultural aspects of this crime novel interesting.

But yeah, coming back to what I wrote earlier, Mato was not a book I particularly enjoyed reading, but I'm glad I now know what it's about. Looking at it as a pure mystery novel, it's not really memorable, but unlike contemporaries like Dogura Magura and Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, I don't think it's genuinely meant to be an anti-mystery. Mato is more rewarding simply read as a thriller or modernist work of entertainment that depicts a transforming Tokyo.

Original Japanese title(s): 久生十蘭『魔都』

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Hear No Evil

All the world's a stage
"As You Like It"

More fictional detectives should use a tablet...

As the third son born in a family with a lineage of famous kabuki theater actors, Katagiri Daisaburou too was expected to become one of the best in the art, but early in his career, he decided to switch to acting in films, a choice which would change the course of history. He starred in many of the formative films of the 50s that would define Japanese cinema, and when television set started to appear in everyone's homes, he didn't underestimate the new medium and started taking roles in television dramas too. Many decades later, and there's nobody who does not know the face of Katagiri Daisaburou as he's been a household name in media since forever, and even to this day, he's often seen in commercials and other big events as one of the biggest stars of Japanese media. Only a few years ago however, Katagiri had to retire as an actor, not because of his age, but because he developed a sudden deafness, making it impossible for him to properly act anymore. He decided to quit the Thespian art, instead focusing on his own entertainment agency, which manages many of today's film stars. Nonoko was hired one year ago as Katagiri's new assistant and his 'pair of ears,' which in practice means she has to accompany Katagiri everywhere and type out in real time everything says to Katagiri on her laptop, allowing him to read the 'subtitles' from his tablet. Unfortunately for her, Katagiri does not only work at the office and she's often dragged along whenever Katagiri decides to spend some time on his hobby: assisting the police in murder investigations. In the past, the great actor has solved many crimes for the police and now he has the time, he's even more eager to stick his nose in whatever seems interesting. Kurachi Jun's Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki ("Katagiri Daiburou and the Tragedy of XYZ" 2015) presents the reader with four puzzling stories about the exploits of the deaf former actor Katagiri.

Even if you're not familiar with the original stories, the title The Tragedy of XYZ should ring bells and if you have read Ellery Queen (Barnaby Ross)'s Drury Lane novels, you're bound to recognize a lot in the summary above: a famous actor turned deaf who's an amateur sleuth? Kurachi's book is obviously inspired by the four Drury Lane novels and it's a joy to read if you like those books, but fortunately, this book is perfectly readable without any prior knowledge. Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki is not a parody of any kind and there aren't even really direct references made to the Drury Lane novels, but there's a kinds of little elements that you might recognize as being inspired by those novels, without this ever becoming too reliant on that knowledge. It's a very cleverly written book in that regards, for it's simultaneously a book for fans of the four Drury Lane novels due to the clever, but subdued references, but also for people who don't know anything about those books and they'll honestly not miss anything of importance, as all the stories can stand alone perfectly.

Take the first story for example, Fuyu no Shou: Gyuugyuuzume no Satsui ("Winter: Fully-Stuffed Malice"). Nonoko is asked to pick up a certain delicatesse for her boss on her way to work one morning, which means she has to take the dreaded Yamanote-line during the morning rush. As expected, it's like sardines in a can inside the train, with everyone pushed right into each other. Nonoko and many others get of the train at the major hub Shinjuku Station,  but she stumbles across a man who had been pushed outside the train when everyone got out. The man seems unwell, but when another person checks, it turns out the man is dead! Inspector Kawaharasaki later visits Katagiri and Nonoko with more details: the man had been poisoned with an injection of nicotine. The hypodermic needle had been found trampled inside the train, and traces in his clothes show the needle had been jammed through his coat and clothes into the body. Based on the time it takes for nicotine to start working, it appears the man had been stabbed during his morning commute and that by the time his train arrived at Shinjuku Station, he was already in critical state, not even able to stand: it was just so incredibly packed inside the train that he was forcefully kept on his feet as everyone was pushing into each other. The problem the police faces however is when and how this man was given the injection: the man lives only a minute away from his station, and after that he had only been moving between stations inside trains during the morning rush. But how does someone stab a hypodermic needle unseen, into someone else inside a train packed so insanely full there's no space for anyone to move?

If you're familiar with The Tragedy of X, you might recognize the basic premise of a man being poisoned by nicotine inside a tram. But that's basically all this story takes from The Tragedy of X, and the rest is a completely original take, focusing more on the 'impossibility' by setting this murder inside the absolutely nightmare that is the morning Tokyo rush. I've only experienced it myself for three months during a study course in Tokyo many years ago, but the Yamanote-line in the morning is nuts, as in I-can't-move-I-have-an-elbow-in-my-back-and-my-nose-is-almost-in-this-other-person's-hair packed, so I was pretty easily convinced of the impossibility of this murder scenario! The story does develop in a way you'd expect from a Queenian story, with Katagiri focusing on the logical implications and contradictions arising from the physical evidence found, and then building a chain of reasoning that ultimately explains how the murder was committed. The whodunnit aspect of the story is a bit weak, but the build-up to the explanation of how the man was injected with nicotine is great, with clever deductions being built upon the physical evidence and spatial movements of the victim to show what was possible and what not, and several characters like Nonoko proposing possible solutions, these being logically discarded, but still forming a basis for the final explanation by Katagiri.

In Haru no Shou: Kiwamete Youki de Nonki na Kyouki ("Spring: A Cheerful and Nonchalant Murder Weapon"), Katagiri is asked to assist in a murder case. An elderly, famous artist was killed with a blow on his head with an ukelele inside his home, but the police has trouble pinning the crime on any specific person. The victim was found in his wheelchair inside the storage room,  which had probably not been opened in many years. The man had been struck by the instrument, but the police can't figure out why that weapon was chosen, as there were a lot more objects inside the storage that would've been more suited as a murder weapon, like the contents of a toolkit and a baseball bat. Four generations lived together inside the house, but while the his great-grandson did see the victim enter the storage room in his wheelchair, nobody else admits to having known that the victim had been in the storage. But even so, why kill the man there, with an ukelele?!

This second story is of course inspired by The Tragedy of Y, where the victim was bashed on the head with a mandolin, but this time the question focuses solely on the matter of why the ukelele was chosen over objects that would've been much better suited as a killing weapon. The jumps in the reasoning this time are sometimes a bit too far, making some of Katagiri's deduction seem more like fantasy than based on actual fact, but overall an interesting variation on the basic idea of The Tragedy of Y, landing in a completely different region.

A spy app Katagiri had installed on Inspector Kawaharasaki's smartphone allows him to always track the police's movements, but this time, Katagiri finds himself in an unexpected situation. In Natsu no Shou: Togiretogire no Yuukai ("Summer: Half-Connected Kidnapping"), his idea was to have his 'ears' Nonoko use the app so they could just 'run into Kawaharasaki by concidence' and ask if there was any case going on he could help with, but it turns out the police are having their hands full with an ongoing kidnapping case: the babysitter was bludgeoned to death last night and the child gone. The kidnapper has already gotten into contact with the poor parents, and after sending them a morning letter announcing when they'd call, the kidnappers are now asking for a hefty money sum in exchange for the child. When the money's prepared, the kidnapper asks for the mom to follow instructions, sending her to several places where he can get a good look at her and the money and then sending her to the next place, but for some reason, the phone calls always seem to disconnect halfway through a sentence, only to call back right away and go on like nothing happened. The inspiration for this case is of course the abduction that occurs in The Tragedy of Z, but that's basically the only common point. The way in which Katagiri manages to resolve the kidnapping is rather forceful and not really convincing and there's also a part in the story that is both brilliant and undeveloped: Katagiri manages to build a very convincing line of reasoning based on a physical object that tells them the true intentions of the kidnapper, but it doesn't really manage to sound convincing because not everybody would be able to use that specific physical object, which is an essential condition for Katagiri's deduction. However, the underlying truth behind the kidnapping is absolutely fantastic, and features a horribly original reveal at the end of the story, which is likely to stick with the reader for a long time.

The final story Aki no Shou: Katagiri Daisaburou Saigo no Kisetsu ("Fall: Katagiri Daisaburou's Final Season") has Katagiri invited to a local community center to do a lecture on a deceased film director with whom Katagiri made several cinema classics. Inspector Kawaharasaki, who's not only a professional contact of Katagiri, but also a film buff who loves Katagiri's work, is of course also there. The community center is also where Katagiri will meet an old acquaintance, who's a fan and scholar of said director.  Together with the director's son, he has recently discovered what appears to be the final screenplay written by the director before his death, but he wants a second opinion by Katagiri to see if it's the real deal because he had worked so much with the director. They meet before the lecture and a quick look seems to convince Katagiri that it's indeed an unfilmed scenario, but as it's almost time for the lecture to start, they have to prepare and then move to the auditorium. It's decided to keep the screenplay inside an old safe (so old it even has a small 'airvent' because of fear children would lock themselves inside) in the office of the community center during the lecture. But both Katagiri's 'pair of ears' and Inspector Kawaharasaki can't help worry about the screenplay and return to the office. They peek through the airvent... only to find the safe's empty! But who could've stolen the screenplay from the safe?

With Katagiri in the auditorium doing his lecture, it's time for his capable assistant (and the inspector) to try to solve the mystery, and it's a fun one this time! Like Drury Lane's Last Case, this story revolves around an unpublished story by a famous artist, though this time it's presented as an impossible theft. During their discussion of the case, they actually arrive fairly soon at the only method possible to get the screenplay out of the locked safe, but what follows is what you'd really expect from a Queen-inspired story, as then the deduction shift focus to the question of which suspects would've actually have taken those specific actions, and what suspects can be discarded as it wouldn't make any sense for those specific person to take those specific actions. The logical reasoning here is great, and convincing (more than the actual theft from the safe actually). While one twist I certainly I had seen coming early on, the last one was certainly unexpected and a brilliant surprise: the book expertly built towards this 'series' finale throughout the four stories, but you won't know what's happening until it hits you. 

This is, on the whole, a pretty funny book too by the way! Katagiri Daisaburou is portrayed as a larger-than-life figure, who has ruled Japanese popular culture for decades and knows it. The way everyone has to adjust to his whims is entertaining to see, as are Nonoko's attempts to function as his 'ears' and attend to his whims, while also fully realizing that her boss isn't quite normal. The stories do always feature some segments that go deeper into the career of Katagiri as an actor, with a lot of details on what roles he did and how he grew out to be the household name, but because usually only a small part of that backstory i actually relevant to the mystery at hand, you might find these parts a bit superfluous.

The four stories in Katagiri Daisaburou to XYZ no Higeki might take their inspiration from the four Drury Lane novels, but even without any knowledge of the Lane stories, this short story collection provides very engaging mystery plots, that as you might expect from a Queen-inspired book, focuses a lot on chains of reasoning and back-and-forth discussions about possible solutions. It's the kind of mystery I personally I like best and the grander-than-life character of Katagiri and the idea of having a deaf detective with an assistant typing out 'subtitles' in real-time are also fun, resulting in a book that's definitely found a place in the list of my favorite reads for this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知淳『片桐大三郎とXYZの悲劇』:「冬の章 ぎゅうぎゅう詰めの殺意」/「春の章 極めて陽気で呑気な凶器」/「夏の章 途切れ途切れの誘拐」/「秋の章 片桐大三郎最後の季節」

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Crisscross Crime

誰も奪えない 心の翼だから 
Pegasus Fantasy Yes, dreams are the wings of the heart
Nobody can steal from you
"Pegasus Fantasy" (Make-Up)

Read the works of a certain author long enough, and you're bound to recognize themes or topics the author likes. Perhaps the author likes to make references to classical literature for example, or they like to address topics like racism or heritage. Some might have a nationalistic tone in their writings, others might just enjoy writing very detailed about the workings of machinery, but whatever it is, the attentive reader will surely, with time, recognize certain topics as being 'typical of that one author'.

Because of this, you sometimes just know that a certain work wasn't just written for the general public to read, but that it was written mostly for the author themselves as the main target. Some books just delve so deeply into certain topics and themes that it seems unlikely that the author was trying to reach a wide audience, but instead that they mostly wrote the book to satisfy themselves. And mind you, that's not a bad thing on its own. Plenty of readers stick with a writer exactly because these people write about themes the reader's also interested in, so novels that are in a way self-indulgent can still appeal to a lot of readers.

Shimada Souji's Alcatraz Gensou ("Alcatraz Fantasy" 2012) is a mystery-themed novel that is an extreme example of the above, and personally, I didn't like the novel at all, though I can imagine that some hardcore Shimada fans who love his oeuvre will see this as one of this greatest works, especially because he tries to involve a lot of the themes he likes to address in his books in one single story now. Depending on who you ask, some might describe Alcatraz Gensou as an ambitious work that tries to reconcile decades of different themes found in Shimada's work, but you'll probably find even more people who will find this a chaotic, forced patchwork of ideas that all go nowhere. Alcatraz Gensou is a book that I find extremely difficult to recommend to people, unless they are already familar with grander themes Shimada likes to talk about in the many mystery novels he has published and even then it's a work that chooses its readers.

Even a coherent summary of the story is hard enough to write because the book feels like it's a few seperate ideas forcefully put together like a Monster of Frankenstein. The book follows a four-chapter structure and it's the first chapter that still makes Alcatraz Gensou like a normal mystery novel, as the reader is brought to Washington D.C. in 1939, where the murdered body of a prostitute is found in a park. The poor victim was hung from a tree, and her nether region was cut open: the horrible murder soon reminded people of Jack the Ripper. A second victim soon follows, and the police is desperate to find the murderer. But the the second chapter suddenly shifts to a scientific paper on gravity and the impossibility of dinosaurs that's basically the same length of the whole first chapter. By the third chapter, we're following an inmate of Alcatraz and the planning of a prison escape, while the final chapter is a fantasy novel where the protagonist ends up in Pumpkinland, an underground kingdom of pygmies where he meets the love of his life

You're probably thinking "Huh?" now. I know I was. Especially if you're only familiar with Shimada through his work available in English, Alcatraz Gensou might sound like nothing at all like you'd expect from him. Of course, Shimada did move away from more conventional mystery fiction pretty soon in his career and even though I have only read a small selection of his rather long bibliography list, I could certainly recognize the various themes he also often uses in his other books in this story. The gorey, visceral account of the murders on the prostitutes, and the historical setting with a war background? Yep, that's something I've seen in Shimada's work. The pedantic 'scientific paper' where he digs deeper and deeper in a topic and ends up with a very, very long treatise on something, even though ultimately only 10% is actually directly relevant to the main plot? Yep, seen that in a lot of his longer works. And the fantasy-world setting that has is obviously connected to themes of psychology and suppressed dreams? Shimada has written several mystery novels with that theme.

What Shimada set out to do with Alcatraz Gensou was to incorporate all these themes he had used in previous works in one single work, but the result is a novel that's at the same time too eclectic and too focused: Alcatraz Gensou is about various themes Shimada likes writing about, but also only about that. The tonal shift between the chapters is enormous, so we're talking not about a Monster of Frankenstein made with all human parts, but like a torso of a human, the legs of a horse and tentacles for arms. It's in the epilogue that Shimada sews these radically different parts together with an 'explanation' as to how the four narratives are precisely connected, but it's mostly for show: the connecting tissue is fittingly enough also a theme Shimada likes to write about in his works, but this epilogue is mostly connected to the latter two chapters, so the first two chapters feel very detached and unneccesary for the 'overarching plot' as proposed in the epilogue. Alcatraz Gensou is a mystery novel in a broad sense of the term, but don't start with the book expecting anything conventional or even anything similar to what's available now in English by Shimada, because it's simply not what most people would expect from a detective novel.

By the way, the title Alcatraz Gensou has to be a reference to Pegasus Gensou (Fantasy), the legendary opening song to Saint Seiya, right? 

Alcatraz Gensou is a work only Shimada could've written, but I think it's really aimed at a very, very specific target audience, and I certainly am not part of that. As a mystery novel, it's just too chaotic and vague and exactly because this book uses a lot of the themes Shimada used in previous books, there's actually surprisingly little that actually... surprises. It's a book that allowed Shimada to revisit themes he likes, but you'll have to ask yourself whether you like Shimada's underlying themes enough and whether you'll settle for something that is less of a coherent mystery story, and more like a smörgåsbord of ideas.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『アルカトラズ幻想』

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

The Same to Us

「アカレンジャー! アオレンジャー!キレンジャー!モモレンジャー!ミドレンジャー!五人揃って、ゴレンジャー!」
"Red Ranger! Blue Ranger! Yellow Ranger! Pink Ranger! Green Ranger! Five together, we are the Go-Rangers!"
"Secret Squad Go-Ranger"

My first part-time job was at a nursing home actually. Well, the kitchen of a nursing home.

Mei is a newly recruited caregiver who works at the Azuki Home, a small-scale day nursing home for the elderly. Most of the clients still live in their own places, so they are picked up every morning and brought to the home. At the Azuki Home, everyone is fed and bathed (if the assistance is needed) and of course there's a lot of chatting together and at the end of the day, everyone is brought back to their homes. Occassionally, clients stay for a few nights at the Azuki Home, which was also the case with Himeno Ichirou. At least, that was until he died. One day, everyone in the house is shocked by a loud noise and one of the caretakers checked up on old Himeno in his room, the man was found lying bleeding on the floor. The people of the Azuki Home only learned later that it was already too late when they found the man, but what's even more shocking is the fact that Himeno had not simply fallen from his bed on the floor, but that he had been deliberately hit on the head with something hard. The police naturally starts an investigation, and Mei herself too is interested in the case as a fan of mystery fiction, but both investigations soon stumble upon two major obstacles: the murder weapon can't be found inside the Azuki Home, even though nobody left the premises after the body was discovered and what's more baffling: five aging witnesses in the recreation room say that through the door opening, they saw a man run down the hallway only moments before the body was discovered. While a hanging curtain and some boxes on the floor obscured parts of this fleeing figure, they all had a good view on the man's torso. But all five witnesses claim this suspicious figure was wearing something else! Red, blue, white, black and green: how can five witnesses all have seen five different colors?! Mei's co-worker Haru fancies the grandson of one of the clients who happened to be visiting his grandmother at the time of the murder, but it appears the police vaguely suspects he might be involved, so Haru and Mei work together to figure out who the murderer really is in Senda Rio's debut novel Goshoku no Satsujinsha, which also has the English title The Murderer of Five Colors on the cover.

The Ayukawa Tetsuya Award is awarded each year by publisher Tokyo Sogensha to a promising new and upcoming author: the award includes a publishing contract for the debuting author and due to its focus on puzzle plot mysteries, I myself have greatly enjoyed the award winners: in recent years for example I have read and loved 2019's winner Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller"), 2017's winner Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") and 2016's winner The Jellyfish Never Freezes. So I always keep an eye on the announcement in the fall of each year to see what new author is coming. 2020's winner of the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award however interestingly enough had some similarities with one of the winners of the 2020 Mysteries! Newcomer Award, which is the equivalent award for short stories from the same publisher. You may remember I reviewed Yamato Hironori's short story Kamu Roujin ("The Biting Senior") last year, but that story too was about a small day nursing center for the elderly. It's kinda funny that both winners took on similar themes, even if it's kinda understandable as an aging population is a real-life social problem in Japan. n any case, a nursing home isn't a setting you're likely to associate with murder soon, but last year, we had two award-winning stories that went with such a setting. Author Senda Rio herself actually works (worked?) as a nurse by the way, so I assume that the depiction of the Azuki Home and how everything works is depicted in a realistic way. Save for the murder.

The Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winners I mentioned earlier were all written as fanciful detective stories, with locked room murders in isolated mansions or locations and other familiar tropes, so it took me a bit of time to adapt to the very mundane, realistic setting of The Murderer of Five Colors. The story itself too takes a while get going: while the book opens with the discovery of the body, the sequences after the opening scene are a bit slow as it properly introduces the setting of the Azuki Home and the many related characters and their relations: with the nursing and support staff, clients and visiting family all on scene at the time of the murder, it takes a while to get a good view on who is who and where everybody said they were at the time of the murder. Yet, the set-up is definitely necessary as there's a whole web of human relations that lie at the bottom of the case. The main suspect for example is the grandson of one of the clients of the Azuki Home: he happens to be dating the granddaughter of the victim Himeno, but lately, he's been growing slightly senile and had a one-sided fight with the suspect's grandmother, and therefore didn't like his prospective grandson-in-law at all. There are a few more instances where you need to keep a good eye on who's what to whom, as with all the information you're fed, you could make a pretty complex relationship chart of all the characters.

Things become more interesting once the main problem is presented. The matter of the missing murder weapon is of course also important, but the more baffling puzzle is of course how in heavens five witnesses could swear they all saw the fleeing suspect wearing a completely different color? If it were only two similar colors, like black and blue, you could suppose that some witnesses just didn't have eyes as sharp as the others, but with witnesses saying the suspect was red, blue, white, black or green, who knows which of them is actually right? Due to the contradicting testimonies, it's difficult for the police to pin the crime on any of the people in the Azuki Home at the time of the murder, paving the way for Haru and Mei to find out why their clients all saw a different color.

The five-color problem might sound a bit simple in comparison to the impossible murders we saw in previous Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winners, but the way in which the problem is solved is definitely what I expect from the 2020 winner. Senda manages to provide a convincing, logical explanation to why five different witnesses managed to see five different colors even though they looked at the same man at the same time. While some parts of the explanation might sound a bit familiar or could be easy to guess, it's the combination of all the ideas that manages to make this a great problem of logic: plenty of possible interpretations that a reader is likely to think off are also shown to be incorrect (yeah, it's not color blindness), so while the problem might seem mundane, it's properly worked out to be a truly baffling conundrum. The plot surrounding the murder weapon is less memorable in comparison.

The book has a great conclusion by the way, where Mei confronts her suspect and carefully lays out her deduction before the other party. It's a surprisingly tense confrontation due to some shocking events that occur before the climax, but as things are unrafelled by Mei, you'll learn there was more going on than most readers probably had noticed, and it results in a nice ending to the story, where some scenes suddenly make more sense in hindsight as you learn what their true part in the puzzle was.

Goshoku no Satsujinsha (The Murderer of Five Colors) might not be going for the familiar, classic tropes of the mystery genre and the setting and even the main problem might take some time to get used to, but once you're done with the book, you'll definitely understand why it was the 2020 Ayukawa Tetsuya Award winner. It's a fun story, utilizing an original setting to present a problem that at first seems too simple, but Senda manages to expand on it and really make this a novel-length mystery with perhaps more surpises than you'd initially expect.

Original Japanese title(s): 千田理緒『五色の殺人者』

Friday, May 21, 2021

The Purple Sickle Murders

Umineko: When They Cry

Finally got started on the Famicom Detective Club remakes! Funny to see how old-fashioned they still play, despite the new coat of paint.

After completing the mystery game Umineko: When They Cry a few weeks ago, I decided to have a look at what kinds of spin-off material are available, and the one that caught my attention was Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic ("When The Seagulls Cry Purple: Forgery of the Purple Logic" 2012-2013), a two-volume manga which was also mentioned in the comments in the Umineko: When They Cry review. The main reason why this title stood out was because it starred my favorite character Furudo Erika: an obnoxious girl who is aware that she's cast in the detective role in a mystery story and is willing to do the craziest things if it will allow her to solve the truth behind a case. But then I read a bit more about Forgery of the Purple Logic and it turned out it was more interesting than I had first expected. The short-lived series is illustrated by Suzushiro Kurumi and written by Hitohira, based on an original idea by Umineko: When They Cry author Ryukishi07 and is conceived as a pure whodunnit mystery story. When this series was originally serialized in the magazine Comp-Ace between 2012-2013, the readers were even challenged to guess the truth and send in answers. With a lot of spin-off material focusing more on character interaction, Forgery of the Purple Logic stood out with its focus on a mystery, so I picked up the two volumes immediately (okay, I'll admit that was because there was a sale going on).

In Umineko: When They Cry, a series of murders among the members of the Ushiromiya clan and their servants occur on October 4th and 5th, 1986 on the private island Rokkenjima. The Golden Witch Beatrice claims that the seemingly impossible murders were committed with the help of her magic, but Ushiromiya Battler refuses to believe in her magic. Amused by Battler's attempt to deny her magic, Beatrice holds a series of "games" with Battler by "resetting" the events of October 4 and 5 and having the events unfold differently each time, challenging Battler to come up with a "rational" explanation for the various impossible murders or give in to her magic. Beatrice and Battler observe the deadly events on Rokkenjima from a meta-universe where witches and other supernatural beings live, like watching a live broadcast or a narrative-within-a-narrative structure and Battler has to figure out what's happening on the island based on what he is shown to him.

In Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic ("When The Seagulls Cry Purple: Forgery of the Purple Logic"), the Golden Witch Beatrice decides to do things differently for a change, and she creates a new "gameboard" (iteration of the Rokkenjima murders) where magic doesn't exist at all. Her stance this time is therefore not to make Battler give up and accept magic as the answer. In fact, she simplifies the enigmatic murders on Rokkenjima to one single question: whodunnit? Events start in a familiar manner: the members of the Ushiromiya Clan have gathered on Rokkenjima for their annual family gathering, but on the first night, six of them are killed together. The telephone has been disabled and a storm prevents the others from fleeing the island. Coincidentally though, a mysterious girl called Furudo Erika washes up on the shore, having been in an accident at sea. She claims to be a detective, but even she can't prevent more murders from occuring, even though everybody is aware there's probably a murderer among them. Can Erika on the island, and Battler in the meta-universe, figure out who the culprit on Rokkenjima is before everyone is murdered?

Even if you're not familiar with Umineko: When They Cry, the basic premise of a closed circle situation on an island will not be very surprising, but Forgery of the Purple Logic is actually quite a unique mystery manga, because it uses two concepts from the game to create a pure logic puzzle for the reader to tackle: the Red Truths and Purple Statements. In the world of Umineko: When They Cry, Red Truths are statements that are absolutely true and do not need further supporting evidence. If it's stated in red that X is dead, you don't need to worry about X faking their own death or anything. Likewise, if it's stated in red that access to room is only possible using one of the available keys, you don't need to worry about secret passages. You can consider it a way for the author to tell the reader directly that these are the exact rules/parameters of the detective game and that you don't need to be too suspicious about some facts. Purple Statements were originally only featured very briefly in Umineko: When They Cry, but are used more extensively in Forgery of the Purple Logic: like Red Truths, Purple Statements are also absolutely true unless they are spoken by the culprit: they are able to lie even if their statement is in purple. Note that the culprit is not obligated to lie when stating something in purple: they may be lying, but they can be stating an absolute truth too. 

The reader is thus challenged to solve the question of whodunnit in Forgery of the Purple Logic based on the Red Truths and Purple Statements presented throughout the tale. Red Truths are absolutely true, while only the culprit in this story (specifically defined as someone who has killed someone personally, so it can't be just an accomplice) can lie with a Purple Statement, so the reader has to identify the murderer and make sure that accusing this person of the crimes does actually fit with all the known Red Truths and Purple Statements. The concept is somewhat reminsicent of the old riddle with people who only speak the truth and people who only lie and you have to find out who the liar/honest person is, but on a much greater scale because if the variety in statements: colored statements can be about everything, from the circumstances of the deaths and crime scene to people vouching for other people's alibis. Figuring out how your murderer fits with the long list of known colored statements can be trickier than you might expect at first.

Oh, and if you're looking at these black/white images and thinking, geez, there's awfully little red and purple there, you're absolutely right. Like most manga, Forgery of the Purple Logic is mostly printed in monochrome, so they had to come up with a different solution to convey the differences in color:
Red Truths are denoted with a wiggly line next to them, while Purple Statements are denoted with a straight line next to the relevant text. It's a... servicable solution, but after a while wiggly and straight lines blend together as you read on, and it's definitely never as clear as using colors. I wish they had used something more obvious to set the two types of statements apart, like blocks and circles or something like that.

Forgery of the Purple Logic thus offers an original approach for a mystery manga, as you're basically tackling an elaborate logic-based puzzle where you need to figure out what the truthful statements are actually hiding, which Purple Statements don't seem to work together with Red Truths, and from there, work your way to the solution. There are two big caveats however. The first is that like the original Umineko: When They Cry games, Forgery of the Purple Logic won't spell out the whole solution for you. In the last chapter, Erika does reveal who the killer is and there's a whole "and I would have gotten away with it if it wasn't for this meddling kid" scene, but the manga does not explicitly explain how this person committed the murders or how the reader was supposed to figure it out based on the Red Truths and Purple Statements. If you hadn't figured it out yourself, the final chapter will at least make it clear whose statements you should distrust and you can probably work your way back, but it's still up to the reader themselves to figure out how the murderer managed to lie low among all those colored statements. I myself had figured out the last half of the story, but the first half of the story was a lot trickier and I had to google the solution. Which admittedly, was actually quite clever: the final solution makes pretty clever use of the Red Truths and Purple Statements to fool the reader in a certain way and it's a story that only could have existed because it used colored statements. It's definitely designed as a logic puzzle and while some might find it too sterile, I love these kinds of stories.

The other caveat is that
Forgery of the Purple Logic is pretty much unreadable unless you know Umineko: When They Cry already. There are many characters in this series, and Forgery of the Purple Logic barely attempts to properly introduce them to readers who don't know anything. The story starts of right away with six of them dead on the island and it's not even really explained how everyone is related. This is even worse in the parts set in the meta universe, as Battler and Beatrice are constantly visited by other witches, demons and other supernatural beings while they're observing the murders on Rokkenjima, and these appearances are just fan service, with them all showing up just to say one or two lines and leave again without contributing anything to the story. The final chapter of Forgery of the Purple Logic just goes very briefly into the subject of motive, and while the reader who has played all the eight episodes of Umineko: When They Cry can probably come up with something that could work as a motive because they know all the characters and their motivations, it's absolutely impossible for someone who doesn't know anything yet to come up with anything remotely satisfying based solely on this manga. 

I think Umineko no Naku Koro ni Murasaki: Forgery of the Purple Logic is an interesting experiment in mystery manga, one that builds on the 'solve-it-yourself' attitude of the original Umineko: When They Cry games by providing a pure logic puzzle mystery story without a detailed solution. If you liked Bernkastel's puzzle in the last episode of Umineko: When They Cry, you'll definitely love this and I have to say, the puzzle Forgery of the Purple Logic presents using Red Truths and Purple Statements is amusing. Which is perhaps why I also think it's a shame it's so deeply and firmly set within the Umineko: When They Cry world and setting, because the way it is written, it's basically unaccessible for people who don't know Umineko: this is in no way an introductionary work as it basically wants the reader to fill in the many, many gaps that are left untold in terms of characterization and background information, and that means many readers will miss out on a what is otherwise a fun approach to the puzzle plot manga.

Orginal Japanese title(s): 竜騎士07(原案), 人比良(シナリオ), 珠洲城くるみ(絵)『うみねこのなく頃に 紫 Forgery of the Purple logic』

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Running On Fumes

" It is probably speeding on its way thither at the present instant as fast as steam can take it."
"The Adventure of the Second Stain"

This reminds me I want to try Steam Detectives one day...

It's finally time for Ema to start thinking about her future and decide on her apprenticeship. In an age where highly advanced steam and aether engines have made everything possible in this world, the future is bright and possibilities are unlimited. And while following her father's footsteps sounds alluring, travelling across the world as the captain of a flying aether-engine ship, her mind is set on becoming a detective, like the highly esteemed private detective Murie. She manages to arrange to be taken on as Murie's apprentice when her father returns to the metropolis from an important scientific mission: their airship moved to the atmosphere to research outer space for a while, but the expedition returned with a very odd capsule, which seems to hold a boy of Ema's age. She accidently opens the capsule, releasing the boy, but he appears to be normal boy. He is put in Murie's charge while Murie becomes involved in an investigation related to the space expedition and the mystery of why the boy was in the capsule, but meanwhile, Ema and the boy Yuujin get involved in all kinds mysteries that happen in the city, from with a locked room murder in a hotel where a scientist is knocked on the head with a rock to a man being stabbed with a knife while standing in the middle of a long corridor made completely of glass, with only Ema and Yuujin nearby and nobody else who could've approached the victim unseen. What they don't know is that they're about to uncover an insidious plot in Ashibe Taku's Steam Opera (2012).

Sometimes you come across a novel where you just know that the author not only greatly enjoyed writing the work, but also that the book was perhaps not so much written for a certain audience, but mostly for the author themselves. That's definitely the case with Steam Opera, which really feels like a book where Ashibe just went loose and decided to tackle all kinds of themes he himself likes. Of course, that's always been his forte to a degree: his bibliophilic tendencies is usually very prominent featured in his stories with lots of reference to literature and history, and often his plots also go deep into these themes. But Steam Opera feels like it was completely built upon Ashibe's personal interests, which is not a bad thing, mind you. 

When you're reading this mystery novel, with a steampunk alternate universe setting (with steam-powered trams, escalators, everything!) and written like a Jules Vernes-esque adventure novel with a distinct light novel-ish tone, with a young girl detective as the protagonist, it almost like you're ticking off a list of themes Ashibe likes. His love for late nineteenth century adventure novels is something you clearly see in his other works, as is his interest for the female detective protagonist as a trope, and the last years he's also been dabbling in light novel writing, so Steam Opera is really a book where he just throws together. And for the most part, it does work. The opening chapters of the book are exciting, as they introduce the reader to a steampunk world with aether engines and other familiar tropes of the steampunk genre and you know this distinctive universe will also be the setting for some interesting mysterious cases. Ema is pretty fun as the strongminded and usually quick-minded protagonist and the story combines the tropes of the classic science fiction adventure novel with more distinct light novel-conventions like the banter, but resulting in a world that you're not likely to find in many other mystery novels. That said, personally, I would've preferred a little more focus on the mystery side of the story, as sometimes the adventure-ish sides of the story don't seem to go anywhere than just to show off the characters.

Soon after the return of Ema's father's ship however, several mysterious murders occur in the steam-powered capital. They are of an impossible kind and the experienced reader of course knows that because we're now in a world with highly advanced steam and aether engines, solving the mystery will a be a lot trickier than let's say a mystery set in our own world. The first murder in that regards is perhaps a bit disappointing, about a man who's knocked on his head with a heavy stone in a locked hotel room, though it does utilize elements unique to this world. The situation in the Crystal Palace gardens is far more interesting: a man is stabbed by a knife in a corridor made completely of glass, allowing everyone around to have a clear view of the victim. With the victim standing in the middle of the curved corridor and Ema and Yuujin on either end of the corridor, nobody could've approached the victim to stab him, and yet there's a knife sitting neatly in the victim's body. I kinda had an idea what was likely the trick behind this murder, because the first case gave me a hint, but I think it's ultimately worked out really neatly in this novel. Speaking of which, the book builds to a climax that makes great use of the unique steampunk setting, but it also fits the almost fantasy-like story premise with a boy found in space. It's a grand conclusion that didn't quite manage to surprise me as much as it probably should have, because by mere coincidence, I had played with a similar idea but more as a joke theory, but Ashibe manages to convincingly work out this idea to write an ambitious work of steampunk fantasy mystery, but I don't think that everyone will like it: like I said, I first thought of it as a joke theory because I thought it'd be funny in such a novel and some might even find it unfair. If you didn't see it coming, it will hit you like a rock, and then you'll realize that you could've seen it coming, but it's a conclusion that really could've only worked in this specific steampunk world and it's a memorable one.

I do think that Steam Opera would perhaps have worked better in the form of something like an anime series. It already has the light novel atmosphere, but I also think that the steampunk world itself could've also used more time to really settle, as sometimes the set-up for some relevant elements of this world feels inadequate, whereas more runtime would've prepared the viewer more thorougly. The novel itself isn't really short, so but a more deliberate episode-by-episode structure would've made this a better experience.

Steam Opera is a book that's obviously written by Ashibe, for Ashibe, but that doesn't mean it's not amusing on its own. While the mystery subplots take a bit of time to really take off, the book does work to a conclusion that's memorable because of the way it utilizes the unique steampunk setting to present a mystery that you won't find anywhere else. That said, the storytelling at times feels more focused on the comedic steampunk adventure-side of the story, so if you're just reading this for the mystery, things will be a bit slow and longwinded perhaps.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『スチームオペラ』

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Secret in the Stars


Looking up at the night sky alone, I saw a comet
But it appeared and was gone in a second
"Comet" (Younha)

First time I read something by Kurachi, but certainly not the last!

While he may have been morally right, Sugishita Kazuo knew there would be consequences for the undiplomatic, and especially physical manner in which he dealt with his abusive superior. He liked working at the marketing company, so he feared he'd be fired, but surprisingly, he was "only" moved to a completely different part of the company to give the whole deal some time to die down. Given that he liked marketing, he wasn't especially happy with his appointment to the new and small entertainment section, but it was better than losing his job. Sugishita is made manager-in-training (basically just a personal assistant) of Hoshizono Shirou, a "star watcher" and popular television personality who's been making women crazy with his handsome looks and romantic talks about the stars and constellations. Sugishita develops an instant dislike for the arrogant and showy Hoshizono, but the day after they first meet, he's already forced to go on a trip with him, as Hoshizono has been invited by the boss of a big land development company. This Iwagishi has recently bought a run-down campsite in the mountains. The original owner was a lover of camping, and wanted people to come down here in their caravans and spend a nice time in the nature, but financially, this wish was just not feasible and Iwagishi got the whole campsite, complete with ten log houses and a main building, for a dime and nickle. His plan is now to develop this campsite into a kind of leisure facility with the stars as the theme, as the location in the mountains make it perfect for stargazing. 

The camp is still in its original condition, but Iwagishi has invited a few guests who he thinks can help make his stargazing leisure facility a success: besides Hoshizono, he has also invited the highly successful romantic novelist Kusabuki Akane as well as the famous UFO expert Sagashima Kazuteru. The three guests (and their assistants, as well as two female companions) are to spend a night here at the camp with Iwagishi, to see what suggestions they may have for the facility and whether they would be could involved in some way, like having Kusabuki write a novel set around the location. The initial talks about the facility during dinner are good, but the following morning, Iwagishi is found murdered in his log house at the camp. The camp has no phone lines however, and when Iwagishi's assistant tries to drive down the mountain, he finds that the heavy snowfall of last night has completely blocked off the road. The survivors realize they are trapped by the snow on the campsite with a murderer on the loose. To Sugishita's great surprise however, he learns that Hoshizono is actually a lot sharper than he pretends to be, and together, the starwatcher and the assistant start investigating the murder on Iwagishi in the hopes of preventing more murders in Kurachi Jun's Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Mountain Lodges beneath the Shooting Stars" 1996).

I have mentioned quite often on this blog that the logic school of mystery writing, as seen in the works of novelists like Ellery Queen and Arisugawa Alice, is my favorite. Some might prefer the 'flash of inspiration' style of writers like Agatha Christie and to a lesser extent John Dickson Carr, where a small clue is supposed to tip off the detective or reader on the whole crime and you're expected to "just" suddenly see how everything fits, but I always have been a fan of the slower, and more deliberate manner of the logic school, where you add up a lot of minor clues like 1) the murderer was right-handed, 2) the murderer had to know fact X because they did action Y, 3) the murderer only learned of fact X after time Z, 4) the murderer is not one of the characters who were at A, etc. to eventually find out who the murderer was and how everythhing fits together. I spent a whole post trying to explain why I love this kind of clewing and my feelings on this have not changed: I love how this kind of plotting tries to really make mystery fiction like a game, because it makes the process more fair. This kind of whodunnit-focused novels often have you identify a list of characteristics of the murderer and compare them to the known suspects. These stories feel fair because as you slowly start to cross off suspects on the list, you usually figure out for yourself you're still missing one or two identifying conditions: perhaps you already know the murderer must be right-handed based on Scene 37, and you know they had to know about the clock in Scene 23, but it's only when you're left with three suspects and go over the story again that you realize the fact two of those suspects didn't take sugar in their tea was significant!

Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a fantastic example of the logic school of mystery writing. It might have a rather familiar story setting, with a group of people trapped in the mountains due to heavy snowfall and the murders are certainly not committed in a spectacular or baffling manner, but it's completely focused on offering a puzzle that challenges the reader to logically infer who the murderer is. The reader is actually made aware of this the moment they open the book, for this book has a very unique chapter naming convention. The chapters are not really titled: they always open with a two, three sentence notice that summarizes the contents of said chapter and notes what's important or not. For example, the first chapter literally opens with the notice that the protagonist of the story will appear there and that "The protagonist is the narrator and the Watson. They share all information they learn fairly with the reader and are not the murderer." The next chapter, where Sugishita meets with Hoshizono for the first time too starts with a notice that "the detective becomes involved with the case by pure coincidence and is not the murderer", while in a later chapter where Hoshizono and Sugishita discuss the murder and they focus on several important facts, the chapter opening states that these observations made by Hoshizono are indeed correct. The whole book is playing the game open and fair from start to finish, and it's almost surreal to see little post-its by the writer that say what's important and whether some incident was just a coincidence or not. They do make Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin an exciting read though, because at the same time, you know it really won't be that easy and that Kurachi is trying to present a puzzle that will surprise the reader with how the murderer will be identified in the end. It's also fun to go over the chapter introductions again once you're done with the book: some of these notifications might seem a bit too cryptic the first time you read them, but they make more sense once you know everything and some of them are quite clever! I played Umineko: When They Cry after reading this book, but the chapter 'titles' here are somewhat similar in idea to the concept of Red Truths in that game.

And yep, the whodunnit puzzle is pretty ingenious even with the help of those chapter openings. If you love early Ellery Queen or for example The Moai Island Puzzle (disclosure: I translated that book), you're in for a treat, because Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is exactly what you're looking for! Finding all the clues that will eventually lead you to the identity of the murderer is very tricky, but never unfair: each time one of the identifying conditions is mentioned, it's likely you'll have noticed (part of) it, and even if you didn't, you're sure to realize that they are very convincing logical conclusions drawn from what you have seen at the crime scene and in other parts of the story. It's of course ultimately combining all these facts together to form an image of the murderer which will prove to be difficult: I for one had a good idea about who the murderer was, but I really couldn't find the clues that could logically exclude everyone else besides the person I had set my eyes on, as I always would end up with other suspects based on the clues I had found! It's at these moments I love this kind of mystery fiction, where I have to decide whether I'm just on wrong track, or simply missing some kind of clue or misinterpreting a clue that would allow me to logically arrive at a different person. You'll need to identify quite a few conditions to be able to cross off all the names save for the murderer and that does mean some of these conditions are a bit easier to identify than others (and some of them feel will probably feel familiar as they're popular ideas in mystery fiction), but getting all of them is difficult and some of them are pretty clever that make good use of this particular story setting, like strange circling mark in the snow as if made by a rotating UFO's expulsion device.

In terms of appearances, Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin might feel a bit too familiar, with its tense closed circle situation in the snow, and the familar story beats like the surviving people becoming suspicious of each other, attempts to get through the snow to find help and more, but I think Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is a great showcase that it's possible to write a great tale of mystery and logical reasoning even when using familiar building blocks: Hoshifuri Sansou no Satsujin is easily one of the best mystery novels I've read this year, because it's so dedicated to offering a solvable logical puzzle, where the reader is rewarded for activally thinking along and trying to figure out whodunnit by carefully considering the clues and considering the precise implications of each action of all the characters. Some readers might feel this book feels a bit too like a puzzle, but for me, this is exactly the kind of mystery story I love. 

Original Japanese title(s): 倉知 淳『星降り山荘の殺人』