Monday, June 17, 2019

番外編: A Smart Dummy in the Tent

So for the last two months or so, I kept telling myself, don't forget to write an announcement, it'll take no time at all, it'll just be a short post.... And in the end, I still didn't manage to write this thing in time...

Last year, Locked Room International released the hilarious impossible crime mystery The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru ABIKO, translated by yours truly. That was not the first time Abiko had been translated to English, as some of his work for videogames (like The Starship Damrey (3DS)) had already been available in the West, but The 8 Mansion Murders was his first proper mystery novel which had been translated into English. I was obviously happy to see that the novel was received pretty well when it released (if you haven't read it yet, please do). For those who enjoyed the novel, I have good news, as more Abiko is available now. The June/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (which should be available right now) features Abiko's impossible crime short story A Smart Dummy In The Tent (orig.: 1990), once again translated by me. The story is part of Abiko's Mario series, and stars a... ventriloquist's dummy as the detective. Yoshio is an incredibly gifted, but somewhat clumsy ventriloquist who performs together with his puppet Mario. However, Yoshio's great secret is that Mario isn't just a tool of his trade, Mario's a whole seperate personality of Yoshio. And despite his arrogant and wise-cracking personality, Mario's also actually really clever and sharp, which comes in handy in A Smart Dummy In The Tent, when Yoshio and his love interest Mutsuki get involved with an impossible crime that occurs in the backstage area of a circus tent.

Those who enjoyed the comedy and banter of The 8 Mansion Murders should really check out the story, as this one too is immensely fun to read, while the impossible crime angle of the story is also quite original, really fitting to the circus setting. I hope you'll enjoy the read! To end with a completely uninteresting note: I have been to the circus in real life only once, when I was a kid!

As for other projects and related announcements, that's a tale for another day. Another day that might not really ask for a DeLorean, but some patience will be necessary.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Movie Madness

"The show must go on." 
(English saying)

Last week, I reviewed Van Madoy's FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken, a novelization of a quest originally written by Madoy for the highly succesful mobile game Fate/Grand Order. The Fate franchise is a fantasy series about the Holy Grail Wars, fought between Masters and their Servants, spirits based on historical and fictional figures from all across the world like Sherlock Holmes, but also Murasaki Shikibu and Ozymandias (Ramses II). While most (limited time) quests in FGO obviously revolve around battles, Madoy's first FGO Mystery event (held in May 2018) was different as Madoy used the FGO characters to tell a traditional closed circle murder mystery story set on a remote island, with next to no battle gameplay. It was a battle of the wits, as players were challenged to correctly guess who the murderer was and Madoy offered a very classic whodunnit story, where you could arrive at the identity of the murderer through the simple (but actually not very simple) process of elimination.

In May 2019, a second FGO Mystery event started in the game with the title Murder at the MEIHO-SOU. This event too was written by Madoy, and novelizations of this event, as well as of the 2018 event, were released right after this second event ended near the end of May. This second volume too has an insanely long title: FGO Mystery Tomadou Meihousou no Kousatsu Meihousou Satsujin Jiken ("FGO Mystery - The Examination of the Puzzling Meihousou - The Meihousou Murder Case", 2019) however luckily also uses the far shorter alternative English title The Meihousou Murders inside the book. The story starts with the discovery of a small anomalous temporal singularity in the Caribbean sea by the Chaldea Security Organization. Strangely enough, the singularity appears to have the form of a film set, dubbed a 'virtual drifting Hollywood' by Chaldea. While the unstable singularity is likely to disappear within a few days on its own, it's still deemed wiser to fix the temporal singularity and that is by having the film set fulfill its role as the setting for an actual film. Murasaki Shikibu is asked to write a story to film inside the temporal singularity, and she quickly comes up with a story and get the people (Servants) she wants as her cast.

The film story is set in the fictional Republic of Nadai Nada. After the fall of the royal house and the kingdom of Nadai Nada, Miguel Cortez (a role played by Professor James Moriarty) had become the first president of the Republic. When he passed away, he left behind a young widow (and former adopted daughter) Gabriella (played by Murasaki Shikibu). A small private gathering in memory of Miguel has been organized at the Meihousou, a former royal holiday palace which had become the residence of Miguel and Gabriella. The guests at this gathering however aren't all what they seem to be: from former court composer Antiono Jovin (played by Antonio Salieri) to Roma Kureishi (played by Sakamoto Ryouma) and Vargus (played by Ozymandias/Ramses II), all the characters in the film seem to have come to the Meihousou with ulterior motives. As they have little time before the temporal singularity will collapse on its own, Murasaki Shikibu never had time to tell all her actors how the whole story would go and what their characters were like exactly, and that results in a major problem when Murasaki Shikibu herself is knocked out due to a too powerful medicine which was 'supposed to have her feel more relaxed'.  As none of the people involved with the film production know what Murasaki Shikibu's intentions were with the story, they are left with no choice: each of the actors tries to come up with their own version of the story, based on the clues left in the first half they had already filmed.

Oh, I have to say, I had not expected Madoy to come with this story, especially not after reading the first FGO Mystery novel. For that was really a classic whodunnit story set in a mansion on a remote island complete with a Challenge to the Reader, where you needed to follow a tight elimination process to arrive at the identity of the killer. This story however follows the less common unfinished movie trope. Trope, I say? Yeah, because funnily enough, I have read several mystery stories now that are about an unfinished mystery movie, where the actors themselves then have to guess what the solution was based on the hints already filmed, and everyone arriving at a different solution. Abiko Takemaru's Tantei Eiga is exactly about this theme for example, and a funny one too, as every actor wanted their character to become the killer (because that's the best role in a mystery movie). Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll too is about an unfinished mystery movie filmed for the school festival,with again everyone coming up with a different solution to the locked room murder that occurs there.

Readers of classsic mystery fiction will definitely recognize the influence of Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley here, as those two writers too loved their multiple solutions. Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course famous example of the detective story with multiple solutions, but Brand's novels too are always brimming with characters who come up with, well, quite plausible solutions for the matter at hand. In hindsight however, I have to say it shouldn't surprise me that Madoy came up with this. His Revoir series is about a private court set in Kyoto and in those trials, it's less about the truth, but about convincing the others/judge in accepting your "truth". The characters there are always coming up with new theories that suit their stance in the trial based on the evidence in front of them, so both defense and prosecution often come up with completely different interpretations based on the same facts. The Meihousou Murders does exactly that, as the five main actors come up with five completely different conclusions to the film based on the same first half of the film.

The various 'solutions' (conclusions to the movie) are fairly simple, but entertaining enough. Usually they're based on one single contradiction, or odd point in the first half of the movie, which is then the starting point to an idea that encompasses also a lot of imagination and fantasy. This story is definitely less 'rigid' in terms of mystery plot compared to the first, as a lot of the solutions proposed in this book are more in the spirit of  'Hey, this character acted odd in the first half of the movie, what if he was actually X and that his real goal is to...". It's an entertaining book, as you see all the characters coming up with widely different interpretations of the same base story, but as a detective story, it's not exactly fit for a Challenge to the Reader, which is strangely enough included in the story. As so much of the plot hinges on "I reject your reality and substitute my own", it's strange to be asked in a direct way to arrive at the one-and-only solution. The Challenge to the Reader is admittedly about a different problem (eventually Murasaki Shikibu wakes up, only to find everyone has come up with their own version of the story), and I think the final solution to save the movie is reasonably clever, especially on this scale and fits well with the theme (there's a weirdly specific hint that doesn't really work that well I think, but the base idea is something that a reader could definitely think of), but I don't really see the added value of a Challenge to the Reader for this story.

I think the first novel is more satisfying as a classic whodunnit mystery story, but FGO Mystery Tomadou Meihousou no Kousatsu Meihousou Satsujin Jiken is probably more enjoyable to readers as a piece of entertainment. This story was originally a quest in the game Fate/Grand Order (which is obviously not a mystery game at the core) and I think it's better in that regard compared to the first story, which can be far more difficult than this story. The Meihousou Murders is funnier, has far more character interaction with familiar faces (rather than "the original characters with borrowed graphical assets" from the first event), moves at a far more satisfying pace and is less 'precise' regarding its mystery plot, making it far more accessible.

Original Japanese title(s): Type-Moon (原), 円居挽 『FGOミステリー 惑う鳴鳳荘の考察 鳴鳳荘殺人事件』

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Mystery By Moonlight


Turn the roulette of destiny
Thinking deep about this and that is a mystery
"Turn the Roulette of Destiny" (Zard)

The Fate series is a long-running multimedia franchise, which started with the fantasy game Fate/stay night in 2004. Since then, it has seen numerous installments in various forms of media, from games, to anime, manga and novels. Some of these installments are direct sequels/prequels in the same chronology, some involve alternate universes/retellings, but in general, the series revolves around a series of events called the Holy Grail Wars, with persons called Masters fighting each other with the help of Servants, spirits/familiars based on figures from history, mythology and fiction from all across the world like King Arthur, Ramses II and Sherlock Holmes. This is in fact basically all I know about the Fate series: while I naturally knew of its existence (it's really popular), I had never consumed any part of the franchise yet. At least, not until this week.

The most popular incarnation of the Fate series these last few years has been the smartphone game Fate/Grand Order, which started in 2015 and ranks amongst the most popular mobile games in the world: in 2017 it became the sixth highest-grossing mobile game, leaving titles like Pokémon Go and Candy Crush Saga behind. I don't play the game myself, but my interest was piqued when in May 2018, a special limited quest event started, with the title Murder at the KOGETSUKAN. What first caught my eye was that the event was penned by Van Madoy, who since a few years has been chiseling out a niche for himself by writing original mystery novels for existing game franchises (like Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney). While gameplay of Fate/Grand Order generally revolves around battles (by selecting a team of Servants) coupled with dialogue events, this event was presented as a pure, fair-play mystery story, based solely on the dialogues between the various characters. Players were also challenged to actively participate with the mystery solving: the event took over a week (daily updates), and polls were held on the official website: players were rewarded with in-game currency if the correct answers managed to pull in the most number of votes.

As I don't play the game, it ended with me just thinking 'Oh boy, this sounded neat', but in May 2019 a second FGO Mystery event commenced within Fate/Grand Order and novelizations by Madoy himself of both the first and second event were published right after the conclusion of the second event. The first novel (based on 2018's event) has the insanely long title FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken ("FGO Mystery - The Confession of the Trembling Koketsukan - The Kogetsukan Murder Case", 2019), but it also carries the alternative, shorter English title of The Kogetsukan Murders. The story starts with a strange experience happening to Fate/Grand Order protagonist Fujimaru Ritsuka, as he loses consciousness one night, only to find himself waking up in a completely different body! He learns that he is now inhabiting the body of "Rikka" a friend of Juliet Violet, oldest daughter of the Violet clan. The Violet and Goldie clans are two gangster families in the United States with a long history of rivalry, but their wars have left them in a weakened state and easy targets for foreign gangs. Family heads Aaron Goldie and Adamska Violet both realize a fusion of both clans is their only chance on survival, and in order to silence the voices of protests in their respective gangs, they decide to have their eldest children marry to seal the deal. The Violet and Goldie families are now gathered in the mansion Kogetsukan on a remote island to confirm the engagement of Morris Goldie and Juliet Violet.

"Rikka" had been invited to come along as Juliet's friend, but even to Ritsuka inhabiting the body of Rikka, it's clear that Morris Goldie is not the kind of person you'd want a good friend to marry and the arranged, political marriage will absolutely ruin Juliet's life. Meanwhile Juliet seems to have accepted her fate, as she doesn't want her younger twin sister to become the 'sacrifice' in her stead.  It seems however there is another person who wants to prevent the engagement, as threatening letters were sent that warned the clans to stop the engagement, which is the reason the deal is being discussed on a remote island under the protection of three agents of the Marble Trading Company, an organization of highly respected "fixers" acting as both witnesses to the engagement and bodyguards. On the first day, a shady detective calling himself Sheringham makes his way to the island, claiming he knows of the threatening letters and that he can solve the case, but that very night, that same Sheringham is killed. It seems a murderer is roaming Kogetsukan, and that they first got rid of the nosy detective. But who will follow, and can Rikka/Ritsuka make it out alive from the island?

When I bought the novel, my main worry was of course whether I'd enjoy the story without knowing anything about Fate/Grand Order. I was fairly confident that Madoy could deliver on an entertaining mystery story, but how much would it rely on me knowing the Fate series. The first few pages were therefore slightly worrying, as they were clearly meant for someone who somewhat knows the characters. As a defense mechanism in Ritsuka's brain for suddenly inhabiting a different body, every person he meets in the Kogetsukan takes on the form of a Servant he knows within his brain. In reality, this is of course because the game uses existing character art to portray "new" characters (the people Goldie/Violet/Marble Trade Company). But an explanation that Juliet takes on the form of the Gorgon sister Stheno in Ritsuka's mind doesn't tell me much of course, as I don't know how Stheno looks like in Fate/Grand Order. Some others were more easy to imagine though. The Violet family doctor is called Dr. Hawthorne for example, who funnily enough takes on the form of the Servant Professor James Moriarty. Meanwhile, the shady detective Sheringham is definitely the spitting image of the Servant Sherlock Holmes. What's also funny is that Ritsuka occasionally returns to his own body, and there he discusses the case with both Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, who actually work together to figure things out.

Once you get past the character introductions of "X has the appearence of Y" though, I'd say the novel is fairly accessible even if you don't know Fate/Grand Order, and it's a pretty decent mystery novel on its own too. One can definitely tell it's written by Madoy, who was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club when in college, as the core is a classic guess-the-criminal set-up, with a proper Challenge to the Reader. While you can arrive at the identity of the murderer by simply guessing the motive in this particular story (as it's also aimed at people who usually don't read detective stories), the 'correct' way of reading this story is of course by arriving at the murderer by the process of elimination: identify what characteristics the murderer must comply too (for example, being at a certain place at a certain time, or being left-handed or something like that), and crossing off the people who don't fit that characteristic. To be honest, the elimination part of the story is on its own somewhat straightforward and not very exciting, as it mostly revolves around one single characteristic, coupled with an interpretation of a dying message which is basically 'given' to the reader. But Madoy wouldn't be Madoy if he didn't have some other tricks up his sleeve though: one point of misdirection is particularly well thought out. The trick makes excellent use of the presentation of the story and while people who do know Fate/Grand Order might be more inclined to fall for it, it still (kinda) works for non FGO-players, I think. These traps make the route to the identity of the murderer a far more entertaining trip and are nicely done. At least, in general. I do think some of the hints stood out a bit too much: some parts of the story seemed so blatantly weirdly worded at first, I actually thought it was an editing mistake in the text, rather than a hidden clue. I wonder whether Madoy intentionally made those parts stand out a bit, because the main audience were Fate/Grand Order players, and not mystery readers in general, as I have the feeling those parts could've been hidden in more subtle ways, without losing their functions as proper clues.

Depending on how much mystery fiction you read, bits and pieces of The Kogetsukan Murders will certainly feel somewhat familiar, like the motive or some of the 'traps' in the elimination process, but the manner in which these familiar elements are combined are good, and show how how an author, even with the same bricks, can still make an original building. Overall, I think Van Madoy did a good job at presenting a very classic mystery story to an audience (Fate/Grand Order player) that doesn't necessarily consists out of readers of mystery fiction, while still offering a story that is fairly complex in terms plotting.

Taken completely on its own, FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken is a decent mystery novel and can be enjoyed too even if you don't know Fate/Grand Order, but it definitely earns some bonus points if you are familiar with the source material and some elements of the mystery plot too work better with some knowledge. And while this was originally written to be experienced in the game, I'd say the novelizations works quite well too. While designed for a more general audience, this novel will also please regular puzzle plot readers and it's also just funny to see the Servants Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty working together to solve the murders at the Kogetsukan. I have the novelization of the second event too, and will probably review that one soon too.

Original Japanese title(s): Type-Moon (原), 円居挽 『FGOミステリー 翻る虚月館の告解 虚月館殺人事件』

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Wrong Track

すべて何かのイチブってことに 僕らは気づかない 
「イチブトゼンブ」( B'z)

We don't realize that
Everything is part of something
"Some & All" (B'z)

And another Great Merlini review this year.

It didn't take much to convince overworked promotion writer Ross Harte to forget about the newest rewrite for a moment to join retired-magician-turned-amateur-detective The Great Merlini in a new adventure. The Great Merlini is doing a new show on haunted houses, and one of the top locations eyed by Merlini is a haunted house located on Skelton Island in New York's East River. Skelton Island is owned by wealthy Linda Skelton, who lives on the island with her two half-brothers and other guests, including the psychic Madame Rappourt. Colonel Watrous was a true believer of Madame Rappourt's spiritual powers in the past, but as of late, doubts have crawled into his mind, and he wants Merlini to see if he can debunk her. He secretly invites Merlini to Skelton Island, so he can witness one of Rappourt's seances, but while they are sneaking on the island, Merlini, Watrous and Harte notice that something's fishy in the supposed haunted house. Inside, they hear suspicious footprints on the floor above and chasing after them, they find the body of Linda Skelton inside a room, who died of poison. While at first sight, this might look like suicide, the fact that Linda suffered from severe agorophobia, would've made it impossible for her to leave the comforts of her own house to come here. While they are checking the scene, the three discover more curious facts: footprints walking on the ceiling leading to the one open window, and a fire is started on the ground floor of the building. When the people on the island are informed of Linda's death, they also find that the phone line's been cut and that all the boats have been let loose, stranding the people on the island. It takes the magician's brain of Merlini to see the connection between all these events in Clayton Rawson's The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939).

The Footprints on the Ceiling is the second novel in Rawson's The Great Merlini series (followed by The Headless Lady, which I reviewed a couple months ago). I haven't read the first novel (Death from a Top Hat), though I vaguely remember having seen the film once. I am not completely sure, but I believe both Madame Rappourt and Colonel Watrous appeared in that first novel, with Watrous (a believer in the occult) now having doubts about Rappourt's true powers. Anyway, reading these novels out of order doesn't really hurt the experience, in case you were wondering.

What does hurt the experience is that The Footprints on the Ceiling is an incredibly packed mystery novel, with far too many subplots and ideas for its own good. The result is a chaotic, meandering bunch of ideas, that lacks focus and meaningful plotting. Last year, I reviewed a few mystery stories that in my eyes, were pinnacles in mystery plotting in terms of synergy: the novel Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, but also the Detective Conan episode Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken were both packed stories, with lots of sub-plots and events, but what made these stories so memorable, was the fact there was synergy going between all these events. Nothing there happened on its own: each story element was there to strengthen and support other elements in multi-lateral directions, with for example murder methods, murder scenes, motives and sub-plots all interconnected in meaningful ways, where it was impossible to remove one element without affecting the fundamentals of the whole mystery plot. The Footprints on the Ceiling is an excellent example of what happens when you have a mystery plot that lacks such synergy, where elements are thrown in haphazardly without true consideration of how and why it all ties together and most importantly: whether the inclusion of such elements really improve the overall plot.

When you're reading The Footprints on the Ceiling, you are presented with, amongst others, 1) a backstory of a haunted house on Skelton Island; 2) a semi-locked room where Merlini, Harte and Watrous hear footprints in a room, but don't find the person behind them; 3) the mystery of why Linda Skelton is dead, in a room where she wouldn't have gone; 4) the mystery of the footprints on the ceiling; 5) the question of whether Madame Rappourt is a genuine psychic; 6) the mystery of who cut the phone line; 7) the mystery of who set the boats drifting; 8) the mystery of an unknown, naked man being found in a New York hotel who died of the bends (decompression sickness); 9) the mystery of missing half-brother Floyd; 10) the mystery of who's been dusting for fingerprints besides the police; 11) the search for a lost pirate treasure; and so much more. And the things: a lot of the elements are just there to make this a longer novel. Everyone has something to hide, with lots of subplots going on, but they usually have no direct connection with the main mystery. They are just there to act as a semi-red herring, to focus the spotlight on something else for a moment only to tell you 'sure, this all happened but it had nothing to do with the murder!' and then the spotlight moves again to someone else. One could say this is misdirection, but throwing a mountain of random things to obscure the underlying picture is the crudest manner to do misdirection and hardly a skill.

There are interesting ideas going in The Footprints on the Ceiling, mind you, but the execution isn't always optimal. Inspector Gavigan also works on a case of a naked body being found in a hotel room who died of the bends (decompression sickness): this is actually a pretty interesting situation on its own, but this problem is hardly given enough page-time to really settle, and this part is solved far too fast, and is soon forgotten among the plethora of other things going on in this novel. The main motive for the murder is also fairly interesting, but again, it's only "well-hidden" because everything and the kitchen sink is thrown in this story and it's more chore to sift through all the random ideas and happenings than actual fun.

After reading The Footprints on the Ceiling, I read through a few reviews which were far more positive about this book than I am, so your mileage may very well vary on this, but I thought this book a good example of the easy way out of writing a lengthy mystery story: by stuffing it with sub-plots that don't really connect in a meaningful way to the core mystery plot, by adding elements that are only there so the author can say "Haha, made you look." The book is not devoid of good ideas: but there is no synergy going on between these ideas at all, resulting in what can only be described as a random collection of ideas that never come together.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What the Hex Going On?


"Call upon the Witch of Selgrave"
"The Witch of Selgrave"

I don't have a particular preference for Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, but I have played a lot more Dragon Quests than Final Fantasies. The only Final Fantasy I have played is VII on the original PSX (and that was actually quite recently, like two or three years ago). But yeah, in my mind, the "traditional console RPG" will always be Dragon Quest, not Final Fantasy.

Like always, college student Toshiaki was walking his dog in the morning, but when they arrived in the local park, master and pet came across an anomaly in their routine. The discovery Toshiaki made in the bushes of the park shocked him greatly in two ways. First of all, anyone would be traumatized by the sight of a murdered girl only five or six years old, left behind the park. But what perhaps disturbed Toshiaki even more was the note pinned to the little girl's back, which held the message: "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." To most people, this message would be nonsense, but not to Toshiaki and the rest of his old classmates. Nine years ago, when he was still a student of the Tsubamegaoka Elementary School, one of his classmates disappeared. Nobody knew what had hapened to Hosoya Tomoki, whether he had been kidnapped or had run away from home on his own, or even if he were alive or dead. At the time, a note was found in his room which too said "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." The line came from the RPG Dark Redemption, a popular videogame at the time where one of the final quests involves the hero being told to visit the Witch of Selgrave, who in the game world, is known to kidnap children. While at first the note was thought to be related to Tomiki's disappearance, it was eventually assumed it was just a memo written while Tomiki was playing the game, as a reminder as how to proceed. But now nine years later, this message has resurfaced again, but why? The answer lies in Takase Mie's horror mystery novel Selgrave no Majo ("The Witch of Selgrave", 2009).

A few years ago, I reviewed Gyakuten Idol and Gyakuten Kuukou, which were both original children's mystery novels featuring the characters of the excellent mystery videogame series Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney. The books, published in a children's label, were obviously written for a relatively young audience, but they were also really good mystery novels. They may have been a tad simple, but the plotting and clewing were done by someone who knew exactly what they were doing and I have read enough mystery novels aimed at "adults" that aren't even remotely as neatly plotted as these two novels. I was thus very curious to read more mystery novels by the author. The author, Takase Mie, has a long resume featuring both videogame novelizations and original novels based on existing popular videogame franchises, including Kirby, Persona, Growlanser, Style Savvy and Fire Emblem. The list of her own, original novels was quite a bit shorter though, and most of them were fantasy or horror novels. Selgrave no Majo however caught my attention as it was billed a horror mystery novel, rather than pure horror, and the videogame theme of course also interested me.

Still, most of the time, you'll be reading Selgrave no Majo as a horror novel, and a fairly entertaining one too. The narrative jumps between various characters, from Toshiaki and some other of his classmates from Tsumabegaoka Elementary School, to characters like Tomiki's mother and Tomiki's aunt Reiko and a few others too. Each of these vignettes will give you insight in the thoughts of the respective characters, as they learn about the new murders of the young girls (yes, more follow) and unveil their ties to the disappeared Tomiki and several of them will also try to figure out who the murderer is and how all these events tie back to "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." The way the focus of suspicion keeps shifting is quite exciting, and the horror lies not only in the horrible murders of the girls, but especially in the hidden, sad past of all these victims (it's not monster horror, this is 'god why are humans such monsters' horror). Don't expect to be doing much detecting yourself though, as a lot of information is only conveyed to the reader as the characters make their own guesses (giving the reader little room to come up with ideas themselves), and most of the time, it's more like instinct/guesses ("He looks so suspicious!") than real deductions, but of course, that's how things go when you have a serial murderer prowling around a small, residential area, with all the people living there pointing fingers at each other behind their back.

Dark Redemption, the game referred to in the novel is of course not a real videogame, but think of traditional fantasy RPGs with heroes, witches, dragons like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy and you're close. I was surprised how well Takase had fleshed out the story of Dark Redemption though. Of course, Dark Redemption plays a big role in the story, and the line "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave" left on all the victims is a deliciously alluring line, but if there was a real Dark Redemption, I'd really want to play it for the story.

I was a bit disappointed Selgrave no Majo wasn't a pure puzzle plot mystery like the Ace Attorney novels by Takase I read, but that said, eventually, the novel does show why it's touted a horror mystery novel, and not just a horror novel. Again, most of the revelations will unfold 'automatically', with little space for the reader to really figure things out for themselves, but all the way at the end, there's a segment that's completely fairly clewed, and quite neatly so too. The true fate of Tomoki can be deduced on your own, and while it's no locked room/alibi trick/grand whodunnit or any classic mystery set-up, Selgrave no Majo does show how Takase knows how to properly spread hints and clues across a narrative and build up to her conclusion.

Selgrave no Majo is most of the time more a horror novel than a mystery novel, and somewhat of a departure of what I normally review on the blog, but I quite enjoyed it in the end. It's really different from the other novels by Takase I have read, but that's not a bad thing. The novel has a rather dark mood, but Takase makes good use of it to create a novel that addresses several themes that are quite contemporary and grounded in real Japanese society, and while at times the novel does sound a bit stereotypical in regards to its themes, I think it ultimately works as horror novel that also has a fairly-clewed mystery element to it. I think people who like Higashino Keigo will like this novel too considering its human angle.

Original Japanese title(s):『セルグレイブの魔女』

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Ozark Witch Switch

"A false tongue will never make a guilty person."
Susannah Martin (From the Rev. Parris account of the examination at Salem Village Meeting House.)

Funny how Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou never got an anime adaptation actually, while it did have a live-action adaptation.

When I asked for recommendations for Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series earlier, I was pointed to a storyline that starts in volume 10. The mysteries the young teenage prodigy Touma Sou and his impulsive athletic friend Mizuhara Kana usually encounter in Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou only span one single chapter, but In The Hands of the Witch was the first time a story spanned two chapters, and it even had a seperate story that acted as its conclusion in volume 12. I was quite interested to see what Katou could with the series when using a different format for his stories for a change so I decided to read these two volumes. Volume 10 (2001) opens at Kana's home, where Kana is entertaining Touma Yuu.Yuu had traveled all the way from the United States (where she lives) to visit her big brother only to learn that he's not at home, so she decided to hang out with Kana for the moment as she knows nobody else in the vicinity. Yuu has brought a postcard that was addressed to Sou in the United States. The postcard is not signed, and shows three children dressed for Halloween, with the message "See you again in the next winter." The children stand in front of what appears to the Witch House in Salem, and Yuu explains to Kana about the Witch Trials in Salem and how the town's relatively close to MIT in Cambridge, where her brother studied some years ago. She then remembers a case her brother was involved with five years ago that had to do with "witch trials", when a young Touma Sou had just started his studies at MIT at the tender age of 10.

Touma had a part-time job inputting data for the district attorney's office back then, which is where he also met Annie Crainer, a young prodigy district attorney and daughter of Daniel Crainer, a prominent figure in the legal world. The first case of the rising star of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Office was the murder on Marcus Osborne. Marcus was a wealthy man who in secret, was also the mastermind behind the arms smuggling in the region, even if the police couldn't find proof of his involvement. One night, cops on their beat heard a loud gunshot near the Osborne house and inside they found the man with a bullet hole right through his right eye. The only other person in the house was his young wife Sarah. The Osborne house stands at the end of a cliff, and the road was immediately closed, and the woods searched, but nobody was found, meaning that the only two persons present on the cliff at the time of the murder were the victim, and his wife Sarah. The fact that Sarah's twenty-two years younger than her husband and that she joined a shady sect called the Path to Arcadia a year earlier to which she donated a lot, raises suspicion with Annie, who soon decides to prosecute Sarah for the murder on her husband for financial gain. As the trial continues however, the defense attorney manages to take down each and every argument Annie can bring forward. Whats more, Annie becomes the target of public outcry, as she is accused of conducting a witch trial, persecuting Sarah only because she married an older husband and trying to get her convicted on flimsy evidence. Meanwhile Touma too is having doubts about himself, as he learns that his advice isn't always appreciated by the people around him. When Annie and Touma have a talk however, the two prodigies manage to give each other some well-considered advice, and Touma even manages to solve Annie's murder with one simple question that reaches the whole crux of the problem.

In The Hands of the Witch explores Touma Sou's past in a way I had not seen in this series yet, and the result is quite captivating. The core mystery plot is not incredibly impressive to be honest, but it works great as a vehicle to tell a genuine tale about Touma and Annie, resulting in definitely the most enthralling Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou story I've read until now. The story unveils itself to be a courtroom drama, following Annie as she tries to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, while the sly defense attorney does a great job at turning each of Annie's witnesses and exhibits around in the defense's favor. I do like how Touma succeeds in pointing out the truth to Annie by asking her one simple question, suddenly connecting all kinds of small questions and happenings, and changing all the various points into one single line leading to murder. That said, there are still little things about this murder plan that seem rather difficult to swallow, as the whole plan needed either a lot of coincidence and luck, or uncanny planning powers that were not explained, to work out the way it did. The murderer would've needed to obtain a certain object for example, that was 1) not even sure to come into existence in that form and 2) it was unlikely they could actually retrieve the object. Also, the plan needed the presence of a certain person, bringing along a certain object, which again was something they couldn't count on 100%. So I really how Touma manages to point out this plan, but the plan itself is less impressive.

In The Hands of the Witch ends in a tragic way, which convinces Kana to hide the postcard from Touma, as she doesn't want to bring up bad memories again. Volume 12 (2002) therefore opens with In The Outskirts of the Universe, a 'normal' story where a witness drawing of an 'actual' alien is stolen from a storage of an 'authority on alien lifeforms', with Kana ending up as the main suspect, even if it seems impossible for anyone in general to have taken the picture from the suitcase it was kept in, as somebody was near the suitcase all the time. It's a minor story, and it's pretty easy to identify when the picture must've been stolen (which immediately points to the real thief and also in the direction of how it must've been done). Nothing remarkable here but the story ends on a different note as Touma happens to come across the "See you again in the next winter" postcard in Kana's room in the very last pages, prompting him to go to the United States to find out who sent him this postcard.

The Rainbow Mirror forms the concluding chapter of the Witch Trial storyline and opens with the shocking murder on an prison inmate, who was five years ago jailed due to the events of In The Hands of the Witch. The poor woman's drink had been poisoned while she was entertaining a guest visitor, and that visitor is none other than Touma himself. Naturally, Touma is taken into custody on suspicion of murder, and the scene of the boy being ushered into a police car outside the prison are broadcast all over the world, including Japan. Kana is contacted promptly by Yuu and Touma's friend Loki, and Kana decides to fly to the United States to find Touma. The three arrive too late in Massachusetts however, as Touma was already released by the police, as video security footage in the prison showed someone else tampered with the drinks machine in the visiting area of the prison. They learn Touma has gone off to visit the other related parties to Sarah Osborne's case and they chase after him, but to their shock they learn more incidents happen to these people after Touma's visits, like Sarah's defense attorney getting into a traffic accident because his car brakes had been tampered with. Fearing the bad outcome of the Osborne case might've weighed on Touma's mind more heavily than they could've ever imagined, his friends try to trace him, but find they are too late each and every time. But is it really Touma who's committing a series of murders, or is some other force at play?

Well, of course it's somebody else. The Rainbow Mirror concludes this arc in the manga, but taken as a mystery story on its own, it's very weak. There is little mystery as to the how of the deaths and other incidents that occur over the course of the story, while the whodunnit aspect is also rather undeveloped. The precise events that led to the motive are very hard to swallow for example (especially considering the way In The Hands of the Witch ended) and with a character like Touma, there' not even a single second where you'll be doubting whether he really did commit the murders. So the story is mostly just about Yuu, Loki and Kana chasing after Touma and visiting all the people related to the Sarah Osborne case again. It works as a book-end to the storyline, giving you a glimpse at the aftermath of the Sarah Osborne case and the five years that have passed since, but in an attempt to bring an emotional gripping story, Katou goes way too far, pulling cards out of nowhere that just don't seem very convincing.

It was fun reading Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou stories for a change that didn't feel so limited in reach. The core mystery plot of In The Hands of the Witch might not've been super-complex (in fact In The Outskirts of the Universe is far more complex I'd say), but it works well as a device to also tell a story about both Touma and Annie in a courtroom drama setting. The Rainbow Mirror is more troublesome. I definitely recommend reading it, as it's definitely part of In The Hands of the Witch's story, but some of the events that occur there are a bit ridiculous, at least in the world of Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou (had this been Detective Conan, I would've been more willing to swallow the premise).
Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. -証明終了-』第10, 12巻

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dress Reversal

"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic"
"The Blue Cross"

Due to frequent shuffling with my posting schedule, this review got delayed a lot. I can't even remember how often it got bumped down, but also up the list. In fact, at one time, this review was supposed to be posted soon after another Ashibe review, early in the year, but shuffling around means this review is posted first, and we're several months later than first planned.

High school student Remi is one day attacked on her way back from school, with her sudden assailant leaving a scar on her face with a razor blade. This attack alone left quite the impression on the girl, but it wasn't the only event to befall her family: her uncle had a motorcycle accident, and her little cousin was kidnapped and had been missing for a few days already. Curious as all these happenings may be, Remi didn't think too much of them together, until she meets a mysterious figure at a costume party, who tells her the Murder Comedy King is behind all these incidents, and that while Remi's family already had their turn, the figure warns Remi that more will follow, and those targets won't get off with just a scratch on their face. Scared by this warning, Remi decides to seek help from the attorney Morie Shunsaku, who has made a name as an amateur detective. That the fiend's warning was more than just words, is soon proven to be true when horrible murders occur one after another, like a man being murdered by having his spine cracked on the dial of a clock tower, or a woman who is drowned alive in her own cellar. Meanwhile, it seems the Murder Comedy King has more than one enemy on his trail, as the great detective Hanagatami Joutarou and his boy assistant Ariake Masahiko too seems on the case, and that's actually really odd, as Hanagatami is supposed to be a fictional detective! Can Morie and Hanagatami stop the monstrous serial killer Murder Comedy King in Ashibe Taku's Kaijin tai Meitantei ("The Fiend versus The Great Detectives", 2000)?

Many authors have different characters for different kind of stories, but Ashibe is someone who has somehow managed to use his series detective Morie Shunsaku in an incredibly diverse story selection. Morie Shunsaku is an attorney, so you'd expect a courtroom drama, right? Sure, Saibanin Houtei is even almost social school, as it was written to coincide with the introduction of the Lay Judge System in Japan. But then you also have the stories where Morie's like those old master detectives solving crimes in creepy mansions with weird gimmicks like hidden passages, like in Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin. Historical and bibliophilic mysteries? Yep, got that one too. And what about a science-fiction detective story about parallel dimensions? Morie has covered that one too.... Every other Morie Shunsaku novel I read feels completely different from the previous one, as Ashibe will use him for whatever story he wants to write, and yep, Kaijin tai Meitantei adds another flavor.

Fiends, great detectives, you might've guessed already, but Kaijin tai Meitantei is a homage to the classic pulp thrillers by Edogawa Rampo from the 30s-40s, where Rampo's great detective Akechi Kogorou battles criminal masterminds with silly names like the Magician, the Golden Mask, the Dwarf, the Black Lizard, and of course the Fiend with Twenty Faces. While Kaijin tai Meitantei is set in contemporary times (the 2000s), the story reads as if we're still in the 1930s Japan with criminals dressing up as creepy figures to scare their targets and in the 1930s, it's also a lot easier to just kidnap people from the street without anyone ever noticing just by spraying sleeping gas and carrying your victim away with you or something like that (seriously: I never think about it much, but I can accept kidnappings much easier from 1930 pulp thrillers than stories set in modern days, because it's actually quite difficult to carry a body away from somewhere). The fanciful manners in which each of the targets of the Murder Comedy King is killed off are also clearly inspired by Rampo's work. Voyeurism is also a big theme in Rampo's work, as is exposition, and the gruesome murders in this novel could've fitted well in Rampo's novels, as yes, a man being tied to both the hour and minute hand of a clock tower so he'll get bent in middle is really icky, as is the murder where a girl is hanged from a balloon. Like in Rampo's work, the narration will often to the point of view of the victim here, leading to some real horror moments. Ashibe is having a lot of fun with these Rampo homages, and the book is brimming with references. In fact, each of the chapter titles in this novel is also a reference on its own to another chapter titles from Rampo's oeuvre and just figuring out where each title came from is a fun game for Rampo fans. Still, it's weird seeing Morie involved with a case like this, because the story is intentionally written to invoke the atmosphere of Rampo's novels, which is firmly set in 1920s-1940s modernizing Japan, while you know it's actually set in the 2000s.
As a mystery novel however, Kaijin tai Meitantei can not avoid falling in the same pitfall a lot of Rampo's novels also experience, though that might not have been Ashibe's goal in the first place. Anyway, there's a lot of gruesome deaths and scenes with the Murder Comedy King challenging his victims and the detectives, but there's not much to solve for the reader or Morie. The murders just happen and there's nothing particular to solve about them save for catching the killer. There's a kind of reveal about the Murder Comedy King at the end, but that's telegraphed rather obviously, but I'm not sure whether I should take it as a genuine reveal, or a "haha, Rampo's novels weren't that surprising in reality, so I'm going with a not-so-shocking reveal myself too" type of reveal. Sure, it feels like a Rampo novel with an ending like this, but I would've appreciated something that would've gone beyond that too. Ashibe also plays with meta-fiction in this novel, which is a theme he often utilises. Throughout the novel, you also learn that the great detective Hanagatami Joutarou is also working on the case, but he's a fictional detective by "Ashibe Taku," a personal friend of Morie, so how can a fictional figure also be working on a real case? There are some more segments that seem to blur the world of "reality" and "fiction" (within the setting of the story). There's an in-universe explanation for all of this, but it's more intended as a playful gesture to confuse the reader by Ashibe (the actual author).

Long story short, Kaijin tai Meitantei is exactly like one of those Rampo pulp thrillers, both in atmosphere and in execution. It's a very faithful homage to Rampo's work and his world, and as a fan of Rampo, I definitely had fun seeing these Rampo-esque situations. That said, I would never recommend Kaijin tai Meitantei as a first read in the Morie Shunsaku series, as its one purpose is just to revel in Rampo love. It's not really a Morie novel, and I also doubt readers can really appreciate the sheer silliness of this work without any understanding of Rampo's pulps.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『怪人対名探偵』