Wednesday, June 22, 2022

It Runs in the Family

「論理の路はつながりました」
『春ゆきてレトロチカ』
 
"The path of logic is connected"
 "The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story"

Is there like a rule that when Square-Enix makes a mystery game, it needs to take place across time and needs to have game mechanics revolving around generating hypotheses?

One of the earliest games I discussed on this blog, and one that I still think fondly of, is Trick X Logic on the PSP. The manner in which it translates the reading experience of a puzzle plot whodunnit story to a video game is absolutely fantastic, and shows very well how a properly written mystery story should allow a reader to gather clues, build hypotheses and lead them to the one and only answer. Of course, this was not surprising, considering the stories found in Trick X Logic were written by authors like Ayatsuji Yukito, Arisugawa Alice, Maya Yutaka, Ooyama Seiichirou and more! (Disclosure: I have translated the works of some of these authors!) Each of the stories in this game was presented in a novel game style, so simply a prose story you read like any other book. As you read the story, you pick up key words and phrases. Once you're done with the "Problem" part of the story, the interactive element start: as the player, you now have to answer the question of whodunnit. How? By using all those key words and phrases from the story in question, and combining them to generate questions, insights and hypotheses. For example, if the story mentions both "X is left-handed" "X caught the ball with his right hand", you could combine these two phrases to generate questions and hypotheses like: "X is ambidextrous," "Is X actually right-handed?" "Is X not able to use his left hand?" These new phrases could also be used, for example, "Is X not able to use his left hand?" and "X fell earlier from his horse" might generate the theory "X hurt his left hand." Trick X Logic thus was a game that really showed how you are supposed to read a detective story, focus on key phrases and combining them to create all kinds of hypotheses, even if they might be wrong. And as you create more and more hypotheses and combine these with each other again, you eventually arrive at the truth. Trick X Logic is in my opinion still one of the few games that really shows how a prose puzzle plot detective story should be tackled and I have always lamented the fact it never got a sequel or never inspired other games in the same spirit.

When earlier this year Square-Enix announced they'd release the FMV (Full Motion Video) detective adventure game Haru Yukite, Retrotica ("As Spring Passes By,  Retrotica") in May 2022, I was absolutely thrilled, for it was made by the director of Trick X Logic and was clearly inspired by that game. Released in English with the less poetic title The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story and available on Switch/Steam/PS4/PS5, the game tells an epic story that takes place across a whole century, and is told through live-action drama (interestingly, the director of this game also worked on 428, which also used live-action heavily). The titular Shijima family is a clan with history, sordid history even as recently, a skeleton was found under a tree at Shijima manor. Shijima Eiji, a medical scientist, asks the mystery writer Kagami Haruka to look into the case of the skeleton found at his parental home: Eiji is a medical consultant for Haruka's mystery novels, and thinks she can find out more about the mysterious skeleton. Haruka and her editor Akari go to Shijima manor, where they are welcomed by Eiji's father and they are allowed to witness an ancient ceremony which is held once a century by the Shijima family. After the ceremony, they are to have tea, but Eiji's father is poisoned. Haruka soon learns the Shijima family not only has skeletons in their garden, but also in the closet: for the last century, members of the Shijima family have been involved in various murder cases, and each time these murders were connected to the "Tokijiku" or Fruit of Youth, a mythological fruit that is supposed to give eternal youth to those who eat the coveted food. Realizing that the poisoning in 2022 and the skeleton have to do with the past murder cases, which also all involved a scarlet camellia left at the various scenes, Haruka decides to read up on the old cases and see if she can solve those, as they are the only clues she has to solve the current poisoning case. And thus Haruka's investigation into a series of murder cases taking place across the twentieth and twenty-first century starts...


The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is not a perfect game. It is not a perfect mystery game. But I really, really want to recommend this game to people who like puzzle plot mystery fiction, because it is basically the best next thing after Trick X Logic, and that game is hard to recommend because, well, it was only released in Japan and only on the PSP.  But while The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story has its hick-ups here and there, like its spiritual predecessor, it does really show well how a proper mystery story should lay its clues, how it should invite the reader (player) to use these clues to come up with properly built-up theories and how to combine theories to ultimately arrive at the truth. Few mystery games really show and teach you "reasoning techniques" that are also applicable to mystery in for example prose form, but The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story definitely does. Sorry for the self-promotion here, but if you liked mystery stories like The Moai Island Puzzle, Death Among the Undead, Death of the Living Dead and other puzzle-focused shin honkaku novels: this is a proper shin honkaku mystery game and you owe it to yourself to at least check it out. 

Once you're done with the game, you feel like you have watched a full season of a detective drama. The story starts in 2022 and many chapters ("episodes") are also set there, but Haruka also looks into prior cases involving members of the Shijima family, the Tokijiku and the Scarlet Camellia, some even taking place as early as in 1922!  In terms of terms of structure and gameplay, The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is very similar to Trick X Logic as mentioned earlier. Each chapter/episode starts with a lengthy live-action drama part that unfolds like a proper mystery detective story, from the building up drama to the discovery of the crime and subsequent investigation. Once the first "Problem" part of the episode is over, Haruka starts theorizing about the case in the Reasoning part.  Here the player has to answer a few crucial questions by using the clues and observations made during the first part. You can also rewatch all the relevant scenes of the drama part, or check other important information like floorplans and character relation charts here. As you consider the case using the leading questions as a guide, you combine these questions with the gathered clue fragments to generate hypotheses (many of them actually incorrect). Once you have generated enough hypotheses and new insights, you can move on to the Solution part of the story, where you get the classic "Everyone is gathered in the parlor and the detective reveals who did it" scene: this too is presented as a live-action drama, but the player now has to use the various hypotheses they generated earlier to answer all the important questions and eventually point out who the murderer is. 

 

The process of "observation" -> "creating hypotheses" -> "combining hypotheses" -> "point out whodunnit" is really satisfying, and the game mechanic itself is an excellent translation of how one should tackle a prose detective story too. I do have to say that the controls for the Reasoning part are pretty bad, at least on a console (I played the game on Switch). You have to constantly drag clue fragments to the corresponding question, but not only is dragging these fragments across the screen very time-consuming with a controller, for some reason, you are required to move each clue fragment to a specific place (suppose a question requires three clues: you can't place clue A to the right side of the question because it has to be to the left side). And strangely enough, the touch screen of the Switch is not supported, even though that would make dragging a lot more convenient... 

Generating hypotheses is definitely one of my favorite parts of the game. The mechanic is very simple (the game is made to appeal to non-gamers) and of course, the hypotheses are automatically generated once you combine the correct clues together, but the game does a great job at showing the player how each hypothesis, correct and wrong, are properly based on the clues. Often mystery games just offer you a list of optional answers, one of them good and the rest wrong, but there is no true explanation how each of those options actually came to be. In The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story, you are shown how every hypothesis (= possible answer in the Solution part) is built, from which hints they derive and how they all make sense (up to a degree). Sometimes, you have a fairly good idea of the case already when you start in the Reasoning part, but occasionally the game really manages to throw a screwball at you because when you combine clue A and B, you not only get hypothesis D you were expecting, but the same clues A and B also generate hypotheses E and F, which on second thought actually seem pretty convincing too (because you are shown that they derive logically from clues A & B). Of course, sometimes the hypothesis you create is obviously fake, in a funny way, but that's okay too: the game always shows that a theory in mystery fiction is based on actual clues shown in the story, and not just a gut feeling of "that person looks suspicious".

As for the cases themselves, most of them are not really complex, but I found most of them quite enjoyable. This is partially because of the grand scale of the story: Haruka is not only dealing with what happens at Shijima manor in 2022, but she also reads a few records of the cases that occured in the past. These parts are of course also presented as live-action drama, and it results in quite some variety on screen: one episode you are investigating a case that occurs in the modern world, the next episode you are transported to a suspicious underground auction in 1922. The period drama parts definitely manage to convey the atmosphere of those periods despite each episode not being very long (most chapters are about an hour long in total). What is also funny is how these period drama parts actually use the same actors as in the 2022 parts: the in-game explanation is that Haruka has to visually imagine the past cases while she reads the old records, and in her mind, she "casts" every character with the faces of people she knows, meaning that her editor Akari can be "cast" as one character in 1922, and "cast" as another in another case. It kinda reminds of the Nero Wolfe television show, which also reused a fixed cast who'd play different characters in different stories. I think these historical episodes are also the most memorable, as the plots of those episodes often make good use of their historical setting, utilizing props and ideas that belong to those periods. 

 

Oh, by the way, for some reason this game doesn't actually automatically move on to the final chapter on its own after playing the preceding chapter. There are no unlock criteria or anything, save for completing the previous episode but you have to especially choose to start with the final chapter in the main menu, even though the game doesn't actually tell you it added the new option for the final chapter, so it's quite possible you think you finished the game, but haven't actually started the final chapter. It's so weird, for it really should have just moved on to the final chapter on its own after finishing the previous one, but it doesn't... The final chapter answers a lot of important lingering questions too, and really helps make this a memorable mystery game by the way, so be sure not to miss it, because without it the story of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story is incomplete. 

And some minor trivia: voice actor Kaji Yuuki has a minor role in this game, but also the shogi player Kagawa Manao. The latter is interesting, because she also has a role in the shogi-themed mystery adventure game Senri no Keifu as herself. Is she actually a big mystery fan and that's why she has all these guest roles in mystery games???

The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story has plenty of minor faults, from its short run-time, the somewhat clumsy controls to the game being mostly a fairly passive experience. But it does present a very interesting and attractive mystery story dealing with a mysterious family, a mythological fruit and a series of murders that take place across time, and more importantly: it translates the experience of "solving a mystery story" perfectly. Like Trick X Logic before it, The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story shows how a proper detective story should be structured and how it should lay out a trail of clues for the reader to follow, and how readers are supposed to build theories based on these clues. The game mechanics of The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story are exactly how I read mystery fiction, and for example how I tackled my earlier playthroughs of Umineko: When They Cry and Higurashi: When They Cry. That is why I think that fans of puzzle plot mystery fiction really owe it to themselves to play The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story sooner or later. I think that at least for me, this will be one game that'll end up in my list of favorite mysteries at the end of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 『春ゆきてレトロチカ』

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Locked in Time

“Time was something that largely happened to other people; he viewed it in the same way that people on the shore viewed the sea. It was big and it was out there, and sometimes it was an invigorating thing to dip a toe into, but you couldn't live in it all the time. Besides, it always made his skin wrinkle.”
"Thief of Time"

Okay, it's almost summer now so a snow cover might seem a bit weird, but was still winter when I read this book...

Three years ago, Japan saw its first trial of a locked room murder case. The police and prosecution knew they had the right person: every piece of evidence they could find pointed towards the defendant, the only person near the crime scene who had anything remotely like a motive. However, there was one problem: they could never figure out how the locked room murder had been executed. They tried and tried, but could not explain how the defendant could've murdered the victim, and then left the room, as it was found locked tightly from inside. The prosecution argued this was a moot point: every thing else pointed at the defendant, and the locked room itself was a just a parlor trick and not relevant to the case at hand. The judge, naturally, did not agree with this argument. The prosecution failing to explain how the locked room was created, basically provided the defendant, and everyone else for that matter, with an alibi. How could the defendant have committed the murder if by all accounts, they couldn't have left the room afterwards? The defendant was found not guilty and with that, the Golden Age of Locked Rooms started in Japan. For all would-be murderers realized that if they managed to pull off a locked room murder the police couldn't solve, they'd always get away, even if they managed to find other evidence implicating them. After the first locked room murder, Japan saw a rise in the number of locked room murders in the country, which also urged society to adapt: locked room specialists appeared, ranging from architects to detctives and the Ministry of Justice even compiled an official list of all existing types of locked room tricks. On the other side, cults appeared that started to worship locked room murders as a way to mourn the dead.

Kuzushiro Kasumi is roped in by childhood friend to Yozuki to visit the House of Snow, a hotel somewhere in the mountains that used to be the private residence of a famous mystery writer. Yozuki is here because of a local Yeti-sighting, but Kasumi's interest lie within the hotel's history: Ten years ago, the mystery novelist who lived here held a party, and during the party he enacted a locked room murder: a "murdered" doll was found inside a locked room of which the key was found inside a bottle next to the victim. Nobody managed to solve the mystery, but it soon became a legend among fans of detective fiction, and even after the house got a new owner who turned it into a hotel, the "crime scene" was preserved and mystery fans still visit the hotel to try to solve the puzzle themselves. The hotel is also extremely popular due to the cooking skills of the owner and basically always booked full. Arriving at the hotel, Kasumi and Yozuki meet some of the other colorful guests, like the 15-year old Riria, an actress who everybody knows. Kasumi's interest is initially only focused on the murder game of 10 years ago, but then a real locked room murder occurs in the hotel, and of course, the usual happens: a snow storm arrives, the phone lines are cut and the one connecting bridge to the other side of the cliffs back to the main road also collapses. Everyone is now trapped inside the Hosue of Snow, and the killer is likely one of them. In the three years since The Golden Age of Locked Rooms started, most people have become somewhat familiar with locked room murders, so some guests try to solve the mystery themselves, but more and more murders follow, and always under impossible circumstances. Teaming up with a somewhat reluctant Mitsumura Shitsuri, a former classmate and fellow club member who happens to be staying at the hotel too, Kasumi too tries to solve the many murders that occur in Kamosaki Danro's 2022 debut novel Misshitsu Ougon Jidai no Satsujin  - Yuki no Yakata to Muttsu no Trick, or like the cover also says: The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks.

I'll be the first to admit that it was the title, and a quick glance at the summary, that immediately convinced me I wanted to read this book. The premise of a new age in society, where so many murderers commit locked room murders even the government has to compile its own "locked room lecture", just sounded so incredibly fun, with so much potential to get incredibly meta. Which is perhaps I was a bit disappointed once this book got going. For while the concept of The Golden Age of Locked Rooms is relevant to the story's main plot in several ways, it does feel like this book doesn't quite make full use of the potential of the premise. This is for a large part due to the setting of the book: The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks is a classic closed circle situation mystery, with the characters stuck in the House of Snow due to a heavy snow storm/collapsed bridge, so ultimately, you don't really get to see much of modern day society that is now experiencing The Golden Age of Locked Rooms. Sure, the characters mentions locked room murders, and among the other hotel guests, you have a locked room murder detective and even someone from the Tower of Dawn, a cult worshipping locked room murders, but it's such a shame we don't really get to see how The Golden Age has really changed society at large, we only get to see very limited snippets of these changes. Would the book have felt very different if it were just set in "normal" times, but with characters who all happen to be locked room murder mystery fans? Probably not very much, and that's where I think the concept of The Golden Age of Locked Rooms has a lot of unexplored potential.

The title reveals of course that this book is about six different locked room murders, with six different tricks utilized to create those situations. Some of these happened in the past (like the murder game organized by the mystery writer ten years ago), some are the current murders. The book is not very long, so you can imagine that the story does kinda rush through all of these murders. I think I can definitely feel the love of the author for mechanical trickery behind locked room murders though. None of the locked rooms featured here are pulled off based on some kind of psychological trickery, like fooling people into thinking a door was locked when in fact it was not: all the doors in this book are properly locked through some kind of mechanical trickery of the needle and string variety. I do have to say that even though mechanical tricks can be kinda tricky to understand because usually there are a lot of moving parts (strings being pulled and moved, for example), I'd say that for a debut novel, Kamosaki does a good job at explaining each trick rather clearly and easy to follow. I've definitely read work by authors who don't write as clear when it comes down to these kind of tricks. The book in general is very easy to read through, though some might not be very much into little techniques to make the reading so smooth, like using simple, "obvious" naming conventions for the characters, basically in the spirit of a manager being named M. Anager. Not surprisingly, the book has a distinct, often light-hearted tone like you'd expect from a light novel.

As for the six locked rooms, I'd say they're... okay? The various locked room murders aren't really connected to each other, as in, it's not like elements in one locked room situation will help you solve another locked room or anything like that, so you basically have six discrete situations. Some are more interesting than others, though I have to say that due to the short runtime of the book, most situations don't really get much time to settle: usually something happens, Mitsumura and Kasumi have a look around and by then they've already solved much of the how of the mystery, because of course the next locked room murder is already waiting around the corner. As mentioned above, the individual locked rooms are very much focused on mechanical trickery and a lot of them do feel like (combinations of) variations of ideas you'll probably have seen elsewhere before, but for the most part, I found this an entertaining book. I do also like the fact that the whodunnit is also given proper attention, implementing classic Queen-style deductions chains that look at things the murderer must have done to create said murder situation and then examining those actions to determine who couldn't or wouldn't have done those things in order to cross off names of the suspect list until you arrive at the murderer. Some of the deductions feel a bit forced (especially the premise that allowed for the final step in identifying the murderer at the very end), but in general, it'd sayt that despite its focus on the how of the murders in terms of premise (and title), the whodunnit aspects feel a bit more impressive: the focus on the mechanical trickery behind six locked rooms do make some parts feel a bit samey, which is less so in the whodunnit parts of the book.

The Murder in the Golden Age of Locked Rooms - The House of Snow and the Six Tricks is obviously written by someone who loves locked room murder mysteries and for a debut novel, it certainly has a lot of interesting ideas. While the full potential of the concept isn't explored in this book, I do like the idea of the Golden Age of Locked Rooms, and having six servicable locked room situations in any debut novel would be quite a feat. This book might not be a true classic of the genre, but I did enjoy reading the book and I'm definitely interested to see what Kamosaki will release in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 鴨崎暖炉『密室黄金時代の殺人 雪の館と六つのトリック』

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Snow White, Blood Red

So when in tears
The love of years 
Is wasted like the snow,
"The Forest Reverie" (Edgar Allan Poe)

I did read this book in the winter, fitting the theme, but by the time this review is posted here, it's probably almost summer...

Iwanaga Kotoko returns once again as the Deity of Wisdom for youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.) in Shirodaira Kyou's 2021 short story collection Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu - Iwanaga Kotoko no Junshin which also has the English title Invented Inference Short Stories - Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko! When she was a child, she was abducted by youkai and made their Deity of Wisdom, helping these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble involving the human world, acting as arbitrator and detective. Because Kotoko's cases are always connected with humans, she has become quite capable at the act of inventing inferences: while the truth is simply that some supernatural being is involved with the problem, Kotoko always presents the humans with completely false, but convincing explanations that incorporate all the known facts, without having to reveal that in fact youkai were involved. The series is thus not about finding out a truth, but fabricating a truth that humans will believe. Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko is the fourth book in the series, and the second short story collection following 2018's Invented Inference Short Stories - Appearance of Iwanaga Kotoko, and the two books are quite similar in structure. Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko too features five stories, some of which are very short and closer in style to short intermezzos/character vignettes, but all of them present rather unique mystery stories because they involve the supernatural. Interestingly, some of these stories were first published in manga format: the manga based on the series runs simultaneously with the books nowadays, but due to different publication schedules, some stories will be featured in the manga before the books.

The very short stories however are once again the less memorable parts of the book. Yoku kangaeru to Kowakunai demo nai Hanashi ("A Story That Could Be Creepy If You Think About It") tells the story of Kotoko's boyfriend Kurou, who has a part-time job as a mover. This time, he's moving stuff out of a house which is said to be haunted, but to his co-workers' surprise, nothing happens at all that day. It's more a story that works towards a punchline about the supernatural, but it's easy to predict where this is going if you know who Kurou is (and his history was already explained in the first book). Similarly, Mato wo enaide Mato wo iyou ("Hit the target without hitting the target") is a very short story where Kotoko is asked to arbitrate between two monkey spirits who are arguing about a bow and arrow they stole. This leads to a Judge Ooka/Judgement of Solomon-esque situation, but the story is over before you know it. These stories are not bad per se, but just so short you'll barely remember them once you're done with the book.

Shisha no Futashika na Dengon ("An Unclear Dying Message") starts with the visit of Reina to her grandparents in the countryside. On her way back to the station, she runs into a mysterious woman, who reminds her of her old high school classmate Kotoko. It turns out this woman is Rikka, cousin of Kotoko's boyfriend Kurou. Reina tells Rikka about Kotoko's life at high school and how everyone thought she was so mysterious, with rumors flying around that she had ties with the supernatural, and that she'd sometimes help people out, though often not in the way most expected. For example, one day, a classmate wanted Kotoko's help due to a problem her uncle had. Her uncle had been rivals with a co-worker at the office, vying for the same positions, but one day, the man was hit on the head with a hammer and died. But before he died, he wrote down the name Takehiko, which was the uncle's name. He became a suspect of course, but soon after the police arrested another man, who had confessed to the death, caused by a freak accident, This seemed to clear the uncle's name at first, but nobody knows why he wrote the name "Takehiko" before dying, and that combined with rumors of a bloody ghost still appearing at the scene of the death, and rumors of the uncle being the real murderer who somehow got away, the man is more-or-less ostricized at the office, unable to get a promotion. Kotoko's classmate has to listen to her uncle's story every time the family meets, so she hopes Kotoko can clear things up so her uncle will finally shut up. While initially, you might be inclined to think this is a classic dying message story, it certainly isn't, and that's made clear rather early on through a discussion about the dying message trope in mystery fiction and how it's so unbelievable and unpracticable. And that fits this series perfectly, because of course Kotoko's answer to the dying message is probably made-up, but it's convincing enough, and what's more, Kotoko's clever enough to recognize the true problem her classmate has, and the solution she provides is just a whole pack of convincing conjecture, but which does allow her classmate to solve the underlying issue. It's a fun story because it turns the idea around of a detective needing to find the truth, instead of focusing on the idea of a detective who only needs to find a workable solution for everyone involved.

The first and final story in this book are the main dish, and form a set together. Yukionna no Dilemma ("The Dilemma of the Snow Woman") features an interesting problem that, at first sight, could only occur in this series. Kotoko is this time approached by Yuki Onna (a female snow spirit) who seeks help for a dear human friend. Masayuki had once been saved by this Yuki Onna in the past already, but he had retreated to the countryside once again his wife cheated on him: he left his company and went back to the place where long ago, Yuki Onna had saved him from an icy death. Sheer coincidence has the two meet once again, and they slowly develop a friendship, with the Yuki Onna often staying at his home to drink and eat. A year after his divorce however, he's visited by the police, as his ex-wife has been murdered, and there are clues, like a partial dying message that point to Masayuki as the killer, as well as a letter written by his ex-wife sent after her death, where she accuses Masayuki of the murder if she dies an unnatural death. When asked for his alibi for the night of the murder however, Masayuki finds himself in a bind: he technically has an alibi, as he was eating and drinking with the Yuki Onna at his home, but how are you going to explain to the police you were spending the night with a spirit!? Masayuki and the Yuki Onna therefore ask Kotoko for help to resolve this problem. The idea of someone having a perfectly fine alibi save for the fact it's a supernatural alibi is pretty fun, though most of the problem is solved by Kotoko in a surprisingly "conventional" manner: she doesn't really need to twist facts for the police to solve this case without revealing the existence of the supernatural, for at the core, the murder itself is a completely human affair, and it's only the problem of Masayuki's alibi that depends on the supernatural. In that respect the story might be a bit disappointing, because the existence of the Yuki Onna is used in this story more effectvely for dramatic effect rather than for the mystery, even if it's an enjoyable story on its own.

The final story, Yuki Onna wo Kiru ("Slaying the Snow Woman") involves the Yuki Onna once again, but for a different problem. Long ago, in the Edo Period, there was a swordfighter who managed to defeat a Yuki Onna who had been challenging swordfighters and killed many of them. This man, Shirakura Hanbei, perfected his swordstyle, opening his own dojo and while he had no child of his own, he adopted a mysterious child who was at least as talented. At age 40 however, the unbeatable swordfighter Hanbei was found with his neck slashed open in the garden of his dojo and with his dying breath, he seemed to accuse the Yuki Onna. Many generations later, and Shirakura Shizuya finds himself consulting Kotoko. He is a direct descendent of the adopted son of Shirakura Hanbei, and he wants Kotoko to find out what happened to Hanbei, because he fears he's actually the offspring of the Yuki Onna, and thus a terrible murdering beast himself. Kotoko consults with the Yuki Onna from the first story, who reveals that Shizuya is actually her nephew, and that the Yuki Onna from the old story was in fact her older sister. So Shizuya is indeed half-youkai and while she explains everything to Kotoko, Kotoko is burdened with a different task: she has to come up with an explanation that will give Shizuya hope, an answer that won't lead to him cursing his own blood forever or even worse, actually turn himself into an evil spirit. This is not a conventional mystery story, as once again a lot of the "truth" is explained by spirits, and Kotoko's main concern lies not with the truth, but focuses on an acceptable lie. Personally, I do think the historical setting of (large parts of) the story undermines the "power" of this series. Kotoko's elaborate lies work best in the context of her abusing existing hard evidence to dance around the supernatural explanation, and such evidence are more clear in modern-day, real-time cases. But here, we're talking about a murder case that happened centuries ago, with only hearsay as "evidence" so Kotoko's interpretations just feel less... convincing in general.

I'd say Kyokou Suiri Tanpenshuu - Iwanaga Kotoko no Junshin (Invented Inference Short Stories - Innocence of Iwanaga Kotoko) is on the whole a fairly entertaining volume, though I do feel the first short story collection was better, with the individual stories being more memorable. This book does offer something interesting with two very different cases involving a Yuki Onna and those two stories are definitely the better ones in this volume, but their best moments simply don't match the best moments from the first short story collection. I'd still say the first book in this series is the best, and if you like the concepts and characters found there, this volume is also worth reading, The next one is a full novel again, and I have already purchased it, so let's see how that one will turn out!

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理短編集 岩永琴子の純真』:「雪女のジレンマ」/「よく考えると怖くないでもない話」/「死者の不確かな伝言」/「的を得ないで的を射よう」/「雪女を斬る」

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Deadline for Murder

“They always gives me bath salts," complained Nobby. "And bath soap and bubble bath and herbal bath lumps and tons of bath stuff and I can't think why, 'cos it's not as if I hardly ever has a bath. You'd think they'd take the hint, wouldn't you?”
"Hogfather"

Matsumoto Seichou is best known as the main figure of the shakai-ha (social school) movement, a post-war school of Japanese mystery fiction that places emphasis on the social backgrounds of crimes, which is usually often juxtaposed against honkaku orthodox puzzle plot mysteries. It is commonly said that Matsumoto's success was what led to the decline in popularity of the puzzle plot mystery in Japan starting the fifties, which would only be turned around in the second half of the eighties with The Decagon House Murders and other novels that explicitly markes a return to the puzzle plot. There are Matsumoto works I enjoy a lot, like Ten to Sen (Points & Lines) and its sequel Jikan no Shuuzoku, which are books that focus much more on the puzzle plot, but in general, I don't really have much fun with the books where Matsumoto zooms in on some person who's getting involved with all kinds of company politics and eventually finds themselves, often due to circumstances beyond their control, forced to commit some kind of crime. This is just a personal preference, and the reason why you don't see Matsumoto often on this blog here, even if by all standards, he's an important figure in Japanese mystery fiction: he just doesn't write the type of crime novels I like to read.

Baiu to Seiyouburo ("The Rain Season and A Western Bath Tub" 1971) is a somewhat minor work in Matsumoto's long list of books, and I think it's perhaps the best example of a book that, thematically, might be interesting to a lot of readers, but I personally didn't really like the book very much because it has an interesting mystery idea deep, deep within the book, but it's nearly undetectable due to the focus on the set-up, characterization and focus on social issues. It is a work which in a way, symbolizes how I have experienced Matsumoto's stories until now, all within one single novel. This book starts with an introduction of Kanezaki Gisuke, owner of a sake brewery with political aspirations. He also owns a local newspaper, where he voices very harsh criticisms on the achievements of the current people in power in Mizuo City, though he is willing to drop hot stories if these people agree to contribute "advertisement money" to his newspaper. Eventually, Gisuke manages to get himself elected into the city council, as part of the same political party as those in charge now, but he belongs to the minority faction within the party, so he is currently trying to turn things around within his own party and get "his" people elected and chosen into the major positions in Mizuo City. Because of his current political responsibilities, he has decided to hire a new man to help run his newspaper. Doi Genzou was initially a slow-witted man who could barely write two sentences worth reading, but under the guidance of Gisuke, he's become a well-known figure in Mizuo City now as the "face" of the newspaper, focusing on stories that are of course critical of the people running Mizuo City now, while praising the exploits of that brave city council member Gisuke. With Genzou as his new editor-in-chief, Gisuke also has more time to persue an affair with a woman in a different town in the prefecture, which is a popular tourist destination. But as the months pass by, Gisuke slowly sees things slipping out of his control, from his aspirations within the party to the political alignment of his own newspaper and the agenda of his once-loyal pawn Genzou, and this culminates a murder that only seems to benefit Gisuke, but he has an alibi for the time of the murder...

And a few moments later, the book ends.

This book is twenty-two chapters long. The first nineteen chapters, focus on Gisuke's life, how he starts his newspaper, how he decides to hire Genzou and train him, Gisuke getting elected in the city council, starting an affair, trying to play the political game, things going not the way he wants.... and then a dead body is discovered lying somewhere in an alley by the police at the start of chapter 20, an unnatural death for which only Gisuke seems to have a motive, but he also has an alibi for the time of the murder. As you can guess, the book rushes towards the end as there are only twenty-two chapters. It's not hard to guess that it was indeed Gisuke who did it, and that he somehow provided himself with a perfect alibi, but any clever notions the trick has don't really manage to impress because the story moves too fast here. The whole murder and Gisuke's perfect alibi all feel like an afterthought, an epilogue to the nineteen chapter long story of Gisuke's fall and him arriving at the intention to commit a murder. The concept behind how Gisuke managed to create a perfect alibi for himself is actually pretty good, and silly: there are some good clues hidden in the long nineteen chapter-long set-up, but an attentive reader can put the clues together and figure out how Gisuke managed to fabricate that alibi for himself, and it's both memorable (especially if you visualize it) and plotted cleverly. But it all feels underwhelming because this part of the story is dumped on the reader in the last few chapters. The mystery has been presented to the reader for one second when the solution arrives, giving the concept no time to settle or develop in any way. A waste, because the core idea is fun, and could have supported a story as the main focus easily.

So the first nineteen chapters, you are just reading about why Gisuke decided to commit the murder eventually (emphasis on eventually), showing how he first built his political power in Mizuo City by exposing corruption and pointing at the people in power, only to become one of them himself (while still using his own newspaper to leverage his own position). Providing a criminal with a motive is of course not a bad thing by any means, and some might like the detail with which we are shown Gisuke's life, but for me, this is overkill. Nineteen chapters of set-up is just too much, and even though there are hints and clues pertaining to the murder/Gisuke's trick hidden in this first section, hiding one or two (good) clues in a section nineteen chapters long is not very difficult of course. Readers who like chracterization more than the puzzle aspect of crime fiction, will probably love this book though as it certainly does a very thorough job of "preparing" Gisuke's mental state for the murder, but it doesn't work for me at all. The reverse (three chapters for set-up, nineteen about solving the crime) would have been my personal preference.

I won't say Baiu to Seiyouburo is a bad novel: but I can safely say it is not the type of mystery novel I enjoy. It focuses more on the aspects I don't care much about, and far less on the aspects I do care about, resulting in the type of novel that seems to me to symbolize Matsumoto Seichou's work. Which, if you like Matsumoto Seichou's work in general, is probably a sign you should read this book, because it does what Matsumoto does pretty well, really delving into Gisuke's state of mind, but I think it comes at the cost of elements that I personally enjoy more.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張『梅雨と西洋風呂』

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

We're Off to Kill the Wizard

「死んだ人間はどんな事をしても元に戻らない」
『鋼の錬金術師』
 
"People who have died will never return, no matter what you try."
"Fullmetal Alchemist"

I don't always read series in order. At least, not with novel series. I usually assume books in a detective series won't spoil previous ones, and most of the time, I'd be right. Reading out of order is something I especially tend to do with older series with many entries, as I often decide to read the most interesting sounding story first and then just make my way through what's available, while with more recent series.. I just happen to start with the first book because it's the only one out at that moment. So it's not really a choice then. I do think it's interesting at times to start somewhere midway, and then slowly learning what the "patterns" of a certain series and writer are as you make your way back into the series, it usually feels more surprising than just reading the books in order. However, occassionally, I do regret reading certain series out of order. Today's book is one of them.

2000 years ago, Hermes, offspring of God, descended upon the planet to convey upon people the Seven Divine Secrets: the day humans would solve all seven of them, step by step, they would be able to reach the realm of God. It would take nearly two thousand years before humans would finally solve the first secret, teaching them the secret of transmutation, or alchemy, giving mankind the power to transmutate mattter at an elemental level. Since then, there have always been no more, no less than seven alchemists on the planet, always one dying before a new one arises. These alchemists are the only ones to have mastered the lowest level of the Divine Secrets, so they are also the only ones capable of figuring out the next step on the pyramid of the Seven Divine Secrets. Decades have passed since Magnus, the first alchemist, lived and it's in recent years that the alchemist Ferdinand III managed to solve the secret of Aether materalization and the creation of Aether-batteries has led to an energy revolution and the manufacturing of Aether-powered vehicles and other machines. Alchemists are seen as the most powerful people on the world, and therefore also considered a political and military force. Many of them are employed by states like Astarte or Bahl, but Ferdinand III is one of the exceptions: he is employed as a private consultant by the Mercury Company, a private enterprise from Astarte that has made a fortune thanks to Ferdinand III's materialization of Aether, His research has made the Mercury Company a force to be reckoned with, even by the government of the Kingdom of Astarte. Mercury Company has grown so powerful, they have their own city: Trismegistos is a Aether-powered city that floats above a lake and is a full-blown city, with at its center Mercury Company's HQ and deep within the basement of that building lies Ferdinand III's laboratory.

Emilia Schwartzdelphine was once a promising (male) cadet of the Academy, but circumstances had made him an outcast upon graduation, and he was posted far away from the capital. His direct superior wants to have him back however because he knows Emilia's capabilities, and he arranges for a task for Emilia, that upon completion, will allow him to return to the capital for good. Emilia is act as an observer to Theresa Paracelsus, head of the special military unit Alkahest: the foul-mouthed, and somewhat lazy Theresa is the sole State Alchemist of Astarte, but a lot of the other divisions in the army don't like the idea of alchemy, so Emilia's boss wants to see if he can find any excuse to get Theresa fired and Alkahest disbanded. Theresa has been invited by the Mercury Company to come to Trismegistos for a few days for a history-making event: Ferdinand III has succeeded in solving the next Divine Secret, the secret of the soul, and will demonstrate this in Trismegistos, with the State Alchemist Theresa as a special guest. Emilia will accompany Theresa to Trismesgistos, keeping an eye on her during their visit. Theresa and Emilia arrive one day before the event in Trismegistos, and meet Ferdinand III in his highly secured basement lab, where he exchanges the usual compliments with Theresa and explains he has indeed succeeded in solving the secret behind the transmutation and creation of souls. His assistant Alraune is actually a homunculus, Ferdinand III's first success, and tomorrow, he will breathe life into a brand new dummy made especially for the presentation in front of everyone. They all retreat that evening to prepare for the event tomorrow, but an alarm wakes up everyone in the night: something is going on in the Ferdinand III's lab. But getting inside isn't easy: three steel doors block the corridor leading to the basement, the first two requiring the hand palms of key persons in Mercury Company, the final door the hand of Ferdinand III himself (meaning it always requires a combination of both Ferdinand and a Mercury Company executive to get inside the lab). When they finally manage to get inside, they find a horrible scene in the lab: Ferdinand III has been impaled on the wall with a zweihander sword made of gold, and Alraune too has been killed. They soon realize this is utterly impossible: not only is there no way for any outside to get in or outside the highly secured lab, but who could ever beat an alchemist in a fight, a person who could change anything around them into a weapon to fight their assailant? Only...  an alchemist could. Theresa is quickly fingered as the culprit, as she's the only one who could just transmutate her way through all the security measures, but Emilia doesn't believe she's the killer, and he buys the two of them some time to solve the impossible murder on Ferdinand III before they'll be executed as the killers in Konno Tenryuu's Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu (2020), which also has the English title Alchemist in Locked Room on the cover.

I read the second book in this series, Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu or Alchemist in Mercury Tower last year, which I enjoyed a lot as a fantasy mystery story with a unique locked room mystery, even if the depiction of alchemy in this series was a bit odd as it came straight out of Fullmetal Alchemist. Which is of course a great series, but the way alchemy is depicted there is very specific and not in any way like a classic depiction of alchemy, while Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu seems to pretend like it's the default way to show alchemy, assuming every reader will think it's natural to think alchemy is conducted by placing hands on the object you want to transmutate and light effects and everything appearing. Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu and its sequel are obviously written in a post-Fullmetal Alchemist world and if you don't know FMA, I suppose the alchemy shown here is utterly baffling, but on the other hand, even knowing FMA I think it's really weird to assume this is a normal way to show alchemy. Anyway, I did mention in my review of the sequel that " I have a feeling that wasn't really the best way now, as this second book does spoil a few details of the first book I think, and in other regards it seems to skip over things that are probably explained in more detail in the first book." I wasn't completely right in that regard, as some things that seemed to be skipped over weren't explained in this first book, but just explained a bit too swiftly in the second, but I was certainly right in saying that the second book did spoil enough about the first book to make me realize what had happened in the locked lab murder right away, so I do recommend other people to read these books in order.

Unlike Renkinjutsushi no Shoushitsu, the first book focuses on one single crime scene, making this a fairly small story. Ferdinand III (and Alraune) were found killed inside the triple-locked underground lab: three steel doors seperate the lab from the rest of Mercury Company's HQ and not one single person can open all three doors by themselves, as while only MC executives can open the first two doors (and there are guards there too!), the last door can only be opened by Ferdinand III himself. Yet the logs show nobody else entered these doors from the moment he was last seen alive until the murder and the alarms inside the lab suddenly went off. The lab itself has no other exits large enough for a person to pass through. Meanwhile, Ferdinand III himself was impaled on the wall by a gigantic zweihander made of gold, which adds to the mystery: who could defeat an alchemist, who can just transmutate anything in his environment into a weapon to fight off any attackers, and why was he killed with a weapon made of gold? It's no wonder the police (with some pressure of the military) suspect Thereasa is the murderer: there are only seven alchemists on the world, and she is the only one near the scene of the crime that night. She would be the only one who could just use alchemy to transmutate holes in the walls to break into the lab (and put them back up), and transmutate a weapon of gold: while transformers are capable of doing low-level alchemy by transforming the shape of objects, only alchemists can conduct elemental transmutation, like creating a weapon of gold. Of course, Emilia doesn't believe Theresa did it, so Theresa and he  (and the reader) have to figure out how anyone could've penetrated the triple-locked room and killed Ferdinand without the use of alchemy, despite the existence of alchemy.

In a way, that last line is exactly what makes this book a familiar locked room scenario, one even people who aren't used to seeing fantasy elements in fair play mystery can get used to. For how often have you not read a locked room mystery, which is actually not really a locked room mystery, because there is one suspect who could've done it, but for plot-reasons we are told they are not the killer, for example, because they're the protagonist? One of Carter Dickson (John Dickson Carr)'s most beloved locked room mysteries is exactly like that and Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu follows the same pattern: it's only really a locked room mystery if you believe one character isn't the killer, even though theoretically only they had the opportunity. 

Of course, it would be a bit disappointing to have a mystery novel set in a world with alchemy, transmutation and transformation and not have the solution involve any of that, so yes, the solution to the grand mystery does feature those elements, but alchemy is definitely not used as a cheat here: both transmutation and transformation have specific limitations which are explained and explored in this novel, with both Theresa and Emilia theorizing about what could, and what could not have been archieved with either of those techniques. I do like the idea that the solution is actually lying in a completely different direction than you are probably likely to think off first, and while the answer does utilize alchemy, it is used in a way that isn't just "they made an opening into the lab and then sealed it again," requiring much more creativity from the reader if they want to solve the mystery themselves. I think the misdirection here works, up to an extent: it didn't help that the sequel did spoil a lot of the solution already, but I also think that that ultimately, the book shows off too little of the characters who appear in the story, so quite early on, you already have an idea of who'll be important and not, and because of the limited number of focused puzzle pieces, it becomes fairly simple to arrive at the solution. I like the solution to how the murderer managed to penetrate the locked room, kill the alchemist, and get away a lot in concept, and I do think there are really clever clues and ideas in terms of motive too, but it's told a bit too swiftly, meaning some elements feel a bit underutilized.

And having read the sequel, I did feel the latter was superior in basically all aspects, as it managed to show more interesting aspects of the outside world, while also presenting a trickeier mystery plot, with more false solutions and things like that. Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu is a promosing first book in the series, introducing the concept of alchemy and using that concept in a fairly interesting way for the locked room mystery in that novel, but it's noticable that the sequel really builds on every aspect of the first novel and manages to improve on them, sometimes in very minor ways, sometimes in more significant ways. So in that sense, reading them in order is perhaps also more fair to Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu, because it does show growth in the series.

Like the second novel, Renkinjutsushi no Misshitsu is an entertaining locked room mystery that manages to present a fair play mystery in a world where alchemy exists, and it uses the concept of alchemy to challenge the reader with a puzzle that wouldn't be possible otherwise. It's not as cleverly plotted as the sequel, and here and there you might feel the scope of the book is a bit too limited, but overall I think it's a fun read, though I have to repeat myself and say you should read them in order. I for one hope a third novel will be released to see how things will develop even further!

Original Japanese title(s): 紺野天龍『錬金術師の密室』

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

For Whom the Ball Tolls

Tempus fugit

Authors of mystery fiction often have certain tropes that are often found in their work. Many of them are about plotting techniques. John Dickson Carr is often associated with locked room murders and other impossible murders, while you're likely to find Queenian reasonings in the stories written by writers like Alice Arisugawa. It's often such tropes that actually attract readers to certain writers, as they know what they can expect from a certain book or writer. Another type of recurring tropes are not the actually plotting techniques, but story-related themes. Some might like to involve romantic subplots for example, or have their stories set in a certain place and time. Ashibe Taku is one of those writers who has a very distinct set of such story themes that you're likely to find in any randomly selected story by him and vice-versa, once you have read a few of his stories you'll immediately know the themes he likes to write about in his mystery stories. The easiest themes to identify are the literary and historical references in his stories. As far as I know, Murder in the Red Chamber is the only full-length novel by Ashibe available in English at the moment, but that too is an excellent example of his themes, as the book is based on the Chinese 18th century classic Dream of the Red Chamber, and naturally full of references to both the literary work itself, as well as historical references and research. The historical and literary references are naturally also found in his pastiche series The Exhibition of Great Detectives (1 and 2), which features crossovers between famous fictional detective, but even a book like Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Japanese Clock Mansion Murders", 2000), set in modern times, will show off the literary and historical research does for his books. A third common trope in Ashibe's work is the city of Osaka, to be exact, the old Osaka, not the metropolis it has become now, but the old commercial modern city it became after the industrial revolution and that is now slowly disappearing as the current Osaka is becoming more like a gigantic metropolis like Tokyo. In works like Satsujin Kigeki no Modern City ("A Murder Comedy In The Modern City", 1994) he explores a bustling 1920s Osaka, while in Toki no Misshitsu ("A Locked Space in Time", 2001). he explores the change of Osaka by having his series detective Morie Shunsaku tackle two case, one set in the Osaka of 2001 and one set in the Osaka of the nineteenth century. One can easily sense Ashibe's love for the old Osaka in all of his works.

Of the works by Ashibe I have read, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken ("The Oomari Family Murder Case", 2021) is in a way his best effort in combining all the three themes mentioned above with a classic mystery plot and I am not the only one: the book recently won this year's Mystery Writers of Japan Award, and a few days after I finished reading the book, it was announced that Ashibe also won this year's Honkaku Mystery Award with Oomarike Satsujin Jiken (the latter together with Yonezawa Honobu's 2021 novel Kokuroujou ("The Castle with the Dark Prison") AKA The Arioka Citadel Case). So at least critically, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken has been received very well, and I myself can see why. Ashibe's works are featured on this blog relatively often, so I have read my share of his work and while I myself do like literary references, I can't deny that at times, the deep literary and historical references featured in his works are a bit too deep. Sometimes, parts of his work feel like they're screaming "Look, this is a really obscure reference only very few people will understand" at you, so his novels feel a bit too "for fans only" at times. This is not the case with Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, where the references to literature, the historical setting and Osaka do have synergy and really elevate the mystery plot, making the complete package a greater whole than the sum of its parts. It is one of Ashibe's best mystery books that makes good use of his favorite tropes, making it, at this moment, the go-to-book if you want try out his work and get a good idea of his writing, I think.

Oomarike Satsujin Jiken starts with a short prologue set in 1906, when young Oomari Sentarou disappears mysteriously during a visit to the Panorama near Osaka's Namba Station. The disappearance of Sentarou, the heir of Oomari Pharmacy, was perhaps a sign to the immenent decay of the once well-known family of merchants. Decades ago, Oomari Pharmacy was a household name in Osaka when it came to medicine, but recently, they had moved to selling make-up too, which was a brilliant business move. The Oomari family lived in Semba, the commercial centre of Osaka, brimming with other merchants and their apprentices. Sentarou was never found, and years later, his sister Kiyoe and her husband Shigezou became the new heads of the family, leading the Oomaris during dangerous times. For over thirty years after Sentarou's disappearance, World War II would begin and eventually, Japan would involve themselves in the war too. It's during this time the decline of Oomari Pharmacy starts: importing make-up had slowly become impossible and the act of selling make-up itself was deemed a very anti-nationalistic deed, so it didn't take long for Oomari Pharmacy to get into financial problems. Once a name known throughout the city, by the time the war was in full swing, Oomari Pharmacy had only one real apprentice (a so-called "Decchi") left in the shop, where all they could do was sell amenity kits for soldiers. What was even more worrying was that the future of the Oomari family itself was uncertain. Second son Shigehiko, who was suppose to take the company over, had been drafted and sent away to the battlefield already, while oldest son Taiichirou, a doctor, had been drafted too as an army doctor. Taichirou's wife Mineko decides to move to the Oomari home during the war while awaiting her husband, where she gets badly along with sister-in-law Tsukiko, and very well along with her young sister-in-law Fumiko. All they can do is hold the fort until the war is over and Taichirou and Shigehiko return, but it is in 1945, in the last months of the war, that disaster strikes at the Oomari home. After an attack on Tsukiko, the body of patriarch Shigezou is found in his room, hanging from the ceiling. While it doesn't seem like anyone would have a reason to kill him, there are clear signs that indicate this wasn't a suicide or accident, but as times passes by, more members of the family are killed in gruesome manners. Meanwhile, Mineko, as the wife of the oldest son, finds herself being pushed into the role of the one carrying the family, but luckily she finds that her old classmate, Nishi Natsuko, is a training as a doctor at the local doctor, and she turns out to be a powerful ally as they both try to figure out who is killing the members of the Oomari family and why.

While the book opens with a very Rampo-esque trope (the visit to the Panorama), who was a very Tokyo-focused writer, Oomarike Satsujin Jiken quickly becomes a tale that focuses truly on the old Osaka that doesn't exist anymore: the traditional commercial district of Semba really comes alive in the pages of this book, with most characters speaking in the old Semba-dialect, utilizing a lot of local culture like the decchi apprenticeships in the plot, highlighting a lot of the cultural, social and economic changes as World War II starts to near its conclusion. Literary references are also plenty abound, though most of them are specially about mystery literature, as both Shigehiko and his young sister Fumiko are fans of mystery fiction and we see a lot of works of mystery mentioned, often with their old translation titles that aren't in use anymore nowadays. The tone the book takes betrays Ashibe's deep anti-war sentiments and makes the tale of the slow, but certain fall of the Oomari family even more tragic. Oomarike Satsujin Jiken is a mystery novel foremost, but it does a great job at presenting a "historical, war-time Osaka" novel, a theme Ashibe loves, and at least for me, the book had enough themes and topics I had never heard about that really made this an educational, and interesting read. Whereas historical or literary references in other Ashibe stories sometimes feel too much like references "by a fan, for fans", making them not as accessible to the general public, I think the focus on the fall of the Oomaris during the war and using the old Osaka as its backdrop works great, giving the book a much wider appeal (which might explain why it won the earlier mentioned awards).

And as I mentioned before, there's great synergy between these themes and the core mystery plot, which makes Oomarike Satsujin Jiken a memorable read. The book feels very much like a Yokomizo Seishi-novel when it comes to the structure of the mystery, and there's one murder that even invokes the grotesque murder scenes seen in the Kindaichi Kousuke series, with a body found inside a barrel with sake halfway through the book. But most deaths are not as "visually memorable" and to be honest, the actual murders themselves are often quite simple and you will likely have seen variants of them elsewhere. The first murder for example, where the victim is found hanging from a high ceiling, utilizes an idea that's quite common when it comes to these kinds of murders in mystery fiction. But Ashibe still makes this a very memorable scene, because the "props" used to create this murder are brilliantly grounded in the specific time and location of this book. The objects and ideas used for the murder in this particular book, are absolutely unique to this book, and make an otherwise familar idea still seem fresh, especially as they truly make the best of the historical setting. That is what happens throughout the book, and really helps elevate familiar ideas into something much better.

You don't really have "fancy" murders here, no locked room murders or mysteries that are solved through lengthy Queenian chains of deduction, but Ashibe manages to make each of the murders really feel like they could only have been executed as such in the time and place showcased in the book. And while this does mean some historical knowledge is required to really solve the mysteries yourself, all the clues are brilliantly hidden within the narrative, which is what makes Oomarike Satsujin Jiken a very satisfying read. What really makes this a memorable mystery story though is the motive of the murderer both in the broad and narrow sense of the word. By which I mean, the murderer's motive is only understandable considering the historical time/location of this book, but also the reason why the murderer chose to commit each murder in a particular way, is only understandable given that historical context. All the murders might seem a bit underwhelming taken seperately, and might even seen nonsensical at times if you just take them as is, but they make so much more sense and convincing when explained through the historical background, resulting in a motive that is truly unique to the Oomari family in Semba in the 1940, and murders that are commited in a way that is also unique to the 1940s Semba setting. I’d say the balance between the mystery plot and the common Ashibe tropes is done better than in a lot of Ashibe's other works (not going too far into a specific field), and it's this balance, and the synergy between these themes that make this book the best "Ashibe-esque" mystery novel he has written.

Oh, and just a little bit of trivia, but a somewhat curious amateur detective called Houjou Koushirou appears early on in Oomarike Satsujin Jiken, who will make a lot of readers think of Kindaichi Kousuke: this character is actually named after mystery author Houjou Kie! The book also has a lot of little references to other characters (series) by Ashibe. though I only caught a few of them (like Osaka-bred Tsuruko from the Modern City series), so in that perspective, there's still a lot in this book only long-time Ashibe readers will notice.

So as someone who has read quite a few books written by Ashibe Taku and enjoyed most of them too, I think Oomarike Satsujin Jiken might be the book where he managed to combine all his personal tropes and the mystery plot the best. It is undoubtedly a work that could only have written by him, addressing all the specific themes he likes, and he uses those themes to tell a gripping mystery story set during World War II that really comes alive because of the historical setting. I think a lot of people who like the Yokomizo novels for their historical context, but aren't too big a fan of the grotesque, will probably like this novel a lot too, as it does address similar themes like the decline of a family along generations and the effects of the war on society.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『大鞠家殺人事件』

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Murder in F Sharp

"How do you go about writing a detective story?"
- ""Well, you forget detection and concentrate on crime. Crime's the thing. And then you imagine you're going to steal something or murder somebody."
"Dial M for Murder"

When it comes down to it, I do really like reading series though, not because of recurring characters per se, but because it gives me a framework (settings/themes) of what I can reasonably expect. Which is why I often stick with series and seldom seem to try "new" things.

The Box of Genesis is a coffin-like box created in medieval times, of which it is believed it can make objects appear out of nowhere. While most believe it is an urban legend, its powers were proven to be true in 1982, when a German scientist who managed to obtain the Box of Genesis held a reception to show the Box off. Early in the party, a reporter asked to take a look inside, and everyone saw the Box was empty. The Box was left in the middle of the room, with the party going on around it, until near the end of the reception the reporter asked to have have another look inside. To the shock of everyone present however, they found a cut-up corpse inside the Box of Genesis, even though the Box had been right in the middle of the reception all that time and nobody could've just walked up to the box to put a bloody body inside without anyone noticing. While for some time, the police suspected its new owner of foul play, they never managed to figure out how where the body had come from, cementing the legend of the Box of Genesis. 

Eventually, the Box of Genesis found a new owner in Japan. The art collector Iwakura is also the owner of the Alphabet House, a mansion in the mountains that used to house missionaries. Long ago, these missionaries placed sculptures of some letters of the alphabet in the courtyard, and subsequent owners all added similar sculptures, and by now, all 26 letters of the alphabet are found in the mansion's main building, its annex and the courtyard that connects the two buildings. Iwakura often has house parties, and it's in 1998 that he invites a rather curious bunch, from a private detective to a doctor to Mikutsuki Miyuki, an actress in the theatre troupe Polka, who is accompanied by felllow actress/roommate Miiko and "De", a friend with a mysterious past. "De" has lost all memories of his past, but is a brilliant detective specializing in impossible crimes, hence his name "De" (from "Detective"). Once they arrive at the Alphabet House, the guests learn that their host isn't present yet, though the two part-time servants he has hired have all the instructions they need to entertain his guests. But Miiko hears from one of the guests that their host Iwakura might actually have been murdered some months ago already, leading to the question who actually invited them here. The guests also find the Box of Genesis in the large hall in the annex, and one of the people present happens to know about this out-of-place artifact (OOPart), telling them about the legend and the 1982 murder. The following morning, one of the guests staying in the annex can't be found anywhere there, despite the lack of footsteps in the snow in the courtyard, meaning they must still be in the annex. The Box of Genesis is missing. When the guests move to the main building, they find the Box of Genesis in the large hall on the second floor of the main building... with the murdered missing guest inside! But how did the victim, and the Box of Genesis go to the main building without leaving any footprints in the snow in the courtyard? The people are still wondering about what has really happened when another murder happens and a decapitated head appears inside a locked Box of Genesis. Can De figure these murders out in Kitayama Takekuni's Alphabet-sou Jiken (2002), which also has the English title The Case of Alphabet

I have read more than a few mysteries by Kitayama, but in a way, my reading of him is also very limited, as everything I have read of him fall into just two series: either it's his own four-novel Castle series, or it's the work he has provided for the Danganronpa franchise, like the Danganronpa: Kirigiri novels. Kitayama's best known for his technically-constructed locked room mysteries, with ingenious (and slightly over-the-top, ridiculous) mechanisms that create these impossible situations, and this aspect of his work is very clearly visible in the above-mentioned two series. Alphabet-sou Jiken was originally published in 2002, being a revised version of a novel he had written before his professional debut. The book had been published in a label of publisher Hakusensha, which was surprising to me, as it was not a publisher I immediately associate with mystery novels, even though they have mystery manga (like the classic Puzzle Game ☆ High Schooi). The book had been out of print for a long time, but saw a re-release by a different publisher in 2021 with a brand-new cover, and I figured it'd be an interesting way to read something beyond the two series I already knew.

Which is why it surprised me that thematically, Alphabet-sou Jiken is basically a side-story to the Castle series. There's a brief mention of a legend of the "Six Daggers of the Headless Knights" in this book, which is a recurring motif in the four books in the Castle series: while the settings/characters of those books are all completely unrelated, they do all refer to legends concerning cursed daggers and headless knights. But besides the cheeky reference, I'd say Alphabet-sou Jiken also feels very close to the Castle books in terms of atmosphere, with somewhat stange, almost cartooney characters and a distinct, fantasy-like vibe that delves into themes of fate and destiny, as well as a focus on legends. Had this been touted as a "full" spin-off of the Castle series, I would have believed it, and as this book was written before Kitayama's professional debut, I can't help wonder whether this book served as a prototype in terms of characterization and world-building for the Castle books, or whether he added these elements later when he revised it for the publication. One of the more obvious parts is early in the story, when one of the characters remarks the setting they are in is basically a detective story, and the character proceeds to destroy/damage the landline phone and the mobiles of the people present to intentoinally create a closed circle situation, to intentionally tempt fate so a murder will happen. This is also why, together with the harsh weather conditions the following day, the people inside the Alphabet House are not able to send for help immediately after the discovery of the murder. This is the type of meta-action we've seen in the Castle series before (especially 'Alice Mirror Jou' Satsujin Jiken), which have a distinct, fantasy-mystery-like atmosphere, but the first time you come across it in Alphabet-sou Jiken, it is rather surprising. Some may not like these kind of characters/actions, but it's another reason why I thought this book was basically a stealth entry in the Castle series.

As for the mysteries in this book, I felt the book does feel less refined than other works by Kitayama, probably because it was based on an older story. Most importantly, the two plot elements of the Box of Genesis and the alphabet structures in the Alphabet House feel completely unrelated, and you keep wondering why the book is about these two things: a box which can conjure objects out of nowhere, and a house with letters of the alphabet spread across the two wings and the courtyard. These are two completely different themes, so it just feels weird this book is about these two curious themes. I would've liked it if there was some kind of stronger backstory linking the two parts, rather than just "the current owner of the Box of Genesis also happens to be living in the Alphabet House." This book is fairly short, but I think it would have benefitted from more pages, allowing to build a stronger link between these elements and flesh out some of the events more.

As for the mysteries, I think the solutions are a bit simply, and perhaps undeveloped at times. For example, eventually, De also decides to tackle the 1982 case and he proves the cut-up body appearing in the Box of Genesis during a reception wasn't magic, but foul play, but the trick used there is in concept perfectly fine, even if simple, but doesn't quite practical, as it'd be easy for anything to go wrong with that method, (especially timing!), resulting in a botched plan rather easily. I do like how the fundamental concept of this trick is used in a very different, but related way in one of the 1998 murders, even if the method used there also seemed rather risky and prone to early discovery. The biggest mystery in this novel is of course the first 1998 murder, where the Box of Genesis and the first victim manage to disappear from the annex and reappear in the main building in one night, without anyone leaving any footprints in the snow in the courtyard. This part of the mystery is probably fairly easy to solve if you've already read a few Kitayama novels: it's the kind of trick he likes to use, and especially once a certain prop is introduced in the story, it's rather easy to guess how the murderer managed to pull the thing off. I think the misdirection that's pullled off here is interesting though: while I do honestly think it's easy to guess what happened even now, I think it is hidden in a way that can works best in its current form, in prose, in the letters on the page. If you'd visualize everything, I think the trick would have been even more obvious, so I did like that, because I only realized how really easy it'd be to guess the trick if you actually saw everuthing. That happens quite often with Kitayama's work I suppose, because of his love for more mechanical tricks, utilizing space and making use of moving object in general.

The ending has a nice bitter-sweet taste to it, like we often have in the Castle series (another similarity!). I like how the ending, almost surprisingly, does address some of the lingering questions I still had, specifically why these people had been invited to this party, and the themes of romance, fate and destiny touched upon in this ending are also themes we see developed more further in the Castle books, cementing Alphabet-sou Jiken as a proto-entry in the series. If you like the tone of those books, you'll definitely like this book too.

So in the end, I did not manage to move away from my familiar corner of Kitayama Takekuni's work by reading Alphabet-sou Jiken. It fits perfectly in the model of the Castle novels I already knew, but I do think I enjoyed the book more exactly because of it. As a mystery novel, Alphabet-sou Jiken does feel a bit lacking compared to the other Kitayama novels I've read: the tricks used are a bit simple and practical problems are ignored a bit too easily. Had it been a longer novel, some of these problems could've been helped I think, though I guess that ultimately, the four Castle novels are exactly that: more developed versions of the story found within the pages of this book. I wouldn't consider this book a must-read, but definitely interesting for those who have already read a few Kitayama works, to see what they can recognize in this work.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦『アルファベット荘事件』