Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Wrong-Way Door

"There's no place like home."
"The Wizard of Oz"

I've been watching this Youtube channel where they introduce interesting apartments up for rent in the Tokyo Metropolis area a while now, from apartments that have very weird layouts to rather inventive manners to make incredibly cramped rooms feel somewhat spacious and still have all the utilities you'd expect from an apartment.

A writer on occult matters who also functions as narrator receives a call from an acquaintance, hoping to get some advice regarding a house he's thinking of purchasing. The house is quite new and is put on sale because its previous owners have moved out. It is in a nice residential area near the station and with lots of parks in the vicinity, making it a perfect home for him, his wife and his first child, but there's something that bothers the acquaintance. Because on the floorplan created by the real estate agent, there's a mysterious walled-up space between the kitchen and the living room. Not only is the "dead space" incredibly small, it is also surrounded by the walls of the various rooms around it, so it has no use. A walled-up space is pretty creepy, so the narrator decides to call in an architect he knows, who also happens to be a fan of mystery fiction. At first, they arrive at the idea that the space might originally have been a built-in closet or cupboard for either the kitchen or the living room, but that a tight budget might have meant they had to abandon the plans and they walled over the "reserved" space. Sounds innocent enough, but as they take a closer look at the house, they see more and more peculiarities hidden within the floorplans of this two-storey house. At first, these small points seem strange, but not particularly important, but as they start theorizing why the rooms are laid out the way they are, they slowly arrive at a completely unexpected, and astonishing theory about this curious house. While at first, their theory seems incredibly absurd for it would be much more than just plain "creepy" and actual horror, some time after the narrator publishes a horror story based in this event, he is informed of a different house with a floorplan with very similar characteristics. What is the truth behind the horrifying mystery behind these floorplans in Uketsu's Hen na Ie ("A Curious House" 2021)?

An interesting book, with an interesting story behind it. Uketsu is a horror storyteller who is also a Youtube content creator, and originally, this story was one of their 2020 videos, a creepy story about a mysterious floorplan and their attempts at learning what the meaning could be behind the strange kitchen space and the other rooms. This "real estate" mystery was like an urban legend, starting with something very mundane (a house on sale and its floorplan), but then slowly the horror creeps in, leading to a surprise twist revelation. The video was quite popular, leading to Uketsu writing a whole novel based on the video. And now even a film is the making! In the past, I have written short editorials about floorplans in mystery fiction, and the use of (3D) space in mystery fiction (games), which probably is enough of a hint to tell you I quite like floorplans in mystery fiction, so the idea of a mystery tale that revolves around looking at floorplans, finding out what's "off" about them and figuring out what the meaning behind it is, sounded quite alluring.

It is a very short book ultimately, and I feel it's definitely the first chapter, directly based on the original video which is the most fun and surprising. If you just glance at the floorplans, it seems normal enough for a Japanese home, but as you check the rooms and the "dead space", you start to sense there is certainly something not quite normal about this home. Uketsu is introduced as a horror writer, not a mystery writer, and I would say you can definitely feel this from the atmosphere of the story. It's really like one of those urban legends, where something small that doesn't seem quite right turns out to have a surprising and often far-fetched truth, but that's what makes urban legends fun in the first place of course, the irrational horror hiding behind modern, urban elements. But in terms of build-up of the story, it's definitely a proper mystery story, with clues hidden within the floorplans themselves, but also for example what we hear about the previous owners from the real estate agent etc., with theories regarding the seperate curious elements of the house being put on top each other to build a surprising daring tower of connected theories. The theories here of course not "Queen-style" super tight chains of logic that seem to point to the one and only truth, but they are alluring and silly enough that I will gladly "believe" like a good urban legend. 

In a way, the weird floorplans in Hen na Ie are very similar to the floorplans you see in the curiously-designed houses in mystery fiction like The Decagon House Murders and Murder in the Crooked House, but at the same time, they are very different because the houses in Hen na Ie should be completely normal buildings, built in normal residential areas and made to house normal nuclear families. And yet, a good look at their plans reveals they are not normal, and that gives off this sense of creepiness, whereas the floorplans in mystery stories like the two mentioned above may look strange due to their shape or because of strange rooms, but there it's almost expected, as you know a murder is going to happen there and that these grotesque houses themselves also play a role. So again, the "horror" element plays a big role in the enjoyment of Hen na Ie, the sense of uneasiness of not expecting such elements in a normal house.

The book is fairly short and written like a non-fiction reportage, consisting mostly out of transcripts of interviews and telephone calls. After the first chapter, we learn about more houses that have these weird characteristics in their layout, and the theory behind the meaning of these layouts grows and grows as the narrator and his friend start comparing the various houses and their floorplans, and guess what the purpose of these houses are. The idea behind the other houses after the first chapter are quite similar in a way, so they aren't as surprising, but part of that is explained due to the connection these places have. But I do feel the ending isn't as satisfying as the set-up of this book. As mentioned, the first chapter really manages to capture the uneasy feeling of an urban legend with the seemingly normal, but actual abnormal floorplan, and even though the narrator and his friend arrive at a theory, you don't really get solid confirmation about whether they are really correct or not, so that feeling of uneasiness stays. But in the last chapter, we do get full confirmation about everything, which is I guess suitable for a normal mystery story, but this was more a horror mystery tale, and in this specific instance, I would have been content with just the idea of people coming up with elaborate theories based on the floorplans (whether they are real or not), as I think the "definite" answer leans a bit too "obviously" into the horror, while I liked it when it was less defined.

But on the whole, I quite enjoyed Hen na Ie as a short read with an original angle. The book is perhaps better as a horror story that uses mystery fiction "grammar" but the focus on the floorplans and also giving the reader a chance to look at the plans first to see if they can figure out what's wrong about the houses and what the meaning of that could be is entertaining, and as someone who loves floorplans in mystery fiction in general, I was pleasantly surprised. It's not a super deep mystery, but perfect as a short inbetweener.

Original Japanese title(s): 雨穴『変な家』

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Camping-Out Murder

"There's always only one truth!"
"Detective Conan"
I should probably point to the Honkaku-themed Discord server more often. Take a look there if you want to chat with other fans about mystery fiction, including (shin) honkaku stories!

By the time this review is published, the second season of the anime adaptation of Kyokou Suiri, also known as Invented Inference or In/Spectre should have started airing. Iwanaga Kotoko, seemingly a small girl ("woman!") with a glass eye and one prosthetic leg is in fact the Deity of Wisdom for youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.). She helps these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble involving the human world, acting as arbitrator and detective. Sometimes it's having to come up with a reasonable excuse for problems caused by a rampaging spirit, sometimes a youkai is actually a witness to a suspect's alibi, but obviously, the youkai can't go to the (human) police. So this often leads to Kotoko having to create fake, but believable (human-world) explanations for events that occured with actual supernatural causes. Hence the title Invented Inference, for in this series, the truth is often clear from the start and explainable through supernatural means, but it's a rational fake solution Kotoko is after, and of course the solution still has to be based on "clues" in order to sound convincing to humans. The fifth book in this series by Shirodaira Kyou is titled Kyokou Suiri - Gyakushuu to Haiboku no Hi (2021) and also bears the English title Invented Inference Short Stories - Day of Counterattack and Defeat. I am not really sure why it is called "short stories" though, as it's basically a novel, even if the opening chapter isn't about the main case of the book. Kotoko and her boyfriend Kurou are surprised when they are contacted by the police, who are asking about Kurou's cousin Rikka who had been evading them ever since the events of the first novel. Rikka had been roaming Japan without a fixed address, but got involved in an accident and because Rikka had lived in Kotoko's home for some time before she moved out, they were contacted as the persons closest to her to confirm her identity. When they visit her, they learn she was involved in much weirder accident than the police believes it is. As far as the police know, Rikka happened to be out camping on a mountain and on her way up, she also met a group of four men who were also planning to camp on the mountain. Later that night, three men fell from a cliff and died, while a fourth man barely managed to survive his fall. Rikka found him and carried him all the way down the mountain. The police is of course investigating the death of the three men, but they could never imagine that the direct cause of their fall is...the vengeful spirit of a giraffe whose remains were kept at a shrine on the mountain, but which has been left unattended for ages. The men were suddenly assaulted in their camp by the rampaging giraffe spirit, causing their fall, and Rikka even faced off against the spirit herself, surviving due to her own supernatural powers. But now Rikka has been placed in the custody of Kotoko and Kurou again, Kotoko has to come up with an explanation for the curious fall of the three men, and also device a way to tame the rampaging giraffe.

 (I really shouldn't read a book and then wait... *checks notes* ...eight months before writing the review...)

This is most definitely the fifth book in a series. Yep. I wouldn't recommend anyone to read this entry as their first step into the world of Invented Inference, for while I think the underlying theme of this book is interesting, it won't work without having seen Kotoko work and do her thing in the previous stories, and the fact that this story is the first we actually see Rikka real-time is also a reason why a lot of the pay-off is in the fact this is the fifth book. We first learn about Rikka in the first novel, where she has already been evading Kotoko and Kurou, and while she pops up now and then in flashbacks, this is the first time we have a direct confrontation between these characters. However, a lot of how she acts and what she actually wants from Kotoko becomes a lot clearer with the knowledge we have of her from the previous flashbacks, so yeah, read this one in order.

But how is the book as a mystery?  Well, for one thing, it's actually a pretty short book (oh, so that's what "short stories" in the English title means?), so the whole set-up is a bit limited. We have one short prologue where we hear about a short case Kotoko once handled, which becomes important at the end again, but most of the book is about the 'mysterious' fall of four men, of which three died. Obviously, this isn't a normal accident, so you have to come up with something pretty convincing to explain three deaths, but fortunately for Kotoko, Rikka is actually very sharp too, and while she only met the party of four men once and later briefly talked with the man who survived the fall, saving him from the giraffe spirit, she actually managed to learn a lot about the dynamics between the four men, and has caught on the fact that something fishy was going on between them. This of course allows for Kotoko to come up with a plausible explanation for why three men ended up dead because we now know they weren't there just to camp. The focus in this tale is more on motive than anything else, I think. While the false solution is of course also based on physical evidence found at the camp and also on actions taken by the men, a lot of the mystery revolves around Kotoko having to explain why everyone acted the way they did on their trip, and how that eventually led to their deaths. While that is of course a matter very open to interpretation, interpretation is exactly what this series has always been about and that coupled with the physical evidence found to serve as support for her proposed "truth", it still feels fairly solid. As said, the mystery as it is set-up is really limited and it's not like we get that many different fake solutions proposed to explain the three deaths, but I do like how the supernatural elements really do play a very important role in the mystery. It's not just Kotoko having to explain away the ghost giraffe: some events that help explain what was going on between the four man at their camp are directly influenced by the presence of the supernatural on the mountain that fateful night, influencing the actions of the men and thus leaving "possibilities" for Kotoko to pick up to come up with a non-supernatural explanation. This concept of the supernatural creating possibilities for a non-supernatural explanation is really neat, and it works well here, especially as the reader is tempted to not think of the supernatural at all in order to come with a human explanation and just consider them anomalies.

The ending shines more light on why this book is also called the Day of Defeat and coupled with the first chapter and perhaps more importantly, the events from the previous four books, we are shown a kind of shifting point in the series, where it appears Rikka will join the main cast of Kotoko and Kurou, but that this will put pressure on Kotoko in her activities as the Deity of Wisdom and her absolute role as god in a world with inabsolute truths. This is more a thematic matter than directly involved in the mystery plotting of this series, but it might mean Kotoko will come up with slightly different kind of invented inferences in the future.

But while I liked Kyokou Suiri - Gyakushuu to Haiboku no Hi generally as a new entry in the series, it is really awfully short and feels more like an extended short story than a full novel. It is not the high point in the series and a lot of it only works because it expects you to have read the previous four volumes and be familiar with the trio of Kotoko, Kurou and Rikka. So it's not a book I will recommend as is: if you liked the first four books, yes, go read this one too, but otherwise, start with the beginning and just see how far you want to go with this series, and perhaps you'll end up here too.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理 逆襲と敗北の日』

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Invisible Green

To do such a thing would be to transcend magic. And I beheld, unclouded by doubt, a magnificent vision of all that invisibility might mean to a man—the mystery, the power, the freedom.
"The Invisible Man"

For some reason I thought the original 2020 paperback release of this book had a different cover with a more greenish tint, and the 2022 pocket release had similar, but different art with a more blueish tone, but it turns out they have the exact same cover...

I quite enjoyed the two novels by Atsukawa Tatsumi I read previously, so it was only a matter of time before I would try out his short stories, as I tend to prefer the the short story format when it comes to mystery fiction. Toumei Ningen wa Misshitsu ni Hisomu ("An Invisible Person is Lurking in the Locked Room") was originally published in 2020 and consists of four short mystery stories, which are all unrelated to each other. The only connection between the various stories is that each story has a clear source of inspiration: each story is book-ended with a short bibliography with the stories that served as inspiration or helped deepen his tale. Sometimes, the stories are directly based on the premise of the main inspiration source, sometimes it's just a single sentence that helped this imagination. If I had to voice a "complaint" about this short story collection however, is perhaps that it's rather short, and not having a real connecting theme between the four stories means that while I did generally enjoy all of them, the book as a whole doesn't really leave much of an impression. It's over before you know it and perhaps works well as an 'inbetweener' between longer books, but I think that for example in the future, if I were to refer back to this work, I am more likely to recommend a specific story from this collection, rather than the collection as a whole because everything is so disconnected away. This doesn't mean the book is bad, the opposite actually, but it somehow still lacks impact because it's all over too soon.

The title and opening story Toumei Ningen wa Misshitsu ni Hisomu ("An Invisible Person is Lurking in the Locked Room") is inspired by H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man and tells about a worldwide disease which makes people invisible. People slowly turn completely invisible, including their bodily fluids and human waste and for the moment, No permanent cure has been found yet, and society has learned to adapt to the people with invisibility condition. Modern society generally only works if everyone is visible, for even doing groceries or walking down the street can be difficult if people can't see you and constantly walk into you, so invisible people are expected to either use make-up to become visible, or take daily inhibitor pills that turn them visible again, The story starts with narration by an invisible married woman, who one day learns a professor at a nearby university is close to producing a permanent cure to the invisibility disease. The woman decides she needs to kill the professor and destroy his research, and plans his murder: her plan involves parking near the university, undress completely and in her invisible state, sneak inside the lab offices and kill the professor. She meticulously plans her deed, plotting which route to take so she won't bump into people, stop taking her inhibitor pills early in the week so she becomes invsible again, but masking that fact by wearing make-up and even making sure to have an easy to digest breakfast, as until the food is digested, you'd see food flying around. The woman manages to slip in the lab and indeed kills the professor, but then loud cries come from the other side of the door. At that moment, we switch to the viewpoint of the husband, who first thought his wife might be cheating on him and hired a private detective to trail her, and eventually, the two realized the woman was planning to kill the professor. They arrived at the lab just after the murder occured, and together with two students, they enter the room and immediately lock it behind them, for they know the murderer, the invisible murderer must still be inside the room. And thus starts a game of cat and mouse, where the four men try to catch the invisible murderer hiding in the lab, while our murderer knows that if she manages to escape this locked room, they can never prove she killed the professor.

An incredibly fun premise and it's almost a shame this is a short story, because there is a lot of potential for more! Because of the relatively short length of the tale, the game of cat and mouse is over pretty soon, but it's a fun one: the four men know the murderer is somewhere in the room as the professor is dead and nobody had opened the door since he was last seen alive by his students, but it's a pretty spacious lab with desks for the various students, so how are they going to find an invisible person here? They try all kinds of things to search the spacious room, but also have to be careful she doesn't attack them suddenly in an attempt to escape. Meanwhile, the invisible woman has staked all her bets on one attempt to escape this room, and it's a pretty daring one and while after a while, you probably start to guess what she's doing, it's a perfectly well-clewed solution to her situation. But it's all over rather soon, and you just wish Atsukawa had done more with the idea of the invisibility disease. Perhaps as a follow-up novel?

Rokunin no Nekkyou Suru Nihonjin ("Six Enthusiastic Japanese") is inspired by Mitani Kouki's play 12nin no Yasashii Nihonjin ("Twelve Gentle Japanese"), itself a parody of the film Twelve Angry Men. In Twelve Angry Men, we had jury members in a murder trial who were immediately convinced of the defendant's guilt, 12nin no Yasashii Nihonjin started with the jury members all being convinced the defendant is not guilty, so what is this story about? The narrator is a professional judge, who together with two other professional judges and six lay judges are deliberating over a murder trial. The defendant and victim were both fans of the idol group Cutie Girls, and they had been travelling together to attend to a two-day event of Cutie Girls. The victim had been murdered in their room at an inn, apparently they were watching a DVD of Cutie Girls together when they started arguing resulting in an unfortunate lethal blow. Initially, most lay judges seem to agree the defendant is guilty as he has confessed to the crime, but one isn't convinced, and as he starts zooming in on all kinds of facts at the crime scene, the others are slowly won over and together, they arrive at a rather surprising solution... This story is really funny, and definitely intended as a kind of parody. The crime scene is rather unique in that the story utilizes a lot of "idol otaku props", like glow sticks, idol calls and more, and you get surprisingly deep deduction chains about something like the proper way to store a glow stick. The big climax of the story is really something you have to behold, and while I think that the individual deductions are not super memorable, the "punchline" of this story definitely is.

Touchou Sareta Satsujin ("The Tapped Murder") introduces us to Mimika, a young woman who works at a detective agency and who has superior powers of hearing, being able to make out the smallest of noises. But that's all she can do however, so usually, it is her boss who has to make the connections based on the evidence Mimika heard. Their current case however, is special. For the last week, they had been investigating Kunisaki Chiharu, whose husband suspected she was cheating on him. With the help of the husband, they planted a teddy bear with a sound recorder inside it in the sitting room, but one day Chiharu was killed in the sitting room. When the teddy bear was discovered, the detective agency of course became a momentary target of investigation by the police, so now Mimika's boss wants Mimika to help clear their name. The teddy bear had indeed recorded the moment of the actual murder, and while listening to the audio file, Mimika hears a faint dissonant tone, but she can't figure out what the noise exactly is. Because they know the husband himself was actually also cheating on his wife himself, they suspect he might be the murderer, and they come up with an excuse to visit the apartment and the crime scene again, with Mimika trying to figure out what the dissonant tone was she heard during the murder and whether it can help them solve this case. This is a story that I really would have wanted to experience as an audio drama! The mystery of the dissonant tone and other hidden "audio" clues in the audio file are all fairly clever, though I do think more clues pointing directly to the murderer would've been nice, but reading about these clues you were supposed to hear does make it feel a bit less impressive than I think it should be. Definitely a fun take for a mystery story though. In fact, it's a shame you don't really have "direct-to-audio" mystery fiction...

Dai 13-gou Senshitsu Kara no Dasshutsu ("Escape from Cabin 13") is inspired by Jacques Futrelle's The Problem of Cell 13, but with a very modern twist: escape rooms! Kaito is a high school student who is attending a special invitation-only preview of an escape room event of the popular series Great Detective Sakuragi. The murder game event is held on a ship and has the participants solve a series of puzzles which will eventually lead them to the identity of the murderer. At the event, Kaito runs into his classmate Masaru, with whom he has a kind of a rivalry going. Masaru and his younger brother Suguru are sons of a wealthy family who happen to be sponsoring this event, which landed them the special invitations. During the game however, Kaito and Suguru are abducted by men dressed as sailors and held captive in Cabin 13, while for some reason Masaru keeps on playing the escape room game. Why were Kaito and Suguru captured, can they escape their predicement and why is Masaru still playing the game? I believe this is the longest story in the collection, and it is pretty "busy": we have Kaito and Suguru trying to figure out how to escape the cabin, but meanwhile Masaru is playing the escape room event as planned, so we get the four puzzles in the event to solve ourselves too. Of course, the big surprise is to see how these two plotlines eventually connect back together again, and while I do like the basic ideas behind this story, it somehow didn't quite work for me. The plot of the story is a bit reminscent of Detective Conan treasure hunts, with a few puzzles with a hidden meaning behind them, and while I like the big connection that is revealed, the actual puzzles of the escape room didn't really interest me (they are also discussed rather briefly), while the escape attempts from Cabin 13 also move rather slowly. 

As mentioned in the introduction, I think Toumei Ningen wa Misshitsu ni Hisomu on the whole has some pretty good stories: three of the four I really like, and I don't really dislike the last either. But the stories are all very short, so especially the first story feels like it has an underutilized premise and because the book is so short, I also kinda hesitate recommending this in this specific form, as a short story collection. I will gladly point to the title story if I happen to be talking about invisible murderers in the future, but perhaps some of these stories will make their way into an anthology or something like that, and you might as well read them there then. 

Original Japanese title(s): 阿津川辰海『透明人間は密室に潜む』:「透明人間は密室に潜む」/「六人の熱狂する日本人」/「盗聴された殺人」/「第13号船室からの脱出」

Friday, January 13, 2023

Pattern of Murder

"Yeah. Death sucks. Every single time. But I've experienced so many, I'm kinda numb to the whole thing now."
"Jisei: The First Case"

The first game review of the year, is about the last games I played last year.

A young man awakens in a coffee shop, having fallen asleep after a triple expresso. He feels a bit sick, so heads towards the restroom, when he notices the women's restroom's door is open, and inside he discovers the body of a woman lying on the floor. For reasons not explained, our protagonist (who goes lengths to not ever mention his name to anyone) has a kind of psychometric ability, which allows him to experience for himself the death of a person he touches, and he can sense it when somebody dies nearby. The moment he touches the victim though, another customer of course sees the man doing something really suspicious, so he's immediately seen as the main suspect by an off-duty police detective who happened to be nearby. While they are waiting for police reinforcements though, our unnamed protagonist attempts to clear his name and find out who really commited this coffee shop murder in the visual novel Jisei: The First Case (2010). His adventures continue immediately in the direct sequeul Kansei: The Second Turn (2011), where he is taken in by a group of misfits with similar powers of telepathy and empathy. They visit the manor of a person who is, in a way, related to the murder that occured in the coffee shop the day before, but during their visit, this man also dies, and in his highly-secured office too! Once again, our unnamed protagonist and his new 'friends' find themselves working on the case, but as they do, they also stumble upon clues indicating a greater plot behind all this.

Jisei: The First Case and Kansei: The Second Turn are visual novel mystery adventures games developed by sakevisual. Jisei: The First Case was originally released back in 2010 already on PC as an early Japanese visual novel-inspired game, and was followed by its direct sequel Kansei: The Second Turn one year later. Apparently, the plan is to make five installments in the series, of which currently three have been released, but unlike Jisei: The First Case and Kansei: The Second Turn, the third entry Yousei from 2013 has not been released on consoles yet (I played the Switch versions of Jisei and Kansei). For older indie games, both Jisei and Kansei actually look quite nice with especially well designed character sprites and there's even voice acting available, which is really nice and unexpected for games of this scale, though the music didn't make as much an impression. Anyway, these games have been around for a long time, so I was always kinda aware of them, especially as the titles obviously indicated some Japanese link (Jisei and Kansei are Japanese words), and as I mostly play Japanese mystery adventure games and visual novels, I guess it was only a matter of time until I'd try them out. Though I guess it helped they were on Switch now and heavily discounted. Note though I got a small bug in the Switch version in Jisei, where the text box of a character wouldn't appear, though fortunately it wasn't a very important text box, while Kansei works fine, but... you can tell from the controls it was originally meant to be controlled with a mouse and while it's servicable, it could have been made a bit more comfortable to play (using the control stick to move a cursor to click on indicators just doesn't work really well...)

Gameplay-wise, neither Jisei nor Kansei will be very surprising: in Jisei you can explore several places within the coffee shop where the murder occured which you can examine, or you talk there with the other suspects/witnesses, who will tell you about themselves and the others. Learn enough information from them to activate a story flag which allows you to talk about them again about other topics, rinse and repeat and until you reach the end. As for actual mystery solving, this is limited to a few questions asked at the very end of the story to test you if you figured it out, but this is a very small segment. The sequel Kansei is more-or-less the same, but bigger. You have a larger location to explore (the manor), more characters to interview and there's actually a multi-ending structure, where you can examine different aspects of the mystery and arrive at different story climaxes, which definitely gives this second game a welcome length boost. As for the aforementioned special powers of the protagonist though: this is not reflected in actual gameplay. Touching the corpses to learn their final memories is always just a scripted part of the plot, so basically the information you learn there is forced upon you when the story wants you to know that. A tad disappointing, because in truth, these psychic abilites are barely used in both games in terms of the mystery plot. Like in the second game, a character uses telepathy to communicate with the others.... but people have mobile phones, even in 2010. The protagonist 'remembering' an important clue about the dying moments of the victim usually only comes into play at the very end of the story, so it feels kinda forced too.

But as mystery games, I have to say Jisei and Kansei didn't manage to really win me over. Jisei: The First Case is really just a prologue to the five-part story, and can be done in a mere 30 minutes. It isn't meant to be anymore than a prologue I guess, but everything is just far too... limited to make any impression. The mystery plot itself is also ridiculously small and barely a mystery at all! The first twenty minutes you're interviewing people who are all pointing at each other, and then basically you examine a piece of physical evidence a bit closer, and the story then magically tells you this piece of evidence points at one specific character, and it's over! The weird thing is that the piece of evidence had been found earlier, but for some reason the game doesn't allow you to find the super incriminating element of that piece of evidence until just before the denouement, because... well, otherwise the game would have been over in 5 minutes instead of 30. The whole existence of this piece of evidence doesn't even make sense when you consider what the murderer did, so that whole part surrounding that part of evidence feels incredibly contrived, planted there by the storywriters only because they didn't know how else to resolve their own murder mystery. And sadly enough, that piece of evidence is about all the "body" the murder mystery of the woman in the restroom has. There is nothing clever about this mystery, nothing surprising, they just find evidence pointing at a character. Even as a prologue, this is quite disappointing, and the only thing that makes Jisei: The First Case somewhat interesting in terms of plot is the hinting at something bigger regarding the murder, but also the protagonist's past and his powers, but that's it. Jisei teases things that might be interesting in the future, but doesn't really have much of its own, and as a murder mystery on its own, it's barely worth calling a mystery.

And then Kansei just recycles the mystery plot.

As a mystery, Kansei is definitely larger in set-up and fortunately, it isn't over as quickly as Jisei (especially due to its multi-ending structure), but the murder of the owner of the house in his high-security office is... disappointingly similar to what happened in Kansei. Perhaps this is less noticable if you played the game in real-time with more time in between, but I bought both games on the same day and played then back-to-back, and it's almost eerie how similar the two plots play out, complete with the "totally unnecessary piece of evidence left by the murderer found at the end of the story to seal the deal because otherwise, we can't resolve this plot". Kansei, in a way, almost feels like a "remake" of Jisei's plot, using similar ideas, just dressed differently. Only of course, it's supposed to be the sequel, a continuation. But the mystery makes the same mistakes, having characters point at each other with shady backstories, but then rendering all of that unnecessary, because of the introduction of physical evidence that only point at one character. So like Jisei, Kansei doesn't ever really surprise. You come across a corpse, you find evidence pointing at 1 character, it's over. No clever twists, no realization that a clue meant something completely differently, no figuring out what kind of clever tricks the murderer must've done, no, it's just coming across evidence the murderer left behind for no reason while they were committing an extremely straightforward murder. Kansei at least has multiple endings which allow you to explore different aspects of the crime, which is nice, though I have to say the "treasure hunt"-esque route is not nearly as interesting as the "whodunnit" route, and as said, even that route isn't that exciting because at the essence, it's very similar to Jisei.

Similar to Jisei therefore, the more interesting parts of Kansei are just the many teases about the ongoing story and the mysterious past of the protagonsit, but once again, these parts don't really add too much to the experience as it's simply more tease than explanation, so on its own, Kansei isn't really satisfying, even if it is an improvement on Jisei in scale and execution (graphics etc.).

So I can't say I'm a really big fan of Jisei: The First Case and Kansei: The Second Turn. While presentation-wise, both games look good considering they're fairly small-scale indie visual novels (and especially considering their age). they don't really stand out as individual murder mystery adventures. The plots are far too simply and limited to make any impression and don't really manage to surprise in either "Oh, I didn't see that coming" manner, nor in the "oh, that was a clever set-up or twist!" way. And as the overall storyline is still on-going, I also find it hard to recommend these games based on the mere teases and peeks we get regarding the protagonist' past and how the various cases are connected to each other. And Jisei in particular is just too short and offers too little on is own. Perhaps it's something that could change once the series is finished, but even then I can't say I'm a big fan of spreading this out across different games in this manner. I might return to this series in the future if it's all done and over, but that's a big if.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Tinker, Tailor, Liar, Thief

There open fanes and gaping graves
Yawn level with the luminous waves; 
But not the riches there that lie 
In each idol’s diamond eye— 
Not the gaily-jewelled dead 
Tempt the waters from their bed; 
"The City in the Sea"

I'm pretty sure this series is the one I have read the fastest on this blog, starting in 2018 and averaging about two books a year now.

Toujou Genya series
1) Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006)
2) Magatori no Gotoki Imu Mono ("Those Who Are A Taboo Like The Malicious Bird", 2006)
3) Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless", 2007) 
4) Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)
5) Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono ("Those Who Stay Inside Like A Sealed Room", 2009)
6) Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono ("Those Who Submerge Like The Water Spirit" 2009). 
7) Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono ("Those Who Turn Double Like The Eidola", 2011)
8) Yuujo no Gotoki Uramu Mono ("Those Who Resent Like The Ghostly Courtesan", 2012)
9) Haedama no Gotoki Matsuru Mono ("Those Who Are Deified Like The Haedama", 2018)
10) Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono ("Those Who Bring Forth Like the Demon Idol", 2019) 
11) Ina no Gotoki Nieru Mono (2021)

Toujou Genya, created by Mitsuda Shinzou, is a horror mystery novelist in post-war Japan who also travels across the country to gather ghost stories and document local religions and their ceremonies, as he is also a gifted amateur folklorist. His interest in local religions however often also get him involved in baffling murder cases that more often than not, occur during unique religious ceremonies in small, isolated communities, but it's Genya's free-style thinking that always allows him to solve him these creepy and complex cases, even if it also involves him voicing out loud a lot of wrong theories first before he arrives at the correct one. At the moment I am writing this post, there have been eight novels released in this series, and I have reviewed the first seven of them, as the most recent one hasn't been released in pocket form yet. There is however also a secondary series of short story collections: these stories are prequels and set in Genya's student days, but are also about creepy crimes involving folklore. After Himemuro no Gotoki Komoru Mono (2009) and Ikidama no Gotoki Daburu Mono (2011) however followed the third short story collection Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono ("Those Who Bring Forth Like The Demon Idol") in 2019, which got a pocket release in 2022. This book is set slightly later than the previous two volumes, as Toujou Genya has now made his professional debut as a horror novelist and also has started making a name among police officials as a gifted amateur detective, and much to Genya's annoyance, some police detectives even seek him out for help on baffling murder cases even though he doesn't consider himself an amateur detective. Fortunately for the police detectives however they know exactly how to lure Genya in, as he can't help himself whenever he hears some kind of ghostly folklore tale is involved. The 2022 pocket release also adds one extra story not found in the original 2019 release, but considering the way it's visibly "set seperately" in the table of contents and the specific themes of that story, I'm not sure it's considered "canon" but more on that later.

The opening story Youfuku no Gotoki Kiru Mono ("Those Who Cut Like The Bewitched Clothes") is weirdly enough a perfectly fine mystery story and works well as an opener, but it's not really a good Toujou Genya story, in the sense the "horror" element of the story is basically not vital at all. There's some talk about a "bewitched jacket" but it's not really important to the case. Genya is asked to look into a double murder case of two wealthy brothers, who lived on the same sloping street, but one at the top and one below, with two sizeable houses between their houses. The two elderly brothers were a bit strange and hard on their own sons, and weirdly enough, the two ended up liking their respective nephews better, and with time, the two nephews started living with their uncles, as their own fathers always preferred the nephew thinking they were better than their own sons. But now both are murdered, and the police suspect the two cousins swapped murders, killing their uncles, so they'd inherit from their respective fathers.The brother living in the upper house was discovered to be murdered with the same knife that killed the brother living down the slope around the same time, but the problem is this is impossible, as the knife couldn't have been brought to the upper house where it was found: the housemaid of the lower house left her master and his nephew in the afternoon and went up the slope to bring the neighborhood bulletin board to the neighbours up the slope and swears she never saw the nephew overtake her on the street to take the knife "up", a fact collaborated by other witnesses, and in fact, this nephew has an alibi as he left after the housemaid did to go to a bookshop he frequents. What follows is a howdunnit story about how the knife could have been brought unseen from the house below to the house up the slope, and considering the short length of this story, it's actually quite good, as we get multiple false solutions, and a convincing final solution that is well clewed. Tone-wise, it does remind me of an earlier Genya short story, and another Rampo-themed story Mitsuda wrote, but I think this is a great opening. But really, the "horror" aspect in this story feels out of place, or at least unnecessary.

Fushi no Gotoki Yomigaeru Mono ("Those Who Revive Like the Death Honorer") has Genya being asked by Fushimi Fujiko to look into the disappearance of her brother Fujio. The two of them hail from the town of Fushiori, located at the foot of a mountain and their family has been the leading family in that town for generations, doing business in fabrics. During the war, their oldest brother died, and while Fujio made it back to Japan alive after the war, the tragedy had a tremendous effect on his mind. For a while, his parents let him be, hoping he would recover and prepare to become the future family head, but Fujio started his own little community of "social misfits" just outside Fushiori, near the mountain forest. What started out very small, became a small and isolated community, fenced off and not allowing outsiders to look inside. Eventually, Fujio even started getting obsessed with the idea of life and death, and basically became a kind of cult leader, who believed he could resurrect even if he would die. This drove off most of the people in the community, but with him remained five women, who each were given a "trial": one wasn't allowed to see and blindfolded, one wasn't allowed to hear so had earplugs, etc. However, the woman who joined the community last had a fugitive brother, and the police suspected he had gone to his sister to hide, so they watched the fenced-up community for days. Eventually, they caught the fugitive, but when the police entered the community, they were somewhat susprised to learn Fujio had disappeared, even though they had been watching the community all that time. But as they caught the criminal and Fujio was an adult who could go where ever he wants, they couldn't do anything now, which is why his sister Fujiko wants Genya to solve this impossible disappearance. The opening story didn't make very good use of the religious and folklore themes that feature so heavily in this series, but this one is absolutely perfect in that regards. It's a fairly short story, but the small cult that is presented here feels quite convincing, and the way each of the women has one of their senses "shut off" leads to a very interesting puzzle where you wonder how Fujio could've disappeared. The solution is absolutely fantastic, one of the most memorable solutions I have read in recent years and while a bit crazy, it works perfectly in this story because the build-up is very convincing. My favorite of the collection.

Kemonoya No Gotoki Suu Mono ("Those Who Suck Like The House of Beasts") is very hard to explain without giving away too much. It is about Genya reading two different accounts that involve a building that sound a lot like each other, a house hidden away deep in the mountains with creepy statues of fantastical beasts inside and Genya using those accounts to arrive at a certain conclusion: I like the idea of the house a lot, but I have the idea this story as it is now works better as a horror story than a mystery story, a lot of the background story should have been worked out more to bring a better, deeper mystery story, but I think it's left a bit vague on purpose to emphasize the horror aspects. Again, I like the core idea as a mystery story too, but I feel it leans a bit to the horror side.

The title story Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono ("Those Who Bring Forth Like The Demon Idol") is by far the longest story in the collection, but sadly enough also the one I like least, for a large part because it's so long, even though not a lot happens in the story, making it feel very drawn out. By this time, Genya has become a fairly well-known writer among those in the industry, and he is finally contacted for the first time by Sofue Shino, editor at Kaisousha and Genya's usual sidekick in the novels. Genya is made aware of the Maguu, a statuette that is supposed to bring fortune, but also calamity to its owner. It is actually the property of a local collector, who has a swastika-shaped gallery in his garden where he keeps all his valuable antiques: each of the four "arms" is a different gallery with its own garden entrance, and they all come together at the center of the swastika. Genya is brought along to visit the collector, who is entertaining some other guests too and while Genya and the collector talk very enthusiastically about all kinds of things, the others all take a look in the gallery, but eventually, one of the visitors is found dead in the middle hall of the gallery, and the four people in the gallery who each came from a different entrance all swear they aren't the killer. The idea of a swastika-shaped building is interesting and I like the idea of having multiple false solutions based on the known facts, but a lot of the mystery is a bit "loose", as they just depend on testimonies of people saying "I was about here in the north/west/south/east gallery when I heard a noise" and it's ultimately not a very alluring mystery. The solution has some clever clues and all, but I feel like it isn't even used to its full potential in this particular story, because there's not very much synergy between the murder in the swastika-shaped building and the specific trick used in this story. That coupled with the length of the story made this my least favorite of the collection, despite it being the title story.

The bonus story Inin no Gotoki Suwaru Mono ("Those Who Sit Like the Human Chair") is as the title suggest actually an Edogawa Rampo-inspired story, not very surprising as Mitsuda actually has another series that features Rampo-inspired mystery stories and 'almost' pastiches. It's a fairly short story and involves Genya visiting a local chair workshop, but the attentive reader will of course realize how it's all inspired by Rampo's famous horror short story The Human Chair. Eventually, someone is found dead in the workshop, but I think if you already know The Human Chair, it's likely you'll start thinking in certain directions and eventually arrive at the solution. I think it's a fun extra story, but it feels a bit "weird" as a Rampo-homage story within the Genya universe, which is probably the reason why it's put in a seperate space in the table of contents.

Overall, I'm a bit a bit divided on Maguu no Gotoki Motarasu Mono I think. I think the first two stories are great, and while the rest of the volume is never anything near bad, I do think the latter three stories are not as good as the first half. But save for the second story, you don't really get a good feel for what usually makes for a good Toujou Genya story. Sure, these short stories can never reach the sheer brilliance of the novels, because the way they mix horror with complex mystery plots that build in unique religious ideas really does require an extended page length, but I feel most of the stories in the previous two short story collection still managed to do better in general, each of them having more stories that are similar to the second story in this collection, rather than just that single one. So I wouldn't recommend this as an entry point into the Toujou Genya series, nor as an entry point into the short stories of this series. It's not bad, and at times really good even, but I think practically all previous books are just more consistent in bringing the Toujou Genya experience.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『魔偶の如き齎すもの』:「妖服の如き切るもの」/巫死の如き甦るもの」/「 獣家の如き吸うもの」/「魔偶の如き齎すもの」/「椅人の如き座るもの」

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Growing Up and Good-byes

'I forget them after I kill them,' he replied carelessly.  When she expressed a doubtful hope that Tinker Bell would be glad to see her he said, 'Who is Tinker Bell?'
"Peter and Wendy"

First one of the year!

Slow-witted Bill the Lizard still hasn't found his way back to Wonderland and Alice, and after wandering into the Hoffman universe and the Land of Oz, Bill now finds himself taken care of by Wendy, her brothers and the adopted Lost Boys as they once again fly off with the eternal child Peter Pan and the fairy Tinker Bell. Their destination is of course Neverland, where previously the children had grand aventures with Peter Pan, the members of the Piccanniny tribe, mermaids and of course, Captain Hook and his pirates. Have things settled down now Hook was defeated? Of course not, as Mr. Smee is intent on getting even with Peter Pan, and Tiger Lily, princess of the Piccanniny tribe, is intent on taking revenge for the death of her brother. Wendy takes the role of mother of Peter and the Lost Boys again in Neverland, but after a rigorous day of fishing training at the inlet, everyone is shocked to find the fairy Tinker Bell brutally murdered in their underground hide-out: her wings torn off, thrown around on the floor and stabbed through her abdomen. Everyone was shocked? No, not everyone. For Peter Pan doesn't care about Tinker Bell, who he only thought to be nuisance and barely any different from a bug, and in fact, the reader knows Peter did this. While Bill the Lizard has only known the eternal child for a short time, he knows Peter Pan is actually a complete psychopath, because right in front of his eyes and the eyes of Wendy and the other Lost Boys, the 'innocent' child has cruelly slit the throats of pirates and tribe members without any hesitation. In fact, even the Lost Boys are not safe from Peter's sword if they happen to say something that doesn't please Peter, and Peter Pan is not only their "savior" but also their dictator, the one who might stab them right through the heart at any time if he just happens to feel like doing so. Peter Pan, in all his "innocence" doesn't care about death and he tends to forget about whoever he kills. Wendy somehow convinces Peter Pan to find the murderer of Tinker Bell and bring the culprit to justice, and Bill the Lizard is assigned to be his "Watson". 

Meanwhile, the university student Imori has travelled to an inn to attend to a reunion of his primary school class. Imori and Bill the Lizard are two sides of the same coin: while they are two distinct people with their own personalities living in completely different worlds, they share memories, so whenever Imori falls asleep in our real world, he'll remember Bill the Lizard's experiences in Neverland and vice-versa. In previous adventures, Imori met other people like him, who all collectively share "a dream" of a fantasy world, where they are different people who can also interact with each other in the other world. But more importantly, he also discovered that the lives of these people across worlds are linked: a death in the fantasy world, also means a death in the real world! And when at the school reunion, people start to die in various weird manners, Imori realizes that people in his class must be the counterparts to people in Neverland, and that they are all victims of Peter Pan's murderous outbursts in Neverland. But due to a heavy snow storm, the inn becomes isolated from the outside world, making it impossible to leave the place and while theoretically, Imori and the remaining classmates could try to find out who the avatar of Peter Pan in the real world is and try to restrain them (despite understanding they are different people), Peter Pan in Neverland is all-mighty and can kill everyone as easily as taking a nap and think absolutely nothing of his deeds.  Imori tries everything he can in the real world, but can only rely on the very, very unreliable Bill the Lizard in Neverland, so how are they going to stop Peter Pan's deadly games and catch the murderer of Tinker Bell in Kobayashi Yasumi's Tinker Bell Goroshi, or The Murder of Tinker Bell (2020)?

Tinker Bell Goroshi is the fourth and final entry in Kobayashi' Yasumi's wonderful Märchen Murder series which started with Alice Goroshi followed by Clara Goroshi, Dorothy Goroshi and this final book. Kobayashi sadly enough passed away in 2020, just months after the release of Tinker Bell Goroshi, thus ending the series (I read the pocket release, which was released late 2022). Fortunately is perhaps not a really good word to use, but Clara Goroshi, Dorothy Goroshi and Tinker Bell Goroshi are all prequels to Alice Goroshi, so story-wise, the series does feel "complete", as those books are all set "during" Alice Goroshi, when Bill the Lizard just gets lost and ends up visiting a few other fantasy worlds based on famous children's literature before returning to Wonderland to continue with the events of Alice Goroshi. As mentioned in previous reviews of this series though, it's strongly recommended to read them in release order though: the avatar-system is first introduced in Alice Goroshi, where Alice in Wonderland becomes a suspect in the murder of Humpty Dumpty, and Imori and fellow student Ari try to prevent Alice's execution in Wonderland by investigating the murder in both Wonderland and the real world. Subsequent books however build on build on the mechanics of the avatar system introduced in Alice Goroshi, with shocking revelations and twists about the system in Alice Goroshi being taken for granted in its sequels. So some discoveries about how everything works will just be treated as common knowledge in later books, so it's best to read them in order.

Me reviewing this series has also been me confessing I read very little outside of mystery fiction and having to admit I never read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, any of the Oz books or the Hoffman stories, and while I of course know about Peter Pan, I have never read the original book Peter and Wendy, nor even seen the Disney film. I have seen Hook though, if that counts for something! And I also knew Peter Pan was a bit of a creep in the original book, with the original book suggesting he just kills Lost Boys with the line "The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out." So the concept of him being completely off-the-hook psychopathic murderer didn't actually require any time to adapt to on my part. There are probably a lot of references to the original book that flew over my head, but a rudimentary knowledge of Peter Pan, Wendy, the Lost Boys and Captain Hook is more than enough to enjoy this book, so I never felt lost, and like with the previous entries in this series, a lot of the charm of the books come from the children's literature-esque writing: heavy on dialogue with almost no narration, and the lines themselves are often very silly, almost nonsensical conversations, as the screwball characters discuss things in roundabout ways, like Peter not understanding the concept of twins, or Wendy trying to explain the logic of why killing everybody in Neverland is not a good idea to 'catch' the killer. The repeated jokes and constant misunderstandings might take a while to get used to for some readers, but not only do these dialogues help set the mad setting of this series and its characters, it's also often skilfully used to hide clues in these nonsensical dialogues, and often feel very rewarding mystery-wise too.

While I enjoyed Dorothy Goroshi, it had a bit of a 'more of the same' feeling, which certainly isn't the case with this book. First of all, we have the closed circle situation Imori finds himself in: the inn is snowed in, and while he knows a majority of his classmates (and their teacher) probably has a Neverland counterpart, nobody dares to reveal who they are because they are afraid that if they say something in the real world, Peter Pan in Neverland (who shares memories with someone in the real world) might want to get even with them there. Meanwhile, people are dying left and right due to Peter's casual murders, which puts Imori himself in a very tense and dangerous situation, something we seldom saw in this series. It's a closed circle situation, but not like one you normally see in mystery fiction, because while people are "murdered" one by one, the actual murders only happen in Neverland, while their Earth counterparts will "automatically" die in some way or another to correspond to the Neverland death. So Imori isn't "really" trapped in a closed situation with the murderer, but it sure feels like one. The book alternates between Neverland and the real world between chapters, and near the end, this is actually used quite cleverly while the murder on Tinker Bell is explained, splitting the "deduction" scenes across both worlds as different people know different things.

Meanwhile, the Neverland part of the book also feels fresh for this series... for we know Peter Pan is an unscrupulous murderer who I think literally can't spend one chapter without killing at least one other living being, preferably by slitting their throat. And what's also important is that Peter Pan cares so little about death, he literally forgets about the people he kills, and not even his counterpart on Earth can recall if Peter killed certain people or not, because all they share are each other's memories. This makes the investigation into Tinker Bell's murder rather farcical, because it all happens while Peter is continuing his multi-hit murder combo, but Wendy somehow still manages to convince Peter to investigate the murder of the fairy properly with Bill the Lizard and actually find evidence or testimony to prove who did it and there are actually a few surprising twists and turns while they look for the 'elusive' murderer.  It makes for incredibly interesting murder mystery, because it's hard to guess where all of this will eventually end and how they'll catch the murderer despite Peter's murderous tendencies. As you can guess, the avatar-system is also part of the mystery plot and not just a funny hook for the series, and it's used brilliantly again here, like the aforementioned break-up in deduction scenes, but also by hiding hints and clues in the way counterparts in both worlds behave and the exact things they say in their memorable dialogues. The big clue pointing to the truth behind Tinker Bell's murder is pretty clever in that it's also a "dual" clue, two clues pointing towards the same idea and yet from different angles, and it also fits the world of Peter Pan and Neverland. It's a concept that probably would have been incredibly simple and silly if it had been used in "realistic" setting and fallen flat there, but it works absolutely perfectly reading it as a part of a "sequel" to Peter and Wendy. The motive behind the murder however needed a bit more depth, it's treated a bit too light now despite it having really heavy implications, which almost makes it feel like an afterthought even though I don't think that was ever the intention.

Tinker Bell Goroshi is now the final entry in this series and whether I can't say Kobayashi would've continued the series or not if he had lived longer, I can at least say Tinker Bell Goroshi was another wonderful murder mystery adventure in the world of famous children's literature. It spins the story of the boy who wouldn't grow up into a tale of mystery that is both tense, but also very comical and silly, while at the same time offering a mystery plot that is original and only possible due to the unique story setting invented by Kobayashi. In that sense, the whole concept of the avatars and shared memories is one you could imagine to have been used in classic children's literature, right? If you have read the first book in the series and liked it, I think you owe it to yourself to read the rest of the series too as Tinker Bell Goroshi is a worthwile read, and of course, if you have an interest in Peter Pan already, this is a no-brainer and should be picked up immediately. A bitter-sweet ending knowing this is the last book, but what an awfully big adventure it has been!

Original Japanese title(s): 小林泰三『ティンカー・ベル殺し』

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Reflections of the Mind

"I never sleep I hate those little slices of death"
"Journey to the Center of the Earth"

Last one of the year!

Disclosure: I have translated Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle

Shirafuse Masato's Nightmare Rising series of fantasy horror novels have been a fantastic hit all across the world, being translated in many languages and having become a symbol for J-Horror everywhere, and now a Hollywood adaptation is about to be released. Shirafuse is a big star, known as the "Japanese Stephen King" , but he also happens to be working for the same publisher as mystery novelist Arisugawa Alice, and after a double interview with the two authors, Shirafuse invites Alice for a stay at his home, as according to Shirafuse, he has a "nightmare room" in his house: any person spending the night there always has nightmares, nightmares also being the main theme of the Nightmare Rising series. Alice takes up the invitation and visits Shirafuse's so-called Dreamwatcher House, which is basically like a little cottage in the woods outside of town. There are only a handful of cottages on the road that splits off from the highway into the forest, and the road ends in a cul-de-sac, where the auberge (inn) Reverie stands, with a fairly popular restaurant. Shirafuse, his editor and Alice have dinner at Reverie, after which Alice spends the night in Shirafuse's "nightmare room", while Shirafuse's editor has taken a room at Reverie. The following day however, the murdered body of a woman is found in one of the empty cottages on this road: the cottage belongs to Shirafuse and used to be inhabitated by his assistant Shinya, but Shinya died two years ago and the cottage had been left empty since. The woman, Okita Yoriko, was a friend of Shirafuse's assistant, but only recently learned about his death, and had asked Shirafuse whether she could stay one night in the house where Shinya had lived. She had been staying there the day before Alice arrived at the Dreamwatcher House, but Shirafuse assumed the woman had already left by the time he went out to pick up Alice and his editor from the station the following day, as he had told the woman to just leave the key in the house as he had to tend to his guests that day. In fact though, Yoriko had been killed and in a gruesome manner too: her neck had been pierces by an arrow (an ornament based on a weapon used in the Nightmare Rising series, which had been hanging on the wall) and for some reason, her left hand had been cut off. Being one of the first to discover the body, Alice contacts his old friend Himura Hideo, who teaches criminology at Eito University and who often assist the local police with their criminal investigations as part of his "fieldwork". How will this hunter find the murderer in Arisugawa Alice's Karyuudo no Akumu (2017), which also has the English title Nightmare of a Hunter on the cover? 

It's been a while since I talked about a Himura novel here, so I'll just repeat this even just to be sure: the mystery novelist Arisugawa Alice has two main series, both of which have have a character named Arisugawa Alice as their respective narrators. These two Alices however are not the same person. The Alice in the Student Alice series is a young student who acts as the Watson to the older student Egami (see: The Moai Island Puzzle) , while in the Writer Alice series, we follow an Alice in his thirties who's a professional mystery author, who acts as the assistant to Himura Hideo, a criminologist. The funny thing is that these Alices write each other: the student Alice is a budding mystery author who writes about a professional mystery author named Alice and his friend Himura, while the writer Alice writes about a young student named Alice and his senior Egami. Anyway, Karyuudo no Akumu is of course a book about Himura and Alice. This series is much longer than the Student Alice series, and to be very honest, this is reflected in quality too: while seldom bad, the Student Alice series is consistently extremely good in terms of mystery plotting, clewing and doing Queenian reasoning chains to identify the murderer. The Writer Alice series has its own gems of course, but as it also has like at least triple the number of releases, you can understand how it is not as consistent in terms of quality. 

So what is Karyuudo no Akumu? Well, that's a hard one to answer! I have mentioned more than a few times here that in principle, I am more a fan of short stories than of novels and it's something I felt very strongly as I read this book. Which is a very personal thing of course, but this book has a very limited setting and set-up on purpose, which can make the book feel very slow, because it has too few pieces to move around or to check. Some might prefer the more focused approach, and there's definitely also a reason why this story has such a focused set-up, but to be very honest, as I was reading this I constantly thought the same set-up could have worked just as well, or even better as a short story or a novella, especially as this book is actually bit longer than average, rather than shorter. And as I arrived at the conclusion and followed Himura's reasoning as he very logically identifies the murderer, I still felt that considering the clewing and the other relevant factors for the mystery plot, the story of Karyuudo no Akumu would have worked in a far shorter form too. So that is definitely something that plays in my impression of the book.

For as a mystery story, I do think Karyuudo no Akumu has some good moments. Some really good moments even. For most part of the story however, you feel like Karyuudo no Akumu is just trying to juggle with too many pieces, despite the very, very limited set-up and there really aren't that many pieces. The cast of characters is very small for example, focusing mostly on the six people living on along the road (which had been blocked off from the highway on the night of the murder due to a thunderstorm striking a tree which fell across the road). So the mystery in terms of characters and location focuses solely on that little road, but at the same time, we are also confronted with many smaller mysteries: a cut-off hand, a woman who for some reason was killed with an arrow, what was the woman actually really doing staying in the cottage, where are her hand and smartphone and more. At the same time, these problems don't feel as "big" as say a locked room murder, missing footprints in the snow or even a situation where everybody has an alibi. So these problems "bug" you but are not very effective in really driving the investigation. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the victim and who might have had a motive to kill her, but Karyuudo no Akumu mostly feels like it's throwing all these smaller mysteries at you that on their own are okay-ish, but as a result, it does make you feel like you're playing with too many small puzzle pieces that don't seem to connect in a meaningful manner: the book feels chaotic and disjointed at times.

But all the chaos becomes order when Himura at the end explains how all those disjointed pieces are connected. And yes, there's a reason why a lot of what they find out and what had happened feels so haphazard, and while I wouldn't say the logical chain Himura builds here is as impressive as the tour-de-force we saw Egami pull off in The Moai Island Puzzle, it is definitely the same kind of memorable logic that allows Himura to identify who the murderer is: he focuses on all the actions the murderer took on the night of the murder, even those that don't seem to make much sense, and by applying all the known facts he not only manages to explain why everything happened the way they did, but also how those insights allow us to identify which of the suspects is the murderer. The revelations regarding the motive, while totally convincing, are not presented in a manner as strong "logically" but that is not as big a concern as Himura shows who the murderer is based on what everyone knew at what time and what actions they would or could have taken taking that in consideration, showing exactly that only one person could have commited the murder. I do have to say the last step, where he eliminates the last possible candidate to end up with the murderer, is... not weak, but certainly not very strong. Reasoning-wise I totally get what Himura means and it is true it is a valid way to use to eliminate the last suspect, but at the same time it's not a very strong one and open to a lot of attacks, and is of the kind you'd usually more likely to see as a "first step" in the elimination process (like the first suspect is removed because of this argument) rather than the final person. Still, I was quite impressed to see Himura pull everything together at the end of the book, because I felt throughout there were just so many "loose" puzzle pieces I was afraid it would just feel like a messy blob of minor puzzles, but in fact, it all chains together very nicely, surprisingly so, and it's certainly a book you should check out if you like these kinds of Queenian deduction chains.

But as mentioned, had Karyuudo no Akumu/Nightmare of a Hunter been a short story/novella, I would probably have liked it even better. Of course, your mileage may very well vary here, and in that case, I think you'll find a very competently written mystery novel here that showcases Arisugawa's love for Queenian chains of reasonings. While the core case aspects feel a bit limited and perhaps not really exciting, I think the final section definitely makes this book a worthwhile read, as it shows how the emphasis on reasoning can make very chaotically-feeling stories feel very logical in the end and it's definitely one to check if you like these kinds of novels. And while it's a bit late to mention it now, it's actually the reason why I read this book, because I read somewhere this was one of those books where you could really see Arisugawa doing his "chains of deduction" thing, and I was not disappointed in that regard.

 Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖『狩人の悪夢』