Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Ten Days' Wonder

「Seven Days War」(TM Network)
The word written in this notebook
"Seven Days War" (TM Network)

I finished Dawn of the Golden Witch earlier, which seemed to provide a major hint to solving the Rokkenjima murders, so I added my new thoughts based on that episode to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo. Two more to go!

Huh, I only just realized, but this cover may be a bit misleading, for the story is actually set in contemporary times, even if the art kinda invokes Vampire Hunter D in a way.

It occured two years ago, in February of 1999. A small village near an active volcano in rural Argentina suddenly became news when something unbelievable happened. Each week on the same day, a group of twelve locals would gather in the evening at the church to discuss the upcoming church activities and markets, but on that fateful day, the church was blown up in a gas explosion. When one of the twelve arrived late at the church only to find it had been destroyed, he believed the other eleven had been killed, but to his great surprise, one of them appeared behind him, having also arrived late. More and more of them popped up from behind, until all twelve of them were standing there outside the burning church. They had all been late for different reasons. One had been struggling with homework, the other had overslept, another had been having trouble finishing up work. It was only then they fully realized what had happened: the lives of all twelve of them had been saved, only because they happened to be all late for their meeting for different reasons. This was obviously not just some coincidence, but an act of heaven, so they and everyone in the village considered this a true miracle, and the incident soon became international news, with the twelve survivors now commonly known as "the Chosen Twelve".

Arthur Clemence is an inquisitor of the Vatican who investigates miraculous incidents that occur across the world. The Vatican decides whether to acknowledge said incidents as true miracles based on his thorough reports. Arthur is sent to the home village of the Chosen Twelve to determine whether it was truly a miracle which had saved the twelve's lives. His timing is both fortunate and unfortunate: the priest of the local church has to undergo a heart operation, and Arthur agrees to watch over the church for the time being, but lately, the volcano nearby has been active again, causing tremors and ash rains. Arthur becomes acquaintances with the Chosen Twelve and other villagers while he examines the incident two years ago, but impossible murders involving the Chosen Twelve occur during his stay. One of them is seen being attacked and stabbed in the chest in his home, and thrown through the window down a cliff even though multiple eye-witnesses swear there was nobody else in the room besides the victim. Another victim is shot from close range in the head while he was flying in a hang glider in the sky. And another is killed in a locked room only moments before Arthur himself broke into the room, but there's not a sign of the killer anywhere, even though the whole building was under observation. Are these murders also miracles on their own, or are they crimes committed by man? It's of course up to Arthur to find out in Tsukatou Hajime's 2002 novel Kiseki Shinmonkan Arthur - Kami no Te no Fukanou Satsujin ("Miracle Inquisitor Arthur - The Impossible Murders By The Hand of God").

I first heard that story about all fifteen church choir members being late for different reasons and thus miraculously avoiding a horrible explosion first in an episode of Trivia no Izumi, a legendary Japanese television program about trivia. I believe it happened in the US in the 50s. This novel adapts that incident, relocating it to Argentina and making the number twelve. Also: don't confuse this series with the series Vatican Kiseki Chousakan (Vatican Miracle Examiner), which is probably known better due to an anime adaptation. That anime is based on a novel series, but it has nothing to do with Tsukatou's older Miracle Inquisitor Arthur series.

The first impression Kiseki Shinmonkan Arthur - Kami no Te no Fukanou Satsujin made on me was that's long. Like, really long. Easily double the length of the novels I usually read. That said, it reads pretty smoothly and while a lot happens in this novel, it never feels like it's too slow or dragging. Anyway, this book will be a feast for the lovers of impossible crimes, because this lengthy work is focused completely on them and each of these murders has really interesting ideas to them, even though they don't all work as well, especially not when taken together. To begin with the latter point: all of the crimes that occur in this novel rely to a degree on coincidence, either it being a coincidence that a murder is made to look like an impossible crime, or just events happening at just the right time for no other reason than that the author wanted it to happen. To keep it to a point that won't spoil the story too much: for some reason the bodies of the murder victims keep getting "lost" due to unforeseen circumstances, like a body falling in a river or a well-timed earthquake disposing of a body after it had been discovered. This happens again and again, making the police investigation more difficult. While a big part of it is just the author making a grand show of the impossible murders, it's undeniable that the murderer got away with a lot solely thanks to very timely coincidences, and a lot of the mystery is only there because heaven (and the author) was just helping the murderer too much. This wouldn't be that bad in a shorter story, but when you have like four or five murders where each time, the murderer gets several lucky breaks, it becomes a bit weird, especially as some murders would've been solved more easily if the police just had more time with the corpses. Sure, the whole book is about miracles and such, so you could claim that it's just a miracle they were so lucky, but it does make the murders less fun to solve, as you also have to deduce very unlikely events to happen at just the right time.

Tsukatou's definitely great at creating alluring murder situations though, like the murder discussed in the prologue. A man is standing alone in a room, under the observation of several witnesses (including police) in a different room in the cliff-side house. The man suddenly starts fighting off an invisible attacker, but he's cut in the chest and ultimately falls through the window, down the cliff. At the same time, the police was also trying to subdue a possessed young man who was swinging a knife around in another room in the house, and some start to think the possessed young man committed the murder through some evil magic, making him capable of stabbing in the air in one room, while actually hurting someone in another room. This murder has some brilliant ideas, but also ideas that seem really forceful and a bit hard to swallow. The part about how the murderer managed to get away unseen is quite clever for example: incredibly easy to overlook yet so effective. And the actual way in which the murderer attacked the victim while remaining unseen is also clever, but at the same time not completely fair to the reader as it's unlikely anyone would think of that without any hints. Having the victim fall down the window and basically exploding was... just overkill with the coincidences.

The problem having good ideas coupled with obviously very forced elements holds also for the other major murders in the novel. The idea of someone being shot from close range in the head, while he was flying alone in a hang glider is brilliant for example. The burn marks show the man was shot from very close, but that's impossible as he was alone in the sky, and there were only a few people around the lake where the murder happened. I can't discuss this in detail because of spoilers, but there are parts of the story that are really clever as misdirection (the additional motive for the murder for example), but also parts that are utterly impossible to believe because it's so obvious that those events only happened because otherwise, Tsukatou coudn't have the murder situation as he had imagined it. We're not talking about coincidences anymore even, but characters acting very oddly only so we'd end up with the murder at the end. There's a locked room murder in an abandoned fish farm that was under observation from outside, which too has great elements and not so great elements: the misdirection regarding the identity of the murderer is memorable, and there are some interesting concepts going on regarding how the murderer managed to escape the farm unseen, but the way the locked room situation was created makes less of an impression, especially due to the vague way the whole building is presented to the reader. One final murder too follows the familiar pattern by now: a man is seen by Arthur and his sidekick being strangled by red hands in an otherwise empty room and obviously, there's not a sign of any killer hiding anywere. Some parts of the mystery revolve around phenomena nobody is going to know about, which makes it less memorable, while I do like how it ultimately ties back to the whole plot. I do have to say that most of the murders ultimately build on very recognizable patterns, so the core solutions are not very original perhaps, though Tsukatou does a good job at 'dressing them up' for this novel.

And that's perhaps what does make this novel a better experience than I may make it sound. As said, this is a very lengthy novel, but Tsukatou does manage to weave all these various murders and elements into a cohesive story that is really captivating with its impressive murder situtions and the background story of the miracle of the Chosen Twelve and Arthur's investigations. Even if it does rely a lot on coicidences to keep things together. As a whole, complete work, Kiseki Shinmonkan Arthur - Kami no Te no Fukanou Satsujin manages to leave an impression because it's a really well-constructed and plotted story in the sense that it incorporates so many ideas (even familiar ones), yet Tsukatou uses all these pieces very expertly to create a story that's simply quite entertaining.

So I did enjoy my time with Kiseki Shinmonkan Arthur - Kami no Te no Fukanou Satsujin, as it does present a captivating narrative about miraculous events, even if sometimes the pieces feel either a bit familiar or implemented in a very forceful manner. It's not a brilliantly inspired novel perhaps, but it's constructed in a way probably only an experienced writer could handle, resulting in a novel that is entertaining nonetheless and you could do much worse, as this book does have a lot of memorable ideas spread across the narrative. I'm definitely interested in reading more of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 柄刀一『奇蹟審問官アーサー 神の手の不可能殺人』

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

A Break in the Chain

"Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can't make bricks without clay."
"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

You know, I like the watercolor-esque cover art for the bunko pockets better than the original covers.

During high school, Tanabata Kikuno was active as one of the three members of the local idol group Blue Sky G. Soon after the release of their first single however, their lyricist passed away: the elderly Takemoto was a very beloved industry veteran, but he had never written the text for a pop song before, but he was surprisingly fond of Blue Sky G and of course Kikuno paid her respects at his wake. When she accidentally overhears Takemoto's attorney discussing with a police detective that Takemoto's death was a murder, she can't help but get involved, and with the help of the mysterious young man who accompanied the police detective, Kikuno managed to clear up the circumstances surrounding Takemoto's death. This experience drove her to enter the police academy after Blue Sky G was disbanded and she finished high school, and a few years later, she has become a full-fledged police officer of the National Police Agency, who even has gained a reputation of sorts: the manner in which she managed to utterly destroy the Self Defense class teacher earned her the nickname Kick. To Kick's great surprise however, she finds she's appointed to the Homicide division of the Metropolitan Police Department, even though she's just a rookie. 

The Homicide division is the "face" of the Metropolitan Police Department and usually, only the best of the best are scouted into the division, but after a while Kick realizes why she was posted there: as a former idol, she's just to be a pretty face and to be used as a PR resource. Kick is determined to show that she's truly suited for the job and gambles everything on her first murder case, figuring that if a rookie like her can accomplish significant on her first case, the people above are sure to look at her differently. She's not alone either, for she's getting hints from two curious people connected to the investigation into the murder of a woman who was pushed off her balcony after an assaillant made his way into the appartment and locked her husband up in the closet. Kusatsuji Renzou is a criminal psychologist who has been assisting the police as an advisor and has solved a few impossible murder cases in the past. While he can be a bit eccentric and hardly speaks with people, he seems to get along with Kick and gives her some valuable hints at time. And while Kusatsuji appears at the crime scene from time to time, Kick's encounters with Shinkai "Angler" Yasukimi are usually at HQ. Angler is a data analyst who double-checks all the internal case reports for mistakes, and while the manner in which he points out all the mistakes and incongruencies in these reports are far from polite or educational, Angler has been able to solve cases simply by noticing small mistakes in the reports written by the detectives on the scene. As a rookie, Kick's reports of course have plenty of mistakes for Angler to jump on, but even Kick realizes that Angler is not just being a nuisance, but that the mistakes he points out are indeed often vital points in the investigation. With the help of these two minds and her own guts, Kick's out to catch her first killer in Katou Motohiro's Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! Tanabata Kikuno no Sousa Houkokusho ("Those Who Make The Arrest Win! - The Investigation Reports of Tanabata Kikuno", 2016).

After starting with Katou's mystery manga Q.E.D. and C.M.B. irregularly two years ago, I also became curious about the novel series he had been writing, and last year, I read Quantum Man Kara no Tegami - Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi!, the second novel in the series about the former-idol-turned-police-detective Kick. And the reason I first read the second novel in the series was simply because I had put the wrong book in my shopping basket. I usually don't mind reading novels in a series out of order, and unless I'm following a series 'in real time' I often read books completely out of order. I mentioned in the review for Quantum Man Kara no Tegami - Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! that luckily, everything you needed to know was explained in the first few pages, but now that I have read the first book in this series, I have to say I really regret having read these two books in the wrong order. I won't explain this in detail, but the second book does in a way spoil what eventually becomes a significant plot point of the first novel (or at the very least, strongly hints at it). So err, don't make the same mistake and read the books in order.

In the review of Quantum Man Kara no Tegami - Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi!, I wrote that I enjoyed the novel, as one complete product, the best out of all I had read of Katou by then. While thematically, it had a lot of similarities with Q.E.D. and C.M.B, including the pattern of an atlethic, impulsive female protagonist paired up with a male detective figure who works in the background, a scientific theme in the form of the Quantum Man and some human drama background, I found the focus on Kick's antics quite enjoyable. I was therefore quite surprised when Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! turned out to be different in style. Whereas the second novel was completely focused on one single case (involving multiple murders), Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! consists of two distinct parts, and even within those parts, the reader is treated to several smaller cases. The first quarter of the novel is focused on Kick as a high school student and her time in Blue Sky G and the mysterious death of their lyricist Takemoto. During the wake at the late writer's manor, Kick learns that the elderly Takemoto had intended to only let one of his two children inherit the manor and all his fortune: the money is needed to pay the enormous inheritance tax involved with the manor, which Takemoto wanted to be preserved. The other child would only get his second home, but that house is in need of a lot of maintenance and would only cost them money. So that's a motive for murder  for the children and their families before Takemoto would change his will. During the wake, Takemoto's attorney tries to get permission from the children to have an autopsy performed on Takemoto to prove it was murder, but they refuse. Kick and the mysterious young man who accompanied the police detective try to figure something out themselves too, when the body of Takemoto has disappeared from the manor. But how could anyone have gotten the body out of the casket without anyone in the room noticing? The mystery of how the body was spirited away is fairly simple, and the whereabouts of the body can be guessed at easily due to a segment that stands out a lot because it didn't serve any purpose but to establish one single, certain fact.

The second part of the novel is about Kick's first murder investigation, but this plot involves a few other minor story elements. For example, at one point, Kick decides to look up some of the old cases criminal psychologist Kusatsuji has solved, and we are treated to what's basically a mini quiz, where Kikuno shortly summarized the (impossible) murder cases and then tells the reader how it was done. If the backstories had been fleshed out more, I guess these ideas could've been used in Q.E.D. and C.M.B too, though only one of these stories can be considered as truly fair to the reader (as in: you are given all the hints in advance to solve it yourself before Kick tells you the answer) and ultimately, these old police reports are just filler. For the most part however, the narrative focuses on Kick's efforts to help out in the investigation of the murder on the woman thrown off the balcony. Most readers will probably have an inkling what has happened, as the case itself is fairly simple, but Katou does do a lot to make the story fairly engaging by pushing Kick in the right direction at set times. Katou basically uses the characters of Kusatsuji and Angler like a sort of Columbo, by making them ask Kick about all kinds of seemingly minor contradictions and small things that don't quite add up, which gives Kick a hint about what's really going on. Because of this structure, there's a proper build-up to the solving of the case and the reader isn't only confronted with all the things the murderer did wrong at the very end of the novel. Katou also tries to go beyond "just another case for Kick" by hiding a larger conspiracy behind her first case, but personally, I thought the "surprise" was telegraphed too obviously, and while overall, I think this book is entertaining in the sense that a lot happens/many cases are discussed, none of the cases that occur really manage to make that much an impression on their own.

I liked what was done with the subtitle The Investigation Reports of Tanabata Kikuno by the way! Throughout the novel, Kick writes several reports about the discoveries she's made and her questioning of suspects, and they are all included in the novel. At first, I thought they were unnessary padding, as they basically summarized the very events we had read about in the preceding pages, so you'd be reading about the same things twice, but Angler does actually pick out a few mistakes or omissions in Kick's reports that eventually help out in the investigation. In my review of the videogame A.I. The Somnium Files, I wrote a lot about the importance of information management in mystery fiction: who knows what at what time determines if and when a case can be solved. While not a major theme of Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! Tanabata Kikuno no Sousa Houkokusho, it does show that even if the protagonist and the reader do learn certain facts, this information that should cause other characters to act can still be lost if it's not properly written or omitted in a report that is shared with others: an example of why information management is so important to a good mystery novel.

While I really liked the sequel, Tsukamaeta Mon Kachi! Tanabata Kikuno no Sousa Houkokusho didn't quite manage to make as strong an impression. While the story is entertaining enough and it's a very smooth read, the story set-up with several smaller cases is less engaging, and the individual cases themselves are also rather simple in terms of mystery, with some literally told in just a few pages. Kick's also less active/effective compared to her second appearance, where she's much more fun character to root for. On the whole though, I still like Kick as a character (best Katou protagonist I've read until now!), so I'll be sure to pick up the third volume in the future too, as well as pick up those crossover stories in Q.E.D. iff and C.M.B. at some point. 

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩『捕まえたもん勝ち! 七夕菊乃の捜査報告書 』

Saturday, April 3, 2021

The Mystery of the 99 Steps

"You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?"
"Appointment with Death"

Man, I want to read more mysteries set at the Kumano Kodou now, because it's a visually stunning place and would make for a great setting for a mystery revolving around perfect alibis!

The famous detective Suguro Takeru enjoys a well-deserved holiday in Tengu Village in Wakayama Prefecture, near the Kumano Kodou, a series of ancient pilgrimage routes and sacred sites that cross the Kii Penisula. One of the other guests at the same hotel is Mrs. Hondou, a filthy rich widow who spends her time travelling across Japan with her family. While her (step)children are adult, they have all been terrorized by the commanding and controlling woman since a young age, and they literally can't do anything but follow her around and beckon at her orders, even if it makes them deeply, deeply unhappy. Not only Suguro is greatly disturbed at the sight of the woman intentionally playing her children apart to make them as miserable as possible, but also the young doctor Sara who is also staying at the hotel and who has become attracted to the younger Hondou son. Suguro is also rejoined at the hotel with an old friend, Uesugi Honami, who has become a Dietwoman. Uesugi convinces Suguro to come along on an excursion to explore the pilgrimage routes of the Kumano Kodou (even though Suguro would rather prefer to stay in the comfortable hotel). The Hondou family has the same plan, but after bossing her children around for a while in the bus, Mrs. Hondou insists she wants to be left alone for some time, and sends her children off, while she takes a rest at one of the sacred sites. At the end of the day, when the bus is ready to return back to the hotel however, Sara stumbles upon Mrs. Hondou still sitting there, but then realizes that she's dead. It turns out Hondou had been injected with something to kill her and it's obvious that her whole family has a motive for wanting her dead. But what makes matters even more serious is the fact that Suguro on his first day at the hotel overheard someone of the family saying "You do see, don't you, that she's got to be killed?" But which of them did it?

After a capable adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express in 2015 followed by a very impressive adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, screenwriter and playwright Mitani Kouki returned on March 6, 2021 with his third adaptation of a Hercule Poirot novel for television: Shi to no Yakusoku is a three-hour television special based on Agatha Christie's 1938 novel Appointment with Death. The summary above might make you suspect that this is a very loose adaptation of the Christie novel, but you'd completely wrong. While Mitani's adaptations do take place in a post-war Japan and star the eccentric detective Suguro Takeru, these specials have been very faithful to the source material and an absolute delight for fans of Christie's work. It's strange that even though these specials take place in another time, in another place than the original novels, they manage to capture the spirit of the source material so incredibly well. This respect for the original work can be seen in all the Japanese character names for example, which are clearly derived from the original names: the Boyntons became the Hondous, Doctor Sara King became Sara Kinuko, family friend Jefferson Hope Juumonji Kouta etc. There are some changes here and there that some might find significant, like the absence of the character of Dr. Gerard in this adaptation or for example the fact that Uesugi was made an old friend of Suguro (Poirot), but Mitani always does a good job at justifying each change from the novel, and the script never feels unnatural despite his tinkering. For example Uesugi is used to make Suguro a more involved character in this adaptation, while Poirot doesn't really appear that much in the original novel.

It's funny how the theme color of Shi to no Yakusoku is green by the way. Appointment with Death is set in Jeruzalem and they visit Petra in that book, so I always associated with a more... sandy yellow.

In terms of atmosphere, you can definitely feel Mitani's hand like in the previous adaptations: he is best his comedic storytelling and while lately, he's done a lot of historical drama, he's also quite experienced with mystery productions (like in Furuhata Ninzaburou, the fantastic Japanese Columbo and Ellery Queen-inspired TV show). His cozy, comedic style does fit Christie's stories pretty well, so the comedy never feels weird, and while Suguro is perhaps more of a physically comical character compared to Poirot, these adaptations have also shown a Suguro who's much more human than Poirot is in the original novels. Which is also shown here, as Suguro knows the Hondous are better off without their mother, but his own morals don't allow him to ignore this murder. We had a glimpse of this Suguro in the previous adaptations too, but Suguro is a detective who doesn't always enjoys his calling, but he knows it's the right thing to do, and this focus works very good with Mitani's own style. The setting move to the Kumano Kodou however is amazing. There are some fantastic shots of the party exploring the mountain woods and while in the original novel, several witnesses talk about Mrs. Hondou shooing off an Arab servant while she was alone, in this adaptation, it's changed to a pilgrim wearing a Tengu mask and it looks stunning visually. 

As for the mystery plot itself, it's mostly the same as the original novel and I'll have to be honest and say that Appointment with Death has never been one of my favorite Poirots. A lot of the plot revolves around Suguro having to reconstruct a timeline of who saw Ms. Hondou when while she was alone at the sacred site, but that makes the middle part of this story rather long, while the pay-off is... just a timeline of the events. Sure, Suguro builds on that to eventually identify the killer, but it does make this a rather slow story. What I did like about Appointment with Death was an iconic moment where the motive for the crime suddenly becomes clear: it's hard to explain what this is without spoiling the surprise, but people who know the original story will probably understand what part of the story I mean. It's basically the moment the victim actually makes her own appointment with death, making her own murder inevitable. I'm surprised to say that I actually like the variation in Shi to no Yakusoku even better than the original! It's when the little changes here and there by Mitani really pay off, because while the scene is basically the same as in the original novel, the set-up to have that particular scene play out the way it did is even better in this television special, and feels sooooooo much more satisfying when they talk about it again at the end of the story. 

So yep, Shi to no Yakusoku was yet another highly enjoyable and very well-made Christie adaptation by Mitani. In comparison to the adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, this televsion special might not be as ambitious, but like the previous two adaptations, Shi to no Yakusoku is a production where the combination of Agatha Christie and Mitani Kouki really feels like a match made in heaven, with the end result is more than the sum of the parts. The core plot by Christie has one very memorable moment in terms of mystery, while the changes made by Mitani to fit "his" version of Appointment with Death aren't made for fun, but often support or even elevate the original story. It's a shame that Suguro doesn't have his own Hastings at the moment, because tone-wise, it'd love to see how Mitani would tackle an adaptation of Curtain!

Original Japanese title(s): 『死との約束』

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Spirits of '76

Now it's Reyn time!
"Xenoblade Chronicles

Finished End of the Golden Witch and it appears the mystery of the Rokkenjima murders will still continue as usual in the last four episodes, so I added the ideas I got from the events/mysteries shown in that episode to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo

Everyone who has played Xenoblade Chronicles will instantly recall exactly how the line in the opening quote is read and pronounced.

Reynold Frame and Constance Wilder make their way to the Concord, Massachusetts, a historical town not only known for the eminent literary community of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott and Henry David Thoreau that once resided here, but also as one of the stages in the Revolutionary War. Frame and Constance are planning to get married next week, and who better to marry them than Constance' elderly relative Dr. John Annandale: the man is over a hundred years old and as a child, he even was told the story of the 1775 Concord battle by a man who actually fought in the war, but Annandale is still quite sharp. Annandale lives with Constance's aunt Kate and uncle Bowler in Concord, which is also the house Frame and Constance were going to stay, but due to circumstances they're a room short, and Frame has to stay with Tom Satterthwaite, a man down the street who runs a sort of a B&B. Frame learns from Satterthwaite that the previous guest in his room had disappeared six weeks ago without paying his rent, but the circumstances were quite mysterious: the man had suddenly disappeared from his room, though they had heard him moving around his room upstairs earlier, and he had somehow managed to take all his luggage with him and get out of the house without even making a single noise on the staircase. Frame learns there's a ghost story attached to Satterthwaite's house, about a wounded British soldier who was being nursed in this very room during the Concorde battle, but the betty lamp put next to him somehow disappeared after his death. During his first night here however, Frame is first haunted by a betty lamp that appears and disappears, and later during his stay he even hears the ghostly noise of marching soldiers in his room. He's utterly puzzled by these ghostly apparitions, but the discomposed body he later finds in the unused well behind Satterthwaite's house is obviously not a ghost, but Frame is determined to smooth things out so he and Constance can finally get married in Herbert Brean's Hardly a Man is Now Alive (1950).

Herbert Brean is perhaps best known for Wilders Walk Away, but because I never read things in order, I haven't read that one yet: Hardly a Man is Now Alive is the third novel in the same series starring Reynold Frame. I read the Dutch translation by the way, which is titled Het lijk in de waterput, or The Body in the Well, which errr, very clearly describes one of the main events in this novel. Just an extra question: what kind of titles do people usually prefer? These very to-the-point titles like "Something Something Murder Case" or "The Mystery of Something Something" or titles that are less straight and which you usually only understand after reading the story?

So I usually don't plan out my reviews and just write them as I go, though most of the time, I do have a few points ready in my head that I want to address in the post. I have to confess that with Hardly a Man is Now Alive, I find it difficult to really focus on a few clear points to discuss in detail. This is because the novel is really dense in terms of plot: a lot of plot-related events and backstories are thrown at the reader almost from page one on, and this basically doesn't stop until you get to the climax. The result is a novel that at first glance seems very busy and chaotic, with far too many plot threads being introduced one after another that are all somewhat related to each other, but not always in a clear manner (at first sight). As I had never read a Brean before, this only worried me, because after a while, it just seemed like he was trying to pile one mystery after another without really looking back ever again, and even if he would, the resolution of each mystery would probably not be very satisfying.

Fortunately, I have to admit my expectations (fear) were wrong, and that Brean did manage to tie all the various plot threads in Hardly a Man is Now Alive together for the conclusion, making it an overall satisfying read. There's a lot going on: the 'impossible' disappearance of the previous lodger and his luggge, the sighting of a person who's confirmed dead, ghostly sounds and lamps in Frame's room, a suspicious spirit medium who insists on swapping rooms with Frame, the historical mystery of the disappearing lamp of the British soldier in 1775, an important character suddenly disappearing near the end of the novel and more. Most of these mysteries ultimately belong to one of the two major storylines of this novel, and while the connection between these two mysteries is not very strong, they each have their own points of interest to them. The clewing for both storylines is a bit similar, focusing on minor contradictions between testimonies about certain actions/persons of various witnesses, but that does help make Hardly a Man is Now Alive feel like one consistent novel.

An argument can be made that the solutions to the many minor mysteries of the novel do come across as familiar, or simple. The mystery behind the ghostly sound of marching soldiers for example is the least interesting (but doable) solution anyone could think of, as is the mystery of the actual disappearance of the lamp of the British soldier. The reason for the lamp's disappearance is much better and ties in nicely with the historical mystery found within the account of the 1775 Concord battle, which is probably the best idea in terms of mystery plot in this novel, cleverly making use of the contradictions between the stories told by the various characters. The current-day disappearance of the lodger and the truth behind the body in the well again feature tropes that you are likely to have seen before in other mystery stories, but as I said earlier, I do think that Brean does a surprisingly good job at linking everything together, even if the seperate strands do not aim for the stars.

I guess that in a way, Hardly a Man is Now Alive reminds me of the few Norman Berrow novels I've read: packed plots that are entertaining to follow because a lot happens and the authors do manage to tie the many events together at the end, even if the individual plot threads and mysteries might not be very ambitious when it comes to the solution/truth. I should probably try Wilders Walk Away too one day.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Cinderella Ballet Mystery

Never reveal the secret to a trick
Practice to perfection
Do not repeat tricks in front of the same audience
(Howard Thurston)

You know, I'm not even sure whether I have ever seen a magic show in real life myself.

After reading the phenomenal Medium last year, I knew I had to read more by Aizawa Sako, and what's a better way to start than with his debut novel? Aizawa made his debut as a professional author by winning the 19th Ayukawa Tetsuya Award with Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon ("Cendrillon at Midnight", 2009), an interconnected short story collection. It's a book that's always been lingering in my head because I really like the cover art, but I didn't even know the author of the book was named Aizawa until his name first registered with me after reading Medium. Sugawa is a very ordinary high school student, who has a very ordinary problem on his mind: he's probably in love with his classmate Torino Hatsu, but he doesn't know how to approach her. He fell in love with her when his sister brought him to a magic bar, where Hatsu happens to be working part-time. Hatsu is a wallflower in the classroom, with no real close friends and always disappearing during lunch break so she can eat all by herself, so Sugawa was absolutely stunned by her shining appearance when doing table magic for the customers at the bar and since his visit there, can't stop thinking about Hatsu. When the two come across an odd mystery at school, Sugawa notices it has parallels with the magic tricks Hatsu showed at the bar, and asks her if she can solve it, hoping they can become friends in the process. 

I  have to admit that after finishing Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon, I was a bit disappointed that this book was not an absolute masterpiece like Medium was. Of course, no author is able to create mindblowing classics one after another, so my expectations were neither realistic nor fair (especially not as this was Aizawa's debut work), but after letting some time pass before I started on this review, I found it easier to look at Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon as a work of mystery that tries to accomplish something very different, while also laying the foundation for Medium in terms of format. Like Medium, Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is a collection of short stories, which are strongly connected to each other. Events mentioned in one story are carried over to the next, and the final of the four stories here manages to make one cohesive narrative out of the whole book by pullng various plots threads from the other three stories together to form one tapestry. The big difference however is that Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is also written to as a YA novel. There's a lot of focus on the high school as setting, with Sugawa's attempts at wooing Hatsu, to Hatsu's attitude towards school and her classmates and we also see other characters struggle with their lives at high school. This focus on the school life of the teenage characters also form the driving force to the mystery plots of this book: most of the mysteries we see here are more-or-less everyday life mysteries, not really crimes, but less serious, but still puzzling incidents that occur at school, and often revealed to be connected with very human motives. The book is perhaps best compared to the Classic Literature Club/Hyouka series.

The opening story Karamawari Triumph ("Futile Triumph") introduces the reader to Sugawa and Hatsu, and follows Sugawa's first attempt to strike a real conversation with his silent classmate. During his hopeless attempt in the school library, the two notice that the magazines of one of the shelves of a bookcase have been put there in reverse, with the spine inwards. Only one of the magazines there is placed correctly, with the spine to the outside, but why would anyone pull such a weird prank? The odd sight reminds Sugawa of one of the card tricks Hatsu showed and he decides to involve Hatsu in the mystery and ask if she can solve it with her knowledge of magic in an attempt to become friends with her. I like how the mystery of someone could quickly turn all the magazines in the shelf around is solved: a good look at the physical state of the "crime scene" allows the attentive reader to deduce how the magic was accomplished. And like a magic trick, it's deceivingly simple, yet capable of fooling you. The road from that point to the who, and especially why has fewer clues, and I think one extra step there in the logic would've made it a much better story.

Kyouchuu Card Stab ("Card Stab in the Heart") starts with a small private table magic show by Hatsu in the music room for two classmates and a senior student. After the show in which Hatsu uses a knife, they all leave except for the senior student, who has to practice for a piano contest. On her way home, Hatsu remembers she left her knife in the music room, so she returns there together with Sugawa, only to find an empty music room, as the senior student has gone to the bathroom. But to their shock, they find that someone has used Hatsu's knife to damage a table, carving three "F"s on the table surface. Who would do this and why? This time a tale that focuses more strongly on the reasons why someone would leave such a message on the table. Ultimately, it's not really a story where the reader is expected to be able to solve it before Hatsu does, but it works perfectly fine as a school drama mystery.

In Ate ni Naranai Predictor ("Untrustworthy Predictor"), Sugawa picks up a notebook of Itakura, a classmate who is known for her fortune-telling. He notices a list of classmates in a specific order, but when the grades for their English test are announced, he realizes that the list in Itakura's notebook corresponds exactly to the people with the best grades for this test. She appears to have real fortune-telling powers and she even claims she has seen the ghost of a student who committed suicide last year. Sugawa at first doesn't believe in the ghost, until he sees a ghostly figure in a locked classroom, but when they open the door, they find it empty! Two incidents that are not directly connected save for Itakura as a lynchpin plot figure. The trick with the list of students is simple, but very magic-like and it makes good use of very natural (wrong) assumptions of people. The disappearing ghost from the classroom has a very simple explanation in terms of mechanics (how it was done), but the explanation for it is fantastic: it's very specific to the school setting and both original and convincing.

Anata no Tame no Wild Card ("Wild Card For You") is the final story and revolves around the ghost of the girl who committed suicide last year. Someone has been using her account to post on the school message board, but why? This story is more focused on fleshing out the characters, with Sugawa finally learning more about Hatsu's past from a classmate and all kinds of minor references regarding the various characters who appeared in previous stories all coming together to form one single narrative thread. As a mystery story, I didn't find it too exciting, but as the finale to a YA school drama with a mystery-theme, it's okay. 

For the readers looking for a YA school drama mystery, Gozen Reiji no Cendrillon is a safe and entertaining read: the individual stories have some interesting ideas for mystery plots, while the overall story manages to portray interesting characters with Hatsu, Sugawa and their classmates as they spend their days at school. It's written in a way I think that even those who don't like mystery novels can enjoy it as a YA novel, but like I mentioned earlier, I wouldn't have minded it if had been a bit more mystery-oriented, as sometimes the core mystery plots felt just one or two elements short of becoming far more impressive experiences. There's a second volume out, which I might try out too.

Original Japanese title(s): 相沢沙呼『午前零時のサンドリヨン』:「空回りトライアンフ」/「胸中カード・スタッブ」/「あてにならないプレディクタ」/「あなたのためのワイルド・カード」

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Golden Fantasia

On the first twilight, offer as sacrifices the six chosen by the key. 
"Umineko: When They Cry"

It was almost ten years ago that I read Nikaidou Reito's Jinroujou no Kyoufu ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle") and when I tackled that enormous story on the blog, I decided to discuss each of the four volumes seperately, even though the four pockets formed one story together, so the first three books didn't even explain the mysterious murders that occured at the titular castle. But the story was just so insanely long, I knew I was going to forget things while reading it (and other books in between), so I opted to do those 'incomplete' write-ups on each book anyway. Which is basically the same reason why I am writing this post today.

People who have played the visual novel game series Umineko no Naku Koro ni ("When the Seagulls Cry"), released in English as Umineko: When They Cry, are probably quite aware that it's insanely long. And I am also sure a lot of people who frequent this blog have already played Umineko, for I often see the name mentioned in the comments and sometimes people from Umineko fandom even link to specific book reviews on this blog because apparently those books served as inspiration for the games. Anyway, Umineko is a pretty well-known mystery multimedia franchise created by 07th Expansion (with Ryukishi07 as the main writer), as there have also been anime, manga, novel and drama CD adaptations of these games, which is probably why people often assumed I had played the games, and I had to disappoint them. Heck, I'm sure a lot of people only started to develop an interest in Japanese mystery stories because of Umineko. Hardware preferences etc. meant I only recently started on these games with the Switch version (which collects all the available material at this moment) released in January 2021. Oh, I can also reveal I have not played/seen Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, and certainly won't even think about it until I'm at least done with Umineko.

This post however is not meant to be a full review of Umineko: When They Cry as I'm literally just halfway through the main game (you may have noticed me mentioning my blind playthrough memo on the blog this last month). The main story consists of eight episodes, which were originally released between 2007-2010. The first four episodes, Legend of the Golden Witch, Turn of the Golden Witch, Banquet of the Golden Witch and Alliance of the Golden Witch are collectively known as the Question Arc, which basically pose the main mystery for the players to solve. The remaining four episodes on the other hand I believe don't spell out the solution literally, but do give you more pointers/show off a bit more of what's behind the curtain, allowing the player to solve the mystery. As of this moment, I have only finished the first four episodes, but I decided to write something down already before I move on. The series is available on a wide range of systems from PC to PS3, PSP, PS4 and Nintendo Switch and probably more and then there's all the adaptations too. I probably don't have to mention that the English version of Umineko: When They Cry Question Arc has been available on Steam and GOG for some years now, but if you hadn't played the games yet and this post managed somehow to pique your interests (Do note that the Switch version I played has different art assets and therefore looks differently). The manga has also been released officially in English I believe.

The story of Umineko is set in 1986, on the private island Rokkenjima. Rokkenjima is the property of Ushiromiya Kinzou, an man who after World War II managed to bring back fortune and fame to the fallen Ushiromiya clan. Some say Kinzou's success came from his unmatchable luck, others say it was the result of his ruthless and overwhelming aura that annihilated any enemies in his path, but there are also rumors that Kinzou, who has more than an interest in the occult, had a pact with the Golden Witch Beatrice, whom he summoned. According to the stories, she bequethed him with a mountain of golden ingots, which was what got Kinzou's rise to power starting. Whatever the cause was of Kinzou's success though, by 1986 Kinzou has grown old and health-wise, he shouldn't have much time left. In recent years, he's stayed cooped up in his study and become completely absorbed in the occult , even having a portrait of the Golden Witch Beatrice made in his house, along with an epitaph with a curious riddle which is supposed to lead to the gold treasure and revive Beatrice. Oldest son Klaus and his family still live on Rokkenjima, though they hardly see Kinzou anymore. Kinzou's other three children Eva, Rudolf and Rosa still come back once a year in the fall, together with their own families, ostensibly for a fun 'family gathering', but as all four children have always been terrorized and abused by their father, they can't wait for him to go so they can inherit his immense fortune.

On October 4, 1986, three genereations of the Ushiromiya clan gather again on Rokkenjima, just in time before a storm arrives. For the four grandchildren George, Battler, Jessica and Maria, it's a nice family meeting, but their parents however are all desperate for money, and are willing to do anything to get some money from Kinzou, who however seems to have become completely kooky by now, as he longes for a reunion with the Golden Witch Beatrice. When the storm finally reaches Rokkenjima and cuts it completely off from the outside however, the tragedy starts. On the first night, a mass murder occurs in the garden shed, and it had been signed by a creepy occult symbol. The survivors try to contact the mainland, but the radio's out and with the storm raging on, there's no way out off the island. After the first shock fades away however, the survivors start noticing little suspicious things about the murder, like the question of why the garden shed was locked, while the key to the shed was kept in the servant's room. But as the day continues, more and more people are killed and some of them even under seemingly impossible circumstances, with for example everyone having an alibi for the time of the murder. By the time it becomes clear that thesemurders happen according to the riddle on the epitaph, it's already too late: the Golden Witch Beatrice revives and nobody survives.

Despite not surviving the Rokkenjima massacre however, Battler refuses to believe in the existence of magic and Beatrice herself, so our witch decides to have a game with Battler: the events on Rokkenjima are "reset" and from a parallel dimension, Beatrice and Battler look on as the murders on Rokkenjima happen all over again, though the details of the events play out differently this time, with other kinds of impossible murders and other victims. In this game, Beatrice maintains that every impossible occurrence, including the locked or otherwise impossible murders, are made possible because she's the Golden Witch Beatrice and that she committed the murders with magic, while Battler has to prove that these murders are not the result of magic, but committed by a real-life person. As they observe each 'new' version of the Rokkenjima murders, they hold discussions on how a situation could've been created by a human, or whether magic would be the only possible explanation for events. They go through this twisted game again and again, resetting the 'board' of this insane fantasy mystery game again each time, with Battler struggling every time to come up with a comprehensive human explanation for the events. 

As I mentioned above, the so-called Question arc of Umineko: When They Cry consists of the four episodes Legend of the Golden Witch, Turn of the Golden Witch, Banquet of the Golden Witch and Alliance of the Golden Witch, which take close to ten hours each and all four episodes present a different version of the Rokkenjima murders: while the base story of the Ushiromiya clan gathering on the island is the same each time, the murders all occur very differently, and the focus in each episode lies elsewhere too, with some episodes focusing more on certain characters, or opting to show more of the family history or build-up or aftermath of the family gathering. Umineko: When They Cry is however quite different from the novel adventure games I usually discuss here: there is no interactivity whatsover in these four episodes, and you're just reading the story. You don't have to make story-changing choices, nor does the game ever test you (the player) directly by quizzing you on theories. You're just a bystander to Battler and Beatrice's back-and-forth on magical vs non-magical murders. Personally, I'm not that big a fan of novel games that don't have any interactive elements: as a person who got started on novel games with the Chunsoft games like Kamaitachi no Yoru and 428, figuring out the right route down a flowchart is my jam! 

The 'game' element of Umineko: When They Cry therefore lies outside the game: each of the episodes challenges the player to see if they will subject to the fantasy 'solution' offered by Beatrice or try to solve the mystery themselves, for at least these four first episodes don't actually explain how the murders in each seperate episode were committed or feature any game mechanics that allow the player to check whether they were right or wrong about the case. Starting from the second episode on, Battler will try to come up with theories to explain not only the impossible crimes that occur in the episode in question, but also of previous episodes, but often his theories are either shot down entirely, or have too many open questions to feel satisfying. None of the episodes have a proper denouement where it's shown that magic was never used in the Rokkenjima murders, so it's up to the player to come up with a theory that explains things. This is made harder by the fact that the Golden Witch Beatrice will often show "her interpretation" of the events, resulting in many scenes that are most definitely fantasy, with witches summoning magical beings to commit the murders, and it's up to Battler and the player to figure out how to explain the results of the same scene, without actually accepting the "explanation" that the crime was committed by a witch. The meta game-element is also seen in the concept of Red Truths introduced in the second episode: a statement made in red is true. Meaning that even if you don't believe that X was killed by a magic stake in that one scene, if it's stated in red that X was killed, you do have accept that specific fact. This is basically the function of third-persion narration in mystery fiction: a fair-play mystery novel should never blatantly lie to the reader in the third-person narration. The unreliable narrator is of course a subjective narrator and in that sense, Beatrice is most definitely an unreliable narrator, but any statements she makes in red are true regardless of her status, which brings some interesting dynamics to the deduction battles between Beatrice and Battler, as Beatrice can sometimes kill off a complete theory of Battler just by making a red statement that contradicts a fundamental premise. 

The idea of a single work of mystery that doesn't actually reveal the truth to the reader reminds me of two of Higashino Keigo's books featuring Kaga Kyouichirou: Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") both don't say who's ultimately arrested for the murders in those books, nor is a detailed explanation given to the reader as to how Kaga managed to identify the killer, so the reader has to solve the whodunnit themselves, with or without the extra help in the sealed commentary pages.

This is just an 'update' post on my progress on Umineko: When They Cry and I still have half of the story to read through, so there's little I can say about the quality of the mystery at this moment. As you may have noticed however, I've created a Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo page, where I wrote down my thoughts each time I was done with an episode, dotting down what scenes I thought were suspicious, and what implications they might have. I'm probably very wrong, but if you have played the games already, it might be fun to read through them (they're ROT13 protected). One thing that's noticable about the murder situations in Umineko however is that a lot of options are left open with the impossible crimes. Some locked room murders are basically only "impossible" if you believe some characters aren't in cahoots or something like that, which is also pointed out in the episodes themselves. This is often the case to leave the possibility open that the murders could be committed by either magic or by a human hand, but it does result in murder situations where the mystery seems to lie mostly in the fact that the reader isn't given enough specific information about each murder scene. Even when Red Truths are later introduced (sometimes also concerning earlier episodes), things often feel a bit vague (perhaps on purpose) and even the "rules" of Umineko, as a game that challenges the player to solve the mystery, aren't always made clear. For example, each subsequent Umineko episode will give out background information that is probably also applicable to previous episodes, but it is never stated as such, so the game is being intentionally vague to make the reader assume something, but as none of the rules are ever told to the reader, Umineko is never really trying to be fair. A good mystery story with fantasy elements will usually set down clear limits so the reader knows whether their theories remain within bounds, but even though Umineko has the Red Truths, those colored short statements only cover the bare minimum of the events that are actually shown and don't really give the player a good idea of what should be considered part of the game and what not.

Which reminds me: Umineko: When They Cry is insanely wordy, and to be honest, I feel like the game always needs like twenty lines to convey a message that had already been conveyed after the first two lines. At times the writing simply feels too self-indulgent.

Of course, it's clear that Umineko: When They Cry takes inspiration from the famous four Japanese 'anti-mystery' novels, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Death Mansion Murder Case"), Dogura Magura, Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness") and Hako no Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box"), with its focus on occult topics, the family of four with Western names, the unreliable narrator/presentation and its open-ended approach to "truth" but that does mean that story of Umineko, at this point at least, never feels like a tightly plotted Queen-like mystery novel where the logic will pull everything straight at the end.

Anyway, this was just a quick (but too long) post to say I'm now halfway through Umineko: When They Cry. At this point I honestly can't say whether the conclusion will be rewarding enough considering the interesting set-up, but writing the entries in the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo page has been interesting enough, and it'll be fun to see I at least got on the right track regarding the various solutions to the many versions of the Rokkenjima murders. A more indepth post regarding how Umineko:When They Cry works for me as a piece of mystery fiction, will follow when I'm finally done. Considering the length of these episodes, that make take a few months again though. Depending on what happens in the coming episodes of Umineko:When They Cry, I might continue working on the playthrough memo, because I'm not sure whether it's still going to present new murders or not and if there's anything for me to update in the first place. Guess I'll find out when I go back to the game. Obviously, I'd very much appreciate those who have played the game already to not spoil or even nudge nudge wink wink hint at the events awaiting me!

Original Japanese title(s): 『うみねこのなく頃に』 「Legend of the Golden Witch」/「Turn of the Golden Witch」/「Banquet of the Golden Witch」/「Alliance of the Golden Witch」

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Angel Night

Buried and drowned in time
All that’s left are memories
Just as you remember too
We used to be angels then
"We Used To Be Angels" (Kageyama Hironobu)

Finished Alliance of the Golden Witch, so I added my thoughts on the new information/events regarding the Rokkenjima murders shown in that episode to the Umineko no Naku koro ni playthrough memo. Will probably write something up on the Question Arc soon!

A murder of crows and a parliament of rooks sound nice, but I've never been a fan of a host or pinhead of angels. A flock of angels works for this novel, though I also played with "a heaven of angels" and "a salvation of angels" in my head...

Without a warning, they appeared from heaven five years ago. Humanoid, faceless beings with wings on their backs descended from the skies in a ray of light. They flew high above the humans, until they suddenly swooped down and started grabbing certain people. The humans were burned alive and taken away into the darkness. People instinctively understood what these beings were: Angels. With time, human kind learned the one absolute rule: any human who kills more than one person, is taken away by the angels to hell. In the five years since, angels have become part of the 'normal' life of the humans. They learned that the angels usually act very smilar to birds, moving in flocks and not being human-shy at all. In fact, they even have a sweet tooth and are easily lured with sugar. Angels do not harm humans who have not violated the Rule and are very meek. Eventually, scientists even dared to kill an angel and cut it open to examine it, though they learned very few about its anatomy. All they knew for sure was that nobody was allowed to kill two humans or more any more and that hell was waiting for those who dared. This had huge effects on society: the number of serial murders obviously diminished, as people either didn't want to be taken by the angels to hell, or the few people who dared would be visited immediately by angels after their second murder, preventing further murders. Some people didn't care about hell, and decided they might as well try and kill as many as possible in one go, if angels are going to take them anyway. Whether the arrival of angels was for good or not, nobody knows.

Aogishi Kogare once ran a thriving detective agency with a talented team, but after the arrival of the angels, he became what's merely a shadow of the shining figure he once was. Gone are the days that he worked on high profile serial murder cases and he basically only takes just enough minor jobs to earn a living now. After taking care of a case involving a stalker for the wealthy Tsuneki Ougai, Aogishi is invited by this giant in the food industry to his private island Tokoyojima with the enigmatic question "Don't you want to know whether there really is a heaven?".  Tsuneki is a fanatical admirer of the angels and bought Tokoyojima because an unusual large amount of angels that tend to live around here. Other guests to Tokoyojima include Amasawa Tadashi, the leading expert on angel studies and Souba Yukisugi, a former weapon manufacturer who succesfully made transformed his business to not sell a product especially designed to kill people, as demand for weapons plummeted after the descent of the angels. Aogishi soon learns to regret his trip to the island due to Tsuneki's almost maniacal belief in the angels, but the boat to pick them up won't come until a few days. On the morning of the second day of his arrival however, it is discovered that their host Tsuneki has been stabbed to death in his private rooms last night. It seems there are too few clues to determine which of the other guests committed the murder, but the remaining people on the island feel relatively safe, because they know the murderer can not commit a second murder without being taken by the angels. But the following day, another murder occurs, and then another.... Shasendou Yuuki's Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari ("Paradise is the Absence of Detectives", 2020) poses the question: how is a person able to commit a series of murders when even heaven won't allow that?

Sometimes you just know you want to read a book with one quick look at the premise: this is one of them. I honestly had never come across the name of the author Shasendou Yuuki before, but the moment I read about the angelic rule of no more than one murder and that the mystery revolved around a case where the culprit did manage to kill multiple people, the book jumped on top of the to-read list, because come on, it's one of the most exciting story premises I've heard about! It's hardly a secret nowadays that I love mystery stories that have a supernatural/fantasy element to them (as long as it's incorporated in a proper puzzle plot), from time travel to being able to communicate with youkai, but an universal, natural law that has people automatically taken to hell the moment they commit their second murder, is both original and audicious, and I couldn't wait to see what would be done with it.

Though, admittedly, it takes a while to get there. A fair amount of the first half of the novel is used to introduce the reader to the new, angel-filled world and also to explore protagonist Aogishi's past, whose life changed completely due to the descent of the angels. The real-time narrative about the murders on Tokoyojima is often interrupted by flashback segments. These segments are necessary because they help detail how the rule of "no more than one murder" works exactly and what humanity knows about the angels, but taken together, these introductory parts do mean it takes a while for the mystery plot to get rolling properly. The protagonist Aogishi is presented as a character with a trauma, who has become a detective who is actually very reluctant to get involved in this case, and a lot of the novel is also dedicated to portraying him as a figure in pain who doesn't quite know how to deal with the new world. Your mileage may vary on how tolerable you find the story' s focus on Aogishi's attitude of "I don't want to!" and everyone's "But you must!" response. 

The story does do a somewhat lacklustre job at 'proving' to the reader that hell exists: people just instinctively know that the angels take sinners to hell, which is why people become more reluctant in committing murders and as as the reader, you just have to accept that the idea of hell is accepted by everyone involved. But wherever they are taken, it's an undeniable fact that sinners are taken away from this world by the faceless angels. There's an atmosphere of dread throughout the novel: the angels might be taking murderers away, but are other sins "forgiven"? If there's a hell, does that means there's a heaven? And why did the angels suddenly appear five years ago, and does that mean that "a second impact" could also occur in the future, changing the rules again? This new "reality" where people face a certain uncertainty is a vital part of the novel and is integral to the mystery plot.

Once the story really gets going and we are trying to solve the mystery of a series of murders occuring in a world where it's physically impossible to commit multiple murders, we get to the good stuff. While most of the murders are committed in very ordinary manners (stabbings etc.) and they could theoretically could've been committed by most of the persons residing on the island, it's the question of how there could be more than one murder occuring here, without any of the others being taken by the angels. The main problem is that in this world, angels will appear to take you away to hell the moment you have killed your second person, but in Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari, nobody is seen taken by the angels even after the second or third murder. Of course, the possibility is raised that perhaps that everyone on the island just decided to kill exactly one other person because in that way, nobody would be taken by an angel ('the first one is free of charge!'), but it's obviously not very likely that half of the cast just decided to kill the other half of the cast right now right then. So how was it possible for the murderer to commit more than one murder without any consequences? Due the specifics of the rule, it's likely most readers will have some idea of what's going on, but still, Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is very nicely plotted mystery, with genuinely clever surprises here and there that make the best of the unique world of this novel.

Whenever I read a mystery novel with a supernatural/fantasy theme, the question I always ask myself is whether the supernatural elements are really used to create a situation that couldn't occur in a "realistic" world. 'Graphical swaps' where it turns that something like "magical traces" work functionally exactly the same as fingerprints is of course not satisfying at all. Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is a example of where the supernatural is used well, as indeed, the whole plot of this novel only works within this unique world, where the knowledge that there are angels flying around everywhere who can come down and get you the moment when "if (kill > 1) go to hell", influences the actions of both the culprit and all the other characters in the story. You might be able to guess who the murderer is fairly early on (the motive isn't really well foreshadowed by the way), but figuring out how the whole plot was carried out is a lot trickier, and I really liked how the murderer succeeded in committing more than one murder without being carried away by the angels. I had some suspicions about how the presence of the angels could be used for these murders, but even I have to admit I hadn't expected some of the clever ways in which the existence of these celestial beings were tied to the main murder plot: this is best seen in one of the later murders, where author Shasendou suddenly uses the concept of the angels in a completely different manner than I had expected, even though it was properly hinted at.  I was completely fooled there.

Rakuen to wa Tantei no Fuzai nari is a novel with a highly original and unique premise and sticks with it until the very last page of the book. It is a mystery that truly could only have occured in a world with angels, and the way it uses one seemingly simple rule to create a captivating series of murders is absolutely great. The book can be slow at times, but it's very atmosheric, and the book does really profit from the detailed look at a world which can now actually see sinners being taken away by heavenly creatures. Another good example of why mystery novels don't need to be "realistic" to be fun, challenging and yet still fair.

Original Japanese title(s):  斜線堂有紀『楽園とは探偵の不在なり』