Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Two-Sided Affair

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.
"The Detective Story Decalogue"

Like last week's regular review, this novel too is set around New Year. Weird coincidence that I happened to read these two novels one after another, and if I hadn't bumped up another review to be my first of the year, these two reviews would have been posted in the first week of the new year.

The last time I bothered to check, Nishimura Kyoutarou had over 600 novels on his resume. Most of them are of course about train-related mysteries featuring Inspector Totsugawa: there's a reason why people in Japan instantly associate the train mystery and elaborate alibi tricks using ingenious use of railway schedules with Nishimura (see for example this Sandwichman sketch, where Nishimura's name is used as a punchline for a gag about railway schedules). But as you can guess, churning out three, four novels a month will have effect on the quality of the mystery plots, and the couple of Nishimura novels I read once he started to be this extremely prolific were not particularly enjoyable or inspiring. I did have fun with several of his earlier novels though, including the weird crossover series with Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, Akechi Kogorou and Inspector Maigret, and once in a while, I enjoy exploring his earlier output.

Koroshi no Soukyokusen ("Hyperbola of Murder", 1971) is one of Nishimura's earlier novels and widely considered to be one of his best works, and it isn't even about Inspector Totsugawa or railway schedules! In fact, it's a very diferent type of story than we are used to with Nishimura, as it's a closed circle murder mystery that is written as a full-blown homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. Though with a very interesting twist. For once you open the novel, you'll find a short preface by the author, where he tells you outright that the main trick of this novel revolves around twins! Figuring that Knox and S.S. Van Dine had certain strong opinions about the use of twins in mystery fiction, Nishimura simply decided to make it clear right away that Koroshi no Soukyokusen will make use of twins as a plot device, as you can hardly complain that the reader has not "been duly prepared for them" with such a warning! And indeed, the story starts off right away showing how a pair of twin brothers have been committing a series of curious robberies on small supermarkets and other stores in Tokyo at the end of the year.  Each of these stores was robbed by a man with a pistol, but for some reason, the robber did not wear a mask. Eventually, the police manages to find this man, and twice even! For apparently, the robber has a twin brother, but both of them deny having committed the robberies despite not being able to present any alibi, and with no other evidence but the visual identification by the victims, the police can't do anything: they know the brothers must be in cahoots, but as the robberies were ultimately only committed by one person, they can't arrest both brothers, as one of them is not guilty of any crime in the practical sense. The police also has trouble locating where the stolen money has gone too.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to Kyouko, a typist who works in Tokyo, but is now spending New Year at a small hotel in the Miyagi Prefecture. She and her fiancé are among the lucky six inhabitants of Tokyo who have been offered a ski holiday completely free of charge at the Snow-View Hotel as a form of promotion: the owner, who runs the whole hotel by himself, hopes these guests will help promote the hotel to friends and acquaintances in Tokyo after their stay. Among the other guests are a student of criminology, a taxi driver and a girl working in a not-so-legal massage parlor. The Snow-View Hotel is located deep in the snowy mountains and at this time of the year basically only accessible by snowcat or skis. It doesn't take long for one of the guests to be find hanging from the ceiling in his locked room though, accompanied by a card with a strange circle mark and the message "Thus The First Step Of My Revenge Is Completed." Coincidentally, they realize that one of the bowling pins in the entertainment room has been removed too. They try to phone for help, but the phone line has been cut and even the snowcat has been disabled, meaning they are all trapped in the hotel for now. More murders soon follow, and the remaining guests sart to suspect each other. Eventually, the survivors manage to call once for help, but by the time the police arrives at the hotel, it's already too late: they find seven bodies in and around the hotel. At first, the police suspects one of the victims here must have killed the others and then themselves, but then the police receive an anonymous letter connecting these murders with the robberies committed by the twins, but what could that connection be?

Well, you certainly can't accuse Nishimura of not being ambitious here. First you have the daring declaration of the usage of twins at the very start of the novel, and then we are introduced to a dual narrative structure, with the second storyline obviously being inspired by And Then There Were None. In fact, even the characters locked up in the hotel themselves realize their situation is very much like And Then There Were None (including the bowling pins that disappear each time someone is killed), though unlike And Then There Were None, the characters here don't really know why they are being killed: they have not been accused of crimes like And Then There Were None, and none of them know each other. They have nothing in common, so why were they chosen to be killed? Don't try too much thinking about this yourself though: there might be a minor clue pointing at what connects these people, but the exact reason for why these people are killed is not something you can properly deduce based on what is shown in the story, and you just have to wait for the reveal. It's kinda farfetched though, to see the killer go this far because of that reason. I've seen the same idea used in other mystery stories too, but I find this particular iteration the least convincing.  

Anyway, perhaps the most interesting part of this novel is how it's a homage to And Then There Were None, using a dual narrative structure. I won't be the only one to be reminded of works like The Decagon House Murders (disclosure: I translated the English version) or The Jellyfish Never Freezes, which tackle the same story format. The dual story structure is a bit crude here though compared to these examples. In both The Decagon House Murders and The Jellyfish Never Freezes, the connection to the two narratives is very clear to the reader: in the former, we follow a series of murders on an island, while we also follow an investigation into the background of those murders on the mainland, while in the latter, we see the murders occur in real time, but also follow a narrative that is set a few days after the murders. In Koroshi no Soukyokusen, this connection is not clear at all until the very end. Each chapter, you have a section about the robberies committed by the twins and a section set at the Snow-View Hotel, but you never understand why you are reading about these completely different storylines. It results in a disjointed reading experience, as the story keeps jumping between these completely different events. Obviously, the connection between them is explained in the conclusion, and there is both an in-universe and a more meta-explanation to it, but both reasons feel a bit weak: the in-universe reason is incredibly convoluted, with far too many steps to get the intended results. The meta-reason is... your mileage may vary. I understand why, but it doesn't really work very well, even I find it interesting Nishimura declared outright he'd be using twins for this novel.

The robber-twins narrative is entertaining though, focusing on the police inspectors who know the twins are working together to ensure the actual robber of the two isn't caught, but they can't figure out where the loot went or how to pin the evidence on the actual robber. Meanwhile, the Snow-View Hotel narrative is definitely a straight-up homage to And Then There Were None. And as you can guess: the mystery for the reader at the end revolves around how the killer managed to kill seven people in a hotel surrounded by snow, and escape without the police finding any trace of them. I personally find these And Then There Were None homages the most fun when they have a solution to how it was all done that can be explained simply with one sentence, that makes you think "Aha, so that what it was!' the moment you hear it. That's definitely the case here, but while I think the basic idea is okay, it's just never going to work in a practical sense. I am the last person to be looking for realism in my mystery fiction, but the culprit's scheme here depends a lot on factors they can not exactly control, and 9 out 10 times, this would've blown in their face immediately, and there's no retries here. In a story with a smaller scale, this idea might've worked better, but even when I figured out what happened, I still couldn't believe it any culprit would go through all this trouble only to have the most crucial part of the scheme depend on pure luck, and the odds here weren't even in their favor from the start: they'd be betting on things happening in a manner that usually wouldn't occur like that and it would be difficult to influence the events in a way to become more favorable. I think the seasoned genre reader won't have too much identifying who the culprit is and how it was done,

Koroshi no Soukyokusen is definitely one of the best-plotted Nishimura Kyoutarou novels I've read, and as an And Then There Were None homage, it's quite entertaining, but some parts of the plot do feel weak/not very convincing. It has interesting ideas like the twins declaration and the core And Then There Were None variation that make it stand out, but perhaps the plot is telegraphed a bit too obviously, especially near the end when the story moves into the final act. But still an amusing read if you want read a Nishimura Kyoutarou novel that is not like the Stereotypical Nishimira Kyoutarou Novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎『殺しの双曲線』

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Trouble Times Two

Something old, something new

When it comes to mystery fiction, I usually try to avoid reading stories with similar settings/themes in succession, mostly because I'm afraid I'll get burned out on a theme. I decided to discuss the two games of today in one post not only because I played them one after another, but also because they are very alike, both being a retro art style, and both being sequels that ultimately aren't that different from the first games.

Two years ago, I reviewed Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju ("The Ise-Shima Mystery Guide: The False Black Pearl"), a mystery adventure released on the Switch, but made to play and look like one of those old 80s Famicom (NES) adventure games. The game was especially inspired by Okhotsk ni Kiyu, an adventure game developed by Horii Yuuji (creator of the cultural phenomenon Dragon Quest) and even had the same character designer in Arai Kiyokazu.  Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju never tried to be more than a mystery story that emulated Famicom detective games, also replicating the minor annoyances from games from that period, but all in all, I did enjoy the game as a blast to the past, so I was quite excited when the sequel was announced.

Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika ("The Akita-Oga Mystery Guide: The Frozen Loosestrife") was released in the last week of 2020 on Switch (and now on Steam) and presents a new adventure starring the player (an unnamed police detective) and his young subordinate Ken. The story follows the now familiar pattern: the prologue has the two police detectives hunting the boss of a gang of conmen, but when they capture him, they learn that the Tokyo branch of the gang is controlled by a gang in the Akita prefecture, so the player and Ken travel to Akita to roll up the rest of the gang, but while some veteran police detectives are glad to see the Tokyo detectives, some other local detectives don't seem impressed by the city boys and vow to solve the cases themselves. But as the investigation moves on, they realize the gang is desperate to shake off the police and trying to cut off loose ends quickly, as each time the police find their targets murdered in a horrible manner: frozen alive to death. Can the player catch the murderer before more victims fall?

Having already written a full post on the predecessor Ise-Shima Mystery Annai: Itsuwari no Kuroshinju, I have to admit that I don't have that much to add to that, because Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika is in essence very similar to the first game. Once again the game is not about having the player figure things out for themselves, but more about presenting the player a dramatic mystery story set around Akita. The focus is on checking out all the mysterious events and suspicious characters dangling in front of you and and being surprised by the sudden story developments. You'll visit a lot of real-life locations in Akita during your adventure (recreated in some nice 8-bit art) and the story is actually quite lengthy: I think it's at least double the length of the first game, and overall, the story does a great job at recreating the atmosphere of a stereotypical two-hour suspense drama show with a lots of twist and turns, which is exactly what it tries to be. If you liked the first game, or games like Famicom Detective Club (1988-1989) and Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken (1985), Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika is right up your alley. The music is still great (also listen to the deliciously late 80s pop theme song!!), though I have to say I still don't like the faux 3D maze segments these games always have.

Is it all good? Well, no. Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika takes on the form of a Famicom game and that means not much text fits in each individual text box. But it seems the developers forgot that those older games also usually had shorter dialogues, so conversations in Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika just go on and on because the writing style doesn't fit the limited text box space. What's even worse when the game forces you through these long conversations that aren't funny: there's a running gag that Ken likes the local food and every other location he tries some local dish and offers his thoughts on it before he remembers he's working: you can't skip these boring sections that's basically the same joke over and over again. Each "day" in the game also ends in a restaurant where they go over the leads they found: for some reason you always have to order food and try out everything (and read their comments) and it becomes really annoying after the second time. I believe Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika was developed with some help from crowdfunding and it appears some of the backers were rewarded with appearances in this game: sadly enough these backers were incorporated in the most horrible manner, in segments that feel out of place and feel absolutely unneccessary. For example, early in the game, you have to call a person, but the game forces you to call the wrong number four or five times, and each time you get another small conversation with the person you accidentally called. These conversations were apparantly "rewards" for backers, who were allowed to write in a little bit, but for the player, this section is just a complete waste of time, as you have to go through all those conversations. There's another similar section in the second half of the game, where you're just repeating the same time-consuming action over and over again to force you to talk with all kinds of characters (= backers), even though it should've been over in one go!

Oh, what was interesting was that I played this game immediately after Root Film, and look who has a cameo in this game: Magari (and Yagumo too)! I didn't know about this, so I was very pleasantly surprised to see a very recent mystery adventure featured in a retro-style adventure. Overall though, I think Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika was a solid sequel that does a great job at being a charming take on 1980s Famicom adventure games, but that could've been trimmed a bit for a more streamlined experience.

Last year, I also discussed MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files "Executioner's Wedge"  a very short, but entertaining iOS/Android mystery game with a great retro visual style which reminded a bit of GameBoy graphics and also featured great moody music. I was surprised to learn that a sequel had been released in the last days of 2020, titled MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" because it had only been a few months since the first game was released, but you don't hear me complaining! Whereas the first game was set in the city, MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" brings us to a small village in O Prefecture, a setting that is clearly meant to invoke the works of Yokomizo Seishi. The discovery of the dead body of Sendou Tsugihiko in the forest would always have been news, as the influential Sendou clan has always ruled the village and now the family head Tsugihiko had died in a mysterious manner, just like his older brother many years ago. Tsugihiko had fallen, or been pushed from the hanging bridge above, but what makes his death even more musterious is the fact that someone had put the mask and straw raincape of the deity O-Kakushi on Tsugihiko's body after his fall. O-Kakushi is believed to have spirited people away in the forest in the past, resulting in their death. The mask and straw raincape are used in a village ceremony to appease O-Kakushi, and are usually kept locked in the Sendou storehouse. Has the ceremony of the villagers failed and is Tsugihiko's death the work of O-Kakushi?

While the second MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files is very much a Kindaichi Kousuke-inspired mystery set in a small rural village and with family intrigues at the heart of the case, making it feel quite different from the first game, the sequel does play more-or-less the same as the first one, so I refer to that review for more details. Once again, you'll be going around the locations in search for clues and questioning people, and while the game still uses the cumbersome mechanic of having to "set" a testimony or piece of evidence before you start a conversation with a witness to hear if they have anything to say about that, the game at least improves on the first game by just showing with a marker whether a person will have anything important to say or not. It's more streamlined that the first game, but it's still odd you have to "set" your discussion topic first, then start a conversation, then finally ask them about the topic and then repeat the whole process again for another discussion topic. Why can't I just ask about all the relevant topics in one turn instead of having to start a new conversation each and every time for each seperate topic?

The story itself is entertaining enough: it'll only take you an hour or so to go through the whole game, so don't expect some kind of mystery classic that you'll remember your whole life, but MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" has a lot of character and atmosphere, and there are definitely worse ways to spend an hour. And it's free too, and like the previous game, you'll ony see ads if you mess up in the sections where they question you on the clues, so if you're good, you'll never see any ads in the game!

Anyway, Akita-Oga Mystery Annai: Kogoeru Ginreika and MAKOTO WAKAIDO's Case Files 2 "Bogeyman's Woods" were both entertaining, retro-style murder mystery adventure sequels which perhaps did very little to improve on their predecessors, but if you liked the first games in both series, you're likely to enjoy these sequels too. And wow, I have posted more reviews on mystery games than on novels here in 2021!  Let's cherish this moment!

Original Japanese title(s): 『秋田・男鹿ミステリー案内 凍える銀鈴花』,『和階堂真の事件簿2 – 隠し神の森』

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Mystery Solvers Club State Finals


"No no, if you're a professional reader of mysteries like me, you'll just know who the murderer is, even before the crime has been committed."
"A--A professional reader of mysteries! A--amazing! I'm ashamed to admit that this is the first time in my whole life I've met a person who dares to call themselves a professional reader of mysteries!"
"Mystery Arena

I always write my reviews months in advance and just schedule them one after another once a week, and initially, this review was supposed to be the first post of 2021, and interestingly enough, it also happened that this book was set on New Year's Eve, so it was perfect as the first post of January. But then I decided to put Kotou no Raihousha in the fast-track. So it's a bit 'dated' now. Gorgeous cover today by the way, inspired by the Tower of Babel!

While they all went their own ways after graduating college, the former members of the inter-college mystery club still meet once a year at Mariko's splendid country house on a peninsula. Mariko usually spends most of the year at her parents' second home and each year, the former mystery club members all get to spend one or two nights here together. This year is no different, though the weather is far from usual. While most of the group managed to make it safely in the house before the heavy rain started, the sudden storm certainly didn't make it easy for the late arrivals and Marumo, the last one to arrive, even had to bring the news that the bridge that connects the peninsula to the mainland was damaged by the river and that they're all stuck here on this side until the storm is over and the bridge is repaired. Meanwhile, one of them decides to see their host Mariko, who hasn't come down yet even though all the guests arrived, but when the door to the bedroom is opened, they discover that Mariko is lying dead on the floor with a dagger in her back. But who could've gone to Mariko's bedroom without being seen by the people in the lounge in front of the spiral staircase?

And another light goes on! The host of the popular end-of-year television program "Mystery Arena" makes his way to the contestant who pushed the buzzer. Does the contestant already know who the murderer is? The tenth iteration of Mystery Arena follows the same formula that has made it a household name and the program that people watch with the family on New Year's Eve. The contestants in the studio are presented with a written mystery story and the challenge is to guess who the murderer is, and why, to win a fortune! While participants in the studio and the viewers at home can read the story at their own pace, there's also a 'pacemaker' who reads the story out loud and the story isn't revealed at once to all, but given out in parts, all to ensure that everyone, even slower readers, has a fair chance at winning the money. The first one to guess correctly, goes home with all the prize money, so it's important to hit the buzzer the moment you think your theories are correct, but participants also have to be careful: you only get one single chance to make your accusations and you can't change them afterwards. Fukami Reiichirou's Mystery Arena (2015) is a game of wits and audacity: do you stake it all on an early answer, hoping that the parts revealed later on won't contradict your theory, or do you bide your time?

You know, I honestly had forgotten that the premise of this book was about a detective competition! I'm sure I at least glanced through the summary before I bought the book, but by the time I started on it, all memories of the story had been erased. So I first started reading, with the first few chapters being rather familiar with a group of former Mystery Club members gathering in a closed circle situation... when suddenly this narrative is interrupted by the television program Mystery Arena. Which is of course based on Kouhaku Uta Gassen, the extremely popular New Year's Eve program that is a national institution in Japan, with two teams of music artists competiting as the clock approaches midnight. It was a pleasant surprise though, because I have a weakness for this kind of mystery format, with people reading/watching a mystery story in realtime and trying to be the first to guess who did it. It's kinda similar to how the whodunnit sessions of the Kyoto University Mystery Club are done, where everyone is handed the first part of a story, and you are challenged to guess whodunnit before the end of the session. It's not really a competition there, and after a while some of the members usually start exchanging theories with each other, but the real-time element is similar to Mystery Arena. I have also reviewed a few episodes of Nazotoki Live, a live mystery show which is perhaps a bit more similar to Mystery Arena, where studio guests and viewers at home are shown a mystery drama, which is occassionally interrupted by studio segments where the studio guests can gather their thoughts, voice some of their theories and are given hints by the 'butler' of the show. The big difference here is that in Mystery Arena, participants are reading a written story, but like in Nazotoki Live, the show is often interrupted by 'checkpoints', periods in which participants are allowed to try and guess who the murderer is.

In my review of the videogame AI: The Somnium Files, I wrote that I thought information management is an important aspect of a good mystery story, something I also touched upon in my article on the Challenge to the Reader. It's important to know what information (clues) is available at any time to the characters in the story, but also to the reader, because that dictates what kind of theories they can make. Anyone can guess, but you need information (clues, hints) to actually make a logical case, so it's imperative that a story has a good grasp on what information has been revealed to the reader (or the characters) at any stage of the tale. Mystery Arena is an excellent showcase for what I mean. The novel alternates between the fictional story about the murder(s) with the Mystery Club members and segments set in the live studio of the television show, but every time we switch back to the show, we see another contestant trying to become the first to arrive at the correct answer. The show works with checkpoints to make sure nobody can read to the end in one go and a contestant only has one opportunity to give an answer, so that means that a contestant's answer has to be based on the information presented in the chapters they have read, and they never know what's coming next. So the risk lies in whether to wait (and risk someone else giving the same answer you had in mind, only earlier), or to answer as soon as possible, which is dangerous because you don't know what information will come in the following chapters and perhaps something that disproves your theory will come.

But that doesn't stop the contestants here, and what you get is a festival of logical reasoning! Each time a chapter ends, we have another contestant who is absolutely sure they've got the right answer and are satisfied they don't have to read the rest of the story anymore. These theories/solutions are quite varied, with everyone pointing the finger at another suspect, with different underlying theories and evidence. The beautiful thing about Mystery Arena is that these solutions all do make perfect sense at that point in the story. Based on the cumulative information known to the reader, each of these solutions do not only work logically, they are also quite original and shocking, perfect as a true solution of any mystery story. This is even true for the solution of the first contestant, who had a theory ready even before the first murder occured in the story! Yet the theory is based on all kinds of hints you find in the text and it genuinely sounds convincing... until the next chapter, when you are given more information, and you start to alter theories to incorporate the new facts. Sometimes previous theories are outright contradicted by the new information found in the following chapters, sometimes the option is still left open, while also opening up new options, so as you continue in this novel, you really see how a solution in a mystery novel is dependent on the information known at what time. Some readers might find Mystery Arena to be a tiresome read, but I had a lot of fun with the book and you get over ten different solutions, which all make sense at the time they are presented. And it's funny to see how sometimes a brilliant theory points at a character as the killer, only to see that character killed the next chapter.

While mystery novels revolving around multiple solutions aren't rare, Mystery Arena definitely manages to set itself apart from the works of for example Anthony Berkeley and Christianna Brand, who also often used the plot device of multiple solutions. The most important difference is that the participants in Mystery Arena are naturally aware they are reading a fictional mystery story, which changes how to view the murder mystery. Many of the solutions focus on some kind of narrative trickery aimed at the reader, from an early theory revolving around an unreliable narrator to other well-known variants of tricks meant to deceive the reader, but which are all well supported by the evidence found in the story (until they are contradicted again in subsequent chapters). In a 'normal' story with multiple solutions, you aren't likely to have characters who will propose a 'unreliable narrator' theory because that's usually not viable in terms of narration: in Mystery Arena, the characters can actually talk in-depth about it from the point of view of a mystery fan. In a way, Mystery Arena feels like an unedited Let's Play of a mystery story by various 'players,' where you get to see the live theories/reactions of each and every contestant in 'real time.' And it's interesting to see how contestants who waited will sometimes incorparate elements from previous theories into their answers, while going a completely a different general direction.

I do have to say the ending is less impressive than the overall concept. With so many false, yet interesting and properly clewed solutions, it's of course neigh impossible to arrive at one single final solution that will satisfy everyone, but this is definitely an example of the journey over the destination. There's also a secundary plotline that is not set in the fictional story, but inside the studio, but that's less of a mystery plotline than just a set-up for the conclusion.

Despite an ending that lacked spirit though, I find Mystery Arena to be a very entertaining work, a great example of how the addition of one single piece of information can change the whole board, resulting in a complete different solution to the game. The various solutions presented in Mystery Arena may be familiar, but are really well set-up within the story-within-the-story narrative and would've worked as genuine solutions in actual mystery stories, but they really shine as parts in an eloborate experiment in deduction, that make you realize how important the fun in deducing and logical reasoning is in mystery fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 深水黎一郎『ミステリー・アリーナ』

Friday, January 8, 2021

Lights, Camera...

Memories brought back by hidden records. A Mystery & Suspense story set in Shimane prefecture.
"Root Film"

First game review of the year! I played this one near the end of last year, and it was perhaps the mystery game I played last year that I enjoyed best overall in 2020, but it'll have to wait until December to appear on The List.

After winning an award at the Asia Movie Competition, people in the industry started looking at Yagumo "Max" Rintarou as a rising star in the field of visual media. That's why his small film company (comprised of himself, his assistant/editor Magari and camera operator Kanade) is hired by Shimane TV for a special project: a mystery television drama set in the prefecture of Shimane. Three directors are asked to each film their own feature-length drama, and the idea is to have these three works compete with each other. Yagumo is the youngest of the three directors, but as this is his first big project, he's eager to make a success of the show. Apparently, a detective drama set in Shimane had already been in production ten years ago, but due to unknown reasons the project was put on indefinite hold and there are even some rumors that the whole thing is cursed, making some people nervous about the new project. Yagumo becomes very interested in the project that was cancelled ten years ago and the footage they had already finished by the time filming was stopped, but is also busy with coming up with ideas for his own mystery drama: while he will be working with a scenario writer, he needs to come up with a basic plot himself, so he, his team and the upcoming actress Hitoha who will be starring in Yagumo's film travel to the famous spots in Shimane to scout locations and gain inspiration of the story. But while they're scouting locations across Shimane, the team always seems to get involved with murder mysteries themselves in the 2020 video game Root Film (Switch/PS4).

Four years ago, I reviewed the game √Letter (Root Letter), the first game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series. The concept behind this new game series was originally that it would highlight the Shimane Prefecture as a touristic spot by showing off real-life locations and culture, and the series would also feature a so-called star system, where characters are treated like "actors" in live-action productions: in √Letter for example, the pivotal character Fumino Aya was "played" by the fictional actress AYA, and the idea was that AYA would also be cast in different roles in subsequent Kadokawa Game Mystery titles. √Letter ultimately ended up as a work that disappointed me as a game, even if there were touching parts to be found there. The game also dropped dramatically in price very quickly after release, even though I bought it on release at full price, so when Root Film was announced as the second game in the Kadokawa Game Mystery series, you can understand I was a bit hesitant. Even when more details of the game were revealed slowly, like that the game would be a 'normal' murder mystery adventure game this time, and that the new director/writer was Kouno Hifumi (best known as the creator of the Clock Tower horror games, but also of the Mikagura Shoujo Tantei Dan mystery series), I still decided to not get this game at release and wait for some kind of discount. So I finally got to play it six months late and... I have to admit, I really wouldn't have minded it if I had bought this game at full price on release, because I thoroughly enjoyed it as a mystery adventure. 

Interestingly, they seemed to have abandoned the idea of using a star system with "actors" for this series, so ultimately, Root Film has next to nothing to do with √Letter save for the setting of the Shimane Prefecture and one re-used BGM track. Heck, this game even abandons the idea of having different story routes with different endings, (which is part of the reason why these games have "Root" (Route) in the title), instead opting for a linear experience. But that did allow Kouno to come up with a completely unrelated mystery plot and brand-new characters, and it's exactly those elements that make Root Film a much better experience than √Letter.

Looking at the game at a mechanical level, there's nothing that stands out in Root Film: you move from one location to another (often real locations in various popular tourist destinations in Shimane), talk with characters, a murder occurs, you go here and there to gain information and clues, and at the end of each episode, there's a confrontation with the culprit, where you show the evidence you gathered. Each episode is fairly linear, and collecting relevant information to solve the mystery is extremely easy: the game will literally pause and highlight the sentence in question and gives you a prompt to memorize it. You can't choose to not memorize the information and the prompt appears automatically, so basically, the game is just making sure you read this sentence, and during the final confrontation, you'll be asked to use these pieces of information in your back-and-forth with the culprit while you solve the mystery. During the confrontations, the game also makes a pre-selection of the available pieces of information, meaning you only have to pick out the right answer from at most four different options.

But despite the rather predictable and simple gameplay, I really enjoyed the mysteries presented in Root Film. While it's true that most of the time, the player will probably be able to make a fairly accurate guess as to the identity of the murderer in each episode and how it was done, the mysteries presented to the player in each episode are surprisingly well plotted, with perhaps not utterly baffling, but still clever tricks. What's even better that these stories make very good use of the major themes of this game: film and the Shimane Prefecture. Some of the episodes for example do a great job at incorporating local Shimane culture or unique geography in the murder plots (mythology, customs etc.), resulting in stories that could only have occured here, while all of them make use of the idea that Yagumo and his team are out filming and scouting locations, with for example clues hidden in the footage they film themselves. 

I also liked that the game also managed to fool me a few times with the tricks: usually, the clewing would be a bit crude, so you'd have an idea of how for example a locked room murder was committed, but the exact details would be a bit vague. But then the actual trick is revealed in the climax, and almost always it turns out the trick was far better thought out than I had expected and that this would've been even better if just the clewing in the preceding chapters had also been a bit clearer. I was genuinely pleasantly surprised with the mysteries presented in Root Film, which range from a ghost appearing suddenly on screen in an old film, to a locked room murder in an old Japanese manor, a case of spontanenous combustion inside a temple and a murder in a creepy old mansion, and none of the times, the solutions disappointed me. The connecting storyline about the project that was stopped ten years ago is perhaps more focused on the suspense angle, but on the whole, I'd say Root Film as a package offers an amusing mystery game. 

The journey of Root Film itself is not only enjoyable because of the capable plots, but also because these plots are presented in an entertaining way thanks to the characters: the banter between Yagumo, gyaru assistant Magari, the surprisingly eccentric actrice Hitoha and other recurring characters is funny, reminding of a lot of Japanese mystery dramas (there's also a lot of call-backs to familiar tropes from Japanese mystery dramas/films). The chatter of the team in Root Film make the story much more engaging to follow, as the different characters also allows the story to develop in various ways, compared to the very, very monotoneous √Letter. A few episodes in this game focus not on Yagumo and his team, but the young actress RIHO and her manager who also happen to be roaming Shimane for in preparation for the film project, and they too get involved in all kinds of murders. It's also interesting how the type of mysteries seen here are a bit different from the ones seen in the Yakumo chapters, and that really helps give Root Film some variety.

Root Film has in the end very little to do with the previous title, but that allowed it to be it's own game, and the result is absolutely positive: Root Film is admittedly a fairly short and straightforward mystery adventure game, but it still manages to be a very pleasant game with interesting mystery plots set firmly around the themes of 'film' and 'Shimane'. I was entertained from start to finish and as a a whole, I found Root Film to be far, far more enjoyable than I had initially expected based on the previous game. Looking forward to a third game if this is the trend!

Original Japanese title(s): 『Root Film ルートフィルム』

Saturday, January 2, 2021

What You Don't Know Can Kill You

"So there's this genre they call the Special Setting Mysteries..."
"You have these supernatural phenomena that only exist within the specific worlds of those stories, and they always come with special rules governing them. And those special rules become the basis for solving the mystery." 
"Visitors on the Remote Island"

My first post of 2020 was on Houjou Kie's Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019), a book I absolutely loved. So I figure, why not start 2021 with a review of her second novel?

Kakuriyo Island is a small, remote tropical island that was once the home of about a dozen people, but it has been uninhabitated since 1974. Kakuriyo Island technically consists of two islands, which are commonly referred to as Kakuriyo Island collectively: people lived on the main Kakuriyo Island, which is connected to the tidal island locals called the Divine Land: whenever lightning would strike the Divine Land several times, the local, esotoric religious ceremony called the Lightning Festival would be held at the Divine Land, headed by the members of the Mikumi clan, the main family of the island. In 1974, however, the whole island community was slaughtered in what was later called the Incident of the Beast of Kakuriyo Island. When the police arrived on the island, they found a nightmarish scene: all twelve villagers on the island had been killed by a stab through the heart, save for island head Mikumo Eiko, whose body was floating in the sea. There had been one outsider on the island at the time, a professor Sasakura who had been examining the local flora and fauna, who was also found dead, but his body had been cruelly eaten skin and all by something. Because there are rumors of a hidden gold treasure on the island, it was first assumed that Sasakura might've gone crazy while looking for the treasure and that he got fatally injured himself too while killing everyone, but it wouldn't explain why the meat of his corpse had been devoured skin and all. It was first assumed the dogs must've done it, but the police never really found an answer that explained why the whole island was massacred or how the murderer managed to stab every victim right through the heart. Nobody has lived on Kakuriyo Island since, and to visit the island, one must now ask for permission from the local authorities.

45 years have passed when a small television crew arrives at Kakuriyo Island in 2019 to film J Television's special program World's Mysteries Detective Club. The host of the program will be the singer-songwriter Mikumo Echika, who also happens to be the last living heir of Kakuriyo's Mikumo clan: her father had not been living on the island when the tragedy occured and he never returned to his ancestral home during his lifetime. For Echika, this is the first time she'll see her family home, which of course is expected to be great screen material. The show will look into the tragedy that occured in 1974, but Professor Motegi, expert on tropical fauna, is also part of the team, as he hopes to discover a new species on Kakuriyo Island and so the coming days, two teams will be going around the island, one to film World's Mysteries Detective Club and one following Motegi's quest for scientific discoveries. The nine-man team quickly sets up camp and HQ inside the community centre (the only building on the island that's still intact) and the two teams each go off exploring the island. Assistant-director Ryuuzen Yuuki is assigned to Echika's team, but none of the others know that he's actually planning to murder some of the people present. His targets took someone dear to him, so Yuuki vowed to take revenge on them and everything has been prepared to execute justice during their stay on the island. Which is why he's rather annoyed when he finds one of his intended targets murdered, stabbed right through the chest. It doesn't appear any of the crew members could've commited this murder however and eventually, it leads them to the horrifying conclusion that there's something not from this world roaming this island that's trying to kill them. While the hypothesis sounds absolutely ridiculous at first, it's soon proved to be completely correct and they realize that it's this Outsider that was behind the 1974 tragedy where everybody got killed. The remaining people now have to figure out how to survive against an enemy of which they know nearly nothing and who might be much closer than they suspect in Houjou Kie's 2020 novel Kotou no Raihousha ("Visitors on the Remote Island").

People who have read Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei will recognize the family name Ryuuzen and thus realize the two books are connected, even if the (supernatural) themes are very different. Kotou no Raihousha introduces the series title The Ryuuzen Clan series for these books, and I certainly hope we'll see more entries in this series!

Like I mentioned earlier, Houjou's debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei was one of my favorite reads of last year: it had basically everything from closed circle situations, impossible murders, disappearances from locked houses, alibi tricks, a family curse, overly complicated family feuds and a creepy country house in the middle of nowhere to a Challenge to the Reader and on top of that there was also the science fiction element of time travel which was incorporated very well with the mystery plot. The story was a very fair, and very traditional detective story despite the time travel aspect, and one of the things that stuck with me the most was how densely clewed the novel was, and despite the enormous scale of the book, it felt genuinely like Houjou wanted you to make it to the finish line yourself. It shouldn't be a surprise therefore that I was really looking forward to Kotou no Raihousha the moment it was announced.

In a way, Kotou no Raihousha is quite like its predecessor, but at the same time very different. Once again, we have a story that seemingly follows a familiar mystery trope (murders on an isolated island), but with a supernatural theme. But whereas Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei starts out with introducing the element of time travel to the reader and also shows off what the governing rules of time travel are, Kotou no Raihousha turns this idea completely around: the characters in this novel are suddenly confronted with a being of which they know nearly nothing, only that it's unlike anything that we know from Earth. The mystery this time therefore focuses on figuring out what the characteristics and abilities are of this unknown Outsider, based on the actions it takes or doesn't (can't) take. In a way, this is similar to reading a 'normal' detective story and reading a passage that serves as a clue to tell you the murderer was left-handed or that they have an injury on their right leg, but in Kotou no Raihousha, the conclusions you have to make about the murderer are not 'normal' as its abilities and capabilities are unlike any living creature on Earth, but at the same time, they are defined in enough of a limited manner to make them not overpowered. Kotou no Raihousha is therefore a lot harder than the first novel, because this time, it's the reader's (and Yuuki's) task to identify the supernatural rules that govern this novel, while in Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei, the supernatural element focused more on application (as the rules were told to you).

It's what makes this a hard novel to explain in more detail, because the bulk of the novel revolves exactly around the manner in which the characters slowly, but surely create a bullet list of what the Outsider exactly can and can't do, and telling you more about some of the later situations in the novel might spoil too much already, as the story is definitely about slowly revealing what the creature is and how it commits the murders. There's an interesting locked room mystery situation at the end of the novel for example, with a man staying in a room in the community centre while keeping an eye on the rest of the building through cameras and there's even a dog standing guard in the hallway leading to his room, but still the man is murdered despite all of these security measures . Houjou makes clever use of the capabilities of the creature to create this locked room mystery and it's deviously keenly plotted as this scene also connects in a surprising way to other story developments, but so much of how the mystery works and why it's such a baffling problem hinges on discoveries made throughout the novel about the creature, so it's really difficult to explain what makes it so well planned. Whereas Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei starts off with "Hey, this is about time travel" (even in its title!), Kotou no Raihousha's mystery revolves around figuring out what the supernatural element is for yourself and it really shouldn't be spoiled here.

Like the first novel, Kotou no Raihousha is a very puzzle-focused mystery novel. Everything that occurs, will in a way connect to the mystery, either serving as a hint to the Outsider's characteristics or the murders the Outsider commits, and some might even feel it's too contrived, but this is definitely the kind of detective story I like: every event has a well-considered function as a puzzle piece and while sometimes it might feel a bit artificial, at least Houjou is playing the game fair and square. This novel has a Challenge to the Reader too and I think it's a lot more challenging than the one in the first novel, but you never feel cheated or that some elements were truly far too hard to figure out yourself.

I like how Kotou no Raihousha is a bit more... active and tense than the first novel. With a closed circle situation on an island with an unknown predator, there's a more tangible feeling of dread and terror and it's also funny how Yuuki is driven into a role of detective: he's still planning to get his revenge on the remaining targets while they're on the island, so he only wants to figure out what the Outsider is and how to defend against it so he can kill his intended targets himself, instead of having another of them taken from him by the Outsider. Following a would-be murderer playing detective so he can murder people himself is an interesting angle and creates a few intriguing scenes where Yuuki wants to create situations where only he'd get a chance to safely commit a murder on his target, but not the creature.

Before I started with Kotou no Raihousha, I honestly hadn't expected that writing this review would be so difficult. The book's a keenly plotted puzzle mystery that makes great use of a very unique supernatural premise to present a detective story you're unlikely to have seen before, but as the plot also revolves around having the readers and the characters themselves figure out what the mystery exactly is in the first place and then seeing it applied to the situations you see in the book, it's neigh impossible to really point out the more impressive moments without spoiling much of the fun. If you like Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei or puzzle plot mysteries with a supernatural premise in general, Kotou no Raihousha is a no-brainer and should appear on your to-read lists. The book's definitely a lot trickier if you're not familiar with supernatural fair-play mysteries as it demands more of its readers than these type of mysteries usually do, though Houjou still shows she's good at plotting whodunnit-style stories and it should still be an enjoyable read. I for one can't wait for the third book, whenever that may come. This is the first post of the year, but I'm sure this will end up on my favorite reads of the year list!

Original Japanese title(s): 方丈貴恵『孤島の来訪者』

Wednesday, December 30, 2020


"It really is very dangerous to believe people. I never have for years."
"Sleeping Murder"


Last one for this year!

When she was a child, Iwanaga Kotoko was chosen by youkai (all kinds of supernatural beings, spirits, etc.) to become their Deity of Wisdom in exchange for one eye and one leg. With her sharp mind, she would help these supernatural beings whenever they were in trouble they themselves couldn't solve, acting as arbitrator and detective. Ever since, Kotoko has become a feared figure in the supernatural world together with her reluctant boyfriend Kurou (who has supernatural powers himself), as they solve quietly solve problems that involve the supernatural. While few people in the 'normal' human world know anything definite about her link with supernatural, Kotoko, as the daughter of a family in good standing, has gained a reputation as an extraordinary problem solver among the people in a position to know. While anything on Kotoko is extremely hush-hush, those with connections know that if they find themselves involved with something that might be not be quite "normal", Kotoko can probably sort things out.

In Shirodaira Kyou's 2019 novel Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder, which also sports the English title Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder on the cover, Kotoko is asked by the CEO of the Otonoshi Hotel Group, Otonashi Gouichi, to become the arbitrator in an odd family gathering. It was his wife Sumi's father Denjirou who first started the Otonoshi Hotel Group, but after his death, Sumi became the new CEO and succeeded in making the brand name big both in and outside Japan. Twenty-three years ago, Sumi was stabbed to death by a robber on the street. It turns out everyone around her had a motive to kill her: Sumi was a highly stubborn woman and husband Gouichi saw that Sumi tried to push the development of the hotel chain too hard too fast, and it would've led to disaster in just a few months. Sumi also didn't allow their three children to live their own lives, deciding for them where to work or whom to marry. But it turns out each and any of them had a solid alibi for the time of death of Sumi, and ultimately, everything went well after Sumi's death, as Gouichi as the new CEO managed to save the hotel group, while the three children all got to live their lives the way they wanted. Kotoko is therefore a bit surprised to learn that Gouichi was the murderer of Sumi. To be exact, Gouichi struck a deal with a kitsune youkai: if the kitsune would kill Sumi for him in a way so he and his family wouldn't be suspected, he'd buy a piece of land and have it developed to drive off a rivaling pack of kitsune. They both kept their part of the deal, but now the elderly Gouichi has not long to live and he regrets what he has done. He wants to show to his children that a murderer will be punished sooner or later by Heaven, but in order to make his children accept that he killed their mother, he must find a fake solution to convince his children, as they are sure not to believe in the kitsune story. Gouichi decides to confess to the murder on his wife, but then 'challenges' the children to explain how he killed Sumi. Obviously none of them will actually guess the truth, but Gouichi figures that if they can come up with a plausible solution themselves, they are more likely to actually believe it. Kotoko is asked to judge which of the three children will present the most believable solution.

Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder is the third book in the Kyokou Suiri series, which has both Invented Inference and In/Spectre as its official English titles. A few months ago, I reviewed the second book, a short story collection, but in a way, Sleeping Murder can also be considered a kind of short story collection. For the first half of the book consists of short vignettes that focus on Kotoko as a detective, before we dive into the main storyline of the Otonashi Sumi murder. The previous two volumes focused more on the supernatural mystery plots, as well as the notion of the 'invented inference': this series has never been about finding the truth, as it usually involves supernatural beings. Instead, this series has been about cooking up lies that people were willing to believe. Most stories revolve around Kotoko coming up with a rational, realistic-sounding solution based on the available clues that humans were likely to accept, even though the truth is that some supernatural being did something. Invented Inference focused on what people fundamentally like about mystery novels, being a story about logical reasoning, but also about solutions that were entertaining rather than truthful or realistic.

Sleeping Murder is interesting in the sense that the notion of the invented inference takes a backseat in the first half, as the chapters here function more like a character study of Kotoko. In the first chapter for example, we follow a young Kotoko, back when she had just entered high school. Because the school's mysery club hasn't seen many new members and is dangerously close to being shut down by the school, the two remaining members try to convince Kotoko to join them, figuring that the school would never dare to close the club of the daughter of the well-connected Iwanaga family. The scheme hatched by the club president explodes in his face when Kotoko instantly sees through the president's true intentions, but ultimately, she decides to become a member of the club anyway, becoming what you may almost call friends. Several years later, the club president would recount another episode about Kokoto to his uncle, who is looking for information on Kotoko. In another chapter, we follow Kurou's older niece Rikka, who is on the run for Kotoko and Kurou as explained in the first book. She becomes the newest tenant in a rather troublesome apartment: the previous three tenants all committed suicide there. Rikka doesn't seem to worried by that fact though and seems to live a peaceful life there, becoming friendly with all her neighbors. She quickly moves out of the apartment the moment Kotoko and Kurou find her trail though, but before she leaves, she tells her neighbor that Kotoko will likely explain why there were three suicides in that room, and why there won't be anymore. While short, this was a pretty interesting mystery: the second person in the room to commit suicide had been dumped horribly by her boyfriend, and it was the same boyfriend who later committed suicide there too. However, he did that after three months living there and he had a new girlfriend, so it wasn't like he suddenly felt remorse. The solution involves the supernatural in a very clever way, and an excellent example of how concepts like ghosts can be used fairly in a mystery story.

The Sleeping Murder storyline makes up for the bulk of the volume and the part most in line with the other volumes. Three people have gathered to come up with a theory that will prove Gouichi's guilty of murdering his wife: Rion (daughter of the oldest son), Kouya (husband of oldest daughter Kaoruko) and Shin (second son). The one who comes up with the best solution will be given an advantage when it comes to dividing up the inheritance, but it's Kotoko who will decide who will provide the best solution that will fit the known clues and which will be convincing enough (as she alone knows that Gouichi actually struck a deal with a kitsune). What follows is an interesting conversation where Kotoko acts as discussion leader, skilfully leading the three family members to a plausible solution by pointing out contradictions and by secretly hiding hints in her utterances. As seen in the first novel, Kotoko's skills do not simply mean she can come up with a convincing solution, she also knows how to set them up so everyone will be willing to believe them. In order to do so, Kotoko will also uncover secrets nobody had ever thought about, and make everyone first come up with one theory first, only to have them also discard themselves and thus set-up the next theory. The way in which Kotoko acts like a teacher and slowly shows the path to her invented truth is as amusing as always. The murder case itself though is a bit simple, so it never becomes really complex, but the story does show off what Kotoko does best

And like I mentioned earlier, this book does a better job than the previous books at showing the character Kotoko. Whereas previous stories focused on her as a problem solver, this book shows how humans look at a fearsome character like Kotoko, a small girl who looks almost like a doll, but who hides a darkness far greater than anyone can imagine. The first half of the book showed Kotoko through the eyes of characters like her classmates and Rikka, while in the Sleeping Murder storyline, we see what happens if Kotoko is forced to work on a case which ultimately only involves human actors and see how her morals may not coincide with human morals.

Purely seen as a mystery novel, Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder/Invented Inference - Sleeping Murder is probably not as strong as the previous two books. The episodes collected in this volume are intentionally designed to function as a character study of Kotoko, showing her off in various minor mysteries from different parts of her life. Some of these mysteries are quite amusing, but the limited length of these episodes do make the invented inference angle of the series weaker. In a way, Sleeping Murder also feels like a kind of set-up for the sequel, like a prologue for things to come. I don't know for sure whether we'll have something 'big' next time, but Sleeping Murder is like silence before the storm, focusing on Kotoko as we know her now before throwing her into a more dramatic storyline. Kyokou Suiri - Sleeping Murder is not the best volume in the series, but the previous volumes were highly entertaining and if you've gotten that far, it's definitely worth it to read this volume too as it's still an entertaining mystery novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 城平京『虚構推理 スリーピング・マーダー

Friday, December 25, 2020

Turnabout Memories - Part 10

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember"
Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

For some it might've felt like the longest year ever, for some it might've been busier than ever, but whatever the case, this year is almost ending. And as per awful tradition, this is also the time I look back at the reviews and other posts that stood out the most this year. By which I mean: the posts I actually managed to remember, because my memory is as bad as ever. Anyway, I'll be picking up some of the more interesting titles I covered this year in this posts, so take a look if I mention a post that you may have missed. And don't take the categories and lists here too seriously. The other tradition on this blog is that I tend to sit on a long list of reviews that have to wait for months before they are published, so in terms of planned posts, I'm already somewhere in June 2021... At the very least, I can reveal that there are plenty of interesting books awaiting in the new year, so I hope I'll find old and new readers of the blog next year here.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
Also known as the self-promotion category! Though honestly, it's weird to see that Locked Room International managed to publish two translations by me in one year. The Red Locked Room was certainly very exciting: it's the first (!) English translation of the works of Ayukawa Tetsuya, despite being such a major figure in Japanese honkaku mystery fiction. Locked Room International had been playing with the idea of a best-of collection of Ayukawa's work for a long time, but it took a few years before the stars all aligned and I was able to get started on the unique short story collection. The book features truly the best of Ayukawa's impossible murder and perfect alibi short stories, and there isn't even a Japanese publication that has the same story line-up! Ayukawa's name is immortalized not only through his own writing, but also through the Ayukawaw Tetsuya Award which is still the most exciting Japanese award when it comes to uncovering new, puzzle plot mystery writers and any fan of the classic puzzle plot mystery genre should really take a look at this book because Ayukawa really deserves much more name recognition beyond Japan.
Higashigawa Tokuya's Lending the Key to the Locked Room was of course only released last week, so it's hard to gauge reception at this point, but long-time readers of the blog will know I absolutely adore Higashigawa's work: they're genuinely always funny to read, and the way he also makes sure to properly incorporate the comedy with the core mystery plot is awesome: his stories are never mystery and comedy, but he makes sure there's synergy, and the mystery plot wouldn't work without the comedy. This may have been his first full-length novel, but this book already shows why he's perhaps the best known comedic mystery writer in Japan, as the story about college student Ryuhei's antics as he finds himself becoming the suspect in two murders, one of which of the locked room variety, is both cleverly plotted and funnily written.

Other welcome news was of course the re-release of my translation of The Decagon House Murders by Pushkin Press. To be honest, it was a weird feeling seeing how my first translation of a novel moved to a different publisher, but it's great so see new readers discovering this great novel. The text has been brushed-up thanks to new editors and a bit of help of myself, so if you hadn't read the book yet...
As for other translation work, there's always more in the pipeline!

The Silliest Mystery Story! Seen in 2020!
Glamping Kaijiken ("The Curious Glamping Incident")

Episode 961 of Detective Conan is something one has to experience. No sequence of letters, words and sentences will ever truly manage to capture the sheer madness of this story which purports to be a mystery story, but which may be described as a glimpse at the depravity of mankind. It's a complete deconstruction of the mystery genre, a rejectment of all that's sane and logical. Even if I start describing the episode, about how Conan, Ran and Sonoko find the body of dead cross-dressed man with awful make-up on his face, a piece of crab in his mouth and a piece of paper in his hand during a glamping outing, it still doesn't even begin to describe what this episode really is. Watch at your own peril.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2020! But Probably Older!
Phew, picking one title was a lot harder than I had expected! Interestingly, this was because I didn't play any mystery games that I loved unconditionally. Even the best detective games I played in 2020 all had elements that didn't quite mesh with me, which I also dwell upon in the respective review. With a game like Gothic Murder being amusing, but too limited in scale, Sigma Harmonics filled with too many minor annoyances, Death Come True at times barely a videogame and Tangle Tower being oh-so-funny, but a bit lacking in terms of core plot, I was mostly hesitating between AI The Somnium Files and Paradise Killer. But with Paradise Killer's emphasis on exploration rather than allowing the player to pick up on clues/foreshadowing and building theories themselves, I feel AI The Somnium Files was the more interesting detective game.

As for non-mystery games, I still play Animal Crossing: New Horizons daily! I'm also charmed by the ports of feature phone games G-Mode has been publishing on the Switch: I talked about Herakles no Eikou III on this blog before, but I looooved the horror novel game Rinji Shuuden ("The Extra Last Train"). I also managed to finally complete Disaster Report 4+ Summer Memories which was... rather disappointing. I loved the third game, but the tone of this game is just so different from the previous games it just didn't mesh with me. Also a special mention for the Pierre the Maze Detective illustration books! 

Most Memorable Pandemic-Inspired Mystery
Isshun no Ayamachi ("A Moment's Mistake")
The theatrical release Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet was postponed to 2021 due to the pandemic, making it the first time there was no new Conan film released in April in 24 years, but the pandemic also inspired some creators to come up with new mysteries. I haven't seen/read all of them of course, but there have been a number of "Stay Home"-themed mystery television dramas and short story collections in Japan. I myself discussed two of them, and while I liked how the writer of Kindaichi Shounen went out to gather the voice actors and other actors to film an original mystery drama using Zoom, my vote still goes to the return of the legendary Furuhata Ninzaburou series. The Columbo-inspired television series stopped in 2006, but writer Mitani decided to bring the lieutenant back by using his weekly newspaper column to serialize a brand new short story. The story was not about any aspect of the pandemic like staying home or using video chats, but simply written because Mitani wanted to cheer people up again with a familiar face and the result was a fun little story with a beloved character I hadn't seen for a long time, and I hope Furuhata will return again in the future for more joyous occassions.
Most Impressive Cover! Seen in 2020!
Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read")

Some truly awesome covers have appeared on this blog this past year. Both books in the Isekai no Meitantei series have fantastic fantasy-style covers, the way Danganronpa 7 forms a set with volume 6 is a nice touch and Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") actually has a narrative trick hidden in its cover art: it doesn't really show in the e-book version I think but it's really a funny idea for the physical book. My choice is ultimately really only based on personal taste: I like the clean art style and use of color of the cover of Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda and it has a nice youthful school vibe that fits the contents of the book. 

Favorite Theme of 2020!
Recontextualizing stories/stories-within-stories

Last year, I happened to read a lot of mystery novels that dealt with supernatural elements, and this year, I thought it was interesting I came across a lot of novels with either a story-within-a-story premise, or mysteries that later recontextualize previous happenings in a very different manner. The latter is of course a fundamental part of mystery fiction in general, as most stories will revolve around err, mysteries which are later explained (recontextualized), but in a few novels I read this year, you'd have a story that's apparently solved, but that's later revisited once again to show the story had another, hidden function. The most obvious example of this was Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read"), which is explicitly about the (badly written) mystery stories by Anna: these stories all stand on their own, but once we leave the story-within-the-story level, the narrator always end up with poking holes here and there in Anna's stories, putting her stories in a completely different light. Other favorites of this year like Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well"),  Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") and Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui") too have stories that are initially "over" but later revisited again to show it had a secret, secondary plot running beneath the surface. I love these kinds of stories which have both a properly developed "front" and "back" plot.

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller") (Houjou Kie)
- Jojutsu Trick Tanpenshuu ("A Collection of Short Stories With Narrative Trickery") (Nitadori Kei)
- Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Ghosts") (Tomonaga Rito)
- Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well") (Miki Akiko)
- Clara Goroshi ("The Murder of Clara") (Kobayashi Yasumi)
- Mukashi Mukashi Aru Tokoro ni, Shitai ga Arimashita ("Once Upon A Time, There Was A Body") (Aoyagi Aito)
- Medium - Kourei Tantei Jouzuka Hisui ("Medium - The Medium Detective Jouzuka Hisui") (Aizawa Sako)
- Isekai no Meitantei 1 - Kubinashi Hime Satsujin Jiken ("The Great Detective of the Other World 1: The Case of the Headless Princess") (Katazato Kaname)
- Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read") (Higashigawa Tokuya)