Sunday, November 28, 2010


The devil was born here

Say "Japanese detectives", and the image of Kindaichi Kousuke pops up in my head. Yokomizo Seishi's post-war creation has been called the first genuine Golden Age Japanese detective, who made his debut in Honjin Satsujin Jiken ("The Grand Mansion Murder Case") in 1946. The locked room murder mystery (much better than Edogawa Rampo's D Zaka no Satsujin ("Murder on D Street")) was praised a lot, which led to many more adventures of Kindaichi. Yokomizo Seishi ultimately earned the nickname of the Japanese Carr, which I personally think is more because of Yokomizo's flair of creating atmosphere, rather than Yokomizo's locked rooms (though he has written his share of locked room mysteries).

Few Japanese detectives I read are as "Japanese" as the Kindaichi series. The Kindaichi series is set after the second World War and often refers to the war. For example Inugami-ke no Ichizoku ("The Inugami Clan") is set right after the war, and the plot revolves around the post-war chaos and soldiers returning from the battlefield. Another characteristic of the Kindaichi series is the use of small, rural communities as the backdrop of the stories. In fact, the Kindaichi series has been a major influence on Trick, where most of the stories also take place in weird, rural mountain villages.

Which in turn makes Akuma ga kitarite fue wo fuku ("The devil comes playing the flute") actually a bit of an exception. As most of the story takes place in good old Tokyo and features several distinctively urban plot points. The story starts with the Tengin Poisoning Robbery case (based on the Teigin Case, also appearing in Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen's International Case Book). One of the suspects is the viscount Tsubaki, but after a long investigation by the police Tsubaki himself reveals he has an ironclad alibi. Not long afterwards though, he commits suicide, leaving a message to his daughter Mineko saying the shame is too much for him to bear and warning her for the devil who comes playing the flute. Months after viscount Tsubaki's death, Mineko's mother Akiko and several others claim to have seen the viscount and fearing the once mild-mannered viscount might have come back to live to take revenge, the whole family, including Akiko's uncle former Count Tamamushi and Akiko's brother Shinguu's family gather around for a seance, to find out whether viscount Tsubaki has really come back to life. Kindaichi attends the seance, which ends when a mysterious mark, dubbed the Mark of the Devil appears on the seance table, followed by the omnious melody The Devil Comes Playing The Flute, a flute song the viscount wrote before his demise. This is just the beginning though, as former Count Tamamushi is found murdered in a locked room the next day, the first in a chain of murders.

And yes, this is just the beginning. Stuff happens. Good stuff. Akuma ga kitarite fue wo fuku is an interesting detective, with a plot that keeps turning around, with new developments making it hard to see where the story goes. But not in a too convoluted way (except for maybe the ending). The story is roughly split in three parts, with the first being in Tokyo, the second in Hyougo prefecture where Kindaichi tries to find the motive for the murders and in the final part, Kindaichi returns to Tokyo. The first and last part are classic Golden Age detective investigative parts, but actually the most boring. The book becomes much more interesting when Kindaichi travels to Hyougo and Yokomizo shows of his gift for creating atmosphere. The people talking with their local dialects, the way of living there compared to Tokyo, the way the story unfolds when in Hyougo, it is truly the best part of the book and Yokomizo's strong point. Back in Tokyo, Yokomizo concludes the story in an impressive way, which only suffers a bit due to the lack of appendices. Maps and some sort of music sheet to show the notes the flute song The Devil Comes Playing The Flute should have been included to make the story a bit more fair (yes, this book is actually great material to base a movie/TV series on. Audiovisual aids to strengthen the atmosphere!)

I also liked how Yokomizo made use of World War II's influence on Japan. The abolisment of the kazoku (nobility) is a big plot point, but how scarcity of food and electricity or even the circumstances in post-war Tokyo make their way into the story in a non-obtrusive, useful way was well done. Yokomizo was better at making a real Japanese detective than Edogawa Rampo I think. While Edogawa's D-Zaka no Satsujin or Nisen Douka ("The 2 Sen Coin") are the first Japanese detective stories that were really set in Japan (featuring a locked room in a Japanese style house in the former and a Japanese code in the latter), Yokomizo was much better in recreating the atmosphere of Japan, as well as more talented in writing classical orthodox detectives.

I am glad I bought a lot of the Kindaichi series, as I really love this series. Too bad it takes so long to read them compared to modern books... 

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 『悪魔が来たりて笛を吹く』

Thursday, November 18, 2010


"'You mean these Baker Street societies and all that,' said Miss Lemon. 'Grown men being so silly. But there, that's men all over. Like the model railways they go on playing with.'", "Hickory Dickory Dock"

To my own surprise, I'm actually close to finishing a series of detective novel reviews now. I've been enjoying Nishimura Kyoutarou's Meitantei series ("Great Detective") for some time now, starring four famous detectives, Ellery Queen's Ellery Queen, Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, Simenon's Maigret and Edogawa Rampo's Akechi Kogorou. And no, Nishimura didn't ask for permission to use them. But ignoring the problem of copyright, the previous two works, Meitantei nanka kowakunai and Meitantei ga oosugiru were quite entertaining, pitting the quartet against the infamous 300 Million Yen robbery and two phantom thieves. So my expectations for the third work were quite high.

Meitantei mo raku janai ("Even great detectives don't have it easy") starts with a group called the MMM ("Member of Mistery (sic) Mania") which invites the four detectives. MMM is a group for people with mystery mania, very fanatic fans of the detective genre. With a critically acclaimed magazine published by them and a rich hotel owner backing them up, MMM is a well known club in the Japanese detective novel world. However, in modern times, the quality of detective novels seem to have fallen and in their desparation, MMM urges detective writers everywhere to come up with a new, modern great detective. And that is why they invited the four great detectives of a time long gone, to promote this event.

It doesn't take long before a young man named Samonji barged in on the meeting between MMM and the four detectives, claiming to be the modern great detective. At which, the head and financial backbone of MMM, Okabe falls dead, poisoned. Thus starts a chain of serial murders, with members of MMM being killed one after another. The four detectives however, do not act. They express their interest for Samonji, saying he might indeed have the skills to be the modern great detective and that they want to see how Samonji handles this case. Which lieutenant Yoshimuda just can't accept, so a battle of wits begins between Yoshimuda and Samonji to solve the MMM serial murder case.

I was actually very excited after the first chapters or so, because a group of detective novel fanatics always make a nice background for a detective. It should also push the writer, as such characters are usually a lot more imaginative and experienced when coming up with deductions and thus the writer needs to come up with something that is truly brilliant (or else a in-story character could have solved it, and there would be no use for a detective).

But there is big however, as the novel was just so badly written, I lost interest halfway. Because of Samonji, the four detectives pretty much do nothing and in fact, they weren't needed in the story at all. In the end, this was just a story of Samonji versus Yoshimuda in a horrible serial murder case. I can understand why you'd confine the suspects to one hallway of a hotel, while you're conducting your investigation. In theory, you can keep your eyes on them much easier. But you'd think you'd at least let one guard guard the hallway. Because you know, you might not want to let the murderer go running from one victim to another, killing them in their rooms. Which he indeed did. Several times. The police placed someone in the hallway only after the fourth or fifth murder.

While the ending was sort of interesting, featuring a triple-layered solution, it was too bad the last solution (of course posited by the four) was impossible to deduce for the reader. Furthermore, the book had to end in a certain way from the very start and while I really hoped it wouldn't be that way, it did. Which made the book very boring, because it was more of a waiting game.

What makes the Meitantei series so much fun, is the gathering of the four detectives, doing their own things. However, in this novel, the four have been reduced to one entity, "the old generation" to contrast with Samonji and one single great detective would have done the job. Of course, putting the four detectives in the backseat, while watching Samonji and Yoshimuda's attempts to take control of the car, is bad too; I read this series to see the four detectives in action. And it could have been such a great work which this setting... I hope the final novel in this series places the four detectives back in the spotlight. 

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『名探偵も楽じゃない』

Thursday, November 11, 2010


-- 決まった!わたしは、心の中でガッツポーズ。

"I've seen through the things you're trying to do!"
-- Got'em!
I struck a Guts pose. I'll use this as my finishing quote from now on.

It takes some time to appreciate some authors somtimes. I for one didn't really like my first Nishimura Kyoutarou novel and I still can't really understand his popularity that well, but his Meitantei series is a surprisingly fun series, which really made me reconsider him. Hayamine Kaoru's first impression was close to horrible too. The volumes of the manga based on his Meitantei Yumemizu Kiyoshirou Jiken Note ("The Case Files of Great Detective Yumemizu Kiyoshirou") were quite awful. His second chance wouldn't be years later.

This year is the 10th anniversary year of the Trick franchise, with the movie Trick: Psychic Battle Royale being the main course. Of course, a series as big as Trick had to be celebrated cross-medium. So it was not only a new movie, but we also got a (fine!) videogame, a spin-off series and a novel. While there had been novelizations of previous series and movies before, this time an original novel was released. And yes, it was written by Hayamine Kaoru. But as I am a blind fanboy, I still bought the book. And just hoped for the best. I mean, Trick already has a great cast of clearly defined characters, so Hayamine could pour all his energy in creating a suitable story and let the characters do everything for him.

But that turned out to be wishful thinking. And it began sort of interesting too. Kaerisorajou no Nazo - Trick Seishunban ("The Mystery of 'the Castle returning to Heaven' -  Trick Youth Chapter) is a prequel and is the very first adventure of self-proclaimed magician beauty Yamada Naoko. High school student. Along with three classmates she's invited by her teacher to her teacher's hometown to witness an ancient and rare odori. The village, far away in the mountains (of course. This is Trick) also holds a secret: long ago a mysterious clan led by the psychic Reihime were in control of this area, with every in fear of them and their powers. However one day, the clan seemed to have offended the gods, as their 'Castle returning to Heaven' suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth, together with their treasures. Yet, the town still fears a return of Reihime. Until now it sounds very Trick-like, so that should be good, right? No.

The problem is that is too Trick-like. While I of course want a Trick product to be Trick-like, Hayamine is doing this wrong. Why? Absolutely nothing is original in this book. He writes bits and pieces of Trick-like parts together and I can't even see why they would have needed to ask Hayamine to write this. And Hayamine sticks to the model to a ridiculous extent. While Trick indeed needs both self-proclaimed magician beauty Yamada Naoko and self-proclaimed super physics expert Ueda Jirou to be Trick, it is just plain weird to have them meet in this story, as it is set in the past. Hayamine 'solves' this by saying they did their best to forget each other, but it just doesn't work. This is made even more ridiculous by even having detective Yabe make an appearance, still as patrol-man and not bald yet (he's the type who will get bald fast, everyone comments though). Having 'solved' the problem of getting everyone in the story, Hayamine just ticked off a checklist. Village in the mountain? Check? Legend (involving psychics)? Check. Strange villagers? Check. Gags about Yamada being poor and a bad sleeper? Check. Baldy gags about Yabe? Check. Ueda fainting? Check? Yamada's mother saying writing has mysterious powers? Check. Check. Check.

The only thing Hayamine forgot, was that Trick also has interesting detective-plots. Oh, wait, I guess that was the only part he had to do himself. And I guess my first impression was right. He. Is. Awful. At. That.

While the Trick DS game also got everything on the checklist, the developers at least didn't forget to include an interesting detective plot (and accompanying mechanics!) to actually make it fun. Sadly enough, this novel is only the checklist for making something like Trick. It still needs that something extra to actually make it a genuine fun Trick product.

The good part of the book? I did like the art by Tsuruta Kenji... And I really should watch those last few episodes of Keibuho Yabe Kenzou (Police Lieutenant Yabe Kenzou) to finish all the Trick releases of this year. 

Original Japanese title(s): はやみねかおる 『帰天城の謎 TRICK青春版』

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Murder by the Book


"It's not that you trust Mineko, you just want to trust her, right?"
"A Friend's Word of Advice"

I find most of Higashino Keigo's work to be a kind of guilty pleasure. They almost never comply to the rules of a real orthodox detective, but you can always sense Higashino Keigo's knowledge of the genre and that he is in fact intentionally avoiding the classic model and instead opts to mix it with different themes. The one theme that is pretty much in all his works is love and the consequences of love. The murders in his books are usually quite personal and a lot of pages are spent building his characters. Higashino often explores the mindsets of the criminals and more often than not you will feel some kind of sympathy for them (Yougisha X no Kenshin is a great example of this).

Kaga Kyouichirou series
Sotsugyou ("Graduation") (1986)
Nemuri no Mori ("Forest of Sleep") (1989)
Dochiraka ga Kanojo wo Koroshita ("One of the Two Killed Her") (1996)
Akui ("Malice") (1996)
Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita ("I Killed Him") (1999)
Uso wo Mou Hitotsu Dake ("One More Lie") (2000)
Akai Yubi ("Red Fingers")  (2006)
Shinzanmono ("Newcomer") (2009)
Kirin no Tsubasa ("The Wings of the Kirin") (2011)
Inori no Maku ga Oriru Toki ("When the Curtains of Hope Come Down") (2013)

His Kaga Kyouichirou series is a somewhat more orthodox detective series compared to Higashino's other works, but is still 'different'. Last time I looked at Dochira ka ga kanojo wo koroshita, which was as a classic a detective could be, except for the fact that the name of the murderer is never mentioned. This time I looked at another book in the Kaga Kyouichirou series, a short story collection to be precise.

Uso wo mou hitotsu dake ("One more lie") collects five short stories involving crime. I don't really want to call the stories inverted detective stories, but that term is probably the closest we have. The stories are more like psychological studies of the criminals than 'normal' detectives. Higashino explores how these criminals cope with their daily life after they have commited their crime, what drove them to their crime and finally, how the police detective Kaga arrests them. In schematics, it might look a lot like Columbo or Furuhata Ninzaburou, but in fact very little is told about the crime themselves and the focus is clearly on the criminal as a person, instead of the criminal as, well, a criminal. They are the protagonists of the stories and just like in Dochira ka ga kanojo wo koroshita, Kaga is more like a figure who only works in the background.

What is interesting though, is that Higashino did came up with murder methods which would have done well in any detective. Some solutions Kaga presented were truly quite entertaining and they would've been great for Furuhata Ninzaburou or other series; however Higashino intentionally wrote the stories so readers can't solve them and thus differs from the Columbo model. It is almost a shame Higashino wrote the stories the way he did and not in a more conventional way, but that is Higashino's M.O., I guess.

Once again, Higashino is close, but not close enough. And yet, I liked this short story collection and I do think the Kaga Kyouichirou series is fun enough to explore. It is easier to recommend than his Galileo series, which can be quite silly at times. 

Original Japanese title(s): 東野圭吾 『嘘をもうひとつだけ』