Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Mad Tea Party

 "Oh, we would need another trick to pull off such a trick, what a frightenly sharp comment!", Arisugawa Alice
Two posts within several days? Yes, I almost seem a prolific blogger. Truth is, I have read quite a lot lately, but I have the bad habit of not writing down my thoughts immediately. And the habit of not writing reviews right away. Which means I have to rely on my memory for writing these posts.

I will tell you this, I don't trust my own memory. That's why I do try to post these things as fast as possible. One problem I have now is that I don't know from which story the introducing quote actually comes from. I am not even sure if it is from this bundle; I have read several other works by Arisugawa in the meantime.

Anyway, Arisugawa Alice is an often-mentioned writer and editor here on this blog, so a familiar name with familiar themes. 46 Banme no Misshitsu introduced us to the crime-solving duo of Himura Hideo and Arisugawa Alice. Yes, in Queen-tradition, Alice refers to both the writer as the character who also is a writer. Himura, a professor in criminology (nicknamed the Clinical Criminologist by Alice) is often called in to assist in police investigations, something he calls 'fieldwork' for his own studies. Alice, a mystery writer and long-time friend, joins Himura in his investigations as his assistent as a connoisseur of the genre. And to be the victim of Himura's snide remarks. After a very solid debut with 46 Banme no Misshitsu, it was of course time for a short story collection. Because all the cool detectives have short stories.

Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") aims high, as can be guessed from the title. Naming your own short story collection after the famous Country series by Ellery Queen means it is going to be scrutinized even more, right? The stories are all written from a first person perspective, with of course mystery writer Alice as our narrator.

Doubutsuen no Angou ("The Zoo Code") and Rune no Michibiki ("Guidance from the Runes") are both dying message stories, a staple of the Ellery Queen series. And after the same Queen tradition, Himura and Alice discusses several options before arriving at the truth. However, the weak point of both these stories are that they hinge on the knowledge of something so specific, few people would be able to deduce the solutions. Which is a shame, as the settings of both stories (a zoo and a cottage with mostly foreigners) are quite interesting and indeed invoke the Queen tradition.

I simply can't remember much of Akai Inazuma ("Red Lightning"), but I am pretty sure I forgot the story for a good reason. Hmm, reading a short impression on another site made me remember it again! One of Himura's students is sure he saw a woman being pushed off her balcony by someone from across the street, but as the room was locked from the inside and no person was found inside the room, this is impossible. The story is pretty good, even though the solution pretty much screams "look at me!", the second the second plotline is introduced.

Yaneura no Sanposha ("The Stroller on the Attic") is named after the same-named short story by Edogawa Rampo and features the same theme. A man has been spying on his tenants through the attic, looking down into their rooms. In the original story, the stroller in the attic commited a murder, but in Arisugawa's version, the stroller is killed, as he had discovered that one of his tenants is a serial killer. The only clue to the killer's identity is left in the victim's diary, that cryptically describes which of the tenant is the killer. It's a simple, yet effective code that connects really well to the original Edogawa Rampo story.

The titular Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russan Tea Mystery") is also a good story, involving a poisoning amongst a group of friends after a small karaoke party. Who are of course not that good friends. Friends in a detective story, are seldom friends, it seems. Like many poison stories, this story revolves around finding out how the poison was administered. The solution is a classic one, which is executed well, but still, nothing new here.

The final story is interesting, as it was originally the very first stageplay written by Arisugawa. Hakkakukei no Wana ("The Octagon Shaped Trap") was written for the opening ceremony of the "Archaic Hall Octo" in  Amagasaki and rewritten for this short story collection. As a play and probably hinted by the inclusion of a map of the Archaic Hall Octo, the solution to this story, where a fight between several actors ends in tragedy, is a lot more 'mechanical' compared to the solutions in other stories in the bundle, reminiscent of the ones in 46 Banme no Misshitsu. Which is a good thing.

All in all a solid short story collection. Arisugawa might want to work a bit on his dying messages, but he shows that classic Golden Age short stories can still work in a modern urban setting. While I think Norizuki Rintarou's short stories are superior, the banter between the dry Himura and the comic-relief-sidekick-with-detective-specific-knowledge Alice is really funny to read and give this work a unique flavor.

The one thing that totally perplexes me though, is that while the character Arisugawa Alice speaks Kansai-dialect, he thinks in standard Japanese. It. Is. Really. Distracting. 

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『ロシア紅茶の謎』/「動物園の謎」/「赤い稲妻」/「屋根裏の散歩者」/「ルーンの導き」/「ロシア紅茶の謎」/「八角形の罠」

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