Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader

"Now, like shonen manga there's only one story that really works for shojo manga"
 "That's right"
 "The heroine screams 'I'm late, I'm late,' while running out of her house (because she's clumsy)!! There are no alternatives to this beginning!! Another important detail: she has to be chewing on a piece of toast!!"
"Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga"

Totally grabbing this chance to talk about Thermae Romae. Because this review is related to manga. And Thermae Romae is a manga. About the Roman and Japanese bathing cultures. Which sounds strange. And it is! But it is hilarious! The story follows the Roman bathhouse architect Lucius, who is a bit of a slump. One day, he gets transported to modern-day Japan, where he learns about the Japanese bathing culture (sentou, onsen etc.) and brings back those ideas back to ancient Rome. And now it's a live-action movie too! It's a hilarious movie (also because Abe Hiroshi stars as Lucius) and definitely worth a view. And you even get a bonus-manga with both Lucius and Abe Hiroshi if you go the theaters now. In Japan.

But now back to the review. Which like I said is related to manga. Komori Kentarou's Lowell-jou no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room in the Castle Lowell") starts with the duo of Hori and Megu lost in the woods. They end up in a mysterious house, where an old man sends them into a shoujo manga. Yes, you read that correctly. The two are transported into the world of the comic series The Locked Room in the Castle Lowell, with Meg (Megu) starring as a poor village girl who gets chosen as the new bride of the prince of Castle Lawell (she gets dumped though) and Holy (Hori) being the second prince of Castle Lowell. And then a lot of things happen which you would expect in a shoujo fantasy comic, with magical beings, fights to the death, fights for love, wars between tribes and finally, a locked room murder (ok, the latter is not a staple of the shoujo manga. It should be though). It is up to the King of the Stars, the current head of the Detective Department in the castle, to solve the murder on the replacement bride-to-be in the tower room which was locked and under constant surveillance. And how are Megu and Hori supposed to get back to the real world?

Komori was awarded the Rampo Prize for this novel at the very, very young age of 16. Which is quite an accomplishment. And I admit, the novel is fairly well written, though certainly not without its faults. For example, Komori spends a lot of time creating a background story for the castle and everything that is really interesting, but of absolutely no importance to the locked room murder. Heck, it is not even of importance to most of the story. It therefore feels like a waste of time for this particular novel and as the murder doesn't even happen until the last third of the book, I kinda wonder whether this was really necessary. I would have loved to have seen either those story elements incorporated more strongly with the main mystery, or have seen Komori worked out his background story into a different story.

The locked room murder of this novel is sorta famous if you move in the right circles and is certainly highly original, but definitely unfair if you are expecting a normal mystery. In my mind though, Komori set it up a bit too obvious and I already suspected what was going to happen even before the murder actually happened (hey, if you have to read more than 200 pages to get the murder, you have time to think), but I can totally imagine why someone would overlook this solution. I thought it was an interesting locked room murder, but I definitely this would have worked out much better as a short story (or even as a real comic), rather than a novel.

And as I was writing this, I thought: but who would expect a normal mystery of a story that starts with two people getting sucked into a comic book?  Maybe this is just a fair mystery. Hmm.

And apparently it is obligitory to insert a locked room lecture in a debut novel. Was it really needed here? No. Did it pull me out of the 'manga'-fantasy-world with its references to Carr and Rampo? Yes. I once thought that locked room lectures were super-special-awesome, but everybody has one nowadays (even if the story does not really ask for one) and very few actually add something new to the discussion. It feels like a chore to read them lately, to be honest.

The comic book-angle is pretty hilarious at the beginning of the story, with Meg for example being surpised how much handsomer Hori has become as the comic character Holy, or how everybody's eyes cover one third of their faces. And like I said, the background setting and all are precisely what I expect from a fantasy shoujo manga, though I have to admit that I actually haven't ever read one. Except for Banana Fish. Which is kinda different. But I totally imagine Red River to be something like The Locked Room in the Castle Lowell (Note: I probably have no idea what I'm talking about).

Hmm, I couldn't write as much about this book as I had expected. Though now I think about it, it's not that strange though. Two-third of this novel is just a shoujo manga (but in prose), so not of particular interest here, while the actual murder is interesting and original, but I can't write too much about it without spoiling the surprise. Aaargh.

And I have ABSOLUTELY no idea how the cover is related to the contents. Is that a heart? And... what... Uggh.

Original Japanese title(s): 小森健太郎 『ローウェル城の密室』


  1. I knew Komori was an otaku and still works such aspects into his books (like the comiket or bishoujo games), but this is just... well, I get where your bewilderment comes from. Even certain Mephisto award winners create settings that seem more appropriate for a mystery novel while being labeled as such.

    I also have problems with settings that do not play any role for the central mystery at all. Especially since there are still awesome novels nowadays where the setting plays a vital part in making the mystery/locked room unique.

    I tend to find those lectures quite interesting, but as you said the locked room topic has been discussed ad nauseam by now. At least I cannot remember one in neo-orthodox works that was actually worth the space it took. I prefer lectures on topics that haven't been done over and over, like 見立て殺人 for example. These lectures can also be great examples of misdirection or hidden clues.

    1. It's even more frustrating when you realize that most (Japanese) authors refer to both Carr and Rampo when coming up with these locked room lectures, ignoring the fact that locked room murders are just a small part of Rampo's 「類別トリック集成」. There is so much more in that essay to build on!

    2. Maybe I should really look for 続・幻影城 in used book stores ;)

  2. Your comments on the locked tower has set the cogwheels of my brain in motion and it came up with two possible solutions that could fit "highly original" and "definitely unfair," such as the victim having Rapunzel-length hair, which she used as a rope to unknowingly let her killer into the room or the old man "magically" transported between both worlds to commit the murder.

    1. I'll refrain from making any detailed comments about the solution, for obvious reasons :)