Monday, September 10, 2012

Zero Focus

"The record, therefore, which I am about to set down is the first complete and unedited history of the Greene holocaust. It is, I hope, unnecessary for me to state that I have received official permission for my task. I feel that now the truth should be known, for it is history, and one should not shrink from historical facts. Also, I believe that the credit for the solution of this case should go where it belongs"
"The Greene Murder Case"

Warning: there is a big chance that the next post to be published, will be about Sherlock Holmes reincarnated as a dog. You have been warned.

Man, I have postponing writing the review for 0 no Satsujin for so long, that I actually read the sequel in the meantime. Yes, I am good at postponing things. So let's just make this a double review to get it all over with: today, the last two novels in Abiko Takemaru's Hayami siblings series. I had already reviewed 8 no Satsujin a couple of months ago and this is one of those rare, very rare cases where I read the books in a series 1) in the right order and 2) complete the series within a relatively short space in time.  The first novel in the series (also Abiko Takemaru's debut) was really fun and a well-constructed, but not particularly surprising impossible crime novel I t was not bad in any way however and Abiko has a very easy to read writing style, which makes his novels ideal as 'filler' material between 'heavier' reading material.

Police detective Hayami Kyouzou is having another difficult case in 0 no Satsujin ("The 0 Murders"), surrouding the small family of wealthy (and old!) heiress Fujita Katsu. Her only living relatives are her younger brother Genji and her nephew and niece Kushida Tatsuo and Hiroko. In fact, these people don't have any family of their own either, so these four people are all they have in the world. And someone is killing them, one by one, starting with the poisoning murder on not the old Katsu, but instead her young niece Hiroko! Why kill someone with no money? Who has any reason for killing off a small family with almost no ties to the outside world? Kyouzou has no idea, so he calls in the help of two experts on family holocausts in fiction: his younger brother and sister Shinji and Ichio, who happen to be huge fans of detective fiction.

The novel starts quite surprising with not a Challenge to the Reader, but a Notice of the Writer, where Abiko sorta tells the reader he left enough clues for the reader to deduce who the murderer is, and he is even so nice as to give you a list of suspects, saying that all other characters are definitely not involved with the murders. The tone of the Notice might not be very aggressive, but yes, this is just a nicer written Challenge to the Reader. I thought it pretty interesting as most novels don't feature a Challenge to the Reader until the point where all hints are given, which can also make a Challenge to the Reader come as a surprise. If you are not expecting it to be such a detective novel, your 'reading mode' might be totally different. In that sense, it is more fair to include such a Challenge at the beginning and I think it might also be a remnant of Abiko's time at the Kyoto University Mystery Club, where Guess the Criminal scripts are technically all stories feature a Challenge to the Reader.

The puzzle of the holocaust of the family is rather easy to solve though and while the story is definitely fun to read (again, Abiko's writing style is very easy to read), I wouldn't recommend this novel that easily. I would definitely recommend it if you like Abiko's sense of humor (as seen in his other novels, or Kamaitachi no Yoru) and it is certainly not a bad detective novel (though it is sure to be seen with some disagreeing eyes by some mystery fans), but it is also I think the weakest of the three Hayami sibling novels, with actually little incentives that keep the reader attached to the text besides the easy-to-read style. The slapstick humor is also toned down a bit, which makes 0 no Satsujin a rather dry and short book, that at times feels more like an extended plot-outline than a fullfledged novel.

Möbius no Satsujin ("The Möbius Murders"), set just after the events in the previous novel, presents Kyouzou with a new partner (the female detective Kijima) and a new case: a mysterious series of murders in metropolitan Tokyo. The victims vary from little children to elderly men. The only thing that suggests a link between the seperate murders: notes left at the murder scenes with enigmatic number-sequences on them ("2-2", "3-1" etc.). What is the missing link that exists between the seemingly random murders and will Kyouzou be able to stop the murderer? Meanwhile, we also follow the 'adventures' of a teenager called Shiina Toshio, who together with an unknown partner has been going around killing people...

Möbius no Satsujin starts out as a serial murder case like The ABC Murders, then turns into a missing link story like Cat of Many Tails, interspersed with suspense elements where we follow the named murderer. Seems a bit chaotic, but it works and the first two-thirds of this story are very fun to read. It might feel a bit light for some readers too: Abiko's trademark easy writing and slapstick humor kinda undermines the gravity of a serial killer on the loose in the city, but if you can accept that, this should provide for a few hours of entertainment.

Some elements of the the missing link part of the story are good, some not so. The link between the murders is a pretty original one, but the concept behind the enigmatic number sequences left at the crime scenes is almost impossible to guess a priori. The missing link is also revealed halfway through the story, shifting the focus of the investigation towards finding the murderers, but that part is definitely the worst part of the story, with a really unbelievable identity of Toshio's partner. It might have worked if this story was written in a different tone, but it just doesn't work here. It feels so out of tone, that it leaves a somewhat bad aftertaste, despite the entertaining main body of the story.

Taking these two novels together with 8 no Satsujin, it becomes a bit more clear what Abiko did with this series though. 8 no Satsujin featured an impossible murder, 0 no Satsujin the holocaust of a family, Möbius no Satsujin serial murders and a missing link. With all three novels, Abiko used a famous trope of older detective fiction, which he examined using the characters of Shinji and Ichio. Shinji and Ichio constantly reference Golden Age novels when contemplating about the cases, effectively acting as proxies for the genre-savvy reader. Abiko also subverses the tropes in several ways in his novels (I won't go into details for fear of spoiling people). Of course, the detective genre is one that makes extensive use of tropes and subversing them, but there is a difference between coming up with a new solution for an existing trope in the genre, and actually starting kicking at the fundementals of said tropes. These novels make Abiko's place in the history of New Orthodox novels a bit clearer to me at least.

Taken apart, these novels are certainly amusing stories, but they are not what I'd first think of when talking about the New Orthodox writers. I would not advice people to not read them either though, as they are competently written mystery novels. Taken as a set, the three Hayami siblings novels becme a place Abiko manages to have a small discussion about Golden Age novels. Together, they form a better way to explain his position within New Orthodox detective fiction, but I think that in terms of pure originality, Abiko's influence in the genre of mystery gaming is far more important than his novels, so if you had to choose, I'd say you'd need to go play Kamaitachi no Yoru instead.

Original Japanese title(s): 我孫子武丸 『0の殺人』 『メビウスの殺人』

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