Sunday, October 13, 2013

A Faraway Journey


"Tairon's a firefly?" I did't get what Atsuko was trying to say.
"You know, like the dodoitsu poem. A firefly who doesn't cry, burns more fierce than a cicada who burns and cries out of love. Tairon, he hides his feelings."
"The Malay Railway Mystery"

I've been going through the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney videogame series again lately, and once again lament the fact that many mystery readers will never set eyes on the fantastic writing and plotting power of Takumi Shuu, just because he creates videogames and not novels. The medium might be different, but Takumi makes great use of the possibility and freedom of the medium to bring some of the most effective and memorable detective stories to the reader and his dialogues and play with Japanese scripts are also fantastic. Actually, the Ace Attorney games are probably one of the biggest and most important exports of Japanese mystery fiction in the last ten years in the English-speaking world, together with Detective Conan, but most readers (who actually do want to read Japanese mystery fiction) seem to ignore them, just because they are in a slightly unfamiliar medium.

Anyway, enough about that...

Criminologist Himura Hideo and detective writer Arisugawa Alice visit their old friend Tairon who runs a guest house in Malaysia in Maree Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railway Mystery"). Himura and Alice have a great time, traveling across the beautiful country by train. Their friend's guest house is also a fantastic place, and time flies by. And then, just a few days before Himura and Alice are about to leave, the dead body of another Japanese traveller is discovered. The victim was found inside a trailer house, which was locked and taped from the inside. And yet there is no doubt it was a murder. Suspicion falls on Tairon, and Himura and Alice must clear their friend's name and find the real murderer before they leave for Japan.

It's been over two years ago since I last read a novel in Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. While the adventures of Himura and Alice started out very good, each new entry in the series became less and less interesting.  Since then, I have been enjoying Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series thoroughly (and occasionally audio dramas of the Writer Alice series), but as I could get Maree Tetsudou no Nazo for cheap, and it featured a locked room mystery, I figured why not (for those confused about the difference and relations between the two series, see this review of Arisugawa's Soutou no Akuma).

And... Maree Tetsudou no Nazo isn't a bad novel, but nothing special either. At first I felt deceived, because despite the title The Malay Railway Mystery, the body isn't found inside a train, but in a trailer house. Which isn't even attached to a car or anything. It's still a locked room, but let's be honest, if you can choose between 'locked room in a trailer house' and 'locked room in a train', the latter trope is more exciting, right? I am pretty sure I've seen the solution behind the locked room somewhere before (though I can't remember where, so I don't know which was earlier), and it is a pragmatic and sorta realistic solution, but nothing particularly memorable.

In fact, the most memorable part of the whole novel is Alice trying out his pigeon samurai English on the unsuspecting local population (which is admittedly really funny Japanese-translated-straight-to-English). But I guess that this is the way Arisugawa wants to go with his two main series. The Student Alice series is his serious series, mostly aimed at the hardcore fans of the genre who seek Queenian logic in their plots (like in Kotou Puzzle), whereas the Writer Alice series is more easy to pick up, and slightly aimed at fangirls with the relation between Himura and Alice (see also the audio dramas, which are produced by a company that also seems to aim at a certain female fan population). Not a bad thing per se (see also Higashigawa Tokuya's humorous novels), but I am definitely more a fan of the Student Alice series.

Also, why set the book in Malaysia, when half of the cast is Japanese anyway? Like I said, the way Alice struggles to communicate with the non-Japanese local population is fun, but if most of the people he interacts with is Japanese anyway, and the murder took place in a location that isn't even really related to the Malay Railway, why bother with the whole Malaysia idea (except for keeping the Queenian title tradition)?

Maree Tetsudou no Nazo as a locked room mystery is not bad, but not particularly exciting either. It's a decent mystery, but considering Arisugawa Alice is also capable of writing absolute masterpieces (in the other series), I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『マレー鉄道の謎』

1 comment :

  1. Hi,

    Being a Malaysian, i am very proud when the writer mention my country's name!!