Monday, February 17, 2014

The Butler Did It

"You rang?"
 "The Addams Family"

Oh, wait, there's a Jonathan Creek special coming this month?! Wow, with a new Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo TV series starting early April, the many great TV drama specials last month and the Creek special this month, this year has a very solid start in terms of mystery shows!

Higashigawa Tokuya's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de has been a great hit in Japan; the series about a somewhat verbally abusive butler who solves all the cases of his master, a wealthy heiress and rookie police detective, has had great ratings in the bookstores, television and movie theaters. But would a butler really be so rude to his master? Of course not, Maya Yutaka must have thought as he was writing Kizoku Tantei -Der Adelsdetektiv ("The Aristocrat Detective"), a fun, but somewhat limited short story collection. In the course of five stories, we're introduced to a variety of people in different places of Japan, in different circles of society, but with one common element: the moment a murder happens, an unnamed, arrogant young man arrives, calling himself the Aristocrat Detective. And he has friends in high places, as all policemen discover whenever they try to get him out of the crime scene. But it is not he hmself who uses his mental faculties to solve the murders. No, it's his staff, from butlers to maids who do all the thinking, and talking for him. But he is their master, so he considers whatever they accomplish, as his own accomplishment. They are tools, he is the workman who uses the right tools at the right time. Or something like that.

The first story in the collection, Wien no Mori no Monogotari - Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald ("Stories from the Wienerwald"), sets the formula for the rest of the collection. A little family gathering at a snow lodge (coupled with a bit of business) ends in tragedy when the head of the family is found murdered in his locked room. His secretary, who had returned to the city, was also murdered the same night in her apartment. The police thinks it's an easy case, but then the Aristocrat Detective appears... The plot of this opening story is actually quite good. The basic idea behind this story might be relatively easy, as it is clearly written to be a very fair, and solvable puzzle, but Maya manipulates the many elements expertly and invokes the Queen spirit when the story has you thinking about why some actions were taken, which in turns leads you the the murderer. A good example of a solidly written short story, even if the separate elements (snow lodge, locked room etc) aren't really original.

Tritsch-Tratsch Polka follows two policemen who are investigating a murder. But as they are questioning witnesses, they discover that another duo, of a man and his...maid, are also following the same trail. What do they have to do with the case, and why are they asking silly questions like whether the victim was carrying an umbrella that day? I liked this story the best of this collection actually, once again a short, but sweet experience. The double mystery (the murder, and the mysterious duo with their unexpected questions) is interesting enough to keep you hooked, and the trick behind the murder is also quite surprising, but I can't really write more about that lest I enter spoiler-territory. But as a short story with a clear goal (following the witness trail and deducing as you collect more information), and a good plot, Tritsch-Tratsch Polka is definitely my favorite here.

In Koumori - Die Fledermaus ("The Bat"), two girls have some deserved relaxing time at an exclusive hotel. They become acquainted with a group of famous writers, and end up as decisive witnesses when the sister-in-law of one of the writers is murdered during a local festival. The longest story of this collection, but that doesn't mean it's better. It's too long considering the plot to be honest and the trick feels too farfetched to work (at least, in the world of Kizoku Tantei; it might work in a different fictional world, but I'll write more about that in another review), which means a small payback for a relatively (time)-expensive story. Especially compared to the previous two short, but good stories, Koumori feels like a small letdown.

Kasokudo Waltz - Accelerationen Waltzer ("Acceleration Waltz") has the reader follow a particular bad day of a literary editor, which starts with the discovery of her boyfriend cheating on her, continues with a rock falling from a mountain, causing her to crash her car and have her discover the dead body of a writer she once worked for in his mountain lodge. Her one lucky break? A certain aristocrat is determined to solve the case fast (so they can go on a date). A quick examination of the state of the house is the key to the case, and is, in theory, a bit like the opening story, Wien no Mori no Monogotari - Geschichten aus dem Wienerwald, that is, the problem is solved by figuring out why certain, somewhat strange actions were taking, which brings you to the murderer. In practice, the stories are completely different though. I prefer the opening story a bit more, but this is certainly not a bad story.

Haru no Koe - Frühlingstimmen ("Voices of Spring") can best be described as a Yokomizo Seishi-esque story. The story of a rich heiress, three candidates for marriage and murder was a favorite of Yokomizo and can be seen in for example Inugamike no Ichizoku, Jooubachi and short stories like 'Shinigami no Ya. The three suitors all live on separate floors of an annex building (lest they might force themselves on the heiress in the night), but a cry for help over the phone one night leads to the discovery of all three suitors, murdered. Who killed them and why? The mystery is surprisingly easy to solve and I have to admit that this was my least favorite story of the collection. Koumori - Die Fledermaus was too long, but I liked its core mystery plot better than the one presented here.

Overall though, I have to admit that Kizoku Tantei felt a bit... lacking. Most stories are okay, but there are no real masterpieces or stories that you will definitely remember in a few years. Even the protagonist, the Aristocrat Detective is a bit boring. He does little more than seducing women while his staff is doing the work, but even as an arrogant, rich detective (who doesn't detect himself), he is nothing special. Maya Yutaka's own Mercator Ayu is actually quite similar, as an arrogant, rich detective, but he is much more interesting and fun to follow. The Aristocrat Detective feels like a cheap knock-off, with nothing original to offer.

There is a second collection featuring the Aristocrat Detective, but I think I'll skip that one. I'll probably go back to Mercator...

Original Japanese title(s): 麻耶雄嵩 『貴族探偵』: 「ウィーンの森の物語」 / 「トリッチ・トラッチ・ボルカ」 / 「こうもり」 / 「加速度円舞曲(ワルツ)」 / 「春の声」

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