Sunday, March 30, 2014


『Mysterious Eyes』 (Garnet Crow)

Don't let go of my hand
So we won't get lost again
"Mysterious Eyes" (Garnet Crow)

I write about detective fiction in any type of medium, so I have also quite a number of reviews posted under games and audio drama for example. The most surprising (to me) is still the fact I have a musical tag. Not sure whether I'll ever be able to use that again... Anyway, an audio drama today. And it's not even in Japanese!

Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee stories are quite famous around the world. An important factor explaining its popularity is probably the fact that van Gulik's managed to combine his expert knowledge on ancient China and its law practices with stories that are also fun to read. The character of the wise magistrate Dee was based on the actual magistrate Di (Dee) Renjie and his (slightly fictionalized) appearance in the detective novel Dee Gong An (see for a more detailed introduction to the series, this older post).

Robert van Gulik's first original book has an interesting publication history: it was actually first published in 1951 in Japan, under the title Meiro no Satsujin ("The Maze Murders"). A Chinese version followed in 1953, but the book wouldn't be published in English (the language the book was originally written in) or Dutch (van Gulik's mothertongue) until 1956: it was known as The Chinese Maze Murders in English, while it was released one year later in the Netherlands with the name of Labyrinth in Lan-Fang (which means the same in English, of course). I am not familiar with the reception history of the book, but I gather it must have been fairly popular, for a radio drama was produced for the Dutch radio waves somewhere between 1957 and 1959: Labyrinth in Lan-Fang was a play in nine half-hour parts, probably broadcast by radiostation VARA.

Labyrinth in Lan-Fang starts with judge Dee being appointed as the new magistrate of the border town of Lan-Fang, one of the strategic points of the empire in their fight against the Uyghur people. Yet not all is well in this town: the population has lost all its trust in the central govenment because of a local usurper, who managed to corrupt all previous magistrates, an Uyghur attack seems imminent and there is also 'normal' work for the magistrate: a case of a widow being cheated out of her legacy by her stepson, a secret hidden inside a painting and a large garden-maze just outside of town, a missing girl and the mysterious murder of a retired governor inside a locked room will also keep the judge busy these first few days of his appointment.

I have read my share of Judge Dee novels, but this was my first encounter with The Chinese Maze Murders / Labyrinth in Lan-Fang. And I liked it! As always, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the way Robert van Gulik manages to bring ancient China alive: from 'big' settings like how the administrative and legal system worked, to little details like daily habits, the food and objects people use, all the Judge Dee novels offer a great look in ancient China, but it never feels 'too heavy': it is perfectly possible, and fine to 'just' read these novels as is.

One of the best elements Robert van Gulik borrowed from Dee Gong An is the story-structure: the judge is always working on multiple cases at the same time (usually three), which is actually quite logically considering he's the highest authority in the district: it wouldn't make sense for him to work on one case at a time. This results in overlapping storylines, which feels quite natural: the findings of one case might be useful to the solving of another, while sometimes he has to prioritize one over another. In most of the Judge Dee novels, these seperate storylines overlap at several points, which is also the case here. In a way, these storylines crossing over make up a Chinese Maze on their own.

And a little bit of sidetracking here, but I recently found out that there are Judge Dee videogames. Well, find-the-object games. But what about a Machi/Detective Conan Marionette Symphony-esque sound novel game, where multiple, seperate storylines intersect and where the outcome of one story, is connected to another? Wouldn't that be an awesome, and fitting Judge Dee game? Just imagine, a game system like that of Marionette Symphony, with the judge, Sergeant Hoong, brawlers Ma Joong and Chiao Tai and trickster Tao Gan each contributing a little in their own way to the investigations!

But back to Labyrinth in Lan-Fang. I usually enjoy Judge Dee stories more as well-structured puzzles, rather than stories with memorable tricks or things like that and I feel the same about this story. Sure, there is a locked room murder, but I felt the solution came kinda out of nowhere. Though I have to note, I think that the storylines of the early Judge Dee novels were all based on actual court records from ancient China (again, this was van Gulik's expertise), so it seems that the trick behind the locked room in this novel was one that was actually used. Kinda creepy if you think about it (and to enter another sidetrack: I remember that a few years ago, there really was a stroller in the attic case in Japan、who was discovered in the end because someone noticed toilet paper was disappearing).

And how was Labyrinth in Lan-Fang an audio drama? The only complaint I have is the length; nine times thirty minutes is a bit too long in my opinion for one story, but besides that, I quite liked it. The combined efforts of Van Gulik's original story, the voice actors and the radio script also did a great job at keeping characters distinct from each other, something that can be quite different when your story is set in a different culture and with so many unfamiliar names. The multiple storyline structure of the Judge Dee stories can be a bit confusing, because it involves of jumping from one storyline to another, but no problems in this adaptation. Oh and I was very happy with the fact that the recording I listened was quite clean, because that isn't always the case with recordings of old radio dramas.

This month featured reviews of Japanese novels based on Chinese novels, Japanese translations of English novels, Japanese novels set in the United States and a too eager Japanese take on two American detective novels, so what better way to finish month than with a review of a Dutch audio drama based on a book originally written in English by a Dutchman, but first published in Japanese?

Original Dutch title(s): Robert van Gulik (original story), "Labyrinth in Lan-Fang"

Friday, March 21, 2014

Mr Short and Mr Long

森へとri ra ra ra
まい散る風 悲痛な(かなしい)叫び(こえ)が
フラリ フラリ 駆け抜ける
「Marionette Fantasia」 (Garnet Crow)

To the forest li la la la
Knock on the door
Praying I won't hear
The fluttering wind, its sad voice
I keep on running
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

The return of Short Shorts! Most people probably don't remember this corner, but it's mostly a collection of several, unrelated items. Sometimes I just have trouble writing a full-length review of something: to prevent these reviews from staying in limbo, I just combine multiple of these items in one Short Shorts post. Usually fairly incoherent posts, though today's Short Short is surprisingly following a popular theme: the impossible crime in short story format.

I had always wanted to read John Dickson Carr's famous short story The House in Goblin Wood and because in Japan you can just walk in a bookstore and get a new copy, I did just that. Over a year ago. The collection Youma no Mori no Ie (The House in Goblin Wood) has confusingly the English subtitle The Third Bullet and Other Stories and to make the chaos complete, this collection is not the same as The Third Bullet and Other Stories released outside Japan. Anyway, The House in Goblin Wood deals with the disappearance of Vicky Adams from an observed house, one of the witnesses being Sir Henry Merrivale. Vicky had done the same disappearing act when she was a child and when she returned she said she had been with the fairies. Has adult Vicky gone to the fairies again? The House in Goblin Wood is definitely a masterpiece: short, but expertly designed. It's completely solvable (I did, actually), but the way the story develops within the small amount of pages, the spooky disappearance and the whole truth at the end are presented, fantastic!

This collection also has The Incautious Burglar (Guest in the House), The Locked Room, The Clue of the Red Wig and The Third Bullet, but none of them really impressed to be honest. The Third Bullet in particular felt too long, even though the solution seemed so obvious. The House in Goblin Wood shows that sometimes shorter =  better. The Clue of the Red Wig has a Queenish murder scene: a woman dressed just in her underwear with a wig next to her is found in a little private garden/park. The pay-off is not particularly interesting in the end, but not bad (though I am quite sure I'll forget about this story in just a few months).

Which is an art Edward D. Hoch had mastered. I had already said in my review of the third collection of the Dr. Sam Hawthorne series that I probably wouldn't do full reviews anymore (see the review for more details), which makes it ideal material for this short short. Like a lot of Tokyo Sogen's publications, this volume has an English subtitle, which is Diagnosis: Impossible 4  - More and More Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne and that's the best way to describe it: yes, it's 'just' more impossible problems for the New England town doctor Sam to solve, and yes, the stories are still mostly the same in terms of structure, but heck, they are fun! There is a bit of a running storyline, with Sam hiring a new nurse and all, but it's still about all the mysterious murders that make Northmont one of the scariest places to live.

The Problem of the Haunted Tepee should be mentioned, as it's a crossover story with Hoch's Old West mystery series Ben Snow. An elderly Snow wants Sam to solve the mystery behind a haunted tepee, of which Snow himself had seen its deadly powers. This volume also contains the short story Frontier Street as a bonus story, which too is part of the Ben Snow series. The best story of the volume is The Problem of the Leather Man, where Sam has a long walk with the titular 'leather man' to the next town. They both take lodgings there, but the next morning the man is gone, and everybody, from the people at the lodgings to the people Sam had seen during the walk, say that Sam had been alone. Is the good doctor going crazy? This story takes a plot device I've seen quite often lately (probably just a coincidence), but constructs it in a reverse way, which makes it feel quite fresh. Sam has always been closely related to the crimes he solves as witness, but this time there's not even a crime and it's his own sanity that is being questioned. Quite different from the other stories in terms of development and type of story, something that is quite welcome once in a while.

And that wraps up this Short Short! Again, this corner is mostly reserved for materials I have trouble writing a full post on, so it's fairly irregular. For all I know, it might take once again a year and a half for a new Short Short to appear.

Original title(s): John Dickson Carr  『妖魔の森に家』: 'The House in Goblin Wood' 「妖魔の森の家」 / 'The Incautious Burglar' (Guest in the House) 「軽率だった夜盗」 / 'The Locked Room' 「ある密室」 / 'The Clue of the Red Wig' 「赤いカツラの手がかり」 / 'The Third Bullet' 「第三の銃弾」
Edward D. Hoch 『サム・ホーソーンの事件簿』IV: 'The Problem of the Black Roadster' 「黒いロードスターの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Two Birthmarks' 「二つの母斑の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Dying Patient' 「重体患者の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Protected Farmhouse' 「要塞と化した農家の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Haunted Tepee' 「呪われたティーピーの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Blue Bicycle' 「青い自転車の謎」 / 'The Problem of the County Church' 「田舎教会の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Grange Hall' 「グレンジ・ホールの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Vanishing Salaryman' 「消えたセールスマンの謎」 / 'The Problem of the Leather Man' 「革服の男の謎」 / 'The Phantom Parlor' 「幻の談話室の謎」 / 'The Problem of the Poisoned Pool' 「毒入りプールの謎」 / 'Frontier Street' 「フロンティア・ストリート」

Thursday, March 20, 2014

File 4: Music to be Murdered By

Let's post this before I forget it: a new Music to be Murdered by post! A corner where I post music from various detective-related media and crappy art drawn in MS Paint to accompany the tune!

Title: Mystic Antique
Composer: Tsujiyou
Album: Trick Original Soundtrack

Trick is a quirky TV series that started out as a detective series with a bizarre sense of humor, and is now more closer to a comedy-series that takes on the form of a detective series. The first season was a bit more serious/dramatic in tone, and while the duo of Yamada and Ueda exposed psychic charlatans for what they were in each episode, there were also hints that the supernatural really did exist. The opening theme of Trick (also used for the movies and the game) is called Mystic Antique and embodies that supernatural, somewhat strange feeling of the series with its organ melody.

And why did I draw an egg to accompany this song? Well, it's the accompanying opening sequence to this song! How can an egg breaking be a proper opening sequence to a TV series? I don't know. The contents of the egg changes per season/production by the way, the TV seasons have shown different kind of colors, while lately, even more surprising things have popped out of the egg. Mystic Antique is also used as the main theme of the series, and you'll occasionally hear it as the background music to the final denouement scene.There is also a slightly arranged version of this song, titled Antique Mystic.

Original Japanese title(s): 「Mystic Antique」(辻陽) 『トリック オリジナルサウンドトラック』

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Bad City

「浮気調査も金持ちの夫婦しか引け受けないし、 犬も猫も雑種は探しません。探偵業界のブラック・ジャックと呼ばれています」

"I only take adultery cases from rich couples and won't look for crossbred cats or dogs. And that's why I am called the Black Jack of the private eye industry"
"By whom?"
"Mostly me"
"The Detective I Don't Like"

'No, not another Higashigawa Tokuya drama adaptation review', you might think. Sorry, I seldom plan what to read/watch/listen to next, so sometimes I accidently end up with similar reviews close to each other...

Ikagawashi series
Misshitsu no Kagi wo Kashimasu ("Lending the Key of the Locked Room")
Misshitsu ni Mukatte Ute ("Shoot Towards The Locked Room")
Kanzen Hanzai ni wa Neko Nanbiki Hitsuyouka ("How Many Cats Do You Need For a Perfect Crime?")
Koukan Satsujin ni Mukanai Yoru ("A Bad Night to Exchange Murders")
'Jisoku 40 Kilo no Misshitsu' ("A Locked Room at 40KM/H") in: Shin Honkaku Tokubetsuhen - Fukanou Hanzai no Kyouen.

Watashi no Kirai na Tantei ("The Detective I Don't Like") (TV)

Watashi no Kirai na Tantei ("The Detective I Don't Like") is a TV drama which ran from January to March this year based on Higashigawa Tokuya's Ikagawashi series. Ukai Morio is a private detective who specializes in infidelity cases and locating lost pets, because they make the most money. He finds a cheap spot for his offices in the Ninomiya Building, but soon starts to regret his move: his new landlord, Ninomiya Akemi, is a big detective fiction fan and 'blackmails' Ukai (through the rent) in taking on more difficult (and less profitable) cases like locked room murders and other baffling crimes, just so she can tag along and try a bit of mystery solving herself. And unfortunately for Ukai, and fortunately for Akemi, the town of Ikagawashi is brimming with impossible crimes.

I have been following the Ikagawashi series for some time now, and I quite like how it mixes comedy with orthodox puzzle plots. But I'll be honest, I wasn't really looking forward to this adaptation of the series. Why? Because it was clear from the start that the TV series would feature some drastic changes from the original stories. Most obvious is the upgrade in importance of the character of Ninomiya Akemi. In the original stories, she's Ukai's landlord and basically has to force Ukai in taking on cases, or else he won't be able to pay the rent. She has no interest in the detective business nor detective fiction however, and most of the stories follow the detective Ukai and his disciple Ryuuhei. But because TV dramas absolutely need love interests, and because they had to push actress Gouriki Ayame as the main character, the TV drama version of Ninomiya Akemi becomes a strange amulgation of Ryuuhei from the novels, and the actual person Gouriki Ayame. And as such, she hogs all of the screentime and is the driving force behind all investigations.

So I wasn't sure whether I would like this adaptation of the Ikagawashi series, considering they made someone else the main character. It's like making Miss Lemon the protagonist of a Poirot TV series. Just play with that idea in your mind for a minute.

But because the TV series also adapted stories of the Ikawagashi series I hadn't read yet, I decided to bite the bullet. And it wasn't as messy as I had expected. Don't get me wrong though, the Ninomiya Akemi in the drama is absolutely horrible as a character. She's like a black hole sucking up all the good lines, all the great moments of the stories from the other characters. But ignoring that part (which can be difficult, I admit), Watashi no Kirai na Tantei is a fairly entertaining detective series.

The original stories are a great example of how to mix (sometimes slapstick) humour with puzzle plots: hints are concealed in what seem nothing more than just gags at first sight, and you'll often hit yourself when you realize you let such an obvious hint slide by just because it was presented in a funny way. The TV drama manages to do the same and adds in a lot of its own comedy, most of it in the form of  a good dose of meta-comedy as well as the zany (faulty) deductions made by Akemi. A lot of detective TV dramas are referenced in the course of the show, for example Galileo, Furuhata Ninzaburou, Kindaichi Kousuke, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Trick, as well as other Higashigawa Tokuya-based dramas like Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de. The many, obviously mistaken deductions remind of that Police Squad! inspired classic, 33pun Tantei ("33 Minutes Detective"), which had the premise of stretching each story out to a full length episode of 33 minutes with crazy deductions, even though they always figured out who it was in the first five minutes. Watashi no Kirai na Tantei is also doing a good job at presenting the craziest deductions: the moment they posed the killer-cat solution for a locked room murder (complete with image), I knew that at least the comedy was good.

The first two episodes are based on the first book in the series, Misshitsu no Kagi wo Kashimasu ("Lending the Key to the Locked Room"), and the seventh episode on Kanzen Hanzai ni wa Neko Nanbiki Hitsuyou Ka? ("How Many Cats Do You Need For a Perfect Crime?"), so refer to those reviews if you want to learn more about them in detail. The remaining five episodes are based on the short stories, of which two I think are the best of the whole TV series.

Episode four, Shi ni Itaru Zenryou Shisshou no Nazo ("The Mystery of Running Into Death") is about an almost grotesque problem: a man is witnessed to run at full speed into a wall, knocking himself out. Does the case have to do with the summoning of UFOs by Akemi? A fantastic premise, and the solution is pretty great too: Higashigawa Tokuya is really at his best when he does these short stories with somewhat plausible, yet somehow strange scenes. Nanatsu no Beer Case no Mondai  ("The Problem of the Seven Beer Cases") on the other hand is a good example of how to tie up all kinds of plotlines together and how to present a somewhat mundane, yet mystifying problem with an almost painfully simple, yet hard to see solution.

I would absolutely love this series if not for the shuffle with main characters. In the novel series, the 'detective' archetype (i.e. the person who explains everything at the end) is acually someone different most of the time, sometimes it's Ukai, sometimes it's police detective Sunagawa etcetera, but this is also changed in the TV series, always having Ukai doing most of the deductions, and then Akemi stealing the last good part by deducing something even Ukai overlooked I actually liked how the novels always kept readers on their toes by switching detective roles, so this was another reason I wasn't too big a fan of the character rewrites.

Watashi no Kirai na Tantei is a pretty fun series. The biggest reason behind that is because the original stories are good, but the team also did their best injecting their own comedy in the stories. It's just the sudden rise in importance of one character that kinda makes it hard for me to just recommend it. Of course, if you're a fan of Gouriki Ayame, go for it and I quite liked Tamaki Hiroshi as Ukai, but the main dynamics of this TV series, are quite different from the dynamics you'll find in the original Ikagawashi series.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 (原) 『私の嫌いな探偵』

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sins of the Fathers

『シェンムー 一章 横須賀編』

Father's heaven
Nine dragons
Mother's earth

And let's slip something English in for a change! And a double review, something I haven't done in a long time! Well, technically, I have short shorts, but I haven't written one of those in a long time either, and those faux double reviews of There Was An Old Woman/Double Double and The Dragon's Teeth/The Scarlet Letters don't really count. The last proper double review of a book was in September 2012 by the way, of two novels by Abiko Takemaru; of two games in January 2013. Can you believe that when I first started writing this blog, I always did double (or even triple) reviews in one post?

The title Inspector Queen's Own Case kinda explains itself, I think. Son Ellery has solved many cases that baffled his father, but this time it's Richard Queen's time for some action. And he needs it badly, because his forced retirement is driving him crazy. Old Queen was once one of the most fearsome police inspectors of New York City, but now spends his days doing very little. He spends some time at his friends' beach house near the Conneticut shore, near Nair Island, a private haven for the rich. The Humffreys are one of the multimillionaire inhabitants of Nair Island, and having recently been blessed by a baby, hire nurse Jessie Sherwood to take care of their child. One night, the most horrible thing possible happens to the baby, but his death is thought to be an accident. Jessie is the only one who is convinced it as a murder though, and together with old Queen (who has also taken a romantic interest in Jessie), try to figure out what happened that fatal night in the Humffrey mansion.

After many, many, maaaaany stories were we saw Ellery explaining how elementary everything was to his father, old man Queen finally has a chance to show why he made it to police inspector. In a somewhat clumsy way. Inspector Queen's Own Case definitely has some elements we know from the other Ellery Queen novels, but is not nearly as complex as anything we've seen in past releases. It is not a bad read though, as we see the old man cope with his own age and the blossoming of a new love. I am not a real fan of the love subplots in the Queen novels, but this was the most tolerable one of all Queen novels I've read until now.

The murder is quite shocking, in my opinion and that's something considering we've seen decapitated bodies and bodies exhibited in department stores. The Murder on the Orient Express effect, if you like. But the truth behind the case is revealed quite early on in the novel (or to be more precise: old man Queen guesses, and suddenly it becomes true despite it was never proven logically to be true...) and it has a tendency to drag a bit despite the short length of the novel. I understand that old man Queen works in a different way than Ellery, and as a police inspector, he might work a bit more singlemindedly (because all policemen are like that in detective fiction featuring amateur detectives), but I did find Richard a bit... simple in this novel. But then again, the plot of Inspector Queen's Own Case is a bit simple. The solution does mirror some elements we already saw in Cat of Many Tails, but doesn't pull it off as well as Cat.

Nair Island, an island for millionaires, reminds of The Spanish Cape Mystery and that island from The Treasure Hunt in The New Adventures of Ellery Queen. And wasn't there an island in The Eygptian Cross Mystery too? But then again, the island, as a geographical location, is never of real importance: movements of the persons on it and the location of buildings are not crucial to the understanding of the crime.

I was not really impressed or anything by Inspector Queen's Own Case, but considering it was a short read and I did like seeing old man Queen on his own for a change, I don't consider it a bad Queen. I wouldn't put it high on the priority list, which is actually precisely the case with me: I just don't have that many unread Queens left.

Especially not because I read the direct sequel to Inspector Queen's Own Case on the same day. In the House of Brass, Richard and Jessie get married (with the blessings of son Ellery). Jessie receives an enigmatic letter one day, with as contents: a hundred dollar bill, half a thousand dollar bill and the message she'll receive the other half if she comes to the House of Brass. When she and her husband arrive there, they discover that a group of six has been assembled at the house in true And Then There Were None style. Their U.N. Owen: old Hendrik Brass. He says he is considering to leave his fortune to his guests, but requests them to stay here until he can make up his mind. Anyone who leaves forfeits his claim. Jessie does not like the story, but old Queen thinks something's up and the couple stay there to see how things work out. Of course, anyone could guess it would all end in murder.

Ghost-written by Avram Davidson, The House of Brass feels more like a classic Queen novel. It's once again mostly old man Queen's show (together with his wife, which explains the detecting couples tag I used), but with a double-twist ending, some appearances by filius Ellery and a plot about a big search for something, it is hard to deny this book seems more like an Ellery Queen novel. Especially the big search, in this case for Hendrik's fortune, is undeniably a classic Queen trope. It was also featured in Inspector Queen's Own Case actually, but as a lesser plot-device and the story never went deep into that until the last minute. Here it is a major part of the story, and it reminds of scenes like the search for a victim's hat in The Roman Hat Mystery, or the search for the will in The Greek Coffin Mystery.

In Inspector Queen's Own Case, Richard called his own Baker Street Irregulars (of similarly retired policemen) to help in the Hummfrey case: they return in The House of Brass. Both books have a slight (just sliiight) getting-the-gang-back-together feeling to them, but I stress the 'slight', because we actually hardly know this gang. Sure, I understand that people like Velie are probably still in the force, but old man Queen calling his old gang without calling old faces the reader actually knows, was a bit disappointing.

The double twist and the identity of the murderer are also quite easy to predict if one has been keeping up with his Queen reading: in the Queen universe, some people just have more chance of turning out to be cold-blooded murderer than others. The double (or triple, or quadruple etcetera) solution has been a Queen staple ever since The Greek Coffin Mystery, so you usually expect one (or more) if you read one of these novels. Surprising, these tropes are not, but it does help in creating that Queen feel.

Inspector Queen's Own Case and The House of Brass might not be Ellery Queen on his best, but having read so many Queen novels with the old man, I have to admit it was quite refreshing to see inspector Queen on his own for a change. The House of Brass feels more like a part of the series due to its usage of familar tropes, but Inspector Queen's Own Case might be more interesting because it presents a different kind of Queen than we're used to. As a set, they form a fun little mini-series.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Murder is Served


"You're going to solve the mystery, right?"
"Shall I?"
"After dinner?"
"After dinner would a bit late"

When I step inside a train or an airplane, I don't usually think of detective fiction. Sure, there are some great stories set on moving objects, and the first couple of times, a ride might remind of such a story, but by the tenth time... But I haven't been on a boat that often, so that mode of transportation still has a bit of a (deadly) romantic allure to me. Death on the Nile and that sort of thing. The longest I've been on a boat, was the three-hour trip van Fukuoka (Japan) to Busan (South Korea), which was actually quite fun. No murders though. 

Higashigawa Tokuya's funny armchair detective series Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de has been a great hit in Japan, not in the least because of a succesful TV drama adaptation in 2011. The series is about a wealthy heiress (and rookie police detective) Houshou Reiko, who each time after a hard day at work tells her butler Kageyama about the mysterious cases she's handling. Kageyama however always manages to clear up the many murders that are troubling his mistress without even taking a step out of the room. His answer to the cases, which often includes a bit of verbal abuse directed at his mistress' intelligence), however is always only told after Reiko has finished her dinner.
And the hit 2011 adaptation was followed by a theatrical release with the same title last year. Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de (literally "Mystery Solving is after Dinner", official English title: The After-Dinner Mysteries) brings Reiko and her butler Kageyama to the luxury cruise ship the Princess Reiko on its final voyage from Japan to Singapore. Reiko plans on a relaxing trip, but her plans go all wrong when she finds out that Inspector Kazamatsuri (her direct superior who doesn't know Reiko's a wealthy heiress) is on the ship too to guard a statue on its way to Singapore. The international phantom thief Soros is thought to be on board and Reiko's also forced to help with security. But that's not all, because on the first night, a man falls overboard, but when the man is found, it is discovered he was first shot to death, before being thrown overboard, but the murderer went through the trouble of dressing his victim in a life jacket after killing him. Can Kageyama solve the mystery before dinner so his mistress can finally have her cruise holiday?

The original TV series was based on Higashigawa Tokuya's stories, but the movie was based on an original plot and I have to say, not nearly as entertaining as the original stories. The essence of the series, in my opinion, lies in the butler Kageyama being an armchair detective in simple, yet strange cases. He would just be there in the background, listening to his mistress relating the story of a relatively simple murder investigation, but with a small, yet enigmatic feature.The first story for example, Satsujin Genba de wa Kutsu wo O-nugi Kudasai ("Please Take Your Shoes Off At A Murder Scene"), showed how Kageyama solved a murder based on the fact the victim was still wearing her shoes inside her apartment (a no-no in Japan). All before dinner. The best stories were always about very small cases with one strange feature, and seeing how Kageyama brought light to the darkness just by changing the point of view.

The movie however has Kageyama coming along with Reiko on the cruise ship and having to solve the murder 'in real time', like an active detective. It brings another dynamic to the series, and I don't think it's a positive one. It kinda takes away from the whole premise of the series if you have Kageyama actively participate in an ongoing investigation on a ship. Almost as silly as having a old spinster-detective in a sword duel on a ship.

The case itself is also fairly simple, even though the movie tries to confuse you by having a lot of storylines running through each other. But there's one good point: the mystery of a naked dead body in a dogeza (kowtow) position. In a movie two hours long with a series of plotlines, this was the only one which actually felt like a true Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de story, with a strange murder scene with a surprising truth behind it. The rest is forgettable, but it was a fair mystery, at any rate.

The visual style of the series is mostly good though. A plotline with a 'comedic' duo of thieves is awful, but the rest is what we've learned to expect from the franchise: a comic-esque presentation of events, fast cuts and the occasional text pop-ups like in comics (and, no, not like those in Sherlock). While the cuts themselves aren't really remarkable (it is 'just' a movie spin-off of a TV series), the movie did had the advantage of having been shot on location. In this case, a little bit in Singapore, but also a large part on the gigantic cruise-ship SuperStar Virgo, which served as the ship Princess Reiko of the movie. And boy, does that ship look great!

Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de is a somewhat boring movie spin-off. Sure, we have our familar faces in all kinds of mysterious and comedic situations, but as a mystery film it is a bit disappointing. The original stories by Higashigawa Tokuya were much more interesting, and made much better use of Kageyama as an armchair detective. This movie is more aimed at people who liked the characters of the series, rather than people who liked the mysteries of the series, I think.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉(原) 『謎解きはディナーのあとで』

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

再生 -Rebuild-: the Student Alice series

Readers of the blog might have noticed that I often read books from the same series/authors. I often refer, and build upon what I wrote in previous reviews, but I figured that a single post introducing a certain series might be easier to read. So here, the first post in a series I have called Rebuild, which serve as general introductions to the more lengthy/interesting series I discuss. Expect a short introduction, some observations on characteristic tropes of the series and of course a bibliography list. For more indepth reviews and observations, please refer to the individual reviews.

Student Alice series (Author: Arisugawa Alice)
Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game - The Tragedy of Y '88") [1989]
Kotou Puzzle ("The Island Puzzle") [1989] AKA The Moai Island Puzzle.
Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil") [1992]
Jooukoku no Shiro ("The Castle of the Queendom") [2007]
Egami Jirou no Dousatsu ("The Insights of Egami Jirou") [2012]

The Student Alice series is about the adventures of the Eito University Mystery Club (EMC), as experienced by Arisugawa Alice, a Law student of Kyoto's Eito University. Other members include Mochizuki Shuuhei (economics, Ellery Queen fan), Oda Koutarou (economics, hardboiled fan) and founding member Egami Jirou (philosophy, several years overdue for graduation). Arima Maria (law) joins as the first female member of the EMC during her (and Alice's) second year at Eito University. The members of the EMC have a tendency to get involved with mysteries (most of them of the criminal kind), but Egami Jirou always manages to explain everything with his impressive deductive powers.

The series has three major characteristics. First is the setting of students and the mystery club. Like many writers of the so-called New Orthodox movement from the late '80s (which revisited, and reconstructed classic puzzle plots), Arisugawa Alice (the writer) debuted while he was a student and member of his university's mystery club, and these are elements that are mirrored in his own work (compare also with Ayatsuji Yukito's Jukkakukan no Satsujin). The Student Alice series is often described as young adult fiction, with its focus on student life.Also, the fact the characters are all well versed in mystery fiction is quite important, as they act as a device for discussions on all kinds of mystery fiction, and they can also make insightful observations from a meta-point of view, by refering to famous novels.

Secondly, the novels all deal with closed circle situations. For some reason or another, the EMC members always get involved with murder cases while cut-off from the outside world. Vulcano, island, they have seen it all. It's never 'just' a murder, but there's always another element of danger that drives the story.

Finally, as one can guess from the device of having the protagonist sharing a name with the author, Arisugawa Alice is strongly influenced by Ellery Queen. His novels also have Challenges to the Readers, like you'd expect from the older Queen novels. The deduction style is also similarly very complex, dealing with who-knew-what-when-how-which-allowed-them-to-do-what. Prepare for long deduction chains when you read the novels. Special mention goes to The Island Puzzle, of which the conclusion is an incredible tour-de-force in deduction all based on just one object.

Chronology of the EMC

Chronology is fairly important to the series. A bit more than two years have passed since the start of the series. For example, when we first met Mochizuki and Oda they had just survived their first year at Eito University, but by The Castle of the Queendom, they're already preparing for their graduation.
1984: The Eito University Mystery Club (EMC) is founded by Egami Jirou and Ishiguro Misao.
1987: Ishikuro graduates. Mochizuki Shuuhei and Oda Koutarou enter the Economics faculty, join the EMC.
1988: Arisugawa Alice and Arima Maria enter the Law Faculty. Alice joins the EMC.
1989: Arima Maria joins the EMC.
1990: Final year Egami Jirou is allowed to be enrolled in Eito University.

As of now (March 2014), four novels and one short story collection have been published. There are also a handful of uncollected short stories. The series is planned for five novels and two story collections, so we can expect another two releases in the future. The final novel will probably deal with Egami's graduation.

Note: Arisugawa Alice (the writer) has two series, both starring an Arisugawa Alice. Also, both of these protagonist Alices write detective stories. And to make things even more complex, each of the Alices writes the adventures of the other Alice. So the Alice of the Student Alice series, writes the Writer Alice series, while the Alice of the Writer Alice series, writes the Student Alice series.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

E.M.C. 1988.04-1989.04


"And that is how the Eito University Mystery Club and I met"
'The Maison Lapis Lazuli Case'

I lived near a lot of bookshops when I was in Kyoto, a great number of them second-hand bookshops. The most pleasant in my opinion was Furuhon Ichiba, which followed the familiar Book Off formula (but had the advantage of not being located uphill, as was the Book Off closest by), with a big assortment of games and books. But the most interesting was Comic Shock, just across the street with Furuhon Ichiba. Comic Shock was definitely the underdog, with slightly higher prices (overall) and being much smaller. But with more rare and older books, the late, yet long opening hours of from noon to midnight, as well as the amazing habit of wrapping each and every single book they had in plastic, made quite an impression. Every time I walked inside, someone was busy wrapping books in plastic.

And usually, I can't remember where I bought what book (though price tags usually help), but the plastic wrapping tells me that today's book was bought at Comic Shock. And that's my amazing deduction for today. Ahem.

Student Alice series
Gekkou Game - Y no Higeki '88 ("Moonlight Game - The Tragedy of Y '88")
Kotou Puzzle ("The Island Puzzle")
Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil")
Jooukoku no Shiro ("The Castle of the Queendom")
Egami Jirou no Dousatsu ("The Insight of Egami Jirou")

April 1988. 18 year old Arisugawa Alice has just entered the Law faculty of Eito University in Kyoto and is still looking for a club to join. After a little accident, a short talk and the words "Wontcha join us?", Alice finds himself as the newest member of the Eito University Mystery Club. The EMC is a very small club, with just three other members: Egami Jirou (president of the club and long overdue for graduation), Mochizuki Shuuhei (Ellery Queen fan) and Oda Koutarou (hardboiled fan). But the four members have great fun writing / talking about detective fiction, and just hanging out together. And the members also have a knack for attracting all kinds of cases. Maybe not all of a criminal kind, but the members of the EMC (and especially their leader Egami) are definitely not going to let any case go unsolved. Arisugawa Alice's Egami Jirou no Dousatsu ("The Insight of Egami Jirou") collects a series of adventures the members of the EMC had in the academic year 1988-1989.

Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is the first short story collection in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series and it took a long time for it to be finished. The book was published in 2012, but the stories were written in a period of over twenty years: the earliest story dates from 1986, while the newest dates from 2012. It is also a notable release, because it is quite different from the other books not just in format (short story collection), but also in atmosphere. Up until now, the Student Alice series had always been about murder cases in closed circle situations. Starting with 1989's Gekkou Game, the members of the EMC somehow kept running into murder cases while isolated from the outside world, be it stuck on an active vulcano, or on an island etcetera. The adventures in Egami Jirou no Dousatsu however happen in open circles, mostly around Kyoto (more specifically, around Eito University) and  have a lighthearted feeling to them (the same feeling the other Student Alice stories also have, before they realize they are cooped up somewhere with a murderer). Yet this doesn't mean that that other characteristic of the series, Queenian logical deductions, is gone.

Take Rurisou Jiken ("The Maison Lapis Lazuli Case") for example, where Mochizuki is accused by one of his fellow housemates of stealing a college note (with notes so good, you're guaranteed to pass the class). It seems that at the time of the theft, the only persons present in the building were Mochizuki and the victim himself (their two other housemates had gone to the public bath), and because Mochizuki had a row with the victim a while back, everyone thinks he stole the note out of spite (and to pass the course). Hoping to prove his innocence, Mochizuki asks his fellow EMC members to help prove his innocence. A chain of deductions built around a lightbulb in the washroom, and a neatly hidden hint form a great start of this collection, even though some of the 'conditions' of this crime do feel a bit dated (then again, it is set in 1988). (and bonus points for being set near where I used to live in Kyoto!)

Hard Rock Lovers Only is a very short story, just a couple of pages long and deals with a very small problem: why did that girl ignore Alice when he called for her, even though they had a nice talk in a cafe just earlier? The solution is simple, just like you'd expect from such a small story. Nothing surprising, just a very simple, very short story.

Yaketa Senro no Ue no Shitai ("The Body on the Faded Railway") on the other hand is a pretty complex story. It is also the oldest story of the bunch, published in 1986 and actually Arisugawa's first published story (Gekkou Game being his first published novel). The gang learns of a mysterious death on the railway tracks during a holiday at Mochizuki's maternal home. There are two suspects, but both of them have an alibi for when the body was thrown on the rails. Being an alibi-breaking story with trains, this story feels a bit like an Ayukawa Tetsuya story, who was actually the editor who decided to publish the story. But it is actually a neat, and fairly realistic modernized version of a pretty famous short detective story, but I won't go in details for fear of spoiling the fun. Also points for the little references of the gang preparing for another holiday in the mountains: Gekkou Game shows that that holiday will go horribly wrong.

Sakuragawa no Ophelia ("The Ophelia of the Sakura River") is the other story that features death, though maybe not murder. Egami Jirou introduces the other three (younger) members to Ishiguro, one of the founding members of the club. Ishiguro works as a freelance writer nowadays, but he needs the brain of Egami to solve a problem from his past. When he was a high school student, a classmate drowned in the river in his hometown. Recently, Ishiguro has been helping a friend, also a classmate from that time, who has been hospitalized. While cleaning the friend's room, he discovered photographs of their drowned classmate, but these were surprisingly made before the body was formally discovered. Ishiguro wants Egami to explain why his friend's got these pictures. The solution is simple, as not only Egami, but every EMC member manage to correctly deduce the solution to this problem. Note also the references to a strange new religion which has its homebase near Ishiguro's hometown ...

Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru ("Four Minutes Is Too Short") is a very fun take on Harry Kemelman's famous short story The Nine Mile Walk. Hanging around in Egami Jirou's room, the EMC members want to play a game. Alice remembers a strange line he overheard at the station's public payphones: "You only have four minutes, so hurry. Don't forget your shoes... No... After A" and the members try to deduce what the meaning is behind this line. Like the original, the deduction session leads to a very surprising conclusion. The story does feel a bit chaotic though, because the deduction session is interrupted by a somewhat long discussion on Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen (with spoilers!), but it does strengthen the feel of just a group of friends hanging together and wasting time by talking about a variety of topics without any direction. Overall, one of the better stories of the collection.

Akazu no Ma no Kai ("The Mystery of the Sealed Room") has the EMC members going on a ghost hunt in a decrepit hospital, which features a 'locked room', i.e a room sealed by supernatural powers. They actually hear a ghost walking around the building, but they quickly figure out it's just a prank of Oda, and the three remaining members chase the 'ghost' down to the little room before the locked room... only to find nobody there. Oda has to have gone inside the locked room, but that door is bolted, and covered up with wooden planks from their side of the door. How did Oda disappear into the locked room? The situation is really fun, with Oda basically challenging the other members to solve his own locked room trick, and the trick is actually pretty neat, though I have seen (a variation of) it before. Most points for this story go to the light-hearted spirit which really fits these characters (too bad they are usually thrown into life-threatening situations).

A cheap painting is stolen from Mochizuki and Oda's professor, and the thief demands a ransom money of no less than a thousand yen (about seven euro, ten dollars) for its safe return. Why steal a worthless painting and ask such a small amount? The professor suspects his brother stole the painting, but he has no idea how his brother could have stolen the painting from his house: his brother left the house completely empty handed yesterday, a fact Mochizuki and Oda (who had been drinking at the professor's house) will also confirm. How did his brother manage to steal the picture (without folding it up or harming it in anyway), is what the professor wants to know in Nijuuseikiteki Yuukai ("A Twentieth Century Abduction"). The solution Egami comes up with is great in its simplicity and it is worked out thematically very well. Not genius maybe, but a really well written story.
Joya wo Aruku ("Walking on New Year's Eve")  on the other hand is less well written, in my opinion. Alice hangs out with Egami on New Year's Eve, and what follows is a series of random discussions about mystery fiction and the reading of a guess-the-criminal story written by Mochizuki, which Alice found in Egami's room. So Joya wo Uruku is part random talk, part story-within-a-story, but the guess-the-criminal story is pretty basic (as Egami and Alice both comment) and the random talk is really just random talk. Joya wo Uruku is not a really coherent story, which makes it the most boring to read of the whole collection. Which is a shame, because the guess-the-criminal story-within-a-story format can work, something Maya Yutaka had already shown.

The final story, Toujin ni Kansuru Ichikousatsu ("An Observation Regarding Squandering") is a great Holmesian story, where the members of the EMC want to find out why the old owner of a second-hand bookshop has been so nice to everybody lately: he is known to have been giving away his books for nothing, but also treating people in restaurants. The solution is not really surprising (there's only so much you can do within the length of these stories), but once again, the hints are laid done well and it is a fun story to read. Which is also because this stories features Maria, the EMC's first female member. In this story, the members of the EMC are trying hard to get their first female member and she'll play a crucial part in the (phenomenal) Kotou Puzzle, which is set some months after this story.

What I think of this short story collection in general? Well, it's definitely not as deep as the novels of the same series, that's for sure. Arisugawa touches upon the lenghty deductions chains of the novels in some stories (like Rurisou Jiken and Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru), but for the real deal, you really should read the novels. But Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is definitely 'easier' to read, with a light-hearted touch to everything. Discussions on famous mystery novels are also present in the novels, but these carefree talks between the EMC members definitely work better in their 'home environment' of the university. Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is at its best when it manages to combine the free-style talk of these members and pretty nonsensical problems with deep deduction chains, best done in (once again) Yonpunkan de wa Mijikasugiru.

As an extra, I did like seeing the EMC members actually in Kyoto. The novels always place them in some remote place... Eito University is modeled after Doshisha University and most stories are set in the area around it, and while I myself attended Kyoto University last year (on the other side of the river), I'm also familiar with the neighbourhood there and it's always fun to see a location come to alive like this in my reading materials.

Anyway, Egami Jirou no Dousatsu is an okay short story collection. It's definitely must-read material for those who have been following the series, but I think it also works as a good entry point for the series (despite being quite different from the novels), because the characters come better to life here. The series is planned to fnish with one more novel and one more short story collection, and I am looking forward to more adventures of the EMC members.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『江神二郎の洞察』: 「瑠璃荘事件」 / 「ハードロック・ラバーズ・オンリー」 / 「やけた線路の上の死体」 / 「桜川のオフィーリア」 / 「四分間では短すぎる」 / 「開かずの間の怪」 / 「二十世紀的誘拐」 / 「除夜を歩く」 / 「蕩尽に関する一考察」

Saturday, March 8, 2014

After the Funeral


"Fist of the North Star"

When I left Kyoto about one year ago, I had a huge stack of unread books I sent back home (they arrived quite a bit later though). Some of them, I had bought especially to send back and read here, some books I had bought earlier, but never managed to finish before my return. So some books have waiting to be read for over a year now (going by the picture in this post, I see at least one book has been waiting for about two years now!) The number of unread books is, even after a year of reading, still two digits, but I'm finally starting to see the end of the stack... When I pulled today's book from the bookcase earlier three days ago, I found a bookmark which said I had already read around hundred pages, and I could recall the contents vaguely, but I have no idea at all about when I am supposed to have read those pages. Certainly not the last three months, but a half year ago? A year ago? Even before I left Japan? I have no inkling of when this happened!

Just outside Marbletown, New England, lies the Smile Cemetery. Smiley Barleycorn did not abandon the family business when he left the home country and under his supervision, the Smile Cemetery grew to a highly successful business. But old Smiley is also nearing his own death now, and the whole family is prepared for the worse the following few days. Smiley's grandson, Francis (nicknamed Grin), is not very interested in the whole deal and the quarrels between his uncles and aunts, as his own parents had been estranged from the rest of the Barleycorn family and he himself has only recently arrived at the cemetery, but fate makes Smiley's fate his business. For one night, Grin was murdered. Poisoned. And very likely by mistake, taking the poison instead of old Smiley. But whereas in most stories, death means the end, in Yamaguchi Masaya's Ikeru Shikabane no Shi ("Death of the Living Dead"), it means the start. Lately, the strange phenomena of the dead coming back to life has been witnessed all over the country, and our dead protagonist Grin has also come back to life. Hiding the fact he has died to the rest of the Barleycorns (and his girlfriend Cheshire), Grin tries to figure out who killed him, with the decay of his body as the time limit.

Not the living dead, again, you might think. Indeed, we have seen the living dead in all kinds of media the last few years, but Yamaguchi Masaya's debut novel dates from 1989, so quite a bit before the current zombie boom. It was published as part of the Ayukawa Tetsuya and his 13 Mysteries imprint of publisher Tokyo Sogen, which was mostly famous for translated (non-Japanese) detective novels (and still is! The Sam Hawthorne and Roger Sheringham novels discussed on this blog are also from Tokyo Sogen). Ayukawa Tetsuya and his 13 Mysteries, a series of thirteen novels supervised by Ayukawa Tetsuya, was meant as a breeding ground for new Japanese mystery writers. And it achieved that goal quite good. For not only did we get Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead, but who could forget the fact that the imprint also gave us the formal debut of writers like Arisugawa Alice (Gekkou Game) and Miyabe Miyuki (Perfect Blue)?

But this review is about Yamaguchi. The most important element of Death of the Living Dead is of course the very special circumstances: dead people coming back to life. We first have Grin, a dead detective who has to solve his own murder, but in the second half, after Smiley has died a suspicious death and his son John has been murdered in a locked room situation, things really become awesome, as more and more dead come back to life (including the murder victim himself!) at Smile Cemetery. And unlike zombies, these living death retain their memories and reason, so this is one of the few places where you'll see a murder victim joining the investigation into his own murder. But the fact dead bodies come back to life isn't just a funny gimmick to give you a dead detective, but an intrinsic part of the plot and it allows for some very fantastic and unique deductions, which are only possible because they occur under such distinctive circumstances (and don't forget that most of this happens on a cemetery, again a 'special' environment). There are also some great subversions of familiar tropes of the genre here. Murderers often hide the bodies of the victims to hide their crimes, but have you ever seen a murder victim get up and drive a car away himself?

Yamaguchi is also heavily influenced by Ellery Queen, which is never a bad thing in my opinion. Death of the Living Dead is a pretty long novel, and especially the first half might bore a bit because so little happens (though the writing style is quite pleasant), but it's quite surprising how the whole novel comes together in the end, when you realize the whole book has been brimming with hints and other elements needed for the long and complex chain of deductions presented at the conclusion. Keeping track of who knew what when so they could perform what action might not be the favorite style for everything, but these Queenian deductions are definitely what I prefer in my detective novels and Yamaguchi does a great job.

I have mentioned often that I love these kind of detective novels with special circumstances. From the robot laws in The Caves of Steel to the rules of magic in Professor Layton vs Gyakuten Saiban and Morikawa Tomoki's Sanzunokawa Kotowari series, I've always felt that these world-changing characteristics and circumstances can really add something refreshing to a story. Death of the Living Dead's unique story and deductions impress, because they make optimal use of their setting, you can't look at them seperately. I also mentioned in earlier reviews that these stories with 'special rules' do need to have clear rules, or else the mystery wouldn't be fair to readers, but Death of the Living Dead does this wonderfully, using Grin to demonstrate what's possible to the living dead (similar to how Morikawa Tomoki usually demonstrates the possibilities of his special circumstances in his novels).

And as for the dead detective and testifying murder victim thing, I was strongly reminded of videogame director Takumi Shuu's work. There's of course the spirit medium theme that runs throughout his whole Gyakuten Saiban series (where his assistant can summon the spirit of the dead), but that only becomes an important point in the trials in very few, and very specific points in the story. But I refer more specifically to the phenomenal Ghost Trick, where you play a dead spirit trying to solve his own murder by.... possessing random objects. And I also recently (well, some months ago), saw Mitani Kouki's Sutekina Kanashibari (also known as Once in a Blue Moon and A Ghost of a Chance), a 2011 movie in which a rookie attorney tries to prove her client's innocence by summoning a ghost as her witness. It's mainly a comedy movie (like most of Mitani's work), but there's the whole mystery plot of who the real murderer is, and there are actually rules to how ghosts work in the movie.

But back to Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead. It ranked quite high in the Tozai Mystery Best 100, at place 15, and it's a place well deserved. It is a great mystery novel, that impresses by its complex story and its unique setting. And considering this was just Yamaguchi's debut novel, I can't wait to read more of his work!

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也 『生ける屍の死』

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Fall of the House of Usher

Erst zu begegnen dem Tiere,
Brauch ich den Spruch der Viere:
Salamander soll glühen,
Undene sich winden,
Sylphe verschwinden,
Kobold sich mühen
"Faust. Der Tragödie erster Teil"

And it's finally done. With this review, I've finally covered the Three Great Occult Books (sandaikisho) of Japanese detective fiction on this blog. These three mystery novels are considered classics of anti-mystery in the world of Japanese fiction, written in a time before we got lost in the woods of Post-Modernism, and before we actually used terms as anti-mystery, meta-physical mystery or whatever word is hip nowadays. But even as anti-mysteries, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, Dogura Magura and Kyomu he no Kumotsu had immense influence on Japanese detective fiction in general, and specifically the New Orthodox movement, so it is also considered must-read material for those who really want to get into Japanese detective fiction. And yes, I was quite late with reading them. Fearsome reputation was fearsome, is my excuse.

The Three Great Occult Books
Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (The Black Death Mansion Murder Case) (1934)
Dogura Magura (1935)
Kyomu he no Kumotsu (Offerings to Nothingness) (1964)

Somewhere in the Shinagawa prefecture stands the Black Death Mansion. Its previous owner, Furukiya Santetsu, commited suicide under very suspicious circumstances, and his dark chateau, which is an exact of a mansion once inhabitated by people suffering from the Black Plague, is now the home, nay, prison of Santetsu's son Hatatarou and four foreign people from Europe Santetsu adopted as his own children. Santetsu's children are gifted musicians, but none of them have ever left the Black Death Mansion during their lifetime. When Norimizu Rintarou, ex-police attorney and detective extraordinaire, is told that Grete, one of Santetsu's adopted children, was killed, he is not at the least surprised, stating that a house as dark as the Black Death Mansion, inhabited a family with a history as strange as the Furukiya family, is bound to be the home of tragedy. Together with the district attorney, Norimizu enters the Black Death Mansion, which is filled with ancient weapons, moving dolls, armors, art and other secrets, intent on solving the Goethe-inspired murders in Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Death Mansion Murder Case").

I will say this first: THIS IS THE MOST UNREADABLE NOVEL I'VE EVER ENCOUNTERED. Yes, a reading of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken provides important insights in Japanese detective fiction. BUT THAT READING WILL KILL THE UNPREPARED! THIS NOVEL WILL STRUGGLE, IT WILL FIGHT, IT WILL DO ANYTHING BUT GIVE IN TO THE READER'S WILL.

Ahem. Let's elaborate on this point.

Dogura Magura was about piecing together a story through a selection of memories, documents and conversations which might all have been nothing more than the imagination of a madman. Kyomu he no Kumotsu in turn was about deduction battles about a series of deaths, even though it wan't even sure whether there had been foul play (and the detectives even deduce possible solutions to possible murders). Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken seems the most normal of the three, right? A murder in a mansion, a secret in the family, references to Goethe's Faust. Heck, writer Oguri Mushitarou was obviously inspired by S.S. Van Dine's Philo Vance series, and series detective Norimizu Rintarou (not to be confused with Norizuki Rintarou) was also modeled after Vance. So what could go wrong, we have all the makings of an orthodox mystery story, right?  Well, wrong. We all know that little rhyme of Philo Vance Needs a Kick in the Pance, right? Because Vance is obnoxiousy flaunthing his knowledge and all? Well, there are a lot of pances to be kicked here, because Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is the ultimate pedantic novel. 

Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken takes on the form of a standard detective story, but it is never really about the murders. It is just a set-up for Norimizu Rintarou (and author Oguri Mushitarou) to hold page-long expositions and discussions about pretty much any topic, but mostly occultism, mysticism, criminology, religions, astrology, astronomy psychology, heraldry, medicine and cryptography. Mostly. Anytime Norimizu sees anything, he starts rattling about how this relates to a certain book, or a certain writer, or an experiment conducted somewhere, which in turns is related to another topic and so on. The number of works referenced in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is easily more than two hundred, with a majority of them being obscure books on occultism. Heck, probably about 70, 80% of this book consists of just pedantic talk. It makes this novel practically unreadable, because you are confronted with a master course Occultism every two pages.

And what's even more vexing is that these tangents about how heraldry showed that something was going to happen in the Black Death House or after giving a lecture on the historic and socio-economical significance of a picture on the wall and how it relates to occultism, are often used as a base for complex, highly convoluted, off-the-wall crazy deductions about the case. To give an example: it is not often you'll need to plough through a lecture on astronomy to get to a possible solution for a locked room murder. But the link between the topic-in-discussion and the murder is always bizarre, almost grotesque and never natural. The pedantic attitude of Philo Vance in Van Dine's novels might be irritating, but his knowledge is often needed to solve the case. Indeed, you'll often see references to non-common knowledge in detective fiction to explain how something happened in a story. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken however doesn't use pedantry to explain its mystery plot, it is a pedantry plot in the form of a mystery. It really doesn't matter who the murderer is, or how it was all done. It's just about flaunting knowledge

Add in the fact that the flow of Oguri Mushitarou's prose isn't really natural (even considering it is an old text) and you see why it's impossible to read. I had initially planned to write this review in the same style as the book (similar to what I did with Dogura Magura), to convey the effect of the book, but that would definitely mean that nobody would bother to read it.

But because all the flaunting, Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken might also be considered the ultimate otaku novel. This is all about flaunting one's knowledge about specific fields of interests. This is about bombarding you with trivia. Novels like Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru or Kyougoku Natsuhiko's Ubume no Natsu are representative for mystery novels that refer deeply to very specific fields of interests for example (technology and the human consciousness in Subete ga F ni Naru and youkai in Ubume no Natsu), they indulge in them and many discussions on these topics have no direct relation to the mystery plot. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is an extreme example of this and thus an important point when one wishes to map out otaku culture and detective fiction.

I mentioned in my double review of S.S. Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case that these books were very influential on the Japanese detective model because of two characteristics: the Western mansion (yakata) as a setting and the mitate satsujin (a resembling murder, or a 'nursery rhyme murder' in a more broad sense of the term). However, this infuence was achieved also partly through Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, which not only had a Vance-esque protagonist, but also combined the setting of a family cooped up in a dark, sinister Western mansion (The Greene Murder Case) with a 'nursery rhyme' (The Bishop Murder Case), here based on a magic spell used in Goethe's Faust. The Black Death Mansion of Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is brimming with secrets, its presence is almost evil and it would serve to be an example to many writers after its publication. And the mitate satsujin ('nursery rhyme murders'), well, they're still a very popular trope in Japanese detective fiction (also thanks to Yokomizo Seishi, of course). One can easily see how important Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is.

Take Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series for example. A whole series based on the concept of spooky mansions with secret passages! The first novel in the series, Jukkakukan no Satsujin (1987), marked the beginning of the New Orthodox movement in Japanese detective fiction, but consider this: murders in a creepy house and a cast of detective fans, who flaunt their knowledge of the genre. Similarly, the history and architects behinds both houses (a man called Dicksby in Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken, and the infamous Nakamura Seiji in Jukkakukan no Satsujin) are of vital importance to the plot in Kokushikan Satusjin Jiken and Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Another example would be Maya Yutaka's Tsubasa aru Yami, which is styled after Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken in both atmosphere and setting.

It's no denying that Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is an important novel in the history of Japanese detective fiction. Its influences, derived from its atmosphere, its setting, yes, even the pedantry, can still be found in modern day detective novels. And yet Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is definitely an anti-mystery. The mystery plot takes a back seat to was never allowed to get into the car of the main course, the (mainly occult) pedantry of protagonist Norimizu Rintarou. And yet the book is considered one of the Giants of Japanese detective fiction and it has almost a mythical status among those interested in the New Orthodox movement. Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken might be neigh impossible to read, but those who have bested its challenge wear that fact as a badge of honour and are considered among the most fanatical of detective fans. And this strange position is why Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken is considered one of the three great occult books of Japanese detective fiction.

Original Japanese title(s): 小栗虫太郎 『黒死館殺人事件』