Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Am Misanthropos

 『忘れ咲き』 (Garnet Crow)

On nights when loneliness and weakness advance on me, these feelings bloom again
"Wasurezaki" (Garnet Crow)

A True Story: most of the reviews posted between the first of April and... July were written in the two last days of March. I have written and squeezed in a few reviews in the schedule after my sudden writing binge back then, but most of the reviews had to wait a long time, or still have to wait for publication. Today's review in particular has had it rough: I have delayed this post at least three times! I have also rewritten this introduction at least four times!

Otsukotsu Sanshirou invites his fellow university professor Shiina Hajime for a short trip to Shinshuu, seeing the latter seems a bit on edge lately. They have a pleasant stay at a small inn run by Yumi and her uncle. But all the pleasantness might just be an illusion, because Shiina suspects the people of the inn are desperately trying to conceal the fact one more person is present at the inn. And there's more: Otsukotsu and Shiina also see a mysterious, yet beautiful young man standing near the inn, with frightening, deadly eyes. The one comfort Shiina has is that his old friend Kindaichi Kousuke, the famous private detective, also happens to be staying in the neighbourhood. And then one night, Otsukotsu and Shiina are awakened by Yumi's scream, who was attacked by the mysterious young man Otsukotsu and Shiina had seen; her uncle didn't survive the attack. She reveals a shocking truth about Shinjurou, the young man, who had been brought up by her twisted, revenge-filled uncle as a cruel murderer. Shinjurou however has escaped and gone wild, and thirsty for more blood in the TV adaptation of Yokomizo Seishi's Shinjurou.

Shinjurou is a four part serial in the TV series Yokomizo Seishi II, which was based on the Kindaichi Kousuke novels. It starred Furuya Ikkou as the shoddy detective, giving his own unique interpretation of the character: Ishizaka Kouji may have given the definitive version of Kindaichi Kousuke in the Ichikawa Kon directed movies, but Furuya Ikkou's Kindaichi was also highly enjoyable, and Furuya is also the actor who has played Kindaichi most often, and over the longest time of period (first with the two original Yokomizo Seishi series in 1977-78, and then irregularly in the Great Detective Kindaichi Kousuke series from 1983-2005).


As a story, Shinjurou is what you'd expect from a Yokomizo Seishi. It's a parade of familiar tropes, from creepy old women to murders commited in caves, from the decapitations to dark, twisted family secrets and relations, from the setting in a small village somewhere (though the story does move to Tokyo) to pretty much every woman appearing in the story being beautiful, there's little surprising here if you have read more Yokomizo Seishi. But the story-elements are strung together nicely and I actually quite enjoyed the show, even if I had a sense of deja vu.

The story does feel a bit different from other Kindaichi Kousuke stories, in the sense we're following the mad murderer Shinjurou, instead of doing a 'normal' murder investigation. In that sense, this story is a bit closer to Edogawa Rampo stories, which often featured highly 'visible' murderers who carried whole novels on their own through their heineous crimes, like the Black Lizard, the Blind Beast, the Golden Mask, the Human Panther, the Space Monster (another reason why I think Rampo's Shounen Tantei Dan should do a crossover with Scooby-Doo!).

The funny thing though, the original novel of Shinjurou does not actually feature Kindaichi Kousuke. Shinjurou was published originally in 1936-1937, ten years before Kindaichi Kousuke would make his first appearance in Honjin Satsujin Jiken. Instead, he novel starred the amateur detective Yuri Rintarou, whom I have previously met in the excellent Chouchou Satsujin Jiken: Yuri however has disappeared from the minds of most readers, as Yokomizo Seishi's later novels, starring Kindaichi Kousuke, were much more popular, and now poor Yuri's even written out of his own adventures! (I am still waiting for that story where Kindaichi Kousuke is killed and the murderer is revealed to be the jealous and revenge-filled Yuri Rintarou. Both played by Ishizaka Kouji). A bit of the opposite of what's happening with Miss Marple lately, who is showing up in stories that really shouldn't be her business.

I am not sure how much the TV adaptation differs from the original, but I suspect it's fairly faithful, which means that the character of Yuri Rintarou already appeared in what I consider Kindaichi Kousuke-esque stories: why didn't Yuri turn out to be a national symbol of detective fiction instead of his little brother?

In short, an okay Yokomizo Seishi story, no matter who the detective is. It does feel a bit like a lot of other Yokomizo later works, but it's actually one of his earlier stories and not bad at all.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史 (原)  『横溝正史シリーズII: 真珠郎』

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Phantom of Baker Street

『名探偵コナン ファントム狂詩曲』

"Behind this chain of events, is a rhapsody performed by a phantom..."
"Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody"

A new year, a new Detective Conan game! Looking back at the reviews of previous Conan games, I see they were all posted in May... That's because these games are always released mid-April (to coincide with the annual Conan movies) so add in shipping time and actual playtime, and you see why these reviews appear around the same time on this blog.

Detective Conan Musical Game series (DS/PSP/3DS)
Detective Conan: Rondo of the Blue Jewel
Detective Conan: Prelude from the Past
Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony
Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody

Azu Taishou Town is a Taishou period theme park and crucial part of the Azu town revitalization project. The famous detective Sleeping Kogorou has been invited to attend the opening ceremony by local politican (and driving power behind the project Igarashi Kiyoko, who also wants to hire Kogorou to locate a missing jewel for her. But things are not all well in Azu, as several murder cases happen across the town after the opening ceremony. A popular mobile game, Holmes App, and its mysterious developer Luna appear to be sole connection between the otherwise unconnected cases, but as Azu town is sealed off per order of an unknown bomb terrorist and police can't move, Conan and the gang will have to find the person orchestrating these murders themselves in the 2014 3DS game Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody.

Detecive Conan: Phantom Rhapsody is the fourth game in the musically themed Detective Conan game series, and the second to be developed by Spike-Chunsoft. Phantom Rhapsody is also a direct sequel to last year's Marionette Symphony, utilizing the same zapping system as its core game mechanic, a system where you need to 'zap' between multiple protagonists in order to help out the other protagonists (see also my reviews of Machi ~ Unmei no Kousaten, 428 ~ Fuusa Sareta Shibuya de and Marionette Symphony for more about zapping systems). Oh, and a fair warning, Phantom Rhapsody refers to the terrorist attack at Clover Hill several times and the big bad of Marionette Symphony appears quite prominently in the story, so you really should play Marionette Symphony before starting with Phantom Rhapsody.

As for Phantom Rhapsody's story, I think it's the opposite of last year's Marionette Symphony: Both games featured several seperate crimes which all tied in with one larger storyline, but while Phantom Rhapsody's individual crimes are quite right and it's fun figuring out who did it and how,  I think the overall story has some major flaws. Marionette Symphony on the other hand had a better overall story, but has pretty boring murders. For Phantom Rhapsody, you can expect a locked room murder, a detective vs detective battle, code cracking stories and even an appearance of the gentleman thief KID. Also, Phantom Rhapsody features the very first game appearance of highschool girl student detective Sera Masumi, who ever since her first appearance in the manga has been a favorite of mine! And yes, she solves a murder!

Last year's Marionette Symphony was not a perfect game, but it did manage to do something what few story-based games manage to do: link the story and the game mechanics (the zapping system) in a meaningful way. The moment it became clear why Marionette Symphony featured a zapping system, was amazing and really made an impression on me. This year's Phantom Rhapsody however is mostly just a rehash of the things we already saw in the previous game, just not as good. Only during a handful of events did I feel that a zapping system was needed for this story: most of the time they could have gone with a normal adventure game like the older Rondo of the Blue Jewel and Prelude to the Past.

The zapping system, and the information sharing Truth Card system, made sense for the story of Marionette Symphony: everyone was held captive in different part of the Clover Hill buildings with no mobile phone network, so it was natural to have multiple protagonists moving at different locations, each of them getting their hands on information that might help someone else. For Phantom Rhapsody however, the zapping system is not really necessary, as most of the time everyone is actually close to each other. The protagonists are mostly moving in one or two clusters, so why would you need to zap between six characters, if they're all standing next to each other?! Also, everyone can just use a mobile phone here, so why bother with the Truth Card system at all... In short, all the game mechanics that made sense storywise in Marionette Symphony, were just copied for this game, without actually having a good reason for that. Which is a shame, because I really liked Marionette Symphony and was hoping Chunsoft would pull something amazing again with Phantom Rhapsody...

As for game mechanics, Phantom Rhapsody has some new additions. Besides a witnesses-start-talking-fast-and-you-need-to-pick-out-an-important-statement system (borrowed from Danganronpa and Profesor Layton vs Ace Attorney's mob trials), Phantom Rhapsody also features Detective Battles, a confrontation system with RPG-esque elements (like in Danganronpa): at times you'll need to protect your Logic Points (=hit points) from random anger bursts of the suspects, but you can also replenish Logic Points and do preemptive strikes (with evidence, of course). The system has some flaws, but I have to admit these sections were quite exciting to do. But another new 'game mechanic' is obnoxious slowdown half of the time when you present a piece of evidence! I'm pretty sure that this game can't be that hard on the 3DS's processor...

In conclusion, Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody is an inferior sequel to Marionette Symphony. The elements that made last year's Conan game so impressive are not to be found here, resulting in an average, at times somewhat frustrating game. The seperate murder mysteries are okay, but the overall story, and the way it does not tie in well with the main game mechanics kinda hurt the game. By the way, for those interested in these musically themed Conan games, I think the best is Marionette Symphony, then Rondo of the Blue Jewel, followed by Phantom Rhapsody and finally Prelude from the Past.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン ファントム狂詩曲(ラプソディー)』

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Escape: Impossible

メサイア すべての人類の願い抱きしめ
僕らは走しる 未来へ
もしもかなうなら今伝えたい 誰かに
I'll be there (I'll be there) ここにいるよ 
『迷宮のプリズナー』 (JAM Project)

Messiah, embrace the wishes of all people
Towards the future we are all heading for
If this wish is granted, I want to let someone know
I'll be there (I'll be there) I am here
"Meikyuu no Prisoner" (JAM Project)

I read most of my fiction in Japanese nowadays, so I sometimes forget how extremely weird the sizes of English-language novels can turn out to be. Personally, I think the Japanese bunko size is perfect, but setting aside the problem of what size one likes best (some might think it's too small), at least it's an uniform standard. For some reason all the English-language books I buy all seem to have different sizes. Arranging bookcases would be so much more efficient if these books would have the same size instead of being all over the place! With Japanese bunko books, I can at least make efficient piles with no dead space. And yes, today's book was such a book with weird dimensions.

1944, Japan. War time. The Fukuoka Prison is brimming with captives, many of which Koreans who have been arrested for rebellion and agitation against the colonization of Japan of their homeland. Watanabe Yuichi is a young guard who was lucky enough not to have been sent to the battlefield, but work in the prison. One day, his colleague guard and prison censor Sugiyama is found murdered, his naked body hanging from a rope tied to the ceiling, and his lips stitched together. Sugiyama was known as a harsh and violent guard, who ruled the prison with his club and fists, so there were plenty of people around who wanted him dead. Watanabe is saddled with the investigation into Sugiyama's murder, and a scrap of paper with a poem on it hidden in Sugiyama's clothing puts him in contact with the prisoner Yun Dong-ju, a young poet who seems to have a secret bond with the victim. But as Watanabe's investigation in the past few months of Sugiyama's life progresses, doubt about his actions in this war, in this prison begins to take over his mind in Lee Jun-Myung's The Investigation.

And because I went through all the trouble, I might as well mention it here: the book's original Korean title is Pyŏ-rŭl Sŭch'i-nŭn Baram ("The Wind Brushing Against the Stars"). I know most people probably don't care, but it really bothers me when I can't find the original (or a romanized) title of a translated book in the copyright pages, especially if the translation features a completely different title. Is it really that much trouble to include this kind of, in my opinion, rather important information? It's not even that obscure a title, because it simply refers to an important poem quoted in the book.

The Investigation is based on the real-life story of the Korean poet Yun Dong-ju, who had been arrested for being a thought criminal in 1943 in Kyoto (all Koreans were placed in Fukuoka Prison instead of local prisons). When he was arrested, he was in possession of an unpublished poem collection he had dubbed Sky, Wind, Star and Poem and several of his poems appear throughout the book. As a portrait of Yun Dong-Ju, how he experienced prison life and how his poems touched the lives of those who read them, I'd say The Investigation does a great job. It's a pretty intimate portrayal of different kinds of people all gathered in Fukuoka Prison for different reasons during the war (prisoners, guards, etc), and Yun's poems give life to the events happening there.

As a crime novel, The Investigation is less impressive. Mostly because it is based on the real-life story of Yun Dong-ju. As I was reading the book, I remembered that a friend had actually once told me about him. Okay, I didn't remember any of the details or names (I'm horrible with these kind of things), but what I remembered from what my friend told me, was enough to set me on the right trail. So if you happen to know a bit about Yun Dong-ju, this mystery novel doesn't really pose a mystery because an important hint pointing to the murderer of Sugiyama is pretty much common knowledge when discussing Yun Dong-ju. As if you're reading a detective novel where you need to find out which disciple betrayed Jesus: there's not much of a surprise left there. But even if you go into this novel without any prior knowledge: the mystery plot is not really the main dish of this book.

The parts about Sugiyama, and later Watanabe, working as a prison censor are quite thought-provoking. Censorship on thought is a very scary idea and seeing governments (during war) attempt to regulate thought through censorship of books, but also communcation between prisoners and their home, is horrifying, but also very interesting. Edogawa Rampo had some problems with war censorship too: the film Rampo portrayed that well. Mitani Kouki's radio play (also made into a movie and a theater play) Warai no Daigaku ("The University of Laughs") on the other hand presents the (heavy) material in an extremely heartwarming and comedic fashion: a censor initially rejects a comedy play by a theater troupe, but the efforts of the young scriptwriter who despite having to answer to ridiculous demands and harsh restrictions on expressions, tries to preserve, and even improve the comedy in his play, slowly touches the censor's heart. If you ever have the chance to see Warai no Daigaku, don't hesitate!

The Investigation is not a straightforward mystery novel, but has its high points as a book on Yun Dong-ju and the ways in which people try to obtain freedom within a prison. I'll be the first to admit that it's not precisely what I look for in a detective novel, and having prior knowledge about the poet kinda ruins the little mystery there is here, but I think The Investigation is still a novel that would leave quite the impression on any reader.

Original Korean title(s): 이정명  "별을 스치는 바람" 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Death TV

「私に言わせれば、すべてのホラー現象はほらに過ぎない。超常現象を恐れてはならない。 Don't be afraid! どんと来い、超常現象!」

"I say that all the horror phenomena in this world are nothing more than nonsense. Don't fear supernatural phenomena. Don't be afraid! Come on, supernatural phenomena!"

I usually begin a post with a little paragraph on something not (directly) related to the main topic. Why? Because I think it's too confronting to go to the core of the story right away. Or something like that. I just like it when there's a little buffer between the start of a post and the main story. Aaaaaaaand that was today's introduction.

The Armchair Detective is a mysterious entity dressed like Doctor Doom who lives purely to deduce. Whenever he is summoned, he teleports all important actors involved in a mystery to his realm, and shows with absolute logic who the murderer is in any given crime. Ever since the Armchair Detective helped the clairvoyant Ashida Luna solve a serial murder case that had baffled the police two years ago, Luna is thought to have real supernatural powers. This time, she is asked to do a live psi trailing session in the TV show Friday On Air, to discover the whereabouts of the missing student Sanjou Miyabi. And the production team behind Friday On Air praise the gods for their decision to use Luna in their show, because the dead body of Sanjou Miyabi is discovered only thanks to the psychic's amazing powers. But then Ashida Luna is killed before she gets a chance to use her clairvoyant powers to find out who killed Miyabi. Can the viewer solve the murders on Miyabi and Luna before the Armchair Detective appears to reveal the truth in Anriku Isu Tantei On Air ("The Armchair Detective On Air")?

Anraku Isu Tantei ("The Armchair Detective") was a TV special series which ran irregularly from 1999-2008. The show was written by veteran puzzle plot writers Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice and designed to be the ultimate challenge to the viewer. Each episode consisted of two parts: the 'problem' part, which introduced the murders, all the suspects and most importantly, all the necessary hints to arrive at the solution, was broadcast in the first week. Viewers were then encouraged to send in questionnaires with 1) whom they think was the murderer, and 2) how they arrived at that conclusion. The 'solution' part was then broadcast in the second week, usually baffling the viewer with lenghty deduction chains presented by the supernatural being the Armchair Detective. Anraku Isu Tantei On Air was the sixth production, originally broadcast in 2006.

The format of the Anraku Isu Tantei shows is obviously inspired by so-called guess-the-criminal (hanninate) scripts. These scripts are more like pure logic puzzles than 'proper' literary stories: there are unwritten rules like a Challenge to the Reader, 'there is only one murderer', 'strength of motive is of no real consequence' and 'all the hints necessary to solve the crime are in the story' (therefore, nothing/no person outside the world described in the story exists) and most of these plots are solved through a Queen-esque elimination method: determine an x amount of characteristics the murderer must have (i.e. must have been left handed, must have had access to the room, must have etc.) and see who fits (or does not fit) the profile. Some might think Ellery Queen's novels feel a bit artificial with the challenge to the reader and all, but these guess-the-criminal scripts are really taking this game-element of detective fiction to the extreme (see also the game Trick X Logic, which takes the same format to a videogame).

And slightly off-topic, but writing these kinds of stories is a pretty important activity in the Kyoto University University Club: one member would write a story, while other members would try to solve it. All the stories that have been published within the club are written on the wall of the club room, and when I was there two years ago, there had been around 400 stories done ever since the tradition started. My name and story is also somewhere there on the wall, by the way.

Anriku Isu Tantei On Air is the first time I watched the show. I love it for its experimental format as a detective show that tries to involve the viewer in an active manner, but it also shows why this format might not be the best for a TV show. Normally, you'd go through a guess-the-criminal script once and then go back in the pages to check up on everything. For example, you'd find out the murderer had to be left-handed at the end of the story, so you'd go back and flip through the pages to see who was right-handed and who left. A good guess-the-criminal script will have several characteristics for a murderer (and play with that too), so it's important to go back and forth to check on all the facts.

However, this is hard to do with a TV show. The video format is not really made for a viewer to go back and forth to check up on everything. And I can assure you, it's impossible to solve the complete puzzle in Anraku Isu Tantei On Air in just one session. If you really want to get to all details, you'd have to watch the first episode at least two, three times and that's only if you already have a good idea about who did it. The DVD of Anraku Isu Tantei On Air does a reasonable job at assisting the viewer, as all the chapter stops are set at moments with crucial information ("X's Alibi", "Y's Alibi" etc.). But even then, you'd need to watch the episode several times. For the viewers who watched this live, they had to have taped the episode, or else they'd never been able to solve the case. Oh, and for your information: when this episode was broadcast in 2006, 19566 people had sent in answers: 6,5% of the respondents (1271) had guessed the correct murderer, while only a mere 0,3% (58) also presented the correct logical arguments to support the suspicion. And people complained the Ellery Queen TV show was too difficult!

But I still think this is really worth a viewing though. One of the reasons I love mystery fiction is because of the puzzle element, the game element behind it and I have never seen a detective TV show treat that aspect as interesting as with Anraku Isu Tantei. The solution is fantastic, with a grand deduction chain leading up to the reveal of the murderer. The plot of this particular episode also makes impressive use of its format as a video: while I admit some of the hints are just barely fair (Maybe a second in a ninety minute show is hardly fair!), there is one amazing hint that could only have been pulled off this convincingly because it was a TV show, and not for example a novel. That said, it's also quite complex, maybe even too complex for a TV show. To put things in perspective: whereas a 'normal' detective TV drama might spend ten, maaaybe twenty minutes on explaining the crime, Anraku Isu Tantei On Air's solution episode takes over an hour to go through all the evidence and logic chains to reach the murderer. I loved how they did it, complete with "quoting" specific scenes to build their arguments, but I can imagine that the casual viewer might not appreciate stories this complex.

I really did like Anraku Isu Tantei On Air, but it's also quite easy to see its flaws. It's a great experiment of a game puzzle-esque detective show on TV and the plot itself is great, as expected from big names like Ayatsuji Yukito and Arisugawa Alice. On the other hand, it might be a bit too complex, as you really need to watch the episode several times if you want to even think about solving the murder yourself. The scale of the story and the impressive logic behind the plot are something seldom, if ever seen in a detective drama, but Anraku Isu Tantei On Air also shows why this is probably wouldn't work for most viewers. Definitely one for the more dedicated mystery fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 『安楽椅子探偵 On Air』

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The House of Lurking Death

Ons exemplaar van dit boek is niet meer toonbaar. Toen wij het, in de vacantiegemeenschap aan de plassen, op tafel lieten liggen, maakte een acute leeswoede zich van het gezelschap meester. Men ging met Manuel in 't bad, nam hem terluiks mee om te zeilen, canoën hengelen (sic) men koekeloerde met hem in de avondzon en bij het petroleumpitje verslond men hem zwijgzaam, der wereld afgestorven.
Algemeen Handelsblad (September 20, 1935)

Our copy of the book is not in a presentable state anymore. When we left the book on a table at the resort near the lakes, a sudden lust for reading took hold of everyone. People took baths with Manuel, secretly took him along to sailing, canoeing and fishing. They watched the setting sun with him, and silently devoured him next to the gas burner, gone from this world.
Algemeen Handelsblad Newspaper (September 20, 1935)

Language shenanigans on this blog: I've read Edward D. Hoch and Anthony Berkeley mostly in Japanese. I have read Freeman Crofts only in Japanese, never in English! And I've read Maurice LeBlanc's Lupin novels in English, German and Japanese. But never in French (even though I can read that...barely) and Dutch. And today, reading a Dutch novel in German...

I wrote in December about Dutch actor / radio play writer / translator / mystery writer Jan Apon's Een tip van Brissac, a classic puzzle plot mystery that I thought was great. I had first read about Jan Apon in a 1958 Japanese essay on European detective fiction, in which Inaki Katsuhiko praised Apon's second novel, Een zekere Manuel ("A Certain Manuel", 1935). Looking through some old reviews, it seemed it was received quite well in the Netherlands at the time. So I had been looking for the book for a while now, but Jan Apon's books don't appear often on the Dutch used book market, it seems, so in the end, I had to settle with Ein Gewisser Manuel, the German translation. The story is set in Sicily, in Castello Maro, home of the marquess Montebellini and her family. Narrator Dirk van Baalen is hired as a private teacher to the marquess' grandson and while he had at first looked forward to living in a Sicilian castle, the dark and gloomy atmosphere makes him regret his career choice. The place is isolated from the 'civilized' world and there are of course also (violent, bloody) legends surrounding the tower of the castle. But not only his new home is getting on van Baalen's nerves: the members of the Montebellini family and their many guests all seem to have their share of secrets and plans. One night, van Baalen overhears a conversation where two people conspire to kill "Manuel", because he is too dangerous. Van Baalen has no idea who Manuel is, but when one of the two conspirators is found dead one morning, van Baalen is convinced it was a counterattack by the intended target. But who is this Manuel?

Like with Een tip van Brissac, finding information on the contents on Een zekere Manuel was difficult. In fact, I could only find Japanese information on it. So once again, I wasn't sure what to expect from this pre-war Dutch mystery novel, but I was indeed quite pleasantly surprised with the story. The story moves at a steady pace, Castello Maro serves as a great setting for everybody to act as suspicously as possible, and while not perfect, I think the conclusion has some interesting points. Of course, a semi-closed circle situation in a dark castle with its own bloody legends, suspicious guests, a mysterious, yet sinister name that drives the mystery plot and multiple murders are elements that make me quite happy, so the book gets a lot of bonus points for that, especially considering that a lot of Dutch mystery novels seem to be more 'realistic'. The fact writer Jan Apon translated a Van Dine novel, gives a small hint to what kind of detective fiction he liked, I suspect, and it shows in his work. Looking back at my review of Een tip van Brissac, I see I said the same: a great collection of classic tropes that, even though not particularly original, are implemented well and they appeal to me personally.

The plot of Een zekere Manuel does rely a lot on coincidence though. Van Baalen just happens to overhear that conversation with Manuel's name, and just stumble upon several crucial hints, which is a bit of a shame. The gear-change of the plot near the end, in an effort to wrap the story up before it reaches the last page is also quite sudden, with crucial hints falling from the sky upon van Baalen. Also, the conclusion is not completely fair, but I do like what Jan Apon was going for. A bit of rewriting could have made Een zekere Manuel in completely fair play whodunnit I think, so it does feel like a missed opportuniy. That said, I did enjoy reading the book and I think I agree with Inaki's comments from 1958 saying "the complexity of the plot, the way it develops and the surprise factor are all excellent". But unlike the Algemeen Handelsblad's reviewer I quoted at the start of this review, I didn't take the book with me to the bathroom.

I do think it's interesting to see we have a real amateur detective as the narrator in a Dutch detective novel for a change. Most (classic) Dutch detective novels seem to feature either police inspectors (or magistrates in China or Japan...), or maybe other professionals with some relation to crime fighting (law, ex-policemen), so a biology-scholar-turned-amateur-detective as the protagonist was quite refreshing. Jan Apon's series detective Raoul Bertin is a ex-cop-turned-private-detective, so he too kinda falls in the first category... Oh, and unless they did something really funny with the German translation, Raoul Bertin does not appear in Een zekere Manuel, despite multiple sources saying he does.

I also find it amusing to see Jan Apon's books are all set abroad (i.e. not the Netherlands). At least, I have only read Een zekere Manuel and Een tip van Brissac, but I think I can sorta assume that the rest of the Raoul Bertin series is also set in or around France... Not sure why Apon is avoiding the home country though. Might have to do with a bit of romanticism, I think.

Anyway, Een zekere Manuel was certainly an interesting detective novel, especially if you look at it from the context of Dutch classic puzzle plot detectives, I think. But it's an amusing read 'as is' too. And heck, this one isn't just for that rare breed of Dutch readers, as there's a German translation too! That means there's a bigger chance any given reader could actually read Een zekere Manuel, compared to most of the Dutch mystery novels I've discussed here, right?

Original Dutch title(s): Jan Apon "Een zekere Manuel

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Lesson of the Evil

『金田一少年の事件簿 露西亜人形殺人事件』

"We are like two parallel lines, never to run across each other's path. But even though we never cross, we're always right next to each other, like twins"
"The Case Files of Young Kindaichi: The Russian Doll Murder Case"

I mentioned in an earlier review I couldn't get used to reading novels of a screen. That was three years ago, so what I do think now, in these days of digital publishing and all?.... I still can't get used to it. Oh, and in other news, there's a new TV drama based on Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo coming! Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo NEO will be produced by the same team behind the TV specials of the last two years, and I quite liked this year's one, so looking forward to it!

Takatoo Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Young Takatoo"; official English title Kindaichi Case Files: Takato's Side) is a spin-off one-shot series starring Takatoo Youichi, the arch-nemesis of Kindaichi Hajime of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series. In the main series, Takatoo appears as a genius magician who sees crime as art: he offers his magic to those with murder in their hearts in the role of a crime consultant; thinking out the complex murder plots, but never actively engaging in the crime himself. In this spin-off, we see a young and slightly more innocent Takatoo, having just entered an elite school with top marks. He's invited to join the school's magic show club and slowly starts to get used to normal school life. Until one night, the members of the magic club are invited to witness a sick magic show with the decapitated head of one of the club's members, which disappeared from a locked room. Everyone thinks it's just a stupid joke, but the next morning, they discover that the member has really been murdered. Who is the Death God Magician who performed the 'magic', and why did he murder the poor victim?

Kindaichi Case File: Takato's Side was serialized in Kodansha's MangaBox app, available for no charge at all (and also in English, by the way). So even though I don't really like reading of a screen, I could hardly ignore the series, considering it was free of charge. A normal paper volume will be released too, by the way.

As a detective story, Takato's Side was pretty disappointing though. The murders may be shocking and bloody and all (though not by series standard), but with the story revolving around stage magic, and the way the murders are presented, it's very easy to make an educated guess at what happened behind the scenes. As such, Takato's Side is definitely just a very mediocre story, even disappointing (especially if you consider the fact that Amagi Seimaru wrote the ending of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo 20th Anniversary series just before this story!).

Also, the story is basically the same as the famous Seven School Mysteries story of the main series, which was also featured as the very first story in the anime and live action series continuities: both Hajime and Takatoo enter a school club; a upperclassman dies, the body disappears for a while from a locked room. It's really the same, and while I get the idea of them wanting to present Takatoo as a darker version of Hajime, giving him a similar background story, as if he was an evil mirror clone, this is a bit too much of a rehash in my opinion. The only thing good is the ending, which is because unlike Hajime, Takatoo won't guilt-trip the murderer or try to convince him he's wrong, but it's too little to really matter.

I was actually quite surprised I was so disappointed with this story myself: there have been other Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo spin-off stories (featuring the genius Super Intendent Akechi Kengo of the series), but they worked much better both as character studies as just standalone detective stories. This was just a mediocre story.

Kindaichi Case File: Takato's Side is just fanservice for those who want to see a bit more of the genius criminal, but it's nothing special as a detective story. But then again, here I am complaining about something I didn't even pay for.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸 (原) さとうふみや (画)  『高遠少年の事件簿』