Friday, September 12, 2014

Maze of Nightmare

Gegroet, vaarwel, wat gaat het leven snel
O, tranen maken een afscheid tot een hel
"Vaarwel voorgoed" ("De Speurneuzen")

Greetings, farewell, life goes by so fast
Oh, tears make parting into a hell
"Goodbye Forever" (Dutch version of "Goodbye So Soon" from "The Great Mouse Detective")

I buy most of my Japanese books used when I'm in Japan. You can usually find new books quite fast in used bookshops for a fair price. But as I was writing this post, I noticed that today's book was actually released in the same year I bought it. Well, that's not that strange a happening on its own, but I bought the book for a mere 105 yen, even though the book was 'just' released and selling for about 1500 yen new. The used book market in Japan is fast, I know as a reader and buyer, but for the value of a novel to fall to even less than ten percent of its original price in less than a year?!

Nikaidou Ranko series
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001)
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004)
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)

Aoki Shunji had nothing left to live for. But one day, his eye fell on a curious advertisement: WILL PURCHASE YOUR WORTHLESS LIFE. HIGH PRICES. Having nothing to lose, Aoki visits the shady laywer Busujima, who has sinister plans with Aoki's worthless life he purchases. Busujima was hired to locate a distant relative of the influential Ouchi clan. Family head Ouchi Daisuke may soon be drawing his last breath and because his own sons have died, he tries to locate some distant relatives to see if they are worthy of becoming his successor. Busujima had found one relative, in a rather dead state, but the lawyer plans to present Aoki as the relative, and together take over the wealth and power of the Ouchi family. The Ouchis are said to be direct descendants of the legendary snake Orochi and the family is therefore the de facto ruler of the Makai Valley on the Noto peninsula, said to be the home of the Orochi. At the entrance of the Makai Valley lies New Holly Village, a small town comprised mostly out of American missionary workers. Some villagers claim to have seen a strange four-armed monster wandering in the woods lately, which also seems to be the only creature who could have committed the horrible double murder of two people impaled on a high tree. Other villagers also seem to have been mentally unstable, sometimes even resulting in deadly confrontations. And Aoki's arrival in the Makai Valley leads to more tragedy...

The beautiful detective Nikaidou Ranko was the only one capable of foiling the plans of the great criminal Labyrinth. Ranko however disappeared in Europe after solving the horrifying double-digit serial murders in Jinroujou no Kyoufu. Not even her brother-by-adoption (and chronicler) Reito knew where she was. Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") starts with the terrible experiences of the fake heir Aoki in the Makai Valley as described above: the story then jumps a year forward, when Ranko finally returns to Japan from Europe after a three year disappearance. She is not interested in detective work anymore, but when she hears her nemesis Labyrinth was involved with the happenings in the Makai Valley and New Holly Village, Ranko decides it's time to put an end to their longtime battle.

A somewhat chaotic summary of Nikaidou Reito's Haou no Shi "("Death of the Ruler"), but that it is because it is a rather context-heavy novel. This novel basically has three points of focus: first is the story of Aoki and the murders that happen in Makai Valley. This a is pretty straightforward part, but the other two focal points make the novel a bit more complex, as they deal with two major plot points of the Nikaidou Ranko series: for Haou no Shi is also the final chapter in the Labyrinth story arc of the series, as chronicled in Akuma no Labyrinth (2001), Majutsuou Jiken (2004) and Soumenjuu Jiken (2007). And not only that, but Ranko also finally returns from Europe after she disappeared at the end of Jinroujou no Kyoufu (1998). I don't recommend going in Haou no Shi without having read at least some earlier adventures of Ranko, because to be honest, Haou no Shi has almost no exceptional merits as a standalone detective story, so I think it's mostly interesting as a book that finally gives us closure on some storylines that had been going on for years.

The events that take place in Makai Valley make up for about three-quarters of the novel, with two parallel-running stories. The first one feels very Yokomizo Seishi-esque, with Aoki posing as a distant relative of the Ouchi family, and a complex inheritance ceremony where suitors vie for the hand of a beautiful heiress in an isolated, rural part of Japan (plus a bit of Edogawa Rampo's The Strange Tale of Panorama Island). The other parallel storyline focuses mainly on a gruesome double murder in New Holly Town, and the accounts of several villagers who are slowly, but surely going mad as they start to see aliens / monsters / cannibals / cursed children and other freaky creatures in town. This is familiar territory for Nikaidou: suspenseful horror stories with a touch of the occult that, even though extremely long, are easy and pleasant enough to read. Nikaidou Reito's books are always gigantic tomes with 600~900 pages, but when you get in the rhythm, the pages really fly by.

In the end, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong in Makai Valley, and one year later Aoki Shunji awakes in a hospital, having lost an eye, an arm and a leg. But what happened exactly? Two locked room murders, and a double murder in New Holly Town where the victims were impaled high up in the trees, and the legendary murderer Labyrinth also showed up somewhere, but Aoki, who is also suffering from amnesia, can't make head nor tails out of it. The answers series detective Ranko has for Aoki are....  a bit disappointing. For a story billed as the end of the long lasting Labyrinth saga, and the return of Ranko, the puzzle plot can be considered mediocre at best: most of the events in New Holly Town are handwaved away with an answer that's almost as bad as saying 'it was all magic!', while the locked room murders also fail to impress. Well, I don't really think that Nikaidou even tried to surprise the reader with the locked room murders, because the tricks behind them are really, really basic. But you'd think that someone who had written the longest locked room murder story (and a fun one at that too!) ever, would come up with something better...

And while I said that Haou no Shi is best read for its ties with the overall storyline of the Nikaidou Ranko series, I'll have to say that even in that aspect, it's not very impressive. Ranko appears very late in the novel and she explains practically nothing about her stay in Europe (and Reito's slightly worrying admiration for his stepsister hasn't gone down a bit, despite having a girlfriend now...). And as the final chapter in the Ranko VS Labyrinth saga, I can tell you one thing: you were probably not expecting Labyrinth to go like that.

Besides Haou no Shi, I actually only read the first book of the Labyrinth saga (Akuma no Labyrinth, Majutsuou Jiken, Soumenjuu Jiken and Haou no Shi), but already in Akuma no Labyrinth, it was clear that Labyrinth was not just a human, but an almost superhuman criminal who could become practically anyone. And the series atmosphere also shifted more towards science fiction/fantasy, I think. Sure, the series always had occult tones (NAZI-WEREWOLVES, I will never forget you!), but those elements were never really confirmed as 100% real. But in the Labyrinth novels, you suddenly have genetically engineered two-headed monsters going around killing people, as if monsters travelling across Japan is just normal business. I get that Nikaidou Reito is going for an Edogawa Rampo-vibe here, but I think he already got that right with his earlier novels (Jigoku no Kijutsushi is extremely Rampo-esque, for example) and now he's just gone too far.

I don't think I can really recommend Haou no Shi, except for those who just want to know how Ranko returns from Europe and who want to read about her final confrontation with Labyrinth. The novel is rather disappointing as standalone detective story and it doesn't even really work as one, because it has too much overall storyline luggage. One for the fans.

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『覇王の死』


  1. Hello Ho-Ling,

    I just wantd to invite you to our discussion board:

    We are a bunch of enthusiastic mystery lovers, especially locked room fiction
    It was originaly a forum about Paul Halter's books, but it has now widened out to many authors and series from John Dickson Carr to Jonathan Creek and from Danganronpa to TRICK
    There are also some detective stories writers who post regularly
    We are also familiar with your blog
    So if you ever want to drop by, feel free to! :)

    1. Doubt I will join as a member, but I might lurk.

  2. I found this:

    Is this a Nikaido Ranko manga? I have no idea

    1. Yes, it's a manga based on a couple of the short stories. It originally ran in Susperia Mystery, a horror/mystery comic anthology aimed at girls. The magazine had a lot of manga based on mystery novels: Conan Doyle, Norizuki Rintarou and Yokomizo Seishi among others.

  3. Why is it that the more I read about the insanity of these novels, the more I want to read them? These things sound so insane, yet so interesting...

    Also, why did you skip the previous two books?

    1. I usually buy my books used, so what I read depends on what I happen to find. But I don't really mind reading series out of order (See first part of the previous review for the /chaotic/ order in which I read this series).

    2. Yeah, I figured that. I just don't think that it's wise to skip the middle of an epic conflict...

      I'm also being serious on the whole insane thing. Why are Japanese mystery novels so bizarre? Or is that the culture divide speaking...?

    3. Well, I'd say it's just bias from my side. I (obviously) like these kind of stories, so that's what appears on this blog. This blog is not a 100% representation of "Japanese detective fiction". For example, the puzzle plot is still alive in Japan, that's for sure, but subgenres like 'normal' cozies and so too. It's just that I like puzzle plots, sometimes with a touch of the grotesque and bizarre.

      Nikaidou obviously takes inspiration from Edogawa Rampo, in both setting and atmosphere. Rampo started out as a pure detective writer, but his erotic-grotesque-nonsense mystery were considered much better by the general public, so it often comes close to pulp horror. But it's something some can appreciate, some don't. I remember once having a discussion with some other mystery fans about Nikaidou: there were quite a lot who didn't like the atmosphere of the series, so it's not like bizarre=Japanese.

    4. Hey, I'm not complaining! I want to read these grotesque and bizarre mysteries! I'm not sure if I'll enjoy them as much as I think I will, but I find that touch of the bizarre fascinating.