Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Publish or Perish


"Nobody cares to acknowledge the mistakes made because of their youth"
"Mobile Suit Gundam"

I read a lot, but my reading pace always has a slow start. I usually read several books at the same time, but it usually take ages for me to go through the first hundred pages or so of any given book. But when I am past that threshold, I suddenly go full gear, and finish the rest of the book in less time than it took me to get through the first hundred pages. That's why it's kinda rare for me to have books lying around that I've read halfway through. Books where I got stuck somewhere in the first hundred pages? Sure. But halfway? I am usually going to fast to stop there... Today, a rare case of a book which was read only halfway through.

Zero Banme no Jikenbo ("The 0th Casefiles") is a mystery anthology released in 2012 with big names like Arisugawa Alice, Ayatsuji Yukito and Norizuki Rintarou. But the twist behind this anthology is that the stories collected here, were all written before these writers made their formal debut as professional writers. Most of these were written in university it seems. In a sense, Zero Bamne no Jikenbo is just a collection of 'amateur' writing, but for fans for any of these writers, these unpublished stories are of course interesting, as it shows how some writers grew from their amateur days into the people they are now. As a piece of fanservice, this anthology delivers the goods and it is also a good motivation for amateur writers now: if they see what kind of stories the professional writers now used to write, they'll probably see that everyone had to start somewhere and that all have humble origins.

I originally bought Zero Banme no Jikenbo when it was released, because it fitted with the theme of my thesis on early New Orthodox detective fiction writers. And after reading the stories and the essays by Arisugawa Alice, Norizuki Rintarou, Abiko Takemaru and Ayatsuji Yukito, I put the book away because that was all I needed for my research. In the end, it took me another year before I finally read the rest of the volume.

A large number of the stories collected in Zero Banme no Jikenbo are guess-the-criminal (hanninate) stories, which I once explained as:

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

A lot of the writers in this anthology were members of university mystery clubs (like the Kyoto University Mystery Club), where guess-the-criminal scripts are common practice. Arisugawa Alice's entry, Aozameta Hoshi ("The Pale Stars"), is a good example of how such a story works, and it just happens I have translated it a long time ago, so I refer to that post if you want to know more about that. Abiko Takemaru's Figure Four is an extremely nonsensical dying message story, but Abiko admits that he would never ever have chosen this story for publication if not for the goal of the anthology: at least you can see that not all writers started out grand and fantastic. In that sense Figure Four is a great example. And maybe it's interesting to note that the Hayami siblings appear in this story.

Kasumi Ryuuichi's Golgotha no Misshitsu ("The Locked Room of Golgotha") is an example of a locked room murder done well in a guess-the-criminal format, which is difficult, because this format is more precise than a 'normal' locked room murder mystery (all the clues must be present and it must be the only answer possible). But it is also very obvious that this was a guess-the-criminal script and not a full fledged story: the solution part, given after the Challenge to the Reader, is just a dry, to the point memo saying who did it and how you can prove it. Fubousou de Hito ga Shinu no Da ("Somebody Will Die At the Fubou House" by Murasaki Yuu), with a murder happening on a Mystery Club holiday is based on fairly basic trick and the 'surprise' ending isn't really surprising, but I like how the story is obviously written for fellow (Seijo University) Mystery Club members, as it deals with club activities and the characters based (presumably) on real members at the time. Finally, but certainly not least is Norizuki Rintarou's Satsujin Pantomine ("Murder Pantomine"), a great puzzle plot story that shows why these guess-the-criminal stories, even if not 'real' literature, are so fun. And the anecdote that at the time, these scripts were read out by the writer for all members to listen to is at one hand surprising, and on the other hand not really. In a time where typewriters and wordprocessors were rare, it does make sense the writer would just write out his own copy, and then read it out to the other members. Of course, I am just used to the sight of 20~30 copies of the stories being handed out to the members present... By the way, the detective character Norizuki Rintarou appears in this story, but written with a different character for "rin" (the name was changed when the writer became a professional).

The rest of the anthology consists out of non guess-the-criminal stories. Takada Takafumi's Bachasvilleke no Inu ("The Hound of the Bachasvilles") is a nonsensical what-if variation on The Hound of the Baskervilles. I only read the first novel of Takada's QED series, but it seems this story has very little of the QED vibe, save for the excessive referencing to the original Holmes novels (the lists of references in the QED novels are huge!). Hatsuno Sei's 14 is about a comedian being stalked by seven different people from all ages and sexes, but he has no idea why. More of a thriller than real puzzle plot mystery, but I have never read anything by Hatsuno, so no idea how this work fits within the big picutre. The same holds for Migawa Korumono's Judgement, about a murderer and a girl he picks up at one of his crime scenes. Never read anything by her, so not sure if Judgement is representative of her work in general or not.

And while I have never read anything by Kirisha Takumi neither, I have to say I was kinda surprised by his Tsuzuki Michio wo Yonda Otoko ("The man who read Tsuzuki Michio"), which was a fun inverted mystery where a certain scruffy policeman talking about his raincoat and his wife visiting Japan is messing up a perfect crime in process. Great stuff here, but it took me a bit before I recognized who this Philip was (as it's just one of his unofficial first names...). A lot of Nishizawa Yasuhiko's mysteries have a supernatural element (psychokinesis, timewarping etc) in conjunction with a totally fair-play puzzle plot, but Mushitori ("Bugcatching") is more science fiction than mystery. It's fun though: two men are in charge of monitoring a grand scale fake arrival of aliens on planet Earth: these aliens are in fact high-level androids of the US government. But what is the goal of the project, and why do some android models keep coming back with bugs that lead to self-existential doubt?

Finally, Ayatsuji Yukito's Toosugiru Fuukei ("A Scenery Too Far Away") is the story about Hiryuu Kouchi, who after the death of her mother, has been haunted by mysterious letters and other events. And I could write a bit more about it, but this story was actually rewritten as Ningyoukan no Satsujin, with most of the main plot and some names intact. They are very alike, so you really don't have to read both of them, though it is interesting to see how Ayatsuji fleshed out one of his old stories to something new and longer. This 'amateur' story was actually sold at one time, as it was included in one of Kyoto University Mystery Club's annual magazines in the past: I actually have a (digital) copy somewhere of Toosugiru Fuukei in a handwritten script!

For fans of the writers included in this anthology, Zero Banme no Jikenbo has its high points. Realizing how the young amateur writers and students behind these stories turned into professional writers afterwards can work as an inspiration for aspirant writers, as while there are quite some good mystery plots here, few stories have the refinement of professional writers (and also important, editing). And of course, a lot of the stories collected here are guess-the-criminal scripts, which aren't meant to be experienced as literature anyway. If you are familar with more than a few writers in this collection, I would recommend Zero Banme no Jikenbo and also if you're interested in seeing how guess-the-criminal scripts work (as you don't see them often in 'official' publishing), but it might feel a bit weak as a standalone mystery anthology without the context. Because when you think about it, this is just a collection of amateur writers, even if they're all professional writers now! If the novelty factor appeals to you though, great stuff here! I know I enjoyed it.

Oh, and one final note: I can only use up to 200 characters for the tags (cross-references) for each post, so I was only able to attach the tags for a few writers.

Original Japanese title(s): 『0番目の事件簿』: 有栖川有栖 「蒼ざめた星」 / 法月綸太郎 「殺人パントマイム」 / 霧舎巧 「都筑道夫を読んだ男」 / 「我孫子武丸 「フィギュア・フォー」 / 霞流一 「ゴルゴダの密室」 / 高田崇史 「バカズヴィル家の犬」 / 西澤保彦 「虫とり」 / 「初野晴 「14」 / 村崎友 「富望荘で人が死ぬのだ」 / 汀こるもの 「Judgement」 / 綾辻行人 「遠すぎる風景」


  1. Do you know if the Mouryo no Haku anime has any supernatural elements in it? or is it like Scooby-Doo/Umineko

    1. Hmm, this would be an easy question for almost anything but this series. No, Mouryou no Hako does not have supernatural elements in the sense like you mean it, but the /concept/ of supernatural powers is definitely of great importance in the series (the whole series I mean, including the books not animated).

  2. Have you ever read umineko by the way?