Monday, March 30, 2015

Strange Bedfellows

"A true gentleman never refuses the request of a beautiful lady"
"Professor Layton and the Curious Village"

Hmm, the last time I reviewed a detective adventure game on the DreamCast, it didn't end well...

According to himself, private detective Agyou Souma has the worst luck in the world, which always gets him into trouble. And up until now, he has also always managed to get out of it (somehow). His impressive record has made him one of the very few License A detectives working for the IDLA (International Detective License Agency). Souma (he prefers being called by his first name) lives in a shabby detective office however, as he likes to keep the fact he is a license A detective a secret (to keep clients away). One day, his new IDLA contact Maiko puts him on a new job: investigating ghost sightings near the beach. The murder on another IDLA detective who had been put on the job has made a simple ghost story into something much more serious. As Souma starts his investigations in the DreamCast videogame Tantei Shinshi DASH! ("The Gentleman Detective DASH!") though, he also bumps into several other cases, some involving a criminal organization called Outfit and even takes custody over a cute high-tech female android.

Tantei Shinshi DASH! was originally released in 2000 for the DreamCast and a port from the PC game Fukakutei Sekai no Tantei Shinshi ("A Gentleman Detective In An Uncertain World"), released in the same year. The PC game was actually aimed at a mature (18+) audience and included some erotic scenes: these were changed for the home console DreamCast release (though the script still includes quite a dash of innuendo). The game is also one of the few detective games on the DreamCast, which was my reason of purchase, and it appears Tantei Shinshi DASH! is doing alright for the developers: it's by no means a famous game, but it has been ported to a number of platforms and several sequels have been made.

As a detective adventure game on a home console, Tantei Shinshi DASH! plays pretty much like you'd expect it to. You advance in the story by moving between various locations, talking with characters and gathering information. The story of Tantei Shinshi DASH! has its ups and downs. It tries a bit too hard to be hardboiled, edgy and cool, which just didn't work for me. But the cases themselves are also a mixed lot: there is a lot of variety in the sort of cases Souma has to solve in the course of the game, but they are not all as good as another. Early in the game you investigate a ghost sighting, as well as a curious case of a wife who has lost her husband (and everybody says there was no husband in the first place!), but as you progress, you pick up more cases, all somehow connected with a main storyline involving the criminal organization Outfit. None of the cases invite the player to really think though: there are some murder cases, but the game basically tells you what happened if you can just manage to perform the right actions/be at the right place at the right time, without any mental activity asked of the player. The emphasis is laid on following the adventures of Souma.

The "uncertain world" from the original title is also a problem: at first it appears it's a 'normal' world like where we live in, but it doesn't take long for a humanoid android (a cute girl called Mint) to appear, together with enemies that seem to come straight out of the post-apocalyptic world of 20XX. The worldview needs a little polishing. The android plays a very big part in the story by the way, and Tantei Shinshi DASH! also includes elements of dating simulation games and even Tamagotchi pet raising elements. With slightly erotic undertones. As I said, this was originally a game with a mature rating and even though the developers have rewritten/redrawn the scenes that gave it its original rating, it still has a lot of risque shots and innuendo-filled dialogue.

The biggest issue I have with Tantei Shinshi DASH! however is also the most unique feature of the game: there is a time-system that is locked to your movements. Moving from one location to another close by takes half an hour. From one side of the city to the other takes about four hours. After twenty-four hours, it's the next day. You have a certain amount of time to solve each case and you only make advancements in the story by being at the right location at the right time (for example, to talk to character X). So the idea is that you need to always keep the time in mind if you need to be somewhere and you should not walk around too much unneccesary. You can also work on multiple cases at the same time, but this could also result in you being too busy with one case, and not being able to solve another case on time. This is an interesting idea, that is something novels can never do: give you the freedom to experience the story in your own manner/order (within certain boundaries).

The problem is that the game seldom tells you where you need to be at what time. Important characters you need to meet with to advance in the story appear at the most random places and times, without any hint to why they are there at that time. There is often no way you could've known that important character X would be at Y at time Z. It's like the game at one hands tries to limit your freedom by giving you hard deadlines and a time system, while also urging you to go explore because stuff can happen practically anywhere, anytime. Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma ni (PSX) is also a detective adventure game that also included a time system and deadlines for cases, but that game was much better than Tantei Shinshi Dash!. It was always fair, with no random encounters and more hints to where you needed to go to advance the story. Tantei Shinshi DASH! shows how it can be done in a very bad way.

All in all, I can't really recommend Tantei Shinshi DASH!.  The story is not particularly exciting or amusing (and tries too hard to be cool). But what really hurts the game, is how it works as a game. The way the game should be played (as dictated by its gameplay) and the way the game must be played (because of randomness) contradict each other and result in a game that is just frustrating to play. Games can do a lot books can't do, but at least I still have to come across an example of a book where the system of a book (turn pages around) doesn't mesh with how I'm supposed to read the book.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵紳士DASH!』

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Back in Time

"So how did you make the connection with the 8:13 which left six minutes earlier?"
- "Oh, er, simple! I caught the 7:16 Football Special arriving at Swindon at 8:09."
"But the 7:16 Football Special only stops at Swindon on alternate Saturdays."
"Yes, surely you mean the Holidaymaker Special."
- "Oh, yes! How daft of me. Of course, I came on the Holidaymaker Special calling at Bedford, Colmworth, Fen Dinon, Sutton, Wallington and Gillingham."
"That's Sundays only!"
"The Railway Sketch" (Monty Python)

When discussing mystery fiction, there are some which you can categorize without major problems, but some which cannot. For example, most people don't bother if you tell him a certain novel is a locked room problem. In fact, many readers want to read locked room mysteries, so they want to know beforehand what a mystery novel is about. On the other hand, you'd hardly want to beforehand that a certain novel features an unreliable narrator, because that gives away the whole trick right away. That's why I do have tags for things like impossible situations or locked rooms but not for narrative tricks. But with alibi deconstruction stories, you have roughly two sets. For some mysteries, you don't want to know that an alibi trick has been used, because it's part of the magic the murderer pulled off. He is safe because nobody suspects he faked his alibi. On the other hand, you have alibi deconstruction stories that often go hand-in-hand with the inverted form: we know whodunit, we know that he used an alibi trick, but now to find out how he pulled it off. With these stories, knowing beforehand that it's an alibi deconstructing story does not lessen the pleasure, I think. But because the spoil-factor can differ greatly per story, I decided not to use a dedicated 'alibi' tag for reviews featuring such a plot.

I am not a big fan of Matsumoto Seichou, the father of the social school (shakaiha) of mystery fiction, per se, but I absolutely love his first novel Ten to Sen ("Points and Lines", 1958). Partly because part of the story is set in a place where I lived for a year, but also because it's a darn fine alibi-deconstructing mystery. Over fifty years since its release, it is still regarded as one of the best Japanese mystery stories of all time. Jikan no Shuuzoku ("Customs of Time", 1962) is the sequel, set four years after Points and Lines. The murder on the editor-in-chief of a transport magazine in the resorts of Sagamiko, Kanagawa sets police detective Mihara Kiichi on the trail of a taxi company owner Mineoka Shuuichi. This man however has an ironclad alibi: in the night the murder took place in Kanagawa, Mineoka was all the way in Kitakyushu, attending the annual Mekari Shinji at Mekari Shrine. The photographs he took of the ritual and more show he was indeed there on that night. But Mihara thinks Mineoka's alibi a bit too well prepared and together with his collegue and old friend Torigai Juutarou of the Fukuoka Police Department, the duo once again tackle a seemingly perfect alibi.

I didn't even know that Points and Lines had a sequel until a few weeks before I read Jikan no Shuuzoku. And in the time between I ordered the book and it being delivered, I thought, why is there a sequel? Points and Lines was a great alibi-cracking story and I liked the main characters, Mihara Kiichi, the diligent and fast-thinking detective from Tokyo and Torigai Juutarou, the wise and experienced cop from Fukuoka, but why reuse the idea of an alibi trick set between Tokyo and Fukuoka, why use these cops again? I read a lot of series novels, but I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see Mihara and Torigai again, in a story similar to Points and Lines. I guess I was somewhere scared to see Matsumoto just going for quick cash by writing a book in title a sequel to his bestseller. With these doubts, I turned over the (strangely realistic) cover of the pocket and started reading.

And I was sucked into Jikan no Shuuzoku pretty much the moment it started.

The set-up is very similar to Points and Lines: a murder at one side of the country and a perfect alibi showing the suspect was on the other side of the country, a very sober and meticulous investigation into the movements of the suspect, many many dead ends and the final solution. Jikan no Shuuzoku resembles its predecessor a bit too much at times, but luckily, the main puzzle is quite different. Jikan no Shuuzoku is all about the photographs Mineoka took on the night as his alibi and I can tell you, the solution is probably not as simple as you might think. I have to admit, the moment I read it was about photographs, I thought I had guessed the solution, but Mineoka soon proved my theory wrong. So I went to my next theory. But that wasn't possible either and Mineoka was still safe. And then a third time. And a fourth time. Seldom have I been played so skilfully by a criminal in a detective novel! Every time I, and protagonists Mihara and Torigai, came up with a theory, it turned out to be wrong. Like trying to play chess with someone who was infinitely better than me. A minor point I do want to raise is that the trick is a bit outdated, similar to how the main trick of Points and Lines misses the impact it no doubt had when it was first published. Jikan no Shuuzoku's alibi trick involved some knowledge that was probably common back then, but mostly forgotten now. Of course, that's not a real fault against the story, which was awesome, but still, one should keep it in mind. But overall, Jikan no Shuuzoku is a great alibi-deconstructing story, just like Points and Lines.

A TV special of Jikan no Shuuzoku was broadcast earlt 2014 (with the always strong Kinami Haruka!), but it was quite different from the original story. The setting was changed to contemporary times and I already noted the novel's trick is outdated, so the main alibi trick was also changed quite a bit for the TV special. Personally, I thought the special was a bit of a disappointment. Much of the original's charm comes from the fact the distance Sagamiko - Kitakyushu was so immense back in the day, which made the alibi trick hard to crack, but nowadays the world is much smaller not only because of faster modes of transportation, but also mobile phones and the internet.

In my review of Points and Lines, I mentioned that I had been told that the novel was like a Freeman Wills Crofts novel. I had not read Crofts at the time, but I have now, especially the last few weeks. And yes, Points and Lines and Jikan no Shuuzoku share a lot with Crofts' Inspector French stories. From the sober writing and protagonist detective, to the carefully constructed alibi tricks and the way the plot keeps surprising you with new discoveries and developments, one can find many similarities and I'd recommend readers of Crofts to take a look at Points and Lines (and Jikan no Shuuzoku, if you can read Japanese) and vice versa.

If I had to choose though, I would say that Points and Lines was better than Jikan no Shuuzoku. The latter is not bad, far from it, but Points and Lines just has that edge. The distance between the alleged alibi and the crime scene is further and what's more, it has a more memorable moment with the infamous "Four Minutes" at Tokyo Station (readers of Points and Lines will know what four minutes!). Jikan no Shuuzoku has no such miraculous event and that's quite a shame actually. In Points and Lines, the almost impossible Four Minutes gave a reason for the police to start suspecting the criminal, while in Jikan no Shuuzoku, Lieutenant Mihara only starts doubting Mineoka's alibi because it seems so good. There was absolutely no reason for Mihara to suspect Mineoka of the murder other than his instinct. Which turned out to be right, but still...

Anyway, Matsumoto Seichou's Jikan no Shuuzoku is a very solid alibi deconstructing mystery. It is a bit dated though, but still, a good detective story is a good detective story, no matter when or where it was written, and no matter when or where it is read.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張 『時間の習俗』

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

File 5: Music to Be Murdered by

A year ago, I came up with the corner Music to be Murdered by for this blog, where I introduced catchy tunes from various detective fiction productions (TV/film/games/etc). I had originally thought of it as an easy way to crank up the number of posts, but the last year, I've had no shortage of other review material, so I kinda forgot about the corner. But now it's back!

Title: The Theme of Lupin III '78
Composer: Oono Yuuji
Album: too many to mention.

Lupin III is one of the most beloved franchises of Japanese popculture. It has been around since 1967 and is even now in 2015 still going strong. The series is about the adventures of Lupin III (grandson of Arsène Lupin) and his little gang of thieves. An animated TV series of Lupin III was first broadcast in 1971, but really made it big in 1977 with the sequel series, Lupin III Part Two. It was the theme song of this series that most people nowadays associate with Lupin III. The song is often remixed but The Theme of Lupin III '78 is always the base.

And what a song it is! The speedy jazzy tune conjures up the image of fun adventures of a band of suave thieves in the seventies and eighties. I linked to a live performance of the theme, where the song comes even more alive because of the dynamic musicians. Sure, it's a rather loud song for a thief, but hey, it's stylish and catchy!

Music to be Murdered by is still an irregular corner though, so no idea when the next post will appear...

Original Japanese title(s): 大野雄二『ルパン三世のテーマ'80』

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Limits of Doubt

思い出だけではつらすぎる ありえない窓は開かない
本当の鍵はただひとつ 永遠にあなたが待っている
「思い出だけではつらすぎる」 (柴咲コウ)

Left with only the memories is too painful, the impossible window won''t open
There is only one key and you keep it until eternity
"Only the memories are too painful" (Shibasaki Kou)

Now I think about it, a detective story based on memories is pretty cool, but it wouldn't work with me and my awful memory. Sometimes, a miracle happens where I remember things from some years ago (like mentioned here), but usually, I am pretty good at forgetting names / faces / persons / events.

But anyway, have you ever looked back at something that happened to you, or maybe just an incident you saw or heard about, and only realized the full meaning of that event at a later point? Maybe you saw someone strange one day, and only much later realized he must have been the one who robbed the bank around the corner. In a sense, the potential of a perfect detective lies within all of us, and that is the premise of Nishizawa Yasuhiko's Kanzen Muketsu no Meitantei ("A Perfect Detective"). Protagonist Yamabuki Miharu is not a detective. But he has the ability to make everyone into a detective. Miharu has the power to make people talk about little things that bug them, even though he himself, and his conversation partners don't realize that. And as people start to talk about anecdotes, about events they saw years ago, things they heard in other parts of the country, they slowly, but surely start to see the circumstances they had recorded in their memory from different angles. The wealthy Shirakage Gen'emon sends Miharu to the Kouchi prefecture, where his grandaughter is working at an university against his wishes. Something is keeping Rin in Kouchi and Gen'emon hopes that Miharu's powers will help Rin discover what that is.

I have read very little by Nishizawa Yasuhiko and written even less about him on this blog (for such evil reasons as forgetting to make proper notes of a book I had borrowed). His novels often feature supernatural powers, but used in a completely fair way (heck, I once read a book by him where people had psychokinetic powers, and it was still a completely fair and logic locked room mystery!). So Miharu's powers shouldn't scare off people interested in a good mystery as it is not used as an unfair device.

Kanzen Muketsu no Meitantei is best described as a connected short story collection (even though it's technically a novel). While the problem of Rin is the main propellant of the plot, most of the book is actually episodically structured: usually Miharu would meet a random person, have a deep talk with him/her, and his conversation partner would eventually realize a shocking truth lies behind something he/she experienced in the past. The episodes are short mystery stories of the intuistic school: as the conversation partners tell their tales, they slowly notice some inconsistencies in their recollections. These eventually lead to new revelations. While these stories rarely feature hard evidence (and also note that everything is based on memory), the deductions these people make never seem too farfetched and it is quite amusing to see how based on memories of small inconsistencies, people can come up with the most outrageous ideas. Somewhat like a single-man Columbo show, where you think of a 'wrong' crime scene and solve the crime yourself all in your head!

Personally though, I had preferred for Nishizawa to have used this device in an everyday life mystery style. The style of stories based on recollections, on vague memories and resulting deductions seems to me better fitting for the everyday life mystery. In Kanzen Muketsu no Meitantei however, every person who speaks with Miharu seems to have been connected to some crime one way or another (though usually unconciously). What's even more ridiculous is that everybody is eventually connected to the main story. Miharu's let-them-talk power is nothing compared to the mysterious power to only meet important persons over the course of the novel, and extract crucial information related to Rin and the main plot all under the guise of coincidence.

It really thought the mode of deduction in this novel was more suited for everyday life mysteries, so I found the overall plot to be surprisingly dark. If I think about it calmly, Kanzen Mukatsu no Meitantei is not particular much darker than most mystery novels I read, but the method of going into memories and stuff fits stories with just a 'hahaha, so it was that!'-type of plot better in my opinion, rather than 'oh... that was pretty evil and dark and no wonder you were killed'-type of plot (with this novel eventually being the latter). That said, the overall plot is actually well structured, with some cool tricks played on everyone through the device of Miharu's powers. I might have prefered a different approach, but Nishizawa should never be underestimated when it comes to mystery stories.

Kanzen Mukatsu no Meitantei is not a bad story by any standard, and the idea of having every other character but the protagonist eventually turn out to be the detectives of their own stories is really good. I thought the basic premise of the book and the actual plot didn't mesh really well, but your mileage may well vary on that. But too be perfectly honest, I thought that Nishizawa Yasuhiko's Nendou Misshitsu ("Psychokinetic Locked Room!") was better overall, also as an entry point into his novels. 

Original Japanese title(s): 西澤保彦 『完全無欠な名探偵』

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Well-Schooled in Murder

「Oh, you were to enter Todai? Sorry, you are going to die.」
『悪の教典 - Lesson of the Evil』

I love Japanese bunko pockets, but they don't really work for novels with a really high page count. I have some pockets that go to around nine-hundred pages (Nikaidou Reito's Akuryou no Yakata and Shimada Souji's Atopos for example), but these are quite difficult to handle. More often, novels are split in multiple (normal-sized) volumes, but that is usually a more costly investment for the reader, as they have to buy two or more books. On the other hand, you can easily drop out after the first volume; I have often seen that people decide to drop a book split in multiple volumes after the first. As a reader, I am still not sure what is best. But that's enough for today's non-sequitur introduction...

Hasumi Seiji appears to be the perfect high school teacher. Not only do his students like his enthusiastic way of educating the English language, but as a homeroom teacher Hasumi has also shown to have a great eye for the 'feel' of his class, solving the various problems his pupils cope with. Hasumi is also well-respected by the rest of the school staff, because of his commitment to the cause and the image of the school. From bullying to 'monster parents' (helicopter parents) and sexual harassment from staff, Hasumi manages to deal with every obstacle that appears on his way of becoming the best teacher of the best class. Hasumi also happens to be a complete psychopath though and not seldom does his idea of dealing with a problem involve rather violent and deadly solutions. And as the academic year progresses, more and more people start to suspect there is more behind the perfect facade of Hasumi in Kishi Yuusuke's Aku no Kyouten, which also bears the English title Lesson of the Evil.

Lesson of the Evil was originally serialized between 2008 - 2010 and won the first Yamada Fuutarou Prize, first place in both the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! and Weekly Bunshun Mystery Best rankings and was nominated for a heap of other prizes like the Naoki Prize. I first saw the title in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! list, but had rather forgotten about it until I attended a lecture of writer Kishi Yuusuke in 2012 at Kyoto University (on the role of violence in the entertainment sector), in which he mentioned this book several times and showed the trailer of the film adaptation by Miike Takashi that released the same year (the movie is also released outside Japan with the grammatically more sensible title Lesson of Evil). As a work of entertainment fiction, this is a pretty big title (there's even a comic version!).

But the first thing I have to say before anything else is: WHY IS THIS CONSIDERED A MYSTERY NOVEL BY SOME? How the heck did this won first place in not one, but two mystery novel rankings?! Setting aside the question of whether Lesson of the Evil is a good read or not: this is not a mystery novel. It's a horror novel. In the broad sense of the word, you can call it a crime novel. But not a mystery novel. The fact Lesson of the Evil won a mystery award is a mystery though. I had suspected something like that having read the description of the book in the Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! guidebook and the film was definitely meant to be bloody horror, but somewhere that it would turn out to be a mystery novel (like Abiko Takemaru's Satsuriku ni Itaru Yamai). It didn't. I think most sources refer to Lesson of the Evil as horror, which is correct, but I just can't understand multiple juries could have considered this the best mystery novel released in 2010!

Aaaaanyway. But as I have read the book and it's not completely off-topic here, still the review. The pocket version of Lesson of the Evil is split in two volumes and I quite liked the first one. The first chapter starts out as any typical school drama. Hasumi learns that one of his students is being sexually harrassed by one of his fellow teachers and helps the victim, while on the other hand manages to convince another hardheaded teacher to apologize to a student he had hit. Standard stuff here. But a third problem involves Hasumi getting rid of some crows that bother him at home and the method employed is the first hint you get that Hasumi might not be as normal as he appears to be. As the story continues, you'll see Hasumi taking more and more extreme measures to wipe out any problem in his way, from blackmailing a fellow teacher to setting things up so a problem child gets himself expelled. This first half is easily the best part of the novel, as the gap between Hasumi's perfect appearance and his ruthless behaviour is quite creepy. The build-up in the first chapter to make you feel uneasy is great and the way the story develops to the more extreme second half is effective.

The second half of the book however is mostly a splatter-horror story, when some of Hasumi's pupils start to suspect there's more behind their homeroom teacher than just his smile, and Hasumi decides to kill his entire class during a school festival, put the blame on someone else and start anew (and this kinda sounds like a big spoiler, but considering this is also written on the back cover description and the film trailer is all about this particular part...).  This part has some similarities with Battle Royale, with kids trying to defend themselves from a shotgun-carrying assaillant,all  locked up in one area (and the bloody bloodiness of the bloodshedding). For those who like over-the-top violence, you can find plenty of that here, and in the pool of blood that drips out of the pages.

Did I like the book? Well, reasonably. Like I said, I thought the first half was good, especially if one sees it as a parody/subversion of 'traditional' school drama like Great Teacher Onizuka, where an unconventional teacher helps students and fellow teachers alike. If one considers the place of the educational system and teachers in society as pillars (especially Japanese society) and the school as a safe haven for minors, one has to admit that Lesson of the Evil plays a lot with that. A lot of 'stereotypical' and real social problems fly by: from grand-scale cheating, 'monster parents', corporal punishments, sexual harassement to indecent teacher-student relations, but the way Hasumi deals with them is not as typical. By the way, this school has way too much serious problems, even without Hasumi!

I was less a fan of the second half. Not because I dislike the blood, but that massacre takes just too many pages. It just goes on and on and on and whereas the first half had a good sense of speed because Hasumi was multitasking on several schemes across the school, the second half is just straight splatter horror.

Lesson of the Evil is the first time I read horror by Kishi Yuusuke, by the way. Is it a mystery? Noho, absolutely no. Is it entertaining? Well, yeah. As a psycho-horror novel, it's okay and I personally liked the way the story resembles a standard school drama in form (including the social problems), but handles it in a very warped way. If what I've said sounds alluring, or if you think the film trailer looks cool, take a look. For those who want a real mystery, try Kishi's Security Consultant Enomoto Kei locked room mystery novels (also known as the Kagi ga Kakatta Heya series).

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介 『悪の教典』

Monday, March 16, 2015

Straight Chaser

Sarge, there's some French gent at the door. 
- No-no-no-no, I am not some French gent. I am some Belgian gent.
"Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Adventure of the Clapham Cook"

Now I think about it, I don't have that many Penguin books actually. Probably not even ten of them. I have a lot more Prisma pockets though, a Dutch series of pocket books similar to Penguins. But that's enough off-topic thoughts for today...

Inspector French series
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)
Fatal Venture (1939)

Ruth Averill lost everything in the tragedy that happened in silent Starvel Hollow. In an all-destroying fire, she lost her uncle Simon (her only living relative), the two servants and her home. Even most of the fortune her miser uncle had accumulated over the years, had been lost in the fire, which left Ruth, while not penniless, less fortunate an heir than she should have been. But there might be more behind the tragedy than seems at first sight. A money bill thought to have been burnt to ashes in the fire turns up at a bank and suspicion starts to rise about whether the money had been really lost in the fire, and whether it was just an accident. Inspector French is sent to Starvel and the town of Tirsby to find out if there was foul play in Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927).

So many Crofts in so short a period? Actually, after I read The 12:30 From Croydon, I asked for some more Crofts suggestions and I was recommended Fatal Venture and today's book. Well, I was actually recommended the Japanese version of Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, because that book contains an afterword by Kitamura Kaoru that is apparently a great overview of Crofts' works, but as the good old Penguin pocket was easier to find...

Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy is the third novel in the series and feels very different from the other (later) Crofts I've read. For one, Inspector French actually appears very early in the story! Whereas in Mystery on Southampton Water, The 12:30 From Croydon and Fatal Venture, the focus was mostly set on some young man caught up in some kind of (legal or illegal) scheme, this time we get to follow French from start to finish in his investigation and it is great. We see how he slowly but surely unravels the truth. And that is maybe all I can say about the book: French slowly unravels the truth. It's a sober investigation and French seldom has real strokes of genius during his work, but he doggedly chases every trail he can find, he checks them out and if it turns out to be a dud, he moves on to the next trail.

Which is of course a style which could end up as the most boring, meandering story ever, but Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy isn't. The developments are structured in a way to keep the reader's attention, the 'false' trails are never completely useless to the investigation and as you proceed in the book, you feel that French is always, even if not with lightning speed, nearing the truth. It is a very neatly plotted story and that might be its biggest merit. The presentation is sober, but one has to admire how Crofts must have meticulously played around with all elements of the story until it all fitted together, not only in terms of fabula, but also as sujet.

And now I think about it, even though the presentation of Crofts' novels is always very modest and subdued, the plot often isn't. I mean, Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy starts with theft, arson, murder and between the first and final pages, French will uncover a lot more sinister and imaginative scheme than you'd associate with the prose it is presented in. As a mystery plot, it is an okay story, though it is a bit disappointing that despite all the doggedness of French, despite all his efforts throughout the book, he still has to rely on something almost as trivial as coincidence to completely solve the case.

With the other three Crofts I've read fairly similar, I quite enjoyed Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy for following a different structure. Plotwise, it also satisfied and it makes me quite curious to see what Crofts did more with French in other novels. So yes, I am quite sure you'll see Crofts' name appear in the future too on this blog.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

He Came With The Rain

I'm singing in the rain
Just singing in the rain
What a glorious feelin'
I'm happy again
"Singin' in the Rain" (From: Singin' in the Rain)

Today's topic has a rather long title. I think the longest and boring title that has passed by on this blog for now is of a game though: A Steamy DS Suspense Mystery - The Data Files of Freelance Writer Tachibana Maki - Toyako / The Seven Spas / Okuyu no Sato.

One day, mystery writer Ishioka Kazumi tells his friend and detective Mitarai Kiyoshi about an interesting story he heard on the radio: according to the caller, some nights ago, during a heavy rain, he saw a beautiful woman dressed in a white one piece place her umbrella on the road. Several cars evaded it, but finally one car drove over the umbrella, breaking it. The woman then picked up the umbrella and continued down the road. Ishioka thinks it's a mystifying tale, but Mitarai quickly deduces that there must have been a reason for the woman to do so and infers a criminal event behind it all. A corpse is indeed discovered in an apartment building near where the woman was seen and the police once again (unofficially) depend on Mitarai to help find the women in white in the TV drama special Tensai Tantei Mitarai ~ Nankai Jiken File "Kasa wo Oru Onna"~ ("Genius Detective Mitarai ~ Difficult Case Files: The Woman Who Broke Her Umbrella") (or Kasa wo Oru Onnna for short. Why do Japanese TV specials always have these impossibly long titles?!)

The Mitarai Kiyoshi series is a long-running novel series about the astrologist-turned-private-detective-turned-neurologist Mitarai Kiyoshi and his mystery writer friend Ishioka Kazumi, written by Shimada Souji. Since their debut in The Tokyo Zodiac Murders (1981), the duo have been solving a great number of strange cases, with some of their adventures widely seen as among the best of Japanese detective fiction in general. The TV drama Kasa wo Oru Onna ("The Woman Who Broke Her Umbrella"), broadcast on March 7 2015, is the first time the series has been adapted to the screen and is based on a short story originally included in Shimada's novelette collection UFO Oodoori ("UFO Main Street", 2006).

I have not read the original story, but overall, I quite liked this TV special. The opening parts are definitely the best: it starts off with a great scene where Mitarai and Ishioka show off their Sherlock Holmes-Watson-esque relation and where Mitarai manages to deduce a shocking truth behind Ishioka's story about the woman and her umbrella. The problem itself resembles one of those everyday life mysteries (a woman purposely breaking her umbrella in the rain), but it soon turns into a full-fledged murder investigation, where Mitarai manages to show his superior intellect. I really enjoyed the first quarter of the special.

But the special then fails to get in a good pace then, which is partly intentional, partly unintentional, I think. The first half of the special is mostly done with just four characters: Mitarai, Ishioka and two police inspectors, who discuss the case from various angles. This is a set-up I usually really like in novels, just characters bouncing off ideas of each other, but in Kasa wo Oru Onna, it is a bit dry, even if actually a lot of ground is covered through those discussions. I can definitely understand if people find this part too boring too, as there is little tangible progress done in these scenes. By the time we reach the latter half of the TV special, I feel the novelette has been stretched out too thin: most of the elements needed to solve the case have already been mentioned, but it still takes ages to get to the conclusion. The final solution to the mysterious case of the woman and the broken umbrella is okay: its scale works for a TV production (I'd love to see Naname Yashiki no Hanzai on the screen, but whether it would work?), and it has the TV-drama angle, but personally, I find the deductions that started the case a lot more interesting than the truth revealed in the conclusion.

Oh, and a highlight in Japanese TV dramas of the last 10 years or so are the scenes when the detective solves the case in his/her head. Catchphrases have always been a thing, but I think the first 'big' one is Galileo, where the titular Yukawa "Galileo" Manabu suddenly starts writing equations at random surfaces (ground, windows, tables, glass showcases...), and it appears that each new TV drama tries to top that with its own take on it. Recent examples of fairly elaborate "it's solved" scene are throwing paper in the air (SPEC), random flashes of the relevant facts together with irrelevant and slightly disturbing shots of an unknown woman (Watashi no Kirai na Tantei) and multiple personalities talking to each other (Subete ga F ni Naru). Kasa wo Oru Onna naturally also features one that visualizes the way Mitarai sorts out the case in his head.

I have to say, the actors chosen for Mitarai Kiyoshi and Ishioka Kazumi were quite interesting, to say the least. Mitarai was played by Tamaki Hiroshi, who fairly recently played the lead detective in the TV series Watashi no Kirai na Tantei. Ishioka Kazumi is a non-detecting Watson-esque role, but actor Doumoto Kouichi played the armchair detective in Remote (2002), as well as the supernatural-werewolf-detective in Ginrou Kaiki File (1996). I wonder if there's some kind of shortlist for possible leads in detective series in Japan.

Also, I thought it is worth noting that the leads were two males. The last few years, Japanese TV dramas based on novel series seemed to have been pushing the male + female duo as protagonists (for the romantic tension it creates on screen). Well, I guess Subete ga F ni Naru is just following the original S&M novels, but the original novels behind TV drama like Galileo and Watashi no Kirai na Tantei did not feature (heavily) the male+female duo: characters were rewritten just for the TV series. But on the other side, this series was also (slightly) catering to the fangirls(or boys) with some lines between Mitarai and Ishioka, similar to what Sherlock has been doing. I think it is also (slightly) present in the original novels, but never as obvious and elaborate as in Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series.

I think they were planning to produce more of these specials in the future, depending on the ratings. I am not sure how well it did, but I think Tensai Tantei Mitarai ~ Nankai Jiken File "Kasa wo Oru Onna"~ was a fun TV special that serves as a good introduction to the long-running series. Now I hope they take on one of the older, grand-scale locked room mysteries in the series.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司(原) 『天才探偵ミタライ~難解事件ファイル「傘を折る女」~

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Miss Mystery

I Miss You Miss Mystery
「Miss Mystery」 (Breakerz)

I miss you Miss Mystery
I want to know everything about you
I will reveal everything
And break down your alibi
"Miss Mystery" (Breakerz)

Strangely enough, this isn't my first book I got from South-Korea. I am making a guess though that this will be the first and only English write-up of this book out there... Also: this is actually the first book I started and finished in 2015. All of the books I posted about before, and for months after this post, were read in 2014...

A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou (original title: "Gyeongseong ui ilbon eo tamjeongjakpumjip") is one of the most interesting and odd book releases I know off. Like the title says: the book, released last year in South-Korea, is an anthology of detective stories written in Korea during the period the Great Korean Empire was colonized by Japan. Most of the writers featured in this anthology were Japanese living in Keijou (Seoul as it was called during the colonization) at the time, I think, but the book also features the very first detective story in Japanese written by a Korean. The 22 stories and essays (dating from 1927~1937) are scanned from their original sources (mostly magazines) and while it can be a bit difficult to make out the writing sometimes, the fact you can read everything like it was originally printed (together with the original illustrations) does add to the 'authentic' feel. The book ends with a postface that gives a paragraph or two about each story and the publishing background.

Now you know why I think this is an interesting release, but why odd? Well, except for the postface, everything in this book released in South-Korea, is completely in Japanese. As said, the contents consist of scans from their original sources and that means they were all written in Japanese. So yes, most people in South-Korea wouldn't even be able to read this book, even though it was published there! And even for those who do know Japanese, this book features pre-war Japanese, which has different spelling rules and can be quite difficult to read if you're only familiar with post-war Japanese. Add in the fact that the topic of the book, detective stories from Keijou, is probably not that popular and I really have to ask the question: who came up with the idea of publishing this book, in this particular form, in South-Korea? Heck, the contents of the book is from right-to-left (Japanese), even though the cover and binding is actually made from left to right (Korean)! I'm probably just missing some insight that explains the genius plan behind this book.

And a friend from South-Korea bought this curious book for me, so I can read it here in the Netherlands. Don't you just love overly complex international stories? My friend knows Japanese too by the way and she thought the book almost unreadable, to give you an idea of how common pre-war Japanese is.

I won't be discussing all of the 21 stories + 1 Edogawa Rampo essay in the anthology. Not only would that make this review way too long, I'll have to be honest and say that a lot of the stories are not particular good. Which for some stories, is even too nice a way of describing them. There are some stories that fall in the 'wide' crime genre, and some of the stories are literally: "A heinous crime happened. It was never solved. The end". So I'll just mention those that left an impression.

The book starts with Kui ni Tatta Mesu ("A Knife as a Stake"). The story was written by Kim Sam-gyu between 1929 - 1930 and is known as the first detective story written by a Korean in Japanese. The story starts with the murder on the heiress of a wealthy family, who is stabbed with a knife, which also holds the Spade of Ace card. This first victim is soon followed by more dead, each also being stabbed together with playing cards. The resulting chase for the unknown serial killer is a bit boring to be honest and the identity of the murderer is rather disappointing because there was just too small a cast and everyone ended up being related to the case for some reason or another. More interesting as an anecdote in history than stand-alone detective story.

The anthology features a great number of stories by the Keijou Detective Hobby Club (Keijou Tantei Shumi no Kai), which I think is a club of detective fiction lovers and writers. I say think, because the commentary included in the book that probably explains more about the club and its members is one of the few things in Korean. Which I can't read. Most of the club stories are relay-stories. Onna Supai no Shi ("Death of a Female Spy") starts out as a fairly amusing story where a female spy who infiltrated a communist group/revolutionaries is killed. Each new installment basically turns the story around and while it definitely does not seem like there was any planning done on the story, I had a couple of laughs seeing how each writer seemed to be intent on 1) turning everything the previous writer did around and 2) making things as complex as possible for the next in line. It's even more obvious with Mittsu no Tama no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Three Jewels"), which starts out as a Lupin-esque story where a man is suddenly given three jewels that appear to be the key to a horrible secret, which turns into a Russian melodrama in the second installment and finally the last installment which tries to make sense out of the two previous installments.

The anthology also features two Japanese translations of Sherlock Holmes stories. While Nazo no Shi ("The Mysterious Death") is a straight translation of The Speckled Band, the translation of Silver Blaze (under the title Meiba no Yukue, "The Whereabouts of the Famous Horse") is a bit more interesting. While the story is still set in England, everyone actually has Japanese names. I'd understand if the complete story had been moved to Japan, but why change the names, but keep the setting of England? It'd say it's even a bit distracting to have "Horimi" watch for curious incidents of dogs in night-time.

Houseki wo Nerau Otoko ("The Man Who Wanted The Jewel") by Sagawa Harukaze (better known as Morishita Uson) is a wonderfully hilarious story where a police inspector happens to learn of a jewel heist by a infamous thief and lays a trap for him. The story is short, but satisfying and invokes the spirit of the famou French gentleman thief.

Tenkyoushuu Daijuuichigou no Kokuhaku ("Confession of Asylum Prisoner No. 11") by Yoshii Nobuo (of the Keijou Detective Hobby Club) is another hilarious story of an asylum patient telling how he came to cry out "the wind is blowing, the wind is blowing!" which got him admitted in the mental hospital. It starts out so dark, but the ending is fantastic. It is not a real detective or crime story, but it certainly made me laugh. Ijiwaru Keiji ("A Spiteful Detective") by Yamazaki Reimonjin (kinda guessing the reading of the given name) too is a funny story about something that appears non-criminal at first, but ends with a little twist. His story is subtitled "a detective sketch", so that gives the reader an idea of what to expect.

A lot of the stories are "crime" stories and while as pieces of fiction, they don't impress at all, I do have to say I found these stories interesting as relics of the past, because I normally would have never even thought of trying these stories. With the stories dating from 1927~1937, it's funny to see how many of these stories feature communists and left-wing activists as a source of evil. There's also a faint anti-foreigner tone to be found at times. I don't think people would nowadays read these stories just for fun (I wouldn't), but presented in this form, I thought it was fun to read these stories for a chance, instead of the time-proven classics of yore. Another element that really made you feel these stories were from another time and space was the censoring! Sexual expressions were censored, but that made some stories actually appear more erotic than they probably were. (Ex: "And then he XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX her.").

It is not directly related to the contents of the book, but I had fun reading pre-war Japanese. I had read some short stories before, but never something as long as this. It's not completely different from modern-day Japanese, but it takes a while to adjust to the alternate spelling conventions and more complex characters. Still. it only makes me wonder more why a book in pre-war Japanese is published in modern-day South-Korea.

While not all stories of A Collection of Detective Stories from Keijou are as amusing, I quite enjoyed the book overall. While I have some questions about the specifics behind this publication and I really have to wonder how many people bought this book, I think the book does offer an interesting look in an otherwise overseen element of both Japanese and Korean detective fiction history.

Original Korean title: "경성의 일본어 탐정 작품집"
Original Japanese title(s): 金三圭 「杭に立ったメス」 / 山崎黎門人、阜久生、吉井信夫、大世渡貢 「女スパイの死」 / 山岡操、太田恒彌、山崎黎門人 「三つの玉の秘密」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 芳野青泉(訳) 「名馬の行方」 / Arthur Conan Doyle, 倉持高雄(訳) 「謎の死」 / 秋良春夫 「捕物秘話」 / 青山倭文二 「水兵服の贋札少女」 / 青山倭文 「犯罪実験者」 / 総督府、野田生 「青衣の賊」 / 末田晃 「猟死病患者」 / 森二郎 「共産党事件とある女優」 / Y・黎門人 「彼をやっつける」 / 白扇生 「闇に浮いた美人の姿」 / 倉白扇 「暗夜に狂う日本刀 脳天唐竹割りの血吹雪」 / ヒアルトフ・アルクナア 伊東鋭太郎(訳) 「夜行列車奇談」 / 佐川春風 「宝石を覘う男」 / 木内為棲 「深山の暮色」 / 山崎黎門人 「意地わる刑事」 / 山崎黎門人 「蓮池事件」 / 吉井信夫 「癲狂囚第十一号の告白」 / 古世渡貢 「空気の差」 / 江戸川乱歩 「探偵趣味」