Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Grandest Game In The World

"Suppose he's one of those very clever coots you read about in detective stories-"
"Especially yours," muttered the old man.
"-especially mine," nodded his son, "And Rex's, and John's, and Miss Christie's, and other practitioners of the delightfully improbable. And suppose he's playing a game with you-- us."
"The Player On The Other Side" (Ellery Queen)

Just a few more Queens left before I've gone through them all!

The four York cousins all had their own 'castle' in the corner of York Square, a private place that symbolized continuity, decency and all things proper, right in the middle of New York. A will of Nathaniel York, Senior (who was the York) bound the four to the Square, but great financial benefits awaited them for being chained there. Of course, you can only inherit if you're alive and anyone who has read any detective story can guess what's going to happen. With the board set and our pieces in place, the invisible opponent moves his first piece: Walt, the handyman of the Yorks, is sent a letter by "Y" who asks him a favor. A deadly favor. Ellery and Inspector Queen first learn of this game in progress with the murder on Robert York and Ellery takes the seat on the other side of the board to detect The Player On The Other Side (1963).

The Player On The Other Side is a late Ellery Queen novel, ghost-written by Theodore Surgeon and extensively revised by both of the Queen cousins (Dannay and Lee). For what it is worth, it does feel like a regular Queen most of the time and builds on the themes that had been going on in the 'proper' Canon in an interesting, if not always  satisfying manner.

The novel starts with Ellery lamenting that time and technology has caught up on him and that he, as a detective, is not needed anymore. The York case brings Ellery back in the game, and it's a game he is very familiar with. Whereas a lot of Queen novels featured twist endings where it is revealed that everything, including a scapegoat murderer, had been manipulated by the real murderer, we are told right away in The Player on the Other Side that Walt is being controlled by "Y", the titular Player on the Other Side. It does bring a slightly different dynamic to reading this Queen for me, because I usually read later Queens distrusting everyone and everything like I'm suffering from paranoia, as I always anticipate a twist ending.

I do have to say though, The Player On The Other Side, feels a bit predictable, even in its twists and turns. A lot of elements have been used in earlier Queens already: a private square in New York has been used already in the series (The Greek Coffin Mystery), just like the slighty disfunctional family (There Was An Old Woman), a family called York (The Tragedy of Y), mysterious letters sent to the victims ("The Mad Tea Party", The Finishing Stroke) and like I mentioned, the Manipulator (would be kinda spoilerish to mention specific titles, I guess). I guess that this story is exactly what Ellery wished for, 'a case like always', but it feel too familiar at times.

Loyal Queen readers won't have any trouble figuring out most of the mystery behind the letters sent to the victims, I think, as it's a theme that popped up quite often in later Queen novels (in fact, I thought it kinda strange that it took Ellery that long to figure it out). Overall, I don't dislike the solution, but it is definitely not perfect: the hinting is a bit weak and while I am usually the last to complain about motives, especially a Queen novel, this time the motive behind the murders is quite important to the solution, and it's... well, not convincing here. Thematically, I can see where the Queen cousins and Surgeon were heading for and I do like the idea, but I feel the execution could have been a bit more neater, a bit more clearer.

Overall, The Player On The Other Side is a decent Queen novel though, ghost-written or not. I do think it's a novel better read in the context of other, later Queen novels, or else the solution might seem a bit too farfetched, but on the other hand, a lot of elements do seem a bit too familiar if you've read more Queens. All well, three more Queens to go!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Scarlet Hills

「ラーメン、つけ麺、僕イケメン! オケー!」

"Ramen, Tsukemen, I'm a good looking man!"
"Good Looking Men Club@ Flower Viewing Festival" ('The Laughing Red Theater' sketch)

I usually write my reviews within a week after finishing the book, but this one has been waiting for almost three weeks! And it actually has to wait for almost half a year before it's published online... Ah, the fate of reviews of books that aren't timely to begin with...

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo - Mainaa Kyouto Mystery ("The Mystery of the Chinese Noodle House  - Minor Kyoto Mysteries") is a short story collection by Kitamori Kou and the first volume in his Minor Kyoto Mysteries series. Arima Jirou used to be the most succesful thief in West-Japan, but a chance meeting with the head of the Daihikaku Senkouji Temple in Kyoto brought him back to the path of the righteous, and now he lives as an temple assistant at the temple. Despite his turn, Arima still gets sucked into criminal cases, not rarely because of his friendship with the local journalist Orihara Kei. Strange cases brought by Kei, temple visitors getting killed, his past catching up on him and other incidents: Arima is confronted with one case after another, but he wouldn't have been able to become the greatest thief in the past if he wasn't in possession of a great set of brains, as well as very useful ties to the underworld of Kyoto.

I was actually looking for ramen-related detective stories (like these) when I came upon this short story collection (shina soba is an alternate nomens for ramen), which seemed even more interesting because it was set in Kyoto (where I have lived). I had never read anything by Kitamori Kou though and this read was kinda a gamble. And looking back, I have to say it was a fairly succesful one, though not without some minor gripes (one it being that ramen don't really appear in this collection!). Where it does succeed, is in being a "Kyoto mystery". Seldom have I read a book to which the term "topographical mystery" applies as good as Shina Soba Kan no Nazo. Because of Japan's history of limited travelling until the late 19th century, most regions have very distinct dialects and customs. In this volume, basically all the stories involve some kind of specific Kyoto custom or tradition in a believable, relevant way (and also important: in a fair way; the reader is never at a disadvantage if he has no prior knowledge). It's delight as an ex-Kyoto citizen to see local customs be given the spotlight like this, but it's also quite educational and I learned quite a bit about Kyoto folkways.

In Fudou Myouou no Yuutsu  ("Melancholy of the Acala"), Arima discovers a dead gangster in what is basically the temple's backyard. He naturally wants to know why a corpse was there and with a bit of help of Orihara Kei, manages to connect the victim to a small communal bath house, which has been troubled of all kinds of rumors lately. The story makes some strange jumps on its way to the conclusion and a 'sorta' twist at the end falls flat because it needed a bit more expansion, but the use of the public bath in this story is quite good and I wish it had been rewritten just a bit to really make use of that idea.

Ikyouto no Bansan ("The Last Supper of a Heathen") is all about sushi, sushi of mackarel (saba) in particular. Orihara Kei suspects there's a big story behind the recent death of an artist and sends an undercover Arima to find out more. The discovery that a plate of sababou (a kind of mackarel sushi) from Arima's usual joint was on the table points Arima to the right direction. Again some strange jumps in the story (would someone really murder for that?!) and this time, the trick is a bit harder to figure out because the knowledge is slightly less common, but still a great use of local food customs in a mystery story.

The Daimonji fire is probably the best known of Kyoto's three festivals and forms the setting of Ayu Odoru Yoru Ni ("On the Night Ayu Dance"). A female visitor to the temple whom Arima quite liked was killed on the night of the Daimonji and thrown at the garbage collection point behind the Kyoto Tower. An angered Arima vowes to find the murderer, for which he needs to break a perfect alibi on the night of the five big bonfires in Kyoto. Good use of the Daimonji festival in the story, though some parts of the alibi trick are quite silly and could never have been pulled off like that. Reminds me of another story set in Kyoto where the Daimonji are of vital importance, but it would kinda spoil it if I mentioned the title...

Mizumori Ken, a mystery writer, is invited by an university (and sponsored by Orihara Kei's newspaper) to hold a lecture. He disappeared just before the lecture though, leaving behind a dead professors in a lake of paint on campus. Thus begins a search for him in The Wrong Man ("Funyoi no Hito"), one of the two stories I didn't really like. Mizumori Ken is obviously a parody of author Kitamori Kou himself and he has fun depicting himself as the most horrible writer ever, but the mystery plot is rather disappointing. One part of the story is actually okay (with the professor in the paint pool) and not nearly as stupid as Kitamori seems to claim it is in his prose, but part of the solution depends on knowledge that isn't even Kyoto folkways anymore, but even more local and it was not even hinted at. So very few people would ever figure that out.

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo ("The Mystery of the Chinese Noodle House") was the title that lured me to this collection and was easily the most disappointing of all. Mizumori Ken seeks the help of Arima to help two Italians find their son, who is living somewhere in the city. The very, very vague hint "I live in a Chinese Noodle house" actually does bring Mizumori Ken on the trail of the Italian, but Mizumori also discovers a dead man in the house next door, who seems to have died in a locked house. The story basically consists of two parts, the first about solving the strange description of the Italian's house, the second about the murder. The first part is horrible. No way anyone is going to arrive at that solution with those words, unless you have a godlike Author hovering above you to dictate your actions. It's not even 'haha, that's so stupid, but I can still laugh about it' or 'it didn't really work out but I can understand what you were trying'. It's just bad. The second half is not as bad, but still a bit vague on the crucial parts, making it a bit unfair.

Izakaya Juubei ("The Izakaya Juubei") is where Arima and Orihara Kei spend a lot of time to talk about their investigations in these stories, but this time the bar is also the start of a new adventure. The owner of the place is worried about his fellow disciple: the two of them had trained together at the original Juubei restaurant, and later each went their own ways, taking the name 'Juubei' with them for their own restaurants. But lately, his 'brother disciple' seemed to have thrown away his principles of good food and has switched over to cheap, mass-produced food for the masses. The owner asks Arima to check whether the rumors are true and through The Powers of Fiction Coincidence, Arima also stumbles upon a murder case. Again a lot of weird jumps in logic and story flow that make this story a bit hard to enjoy (in fact, I mostly read through because it was set near where I used to live).

Overall, I'd say that the idea of the Minor Kyoto Mysteries series is better than its execution. There are some moments where local customs and the mystery plot really come together, which give this collection a great local flavor. But most of the stories have some gaps and jumps in their storytelling (how did he figure that out? How did he get that piece of information? Why did it happen like that and not in another way?) that make it difficult to feel completely positive about them. I especially had that feeling as I continued in the collection and I think the latter half is a lot weaker than the first half of the book. The parody of Kitamori Kou himself in two stories was also not enjoyable at all either, though it might be funnier if this wasn't my first novel by him, I think?

Shina Soba Kan no Nazo is the first of the two volumes that make up the Minor Kyoto Mysteries and I do really like the concept, so I might try the second volume sometime later, though I really, really hope the plots are cleaned up a bit this time. As for people who want to read more about Kyoto in fiction though, this is a great place as it features a lot of local folkways you usually don't come across in 'grand' fiction set in Kyoto.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『支那そば館の謎』: 「不動明王の憂鬱」 / 「異教徒の晩餐」 / 「鮎踊る夜に」 / 「不如意の人」 / 「支那そば館の謎」 / 「居酒屋 十兵衛」

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Violet Cocktail

『未完成な音色』 (Garnet Crow)

A glimpse of hope I had dared embraced only once
But what's left dancing inside your hands is an imperfect tone of color
"An Imperfect Tone" (Garnet Crow)

This is one of the books I'm really interested to see in an English translation. And you really have to read the last chapter of this book to understand that.

Kamiki Raichi is a seventeen-year young beauty, whose appearance is enough to rouse the most primal and sexual urges of every man who places his eyes on her. Raichi is very aware of that and thus earns quite a lot of money with the practice of enjo kousai, or 'compensated dating'. Which theoretically does not always mean sexual services, but in the case of Raichi, she is definitely performing a lot of sexual favours for her clients. She has a flat fee of fifty thousand yen a time for any client, but she chooses her clients carefully. She also has five special regular clients, for whom Raichi has reserved one day of the week for all of them (she is off in the weekends). These regular clients all have their own toothbrush in Raichi's apartment, all in a different color. What most of her clients don't know is that Raichi is also quite intelligent and while her work occasionally causes her to get in dangerous situations, she always manages to think her way out and solve a crime or two on the way out. In Hayasaka Yabusaka's short story collection Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan  ("Rainbow Toothbrush - Kamiki Raichi On the Loose", 2015), we are given a glimpse in the lives of Raichi and her clients.

Hayasaka Yabusaka's debut novel, Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case", 2014), was quite a surprise last year. The main trick was shocking and I will probably remember it until the end of days, but I was also quite surprised at the erotic scenes in the book. The sexy Raichi had quite a few erotic adventures over the course of the novel, but the shocker was that those scenes were actually integral part of the detective plot. Vital clues, important hints, all kinds of important points of the plot were skillfully and carefully hidden within the descriptions of Raichi's bed-activities and the sex scenes were thus not simply there 'for the sex'. Niji no Ha Brush is the second book in the series, released just a half year after Hayasaka's debut and continues with Raichi's adventures.

The opening story, Murasaki wa Utsuroiyuku Mono no Iro ("Purple Is The Color That Changes"), starts off right away with a murder that reminds you this is a Hayasaka book. A secretary is found murdered in the office, her upper-body in undressed state and leaning over a copier. It almost appears like a scene from a porn film. The strange thing about the crime scene however is that the copier has made twelve photographs of the breasts of the victim, all about one hour after another. The murderer must have made those boob-copies him (or her)self, as the copy machine has no timer function and the blood spots made by livor mortis on the copies show they are really made of the victim herself. But why do such a crazy thing? One of the suspects is the victim's boss, but he has an alibi as he spent some fun time with his mistress. Who to the surprise to the police officer in charge is Kamiki Raichi. And he is surprised because he too is one of Raichi's regulars. The reason behind the breast copies is actually a neat variation of one of the old patterns of detective fiction, but it is actually 'camouflaged' pretty well, I think. The trick itself too is a good modern update to an old trick and works quite well in this story. A fairly solid beginning of the volume. Also: there's some great hinting spread throughout the story to a certain reveal that is quite original.

Ai wa Sekaijuu no Jeans wo Someteiru Iro ("Indigo is the Color Dying Jeans All Over the World") details the first encounter between Raichi and the police officer who also appeared in the previous story. Raichi happened to be in a love hotel where a murder had happened. While the police did find video material of the murderer and the victim entering the building, and of the murderer leaving the building, the face of the murderer was sadly enough not visible. Bored with waiting, Raichi points out a fatal flaw in the police's thinking and quickly helps the investigation towards the right direction. Quite a short story and rather simple actually. It tries to play with social conventions, but I think that in this time and age a lot of people would have thought of this solution. Not nearly as shocking as that of Hayasaka's debut work.

Ao wa Umi to Manicure no Iro ("Blue is the Color of the Sea and Manicure") on the other does manage to come close to the shock-effect Hayasaka's debut novel had. Raichi is on the look for a girl who was also into enjo kousai, but who lately appears to have disappeared. Raichi traces her to a mansion in a remote fishing village, where the girl has joined a sexual cult, centered around a massively-shapen leader. Raichi stays one night, but the leader is murdered in a locked room that night and suspicion falls on her as the only new face around.

And it's fairly brilliant, if a tad silly. I doubt anyone would guess the main twist at the end of the story in advance, yet there are actually quite a lot of hints pointing towards it. It also fits with the erotic, at times slightly vulgar and shocking tone of the book: I doubt this trick would work in any other series, and I don't think I would have been able to accept it so easily if it had been any other series. This is a story, a trick that only can be done with Kamiki Raichi and that's a good thing.

Both Midori wa Suirishousetsu Goyoutatsu no Iro ("Green is the Color of the Purveyor of Detective Novels") and Ki wa Okane no Nioi no Iro ("Yellow is the Color of the Smell of Money") are very short stories (10 pages?), that deal with simple problems: in Green, Raichi thinks someone has hidden a camera in her apartment, while in Yellow, she tells about why she once ripped up the money she had received from a classmate who wanted to have a turn with her. Green is a fairly well-clued story that once again works towards a shocking truth, but Yellow is not as strong: one particular hint is good, but the conclusion is not really rewarding, nor does the story feel as tightly plotted as others in the book.

Daidai wa ??? no Iro ("Orange is the Color of ???") and Aka wa Kamiki Raichi Jishin no Iro ("Red is the Color of Kamiki Raichi Herself") form a set, with Orange first apparently being an episode from Raichi's past, and Red a story that asks the question: who exactly is Kamiki Raichi? What follows is a strange story I really can't write too much about, but let's say it's a neat meta-ending to the volume. Twists after twists are presented to the reader, all properly hinted across the book and the story works as a showcase for the kind of logic Hayasaka utilizes throughout this volume. It's a fairly fun and interesting experiment in deduction, but ultimately feels a bit lacking because there just obviously is no real conclusion to it all. Fun to see how to hide hints and to do deductions, but as a standalone story, a bit lacking.

Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan was all in all a fairly solid continuation of the Kamiki Raichi series. The type of logic employed in these stories follow the reasonings we know of writers like Ellery Queen, but the erotic touch to the stories manage to set the series apart from other detective series, as well as the sometimes crazy ideas Hayasaka comes with (crazy in a good sense of the word). It manages to shock, but always never just for that purpose: beneath Raichi's sexy appearance, there is really a well-plotted detective story, and definitely worth reading, even if it misses the oomph of the first novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 早坂吝 『虹の歯ブラシ 上木らいち発散』: 「紫は移ろいゆくものの色」 / 「藍は世界中のジーンズを染めている色」 / 「青は海とマニキュアの色」 / 「緑は推理小説御用達の色」 / 「黄はお金の匂いの色」 / 「橙は???の色」 / 「赤は上木らいち自身の色」

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rain Man

I walk down the lane
With a happy refrain
Just singin', 
Singin' in the rain
"Singin' in the Rain"

Now I think about it, I don't think I have that many books with a bright yellow cover...

It's raining cats and dogs, but as the Kazegaoka High School Table Tennis Club trains under the roof of the old gymnasium, it's business as usual. While the school also has a more modern gymnasium, this building is still used by several of school clubs, like the Table Tennis Club, the Badminton Club and the Theater Club. With the last classes finished, people walk in and out the old gymnasium preparing for their club activities. Table Tennis club members are doing warming up excercises while the Theater Club prepares the stage and raises the curtain. But to the shock of all in the gymnasium, the rising curtain reveals the stabbed body of the Broadcasting Club president on stage. A preliminary investigation by the police however reveals that this murder was committed under impossible circumstances: all the entrances to the gymnasium were observed or blocked since the time the victim entered the building, making this a locked building murder! Fearing that the police might accuse the Table Tennis Club captain as the most obvious suspect, Yuno, a fellow member, asks the help of genius student Urazome Tenma, a second-year who according to the rumors actually lives in the high school. The highly intelligent, anime otaku agrees to help (for a price) and sets out to solve the locked room murder in Aosaki Yuugo's debut novel Taiikukan no Satsujin ("The Gymnasium Murder", 2012).

The book also carries the alternate English title The Black Umbrella Mystery, which invokes the Ellery Queen spirit the book is indeed going for. In fact, the marketing slogan for Aosaki Yuugo is "the Heisei period Ellery Queen", which should give you an idea about the type of mystery you can expect from Taiikukan no Satsujin. And yes, a black umbrella is of importance to the plot.

Man, I've been waiting for years for the paperback version of this book to be released! Aosaki debuted in 2012 with this book and it caught my attention immediately: it had a very bright and catchy cover (the hardcover and paperback versions have different, but similar covers), the title was a funny parody on Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series and Aosaki was a follower of the Queen school of logic and reasoning. Still, if possible I try to get the paperback versions, so I waited until 2015...

And starting with the conclusion: Taiikukan no Satsujin is indeed a great mystery novel in the Queen tradition. Well, a locked room mystery might not seem Queen-ish, but the way the impossible murder is solved is definitely done with our beloved logical reasoning. In fact, I think Taiikukan no Satsujin is a good effort in conciling the logical reasoning type of mystery with the more mechanical type of locked room murders. Genius student Tenma logically deduces when the murder must have happened, the actions the murderer took after the deed and the only method by which the locked room murder must have been completed. The actual method of achieving the locked room murder is a bit disappointing, to be honest, as it felt a bit simple, but nothing but praise for the way with which it is proven that this was the solution, as it is a a great deductive piece of work. And for the fans: there's a proper Challenge to the Reader included!

And I think I've mentioned it earlier, but I have a weakness for mystery novels set at schools. I love the energy and wacky antics in Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series for example and there is a similar atmosphere in Taiikukan no Satsujin. The various students have funny dialogues with each other and the school dynamics come quit alive within the pages of the book. A minor point I have is the amount of students appearing in the story though: while they are actually practically all of them of importance to the mystery, I still couldn't shake away bad memories from the Insanely Homogeneous Student Group of 17(!) from Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game. Still, I think Taiikukan no Satsujin shows that juvenile characters doesn't mean juvenile mystery: Taiikukan no Satsujin is probably one of the complex plotted mysteries I've read this year and has the sort of logical complexity rarely seen outside of Japan nowadays.

Aosaki is a very young writer (born 1991) and it shows in his protagonist Urazome Tenma, an anime otaku who secretly lives in the high school. A lot of his dialogue is filled with references to anime and manga and while I am certainly not unfamiliar with those topics (heck, I write professionaly about those topics outside this blog), I have to admit that I didn't get all of the references, especially as many of them seem to refer to more 'recent' anime (I've rather conservative taste in that respect). Anyway, I can easily imagine that the characters in Taiikukan no Satsujin appeal better to a younger public, rather than the people who have been following the genre for more than three, four decades.

Anyway, I enjoyed Taiikukan no Satsujin a lot and I hope the paperback version of the other novels in the Urazome Tenma series follow soon. And as Aosaki is still very young, I am rather curious to see how his style will develop in the following years.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾 『体育館の殺人』

Monday, April 13, 2015

Face Death (Duel)


"Life is a game"
"Battle Royale"

I know both Colosseum and Coliseum are both right, but I always find the latter spelling just... strange.

Seven men and women find themselves trapped inside a small building called the "Summer House". None of them have any memory of how they got there. An unknown 'host' of the party tells them the reason behind their abduction through a computer: they are to participate in a competetive murder game. A killer is amidst the participants and it is up to the rest to identify the identity of the murderer (or be killed). At the same time, the same game is held at a different building (the "Winter House") with seven other people. The only way to be released from the game (and win heaps of money) is to identify the murderers of both houses. The group that doesn't win will be eliminated (in the 'from life' meaning). Each house is given one hint to the identity of the murders and a computer and webcam to communicate with the other house and so a thrilling game of detecting and survival begins in the 2004 mini TV series Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiamu ("The Ultimate Deduction Colosseum").

Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiamu ("Extreme Deduction Colosseum") is a four part TV series based on Yano Ryou's debut novel, with which he won the 30th Mephisto Prize (for more about the Mephisto Prize, see this review). To have your debut novel produced as a TV series in the same year is quite a feat and I have to admit, the premise of the story is quite interesting. A classic closed circle situation, combined with a competetive game element where each groups tries to extract as much information from the other group without giving too much away (because you need to deduce both murderers before the other group does). A bit like the Mafia/Werewolf game. So I went in with some expectations.

But what I got was proof that a good idea does not lead to a good production. Or in this case, two okay ideas (the competetive survival detection game and one part of the solution) do not make a good production. For this could have been a great show about a closed circle situation with Liar Game-esque elements. But it isn't. Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiamu is a boring show that never manages to really develop the ideas it has and instead drags on and on with one bad twist after another.

Tense closed circle situation of knowing you're locked in with a murderer? It would have been nice if the characters would have been fleshed out more and if they would actually put a bit more effort in 1) trying to discover the murderer and 2) trying to defend themselves. Competetive element with the other group where it pays off to lie to the other group? Would have been nice if we'd seen a bit more of the other group and had more (competetive) interaction with them. Finding the two murderers? The unknown host gives the participants hints to the identity of the murderers, but basically nobody bothers to think about the hints until the end of the show, because it's the end of the show and they need to wrap up the story (let's just ignore the fact the hints are kinda meh and the ending is quite horrible). The novelty of the solution hinges on two ideas, one of which predictable and highly improbable to succeed in the context of this story, one of which a semi-good idea, but it feels like Yano just had one good idea and padded the rest of the story out with underdeveloped elements he picked up from here, there and everywhere.

I haven't read the original novel, so I don't know how many of my complaints are Yano's responsibility and to what extent the production team behind the TV show is to blame, but going by reviews of the novel, it seems that the original novel is indeed kinda disappointing and that the TV show made no real improvements.

And Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiam is something I could have really liked, had it been done better. The people-kidnapped-and-forced-to-find-the-murdered-among-them-game plot device for example is something I quite enjoyed in the Danganronpa games. Groups in a competetion for surivival where lying is a very important strategy was what made Liar Game so awesome. Buildings with weird architecture is what drives Ayatsuji Yukito's Yakata series. But Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiam does not even come close to these productions.

So yes, Kyokugen Suiri Koroshiam was disappointing. It's a dreary show that never impresses, never surprises, heck, it hardly even attempts to keep the viewer's attention. And I find it disappointing the show never really develops the potential it had, but I find it even more disappointing that is just isn't an amusing show. I'd rather have an average, enjoyable series with little potential to grow beyond what it gives you, than a boring series with nothing but virtual potential.

Original Japanese title(s): 矢野龍王(原) 『極限推理コロシアム』

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Mousetrap

「最愛」 (KOH+)

You don't have to love me
But watch over me from far away
"My Greatest Love" (KOH+)

In general, Japanese publishers have not forgotten the importance of good cover art (I once even wrote a post on that). But I have to admit, I have no idea what is going on in the cover of today's book.

Renjou Mikihiko (real name: Katou Jingo) was a critically acclaimed writer in many genres, who passed away in October 2013. He debuted as a detective fiction writer and he is still fondly remembered for his devilish short stories, as well as his fantastic prose. I reviewed his short story collection Modorigawa Shinjuu in the past, which was a great outing to a romantic Japan of the past. And today, another of his short story collections! Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") is a much-praised short story collection that had been out of print for some years, but was republished recently (in a slightly edited version compared to the first release and with a much worse cover), as Renjou's death probably gave demand a little push. The volume collects nine stories set in post-war Japan, all written in the period between 1981 ~ 1983, with no ties between the stories.

It's also a really, really good mystery short story collection! It ranked 86th in 2012's Tozai Mystery Best 100, but had the volume been more easily available, I think this would have ranked much higher, similar to how Yamada Fuutarou didn't even rank once in the original Tozai Mystery Best 100 of 1985, but then no less than four times (with Youi Kinpeibai, Taiyou Kokuten and Meiji Dantoudai among others) in 2012 when more of his work had been made available. While the nine stories in Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni are not connected, they do share the same structure and style. That is, basically all stories feature 1) a surprise twist and 2) some tragedy born out of human (romantic) relations. This was also the case for Modorigawa Shinjuu, and while it may seem like Renjou was a one-trick pony, he sure knew how to present his trick in a myriad of different ways.

The twist in Renjou's stories are not unlike those you see in Chesterton and Christie's works: you are presented a certain situation but at the end of the story you realize it was the other way around. It wasn't a V, but /\! He wasn't entering the store, he was exiting it backwards! Well, a lot better than my examples of course, but you get the idea. Most of the stories do feature a criminal plot, but there is always more than seems at first sight. And don't worry, this isn't nearly enough to spoil the experience: I already knew Renjou's modus operandi from Modorigawa Shinjuu and I was still fooled almost every time. And I enjoyed it!

The stories are also always about human relations. Spurned love, old love, unrequited love, revenge, oh my god so much revenge. Somebody will die the moment one person falls in love with another person in Renjou's world. Always. Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni is an amazing story collection, but it will leave you with melancholic, heavy feelings and even a bit of despair. I read little fiction outside of the mystery genre and I usually focus on tropes / plots, so I seldom mention topics like 'readability' or the quality of the prose in my reviews, but man, Renjou Mikihiko could really write. Then again, he was a pretty allround writer it seems (not just mystery) and it really shows in this collection. It is a mystery collection, but I think this volume has enough to offer to those not into the genre.

The volume starts right away with a bang with Futatsu no Kao ("Two Faces"). An artist is called in the middle of the night by the police, who tells him his wife has been murdered in a hotel room. The artist is baffled. Not because his wife is dead. But because he just killed his wife at home, and buried her in the garden himself. At the hotel, the artist discovers that the body there is probably indeed his wife, so that raises the new question: who did he bury in the garden? The concept of the story is already captivating, but once you realize how extremely well plotted and hinted story is, especially if one considers the fact it's a very short story, you can't help but be amazed by it all. 

Kako kara no Koe ("Voice from the Past") too is a story that can go straight in the Great Canon of Mystery Short Stories. It starts with a letter from a ex-policeman written to his ex-collegue/senior. He reminisces on an old kidnapping case they worked on together, which eventually led to the writer quitting the force. But as he tells his tale, he slowly unravels a most surprising truth behind everything, which makes this easily one of the most surprising and best kidnapping mystery stories I've ever seen.

Kaseki no Kagi ("The Fossil Key") is about a young disabled girl who lives with her father in a small apartment room. The girl's mother occassionally sneaks into the apartment to visit her daughter during the day, but having discovered that, the father decides to change the front door lock one day. The lock is changed in the afternoon, with the landlord taking care of the keys. With the daughter having a nap, the landlord locks the door and goes out for a small errand, but when she returns, she discovers that someone had attempted to strangle the disabled girl. But how did the assaillant get in, as she was the only one with the new lock's door? All the stories were feature some sort of twist ending, but this is the story that keeps giving: it's a twist festa, but each and every twist is fairly hinted and you can never say it came out of nowhere. In terms of complexity of plot, I think this is the best of the collection.

Kimyou na Irai ("A Strange Request") is about a private eye who is first hired by a man to follow his wife, then the wife hires the detective to follow her husband, and again vice versa....By the time you're near the end, you'll have been shown a very strange couple who obviously don't trust each other, and a Philip Marlowe-esque private detective who is used as a ball in the rally game between the two. And when you finally realize what was going on, you hit yourself for not noticing it earlier, despite all the hints.

Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni ("Oh Night, For My Mice") lends its title to the whole collection, which suggests it's the best, or at least the most impressive one of the nine stories, right? Well, it's certainly a fantastic story and maybe indeed the best. The story of a man bent on vengeance on the doctors responsible for his beloved wife's death (whom he calls his mouse) seems straightforward enough, but not only is the outcome of his vengeance very surprising, the prose of this story leaves quite an impact on the reader. Note that basically all stories are very well-written, but the pain and agony of the narrator of this story in particular feels real, and the melancholic atmosphere that pervades the whole collection is at its strongest here.

It's around Nijuu Seikatsu ("Double Life") that the collection loses a bit of its momentum. The story of a love... square? quartet? two points of the square wanting to kill the other two points is a simple one, but the revenge plan has its original points and the story does feature one fantastic plot twist. But while this is a very good story by most standards, I do have to say that by the standard of this particular collection, it feels a bit lacking. The least impressive story in the collection is Daiyaku ("Double"), which is about a famous actor planning to kill his wife using a body double as his alibi. The story is quite alright as a Doppelgänger horror-esque story, but not even Gladstone Gander could caused all the coincidences come together for the final twist. Especially considering the neat plotting of all the other stories, Daiyaku feels disappointing. Bei Shiti ni Shisu ("Death in Bay City") finally is about a gangster out for revenge having spent six years in prison for a murder he didn't commit (by know you may have noticed that Renjou's relations basically all end in deadly revenge). I found it to be a rather bland story, with a simple plot and set-up, which doesn't go nearly as far as the first couple of stories in the collection.

The final story in the collection, Hirakareta Yami ("Open Darkness"), is quite different from the previous stories: they all relied on twist endings and turning around situations, but this last story is a very conventional whodunit. A gang of delinquent youths ask for the help of their teacher Masa when one of them is murdered during a stay in the villa of one of the member's uncle. Clues seem to point to the victim's girlfriend, but Masa thinks there might be more behind the murder. And there is, but the road from hints to the solution is a bit bumpy. The story has two good ideas, the first one being a hint for the solution, which needed a little bit more attention for it to really work as a fair hint. The second idea is that this story features an extremely original motive for murder, but it's also an incredibly silly motive, at least, in the world of this story (and most worlds). I can imagine that this motive would be a lot more convincing if it was used in a more special setting, but it just doesn't feel right in a normal setting.

There's not much more I can say about Yoru yo Nezumitachi no Tame ni. Ayatsuji Yukito praised this volume as 'a masterpiece collection you must read' and while I think the second half has not as much impact as the first half, the word masterpiece is really the only word that describes that amazing first half. This collection makes it quite easy to understand why Renjou Mikihiko was such a respected writer in the business and as the recent reprint has made this volume available again, I don't think anyone has an excuse to not dive into Renjou's beautifully crafted worlds of twists and romance.

Original Japanese title(s): 連城三紀彦 『夜よ鼠たちのために』: 「二つの顔」 / 「過去からの声」 / 「化石の鍵」 / 「奇妙な依頼」 / 「夜よ鼠たちのために」 / 「二重生活」 / 「代役」 / 「ベイ・シティに死す」 / 「開かれた闇」

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Les Confidences d'Arsène Lupin

「時の階段」 (LieN)

When I've reached the top of the stairway of time
I'll be able to be with you, that's what I feel

I'll admit it right away, the reason I bought this book was because it said Lupin on the cover. Even though I knew it had nothing to do with Arsène Lupin.

In December 1975, the English language teacher Mine Maiko was found dead at the high school she worked at. The discovery of a suicide note closed the case. Until fifteen years, minus one day later. An anonymous tip tells the police that Mine Maiko's death was not suicide, but murder and that her death was connected to "The Lupin Scheme" three students had concocted. With only twenty-four hours to go before the statute of limitations passes, the police wastes no time in tracking and bringing (the now adult) Kita Yoshio, Tachibana Souichi and Tatsumi Joujirou to the police station to hear what they have got to say. And so we are told of three high school students who planned to steal the answers of the end of semester tests fifteen years ago and the shocking discovery they made during their heist. Can the police find out what happened to the teacher before the time limit in Yokoyama Hideo's Lupin no Shousoku ("News of Lupin", 2005)?

Lupin no Shousoku is kinda Yokoyama Hideo's debut novel, and not at the same time. He won the Suntory Mystery Grand Prize in 1991 with this novel, but the book was not published until 2005, many years after Yokoyama's "real" debut as a novelist. By that time, he had already made a name for himself as a mystery writer. Lupin no Shousoku was also adapted as a TV drama in 2008.

While Yokoyama had revised the original manuscript for the 2005 paperback release, I do have to say that I was surprised Lupin no Shousoku read so incredibly well for a debut novel. The two-sided plot (the execution of the Lupin Scheme in the past and the race against the clock in the present) each drive the story forward and the narrative jumps at just the right times between the two storylines to keep you on your toes. The Lupin Scheme plot is exciting on its own, as it depicts how the three students plan and execute a heist, while the present day plot reacts to the information revealed in the Lupin Scheme plot, resulting in new suspects and theories as the story progresses.

I do have to say that the present day plot, where the police only has twenty-four hours until the statute of limitations pass, is the weaker part of the novel. While everyone is yelling that they only have a few hours left to solve the case and all cops with time on their hand (and those who don't too) are working on the case, the reader mostly sees scenes where the supervising police officer is just standing there, listening to the story of the three behind the Lupin Scheme in the questioning rooms. Sure, the cops are listening while looking at the clock and acting nervously, but they are just listening. It's all they can do, I give them that, but it could have been presented a bit more dynamic to strengthen the time limit idea. Standing does not convey haste. Oh, and a bit of trivia: I've read/seen a lot of mystery stories that feature the statute of limitations (both civil and criminal cases), but the statute of limitations on crimes resulting in death was abolished in 2010, so I wonder whether these kind of stories will disappear some day as the concept disappears from the public's mind.

Oh, and this is part of a major plot twist, so I'll keep it vague, but the depiction of a certain characteristic of a certain person... was absolutely horrible. I get what Yokoyama wanted to do, I think, but he could have chosen his wording a bit more carefully...

As a mystery novel, Lupin no Shousoku is entertaining enough: there is some good hinting within the confessions of the Lupin Scheme conspirators and the heist part of their stories is also good. But I always find these kind of stories a bit weak, because it's all based on recollection of events that happened many years ago and heck, I don't even remember things that happened last week in such detail, let alone of fifteen years ago! Lupin no Shousoku does nothing to remedy that and the way evidence at the end turns up after fifteen years, is a bit unbelievable. Nothing game-breaking, but it is something I notice.

Oh, and because I have avoided the topic up until now, even though it is quite heavily promoted: Lupin no Shousoku's plot is also connected to the unsolved, real-life 300 million yen robbery case, which is a popular topic in Japanese crime fiction. But mind you, the Mine Maiko Murder is the main focus, the 300 million yen robbery is just slightly connected.

Lupin no Shousoku is an entertaining crime novel that will satisfy most readers. I have some very minor with the plot, but it's overall a fun heist and whodunit novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 横山秀夫 『ルパンの消息』