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』

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