Thursday, June 25, 2015

Silky Lady

せっかくのDress upも あなたには見えてないし
「As The Dew」 (Garnet Crow)

It's raining unfortunately, but let's still go out as we planned
It's not like you had even noticed I'm all dressed up for this
"As The Dew" (Garnet Crow)

My post and introducing quotes titles are always mystery-related, but lately, it's been more like music-from-mystery-shows-and-games related...

Fancy dress shop Cristophe et Cie is not the only home to the material dreams of women, it's also a focal point in the lives of the gossip girls who work there. It is also not a very peaceful place, with propretier Bevan having too much interest in his female employees, an emotionally unstable designer Cecil (who is probably 'we-can't-really-call-him-gay-but-he-sure-is') and a battle by the women for a position in the new branch store in Deauville. But you'd think this would at the worst result in a scratched faces and pulled hair, right? But for some reason Miss Doon (one of the top candidates for the Deauvill position) ends up dead due to ingestion of oxalic acid. Was it an accident, suicide or murder? Young Inspector Charlesworth, who feels genuine, true love for almost every girl he meets is set on the case, which is much more confusing than it seems at first in Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels (1941).

I haven't read much Brand, but the two books and one movie I've seen all starred her Inspector Cockrill. Death of Jezebel also had Inspector Charlesworth making an appearance, and I was quite surprised at that at the time because I hadn't known that Charlesworth was another of Brand's series characters. Death in High Heels was both Charlesworth and Brand's own debut novel and this novel was written based on Brand's own working experience in a dress shop, which she apparently didn't like really much. One problem I had with this book was that a lot of the female characters kinda resembled each other, and while they may have felt all distinct to Brand (I think the girls were based on her co-workers), it was quite hard to keep all the girls apart, as they act so alike (still not as bad as Arisugawa Alice's Gekkou Game, which featured like seventeen students).

I mentioned in my review of Death of Jezebel that Brand's mysteries seem to feature two points: fake solutions and a crime commited under observation. These two elements are featured up to some extent in her debut novel, but nowhere was good as in her later work. Oxalic acid appears very early on stage, but even though the poison moves from one person to another several times, enough witnesses remain who all claim that none of the poison could have been stolen for use on the victim. A lot of attention is given to the observed movements of the poison, but the way it is presented to the reader is quite bad: it's hard to follow and it is difficult to visualize what Brand really meant. It could, and really should have been described and presented much better (with little diagrams or something like that). Also, character momevent is also fairly important and it would have helped my enjoyment of the book a lot if it had included a map of Cristophe et Cie, for it really helps figuring out the mystery, but it is hard to decipher the layout of the store just based on the prose. Then again, I usually think that maps can improve any mystery story.

Death in High Heels does not really feature fake solutions in the sense of carefully constructed alternative hypotheses, as much as just 'we don't have enough evidence to rule things out, so we have enough room for a myriad of possible solutions'. The plot meanders quite a bit actually and can get quite boring as little progress is made in the investigations for a long time. The plot also involves a lot of stacked coincidences, which can work to make a mystery more interesting, but here it makes a rather minimalist plot drag even more. The final answer features an okay hint, but it appears so late in the story that it feels rather artificial, as the incubation time of the hint and the revelant information is just too short.

The book has a certain Christie-esque vibe to it, by the way. From the women to the poison-centered story and even the final hint, I can't help but thinking Brand was inspired by Christie here and I wonder what Christie would have done with the same plot.

Death in High Heels is an okay detective story, but I didn't enjoy it as much as her later novels. It all feels less polished, less readable, less entertaining than later books and I definitely recommend those books over this one.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

番外編: The Decagon House Murders Released

Hmm, in hindsight, I kinda wrote all I wanted to write on the topic in the announcement of this announcement, so maybe you should read that post too.

I already announced the release of the first English translation of AYATSUJI Yukito's debut novel back in May, but today I can announce the book is finally available (both paper and e-book, I think)! Locked Room International's release of The Decagon House Murders (Jukkakukan no Satsujin) was translated by me and is a brilliant homage to And Then There Were None where a group of students (and members of the local university mystery fiction club) are killed one by one during a little camp on a little island with a strange ten-sided building. It would be the first novel of the so-called shin honkaku (new orthodox) movement in Japan, which called for a return to smart, puzzle plot mysteries. Many writers would follow in the wake of The Decagon House Murders, making it one of the most important novels in recent detective fiction history in Japan. This English release includes an introduction by SHIMADA Souji (of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) and a (short) postface by me.

Publishers Weekly gave the book a starred review and selected the book as one of their Best Summer Books 2015. My own review of the Japanese version is here and other opinions of my fellow Japanese mystery bloggers about the original Japanese version can be found at My Japanese bookshelf and In the Threshold of Chaos.

And I'd of course love it if you would read the book, not just as the translator, but even more so as someone who really became a fan of Ayatsuji's works after reading this book and even went to study in Kyoto and like Ayatsuji, became a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club.

And to finish with a quote from myself, made in 2011 in my review of the Japanese version:

But yes, Jukkakukan no Satsujin. Important. New Orthodox School. Read It.
Why isn't this translated in English?

I have to admit that I am a bit surprised how that turned out! I should cry out for more English translations and see what happens!

EDIT: Oh, totally forgot that Publishers Weekly also did an interview with Ayatsuji in connection to the book. You can read it here. (Actually, the 'final' product was slightly rewritten, I see, but I was the one who translated the interview.)

EDIT2: The Decagon House Murders was also reviewed by the Washington Post in 'The Decagon House Murders' invokes Agatha Christie - in Japan.

Friday, June 19, 2015


Memento mori

Every time I write a game review, I hope more mystery-focused blogs will discuss mystery videogames one day. Games are fiction too!

Most videogames end with your death, but the videogame Ghost Trick (2010) starts with your death. Protagonist Sissel awakens, looking down at his dead body, only to realize that he is 1) dead and a ghost now and 2) he has no recollections at all of his life... when he was alive. Right next to his dead body, a confrontation between a girl and a hitman results in the murder of the girl, and Sissel surmises his death is connected to that incident too. Sissel then finds out he's got strange ghostly powers now: his ghost can move around by jumping between, and possessing items and even cause them to move ("trick"). What's even more important: by 'possessing' dead bodies, he can jump back in time until four minutes before the time of demise of the body, and by using his new "trick" powers, he can actually prevent the deaths and thus alter time. Realizing the key to finding out why he's dead is the girl who just got herself killed, Sissel saves her life and decides to use his new ghostly powers to find out what is going on that night, why he's dead and most importantly, who he was when he was alive.

(Screenshots are from the iOS version, because they were much easier to find)

Most names tagged on this blog are mystery novelists, but Takumi Shuu is a very special exception. While he is definitely a writer of mystery stories, he works in the game industry and thus his creations are videogames and not novels. There are plently of writers whose works are adapted into videogames, but Takumi Shuu is one of the few people who writes mystery stories that are designed to be videogames from the outset. He made his name as the creator/director/scriptwriter of the Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney videogames, a quirky courtroom comedy-mystery series that succeeded very well in translating the mystery-solving qualities of a detective story to a videogame mechanic that asked the player to actually participate in thinking along (see also this essay by Takumi about mystery videogames). Ghost Trick, originally released in 2010 on the Nintendo DS, was a completely original IP by Takumi, that was nothing at all like Ace Attorney as a game, but still strongly rooted in the mystery genre Takumi so loves. I played the game when it was originally released, but hadn't touched it since then, so I thought it was a good time to revisit the game now on its fifth anniversary (to the day!).

As a mystery story, Ghost Trick is really well done and brimming with originality. Playing a ghost on a quest for his own identity? The story develops in a fantastic pace as you jump between scenes with wonderfully colorful characters who all seem to be connected somehow to Sissel's death and the way the mystery is unveiled as you dig deeper is something to remember. And while some sour mystery fans might cry out that things like ghosts possessing items or time-traveling aren't 'realistic', I can only say it's their loss if they ignore this game. In fact, because Ghost Trick is a game, these concepts are completely fair, as the rules of the game are made very clear right at the start! I love mystery stories where the author goes the extra mile to come up with special circumstances that 1) are fun for the reader and 2) are of importance to the plot and Ghost Trick is an excellent example of how to do fair-play mystery with supernatural elements. By the time you arrive at the last chapter, you'll be surprised how well hinted and structured Ghost Trick is, as you look back and you hit yourself when you realize that that line or that scene had those meanings, like you do with the best of mystery fiction.

I loved the game when I first played it five years ago, and I enjoyed it again this time, but it was only this second time I realized how detached the actual gameplay mechanics are from the story sometimes! In Ace Attorney, the main game mechanic (pointing out contradictions in testimonies) is an integral part of the story. In Ghost Trick however, the narrative and the gameplay feel a bit detached. When you actually control Sissel, you can only move by possessing items: you jump from one thing to another to get from A to B. The item Sissel is possessing can also be used, so when Sissel is possessing the remote control of a TV or a lightstand, he can also switch it on or off. Most often, you use these powers (together with your travel-back-to-four-minutes-before-death power) to prevent the death of somebody (Luck has it that a lot of people connected to Sissel's death die that night). For example, in the very first scene, Sissel manages to postpone the murder on the girl by the hitman a little by possessing a bicycle and distracting the hitman with its bell. Usually, you have to possess, and use a whole series of items within the four minute time limit to succesfully prevent a death, resulting in Rube Goldberg-esque scenarios. Slowly finding out what items to use in what order to create what effect is fun, and these puzzle sections are very reminiscent of the classic game The Incredible Machine. Possessing items and somehow changing destiny never bores and the game throws enough new things at you at set times to keep you on your toes.

But often, these (otherwise great) game sections feel somewhat detached from the main narrative. Sometimes the narrative about Sissel's past and other shady business going on that night is suddenly stopped rather artificially with another unlucky death which Sissel has to prevent, after which the narrative continues again. At one hand, you're solving the mystery of Sissel himself (the main plot), and then you have these gameplay sections, which are completely different (solving the problem of how to prevent a murder/ get from A to B). Not all prevent-the-death sections (or even just 'get from A to B' sections) feel essential to the plot (i.e. could have been left out with slight rewriting), and the inclusion of some game sections felt rather arbitrarily, as if just to fill a quotum. Ghost Trick is not a long game (nor does it need to be because the plot is strong), but I think the game could have been shorter and still just as fun. The integration of plot-game mechanic was much stronger in Ace Attorney (solving contradictions was 'part' of the game, as well as a way to move the plot forward) and while both plot and game mechanics are fun in Ghost Trick, the integration between the two is less strong. Don't get me wrong, the plot-game integration in Ghost Trick is still much and much stronger than most other games: it's just Takumi has done better in the past.

Ghost Trick has a very unique look with excellent animations by the way and as expected from Takumi, the plot and characters are written with a very distinct comedic touch. In fact, I find it disappointing that these kind of comedic, almost slapstick characters are so very rare in mystery fiction. Bold colors, smooth and theatrical animations, it might not be the first thing you think of when thinking of mystery fiction, but it certainly aren't mutually exclusive terms.

Anyway, Ghost Trick is a great game, with a fantastic story and simple, yet satisfying puzzle-solving game mechanics. Is it better than Takumi's own Ace Attorney series? No, I don't think so, because for me, Ace Attorney is simply better as an example of how to present the 'logical puzzle-solving' element of mystery fiction in game-form. Ghost Trick on the other hand is a mystery story, that focuses on mechanical puzzle-solving and in comparison, these game sections are not as tightly connected to the narrative as in the Ace Attorney series. But despite that, Ghost Trick is a fun game that shouldn't be missed by any fan of the mystery genre.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Magic of the Word

Magic of the Word
大丈夫 もしどんな明日に辿り着いたとしても
「Magic」 ( 愛内里菜)

Magic of the Word
It's okay, it doesn't matter what kind of tomorrow we'll arrive at
I can become stronger with just a single word from you
"Magic" (Aiuchi Rina)

I usually write the introducing paragraph as last and it is only now, at the very last moment, that I remember that the TV drama Trick features too features a magician detective rather prominently...

Many moons ago, I wrote a review of Awasaka Tsumao's Kijutsu Tantei Soga Kajou, a short story collection featuring a female stage magician. Unlike Jonathan Creek, Soga was not mostly occupied with impossible crimes, but it was still an enjoyable book. This was partly because the world of stage magic really came alive here: Awasaka was a prolific stage magician (who even won prizes for his performances!) and he made great use of his knowledge when writing the Soga stories. Today's book has a similar history: Clayton Rawson's The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective collects all of the short stories featuring The Great Merlini, a stage magician and amateur detective often called in by the police in impossible crimes. Rawson too was an amateur magician and you can feel the influence of that in each and every story in this collection.

I was kinda surprised I already had a Clayton Rawson tag on this blog, as I was convinced I had never read anything by him. But I had indeed read something by him, but written in his function as editor of EQMM. I think this was the first and only time I added a tag for an editor.

When I first looked at the table of contents of The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective, I was quite surprised at how many stories it featured. But then I discovered that many of these stories are actually very short stories, some just a few pages. They are quite amusing though and I can absolutely appreciate how minimalist these stories are (I don't love Q.B.I: Queen's Bureau of Investigation for nothing!), but it also means I'm not even going to try to discuss these stories separately: they are just too short and I'd give away too much even with a short description. In general, these stories feature one simple problem and the solution usually hinges on just one single hint or mistake by the murderer. Nothing deep and they feel a bit like Encyclopedia Brown stories at times, but like I said, I quite like this format some times. For those interested, the titles of the stories are: The Clue of the Tattoed Man, The Clue of the Broken Legs, The Clue of the Missing Motive, Merlini and the Lie Detector, Merlini and the Vanished Diamonds, Merlini and the Sounds Effects Murder, Merlini and the Photographic Clues and The World’s Smallest Locked Room.

From Another World is the first 'normal' short story and features that famous variant of a locked room murder which has been sealed with tape from inside. A wealthy financier obsessed wih ESP conducts an experiment with a psychic in his office, which has been sealed off with tape to make sure nothing could interfere. That kinda troubles the subsequent investigation in the man's death though, who was found murdered inside the taped room. The solution... is actually always the very first one I think of when I think of the taped locked room trope, so that was kinda disappointing. There are some minor details that make it a bit more interesting, but in general, this is a rather simple story. I haven't seen that many examples of the taped locked room that really impressed me, now I think about it. Heck, at the moment, I can only remember Arisugawa Alice's Malay Tetsudou no Nazo, and that was just an okay one.

I heard Off the Face of the Earth often mentioned as a fantastic impossible disappearance story and it is! A self-proclaimed alien (who looks like a normal human being) claims he can foretell the future and prophecies the disappereance of a girl, who actually does disappear at the stated day and time. The alien then prophecies another disapperance, that of Judge Keeler, whom has been the subject of a corruption investigation. The police keep the judge under constant observation and on the exact day and time foretold, two policemen see the judge enter a phone booth at a train station. But the man doesn't come out and when the policemen go check, they discover the judge is gone, even though they kept their eyes on the booth all the time! Very well plotted and constructed impossible mystery that very much feels like stage magic being performed. Easily the best of the volume.

Nothing is Impossible, the title says, but aliens entering to an locked office, killing one man, stripping another man of his clothes (without messing up their arrangement) and then walking out through the walls is kinda improbable. But it does seem like that's what happened at first sight. Of course, the Great Merlini shows there might be another possible explanation for this all. That explanation is a bit improbable too however, as it means a risky plan with a rather low effort/gain ratio for the murderer. The fundamental ideas (yes, there are multiple plans going on here) are sorta okay, but they don't seem to be used to their full extent here.

Miracles—All in the Day’s Work has Inspector Gavigan be a fortunate, or unfortunate witness to a locked room murder (he was just on his way for some days of rest), when his friend is found murdered inside the office. The biggest problem of this story is that the solution seems way too obvious from the beginning. Yes, there is more to this story with an ingenious plan of the murderer (ahem) with tricks and gimmicks and gadgets and all, but all of that is meaningless if you can figure out the murderer by just asking a very fundamental question that I'm sure anyone would ask themselves.

All in all, I'd say that The Great Merlini: The Complete Stories of the Magician Detective is a decent story collection. Off the Face of the Earth is a keeper, and there are some okay short shories. I'm actually more a fan of the short shorts in this collection than of the 'normal' short stories, but anyway, I certainly enjoyed my first encounter with the Great Merlini and I hope to tackle the novels soon.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Deep Blue Bloom

Blue,over the Blue
それは やさしさへと 
「Blue, Over the Blue」 (『探偵神宮寺三郎 Kind of Blue』より)

Blue, over the blue
Everything changes
That's why it's okay to cry out
Towards gentleness 
"Blue, Over the Blue" (From: Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Kind of Blue)

Oh, wow, I just realized I've now gone through all main entries of the Detective Jinguuji Saburou series!  I still remember when I first discovered the series: I happened to be in Japan in the summer of 2007, just when the 11th game was released and I picked it up in a whim. Have been a big fan of the series since. I have reviewed a lot, but not all of the games on the blog, so I might write a big master post about the series and all the games in the future.

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series
The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn]
Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation]
Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2] 
Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]
The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance]
Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable]
The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS]
Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]

Business has not been well for the Jinguuji Detective Agency in the four months after the events of Innocent Black, which separated private detective Jinguuji Saburou from his assistant Youko. One day, Jinguuji is hired by Imaizumi, a young captain of the Kantou Meijigumi crime syndicate and long-time personal friend of Jinguuji. Imaizumi hopes to get some dirt on Gamou, a veteran gangster who recently returned to the crime syndicate after serving seven years in prison for murder. Gamou was expecting an instant-prison-promotion, but because things are not going as fast as he had hoped, Gamou's been making a lot of trouble lately, under the name of the Kantou Meijigumi. Jinguuji is to find out what Gamou's been up to and get Imaizumi some leverage to get Gamou out of the way. Meanwhile, Jinguuji is also hired by the elderly members of a jazz band: their leader Eddy is in the hospital and he has been mumbling a certain song in his coma. The members want to find that song and let Eddy hear it one last time. The search for the legendary song "Blue, Over the Blue" in the 2004 PlayStation 2 videogame Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Kind of Blue ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Kind of Blue") is a lot more difficult than expected though and full with encounters with new enemies and old friends.

Kind of Blue is the ninth game in the Detective Jinguuji Saburou series, and the direct sequel to Innocent Black (2002). In fact, these two are the only games in the whole series that were designed right from the start to form a set and some plotpoints from Innocent Black are not resolved until Kind of Blue, which is unique in the series (the games usually features standalone stories). The story of Kind of Blue however is not as tightly planned as that of Innocent Black, I think. Like most Detective Jinguuji Saburou games, the plot starts out fairly innocently: the investigation into Gamou's side-business and looking for the song "Blue, Over the Blue". But then the plot suddenly tries to tackle a very big problem (probably the biggest in the history of the series), only to back out at the last moment. I'm almost certain that because of Developer Circumstances and Budgets, a large portion of the original plot was cut, because it was rather obvious they were working towards something really big, only to finish it with a very short "oh, by the way, remember that one thing? It's solved". The rest of the game revolves mainly around the search for "Blue, Over the Blue", which is definitely a great tune, but this investigation is rather slow (even if it does involve murder later on). The overall mystery plot is captivating though (even with the slow pacing) and despite the rather bleak, hopeless tone at the start of the story, Kind of Blue manages to leave the player with a good feeling at the end of the game.

Innocent Black (2002) was very controversial because the plot writers somehow thought that sending Jinguuji's assistant Youko away would be fun. Youko, who is just the second-most important character in the series and had been around since the very first game in 1987. Her return in Kind of Blue was thus not very surprising. But now that I know what happens in both Innocent Black and Kind of Blue, I think it's obvious the writers sent Youko away in Innocent Black, in order to tell the story of Kind of Blue, which really has a blue and sad atmosphere. But sadly, this also involved writing Youko as a character not at all like she was portrayed in earlier games and the end result is not nearly as neat as the writers had hoped for, I think. I'm just glad she's back for the rest of the series.

Innocent Black was the first game in the series developed by WorkJam and I mentioned in the review I thought the game a bit too linear. Kind of Blue is an improvement in that respect. The money system is not even worth mentioning (it's basically an unneccesary system), but Kind of Blue was the first game in the series to introduce the Talk Profile System: an interrogating mechanic where you need to coax people in giving you information, for example by sweet-talking them, threatening them, or pointing out contradictions in their tales. Every opppenent requires a different approach, and it is actually really fun finding out how to get everyone to spill the beans. It really makes you feel like you're one of those hardboiled detectives who outwit their opponenets with fast talking and thinking, coupled with a slight hint of Holmes' observational powers. Since its first appearance in Kind of Blue, the Talk Profile System has appeared on-and-off in following Detective Jinguuji Saburou games.
The soundtrack of Kind of Blue deserves a special mention. While jazz has always been a big influence on the Detective Jinguuji Saburou games, this is the first time the story also involves jazz and the title song "Blue, Over the Blue" is truly a great number. You'll hear it a number of times in the course of the story, as you slowly find more bits and pieces of the composition, but the song never bores. The game does feature a lot of tracks taken from Innocent Black though, strenghtening the idea that these two games form one set together.

Overall though, I think Innocent Black is better than Kind of Blue though. While Innocent Black was less 'gamey' (as in: fewer game mechanics), I thought the overall story and pacing was better than those of Kind of Blue. The one thing that Innocent Black really has against it is the fact the plot is incomplete, as it was obviously produced with the sequel in mind to resolve some plotpoints. Kind of Blue is better than Innocent Black as a videogame (more interesting game mechanics) and manages to restore the faults of Innocent Black's plot, but the main story feels incomplete, and the elements that did make it have very slow pacing.
Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Kind of Blue definitely managed to improve at some points compared to the previous game, but story-wise, it was not as tightly plotted as Innocent Black and also less coherent. Taken together, Innocent Black and Kind of Blue form an interesting set within the long-running series, as I will agree that the developers did had the guts to try something new with the status-quo of the protagonists in these two games, though I can't say it was done successfully. I think that in my mind, Innocent Black and Kind of Blue will forever remain games that will be labeled "interesting stories, that sadly enough were heading for the wrong direction".

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵神宮寺三郎 Kind of Blue』

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Turnabout Showtime

『ゲゲゲの鬼太郎』 (熊倉一雄)

"Ghost don't have school, exams or anything"
"Gegege no Kitarou" (Kumakura Kazuo)

My memories of the school festival at Kyoto University two years ago can be summed up with: sitting in a small room selling club magazines and books, eating fried icecream and crocodile meat. Was probably doing something wrong.

After witnessing the suicide jump of her classmate, 17-year old Machiko moves back to Tokyo and enters the famous Tezuka Academy. She had hoped to get away from all the sad memories, but there's no rest for Machiko: already on her first day at her new school one of her classmates dies after being hit by a car. Machiko is quite shocked to overhear a conversation of the police saying it was not an accident and just as she thinks of looking more into the case, another of her classmates dies under very suspicious circumstances. Who is killing off Machiko's classmates and why? Machiko and her boyfriend's investigations go through twists and turns until all is revealed at the school festival in Akagawa Jirou's Shisha no Gakuensai ("School Festival of the Dead").

Akagawa Jirou is an extemely prolific mystery writer, specializing in light-hearted, light mystery novels. His most famous series is the Calico Cat Holmes series (which stars a cat as a detective!) and his work is often translated to small screen adaptations (and other media, including film and videogames). Shisha no Gakuensai is one of his juvenile mysteries: it's a rather straightforward, simple mystery novel more enjoyed as 'a story' rather than 'a mystery'.

I know there's a film adaptation of Shisha no Gakuensai (starring Fukada Kyouko), though I am not sure whether this novel was written for the film or not. Anyway, the book does feel like a film: the story makes quick cuts, the reader is always witness to the final moments of each murder victim, there's a small love story and especially the ending at the school festival feels incredibly made-for-film (you'll have to read it yourself to understand it though). As a mystery novel, there's absolutely nothing clever about it, and as a reader, you're just along for the ride as you follow Machiko's misadventures, as practically nothing is properly clued.

But considering that I saw that one reviewer on Amazon mentioned (s)he already read the novel in elementary school, I guess that that the novel wasn't aimed at me in the first place. If I was a much younger female in elementary / early middle school, I might have loved it. But then again that's a lot of ifs there. As a mystery though, Shisha no Gakuensai isn't really worth mentioning and even if the ending does have a surprise for the reader, it kinda comes out of nowhere and can not be considered really interesting in terms of mystery plotting. For younger readers, this might be fun though as it is sorta thrilling and all...

I don't read a lot of Akagawa Jirou, but it seems like most of his works feature young female protagonists, very often with an older love interest. This book has 17-year old Machiko and her college student boyfriend, Tantei Monogatari too consisted of the odd couple Naomi and Tsuchiyama. Akagawa Jirou's Sanshimai Tanteidan ("Three Sisters Detective Club") naturally also features female protagonists and Calico Cat Holmes is also female. Most of Akagawa's books I've read are a bit old too, so his somewhat idealized young female protagonists (who juggle between love and detection) can feel quite outdated at times.

I think Shisha no Gakuensai works okay as a mindless mystery-type of story for children, but it's quite bland for most of the time, with only the titular school festival at the very end to make any impression. I'm obviously not the intended public for this book, but I might have enjoyed it reasonably had I been at elementary school, I think. I don't mean that in an insulting way; the publisher actually states that the book is kinda intended for the upper classes in elementary school, I noticed just as I was writing this last paragraph of the review. Ah well, sometimes it's good to read something meant for young and flexible minds!

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎 『死者の学園祭』

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Memory of Butterfly

"Ah, this is kinda relaxed. So hard to turn of my brain. I have to stop thinking.! ........ Hey, it worked! Oh, no, that's thinking..."
"Make Room for Lisa" (The Simpsons)

Doesn't the word "cocoon" actually kinda resemble one? With the round forms and all...

Writer Alice series
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") (1992)
Dali no Mayu ("Dalí's Cocoon") (1993)
Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") (1994)
Sweden Kan no Nazo ("The Swedish Mansion Mystery") (1995)
Brazil Chou no Nazo ("The Brazilian Butterfly Mystery") (1996)
Eikoku Teien no Nazo ("The English Garden Mystery") (1997)
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("The -Castle of Screams- Murder Case") (2001)
Malay Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railroad Mystery") (2002)
Swiss Dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Watch Mystery") (2003)
Nagai Rouka no Aru Ie ("The House with the Long Hallway") (2010)

Doujou Shuuichi was not only known as the owner-director of a jewelry store chain, but also as a great admirer of Salvador Dalí. He owned several of Dalí's art objects and he even sported the same distinctive mustache! But just enjoying art is sometimes not enough to relieve stress, so Doujou also owned his own floating tank, which he used for meditation and rest. Little did he know that he would be falling in eternal rest inside his 'cocoon'. After Doujou missed a meeting at the office, his brother and some employees go looking for him at his house and discover him murdered inside the floating tank. But the crime scene is full of oddities: a clothes basket was overturned, Doujou's clothes are nowhere to be found and most striking: his distinctive Dalí mustache was gone! Himura Hideo, assistant-professor in criminology, once again heads out to the crime scene for his 'fieldwork', together with good friend and mystery writer Arisugawa Alice to solve the mystery of the missing mustache in Arisugawa Alice's Dali no Mayu ("Dalí's Cocoon", 1993).

This was the second book featuring Himura and Alice, released just one year after their debut in the amusing locked room murder mystery 46 Banme no Misshitsu. While the fourth novel in the series also featured an impossible crime, Dali no Mayu is more like a classic Queen story, featuring a strange crime scene (as you can guess by the fact that the author and the narrator share the same name: Arisugawa is influenced by Queen). No clothes on the crime scene! A missing mustache! I quite liked this premise and was hoping for something baffling with long Queenian deduction chains like Arisugawa had written in other novels like Kotou Puzzle.

And I really shouldn't have that high expectations. Dali no Mayu is not a bad mystery novel, but very bland comparing to other novels in the series, or specifically the ones before and after it. The initial premise is good, but the plot feels like it had several loose ideas strung together in a rather uninspired way. A lot of the mystery is already resolved halfway through the book not through the power of the mind, but sheer luck of the police and the rest of the book feature red herrings that feel a bit too much like red herrings: as if they were just written to pad out the story, rather than to improve on the story. There were at least two distinct moments where I rolled my eyes in disbelief. Was that really believable?! Would anyone really have done that?!  There are some good ideas in Dali no Mayu for an excellent mystery novel (I especially like the idea behind the role of the murder weapon, though that again is burdened by something really unbelievable), but it feels like every idea is just executed at just half of what Arisugawa could have done with them.

Oh, and a quick trip to Japanese fan-culture: it's been a while since I read the first novel in the series, so I can't remember whether the Writer Alice was like this from the start, but man, this second novel already feels strongly aimed at fujoshi with Himura and Alice's interactions. I had always thought that the shift towards catering to the fujoshi public came later, but putting Himura and Alice in situations that causes the fandom to squeal in pleasure was apparently already present this early in the series. Heck, nowadays I have the feeling that Arisugawa Alice only writes really good mystery novels for his Student Alice series, while he leaves the less complex plots for the Writer Alice series, which simply sells because of its fujoshi public. There's a reason why those audio dramas of this series (reviews here, here, here, here and here) are produced by Momogre. Not that I'm not trying to be antagonistic or dismissive of a rather big group of fans or something, I just wished the mystery plots wouldn't seem to play second fiddle to fandom pandering... True, there are some good and even great novels in the Writer Alice series, but in general, the level seems much lower than the Student Alice series.

Dali no Mayu is a slightly disappointing entry in the series. It might have become like this because it was released so soon after the first novel, but both the first and third novel are so much better than this one. Not that Dali no Mayu is bad, but I do have the feeling this could have been much more, as it does feature some good ideas. Maybe good as a light snack.

Original Japanese title(s): 有栖川有栖 『ダリの繭』

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Papillon Rouge

「tell me something」 (Garnet Crow)

The wind at dusk, the city bathing in crimson
A sad scenery that reminds me of something
"Tell Me Something" (Garnet Crow)

I'm not really sure what to think about these covers for old Dutch Judge Dee books: they're so bad they're almost good. Almost.

Bad weather forces Judge Dee and subordinate Ma Joong to change their route back to their own district and make a detour through Paradise Island, a place built on man's cravings for drinking, gambling and prostitution and the govenment's cravings for tax money. The judge has a chance meeting with his esteemed collegue from the district, who asks the judge to help clean up a case of suicide here as he himself has other urgent business to attend to elsewhere. The victim died inside the Red Pavilion, which was locked from the inside, so it seems like an obvious case of suicice, but strangely enough, a similar suicide happened thirty years ago at the same place. And Paradise Island has more secrets in store for the judge: the number one courtesan Autumn Moon seems to have some connection to the suicide and seems rather keen on getting to know the judge really well, while Ma Joong discovers that the suicide of thirty years ago wasn't all what it seems either. And so the judge stays put in Paradise Island until he has solved all the mysteries in Robert van Gulik's The Red Pavilion (Dutch title: Het rode paviljoen, 1961)

The Red Pavilion is the seventh original Judge Dee novel by Dutch Sinologist Robert van Gulik and the second book to feature a more free style: the first five books (among which The Chinese Maze Murders and The Chinese Gold Murders) were heavily styled after the original gong'an detective stories, with a large cast and the formula of three intertwining mysteries for the judge to solve each story. From The Haunted Monastery on, van Gulik greatly reduced the cast (often by sending the judge away traveling with just one or two subordinates) and did not follow the formula set in the original stories so rigidly anymore. The books were still as enjoyable as ever, brimming with atmosphere like only van Gulik could conjure up and as it became less formulaistic, the stories also felt more fun to read as it was harder to guess what would come.

This time, a locked room mystery lays at the core of the story, multiple even, all happening inside the titular Red Pavilion (which also functions as Judge Dee's lodgings on Paradise Island). I have to say, I was very disappointed with the locked room mysteries: the solutions are basically Locked Room Mysteries 101 and while I wasn't expecting something too fancy, I was still hoping for something more complex than what was presented here. There is one part of the locked room mystery that is actually very neat though, which makes very good use of the setting and that what saves this part of the mystery for me. 

The Red Pavilion reminded me very much of Yokomizo Seishi's Jooubachi (1952) by the way, which also featured a mysterious death commited inside a Chinese-style room locked from the inside. Even the solutions have some similarities. I actually wonder if van Gulik actually read the book: they are not really similar, so I'm definitely not suggesting foul play or anything, but I could imagine van Gulik having read Jooubachi and then using very vague, broad elements of that story for The Red Pavilion.

Like with many of the Judge's stories, the bulk of the mystery is made out of intertwining storylines, where a discovery in one storyline, leads to another in a different storyline etc. The books are best enjoyed for seeing these plotlines slowly unraveling, rather than for the challenge of solving the mystery yourself. In general, I quite liked the setting of Paradise Island, but I thought the plot a bit disappointing. Judge Dee stories have a tendency to resemble each other and with a lot of plot twists I had the feeling I had seen them already in earlier books and certain tropes are repeated much too often to be surprising anymore (the Old Mysterious Man for example).

Overall, I found The Red Pavilion to be a slightly underwhelming mystery. The setting is enjoyable, but the mystery plot is a bit predictable and never impresses. The Haunted Monastery, released in the same year, is much more enjoyable overall in comparision, I think.