Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Adventure of the Unbreakable Speckled Band

"I am the last and highest court of appeal in detection."
"The Sign of Four"

In the late Victorian era, it might have taken two months or so, but nowadays, it doesn't take long for a parcel from Japan to arrive in Europe. Of course, unless there's a labor strike with the mailmen. Then a simple game might take three weeks to get delivered, instead of less than a week.

The turn of the 19th century. In the several decades since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has been making giant steps in the course of modernity. One of the big legal reforms is the 1893s Advocat Law, which legalized the existence of defense attorneys who would act in the interests of their defendant clients. The English language major student Naruhodou Ryuunosuke is one of the first people to "enjoy" this new reform, when he is accused of a murder on an British gentleman in the Japanese capital. He somehow manages to prove his innocence, but circumstances bring him all the way from the Far East to the British Empire, where he is to study law as an exchange student. Ryuunosuke learns that friendship is universal, as he gets acquainted with a certain consulting detective called Sherlock Holmes. But at London's Old Bailey, Ryuunosuke also realizes that no matter where on the world, defendants will always need help in the courtroom. Especially if the trials are as zany and complex as in the Nintendo 3DS game Dai Gyakuten Saiban - Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Bouken ("The Grand Turnabout Trial - The Adventures of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke", 2015).

Dai Gyakuten Saiban is the latest entry in the long-running Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney series of courtroom mystery games. The series was originally conceived by Takumi Shuu (and created with a team of just seven people!), but by now it's grown out to one of developer Capcom's biggest franchices, with spin-off games, comic books, a live-action film, theater plays and even a musical. Three actually. The original games are set in the nearby future, with lawyer Naruhodou Ryuuichi (known outside Japan as Phoenix Wright) defending his clients and unmasking murderers in exciting, but also hilarious courtroom trials. Personally, I think the series is responsible for some of the best mystery videogames of all time and I'm a big fan of Takumi's writing. Takumi Shuu was not involved with 2013's Gyakuten Saiban / Ace Attorney 5, as he himself was heading a new project of his own as the director/writer: Dai Gyakuten Saiban is intended to be the first in a completely new spin-off series, set around the turn of the 19th century. While the game's protagonist is the forefather of the protagonist of the main series, Dai Gyakuten Saiban can be played without any knowledge of the rest of the series.

The heart of the series has always been solid mystery plots with a good touch of comedy, set in the courtroom and built around a contradiction sytem: the player, in the role of defense attorney Ryuunosuke, needs to point out contradictions between witness testimony and evidence. Finding a contradiction leads to new testimony, which in turn leads to new contradictions and by slowly unraveling the thread like a True Columbo, the player eventually figures out the identity of the true murderer. Dai Gyakuten Saiban borrows some systems from Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban (also penned by Takumi Shuu), for example having multiple witnesses on the stand at the same time and them reacting to each other. At the same time, it introduces a new Jury Trials system, where Ryuunosuke gets one final chance to convince the six lay judges in changing their guilty vote in a not guilty one by pointing out contradictions between the ideas of the various judges. Think 12 Angry Men. This latter system is not completely new, as it is still built around contradictions, but it is definitely a welcome addition: it visualizes the 'flow' of the trial, as at set times the jury members cast their votes, making it more obvious whether you're winning or losing the trial (and it feels great when you manage to change six guilty votes into not guilty votes).

While it is still a courtroom mystery game at heart, the new setting in the rather old late Victorian era gives the series a fresh boost. Takumi already experimented with the theme in Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban, which had a medieval fantasy theme. Dai Gyakuten Saiban's London manages to provide surprising ideas to the player, as the city is both a familiar and 'strange' setting: most people will know about 19th century London, but there are still unfamiliar elements that feel refreshing to the modern mystery reader (gamer). The concept of Dai Gyakuten Saiban is interesting not just as a courtroom drama set one century ago, it's also one of the few games that is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche/parody (with a more goofy Holmes than most people are used to), as opposed to the many, many videogames featuring a 'faithful' Sherlock Holmes.

In fact, the presence of Sherlock Holmes provides one of the new innovations in this game. In Dai Gyakuten Saiban, Sherlock Holmes is as brilliant as ever. Maybe even too brilliant. In the original novels, Holmes once said "From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Dai Gyakuten Saiban's Holmes certainly is capable of doing that, but the problem is that he is usually looking at the wrong thing, meaning his deductions go the completely wrong way (in a rather brilliant matter). Sherlock Holmes helps Ryuunosuke out in investigations outside the courtroom, but because Holmes' deductions have a tendency to be slightly misdirected, Ryuunosuke sometimes has to 'correct' the great detective. The new "Joint Deduction" system allows Ryuunosuke to find the flaws in Holmes' deductions and help 'bend' the flow of Holmes' deductions in the right direction by switching out keywords in Holmes' flow of deduction.

This new system is not difficult, but oh-so-fun. In a way, it reminds of mystery writers like Queen, Brand and Berkeley, who often show in their books that deductions can change very easily just by adding or removing one little piece in the deduction chain. And of course, helping the deduction of a great detective by nudging him in the right direction is something Conan does A LOT in Detective Conan (where he often has to correct "great detective" Mouri Kogorou's slightly askew deductions by little hints). In fact, I so hope there'll be a Detective Conan game someday with a similar system.

As for the mystery plots; there are some very interesting concept to be found in Dai Gyakuten Saiban. While most cases start out rather simple, the discovery of each new contradiction usually leads to new confusion, slowly making each case more and more complex with each new step. This is basically the opposite of Gyakuten Saiban 5 (not written by Takumi), which always started with 'big' baffling situations right from the start. The third episode, a locked room murder mystery in an omnibus (horse-bus), is probably the best in the game, also becauses it delves deeper into some themes touched upon in earlier games. Other episodes have very original motives, exciting new ways of using the visual medium in a detective story, or feature interesting ways of "legally" cornering the true culprit (as often seen in the best of legal myseries). There are also some ingenious parts where themes and tropes from an earlier episode are mirrored in a later episode in a sort meta-hint-fashion. Interesting is that most of the cases feature a locked room mystery, or more broadly said, an impossible crime angle.

With Sherlock Holmes appearing in Dai Gyakuten Saiban, you can bet there's also a fair share of Holmes references. Episode two in particular is heavily based on a very famous Holmes short story, but manages to add enough original material (and a lot of meta-comedy familiar to Holmesians) to keep it interesting. There are plenty of references to be found in other episodes, both obvious and less obvious ones, so that adds an extra layer of amusement for Holmesians. Until now, I've only read two Sherlock Holmes pastiches from Japan (Shimada Souji's Souseki to London Miira Satsujin Jiken and Yamada Fuutarou's Kiiroi Geshukunin, which both also featured a certain famous Japanese writer in the story. Funnily enough, Dai Gyakuten Saiban is now the third Japanese Holmes pastiche I know also featuring that person.)

As a game, Dai Gyakuten Saiban has attractive visuals as well as an absolutely amazing soundtrack. The one major drawback to the game however is that Dai Gyakuten Saiban is 'incomplete' as it is now. Several important plotpoints are not resolved within this game, with plenty of questions left unanswered and elements still wanting for much more attention. There are simply too many sequel hooks. Previous games were in principle always designed as standalone games, with no major question left unanswered. This is the first time in the series that so obviously anticipates a sequel and it really hurts the game, as finishing the game does not feel nearly as satisfying as with earlier games.

Dai Gyakuten Saiban is certainly one of the most interesting mystery of the last few years, with solid courtroom mystery plots in an original setting, a daring approach to translating detective stories to actual gameplay and an amusing take on Sherlock Holmes lore. Yet, I can't deny it feels incomplete, leaving you wanting for more for the wrong reasons.Still, it's overall a more than solid mystery game that should keep you hooked on the game screen for any hours.

Original Japanese title(s): 『大逆転裁判 -成歩堂龍ノ介の冒險』

Friday, July 24, 2015




A wild translation appeared! And for the first time on the blog, a translation of a Korean story!

Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957) is commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. Unfortunately, none of his works are available in English yet (as far as I know) and so his name is still a fairly obscure one in English-language mystery fiction spheres.

The Great Korean Empire had been annexed by Japan the year after Kim Nae-seong was born, which obviously had rather important political and cultural implications for the country. Kim Nae-seong studied at Japan's prestigious Waseda University and he also made his debut as a mystery writer in Japan, with 1935's short story Daenkei no Kagami ("The Elliptical Mirror"). He published a handful of stories in Japanese and had contact with writers like Edogawa Rampo, but after his graduation, Kim Nae-seong returned to the Korean peninsula in 1936, where he would keep on writing mystery stories, but this time in Korean (some of them were Korean translations of his Japanese stories). In the past I've reviewed Main (1939), one of the novels he wrote after his return to Korea, and I enjoyed it a lot as a Rampo/Leblanc-esque mystery-adventure.

Today I bring you an English translation of his short story Muma (The Fog Devil) (1939), one of his original Korean stories. This translation might thus actually be the first, or at least one of very few translations of Kim Nae-seong's work in English. Muma is not a puzzle plot story like the ones I usually translate, but I definitely enjoy the horror-esque tone of the story. Muma has a distinct Rampo-esque atmosphere, from the focus on two different kind of mystery writers (reminiscent of Rampo's Beast in the Shadows), a thinly disguised "Kim" (Kim Nae-seong) as the narrator, to the distinctly urban setting.

The story is set in Seoul, or Keijou, as the capital was called under Japanese rule. Character and street names are written as they are pronounced in (modern) Korean.

Oh, and you might be thinking, is he doing translations of Korean mystery stories too now? I wish it was so! No, this English translation was based on a Japanese translation of the story by Dokuta posted at Asia Mystery League (permission was given for using his translation as the source text). Obviously, if you can read Japanese, I recommend reading Dokuta's translation over mine.

This will very likely be the only time I'll post a translation of a Korean mystery story here, but I hope you'll enjoy the story!

The Fog Devil (Muma, 1939)
Author: Kim Nae-seong

霧魔 (무마) (1939年)
著者: 김내성 (金來成)

Thursday, July 23, 2015



Break my lies
Notice the tears flowing from my eyes...
Save my heart!!
Kiss my trembling lips...
Now Return to Love
"Break" (Two-Mix)

One of the weirdest courses I've followed at a Japanese university was Ancient Greek. Why would I study another language while I was in Japan to study Japanese?! Then again, I also did a semester Chinese around the same time...

Yamabuki Satsuki, a Master student at C University, is having a little reunion at an old friend's place in the Hattori Apartment Mansion, which also turns out to be the location of a very peculiar murder. Exactly one floor above his friend's room, the body of a student is found, bound with his arms to the ceiling and with a silver knife sticking out of his chest. Two details make this a mysterious murder. One is that the room was locked from the inside: both keys had been found inside the apartment and the door had to be opened by Yamabuki with the caretaker's key. The second peculiarity is the fact that a camera had been set to film the inside of the room slightly before and until after the discovery of the body. Together with his friends Kabeya Megumi and Kurage Kyuusuke, Satsuki tries to solve the locked room mystery of Mori Hiroshi's φ wa Kowareta ne ("Phi Broke Down", 2004), which like a lot of Mori's books carries an alternative English title: Path Connected φ Broke.

φ wa Kowareta ne is the first book in Mori Hiroshi's G series, with the G standing for Greek, as all titles in the book feature a Greek letter. The G series is also connected to several of Mori's other series, among which his most famous series, the S&M series, which starred the student Nishinosono Moe and the assistant-professor Saikawa Souhei. The G series is set several years after the S&M series. Protagonist Yamabuki Satsuki is studying with assistant-professor Kunieda Momoko, who used to be Saikawa's assistant in the S&M series, and S&M's protagonist Moe (now following a Doctor's course) appears a lot as she is doing a joint research with Kunieda.

The G series also mirrors some of the character relations of the S&M series: Kabeya Megumi is like former protagonist Moe the energetic, curious girl who keeps getting interested in murder cases and tries her hand at solving them. Kurage Kyuusuke on the other hand mirrors the former detective-role of assistant-professor Saikawa as a taciturn man who's only interested in solving the case for himself. This said though, prior knowledge of the S&M series is not really needed to enjoy φ wa Kowareta ne and in fact, the overall tone of the books is quite different and much easier to read than the S&M series.

I haven't much exposure to Mori Hiroshi, but the things I have read/heard were always a bit 'heavy'. Subete ga F ni Naru (the first book in the S&M series) basically started the scientific mystery boom, and it had plot strongly connected to 'new' technology like computers, networks, internet and virtual reality, which had only just reached the general public (the book was released in 1994).There's also quite a bit of philosphy on identity there, which is also heavily featured in Mori's 100 Years series. So Mori Hiroshi books always had a heavy image for me.

But not so with φ wa Kowareta ne: the book is relatively short and it's really easy to read. The plot stays focused on the mystery plot from start to end and I really like how the plot develops mostly through the discussions between Yamabuki, Megumi and Kurage. Of course, that's just a personal preference, but I usually enjoy detective stories where the protagonists discuss their theories and bounce ideas off each other. It works good here, as the talks between the three always lead to something, be it a correct or wrong theory and with new information being given to them every now and then, the unfolding of the mystery never comes to a complete stop. I thought this book was a lot more readable than Subete ga F ni Naru.

The locked room mystery is a bit simple, but quite fair and it fits the smaller scale of the G series compared to the we-have-cameras-and-high-tech-security-equipment-and-computers-and-everything locked room mysteries of the S&M series. One of the major hints of this book is actually quite brilliant, because it works at a meta-level and it is extremely difficult to realize it is indeed a hint until it is pointed out to you. Oh, and I usually don't really complain about motives for murders, but I do wish it had been made a bit more clear here, because the murder took a lot of trouble and to have the motive stay so vague at the end... (though motives in Mori Hiroshi stories seem to be a bit vague quite often).

I quite enjoyed φ wa Kowareta ne as a to-the-point locked room mystery with a brilliant hint and fun characters. So I'm definitely going to read more of the G series. I can imagine it works great as starting point to Mori too; the book itself features a competent locked room mystery and is fun to read, but it also offers some links to Mori's other series, so those curious can work themselves 'up' in the Mori universe.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『φ(ファイ)は壊れたね PATH CONNECTED φ BROKE』

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Shot in the Dark

'What is truth?' Sheringham said mockingly. 'Is it what might have happened, is it what was meant to happen, is it what ought to have happened, or is it only what prosaically did happen? That's one of the things we've got to tresh out this morning'
"The Second Shot"

I seldom read what a book is about for authors/series I already know, so I often have totally different expectations for books based on their titles. I thought that Roger Sheringham and The Vane Mystery would involve weather vanes. And of today's book, I was expecting golf. Also: I still think Langtail Press’ covers are absolutely horrible.

While Anthony Berkeley's Roger Sheringham series often plays with the conventions of detective fiction, the characters of the story are usually not as meta-concious as the framework that forms their world. For if the party gathered at Minton Deeps Farm had known they were inside a detective story, they would have never thought of the idea of performing a murder play, nor would they had chosen Eric Scott-Davies (who was the source and target of a lot of negative thoughts) to play the murder victim. Two shots in the forest announced the real death of Mr. Eric, who had been alone in the forest after having fulfilled his role as fake body and now turned into a genuine one. While it seemed an accident at first, police suspicions quickly focus on Cyril Pinkerton, who seeks the help of his friend and succesful amateur detective (*cough*), Roger Sheringham. Can our Roger help Cyril in The Second Shot?

The Second Shot (1930) was published one year after The Poisoned Chocolates Case and is in presentation the complete opposite. Whereas we followed a variety of detectives in The Poisoned Chocolates Case, each with their own style of telling a story explaining their deductions, The Second Shot takes on the form of a manuscript written in the first person by Cyril Pinkerton. We follow his notes as he arrives on Minton Deeps Farm, slowly develops feelings for a guest of the opposite sex, we see how clouds of darkness gather around Eric Scott-Davies and then the deed. After the murder, Cyril finds out that not only the police, but even his hosts and fellow guests think he's the murderer! As a story to be read, The Second Shot is just enjoyable as Trial and Error, as we see how events unfold, but also because Berkeley's at his funniest when the story's about a flawed man with romantic touches caught in a plot of mystery.

Series detective Roger Sheringham is called in not to solve the case (as Cyril believes the victim deserved to die), but only to save Cyril from being arrested. Because of this goal, the main investigations parts of this book aren't about finding whodunnit, but are more focused on the direction of Cyrildinnot. Such a theme is seen more often in courtroom mysteries, but it's also slightly reminiscent of how Roger fixed evidence in Jumping Jenny to make Mrs. Stratton's death seem a suicide. As for comparisons to other series: Van Madoy's Revoir series usually features intellectual tennis rallies between the defense and prosecution about whether the defendant is guilty or not, with both sides constantly coming up with new theories and evidence as the trial continues.

As for the main mystery plot itself; like often with Berkeley's plots, the main premise is very simple and the whole thing only seems complex because everyone is covering for someone else. But I might have become used to his plots, or this one was particularly easy, but I got everything of The Second Shot quite some time before the finish line. Then again, I don't read Berkeley for puzzle plots, I just want to see how he explores the role of the detective in fiction.

Though again, I have to say, The Second Shot is not particularly surprising or witty there. Mind you, it's a good story and if you have never read Berkeley before, it will have some surprises, but compared to The Poisoned Chocolates Case and Jumping Jenny, The Second Shot feels a bit underwhelming.

The Second Shot is not Roger Sheringham's best, nor that of Anthony Berkeley, but it is an okay effort. But I still have a lot of Roger Sheringham stories to go through, so I hope that this was just a slight dip in an otherwise highly amusing series.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Detective's Diary

 Don't judge a book by its cover

Occasionally animals appear in one form or another in detective novels: be it as an actual character within the story, or just a theme or in a title. For some reason though, cats seem the most common of detective animals, at least in detective fiction discussed on this blog.

The cover of today's book says it's Tsuzuki Michio's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute ("Put A Nail In The Cat's Tongue"), but when you open the book, you discover that the book is actually the diary of the mystery writer Awaji Eiichi: he once received a mock cover model of Tsuzuki's book and is now using the empty pages inside as his secret diary. Why he needs to keep a secret diary? Awaji is in a rather dangerous position: he is the murderer, detective and victim in a poisoning case! Roleplaying as a poisoner, Awaji had slipped some cold medicine (pretending it to be poison) in the drink of his neighbor at a bar. Who then died. Awaji had only wanted to pretend to kill the man, but has now become a real murderer. Awaji had gotten the medicine from Yukiko, the girl he loves, and he realizes that someone must have been trying to kill Yukiko with the medicine he 'borrowed', and that that person will try again once he realizes his plan has failed. Thus the murderer Awaji must detect the person who planted the poison and if he's not careful, he might fall victim too to the real murderer. The diary hidden within the covers of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute (i.e. what the reader is holding in his hands) is just in case Awaji doesn't make it out alive.

Tsuzuki Michio was a fairly famous writer, specializing in science-fiction and mystery. This was the first time I read something by Tsuzuki by the way and I liked most of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute. Most, because there are some parts I found hard to get through.

But to start with the good points: Tsuzuki makes fantastic use of the medium of a book, as the contents of the book is actually Awaji's diary, instead of Tsuzuki's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute (the title therefore has nothing to do with the contents). It's not even just a gimmick, as the mystery of this story is built at a meta-level and it is indeed important to always remember that you're reading Awaji's diary hidden within a different book. Detective stories that implement the form in which they are published (i.e. a book) in the mystery are rare (though I have reviewed some of them here), but I always love it when an author thinks not only of a story, but also about the circumstances in which a person will read the book. For that, Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute gets full points.

The concept of the narrator = murderer, detective and victim is also pretty neat, and the beginning chapters where Awaji explains to the reader how he came to be in such a peculiar position are great, as well as the final chapters where Awaji finally reveals the true murderer. As said, the mystery also makes good use of the fact that it pretends to be a diary hidden within the covers of a different book and the main ideas and tricks behind Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute really shine within the first and last parts of the book.

But the middle part is actually kinda boring. Even though Awaji explains how dangerous the situation is and how he must work fast to save his love, the plot goes absolutely nowhere for 70% of the book. You'd think that he'd be a bit more pro-active in his detective role, but nothing of the sort: the plot just meanders, mostly focusing on Awaji's work and his efforts at getting closer to Yukiko (who sadly enough is already married to someone else). Okay, I guess that this is a diary and one would write about things like that, but... let's be honest: all readers know that this is a detective novel and that you're supposed to find the (real) murderer. The moment Awaji starts saying he is the murderer, detective and victim of this case, you know that this is a puzzle-type detective and that the author is playing around with genre conventions. So why pretend it's something else? Why move so far away from the mystery plot? Had it really helped the plot, okay, I'd be all for it, but I found it quite tiresome to go through the book as it just kept going around and around and around to nowhere. Sure, hints are placed within these parts, but the middle part could have been a lot more concise without giving up on plot or atmosphere. In fact, I think the whole mystery plot of Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute, including the meta-level tricks, could have been pulled off much more effective in novelette form, rather than as a full novel.

Tsuzuki Michio's Neko no Shita ni Kugi wo Ute is an interesting detective novel: I always love me some meta-level detection and the idea of playing with character roles of detective, murderer and victim is fun. But I thought the middle part to be a bit too diary-like and had trouble getting through this muddy part. Not without its problems, but a good book overall.

Original Japanese title(s): 都筑道夫 『猫の舌に釘をうて』

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Read or Die

I do try to write other articles besides reviews occasionally, but I always give up halfway through...  Warning: this post might be a bit boring unless you're interested in the link between mystery fiction, Japanese language and translation.

Great books deserve to be read and to be talked about, but obviously, one of the biggest hurdles on the road to world-wide domination of any book is the language hurdle. The fall of the Tower of Babel is basically one of the reasons this blog exists, as I try to promote Japanese mystery fiction in the English-language world, even if the effects are very small. And as I know that learning a language costs a lot of time and effort, you'll usually hear me cry out that book X or Y should be translated, rather than cry out people should just learn Japanese. And yet, I am very well aware that some books I've read in the last few years, some very amazing books even, have very little chance to be ever translated in English. And I'm not talking about the economics of the whole business. Right now, I'm purely talking about the topic from a linguistic point of view.

I've often mentioned on the blog that I absolutely love Japanese sociolinguistics, a field of study that focuses on the relation between society (culture, norms, etc) and language. Words have certain meanings in certain social contexts, and certain social contexts invite for the use of certain words. Sociolinguistics on Japanese is in particular interesting, because Japanese is a so-called 'high-context' culture: speech styles cater to 'in-groups', people in the same 'context'. That means that in high-context cultures, utterances can leave out a lot of linguistic units, as the speaker and the receiver are both active participants in the dialogue, so left-out units are tacitly understood or inferences are drawn. For example, when the speaker is telling a story about his day out, he doesn't need to say that the subject is "I" in every sentence, as the receiver can derive that informatiom from the context. While languages like Japanese and Korean are considered high-context languages, languages like English and Dutch are considered low-context languages: linguistic units are not left out leading to low-context messages (i.e. you do need to mention the subject of every sentence etc).

Of particular interest to me is the concept of "role language" in the Japanese language. The authority on Japanese role language, Kinsui, defines it as:

“Role language refers to a certain speech style ( vocabulary, expression, phrasing, intonation et cetera) that makes one think of a stereotype (age, gender, work, class, generation, appearance/features, character et cetera). Or vice versa, the speech style that comes to mind when presented with a stereotype.” (Kinsui 2003, 205)

Easy-to-understand examples are accents and dialects. Imagine an English-language speaker with an Italian accent, and you might think of an Italian gang member. In Japanese for example, the Kansai dialect might invoke stereotypical images of fast talkers with a sharp sense of comedy, while Kyushu dialect is often associated with manly men being manly. But in Japanese, there are also specific role languages for men, women and even a group like elderly, sholarly men. These speech styles have certain key words, like specific personal pronouns or interactional particles, that invoke the stereotype. Often, role language is used in fiction because it invokes these stereotypical images. An elderly professor sounds a lot like the role when he uses proper 'old men's language', while a woman sounds a lot more feminine if she uses 'women's language'. Note that in reality, role language is mostly a thing used in fiction In the real world, you'll hear few men exclusively use male language, just like that not all people from Kansai are comedians. It's just a stereotypical image, used mostly popular culture. Role language too is strongly connected to context, as a receiver is expected to pick up on the specific keywords of the speech styles and think of the right stereotypes.

So where does this linguistics class bring us? Well, basically, there are a lot of mystery novels that make use of these characteristics of the Japanese language. Obviously, these are most often stories with a narrative trick aimed at the reader. An easy example is the gender-switch. Suppose you come across character X in a story who uses the personal pronoun atashi, leaves out the copula at the end of the sentence and uses the interactional particle wa. These are all elements usually associated with 'female language', so the context invites the reader to think X=female. And here lies the trap, because it is very possible that X is in fact male and the writer only wanted you to think X = female. Note that the author never lies to the reader in this case: it's an assumption made by the reader based on cultural and linguistic assumptions, but the author has done nothing unfair here (as he never stated that X=female). And because Japanese is a high-context language (also because of other characteristics of Japanese), you never ever have to refer to X with a gender-specific word (for example, 'she' or 'her')  throughout a story.

There are of course other tricks possible that make use of the expection of the reader's linguistic assumption. In Japanese, it is common to leave the subject or object of a sentence away for example, if already mentioned earlier in a dialogue, but this too leaves opportunities for the author to play with the reader's expectations. Because of the high-context culture, the reader will always fill in the blanks by himself , but the author can steer that process with certain sociolinguistic misdirections, leading to tricks played at the meta-level. The reader thus has to pay attention not just to the situations described in the story, but even the very words used to describe those situations.

Mystery fiction with narrative tricks can thus be very difficult to translate to English (or other low-context languages), because they function not in the "in-universe" level, but on a linguistic level outside the story. Obviously, this is a case-by-case thing and I am definitely not saying that all stories with narrative tricks are impossible to translate. But sometimes, the incompatability between the source and target language can form a considerable, if not unsurmountable hurdle for these kind of mystery stories. Korean and Japanese in comparison for example are linguistically relatively close to each other (closer to English, anyway), meaning that it's a lot easier to translate these kinds of narrative tricks (in fact, I've seen several Japanese novels with narrative tricks translated to Korean).

In a way, the Japanese mystery story that actually uses the Japanese language as part of its performance might be considered the Japanese story. But because of that, these kind of stories can also prove to be difficult to bring to other lanauges. I for one can name several titles I wish more people had read, but are just difficult to render in languages like English and Dutch.

金水敏 (2003年) 『ヴァーチャル日本語 役割語の謎』 岩波書店

Thursday, July 2, 2015

White Reflection

 あなたがくれた勇気(つばさ)を この胸に広げて… 
「White Reflection」 (Two-Mix)

I flap my wings and shake off my sadness and pain
In my heart I spread the wings of courage you have given me...
"White Reflection" (Two-Mix)

Hm, the last books reviewed on the blog are all from the same publisher. And I wrote these three reviews all on the same day.

Matt Cobb is one of the vice-presidents of a television network (simply called The Network) and part of Special Projects: the department responsible for handling troublesome cases that 'normal' departments like Public Relations and Security can't handle. In short, Cobb is The Network's own little single-man A-Team. This time, Cobb joins the negotiation team of The Network with millionaire Gabby Drost, who wants to buy the television network. Anonymous letters suggest that Drost is not a sane man and that it is unwise to do business with him: Cobb is to investigate the case and see if The Network is in any danger. The negotations are held in Drost's mansion, which for convencience's sake is inconveniently located on a mountain which according the Laws of Mystery, is of course visited by a snow storm, cutting the mansion off from the outside world during the negotations. The first night ends rather uneventful (relatively), but the morning brings death: the millionaire host's body is found outside on the rocks, with a field of virgin snow between the mansion and the body. How did the murderer escape from the crime scene without leaving footprints, that is the main question in William L. DeAndrea Killed on the Rocks (1990).

I don't look for them especially, but I'm pretty sure that every year, I read at least one detective story with the no-footprints-in-the-snow scenario. Not that I mind, far from it, but it does show that it is a very popular theme among impossible crime writers and that also means that there's a lot of competition in terms of solutions. The moment you publish a story with an often used trope, you're not just challenging the reader, but also all those who tackled the problem before you, and after you.

Killed on the Rocks' take on the familiar problem is not exceptionally inspiring though. It seems to me that the solution seems rather obvious... I don't mean that in a 'hah, look at how smart I am' way of speaking, but more in the sense of 'but surely that is about the first thing you think, so it has to be a fake solution!'. I genuinely had the final solution as my very first thought when confronted with the crime scene, figuring that would be the most easy and obvious way of pulling of the trick (i.e. if I was a murderer who would have wanted to create such a crime scene, I would have done it like that). Then again, I have read a lot of stories that do a similar thing, so maybe Killed on the Rocks just had the bad luck of having me as a reader. Ignoring the lack of surprise for me, the mystery is a fairly clued and adequately constructed one.

But Killed on the Rocks isn't just the no-footprints-in-the-snow, and there's enough in the book to entertain the reader. I for one quite enjoyed the story overall, because... well: 1) isolated mansion, 2) closed circle, 3) impossible crime, 4) people starting to suspect each other are usually elements that make me a happy little reader and it was no different here. If I had mostly been reading English novels, I might have noted on the fact that it is quite interesting that these classic tropes were still used in 1990, but then again, I am spoiled with the boom in New Orthodox detective novels that started just a few years before in Japan. But certainly doesn't make Killed on the Rocks any less fun and I can recommended this to all readers.

Oh wait, this was the first time I read a Matt Cobb novel, but this is a fairly late one in the series and it actually spoils the identity of the murderers of some of the earlier novels (or they were making really detailed references to an event not featured in the novels, but I don't think so...). I'll probably forget about these details in some weeks or so, knowing my memory, but some people might wanna read the books in order to make sure they don't get spoiled. But as a standalone mystery novel, Killed on the Rocks is great.

This was my second DeAndrea novel and I enjoyed it greatly, even if the impossible crime was kinda easy to solve. The character of Matt Cobb and his work is quite interesting too, so I'll probably try some more books in the series (and hope I'll have forgotten the spoilers by then).