Saturday, October 31, 2015

Suitable for Framing

『名探偵コナン 業火の向日葵』

"You'll definitely end up in regrets if all you'll do is look at him."
"Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno

A friend told me today that in the Korean version of the anime of Detective Conan, Shinichi is called Doyle. Which would mean that Doyle decided to use Conan as a fake name when he was changed into a kid. Which is like the most stupid name you could ever choose as a secret alias.

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volume 70, 72~76, 78, 82~87 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18) in the library)
The series of Sunflowers paintings Dutch painter Van Gogh made are perhaps his most famous works, so it's no wonder Suzuki Jiroukichi, general advisor to the Suzuki Zaibatsu, had to pay a fortune to get his hands on the recently discovered second painting of Sunflowers, which originally was thought to have been lost in a fire in Japan at the end of World War II. The purchase of the painting was the last move he had to make to complete a dream of his: to hold a special exhibit of all seven Sunflowers paintings in Japan. To protect the paintings, Suzuki Jiroukichi has also gathered his own "seven samurai," consisting of art and security experts, including the great "Sleeping Detective" Mouri Kogorou. And security is definitely needed, because the phantom thief KID appears to have an interest in the paintings. Or is it really KID? Because this time, the phantom thief is rather ruthless in his ways and doesn't even hesitate about using explosives... While Edogawa Conan, the brilliant high school student detective turned into a child, is trying to foil KID's attempts at theft, he also needs to figure out what KID's real motives are in the theatrical film Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno (2015).

Trivia: this is the first Detective Conan film in over ten years that doesn't feature an English word in its title.

Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno is the nineteenth film in the Detective Conan film franchise, released in April of this year. It continues the direction the annual Conan films have been taking since 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea, which was a break with the films released between 2002 ~ 2012 by featuring a different director and a distinctily different tone. Sakurai Takeharu, scriptwriter of Private Eye in the Distant Sea (and regular Aibou scriptwriter) returns for Sunflowers of Inferno, for a plot that is a lot less political than 2013's Private Eye in the Distant Sea and last year's Dimensional Sniper.

As a big Detective Conan fan, the annual theatrical releases are something I always look forward too, but an appearance by phantom thief KID is always good for bonus points with me, and with a slight Dutch angle through Van Gogh's Sunflowers, I knew I had to see this film. And I was... disappointed.

The film definitely has some good ideas. A mystery story surrounding art (history) was something that hadn't been done yet in Detective Conan films (and even in the manga, it's a topic used seldomly). There's an interesting background yarn about the Sunflowers and the concept of a planned theft of a painting of course has potential of providing an interesting (impossible) heist plot. In a sense, the film also reminds of the third Conan film, The Last Wizard of the Century, with a KID-related plot about a priceless piece of art.

But where does it go wrong? Well, for one, by now, every viewer of Detective Conan knows what kind of character phantom thief KID is, so there's no way anyone would believe that KID would use explosives and willingly endanger other people while stealing something. I'm not even sure whether the film really wants me to believe KID has gone rogue, because it does little to no effort to try to convince me, even though the dialogue apparently assumes we're all trembling in our seats because KID might've become more wild.

And because the film is mostly structured around the actions of KID, it results in a very boring film, because the film wants you to believe KID is a ruthless crook now, but you know it can't be. At the end, the whole mystery about KID's actions in this film is revealed, but this has to be one of the worst mystery plots in a Conan film ever, with basically no hints for the viewer and extremely weak either way. Even the anime original episodes of 25 minutes have better planned mystery plots than this film. And now I think about it, a KID story with a fairly similar reveal has already been done in the manga before.

Oh, and a major, minor gripe I have had for the last ten films or so: Please. Stop. Using. Guest. Voice Actors. I noted in my review of Private Eye in the Distant Sea that "nothing can be as bad as the guest voice acting in Quarter of Silence and The Eleventh Striker" but Sunflowers of Inferno also features an impressively bad performance by actress Eikura Nana. Was she as bad as Quarter of Silence's "" war photographer Watanabe Youichi, The Eleventh Striker's professional J-League soccer players who voiced themselves or The Raven Chaser's DAIGO basically being DAIGO? Perhaps not, but every year, it's incredibly easy to pick out who the guest voice actor is doing because of the immense difference in voice acting skills and it actually distracts.

Oh well, at least the soundtrack featured some nice remixes of the Detective Conan theme...

Anyway, Detective Conan: Sunflowers of Inferno was disappointing. Not only in comparison to the previous two (great) films, but in general as a Detective Conan film, as it features a rather flimsy mystery plot that doesn't work from the fundamentals on. Usually, I'd say that fans of the franchise might appreciate this film, but with Sunflowers of Inferno, it might actually be better if the viewer is less familiar with the series and characters. Ah, as as always, the credits were followed by a short after-credit-scene and a teaser for next year's Detective Conan film. It appears they're going for something big for the twentieth film, because the teaser err... teased Black Organization names, so this might be become a The Raven Chaser-esque film! Which is something I'd LOOOOVE.

Original Japanese title(s):  『名探偵コナン 業火の向日葵』

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Egyptian Cross Mystery

stay すべての始まりと終わりの場所に
今も立っているよう 放たれる日を待ち
『Stay』(Garnet Crow)

Stay Like standing even now at the place
where everything begins and ends 
Waiting for the day when all is set loose
"Stay" (Garnet Crow)

I remember we started learning the Greek alphabet in the Ancient Greek course we had at school (first year middle school), but we only got to τ (tau) in that first class. The remaining letters we learned the following week, but up until this day, I can easily say the Greek alphabet from alpha to tau, and then I have to think about what that 'last little bit' of the alphabet is because we learned it separately.

The architecture students Kabeya Megumi, Yamabuki Satsuki and Kurage Kyuusuke are hired by private detective Akayanagi Hatsurou as temporary data entry grunts. The files are stored in a mansion deep in the forests between the Aichi and Gifu prefecture and only accessible by foot. The mansion is inhabited by Kamii, a "psychic" and two of his believers/servants. When the Akayanagi party arrives at the mansion, they discover that another party of journalists is also visiting the mansion for an interview with Kamii. Kamii shows off his powers once to his visitors by entering a room with Megumi and disappearing into "another world", only to reappear again. At night however, the photographer of the journalist party discovers that every exit of the mansion is closed shut (even though those doors have no locks) and when they try to report this to Kamii, they find him murdered in a locked room. The same room that was connected to "another room". With no way to escape the mansion and a dead body, the party start looking for a way to contact the outside world in Mori Hiroshi's τ ni Naru Made Matte, which also bears the English title Please Stay Until τ.

τ ni Naru Made Matte (2005)is the third novel in Mori Hiroshi's G series, a sequel to his more famous S&M series. While the previous two volumes were set in urban areas (a residential area in φ wa Kowareta ne and across town in θ wa Asonde Kureta yo), this time, the setting is eerily classic: a creepy mansion hidden away in the forest, only accessible by foot. With the cast locked up in the mansion and a murder in a locked room on a (self-proclaimed) psychic, you sometimes think you're reading anything but a Mori Hiroshi story. But then again, Subete ga F ni Naru (starting point of Mori Hiroshi's fictional world) might feature high-tech security, VR conference rooms and other technological gadgets; at the core it's still about a locked room murder in a creepy complex on an isolated island, now I think about it.

The lack of windows in the building reminds of other stories with memorable mansions as their setting like Ayatsuji Yukito's Ankokukan no Satsujin or the videogame Kamaitachi no Yoru 2. Interesting is the fact that the protagonists Kabeya, Yamabuki and Kurage are architecture students is actually utilized in a meaningful manner in in τ ni Naru Made Matte, for perhaps the first time in the G series: their insights as 'experts' on architecture help the reader understand the specifics, and the oddities of the mansion. Up until now, the students-setting was only used to have them meet at the university library or at a research lab.

The locked room mystery is actually quite disappointing; it is supposed to be hard to spot the solution because of a blind spot, but that smokescreen doesn't really work as a smokescreen, I think. Also, while one certain aspect of the puzzle I saw through quite easily, another crucial part of the solution is hinted at rather poorly and had me rolling my eyes as I thought: "waaaaait, is that really possible?'.

But the biggest disappointment is that τ ni Naru Made Matte just isn't complete. I ended my review of θ wa Asonde Kureta yo, the previous book in the series, with hoping that this third volume would work better as a standalone mystery: θ wa Asonde Kureta yo left a lot of questions unanswered. However, τ ni Naru Made Matte is even worse. From the identity of the murderer to the motive and other mysterious happenings in the story: you are left with a lot of questions when you close the book.

Usually, I can appreciate minimalistic approaches. I'm more interested in how the crime was committed, or the logic leading to the solution, than in who and why. But that is only with planned minimalism (which you often see in short stories). In the G series however, Mori Hiroshi is obviously working towards a goal. I hadn't really noticed it with the first book in the series, but the cases in the G series are somehow connected. Though that's only a guess, because each time the murderer, as well as the motive, stays vague. The only connection is that Greek letters appear in relation to each case (which is why it is called the G series). But there are parts in each book that hints at something going on and someone trying to find out what is going on. And I like the idea of myth-building across books, but I'd like it if each individual book in the series can be read as a standalone work too. θ wa Asonde Kureta yo and τ ni Naru Made Matte feel as nothing more but a part of a larger narrative and incomplete as standalone books. But considering that the series isn't completed yet and each book still sells at full price, I'm not sure what to think about these books. But as they are now, I just feel like I'm missing a lot that shouldn't be missing. If there is a line between 'keeping things vague to invite you to read the rest' and 'things are so vague it hurts the story', then I'd say book two and three in the G series are leaning towards the latter. And I do like the characters and writing of the G series, so I am really torn about it.

τ ni Naru Made Matte was disappointing. Not only as a mystery plot, but also because it so obviously needs the rest of the series to fill in the gaps of the story. If you're like me and like the writing and characters, then it's an okay and easy read, but I wouldn't recommend τ ni Naru Made Matte as a standalone mystery novel: it was obviously not meant as one. If you want to read τ ni Naru Made Matte, it means you should read the rest of the series too. And that's a large commitment to ask of a reader.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『τになるまで待って PLEASE STAY UNTIL τ』

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Dark Detective II


"One more last thing. A box of chocolate..."
'And there she went."
"I should ask the things I want to ask first, not last"
"Bitter Water"

One of the biggest surprises I came across while playing Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer (Nintendo 3DS) was an office that was decorated as the set of the TV-series Aibou. It was a brilliant reproduction of the Special Order Unit office and the office of forensics, complete with room for the cameras to actually shoot a scene. Happy Home Designer is great fun, by the way.  

Aibou ("Partners") series
Aibou Eleven
Aibou 12
Aibou 13

Tucked away in the corner of the Organized Crime Department of the Metropolitan Police Department, is the tiny office of the Special Order Unit, with room for two. The head of the Special Order Unit is Sugishita Ukyou, a gifted police inspector with a great sense of justice, but deemed dangerous by the people in the upper ranks because he doesn't play the political game along. Yet, they recognize his brain and talent to turn poltical bureaucracy to his own advantage, which is why they decided to put him close by in the SOU, but still faraway from the everyday goings of the MPO. The Special Order Unit has no investigative authority and it is rare for special orders to come, so Sugishita has now defined his unit as follows: if there is a special order, they will follow it. And unless there is a special order, the unit is free to do whatever it wants. The adventures of Sugishita and his subordinate have been a favorite on Japanese television ever since the TV series Aibou ("Partners") started in 2000, and by now it has become a big franchise that consists of 13 seasons (the 14th is being broadcast right now), three theatrical films and a lot of spin-off material like mini-series, novels and games.

I started watching the series with Aibou Eleven, the eleventh season which introduced Sugishita's third partner in the history of the series: Kai Tooru, estranged son of the current Assistant Director-General of the National Police Agency. Like with Doctor Who, I figured it'd be best to jump in with a change in the main cast and I enjoyed the series a lot. Today's review is about Aibou 13, the 13th season of the series and also the last season to feature Kai Tooru (the currently running Aibou 14 features a new partner). And yes, I know I'm about a half year late with this review. The same thing happened with Aibou 12 actually: I forget to watch the series and just when a new season starts, I remember I have to watch the previous season. Anyway, Aibou 13 ran from October 2014 until March 2015 and consists of 19 episodes, three of them being film-length TV specials.

It's always difficult to think of what to write with reviews for a whole Aibou season. It's not really practical, nor interesting if I write something short on all 19 episodes, but there's also little I can say about the series in general I haven't done already. Looking at the series broadly, one should classify it as a police procedural in the social school of mystery fiction. Many of the episodes are socially conscious and focus on problems in both 'the normal' society as well in large (government) organizations and the underlying politics. Season 13 is definitely a bit tamer than the previous two seasons, which featured stories on the international implications of a hostage situation in an embassy, protocol in hostage situations in general, and a story asking why Japan has no real witness protection program. But despite being a bit 'lighter' than the previous two seasons, the series is still firmly based on the social school. Side Story (episode 9) for example looks at the influence of mass media in portraying people: a nurse has been killed and the mass media basically attack her for working in the "entertainment" sector to pay for her studies and imply she had it coming. The Last Confession (episode 5) in turn looks at the deals police/prosecution are allowed to make with suspects.

Yet, Aibou also has enough room for other types of mystery. The 'beauty' of the concept of the Special Order Unit is that Sugishita and Tooru can appear in different kinds of story each episode. Those Who Can't Be Forgiven (episode 3) definitely has a social school angle, but is also a kind of a locked room mystery, as no camera managed to capture the murderer entering the victim's apartment building.  Best Day of My Life (episode 13) has Sugishita meet with a suspicious woman completely coincidentally and the episode brings a heartwarming, and often hilarious story in the spirit of an everyday life mystery, something a real, serious police drama could never present. There are also episodes that focus on the extended main cast, like Yonezawa Mamoru's Final Farewell (episode 11), that focuses on the forensic investigator who appears in pretty much every episode.

A lot of Aibou episodes consist of two interrelated 'levels' in crime. Usually there is a big, social problem that lies at the heart of the mystery which involves 'big' organizations or other groups. And this is usually tied to a smaller story: partly to make the 'large' problem more accessible, partly because at the end of the story, Sugishita needs to arrest somebody to end the episode and while he is a gifted policeman, he can't solve a large scale social problem in one episode, only a smaller-scale crime that is born from the bigger problem.

It's a bit of a shame Aibou seasons aren't conceived with some sort of running storyline or theme, because often a season feels like a random collection of stories. I have a feeling that season 13 does feature a lot of stories about the parent-child bond: I already mentioned The Last Confession (episode 5), Side Story (episode 9) and  Yonezawa Mamoru's Final Farewell (episode 11), but Learning Class (episode 12, about a murder on a professor), Thistle (episode 14, on a murder in the past and present) and Professor Ayukawa's Final Lesson (episodes 15-16, on an old professor of Sugishita's who wants to know why it's wrong to murder) all also focus a lot on parent-child relations. I don't remember the specifics of the episodes in earlier episodes, but I wonder if it's been like that ever since Kai Tooru became Sugishita's partner, as the series also looks a lot at Toorus' relation with his father.

Aibou 13 ends with Dark Knight, which is also the end of the cooperation between Sugishita and Kai Tooru as the titular partners, which lasted for three years / seasons. I have to say I was kinda surprised when I heard the news that the character would leave the series, but I gather that even the production team was surprised by the news. I'm pretty sure that it was only decided at a very late stage of filming the season that the character of Kai Tooru would be written out of the series, because this episode came out of nowhere. I won't go into details, but it basically portrays Kai Tooru quite differently from how he's acted in all the episodes before, all to justify his character leaving Sugishita's side. The concept of the episode might've worked if they had at least used the entire season to build to this conclusion, but now I could do was wondering why nobody noticed how out of character Tooru was compared to everything up to this point.

The series ends with Sugishita leaving Japan for a forced vacation, and it's kinda weird to see him alone. The series isn't titled "partners" for nothing. As a character, Sugishita is basically the great detective merged with the perfect policeman. Like Sherlock Holmes, Sugishita has a great mind that can uncover the most vile of machinations, but unlike Holmes, Sugishita will always work within the law and while he knows the law, and the bureaucracy needed to uphold the law, isn't perfect, he will do everything to keep justice in a lawful manner. But like many great detectives, he does need a 'normal' partner with him to really shine. As a character on his own, he's just too far away for the 'normal' viewer.

Overall, I think Aibou 13 was a fairly okay season, though it lacks the politically heavy stories that were (surprisingly) the highlights in the previous two seasons I watched. And as I usually prefer 'simple' puzzle plots, that says a lot about the quality of that sort of stories in Aibou. I do have the feeling that the latter half of the series was a bit weaker (Professor Ayukawa's Final Lesson and especially Dark Knight) and it results in a bad aftertaste of the series. Of the three seasons starring Kai Tooru as the partner, this may be the least impressive overall. And I have no idea when/if I'll review Aibou 14. I'll probably forget about watching the series and now binge-watch it next year, when Aibou 15 has started

Original Japanese title(s): 『相棒13』

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Singing Detective


No, no, you shouldn't, I say with tears
The root of the cycle of reincarnation and a yellow book cover
Finally the last chapter (sho)
"The Old Books Mansion Murder Case" (Teniwoha) 

I have written a lot about detective fiction in various media, from books, TV series and films to games and even musicals. I'm pretty sure however that this is the first time I write about something that started as a detective song.

Teniwoha's Jogakusei Tantei to Henkutsu Sakka - Kosho Yashiki Satsjin Jiken Zenya ("The Girl Student Detective and the Eccentric Writer - The Night Before The Old Books Mansion Murder Case", 2014) has a rather long, yet very to-the-point title. The titular girl student detective is Hibari: an active girl and longtime fan of mystery fiction. While not actively pursuing a caree as a detective, Hibari has the luck (?) of occassionally getting involved with murders and other mysteries and in true amateur detective fashion, she does not give up until she's solved the case. The titular eccentric writer is Kudou Renma, a mystery writer and longtime family friend/customer of the coffee shop of Hibari's father. While eccentric, Kudou is also quite the talented amateur detective: he just has no interest in actually using his powers of observation, prefering to simply not sticking his nose in other people's business. And occcasionally giving Hibari hints so she can solve the case instead of him. This first volume in the Girl Student Detective series collects two novelettes and one short story.

The Girl Student Detective series is a media mix concept conjured by Teniwoha that finds its origin in... music! Hibari and Kudou Renma were first introduced in the popular song Kosho Yashiki Satsujin Jiken ("The Old Books Mansion Murder Case"). The lyrics are strongly influenced by detective fiction (Hibari singing about how the case is too difficult) and the song is sung by Hatsune Miku, the famous Vocaloid (voice synthesizer software) who has been taking over the (music) world the last few years. Teniwoha not only produced the song, but also wrote novels that further explored the world of Kosho Yashiki Satsujin Jiken, resulting in the Girl Student Detective series, which is probably the only detective franchise to consist out of music and books. The volume discussed here is the first in the series and the prequel to both the song and the novel Kosho Yashiki Satsujin Jiken, hence the subtitle The Night Before The Old Books Mansion Murder Case.

The book opens with Akebi Kou Okujou Toushin Jiken ("The Akebi High School Rooftop Jumping Case"), which not only introduces us to the characters and the postwar setting, but also gives us an impossible situation: one morning, Hibari discovers the body of a classmate on the roof of the school. Her classmate barely lives, but is unable to answer two important questions. One: what is the meaning behind the "dying" message "X" she left with her own blood? And two: how come her wounds indicate she had thrown herself of a building, even though she was on top of the school roof and there was no higher building in the neighbourhood?

The result is a rather basic detective story that is easily solved when the hints are set on stage. Actually, the moment one certain thing is mentioned, I think everybody can guess what happened. The setting of a school in post-war Japan is interesting though. I love the setting, but most books set in those times (like the books of Yokomizo Seishi, Takagi Akimitsu and Kyougoku Natsuhiko) don't deal (much) with students and school life. The girl detective and the antics at school (as well as the impossible crime angle) reminded me of Higashigawa Tokuya's Koigakubo Academy Detective Club series, though sadly enough never as good plotted or as funny.

Tantei Himatsubushi Yuugi ("A Detective's Time Killing Game") is a very short story where Kudou Renma refuses to rewrite a manuscript (half-eaten by rats) for his publisher, unless Hibari manages to solve his riddle: she has to guess which book he wants to read with just three hints. In this story, the lighthearted character of the series and the relation between Hibari and Renma is used much better than the opening story and while not perfect (it's not completely fair), this story is most ambitious and original of the three stories in the volume, despite being much shorter than the other two. It does spoil a  certain (famous!) book, but mentioning that book by title kinda gives away the whole picture.

Ryougoku Yuurei Yashiki Satsujin Jiken ("The Ryougoku Ghost Mansion Murder Case") has Hibari and Renma acting as delivery girl/man for an antiquarian bookshop, owned by Renma's friend. The book (a study on ghosts) is to be delivered in the mansion of a well-known amateur researcher on the folklore of ghosts in the Ryougoku neighbourhood in Tokyo. When they arrive at the mansion though, Hibari and Renma, together with the daughter of the family, find the ghost researcher in a rather dead state. A lack of footprints around the garden indicate that the poor man committed suicide with one of his rifles, but both Hibari and Renma suspect there's more to it (especially as they were about to deliver a book the man had been wanting for years).

This last case in the volume is the biggest and most 'traditonal', with a spooky mansion and stuff... but not really. The title might say ghost mansion, the characters might be talking about a ghost mansion, but there is not an inkling of a scary atmosphere. The trick behind the murder (No, it was not suicide. The title spoils it) is not bad, but the inclusion of a map would have helped make the mystery more fair and fun. I think the basic idea behind the murder is alright, but the story itself is rather bland and boring. Definitely the most disappointing of the volume.

I have to admit, I am not sure who the exact target market is for the Girl Student Detective series. Simply as a detective book, Jogakusei Tantei to Henkutsu Sakka is nothing special. The plots are not really bad, but not very inspired either and often quite basic. I'll be honest here and say I had expected something much better than this. Especially as I like the setting of a girl student detective and post-war Japan. For fans of the song and the characters introduced there, Jogakusei Tantei to Henkutsu Sakka probably has more to offer: the constant bickering between Hibari and Renma is, again, not very inspired, but can be quite amusing at times and the novel obviously has more room to explore the world than a four minute song.

But if Jogakusei Tantei to Henkutsu Sakka is really mostly aimed at the fans of the music, I think it's a missed chance. The media-mix concept with music is interesting, the setting has potential, so I think I should be allowed to ask for more challenging mystery plots. And slightly more engaging writing. I think three books have been released now, the second book being based on the song. I might try that one one day, just to see if the series manages to evolve or not.

Original Japanese title(s): てにをは 『女学生探偵と偏屈作家 古書屋敷殺人事件前夜』

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Antiquity Tree

「ブラッディローズ!! 敵に向かって放たれたが最後まっすぐに敵の心臓を射抜く白薔薇。その白薔薇の花弁が真紅に染まったその時、お前の部下は死ぬ」
『聖闘士星矢 THE LOST CANVAS 冥王神話』

"Bloody Rose!! All is over once the white rose is thrown and flies straight into the heart of my enemy. When the petals of the white rose have turned crimson, your underling will die."
"Saint Seiya THE LOST CANVAS The Legend of Hades"

I already mentioned it in my review of Detective Conan 87, but ever since the start of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R"), I had been reviewing Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R together in short shorts because their release dates were practically always on or about the same day. A visit to the hospital of Conan artist Conan upset the schedule however, which is why I reviewed Conan 87 on its own, and today, I review two volumes of the Kindaichi Shounen manga as a standalone review, which is the first time in more than two years.  

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 6 (released in July of this year) is mostly filled with The Antlion Trench Murder Case, which started in the previous volume. Hajime, Miyuki and reporter Itsuki are participating in a psychological experiment held in a building in the middle of a field of quicksand that used to be a bunker.  The professor heading the experiment is doing research on fears and traumas and has the participants dressed in clothes in colors they don't like, and uses special wristbands to monitor the heartbeat of each participant. As expected from the series, other participants in the experiment are getting murdered one after another. The problem is that the murders happen in locked rooms and with no way of communicating with the outside world, it's up to Hajime to find out the identity of the murdering Antlion.

As I already noted in the previous reviewThe Antlion Trench Murder Case features the most ridiculously designed bulding in more twenty years of Kindaichi Shounen history. And this is a series that has featured a bunch of strangely designed buildings. To be honest, I actually found it hard to follow, as all the rooms have generic names like "West-4" or "East-6" and doors that can be locked from both sides and more. The story reminds of early Kindaichi Shounen stories with an emphasis on (possible) movements of characters in the building, but it doesn't help if all the rooms look exactly the same, with vague nomers like West-4. I wonder if this story looks better animated: it's a lot easier to visualize where everybody is when in motion. But I know I will forever remember this story as The One With The Silly Layout.

The story itself is okay. It has some interesting points, with fear and trauma playing a role in the story, but the main tricks are borrowed from earlier Kindaichi Shounen stories. In fact, now I think about it, it resembles one story in particular in more than one way, and it's almost like a remake of that story. Only not as good. Also, once the hint appears, it's amazingly easy to figure out who the murderer is.

The Blood Drinking Cherry Blossom Murder Case takes up the rest of volume 6 and the whole of volume 7 (released in September). As part of a school Mystery Club activity, Hajime, Miyuki and Saki (no. 2) go to a hotel in the outskirts of Tokyo, that used to be a sanatorium. Many years ago, a doctor there killed his patients to feed the bodies to the cherry blossom trees in the garden.  The doctor escaped and nobody knows where he went. Now the sanatorium's a hotel, but every year the cherry blossom trees still bloom red, as if they sucked the blood out of the victims. At the hotel, the gangs gets to know a group of three young professionals, who've been coming every year to enjoy the cherry blossoms. And of course, on the first night, one of them is murdered. But not only was the man found inside a locked room, a piece of one of the Blood Cherry Blossoms was also stuck into his chest, as if feeding on the man. And of course, he was just the first...

The scale of The Blood Drinking Cherry Blossom Murder Case is relatively small: with a limited cast and mostly set inside the hotel. The murders and the problem of the locked rooms are also fairly simple and to be honest, the way Hajime solves the case is not exactly fair to the reader. In fact, in terms of Kindaichi Shounen, I'd say the clueing was a bit weak in this story. We've seen much better and conclusive ways to arrive at the murderer in this series, so that was a bit disappointing to be honest.

But still, I can't help but like this story. It features something that is not particularly rare in mystery fiction, but seldom seen in Kindaichi Shounen and it really works here. Obviously, I can't talk about it in details because it'd spoil the whole story, but I think long-time readers of Kindaichi Shounen will find this story surprisingly refreshing. Feeling-wise, it's similar to an earlier story, The Yukikage Village Murder Case, with a 'cozy' story. Also, the setting of a small pension with a past and a cast of regular guests reminds of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo GameBoy Color game. A classic,  The Blood Drinking Cherry Blossom Murder Case certainly isn't, but I definitely find it more entertaining than the more classically-constructed The Antlion Trench Murder Case.

And that's it for now! While the series is still running, volume 8 has no formal release date as of now, so I'm not sure whether I'll be able to discuss it together with Conan 88 (which is scheduled for December). Also, because Kindaichi Shounen stories are basically always longer than one volume, I think I might actually skip volume 8 and do a double review with volume 9, because I very much doubt volume 8 will contain a complete story. 

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第6&7巻

Friday, October 9, 2015

Ashes to Ashes

いつでも捜しているよ どっかに君の姿を
交差点でも 夢の中でも 
「One More Time, One More Chance」(山崎まさよし)

I'm always looking for a sign of you
Even at the intersection, even in my dreams
Even though you couldn't possibly be there
"One More Time, One More Chance" (Yamazaki Masayoshi) 

While I understand it's to protect the smaller novelists and publishers, I do always lament the fact the Netherlands has a rather rigid law for book prices. It's definitely a reason why I seldom buy Dutch books (and thus the law has the opposite effect in my case).

M.P.O. Books' De Laatste Kans ("The Last Chance", 2011) starts with the discovery of the body of Jacques Vermin, covered by his paternal ashes once held in the urn that killed him. The grotesque murder gives rise to several questions with Inspector Petersen and his team at the District Heuvelrug in central Netherlands. The obvious question is of course who did it, but other questions also keep the inspector busy: why was Jacques so determined to keep his residence in nature-filled Leersum a secret to practically everyone? How did he make his money? Is there a connection between his death and a lost child who was left somewhere down Jacques' street the night of his murder? Petersen leads his team of detectives in search for answers, but is not only having trouble with witnesses and other interested parties, his own team also serves as a hurdle to be taken as personal problems start to influence the effectiveness of the team and the investigation itself.

De Laatste Kans is the fifth novel in the District Heuvelrug series by Dutch writer M.P.O. Books. My colleague over at Beneath The Stains Of Time has written very often and praisingly on his blog about M.P.O. Books' series as a good, recent Dutch police procedural that actually invokes the spirit of the puzzle plots we so love, and I had been saying for years I would try reading one of the books. This is the first time I read something by Books by the way, but De Laatste Kans can be read without any knowledge of prior entries in the series.

The most memorable feature of the De Laatste Kans is the structure: the story constantly jumps between a very varied cast of characters, both the police and the suspects, giving you a glimpse in each of their minds. In videogames, this is usually referred to as a "zapping system", i.e. the reader is zapping between "channels" that each focus on a different character (games I discussed with a zapping system are: Machi, 428, Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony and Detective Conan: Phantom Rhapsody). The result is that De Laatste Kans seldom bores, as it keeps on giving the reader something different, without feeling chaotic or padded out. While there are more books that feature jumping between points of view, the fact it's all neatly organized through time-stamps really reminds me of the zapping systems of videogames.

The plot of De Laatste Kans was also surprisingly well-constructed. The book had a bit of bad luck: I was juggling between De Laatste Kans and another book that just happened to do something similar, so I realized who Jacques Vermin's murderer probably was very early on, but that didn't make De Laatste Kans any bit less fun: it is still a well-written detective story. One hint in particular was wonderfully done. A minor gripe I had was with some coincidences that led to the murder, but nothing game-breaking.

As I said, this is the fifth book in a running series and features a fairly wide cast starring Inspector Peterson and his team of detectives. It appears that these characters have been developed quite a lot in the run of the series, and the dynamics within the team is also a crucial part of De Laatste Kans. It never interferes with the puzzle plot and we're not talking about oh-woe-is-me-life-of-a-police-officer, but there is a good part of the novel about the people investigating the case. I guess that people who have been reading from the start will be more emotionally invested in the caracters, but even without really knowing these characters, De Laatste Kans strikes a good balance between the plot and its characters (and luckily in favor of the plot).

But for the Dutch readers here, De Laatste Kans is a recommended read as a fun detective novel that actually delivers. For the non Dutch-readers, alas, I don't think M.P.O. Books are available in English yet. Then again, most of the books I discuss are not available in English...

Original Dutch title(s): M.P.O. Books "De Laatste Kans"

Thursday, October 8, 2015

In The Best Families

Chim Chiminey
Chim Chiminey
Chim Chim Cheree
A sweep is as lucky 
As lucky can be
"Chim Chim Cheree"

You know, I think this is the first time I reviewed something by Agatha Christie on this blog that wasn't an adapation! I had already gone through most of Christie's more interesting books (Poirot, Marple) before I began the blog, and I seldom reread them...

A chance meeting in Africa between Anthony Cade and his friend James McGrath brings Anthony back to England, where he is to deliver a manuscript to a publisher instead of McGrath. The manuscript, a diary, is connected to the national politics of the nation of Herzoslovakia, which after a period of unrest is heading for restoration of the monarchy. Meanwhile, George Lomax (politician) persuades Lord Caterham to hold a weekend party at the lord's home, Chimneys. The goal of the party is to seal a deal between the candidate for the Herzoslovakian crown and the British govenment (political support for oil concessions). But a murder is committed in Chimneys and some escapades revolving around the manuscript also brings Anthony Cade to Chimneys. It is up to him, and Superintendent Battle to solve Agatha Christie's The Secret of Chimneys (1925).

Was I the only person who for the longest time thought the title was The Secret of The Chimneys?

I love The Secret Adversary. I am actually quite fond of The Big Four. So I like to think I have some capacity to appreciate Christie's more chaotic and less polished plots. But I just don't like The Secret of Chimneys. Is it because there are no series characters (except for Superintendent Battle, who is a bit too sobre for the role)? Perhaps. Is it because Anthony Cade is 'just' the typical adventurer/rogue type of protagonist who is not particularly outstanding except for those traits? Maybe. Is it because the international plot of backdoor dealings and people after the McGuffin is actually quite boring? Quite possible.

Reading through some of the old reviews quoted on the Wikipedia page for The Secret of Chimneys, I see a lot of reviews praised the book for being an exciting story with lots of elements and a satisfying, unexpected conclusion. While I agree a lot of things happen in the book, I find it more chaotic than entertaining and while I usually can appreciate a lighthearted touch in a detective story, it doesn't really work for me here. At least in The Secret Adversary, we had two young people who had nothing to lose and were full of energy and guts. But here we start with the setting of a heavy international plot and stolen jewels and murder and I don't know what more, and the lightheartedness doesn't really fit. And the unexpected conclusion is not really unexpected. I don't even think that it's me recognizing Christie patterns here, the conclusion is just rather obvious.

But like always, Christie is a great writer specializing in simple, to-the-point writing. I flew through the book, even though I did not really enjoy the plot. I can also understand if people like the characters of The Secret of Chimneys, because Christie can put characters on a page like no one else, but personally, I think both plot and characters have been done much better by Christie herself in plenty of her other books.

I have to admit though, reading The Secret of Chimneys has made a bit weary of going through those last Christies I haven't read yet. I made my way through all the Ellery Queen novels and that had its ups and downs, but I find it difficult to really enjoy Christie's thrillers. Maybe I'll only go through the remaining Tommy & Tuppence stories...

Anyway, The Secret of Chimneys. Didn't really like it, wouldn't recommend it either. Christie has done much better, much more enjoyable, many more times.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Platinum Rose

薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る
君の中に 僕がいる
「薔薇が咲く 薔薇が散る」(愛内里菜)

Roses bloom, roses scatter
I'm living inside you
Fly up with pride, beauty and magnificence!

I love Japanese pockets (bunko) both for their (uniform!) size and the price, so I don't have that many Japanese hardcover books: mostly books that were never made available in pocket form for anyway. I understand that Japan is quite unique with uniform pocket book dimensions and all and I don't suffer from an OCD, but I have to admit: I am a bit annoyed that my only two hardcover books from publisher Soronsha, both from the same writer featuring the same translator, are of slightly different dimensions...

About a year ago, I wrote about Kim Nae-seong (1909-1957), commonly seen as the father of the Korean detective story. Despite his status though, he doesn't appear to be available in English (save for this translation I made of his short story Muma), so a short introduction: the Great Korean Empire had been annexed by Japan the year after Kim's birth. He moved to Japan, where he studied at the famous Waseda University in Tokyo. It is during this period he made his debut as a professional detective writer (in Japanese). He moved back to Korea in 1936, where he continued with both writing new stories in Korean, as well as translating some of his older, Japanese stories to Korean. Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetsu Sen ("A Selection of Detective Stories by Kim Nae-seong") collects the Japanese writings by Kim Nae-song, both fiction as well as essays, in one neat volume, giving the reader a glimpse into the early makings of Korean detective fiction. In Japanese (for more early Korean detective stories in Japanese, see this review). I'll only be reviewing the fiction part, by the way.

The book opens with Daenkei no Kagami ("An Elliptical Mirror"), Kim Nae-song's debut story, which was published in the magazine Purofiru (Profile) in 1935. The story starts with an advertisement in the magazine Phantom, which challenges its readers to solve the most heinous crime commited in recent Keijou history (Seoul as it was called during the colonization). The "To-yeong Murder Case" happened six years ago: To-yeong, the wife of the writer Mo Hyeon-cheol, was found murdered in her bedroom. The only people in the house were the victim's husband Mo Hyeon-cheol, a young writer whom Mo Hyeon-cheol had taken in the house and the two servant women. Investigation reveals that To-yeong had an affair with the young writer and that they appeared to had a fight, but no decisive evidence could be found. After the case, Mo Hyeon-cheol commited suicide, leaving an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding the young writer. And now six years later, the young writer finally has a chance to clear his name by sending in his solution to the To-yeong Murder Case to the magazine Phantom.

A great story overall. It starts with a great premise (the contest asking readers to solve the case), has thrilling developments (one of the suspects participating in the contest) and a surprising ending. A bit too surprising perhaps, because it was not completely fair to the reader: a vital hint is kept away from the reader until the detective-character suddenly decides to remember it. But the interesting twists and turns lead to a great pay-off and personally, I really like the letter-to-the-editor style of the story that is used until the very end of the story (somewhat similar to that short story collection by Yamada Fuutarou by the way).

Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin ("Murder on a Detective Writer") starts with the murder on Park Yeong-min, the head of the theater troupe Poseidon. Suspects include both his wife Lee Mong-nan, as well as one of the troupe's actors, Ra Un-gwi (who is in love with Lee Mong-nan), who were both absent from a little party during the time of the murder. Among the people who luckily do have an alibi is the mystery writer Yu Bu-ran (who also happens to be in love with Yeong-min's wife). Yu Bu-ran tries to save his love from the suspicions of the police writing a play "The Second Shot", based on the actual murder. The solution he proposes clears Lee Mong-nan, and incriminates Ra Un-gwi, but the police isn't completely convinced by Yu Bu-ran's solution.

An appearance by Kim Nae-seong's series detective Yu Bu-ran (who is named after Maurice Leblanc). Like in Main, he appears to have a love for the adulterous affair, as well as being a rather faulty detective. He's almost like Roger Sheringham. The idea of Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin is actually quite similar to that of Daienkei no Kagami: a murder case with an adulterous affair at the core, an alternative solution proposed to the police investigation using unconventional means (a solution sent to a magazine VS a theater play), a hint that was hidden from the reader until the plot suddenly calls for it. I'd say that Daienkei no Kagami is the superior story though: the second half of Tantei Shousetsuka no Satsujin suddenly throws a ridiculous secret society subplot at the reader that just feels out of place and the way the solution to the murder is revealed is also not nearly as satisfying.

Kitan Koibumi Ourai ("A Tale: Coming and Going of Love Letters") is a short short in which two people bicker through a series of letters about a mistakenly sent love letter. The ending is rather predictable, but I thought it quite cute. It was also rewritten in Korean to a longer and more detailed version with a slightly different title ("A Tale of Love Letters"). The previous stories were also translated to Korean with new titles by the way, but the stories are the same, as far as I know.

Shisou no Bara ("A Rose of Thought") has a interesting history: it was the first novel Kim Nae-song had written, in Japanese, but he never managed to get it published in Japan. He took the story with him back to Korea and translated it to Korean, where it was published with the current title in 1953~1956 (the original title was Chizakuro, "The Blood Pomegranate"). The story is about an recently promoted prosecutor Yu Jun and his writer/loafer friend Baek Su. One night. Baek Su wants to meet wth Yu Jun and there he admits to being the one responsible for the murder on the actress Chu Jang-mi, a case the police is currently investigating. Yu Jun is appaled, not sure what to do with his friend, but later Baek Su denies everything and says it was just a joke. But Yu Jun suspects there was something behind Baek Su's confession and when Yu Jun himself is put on the case, he can't help but suspect his friend, especially after finding some very incriminating facts, one of them being a manuscript called "A Rose of Thought", which details a hidden past between him and Chu Jang-mi. But Yu Jun doesn't give up and through Baek Su, he discovers more facts which also seem to point to other suspects. Should Yu Jun believe in his friend or stick to his professional duty?

I was quite charmed by the short stories in this volume, as well as Main, but Shisou no It is overly melodramatic, with Yu Jun and Baek Su constantly lamenting about what friends are, what love is, what it means to trust your friends... Baek Su's actions throughout the story also make no sense whatsover ("I did it!", "No, I didn't do it!", "He did it!", "I did it!" ad infinitum) and while there's a sorta neat trick that leads the reader and Yu Jun to the real murderer, it's just too little, too late. Shisou no Bara is tiring, as the story constantly stops to lament about everything. Main had a little melodrama too, but was at the heart always a mystery novel with a good sense of speed. Shisou no Bara on the other hand just is a little plot, made into a long novel through characters who really should learn to talk to each other in a more direct way. It's too bad: Shisou no Bara is the main piece of this book, but is easily the most boring and disappointing story.

I've read six stories by Kim Nae-seong now, and it's funny to see how some elements already feel typical "Kim Nae-seong". Take the maps for example. Almost all stories feature figures of the crime scenes, with detailed maps that really draw the reader in. On the other hand, it's seldom that the maps are really vital to the story, even if they really add to the atmosphere. Kim Nae-seong's stories also often feature writers: his series detective Yu Bu-ran is a mystery writer, but the non-series stories like Daenkei no Kagami, Shisou no Bara  and Muma feature writers extensively in the plot. These writers are often not particularly well-off, but manage to live thanks to gifts from family. These writers (including Yu Bu-ran) are also very often involved in adulterous affairs with beautiful young and married women. You'd almost suspect that Kim Nae-seong was drawing from real-life with his playboy-writer-detectives. Also, his stories often have a touch of melodrama, occassionaly more dramatic than others (Shisou no Bara) and lamenting about love and stuff is not rare.

I loved Main last year and while Kim Nae-seong Tantei Shousetu Sen is not as good as that book, it still had its entertaining points. The short stories are definitely more enjoyable than the novel Shisou no Bara, with Daienkata no Kagami standing out as a really a good detective story. The book is not cheap though, so I'd recommend people to start with Main and then see if they want to read more from the father of the Korean detective story. For those who can't read Japanese, try out this translation of mine of one of his short stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 金来成 『金来成探偵小説選』 (創作編):「楕円形の鏡」 / 「探偵小説家の殺人」 / 「思想の薔薇」 / 「綺譚・恋文往来」 / 「恋文綺譚」