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』

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