Saturday, December 12, 2015

Jazz Toast

"I suppose it's a bit too early for a gimlet."
"The Long Goodbye"

Man, Van Madoy's (hardcover) books all have gorgeous cover art. Today's book easily has one of the best covers I've seen this year.

It's April, and Toochika Rinto has just moved from the east to Kyoto, where he'll finally start his new life as a first year student of Kyoto University. He joins the student circle Kamogawa Rampo, which organizes group strolls all across the ancient capital that is Kyoto. Here, he falls in love with his fellow member Aoka Sachi, who seems to have more interest in strange events and mysteries that pop in everyday life. One of the mysteries of Kyoto University is a tale, no, an urban legend about a bar called "No. 3" located on the main campus. The bar is said to constantly move around the campus, sometimes being located inside a classroom, sometimes in a laboratory. But the most curious fact behind No.3 is that the beautiful bartender, Souma Miki, doesn't ask for money in exchange for her cocktails: she will only make a cocktail in exchange for an interesting mystery. Follow Rinto and his visits to No. 3 in Van Madoy's 2014 short story collection Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf - Tonight, To Mystery Solving Bar No. 3").

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he is Van Madoy's (or Madoi Ban) first short story collection and his first work outside his quirky courtroom mystery Revoir series, which ended last year. At one hand, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is quite different from the Revoir series. Gone are the private trials, the many characters who kept up-oneing each other with more and more outrageous deductions which were all allowed in court as long as the other party couldn't disprove them and instead we have a short story collection in the tradition of everyday life mysteries: little non-criminal mysteries that one comes across over the course of a normal day. No murders, no theft. Of course, even if the mysteries are non-criminal, that doesn't mean they can't be perplexing or even down-right impossible. For example, we have a problem of two people could have boarded the same taxi at the same time at different places.
Like the Revoir series though, Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai is also distinctly Kyoto-flavoured. The story is not just 'set' in the city of Kyoto and Kyoto University: the ancient capital and the university are used extensively as the stage for the book and references to local culture, geography and other little things make this book a genuine "Kyoto Mystery" (like for example Kitamori Kou's Minor Kyoto series). Van Madoy studied at Kyoto University, so no wonder the city feels so real in this book, like it did in the Revoir series. This time, the story is about university students who actually study, so we are also treated to quite a lot of scenes set on the Yoshida campus of Kyoto University and overall, I think the book feels very recognizable for anyone who has been in Kyoto or has visited Kyoto University.

Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai ("Another Glass of Clover Leaf") is both the title story as well as the opening story and introduces the reader to Rinto, Sachi and the gang of the Kamogawa Rampo circle. On the way to a welcome party for the new members, Rinto and Sachi witness one of their fellow first-year members step in a four leaf clover Yasaka Taxi (a taxi company which has a three-leaf clover as its logo. There are only four taxis with a four leaf mark). Strangely enough though, Rinto and Sachi then witness different members step out of that same taxi at the party. When they ask those members when they stepped into that taxi, they disccover that they boarded the car at the same time Rinto and Sachi saw their fellow first-year member step in the taxi! Even stranger is that that girl seems to have disappeared, as she never turned up at the party. And as he ponders about that mystery, Rinto walks into the legendary No.3 bar, which serves rather (brain) stimulating cocktails.

A great opening story. The mystery is at the surface simple, but as you'd expect from someone who wrote the Revoir series, things are never what they seem at first, and despite the relatively short length, the plot actually does manage to go quite deep and is much more carefully hinted than you'd first guess. Personally, I also loved the familar setting (the story is set around the area of dowtown Sanjou and Shijou) and the urban legend angle on both the taxi and the titular No. 3 bar itself.

Juliet ni wa Hayasugiru ("Too Early for a Juliet") has Rinto still pining for Sachi, but have his feelings for her created a miracle? Kamogawa Rampo is having a little excursion to a Maiko Odori, where once a year maiko perform their arts to the general public and show how much they've learned the last year. Rinto's seat is in the row behind Sachi, a little way away from her, which is a bit disappointing. However, at the end of the performance, Rinto discovers he is sitting right next to Sachi! How did the two come to sit next each other, even though both were looking at the performance? The solution is a bit obvious if you have been paying attention to the behaviour of the characters in the previous and this story, but I have to say that the final conclusion and sorta twist ending were fun.

Blue Lagoon ni Oboresou ("Like Drowining in A Blue Lagoon") is set in the Kyoto Aquarium, the latest detination of Kamogawa Rampo. Rinto and Sachi meet a woman there, who knows much about the aquatic inhabitants and acts as a guide for them. During their stroll, the woman is pushed down on the ground, but when Rinto starts to chase the culprit down the walking route, he finds his target has disappeared completely. Later, the woman also disappears, leaving Rinto and Sachi only with questions. The answers however are slightly disappointing. The main 'trick' of this story is something I personally don't think is 'strong' enough to serve as a central plot device, so the story feels a bit lacking in impact, in my opinion. The hinting is done adequately, but where the other stories often featured several layers, this story feels the most simple.

Kamogawa Rampo attends the Yamahoko ceremony in Pale Rider ni Miirarete ("Bewitched by the Pale Rider"). Rinto loses sight of Sachi for a while, only to find her unconcious, having falling from her seat up high down to the ground. Rinto is not sure whether it was just an accident or a crime, so he once again sets out for the No. 3 bar to find answers. The story is set-up rather simply, but unlike the previous story, it serves just as an introduction for a thrilling conclusion that delves a bit deeper in the history of the mysterious bar. The mystery elements are rather easy to see through, I am afraid, but I thought it an interesting story that deepens the No. 3 bar lore, which also helps set up the last story.

The final story, Nanashi no Guf ni Uttetsuke no Yoru ("A Fitting Night For No Name Guf"), too sets the No. 3 bar at the center of the mystery. One night, Rinto happens to come across the No. 3 bar again, finding it inside one of the new pre-fab container rooms placed on the campus, and has a drink, before leaving again to visit a friend who lives in an in-campus dorm across from the current location of No. 3. Just an hour has passed when a fire breaks out in one of the pre-fab containers, which was of course the one where the No. 3 was located in. The students manage to extinguish the fire, but when Rinto takes a look inside, he discovers the room was empty. But how could bartender Souma Miki have moved her complete bar, including counter and countless of bottles of drinks, out of that container within the hour of him leaving and the fire breaking out?

The solution to the disappearance of No. 3 is again rather simple, but Van Madoy manages to give the story quite some depth by sticking more mystery to it and also involving the history of the No. 3 bar, and the result is a fairly deep mystery story for the amount of pages. Also, this is the only story actually set on the campus of Kyoto University and I personally saw a lot of familiar sights here. Actually, the exact area where this story is set, is where I spent most of my time during my time at Kyoto University, which may be the same for Van Madoy: it is right next to the club room of the Kyoto University Mystery Club (which also makes a guest appearance in this story).

At the end of the book, we're never really told whether Bar No. 3 is really a magical bar or not. A rather realistic history of the bar is given throughout certain points of the book, but the reader is also given the impression that there is some almost magical force surrounding the bar, attracting customers with riddles on their mind. In the end though, it doesn't really matter. Even if the bar is magical, the mysteries in the book are always solved with logic, so the 'magic' element would not interfere with Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai being a mystery book. The conclusion of the book is rather open-ended regarding the No. 3 bar, so we could well get more adventures in the future, or not.

Nostalgia for Kyoto probably also played a role, but I quite enjoyed Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he. Most of the stories are fun, even if the main tricks can be a bit simple to see through at times. Luckily, Van Madoy usually realizes this all too, and he manages to make even simple tricks appear much more enjoyable by adding layers to the story. The youth romance angle also never intrudes on the mystery plot, and works well as a running storyline. Following Rinto as he tries to get closer to Sachi is certainly entertaining. I for one am quite curious to see if we'll see more of Rinto, Sachi and the mysterious bar No. 3 in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『クローバー・リーフをもう一杯 今宵、謎解きバー「三号館」へ』: 「クローバー・リーフをもう一杯」 / 「ジュリエットには早すぎる」 / 「ブルー・ラグーンに溺れそう」 / 「ペイルライダーに魅入られて」 / 「名無しのガフにうってつけの夜」


  1. You are right; that is a very nice cover. The artist who drew it could teach a lot to the "artists" who draw American covers.

    1. The artist is OGURA Mayuko by the way, and she has made some really nice covers which you can view at her website: