Thursday, January 28, 2016

Murder From the Bridge


"Nobody cares to acknowledge the mistakes made because of their youth"
"Mobile Suit Gundam"

And so, my first review of an Ayatsuji Yukito novel since the publication of The Decagon House Murders. *Insert disclaimer message that I translated the novel in English* But as I have been writing reviews for Ayatsuji novels years before I translated that book, I like to think I can still write these things without too much bias...

Ayatsuji Yukito has been a succesful mystery writer ever since his debut with The Decagon House Murders. His House/Yakata series has been received with much acclaim, he has been involved with other projects like TV and videogame productions and all is fine.... until one day he is visited by a mysterious young man "U", who feels awfully familiar to Ayatsuji. The young man presents him a "whodunit" script, a tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where participants are only given the first part of a mystery story, based on which they must deduce the criminal. Ayatsuji is not particularly charmed by "U"'s cheeky attitude, but takes on the challenge. And as he is being tricked, fooled and played with by "U"'s story, Ayatsuji slowly starts to recognize something of himself in "U" and the sort of mystery stories he writes in Ayatsuji Yukito's short story collection Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down", 1999).

I hope the summary is clear enough, but Dondonbashi, Ochita is a very meta-concious short story collection, as the author Ayatsuji Yukito himself stars as the main protagonist! At the essence, Dondonbashi, Ochita is a 'whodunit' collection. A whodunit is a game-esque tradition of the Kyoto University Mystery Club where stories are split in "problem" and "answer" chapters: readers are challenged to solve the case based on the "problem" chapter, which contains all the necessary hints to determine the criminal. Written and unwritten rules include "there is only one criminal", "strength of motive is of no importance", "nothing outside the text exists", etcetera (see also this post). Ayatsuji Yukito was a very proficient writer of whodunits during his time at the club and its influence can therefore be felt throughout his works.

It's therefore quite amusing to see Ayatsuji being challenged himself with whodunit stories by the not-so-mysterious "U" (who is obviously a younger, more cheeky and childish Ayatsuji, as the initial comes from Ayatsuji's real name). Over the course of the collection, Ayatsuji gives harsh critiques on "U"'s writing style, for example pointing out that the characters feel artificial or that his writing is too dry, but that's exactly the critique Ayatsuji originally got when he himself debuted with The Decagon House Murders. The conversation between the "older" Ayatsuji and "young" Ayatsuji ("U") therefore reveal a lot about how much he has changed since his debut.

The stories are set across various points in Ayatsuji's career, and contain references to many of his works: from his House series to lesser known projects as the PlayStation game YAKATA - Nightmare Project and local TV drama shows. While there are no real spoilers, I do think that Dondonbashi, Ochita has more to offer if the reader has read a fair amount of Ayatsuji's work, as a big part of the book comes from its meta-approach.

As for the whodunit stories themselves, they are fun, but as Ayatsuji himself comments: they are not 'literature', but fairly dry stories that just give you the necessary info to solve the murder. Whodunit stories are by tradition in form closer to a game than actual literature, so some readers might feel the stories are just too boring, because sometimes they resemble lists of data. Because of the bare-bones set-up of most stories, I will write next to to nothing about the actual storylines: even that would spoil the fun a bit. The first two stories Dondonbashi, Ochita ("Dondon Bridge is Falling Down") and Bouboumori, Moeru ("Boubou Forest is Burning Down") are definitely the best of the bunch: Ayatsuji is a master in getting the reader off-guard and twist endings, and these two are excellent examples of them. The solutions to these two stories wil have you cry foul play and say this is absolutely nonsense, yet you will also realize that Ayatsuji was absolutely fair and that there were more than enough hints pointing at those solutions. Dondonbashi, Ochita is also interesting in that it's actually also an impossible crime story, which you don't often see in these game-like whodunit stories. But still, you can't deny the data-lists-esque approach to the stories: especially the fact that all the important lines are bolded every time makes you think you're just going through a check off list of facts rather than reading an actual story.

Ferrari wa Miteita ("The Ferrari Saw") and Izonoke no Houkai ("The Fall of the House of Izono") are not linked to the "U" plot device and I think also weaker: they are solid whodunit plots, but they miss the grand shock factor of the previous stories (Ferrari has one, but is rather obvious, I thought). The last story, Igai na Hannin ("The Unexpected Murderer") has "U" challenge Ayatsuji with a story Ayatsuji himself wrote (but forgot about). The story is based on a TV short drama Ayatsuji wrote for local TV stations (Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou also wrote one each). It's is a very short story that is built around a neat trick, but I've seen Ayatsuji use a very similar trick (in a different context) in a different story, so I caught on quite fast. I think that the basic trick has a lot more impact in this version though.

Dondonbashi, Ochita is a neat short story collection that features some of Ayatsuji's more trickier, but (purposely) blandly written stories. The stories can feel a bit childish, but are always completely fair and it takes no trouble picturing Ayatsuji grinning as he wrote these stories, with the simple goal of catching the reader by surprise. However, I think that the surrounding meta discussions about Ayatsuji and his novels really add to the enjoyment of this book. On the other hand though, I doubt this book is truly enjoyable for readers who have never read any other Ayatsuji novels, nor to people not familiar with the game-like 'whodunit' stories.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『どんどん橋、落ちる』: 「どんどん橋、落ちる」 / 「ぼうぼう森、燃える」 / 「フェラーリは見ていた」 / 「伊園家の崩壊」 / 「意外な犯人」

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Murder on Air

"All the world's a stage"
As You Like It

About four years ago, broadcasting station NHK started with what has become an annual event: Nazotoki Live ("Mystery Solving Live"). What makes this mystery TV show unique is the focus on interactivity: viewers back home can participate with the show through the interactive button on their remotes, and try solve the case themselves from the comfort of their own couch. The show includes not only of a mystery drama part, but also includes a live broadcast from the studio, where three studio guests try to solve the case, together with the other TV viewers. At set times, the drama part is paused, and the guests and viewers at home are asked questions related to the mystery drama. Everyone has a few minutes to think and answer. Correct answers result in points and the guests and the home detectives naturally all aim for a perfect score. After the intermezzo, the drama will continue again, and so forth until the whole mystery has been revealed.

Mystery author Ayatsuji Yukito was a studio guest for the second episode of the show, but this time, he was asked to write (and do a guest cameo role in) the fourth show, broadcast on two consecutive nights (23-24 January 2016). Also surprising was the appearance of Takumi Shuu as one of the studio guests: Takumi is the original creator of the Ace Attorney game series, so a person familiar with mystery fiction, as well as mystery fiction in the form of games in particular.

Shikakukan no Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case of the Locked Room of the Square House") isn't just the title of this year's show, it's also the title of the latest episode of the in-universe TV show Kigurumi Detective. While the script isn't finished yet, the basics are already decided: a man obsessed with cubes and squares is murdered in his mansion, inside the study which was locked from the inside. The members of Detective Club CATS, Miko (the brains) and Momo (photographer), as well as Momo's brother (policeman), are helping the production as 'experts' on the genre. The wealthy uncle of the director of the show also gave the studio permisson to film in his mansion, providing the perfect background. But the filming isn't going smoothly: the scenario writer won't finish the script, several of the crew members have personal issues with others and Miko even has to study for her university entry exams. But the biggest problem is of course when someone is found stabbed to death inside the study. Precisely like the episode the crew was about to shoot, the victim was found stabbed to death in the study, which was locked from inside. Can Miko and Momo, and more importantly, the viewer figure out who the murderer is?

This was the first time I watched the show (not live though), and it was a very unique experience. Shows like Ellery Queen, Furuhata Ninzaburou and Anraku Isu Tantei already featured elements of interactivity. Ellery Queen and Furuhata Ninzaburou always asked the viewer if they managed to figure it out too right before the detectives revealed the solution, and Anraku Isu Tantei actually gave viwers a whole week to think and send in their solutions. What makes Nazotoki Live unique is of course the fact it's a live show. This also translates to the way the show is structured. The shows I mentioned above only asked their questions at the end of the show. Nazotoki Live however constantly draws the viewers, and the studio guests, out of the drama to test them on their thinking. The story is structured to have several 'Thinking Points', where the studio guests have to show their deductions. For example, the first 'assignment' the studio guests got was to deduce how the locked room murder in the Kigurumi Detective episode was committed. They (and the viewers back home) are given about ten minutes to think things over and decide on their ideas. The drama then continues, revealing whether the guests got it right or not. Repeat a couple of times until the last question, which is of course: Whodunit?'

The show takes on a very game-esque structure. The guests are given cards to help them with their deductions. Character Cards naturally have all the characters (suspects) of the show, while Data Cards record all the revelant facts to the case. Guests have to answer the questions with these cards (for example: "Who Is The Murderer?" or "Based on What Fact Does Miko Think It Might Be Murder?"). TV viewers also have access to the same cards, either through the interactive menu on their TV or via the official website. The use of 'data cards' is something you see extremely often in mystery games: from the Ace Attorney games (which uses "evidence" and "profiles") to the Detective Conan games and many, many more. The cards are very useful, because there's just so much information. This is where the older show Anraku Isu Tantei dropped the ball, being way too complex without supplementary materials to help the viewer. That said: I think that the show is still a bit difficult if you only watch the TV broadcast. The Data Cards are really handy to get everything sorted out in your head, so it's advisable to have a smartphone or laptop near you with the official website on your browser.

The presence of the three studio guests is also very entertaining. I once wrote a post about how it's fun to observe how people tackle mystery fiction each in their own way. In that post, I talked about Game Center CX, a TV show where a comedian plays videogames and comments on them. Nowadays "Let's Plays" videos have become popular: footage of people playing games and comment on what they're doing. Nazotoki Live has elements of that, as we follow the three studio guests as they think out loud about who the murderer is. And it's pretty fun to see everyone arriving at different conclusions for different reasons. One of the reasons I watched this episode was because I wanted to see Takumi Shuu (creator of the Ace Attorney games) in action, and you could clearly see he was used to thinking 'according to mystery fiction rules', while Makita Sports, who has been a studio guest for all four episodes, deduced based on his experience with the show ("That wouldn't been good TV-wise"). The viewer is also shown the results of the polls of the participants back home, but those are not as interesting: it's much more fun hearing the studio guests explain their choices, rather than seeing a bunch of graphs.

And to bring it back to the actual mystery plot of the show: it was a very fair, but also complex whodunit plot, as expected from Ayatsuji. The plot features fairly 'standard' whodunit procedure: figure out the characteristics of the murderer and eliminate all the persons who do not fit the profile until you have your murderer (see also this post on clues in mystery fiction). Shikakukan no Misshitsu was an excellent example of how to do a deep, but also very fair mystery plot, which you can solve as long as you carefully consider the meaning of each clue. Whodunits like this actually don't need much imagination to be solved, because at the root, they are constructed like puzzles and have a very mechnical feel to them. Turn a puzzle piece around often enough and you're bound to see where it fits. Both the guests in the studio and the viewers back home have more than a fair chance at solving the mystery themselves with the material available to them and in fact, the studio guest come really, really close.

What deserves special mention is the last scene of the first episode. It features a brilliant reveal that should go in the canon of visual mystery fiction. It manages to turn everything, all your deductions up to that point, up side down without even one word spoken. Ayatsuji excels in these moments, where he can create a turnabout with minimal tools. Everything in your head changes, but it's never confusing; you instantly understand why everything is different now and it's very satisfying. What's also interesting is the setting of a film crew: Ayatsuji used this device together with Arisugawa Alice several times when they wrote Anraku Isu Tantei.

For preservation, I will briefly explain what this reveal is (it does not spoil the identity of the murderer). Spoilers for Shikakukan no Misshitsu!! (Select to read):

Throughout the episode, viewers at home are led to believe the victim was killed in the study in the mansion. In the last scene of the first episode, one of the main characters stares up at the ceiling at the crime scene as he sits down on a sofa lost in thought. The camera follows his eyes, revealing there is no ceiling in this study, and showing studio lights. The murder had in fact been committed on a set identical to the study in the real mansion in a film studio. This fact turns the whole case around (as at first, the main suspects were the people at the mansion at the time of murder; now it's the other way around) and I can't praise the way this is revealed enough. Not a word is uttered, but you realize you've been had once you see the studio lights hanging high above. 

Shikakukan no Misshitsu was in several ways a very entertaining watch. The mystery plot itself was great and really makes fantastic use of its medium. And the way the show focuses on 'the solving' aspect is also very amusing: thinking along with the studio guests gives a stimulus you wouldn't get otherwise. I wonder if similar shows exist outside Japan?

Original Japanese title(s): 『謎解きLive 四角館の密室殺人事件』

Sunday, January 24, 2016

再生 -Rebuild-: the Writer Alice series

Last week a TV adaptation of this particular series started on Japanese TV, so I thought this was a good time for a new Rebuild post, which serves as an introduction to some of the longer series I discuss here. Links to all related reviews, short introduction, discussion on general series tropes, it's all here.

Writer Alice / Himura Hideo series (Author: Arisugawa Alice)
46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") [1992]
Dali no Mayu ("Dali's Cocoon") [1993]
Russia Koucha no Nazo ("The Russian Tea Mystery") [1994]
Sweden Kan no Nazo ("The Swedish Mansion Mystery") [1995]
Brazil Chou no Nazo ("The Brazilian Butterfly Mystery') [1996]
Eikoku Teien no Nazo ("The English Garden Mystery") [1997]
Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken ("The Castle of Screams Murder Case") [2001]
Malay Tetsudou no Nazo ("The Malay Railroad Mystery") [2002]
Swiss Dokei no Nazo ("The Swiss Clock Mystery") [2003]
Kisaki wa Fune wo Shizumeru ("The Queen Sinks The Boat") [2008]
Nagai Rouka no Aru Ie ("The House With The Long Hallway") [2010]
(Because the series is quite long, I've only listed the titles I've actually reviewed)

The Writer Alice series, alternatively known as the Himura Hideo series, is about mystery writer Arisugawa Alice (a male) and his friend Himura Hideo. Himura teaches criminology at Kyoto's Eito University, but his keen mind is also recognized by the police, who often ask him for help with difficult cases. Himura considers his cooperation the police to be 'fieldwork' for his research. Alice is his close friend, whom he first met when they themselves were students at Eito University. Himura often asks Alice to accompany him during his fieldwork, because occassionally Alice being a mystery writer actually comes in handy, but mostly because he is a friend he trusts (despite the many jokes at Alice's expense) and can use as a sounding board.

Note that the narrator shares the name Arisugawa Alice with the (pen name of the) writer of the books, like Ellery Queen. To keep them apart, I refer to the actual writer as Arisugawa on the blog, while I use Alice for the character (I similarly use Ellery for the character, and Queen for the writer-duo).

Whereas previous Rebuild posts looked at major series tropes, I'd say that the Writer Alice series is actually quite diverse, with no real major series tropes. Sure, the series is of course loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes model with a brilliant detective and his writer sidekick (Himura still lives in his student apartment room, with the elderly landlord granny taking care of him), but the cases themselves are about all kinds of mysteries: sometimes it's about solving traditional locked room murders or serial killings, but at other times Himura and Alice are wrecking their brains on secret codes or other less criminal mysteries. Because of his work, Himura is often asked by the police for help with criminal investigation, but occassionally his students bring (less criminal) problems to him, and even Alice himself has a tendency to come across little problems while writing his books. The Writer Alice series probably has something to offer to every fan of the genre, in both novel form as short story form. On the other hand, I'd say that the quality of the series isn't always consistent: there are some really great stories that invoke the Ellery Queen spirit for example, but some stories don't show as much ambition. Hit or miss is too harsh, but sometimes it's hit or meh. It's also a very long series.

One interesting trope might be the setting of most of the stories though. Himura's homeground is in Kyoto, as he teaches at Eito University (which is based on the actual Doshisha University). Alice lives in nearby Osaka, so most of the stories in the series are set in the Kinki (Kansai) region of Japan. Many mystery novels are set in Tokyo, but in the Writer Alice series, you're more likely to see a scene set at Namba Station than at Shinjuku Station. Note also that Alice speaks in Osaka dialect (even though the narration in the books is always in standard Japanese). The series therefore has a distinct Kansai feel to it.

The relation between Himura and Alice is also a focal point of the series. The constant teasing between the two also betrays how close the two are, and it has attracted a fairly large female fanbase, from what I gather. Sherlock has done the same in more recent years with its portrayal of the Sherlock & Watson dynamic, but the Writer Alice series has been doing this for many, many years. It's definitely no coincidence that the audio dramas of this series were produced by Momogre / Momo & Grapes, which mostly caters to the female fanbase with a love of coupling men. The bickering between Himura and Alice is also a part that betrays its Osaka roots however, as well, people from Osaka are known / stereotyped as rather talkative and easygoing.

There is no real overarching storyline for this series, so you can pick up any book and start from there. Personally, I think the first novel, 46 Banme no Misshitsu ("The 46th Locked Room") was a fun novel, so you might as well start there, but it really doesn't really matter which book you pick up.

Note that Arisugawa actually has two series that both have an Arisugawa Alice as its protagonist. Besides the Writer Alice series, there's also the Student Alice series, which stars a student with the same name (See also this Rebuild post of the Student Alice series). Interestingly enough, each Alice supposedly writes the other Alice. So the Alice from the Writer Alice series writes the Student Alice series, while in the Student Alice series, that Alice is writing the Writer Alice series. Confusing? It sure is! What's interesting though is that while this series does take on a Sherlock Holmes model, Alice isn't writing about his adventures with Himura. Most detective + writer sidekick stories usually have the writer basing his stories on their adventures, but in this series, they have little to do with each oether.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Death of the Living Dead


"Prithee do not die"
Yosano Akiko

Once again time for a Short Shorts post, where I write shorter reviews/thoughts on multiple mystery media, as opposed to longer, focused reviews. Mainly because I can't think of enough (relevant) material to fill a complete post with. Short shorts are usually only posted once in six months or so here, but this is the second post within the month! Anyway, just two topics for today. 

The latest volume of Detective Conan, volume 88, was released over a month ago, so I'm a bit late with this review. The volume starts with the last chapter of The Secret of the Big Couple, which was fairly disappointing. The first two chapter of this story, collected in volume 87, were absolutely hilarious. This final chapter focuses almost solely on explaining who the murderer of the restaurant owner is and how it was done. The trick was fairly original, but read on its own, this chapter is incredibly boring, especially given how fantastic the first half of the story was. Maybe I should read the story in one go. The volume also ends with an incomplete story, The Girl Band Murder Case, where Sonoko's idea to form a girl band with Ran and Sera Masumi brings them to a rehearsal studio. A murder is (of course!) committed there, and the suspects are all members of another girl band practicing at the studio. I'll have to wait for volume 89 in April for the conclusion of this story, but to be honest, it looks like one of those fairly predictable stories that are technically well constructed, but not really memorable. Okay, there's the namedropping of a Black Organization member called Scotch, but that's it (No, it's not a real spoiler. They actually put that little fact on the obi of the volume).

Volume 88 features only two complete stories. The Suspect Who Uses Too Much Condiments brings us back to the (relocated) ramen noodle restaurant from Deadly Delicious Ramen from volume 73. The police recently chased a robber who killed his victim down to the restaurant, but they have no idea which of the three regular customers present is their prey (the three regulars all arrived around the same time). Of late, the three have also gotten new eating habits: one uses a lot of pepper in his food, another uses a lot of soy sauce, and the last a lot of vinegar, but how does this relate to the crime? Overall, a fairly chaotic story. I loved the setting (Deadly Delicious Ramen was one of my favorite stories of the year!), but even I'd say this story feels more like a collection of random ideas with little cohesion. Also: it's strange this story follows right after The Secret of the Big Couple, because they have one point that is really similar.

The Tragedy of the Zombie Mansion on the other hand features Hattori, which is always good for bonus points. Kogorou drags everybody along to a mansion where an old zombie film featuring his favorite idol Youko was filmed. They come across a small filming team, who reveal they're here to film material for a trailer for the sequel to that film (not starring Youko though). But mysterious thing happen: the producer apparently commits suicide, while later his dead body is seen killing another staff member. And then the whole mansion is attacked by a horde of zombies! What's going on? A lot! I'd say this was a decent story, but nothing more than that. The main trick of the dead coming back alive is fairly flawed, as there's absolutely no way nobody wouldn't have noticed that! There's also a bit about an impossible disappearance from a room that was better, but even still not particularly inspiring (though I thought the hint was quite clever). Overall, I'd say that volume 88 was a bit disappointing: there were only two complete stories and only one of them was okay. Oh well, let's hope April's volume is better.

Last week, the TV drama  Rinshou Hanzai Gakusha - Himura Hideo no Suiri ("The Clinical Criminlogist - The Deductions of Himura Hideo") started. The series is based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. Himura Hideo is an university teacher of Criminology, who often helps with official police investigations (as his "fieldwork"). He is accompanied by his best friend and mystery writer Arisugawa Alice. While I don't like all the books in the series, I do enjoy the series overall, so I was quite curious to this adaptation of the series. The first episode was based on the short story Zekkyoujou Satsujin Jiken (" -The Castle of Screams- Murder Case"). Like I already mentioned in my review of the audio drama adaptation: it's an okay story, but nothing more than that. A bit underwhelming for a series pilot, but at least the episode already gave us some glimpses of what will follow (there was a set-up for Shuiro no Kenkyuu / "A Study in Vermillion" for example).

But I'm still not sure what to think about the series in general. One thing I really loved was that the series has a distinct Kyoto flavor. Himura teaches at Kyoto's Eito University (= thinly disguised Doshisha University) and the series features a lot of nice shots of the ancient capital of Japan (the opening has a nice Kyoto-atmosphere too). But some of the director's ideas didn't set too well with me. The series blatantly tries to copy Sherlock for example. They dress Himura in a long dark coat, show him in manic states, show text from a laptop on the TV screen for the viewer and more. Heck, they even have Himura jump off into the dark in a dream sequence. To be honest: it only hurts this series, because this isn't Sherlock and it shouldn't even need to try to emulate that series. Also, the Himura in the TV series is a bit different from the one in the books (I've read). There's a bit of Sherlock's Sherlock in him and for some reason Himura's catchphrase has become "This crime isn't beautiful", even though that would seem like the last thing Himura from the books would ever say! Alice was okay though in the first episode, and it was fun hearing him refering to some of the stories he wrote (which are the books known as the Student Alice series). Anyway, some good, some bad.

And that's it for today. A new volume of The Young Kindaichi Case Files R was released a few days back, but I'm still not sure whether I'll wait for the next volume to do them in one go, because stories in that series often span two volumes. Considering the publication schedule, I might wait until the next Conan volume (in April).

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第88巻, 有栖川有栖(原) 『臨床犯罪学者 火村英生の推理』

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Everlasting Luv

これが最後のlove songのはじまりに・・・
『Last love song』(Garnet Crow)

The start of our last love song...
I pray this will be it.
"Last Love Song" (Garnet Crow) 

While it would take a bit of time, I could theoretically have read the original French version of today's book, but why bother with that if I can read a cheaper Japanese version much easier?

The suicide of her father leaves Cora, Princess of Lerne, with much sadness, which is only partly relieved by her father's parting words, which were full of loving advice for the future and one particular observation. Cora's father said he knew that one of the four men who have of late devoted themselves to the beautiful Cora, was the infamous gentleman-thief Arsène Lupin and if she would ever be in danger, she should turn to him for help. And as her father had predicted, the help of Lupin is indeed needed. A series of incidents surrouding her start with a daring attempt to steal her massive wedding dowry from an airplane from England to France: two of the money bags fall inside the "Zône", a less-fortunate and rather rough neighbourhood just outside Paris. But before a trio of ne'er-do-wells can get away with the loot, they are apprehended by a mysterious man affectionally called Captain Cockadoodle by the local children. But the theft of Cora's dowry is just the beginning of the adventure, and Captain Cockadoodle (or as he quickly confesses, a reformed Arsène Lupin). assisted by Joséphin and Marie-Thérèse, two of the brightest of the "Zône" children, try to figure out who and why someone is targeting Cora in Maurice Leblanc's Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin ("The Last Love of Arsène Lupin", 2012).

2012? Yes,  Maurice Leblanc, creator of Arsène Lupin, passed away in 1941, but Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin is his only novel originally published in the 21st century. This last adventure of the famous gentleman-thief was originally written in 1936, but was never published. The manuscript remained with Leblanc's family and while the existence of the story was already known from the late 80s on, Leblanc's son did not wish to publish the book. The book was later once again discovered by Leblanc's granddaughter and the book was first published in 2012 in France as the last Lupin novel, with the final publication being identical to Leblanc's original story (no extra editing).

And because Arsène Lupin is quite popular in Japan, three different translations of the book were published there in the same year as the original French release! Hayakawa published a 'normal' translation, while Popular continued their series of rewritten versions of the Lupin novels for a juvenile public (Done in the style of translator Minami Youichirou, who originally supervised this particular series: I have reviewed two of his Lupin adaptations here and here). I however chose Tokyo Sogen's version of the book, which was released last of the three. What is interesting about this version is that the head editor made special efforts to make the book more readable: the French version (and the Hayakawa translation) are precisely like how Maurice Leblanc wrote the story, but critics have commented that the story is a bit rough around the edges. The Tokyo Sogen version fills the gaps with a slightly extended translation (adding information not explictly mentioned in the original version), making the book a lot more readable. The head editor agreed that for posteriority, preserving the story as Maurice Leblanc wrote it was a good choice for the French version, as well as the Hayakawa translation, but as Tokyo Sogen was late with their version anyway, they decided to concentrate on making it a translation that was a lot more easier to simply enjoy.

While I am more a fan of the Lupin short stories, I still enjoy the grand adventures of Lupin's novels quite a lot (my favorite of the novels are 813 and Les Dents du Tigre by the way). I doubt many will consider Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin Leblanc's masterpiece, but nonetheless, it was an entertaining ride. The book kinda sets you on a false scent in the first part, as you'd think the plot would be about the mystery of who of Cora's four devoted male friends is in fact Arsène Lupin, but his identity is revealed rather early. What follows is an adventure where Lupin outwits his unseen opponents through clever ruses like we've so often seen, and enjoyed before. The plot also involves Lupin's ancestor (who fought under Napelon) and eventually involves parties that can be considered 'big' even in terms of Lupin's other adventures, so I think that any fans of the swashbuckling genre can easily enjoy this novel.

I also liked how we were presented a slightly older Lupin this time though. While not really old (Lupin is always young!), we do see a Lupin who has settled down a bit, and who is generally a lot less reckless or arrogant compared to his appearance in his earliest adventures. He is still recognizable as Lupin, but he manages to pour his limitless energy into bigger things than just theft in Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin and that works quite well actually: we have already seen hints of this community-focused Lupin in other novels (Les Dents du Tigre for example) and it's simply fun watching the gentleman-thief teach children of the "Zône" how to swim or how to stand up against injustice. And as the title suggests, this adventure signals another major point in his life as he settles down more permanently.

As for the Tokyo Sogen translation, I think it was a job well done. I haven't read the original version, so I don't kow how much was improved over the original, but at least this version never felt incomplete, and with figures and extra notes included, I thought that the strategy of publishing their book later, but with a bit more effort in smoothing out the experience, was well thought-off.

Overall, Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin was an amusing adventure starring a slightly older Lupin. It is never as memorable or exciting as Lupin on his best, that I have to admit, but if you ask me straight if I enjoyed the book, then I have to answer with yes, I really did enjoy the book. If you've already gone through the other books, then you really shouldn't miss out on Le Dernier Amour d'Arsène Lupin.

Original title(s): Maurice Leblanc 『リュパン、最後の恋』

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Silver Glow

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics 

I am pretty sure that most people who will see the cover of today's book will think of one particular robot. I for one really can't unsee it.

Robot series
The Caves of Steel (1954)
The Naked Sun (1956)
The Robots of Dawn (1983)

In the future, humankind has evolved into two different beings. The humans who remained on Earth all live packed in sealed-off cities of steel, that keep the big bad outside world and air outside. The Spacers on the other hand, who live in wealth and luxury thanks to their robot-supported economies, naturally look down on the primitive and short-lived humans of Earth and would like the humans to stay on their little Earth. But things are starting to change on Earth thanks to plainclothesman Elijah Baley, who has been succesful in solving two Spacer-related murder cases in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Under his guidance, a small group of humans are slowly, but surely learning to adapt to the Outside world and they hope to one day move out to new planets, like their ancestors once did before them. But one incident on the planet of Aurora, one of the mightiest of Spacer planets, is about to put a stop to their plans. Dr. Falstofe is accused of having destroyed a humanoid robot of his own invention with a mental block on purpose. Dr. Falstofe is a very promiment member of the pro-Earth movements on the planet and the 'roboticide' has put the political position of Dr. Falstofe in grave danger, and if Falstofe should fall, the humans on Earth will never get a chance to move out to new planets again. Dr. Falstofe denies the accusation, but also states that he is the only person with enough knowledge to create the mental block. Baley is called to Aurora to work together with his old buddy Robot Daneel Olivaw (also a creation of Dr. Falstofe) and solve the roboticide, not only to save Dr. Falstofe, but also the future of humankind in Isaac Asimov's The Robots of Dawn (1983).

The Robots of Dawn is the last novel in Asimov's science fiction mystery Robot trilogy starring plainclothesman Elijah Baley and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw. The series would later merge with Asimov's Foundation series, but I think this is Asimov's last mystery novel in this particular setting. I loved the previous two books: The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun were fun mystery novels that had a good, fleshed-out science fiction background, which was actually of importance to the mystery plots: the Three Laws of Robotics in particular were set at the core of the plots of each of those novels and the books showed that it is perfectly possible to have fair play mystery plots even with non-realistic and highly advanced settings, as long as the reader is given a fair look at the world and the rules are clear. And the Three Laws is as clear as you can get.

But I have to say that I thought The Robots of Dawn was the weakest of the trilogy in terms of mystery plot. I think that is because of the nature of the "roboticide". The robot was taken out with a mental block; a conundrum its mind could not handle, resulting in Blue Screen of Death. The problem is thus about finding the one who could have the skills to force a mental block. We are told that Dr. Falstofe is the only one, but  "skill" is something vaguely defined and because we're also told that the Laws of Robotics don't work on an absolute scale, you are not given with a clear cut logical problem that could be solved by a close reading of the text, like in The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. You have mystery that can be explained by "well, maybe X could be skilled enough in Y to do Z, but it's just a guess and not based on any evidence or anything verifiable at all". The final solution in particular contains elements that had hardly been established in the world of the Robot series and kinda came out of nowhere (the hints were quite weak too). "It's the future, it's possible" is the explanation, and that is not how a science fiction mystery novel should work. The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun were great examples of how to do SF mystery right, but The Robots of Dawn is a gigantic step backwards in showing the possibilities of the SF mystery novel.

I did think the novel was enjoyable as a conclusion to the trilogy though. Not only do we see a couple of familiar faces from the previous two novels, the worlds depicted in this series are always evolving and it's great to see how Elijah and humankind on Earth in general have grown in the last couple of years in regards to looking outside Earth for the future. It's also funny to see how the worlds react to each other in the course of the books: the murder on Solaria (The Naked Sun) which was solved by the mere human Elijah for example has been made into a succesful "TV" series for example and Elijah's exploits (and his more handsome actor-counterpart) are famous even outside Earth.

As always, there is also a good amount of philosphical talk about humankind, the man-machine interface and human society, which may or may not be to your liking. I find it very fun to read though and Asimov obviously had fun in creating the Spacer worlds, where Spacers act all high-and-mighty towards Earthlings, but you can still see the same old follies, the same old mistakes even in their exalted societies.

The Robots of Dawn is a rather disappointing end to an otherwise excellent trilogy of science fiction mysteries. As a science fiction novel, it's still good, but as a mystery story, it is simply not as well constructed as the previous two novels. The dangers of the science fiction -  mystery marriage were well evaded in the first two novels, but sadly showed their face a bit too clearly in this last novel. Still, I think that if you have enjoyed Elijah and Daneel's previous adventures, you really should read this last one too.

Monday, January 11, 2016

A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts


--Dear Detective. It's a case--
Raising the curtains of a strange surprise
"Mononoke Mystery" (Teniwoha)

I wonder whether people outside Japan recognize the word mononoke from Princess Mononoke. Confession: I'm not a fan of Princess Mononoke, which I think is just a less interesting version of Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind (the manga version).

If there's something strange in the neighborhood, who are you going to call? In Tokyo, you'd be calling the Tsukioka Detective Agency. At first, you might be surprised to see the agency is being run by three children, but their detective agency is without the best in its particular field. Which is dealing with youkai: ghosts, ghouls, and goblins that roam Japan. Most of these supernatural beings do little harm to humans nowadays, but there are occasionally youkai who still like to interfere a bit with human lives and that's when Harutari, Yahito and Utsuhi come in action. In Teniwoha's Mononoke Mystery ("Monster Mystery", 2014), the threesome is hired by a local railway company to solve the appearance of a ghost train which has been causing some disturbance among the local population. Their search for the spectral line doesn't take long though, as the train appears several times out of nowhere trying to run the three over. Who is behind the ghost train and why is it running wild in the city?

A while back, I wrote about Teniwoha's Girl Student Detective series, a novel series based on a song. Mononoke Mystery is similarly a cross-media project. Its origins lie in the song Mononoke Mystery, voiced by the famous Hatsune Miku Vocaloid (voice synthesizer software). The imagery of this song in turn are explored in the novel, as well as in a manga series. The world and characters of this so-called Youkai Boys Detective Club series are thus explored across music, books and comics.

The Girl Student Detective series was a normal (if a bit uninspired) detective series, but Mononoke Mystery definitely has an interesting concept: in the world of the Youkai Boys Detective Club series, youkai do actually exist and can cause real harm to people. Youkai are not an unfamiliar concept in detective fiction: Kyougoku Natsuhiko for example is famous for the use of youkai in the Hyakki Yakou series, but there youkai are considered a folkloristic and psychological concept that have influence on the mind and therefore actions of humans. It's the idea of youkai that is of importance there, and no actual supernatural beings are running around in that series.

But as we've seen in various examples on this blog, supernatural or unrealistic phenomena don't mean a mystery plot can't be fair or fun. It's the way supernatural phenomena are presented and used that is of importance (see for example Cat Food, Snow White, Professor Layton VS Ace Attorney and The Caves of Steel for fair, but unrealistic settings). So I was quite curious to see if Teniwoha managed to do something exciting with the concept of youkai in Mononoke Mystery. I'm actually quite interested in youkai, and there are a lot of them in Japan, all with different abilities that could really work well in a detective novel.

Mononoke Mystery however barely shows the potential of actual youkai in a detective story. It is first of all a comedy-action series, focusing on the antics of Harutari (a rather arrogant, but capable detective), Yahito (the cool, level-headed brains and brawn of the group) and Utsuhi (token cute and energetic girl). A lot of the plot is made up by their banter, which I didn't think particularly inspiring. There are also some action scenes where the three use their special powers to take the criminal youkai, in a fairly predictable anime-esque fashion (out-thinking and out-maneuvering the enemy with their specific powers). It is standard-fashion though and even as a comedy-action series, it is not very memorable.

There are some parts that were genuinely inspired though, but never executed in a completely satisfying way. Mononoke Mystery is not a fair-play puzzle plot mystery, but there were neat segments where the three had to deduce what kind of youkai they were facing (which would make their battles a lot easier). Despite being supernatural, fictional beings, youkai are actually very well documented and appear in many documents of several centuries old, and I think most people actually know a fair number of them, so I'd say that the reader has a good chance at catching the hints. I think that this was good concept: it allows for supernatural stuff in the plot, but yet offer fair play in the sense that the reader can logically deduce the identity of the youkai based on the hint. But the way it is done in Mononoke Mystery is rather limited and a bit too obvious and not nearly as entertaining as it could have been.

I think that Mononoke Mystery has an interesting concept, but I guess that Teniwoha is very aware of how to catch the most listeners/readers with his music/books/manga, and he obviously designed the whole Youkai Boys Detective Club series to be a very accessible action-comedy serie with slight mystery elements, rather than something which would satisfy the more genre-specific fans. This first book of Mononoke Mystery also leaves some important questions unanswered, which will probably be addressed in following volumes, but I don't think I'll ever read them, as I very much doubt Teniwoha will push this series in the direction I'd love to see it go to, as I do think the basic idea is catchy. I have the same feeling with Teniwoha's Girl Student Detective series, but that one at least tries to give me some puzzle plot stories.

Original Japanese title(s): てにをは 『モノノケミステリヰ』

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Evil Under the Sun

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The Three Laws of Robotics

Man, that's some nicely painted cover art! It might be me, but I have the feeling that these kind of covers aren't that common anymore in English-language releases.

Colonization of other planets have created a rift between the humans of Earth, who live in gigantic sealed cities of steel that keep fresh air and the sky outside, and the "Spacers", who enjoy economic and military superiority thanks to extensive use of robots. In The Caves of Steel, police detective Elijah Baley was forced to work together with the Spacer robot R. Daneel Olivaw (R. stands for Robot) on a murder investigation on a Spacer outpost on Earth. In Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun (1956), Elijah is sent out as the first Earth-human in centuries to venture outside Earth: local authorities on the planet Solaria have trouble with a murder, because it's basically the first murder that happened there. The prosperous planet has a fixed population of twenty-thousand and because of the enormous estates available for each person, the Solarians have lost their need for personal contact. Most people only "view" each other through holographic projections and even married couples rarely "see" each other. It is under these circumstances that Rikaine Delmarre was murdered. Logically, only his wife could have come close enough to actually murder him, but there was no murder weapon found on the scene. Elijah and Daneel are asked to solve the case, as an Earthling would have much more experience with such vulgar and intimate behavior like murder.

The Naked Sun is a direct sequel to The Caves of Steel, which was an excellent science fiction mystery novel that presented a fleshed-out future Earth where the evolution of humankind on Earth appears to be reaching a critical point and robots have become more or less accepted as common tools in society. Asimov's famous Three Laws of Robotics also featured heavily in the novel and were used in surprising ways to give the reader a perfectly fair and intricately plotted impossible crime.

The Naked Sun lacks the impact factor The Caves of Steel had for me, as it was the first in the series I read, but it is still an excellent mystery novel that builds further on the foundations laid in the first novel. The most interesting point about the book is definitely the special socio-cultural environment of Solaria: Solarians absolutely detest personal contact and the actual presence of other people. All contact is done through holographic projections and practically everything is done by robots, so the Solarians all live in perfect leisure without having to do a thing. The result is that the Solarians are described in a way similar to how the robots work in Asimov's work: like robots, Solarians have specific characteristics that prevent them from doing certain actions.

That is why the murder on Rikaine can be presented as an impossible crime. Psychologically speaking, only the wife could have come close to the victim, as the only person with whom he occassionally had personal contact, yet there was no murder weapon found on the crime scene. So physically someone else must have done it and taken the weapon with them, yet psychologically the victim would never have allowed other people to come even close, and very probably the same for the murderer. It is a very interesting conumdrum that arises from Asimov's careful plotting and rules and I absolutely love it.

Like in The Caves of Steel, the Three Laws of Robotics are of great importance in this novel and Asimov manages to explore them even more as both a mystery plot device (once again, very cleverly so), as well as a philosophical question, using Elijah and the robot Daneel to explore the consequences and limits of the three laws.

I hardly read science fiction, but I kinda like the sociological discussions that go in Asimov's Robot series. The questions of where humankind could be going, the man-machine interface, the way communities develop under special circumstances: personally I find this all very interesting and I think Asimov's done a great job at addressing these questions, but still keeping these themes very relevant to the main mystery plot. Oh, as for other science fiction mysteries: I also liked Inherit the Stars!

Anyway, The Naked Sun is a great science fiction mystery novel that does everything it wants to do fantastically: it is a great mystery novel, it is a great science fiction novel and it's fun. Will probably read the last book in the series (relatively) soon!

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Killed in the Ratings

Something old, something new, 
something borrowed, something blue,

The holiday season traditionally has a lot of mystery and murder on TV, for some reason. For the bigger and more interesting productions, I usually write seperate posts, but this season there was little I saw that warranted its post, so I grouped it all together in a short short post (where I write shorter reviews/thoughts on multiple mystery media, as opposed to longer, focused reviews). Funnily enough, this is the first short short posts in almost two years that does not feature either Detective Conan or The Young Kindaichi Case Files.

The TV special Kurotokage ("The Black Lizard") was broadcast on Japanese TV on December 22, 2015 and is an adaptation of Edogawa Rampo's 1934 book, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the writer's death. The original book is one of Rampo's best known stories and chronicles the adventures of great detective Akechi Kogorou as he attempts to capture the female thief the Black Lizard. It is a very pulpy adventure book, but oh-so-fun. The campy 1968 film was a very faithful and enjoyable adaptation of the book. The 2015 special is in a word horrible. I can live with the fact they moved the story to the present, or the fact they made Akechi Kogorou the Deputy Superintendent General of the police department, rather than a private detective. But the special is just dull.

Attempts at lighthearted comedy kill any attempts of creating atmosphere, the acting is mediocre at best (and the awful script is definitely not helping the actors) and the story has boring and uninspired attempts at adding "original" elements to the original book. The latter wouldn't be even that bad if they had at least tried to follow the spirit of the book, or Rampo's writings in general: 2004's Rampo R's version of the book was only based very loosely on the book, but at least it built on the themes of the book and Rampo in general, so that was a a lot more enjoyable than 2015's TV special. This is not how you should commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the most infuential mystery writer of Japan.

Kurotokage moved the story to the present, something Sherlock also did in its main series by moving Sherlock Holmes to a modern background, but the 2016 New Year's special The Abominable Bride goes back to the past. The story is set in Victorian London, where one Emilia Ricoletti managed to do the impossible by first committing suicide and then returning as a ghoul bride to kill her husband with a shotgun. Back at the morgue, Inspector Lestrade is horrified to discover that Ricoletti's corpse in the morgue showed signs of having moved and asks Sherlock Holmes of 221b Baker Street to help him. Note that this special is set in Victorian London like in the original stories, but that the characters are those from Sherlock and not that of the original canon. Anyway, this was a mostly enjoyable special.

The story has a bit of a Scooby Doo vibe actually, with demon brides haunting town. The mystery plot is rather forgettable though: I wouldn't say it's particularly smart, it's actually a rehash of something Sherlock has already done and the way it comes to a conclusion is very clumsily done. On the other hand: the latter half of the special gives the viewer a new perspective on the narrative up until then, and manages to give a rather bland mystery plot a bit more glamour by using that narrative as part of a bigger narrative. Overall an enjoyable TV special that fits well in the spirit of the series despite the setting, but I wouldn't watch it for the impossible crime.

Last year, an interesting, if flawed TV adaptation of Christie's Murder on the Orient Express was broadcast on Japanese TV, but this holiday season also featured a Christie adaptation, but on British TV (where else?). And Then There Were None, a three-part series based on Agatha Christie's classic that started on Boxing Day 2015, was perhaps the biggest surprise. Other recent adaptations of Christie's work on the TV were err... not optimal., so I was not expecting too much of this series, so imagine how surprised I was when I realized that this was actually a very faithful series. This series does an especially great job at visualizing the pressing atmosphere on Soldier Island, where invisible Death awaits ten sinful men and women.

The series is rather long (3x55 minutes), so there are some original parts that build on the original book in order to fill the running time, but little of it feels unnatural (I say little, because I'm not fond of one particular scene in the last episode). Overall, I think And Then There Were None was a great mini-series.

And that's it for today. Mystery-wise, this holiday season was better than than last year's, though nothing beats the extravaganza of two years ago (with Sherlock, Trick, The Kindaichi Case Files and more all starting in the first few days of the New Year). I hope next year will be at least as good as this year!

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩(原) 『黒蜥蜴』