Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Food for Thought


"What is ramen to you?"
"Ramen is my life"
"What is men to you?"
"Men is my spirit"
"What is soup to you?"
"Soup is my lifeline"
"What is chaashuu to you?"
"I don't have anything left! It's meat, just meat!"
"Gourmet Reporter" (Sandwichman sketch)

Oh, how I long for a good bowl of tonkotsu ramen (katamen!), topped off with some benishouga, three slices of chashuu...

Kamoshida Tekki runs a ramen yatai stand in the Nagahama district of Fukuoka. Negishi Kyuuta is an investigatons operative of a dating agency. The two have been in a lot of trouble and adventures ever since they met in high school, and that is still true even now they are both responsible (?) adults. Tekki has made a name for himself as a rather sharp person during his wild days and that is why he is occasionally hired to help solve 'problems', often as either a detective or bodyguard. Kyuuta on the other hand has a natural knack for getting into trouble and the two are considered a formidable hardboiled duo in the dangerous streets of Fukuoka. Kitamori Kou's Oyafukoudoori Detective ("Oyafukou Street Detective") is the first short story collection featuring Tekki and Kyuuta in a series of six adventures set around Fukuoka and the island of Kyushu.

And yes, there is some sort of Fukuoka-quotum at this blog: I try to read at least one mystery novel set in Fukuoka a year (last year was the excellent Jikan no Shuuzoku). Preferably a good one too. To be honest, I was only moderately positive about Kitamori Kou's Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, but I just could't resist trying out Oyafukoudoori Detective, which oozed Fukuoka-atmosphere with its cover, the summary of the story and of course the title: Oyafukoudoori is a very well-known street in Fukuoka by the way, with lots of bars and nightclubs.

Seventh Heaven introduces us to Tekki and Kyuuta, and gives us a look into Kyuuta's work at the dating agency. Kyuuta's work brings him to a couple that married thanks to the efforts at the agency and the agency wants to use them for promotions. Kyuuta however discovers the couple in a rather dead and murdered state and instead of calling the police, he flees from the apartment building. Tekki naturally calls him a fool, but a look at some pictures of the couple reminds him that he has seen them at his ramen stand a couple of times and he remembers a strange happening during one of their visits. There is some interesting plotting and hinting going in this story, and it serves as a good introduction to the two detectives, but coincidences also play a big part in the plot.

In Chikagai no Robinson ("The Robinson of the Underground"), Tekki is hired by the "Singing Princess", a local bar owner once world famous for her singing, to track down a girl who has gone missing the last few days. Kyuuta helps along, but as they continue their search, they find out that their target's boyfriend might be caught up with something rather illegal and dangerous, making their own hunt for the girl also one not without danger. Like Seventh Heaven, this story has some good ideas, but the overall plot feels a bit dragged out and once again there are some jumps in the plot/logic that feel a bit forced. This was also the case in Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, which often had stories with good basic plots, but with weaker surrounding padding.

Natsu no Odekake ("A Summer Outing") has Kyuuta (succesfully) hitting on one of Tekki's customers during Tekki's annual hiatus. During one of his dates with the girl, he stumbles upon Tekki, who is pretending to be the son of an elderly lady. What is Tekki 's motive for doing that? I can't tell more about the story, as it would spoil the whole picture, but I think that plotwise, this is the weakest story of the collection: once again one that asks the reader to believe in coincidences a lot, but unlike the previous stories, there is little that redeems the plot, as at least the previous stories had some good ideas in them.

Hard Luck Night reunites Tekki and Kyuuta with an old classmate of theirs. Natsumi was Tekki's old girlfriend for a while, but after high school everyone kinda lost contact with each other and before you know it, you have lost a husband and moved back to Fukuoka. That same night, the murdered body of a high school girl is discovered near Tekki's stand. Despite the crowds celebrating a victory of the local baseball team roaming the streets though, it seems few people saw the girl and there are no traces of the murderer. Tekki is asked by a police detective acquaintance to keep his eyes open, in exchange for the information that the girl was actually part of a prostitution ring made up by high school students, with links to a local crime syndicate. Overall, Hard Luck Night does not really satsify in the puzzle plot department, but it's quite enjoyable as a hardboiled mystery story, that also delves a little in the background of Tekki and Kyuuta.

Oyafukoudoori Detective ("Oyakukou Street Detective") lends it title to the story collection and has Tekki tell one of Kyuuta's girlfriends about an old friend of theirs: Hide was a homeles person who earned money by pulling yatai stands to their places (yatai stands have set locations, but are only pulled out there just before night). One day, Hide was arrested on suspicion of being the arsonist who had been making the area around Oyafukou Street unsafe, yet Tekki and Kyuuta are sure he is innocent. Again, as a puzzle plot story, Oyafukoudoori Detective is not particularly satisfying, even if it is an entertaining story with some interesting deductions surrounding the reason why Hide was arrested. There are still the usual jumps-in-logic-and-plot-for-the-sake-of-the-story though.

Sentimental Driver forms a conclusion to the collection and deals with an old enemy of Kyuuta and Tekki: the two once stopped an old classmate from raping their teacher and the twarted rapist naturally had to switch schools and go away after that, but now he has returned to Fukuoka using a false name. The story takes a different turn from the rest of the collection (being much more like a traditional hardboiled detective story, rather than one with a puzzle plot approach) and includes a rather surprising ending and it works quite well as a conclusion to the volume.

A hardboiled detective set in Fukuoka with ramen as a motif? Sounds a lot like Nishimura Ken's Hakata Detective Case Files right? They do feel very similar. In terms of plot, I think that Hakata Detective Case Files reaches higher when it succeeds with its plot: the problem is that in general, it reaches lower lows, for much longer periods. Oyafukoudoori Detective is a lot more consistent in that respect. Also, the conversations between Tekki & Kyuuta are also more fun to read, compared to Yuge's monologues in Hakata Detective Case Files.

Overall, I thought Oyafukoudoori Detective was reasonably entertaining. Compared to Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, this book has a more distinct hardboiled taste, dealing with crime syndicates and the underworld of Fukuoka. And while I prefer puzzle plot mysteries (as you probably understand from this review), I have to admit that in general, I think I enjoyed this volume a lot better than Shina Soba Kan no Nazo, because at least this book was clearly meant as a hardboiled-flavored detective, which makes less demands about tightly plotted stories. Shina Soba Kan no Nazo felt like a partly-failed effort, while Oyafukoudoori Detective probably did precisely what it was supposed to do. I'll probably read the sequel too someday, as the series is just two volumes long at the moment.

Original Japanese title(s): 北森鴻 『親不孝通りディテクティブ』: 「セヴンス・ヘヴン」 / 「地下街のロビンソン」 / 「夏のおでかけ」 / 「ハードラック・ナイト」 / 「親不孝通りディテクティブ」 / 「センチメンタル・ドライバー」

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Les Milliards d'Arsène Lupin

Arsène Lupin in our midst! the irresponsible burglar whose exploits had been narrated in all the newspapers during the past few months! the mysterious individual with whom Ganimard, our shrewdest detective, had been engaged in an implacable conflict amidst interesting and picturesque surroundings. Arsène Lupin, the eccentric gentleman who operates only in the chateaux and salons, and who, one night, entered the residence of Baron Schormann, but emerged empty-handed, leaving, however, his card on which he had scribbled these words: "Arsène Lupin, gentleman-burglar, will return when the furniture is genuine."
"The Arrest of  Arsène Lupin"

Today, something completely different! Not a review, but a little look into the Japanese history of a very French character.

While the presence of Arsène Lupin, the gentleman-thief created by Maurice Leblanc in 1905, is not very remarkable in modern Western popular culture, Lupin still lives on in Japan in a curious way. Is he as well known as someone as Sherlock Holmes? That, I very, very much doubt, but the fact you can still stroll into a bookstore and find translated versions of tales of the gentleman-thief should say something. The question that might pop up in your head is: why? Forgotten is too strong a word, but Lupin is definitely not that big a household name anymore in the West, and while getting his books through the Powers of the Internet isn't that difficult, I doubt many stores in the neighborhood stock his adventures. Is there a secret behind his staying power in Japan?

Some might say that Japanese culture, or more precisely, Japanese mystery fandom, tends to focus more on the Western classics more than we do here. I think that would be a too easy, and a too careless attempt at an explanation, and one that seems to ignore the fact that Leblanc actually did write incredibly entertaining stories. Perhaps the question should be why he isn't still that famous here, rather than the other way around.

The notion of the gentleman-thief did not start with Arsène Lupin, of course. A direct literary forefather is E.W. Hornung's Raffles series, which started in 1898, and we have early examples in folklore like Robin Hood. In Japan too, there had been a tradition of folklore about thieves that were seen as heroes by the masses. There is for example Ishikawa Goemon (1558-1584), an outlaw who stole to give to the poor. His exploits became the subject of many kinds of folklore, including multiple kabuki plays. Another example would be Nezumi Kozou ("The Rat Kid"). Nezumi Kozou was the nickname of Nakamura Jiroukichi (1797-1831), a thief who managed to burgle over 100 samurai estates. His tale turned into folklore, and has been the subject of folk songs and kabuki plays (including one by Kawatake Mokuami, seen by some as one of the greatest kabuki dramatists). These characters are considered gizoku, or "thieves with honor" and are thus early examples of thieves that are considered the heroes of a tale in fiction (even if based on real persons and events).

So it isn't strange that a concept like the gentleman-thief would be accepted in Japan. Interestingly, Raffles wasn't translated to Japanese until the Taishou period (1912-1926), while Lupin arrived in Japan much earlier. Already in 1909, the magazine Sunday featured Pari Tantei - Dorobou no Dorobou ("Paris Detective - Thief of Thieves"), based on the 1906 short story La Perle noire. Translations of various stories by various translators followed, many of them being rewrites of the original plot with new titles. The Lupin-epic 813 was for example published in 1912 with the title Kojou no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Old Castle"), written/translated by Mitsuki Shunei. So even in Lupin's early days, he was already making his name in Japan.
(See: Hasebe Fumichika (2007). Oubei Suiri Shousetsu Honyakushi. Futaba Bunko. p159-161)

The character of  Arsène Lupin was also noticed by Edogawa Rampo, who is commonly seen as the father of the modern Japanese mystery story. It's easy to see the influence of the thief in Rampo's work. Not only did he have his own detective character, Akechi Kogorou, take on the famous French thief in his 1930-1931 novel Ougon Kamen ("The Golden Mask"): his famous creation Kaijin Nijuu Mensou (the Fiend with Twenty Faces) was also partly inspired by the thief. The Fiend would become the main antagonist in the highly succesful children's mystery series Shounen Tantei Dan (The Boy Detectives Club, started in 1936), so the notion of the flamboyant thief with a fantastic skill for disguises had been implanted in many. And more importantly perhaps, this notion was implanted in children, meaning a new generation would grow up with knowledge of this notion. The Shounen Tantei Dan series is still source of many pop-culture references nowadays,

The biggest influence on Lupin's staying power however is perhaps Minami Youichirou (1893-1980), a novelist and translator who'd be responsible for "The Complete Gentleman-Thief Lupin" series, which was a complete translated release of the complete Arsène Lupin series by publisher Poplar. Minami had been a teacher on an elementary school, but having found succes with writing adventure novels for children, he became a professional novelist. His first translation of the Lupin series was published in 1958, and it would take him over 20 years, until the year he died, to complete the project (though this project also included some non-Leblanc Lupin novels). What should be noted was that Minami did not make faithful translations. The Minami translation is aimed at children, so a lot of the stories were simplified, and plotpoints like adultery/divorce and such were skipped over. Some books were shortened to provide for a more streamlined experience. The result is a slightly more heroic, and perhaps 'cleaner' version of Lupin, but, thanks to Minami's own experience as a novelist of children's adventure novels, this version was also very readable, and as such incredibly well-loved by the readers. I too have read some of his translation, and they were quite fun as easier-to-read, and more focused stories.

Other publishers have also released faithful translations of the Lupin novels, but if you look on Amazon now, you'll notice that they're all out of print. Only the Minami Youichirou translations remain in print, even now, so many years after the series first started and even after 'better' translations were released. It shows how beloved his version of the stories are. And because his books are aimed at children, new generations keep growing up with his versions. Interestingly enough, even generations that have now grown up don't seem to have a particular need for the faithful translations! Also note that the Minami translations are instantly recognizable by their awesome retro covers!

Some people might also want to mention the famous franchise Lupin The Third as a reason as to why Arsène Lupin's still available in Japan. Lupin The Third, first started in 1967, is one of the biggest manga/anime franchises in the history, with multiple comic book series, TV series, even more TV specials and films and everything. Heck, an (EXCELLENT) TV series of it has ended just now in Japan, in 2016!  And yes, Lupin The Third is about Lupin III, grandson of Arsène, who's also a genius thief, so that is a link, but I think a lot of people overestimate this link. Lupin The Third borrows very little from his grandfather besides some names and the (very) occassional reference. So I wouldn't equate Lupin the Third's success with Arsène Lupin's reputation in Japan per se, even if it definitely helps to have the same name! Do note that Lupin The Third is way, way, waaaaay better known that his grandfather. There is a different recent manga based on Arsène Lupin by the way, titled Aventurier (2011-now), based on the books.

Anyway, I don't pretend to know exactly why Arsène Lupin still prevails in Japan. Then again: is there anybody who can accurately read the movements of that thief? If Ganimard can't, how can I? What I do know is that I absolutely love the character and I'm happy to see that he's still alive in Japan, in one form or another. Because what would Lupin be without a disguise?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Face to Face


"Life is like a masked ball. All men and women live their lives wearing masks."
"The Masked Ball" (Yokomizo Seishi)

And again, a disclosure message just to be sure: I translated the English version of Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders last year, which is part of the same series as the book I'm discussing today.

Yakata series (Author: Ayatsuji Yukito)
Jukkakukan no Satsujin (The Decagon House Murders) [1987]
Suishakan no Satsujin (The Water Mill House Murders) [1988]
Meirokan no Satsujin (The Labyrinth House Murders) [1988]
Ningyoukan no Satsujin (The Puppet House Murders) [1989]
Tokeikan no Satsjin (The Clock House Murders) [1991]
Kuronekokan no Satsujin (The Black Cat House Murders) [1992]
Ankokukan no Satsujin (The Darkness House Murders) [2004]

Bikkurikan no Satsujin (The Surprise House Murders) [2006]
Kimenkan no Satsujin (The Strange Masks House Murders) [2012]

The first time mystery writer Shishiya Kadomi met horror writer Hyuuga Kyousuke, he thought he had finally found his doppelgänger. Their resemblance becomes useful when Hyuuga is invited by the wealthy Kageyama Itsushi to attend a secret meeting. The monetary reward for his time is something Hyuuga can't refuse, but a sudden illness prevents him from going. Hyuuga therefore asks Shishiya to go in his place (pretending to be Hyuuga), so they can share the money. Shishiyai doesn't feel much for the scheme, until he learns that the meeting is to be held in the Strange Masks House, one of the creations of architect Nakamura Seiji. From his own experience, Shishiya knows that each of Nakamura's houses becomes the scene of some grotesque murder, and hoping to confront the evil, Shishiya accepts Hyuuga's request. And as expected, the meeting at the Strange Masks House turns into a bloody tragedy, when the house is cut-off from the outside world due to a sudden snow storm in April, the master of the house is found murdered and decapitated in his room and masks have been put on, and locked on the faces of all the guests, including Shishiya, during their sleep (think The Man in the Iron Mask). With no way of escape or even seeing whom they are talking to, can the party make it out alive from Ayatsuji Yukito's Kimenkan no Satsujin ("The Strange Masks House Murder", 2012).

Kimenkan no Satsujin is the ninth novel in Ayatsuji's Yakata (mansion, house) series, which first started in 1987 with The Decagon House Murders (for a series overview, see this post). Shishiya had not acted in very prominent roles in the previous couple of volumes (from Kuronekokan no Satsujin on), but here he is back in the main role, in a rather classic format of the series, with him locked up together with some other people in one of Nakamura's devilish creations. The theme this time is masks, which is a motif for a lot of mystery fiction actually. "Everyone wears a mask, whether over their faces or over their hearts," one famous quote from the Ace Attorney series says and that's especially true in detectve stories, where practically everybody has something to hide, criminal or not. And how often have we not seen stories where people turned out not to be the persons they claimed to be? Sometimes, we have characters wearing actual masks, like the infamous Sukekiyo in Yokomizo Seishi's The Inugami Clan, who instantly attract all attention, and suspicion of those around them.

Ayatsuji brings this theme to the extreme in Kimenkan no Satsujin, as it's a rule inside the Strange Masks House for the host and guests to wear face-covering masks most of the time, and after the murder nobody is able to take of their masks anymore because they have all been locked. It's because of the actual masks that the reader will suddenly start to have suspicions about the identity of each of the characters, as you simply can't be sure anymore if the man in the mask is indeed who he claims to be. This plot device is used in interesting ways to work out several problems revolving around identity in mystery fiction, including obvious ones like suspicions about the identity of the decapitated victim and others. The face=identity theme comes back several times and I'd say that for the most part, this is done quite well: the problem of why everyone is made to wear their masks, as well as the reason for the decapitation work quite well in the context of the story.

Whereas Knox might lament the use of secret passages in detective stories, it's actually a vital element of the Yakata series: the series revolves around the houses designed by Nakamura Seiji, who loved weird gimmicks like secret hallways and hidden cabinets. Every time there is something resembling a locked room in the series, you can bet there's a secret hallway somewhere. But isn't that cheap, you might think? No, actually, it isn't. For one, it's always assumed that there is something going in Nakamura's creations and two, the existence of a secret hallway itself is not the mystery. They are always used as fair elements in the deduction process, so you have to look at these gimmicks in the light of questions as "who could have known about this secret hallway", or "who could have used this secret passage". In that respect, secret hallways are just as fair an element in mystery fiction as the bloody knife. Kimenkan no Satsujin too is bursting with secret gimmicks, but their use in the deduction process is completely fair.

I did find Kimenkan no Satsujin quite lacking in the 'wow' department. Up until now, all the books featured a big surprise twist, a trick that turned everything around and explained everything. For each book, I can explain in one sentence what the trick was. Kimenkan no Satsujin on the other hand feels more like it's a collection of smaller tricks that admittedly work together, but miss the big impact of earlier novels. Most of the mystery revolves around the decapitated corpse, issues of identity because of the masks and Nakamura's gimmicks mentioned above. True, there is one big twist at the end of the story that also ties in nicely with a very neat piece of misdirection, but it is not a plot device that can explain most of the mystery behind the novel, as featured in previous novels. Again, it's an element that ties in well with the face=identity thing, but it is not nearly as strong as that one thing from The Decagon House Murders or that what was pulled off in Tokeikan no Satsujin (people who have read those books probably instantly know what kind of twist I'm talking about). In comparison, the thing from Kimenkan no Satsujin? Oh, that, in combination with that other thing and don't forget this.

Overall, Kimenkan no Satsujin is a fairly solid entry in the series, with the more classical tone similar to earlier books in the series. For people who have been following the whole series, I think this one won't really disappoint. For people who haven't read the series yet; start somewhere else, because while fun, Kimenkan no Satsujin is nowhere being the best of the series and there are quite a lot of references to earlier books. The big question is however: what will happen next? Ayatsuji has said that he plans to end the series with the tenth volume, and while there is nothing like a grand narrative between the books (except for the focus on the protagonists and the houses created by Nakamura Seiji), I do suspect that the last volume will have something to connect all the books together more strongly and serve as a proper conclusion.

Original Japanese title(s): 綾辻行人 『奇面館の殺人』

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Masque of the Red Death

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Whenever I see covers of Japanese detective novels where the characters of the title make 'a corner', I always wonder whether it's the infuence of Ichikawa Kon's Kindaichi Kousuke films, which all featured stylized credits with similar 'cornering' in the names.

Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Mansion of the Red Death", 2001) is a short story collection by Ashibe Taku, starring his series detective Morie Shunsaku. He is supposed to be a defense attorney, but at least in the four stories collected in his volume, we see very little of his legal performances, and a lot more of him as a celebrated amateur detective specializing in locked room murders and other impossible crime mysteries. He is joined by his assistant Niijima Tomoka, as well as other acquaintances with the police, the news and even a mystery writer called Ashibe Taku, as he solves one baffling case after another. This particular volume is the eleventh entry in the long-running Attorney Morie Shunsaku series (which started in 1990), so it jumps right in the action without any (deep) introduction of the principal players.

The title story Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin ("The Murder in the Red Death Mansion") is the longest story in the volume, closer to a novelette than a short story. Niijima Tomoka's hiking trip during a short holiday turns into a nightmare when she gets lost in the mountains and winds up in a strange mansion with rooms connected to each other in a zig-zag pattern, all decorated in different colors from black to green and blue, which reminds of Edgar Allan Poe's The Masque of the Red Death. After a bit of confusion, Tomoka learns that the building is owned by Koshimizu Tatsuma, who can't get out of his bed anymore and probably has't long to live anymore. His granddaughter, Saya, also happens to be visiting her grandfather that night, and she confides in Tomoka that she suspects something isn't right and that the building's caretaker (who also takes care of her grandfather) might be a bit suspicious. Tomoka and Saya are each given the use of one of the colored room. In the middle of the night, Tomoka sees a suspicious black figure making his way through her room to the next room, and Tomoka decides to follow the figure. The figure however manages first to conjure Saya away from her room, then disappear himself before he knocks Tomoka out. When Tomoka awakens, she finds that the caretaker has been killed, and that grandfather Tatsuma and Saya have been spirited away from the building.

A lot happens in this novelette, from an impossible disappearance from the colorful rooms and a murder to just the mystery of where Saya and her grandfather have gone off too, as well as the purpose of the strange building and even more. Yet the story is almost strangely straightforward and clear and never feels too convoluted. The solution has both ingenious ideas as well as some points that seem a bit unlikely. The way the story connects to The Masque of the Red Death is definitely good: I love detective stories that can give new (logical) interpretations to classic horror and ghost stories. The basic idea behind the disappearance from the rooms is good, but I really, really wonder whether the trick can be performed as described in the story. Finally, there's another important part of the mystery related to the actual murder that seems a bit hard to swallow, even if I have to admit there were some hints pointing to it. It's a trick that always seems a bit hard to believe in general, so it's not a problem specific to this story. Overall a good story, even if a bit long.

Oh, Edogawa Rampo's Ougon Kamen funnily enough also featured an impossible disappearance in a setting inspired by The Masque of the Red Death.

Shikku Suru Joker ("The Running Joker") on the other hand is a short, but powerful story, about a murder commited in a holiday villa. The only witness had been standing guard in the main hall of the villa (because the inhabitants had good reason for wanting security), but nevertheless a murderer dressed up as a joker made his way inside the building and inside one of the bedrooms completely unseen, killed one person and then disappeared into another room after crossing over the main hall (knocking the witness out in the process). The solution is simple, and elegant and with just enough hints around in really short, no-nonsense impossible crime story.

Fukatu Keibu no Fukitsu na Funin ("The Unfortunate Appointment of Inspector Fukatsu") has a local rural police station in an uproar because of the arrival of a fast-track police inspector who is appointed to their station for the necessary "experience", leaving Morie Shunsaku unable to get the information he needs as an attorney. A corpse found at the bottom of a cliff discovered right after Inspector Fukatsu's arrival means he can get right to work and Morie sticks around to see how things work out. The solution is rather clever: I quickly saw through the first layer of the solution, but definitely had not expected that Ashibe would double-up me there. Again a fun short story that also includes quite a lot of satire on rural police stations and how careers within the police are planned.

Misshitsu no Oni ("The Monster of the Locked Room") is my least favorite story of the volume. A professor is threatened with death on a specific day, and the police naturally keeps an eye on him. The professor retreats to his study in the garden, with the only entrance to the garden locked from the outside by his brother-in-law and the house being observed from a room above the garden and the entrance from a restaurant across the street. And yet the man is found stabbed to death, with no signs of any intruders (or escapees). While not a bad story, it just lacks something really catchy (especially compared to the other stories in the volume). There's something like a robot in the room that is supposed to make the story a bit more interesting, but that plot device isn't really used to its full extent, and gives a 'oh, by the way' vibe.

Overall though, Sekishibyou no Yakata no Satsujin is a good short story collection featuring impossible crimes. The start is a bit more impressive than the ending, but good nonetheless. There are also quite a lot of references to other entries in the Attorney Morie Shunsaku series and this volume certainly made me interested in reading more of Ashibe, so you can expect more of this series in the future on the blog.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『赤死病の館の殺人』: 「赤死病の館の殺人」 / 「疾駆するジョーカー」 / 「深津警部の不吉な赴任」 / 「密室の鬼」

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Game Is On

"Move according to the rules or it's the end of the day."
"What is Reality?" (Batman: The Animated Series)

I remember seeing this book in Japanese bookstores so often and me picking it up to look at it when the pocket version was released in 2010 but the title never really appealed to me, so it always ended with me putting it back on the pile. Fast forward several years, when I'm asked specifically about this title and going through the reviews, it appeared the book was actually well received. And then it took another couple of years before I actually got the book myself.

Misshitsu Satsujin Game - Oute Hishatori ("Locked Room Murder Game - The King & Rook Check", 2007) is a linked short story collection by Utano Shougo and stars a group of five persons with unlikely names. "The Mad Header", "044APD", "aXe", "Zangya-kun" and "Professor Ban Douzen" know each other only from their private chat group, with masks and voice-scramblers hiding each of their faces/voices whenever they appear on the webcam. They come together once in a while to play a murder game of intellect: one member has to pose a problem of crime (involving murder), which the others have to solve. The murder cases they have to solve are not about whodunit, but other problems like how it was done. As for why they don't have to solve whodunit, even though it's usually the first thing you'd want to know in a murder story: the host of the current problem has also be the person to have committed the murder in real life. The problem posed are thus all murders that really happened. And so these five pass the time by solving, and committing murders...

The oute hishatori subtitle of the book is a move in shougi, that puts both the ou (king) and hisha (flying chariot, or "rook") in check. I am not familiar with shougi, but like in chess, losing the king means losing the game, and the hisha/rook is apparently one of the most useful pieces of the games, so in terms of 'painfulness', the oute hishatori would be like having both the king and queen in danger. The subtitle is also just slightly relevant to the whole book by the way.

Misshitsu Satsujin Game is one of Utano Shougo's better known books, as well as the first book in the series (which is three books long at the moment). It's definitely a fun book to read: here we have a group of detective fiction readers who have 'outgrown' simple fiction and now want to solve real murders, as well as commit them. Yet they are still very clearly fans of mystery fiction and the problems they pose to the others are alway fair-play: they give all the necessary information to solve the conundrum of the week (or the information is available from the news, as the murders all really happened). A large portion of the book is carried by the bantering of the characters and they really come alive through their chat sessions, each having their own quirks and distinct personalities.

Q1: Tsugi wa Dare wo Koroshimasuka? ("Q1: Who Will I Kill Next?") introduces the reader to the characters and the concept of the secret chat group. And the book starts off with a very spectacular serial murder case with people from all genders and various ages being murdered. "aXe", host of the problem, sends the other members photogaphs of the crime scenes and poses the following question: who is going to die next? The problem is thus one of finding the missing link between the seemingly random victims. The solution is, at the core, a rather simple one in a missing link story, but there are just enough twists and traps laid down to keep it from being too obvious. And heck, a lot of people die before the other members even suspect the connection between the victims.

Q2: Suiri Game wa Yoru wo Fukete ("Q2: A Deduction Game, All Night Long") and Q6: Kyuukyoku no Hanninnate wa Kono Ato Sugu! ("Q6: The Ultimate Whodunit, Right After The Commercial!") are two very short intermezzo howdunits: Q2 is about a murder commited in one train, while the murderer was in another. The solution is incredibly simple, which is also pointed out in the story itself. Q6 is about a murder in a sauna, and has a variation of a very classic trick. The variant itself is also starting to become rather overdone nowadays, so again, just filler material.

The problem of Q3: Namakubi ni Kiitemiru? ("Q3: How About Asking The Head?") is, in a broad sense, a locked room mystery. A man was found decapitated in his room. His head was placed on a vase, while his torso was taken outside and dumped in a park. The problem: the street leading to the victim's apartment building was under construction, and none of the construction workers there saw someone (=the murderer) carry a torso away, so how did the murderer make his escape? This was a great story: while the basic locked room mystery is not that complex, the story does include a lot of cool 'gimmicks' that make it quite memorable, and it's also the first story in the volume to be set at two levels: the actual murder, as well as the chat sessions, as the murderer actually has an alibi for the murder, as he was chatting with the others in the previous story!

Q4: Ho Chi Minh - Hamanako 5000 Kilo no Kabe ("Q4: The 5000 Kilometer Wall Between Ho Chi Minh - Lake Hamanako") is a classic alibi trick story: how could someone who was in Ho Chi Minh City, commit a murder in a rural highway service area in Japan the following day, if there are no planes flying between Ho Chi Minh City and the local airport that day? The solution is not particular difficult, but the hinting is actually done very well and even when everything is solved, this story has a bit more to offer that ties in with the end of the book.

In Q5: Kyuudousha no Misshitsu ("A Seeker's Locked Room"), the group has to find out how "044APD" managed to kill a man in his bedroom. In a house with the latest security system. In a walled housing complex with guards at every entrance. The 'absolutely safe' new housing complex appears to be a little bit less than absolutely safe because of "044APD's" daring deed, but evidence shows that "044APD" was able to make his way inside the victim's house several times before actually commiting the murder. The solution is daring and memorable, and the whole show is made even more effective because of the way the whole story is hinted (which already started in earlier stories). Probably the best story of the whole volume, but much of it comes from the way it ties in to the other stories.

Q7: Misshitsu De Wa Naku, Alibi De Mo Naku ("Q7: Neither a Locked Room, Nor An Alibi") is at first sight rather like the previous story: a man was killed in the toilet of his apartment room, in an apartment building with security. Yet, as the story unfolds, we discover that this problem has a lot more to offer than that. The problem itself is not very difficult to solve, I think, but it works very well in the context of the book. The surprise of this story is made so much bigger because it's chapter seven, because we've gone through all of the other murders in the previous stories. Q7 is thus a brilliantly planned one, that manages to bring the most out of what basically should have been much more boring and simple.

The last story, Q?, has a title I don't want to spoil, but is very different in tone from the other stories. In fact, it is an incomplete story and literally ends with the words to be continued. It's like Utano couldn't think of a good ending and decided to throw a bomb at the cast to create a cliffhanger so he could get more readers for the next book. It's forced and it doesn't really add anything good. A really disappointing ending to an otherwise great book.

The use of (anonymous) chat groups as a plot device is not particularly new, but the last few years it's been of special interest of course. One of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo novels from 1996 was also about an offline meeting of a group of mystery fiction readers, and Detective Conan too had a story about an offline meeting of a magicians chat group (volume 20). You'd think that by now, we'd have more classic puzzle plot stories that make use of ideas like internet alibis or anonymity, but most of them appear to be still stuck in the past, trying to sell the "X wasn't X, he was just using a different name on the internet!" as a surprise twist.

Save for the disappointing ending, Misshitsu Satsujin Game - Oute Hishatori was a great book. The concept of the murder club is fun, as well as the fact that it avoided the more obvious problem of whodunit in favor of howdunits. It's also a great excercise in linked short stories, as little pieces from one story would carry over to the next story and actually be part of the whole deduction process. If you have the chance to read it, I definitely recommend it and I myself will probably continue reading the series. 

Original Japanese title(s): 歌野昌午『密室殺人ゲーム 王手飛車取り』

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Highland Fling with a Monstrous Thing

flying fall down 
「flying」(Garnet Crow)

flying fall down
I spread my wings as I come falling down
To your side
"flying" (Garnet Crow)

There is a negative relation between the number of posts I write on a day, and the quality of the review and especially the introduction. Sorry. I really shouldn't write more than two reviews back-to-back.

In John Dickson Carr's The Case of the Constant Suicides (1941), a chance and comedic meeting between two academic rivals in a train coach leads to the discovery that they are both members of the Scottish Campbell family and that they were summoned to the family castle in connection to the recent death of Angus Campbell. Ol' Angus apparently threw himself of a high tower to a messy death, after having setting up no less than three life insurance policies with "no suicide" clauses. At one hand, the fact Angus' tower bedroom was locked from the inside seems to indicate it was indeed simply suicide (meaning no pay-out), on the other hand, items that should be in his bedroom, and items that shouldn't be in his bedroom seem to cast some doubt to the nature of Angus' death. Dr. Gideon Fell is asked to help the Campbell family with their not-suicide claim, but the Scottish tower doesn't seem content with just one victim, for another character throws himself off the tower.

I think I've mentioned it several times, but I never really got 'caught' by Carr (or Carter Dickson) like other people appear to be ( (I'm more a fan of Queen). While I've read some fantastically constructed mysteries written by him (The Judas Window), I just never managed to get really enthusiastic about Carr as a writer, actively searching out more of his books. Somehow, I am just totally overlooking the magic it seems to have for other people. Anyway, a quick look told me that The Case of the Constant Suicides's a fairly well-received locked room mystery by fans (of Carr), so how was the book in my eyes?

Well, as a mystery novel, I did not think it was really impressive. Even though I figured out the main trick quite early, it is the type of solution to a mystery I don't really like. The "gimmick requiring specialist knowledge" solution. Whether it's for a locked room mystery or any other type of mystery, it's a solution-type that should only be used sparingly and even then, it should only be used with proper hinting and set-up. Use of specialist knowledge and such can be asked and expected of the reader, as long it has been given proper attention in the main story, but this is seldom done. In The Case of the Constant Suicides, the solution is both boring, and not particularly enjoyable as a mystery plot. The identity of the mastermind also hinges on a plot device that seldom works in print, I think. Both Christie and Conan Doyle have done very similar things, but in my opinion, it's a plot device that is simply too vague to be really satisfying (and Carr's "psychological" hints are too open for various interpretations to be convincing).

I did enjoy the overall comedic tone of the story though, even if it was a bit too exaggerated at times (the Scottish jokes!). There's a fair amount of slapstick comedy too that I didn't think really funny (note that slapstick comedy can work wonderfully in mystery fiction, as shown by Higashigawa Tokuya). The bickering between Alan and Kathryn Campbell (academic rivals and second cousins) is quite fun, and while the romance subplot between them is both predictable and unbelievable, it has about the right amount of 'fiction fantasy' for the reader to just go with it.

Oh, I did sorta enjoy the thick Scottish accents in writing: I really had to read them out loud to have a good idea of what they were saying, but that did add to the experience. 

Overall, I thought The Case of the Constant Suicides was at best a mediocre mystery novel, mostly enjoyable for its non-mystery elements (the characters and the comedy). I might not be a big fan of Carr, but I've definitely read much better impossible crime mysteries by him that were much more satisfying in terms of originality, execution and pay-off.