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』


  1. Can I just say how much I love this idea? Like, I know you said that not all Japanese mysteries are like this, but dang it I keep being impressed by the sheer creativity.

    --The Dark One

    1. I was really pleasantly surprised by this book too, especially as the only other book I ever read by the same author was rather disappointing.

  2. Hello! Unrelated to the post but your translation of Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle is now available on Amazon! I randomly searched Arisugawa's name and was beyond excited to see this! Thank you so much for translating yet another classic honkaku mystery! Reading your blog, I always dreamed I'd get a chance to read these fascinating novels and now I do! :D

    1. Sorry for the late reply! The book is definitely coming, but I think it appearing on Amazon was a little mistake of the publisher, as it should still take a while before it's released! (I just looked on Amazon, but it's indeed set on OOP at the moment) But look forward to it :) I'll make a proper post about it when I too have more detailed information about the release date.

  3. Ooooh, I'm glad I randomly checked your blog, because this was the first (and currently only *sigh*) full-length novel I've read in Japanese!

    The set-up of the book is definitely interesting, and allowed for some unorthodox and original puzzles. My personal favorites were Q1 and Q3.

    I like your "The Mad Header" translation! In my own head, I personally localized it as "Lunartic". (And they were going to claim to be from the moon... heh heh. "Zangya-kun" became "savaGerry".) Q7, though... Great twist, but localizing it into English seems like it'd be a huge challenge.

    Out of curiosity, do you know the reason/pun behind "Professor Ban Douzen"? The other 4 were either explained in the book or I could figure it out, but that one... literally no idea.

    1. The name comes from Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S., more commonly known as "The Thinking Machine", a character by Jacques Futrelle.

    2. Oh yeah, I remember they brought him up at some point in the book, although at the time I couldn't see how the names connected to each other. Not sure why... Now I feel kind of silly.

      Oh well, thanks!

  4. I finished the book few days ago and I agree with you that the ending is disappointing, but I think I'll go further than you and say that I don't want to read the next novel.

    I dislike the opening, as the first case, one of the longest in the book, features no locked room whatsoever. Q2-6 are good to great, with Q5 being a delight. The solution to that case blows my mind. However, Q7 makes me realize that this is not the locked room collection I expected. I agree that it worked very well (although the moment I read the victim's background I kinda suspect where it's going), but it's clear that Utano Shougo wants to tell a bigger story. The last case is the final nail, as then the ideas of a 'locked room mystery' and 'web-chat of sociopaths' is abandoned. I've read the spoilers to the second novel, and maan (spoilers, rot13) gurer'f n frpbaq 'frg' bs gubfr svir??

    A thing I found interesting is the sort of theme of 'the timeline of detective stories'. Q2 has two persons saying they're going into the 'next age', saying an 'alibi trick' is so Shouwa, for example. Then, of course, (spoilers, rot13) gur znq urnqre tbvat vagb gur 'uneqobvyrq' ren nsgre n obbx bs TNQ.

    The relevance of the shougi move in the subtitle still escapes me, though.

    1. Well, in terms of quality of the myster plots, I'd say the second volume is quite strong too, though similar to this volume, the stories are indeed once again part of a greater story, and if you're not a fan of how it was done here, I doubt you'd like the second volume. I haven't read the third volume yet (Maniacs), though I believe it's considered not as good as the first two volumes.