Sunday, May 29, 2016

Over Drive

熱く燃やせ 奇跡を起こせ
誓いあった 遥かな銀河 

Embracing the Cosmos of your heart
Burn it high and make a miracle happen
We won't just stay wounded
This we swear to each other in this faraway galaxy
"Pegasus Fantasy" (Make-Up)
I do have to say though, the cover art for the pockets of the G series look very nice. I have no idea what is going on, but I really love the style.

G series
1) φ wa Kowareta ne - Path Connected φ Broke
2) θ wa Asonde Kureta yo - Another Playmate θ
3) τ ni Naru Made Matte - Please Stay Until τ
4) ε Ni Chikatte - Swearing on Solemn ε

To the outside world, the fact that Yamabuki Satsuki and Kabeya Megumi travel back together from Tokyo to Nagoya in the same night-bus might seem a bit suspicious. Especially as Megumi already told her friends she went to Disneyland. But both of them being in Tokyo was really just a coincidence, and there's nothing strange about two friends taking the same bus back home, right? But the two of them regret having stepped on the bus when a man hijacks the bus, threatening the passengers (in an awfully polite manner actually) with a pistol and bombs. The police is also aware of the hijack and an investigation into the passenger list of the bus leads to the discovery that most of the passengers were all members of a religious sect called Swearing on Solemn ε, which is also the English subtitle to Mori Hiroshi's ε Ni Chikatte (2006).

ε Ni Chikatte is the fourth volume in Mori Hiroshi's G series, which is starting to become my go-to series whenever I want something short and easy to read (the G series itself being a spin-off of the S&M series) Sometimes it's just good to have a back-up series like this. That said though, the G series is far from a perfect series, though luckily, this fourth volume manages to bring something fresh.

The biggest problem as of now with the series is that is conceived as a series. While each novel features a mystery to be solved, the motives for each of the murders is left in obscurity. Over the course of the first three novels, you slowly find out that some sort of religious sect is active on the internet, that the sect is using Greek letters (hence the name G series) and that somehow, this sect is connected to all the cases that happen in this series. But that means that each novel you're left with a lot of questions (as they work as hooks for the next volume), and while I can appreciate minimalistic detective stories, the G series isn't one; it is a 'normal' mystery storyline stretched out over a series of novels, resulting in a very slow pace of uncovering the main mystery. It also means that each individual volume feels incomplete, as if you're missing a crucial part of the story (because you do!).

ε Ni Chikatte does little to really further the main storyline, but at least it acknowledges the fact that something is going on and this volume also brings a completely type of mystery to the series. Up until now, the series was rather 'old-fashioned', featuring locked room murders and serial murders, but this time, we have a hijacking case. Even more, there is no obvious 'mystery' to solve in this story: while the reader is obviously aware that this is a detective novel and that something needs to be detected, the puzzle is not made immediately clear to the reader and part of the fun is finding out what is going on. The idea of a terrorist hostage situation reminds of the many, many hostage situations in Detective Conan and I must say that I thought the situation of ε Ni Chikatte was much more exciting than the closed circle serial murder case of the previous book.

When ε Ni Chikatte finally does show its cards, you're left with a mystery novel that actually manages to give the reader a surprise, despite the somewhat straightforward start. It is certainly a book that deserves a reread, as you'll see that it is actually an ingeniously plotted story. It does have some issues: by the time the whole business around the hijack case is unveiled, you will very probably think: why go through all that trouble? It sorta works in the context of the series, as previous novels have already set a precedent for doing things the hard way, but still, the question will cross your mind. And of course, questions surrounding the motive are left unanswered once again, leaving you with another unfinished story. The main, core set-up of the novel is good though and perhaps the most amusing in the series up until now.

I was a bit tired of the series after the last volume, but I have to admit that ε Ni Chikatte has made me a bit more enthusiastic. Sure, like all the volumes up until now it still refuses to answer some questions raised by the plot, but there are hints of finally moving forward with the main storyline. And the hijack case itself is surprisingly fun, even if it takes a while before the reader realizes what is going on. And that is what makes it so entertaining.

Original Japanese title(s): 森博嗣 『ε(イプシロン)に誓って SWEARING ON SOLEMN ε』

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Judges of Hades

"You're alone."
"I don't care whether I'm alone or not! It's my right."
"12 Angry Men

I know of mystery games that place you in the role of a defense attorney, a prosecutor and lay judges, but I can't remember whether there's one where you play a professional judge presiding the court. Or one where you're the stenographer.

The lay judge system was implemented in Japan on May 21, 2009. In trials on certain severe crimes, six lay judges join three professional judges to decide about the fate of the defendant, and in the case of a guilty verdict, the judges need also decide the weight of the sentence. Ashibe Taku's Saibanin Houtei ("Lay Judge Trials", 2008) is a short story collection starring the attorney Morie Shunsaku, Ashibe's long-time series detective. Or wait, that is not true. The true protagonist is perhaps you. In the three stories collected in this volume, you (the reader) take on the role of a lay judge present at a trial ("you" are a different person every story, naturally) and watch over the court proceedings. While Japan is known for its incredibly high conviction rate (because prosecutors don't prosecute unless they're sure they'll get a guilty verdict), the young, but experienced Morie Shunsaku shows he too is desperate to save his clients and that he is even capable in performing some amazing courtroom magic.

A while back I read Sekishibyou no Yakata no Shi, another short story collection by Ashibe Taku starring Morie Shunsaku, but that was a rather 'conventional' impossible crime story collection. This time however we see him actually doing his work (a defense attorney) and Saibainin Houtei is definitely structured like a proper courtroom drama. The stories are all titled after, and set in the different phases of a trial (Shinri ("Examination"), Hyougi ("Discussion") and Jihaku ("Confession")). In fact, there is a certain educational factor to this novel though, as the book was originally released just before the implementation of the lay judge system and it does appear to be written with that in mind: over the course of the book, it will explain why the system was implemented, the role of the lay judges will have to fulfill and how the proceedings go in a trial overseen by lay judges. This is strengthened by casting the reader ("you") in the role of one of the lay judges in each of the story.

In that respect, Saibanin Houtei reminds me of the DS videogame Yuuzai X Muzai, which was also about the lay judge system and cast the player in the role of a lay judge in each of the four stories included. The big difference however is that in Yuuzai X Muzai, the player would unravel the truth behind each case himself (together with the other judges), while in Saibanin Houtei, Morie Shunsaku does most of the work. Oher fiction related to the lay judge system by the way, are the DS videogame Ace Attorney 4, as well as the Ace Attorney spin-off novel/guidebook Gyakuten Houtei.

Normally, I try to discuss each story in a story collection, but I gave up on that for this review. Each of these three stories work that much better if you indeed take on the role of a proper lay judge and step inside the courtroom with no preconceptions about the case. As mentioned above, each of the stories is set at a different stage of a trial, but in practice you'll be given a 'traditional' courtroom mystery every time. A courtroom mystery often follows the same basic pattern for obvious reasons: the prosecution always starts with accusing the defendant and then lays out the evidence. And just as a guilty verdict seems inescapable, defense starts its counterattack by slowly picking out faults in the prosecution's story (and in mystery stories, they usually find the real person behind it all too). In general, the three stories in Saibanin Houtei follow the same pattern, but the mystery plots are entertaining, so no problem there if you like courtroom mysteries. A little gripe I have is that the 'trick' behind each case (that turns the case around) is rather similar for all three cases. The best story is probably the last one. The plots of the first and second story suffer a bit from dependence on random knowledge nobody would usually be aware of.

Oh, and a random note, but I think this was one of the very few mystery novels I've read that actually use the second person, "you" in the narration. First person, third person and "all-seeing" narration are of course extremely common, but the only other example of a second person narration I can think of now from the top of my head is Norizuki Rintarou's 2 no Higeki.

Ashibe Taku's Saibainin Houtei is a fairly amusing courtroom mystery short story collection that manages to be both educational as well as entertaining as a mystery novel. The basic idea behind all three stories do resemble each other a bit though, but I think that anyone with at least some interest in courtroom mysteries and perhaps the Japanese lay judge system, can safely pick up this book.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『裁判員法廷』: 「審理」 / 「評議」 / 「自白」

Monday, May 23, 2016

番外編: The Moai Island Puzzle Released

I only just realized I too have fallen in the trap of making announcements of announcements. So err, yeah, the content of today's announcement doesn't really differ from that of the announcement of this announcement.
Last month, I announced that Locked Room International would be publishing the first English translation of a novel by Alice ARISUGAWA soon. And now that time has come, for The Moai Island Puzzle is now available (both paper and digital, I think). The Moai Island Puzzle was translated by me, and it is a brilliant puzzle plot mystery that has basically everything: a treasure hunt on an island , a locked room murder, a Challenge to the Reader and one of the most impressive deduction scenes in mystery fiction. Arisugawa is obviously a big fan of Ellery Queen, but I'd say that this is the novel where Arisugawa outdoes Ellery Queen at his own game. If you're in search for a detective novel that celebrates logical reasoning and fair play, The Moai Island Puzzle is what you're looking for. The English version features an introduction by Souji SHIMADA (of The Tokyo Zodiac Murders), penned especially for this release. The book was originally published in 1989 with the title Kotou Puzzle, soon after Yukito AYATSUJI's The Decagon House Murders, and it is widely considered one of the Big Ones of Japanese detective fiction.

The Moai Island Puzzle is part of the Student Alice series. For those interested in the other books: I have a retrospective on the series. Oh, some might think that The Decagon House Murders and The Moai Island Puzzle might be alike, because both are set on islands and are Japanese etc., but I assure you, they are not alike at all. If The Decagon House Murders was Christie, then The Moai Island Puzzle is Queen.

Publishers Weekly gave The Moai Island Puzzle a starred review, and I hope more reviews will follow. My own old review of the original Japanese version can be found at this link (obviously written years before I even knew I would translate the book), and my we-write-English-reviews-of-Japanese-mystery-novels collegues over at My Japanese Bookshelf and In The Threshold of Chaos also have reviews available for your perusal.

Edit: JJ's review of The Moai Island Puzzle can be found over at his blog The Invisible Event

Anyway, not only as the translator, but also (especially) as someone who considers the book one of the most impressive mystery novels ever, I really hope the readers will enjoy The Moai Island Puzzle. This is Arisugawa's first release in the English language, but hopefully, it won't be the last.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Spring of Memories


"In spring, the dawn is best."
The Pillow Book

As someone who suffers from hay fever, and can't stand heat, I have to say I always hate the first half of the year...

Yoshino Izumi recently debuted as a writer with Houkago Spring Train ("After-School Spring Train"), released in February this year. Set in the city of Fukuoka, the short story collection is about the adventures (?) of the high school student Izumi. She is a typical student: loves sweets, is a member of the school waterpolo club and every time the school newspaper is published, she tries to win the student poll to get a coupon for a free Special Yakisoba-pan. Once in a while, she comes across strange happenings. Nothing of a criminal kind, mind you. Just little mysteries of everyday life, like that lady who sat upon part of Izumi's skirt in the train, but who refused to stand up despite Izumi staring her in the eyes. Innocent, but not less dumbfounding mysteries. One day, Izumi is introduced to her best friend Asana's boyfriend Uehara, who has recently graduated university and is now an elementary school teacher, and Uehara's friend, the university sudent Tobiki. Tobiki has a knack for solving Izumi's questions and as the year passes on, Izumi learns to trust Tobiki with her questions about all kinds of mysteries that happen in the city of Fukuoka.

Okay, I admit, I only bought this short story collection because it said it was set in Fukuoka. Well, that and it was published by Tokyo Sogensha, which is responsible for quite a lot of very good mystery novels. Still, the main reason was Fukuoka. Having lived there for a year, I sometimes get overwhelmed by nostalgic feelings, which I then ease with mystery novels set in the city. Because strangely enough, there are quite some good novels set there. Anyway, Houkago Spring Train is Yoshino Izumi's debut novel, so it was a bit of a gamble, so how did that work out?

Well, to be honest, as a everyday life mystery short story collection, it's still a bit rough. The everyday life mystery's biggest hurdle is of course that the mystery lacks impact from the start. It's no murder, not some criminal event. It's by definition a mystery you and I could come across in our normal lives. So for it to have impact, an everyday life mystery needs to be 1) alluring, by presenting a believable, but utterly baffling mystery that you imagine you yourself could come across and 2) by giving a satisfying solution to the problem, again one that seems fitting to everyday life. The problem with Houkago Spring Train is that the mysteries presented in the four short stories aren't just not consistently alluring.

The book for example starts with the title story Houkago Spring Train ("After-School Spring Train"), where Izumi and Asana almost miss their connection, when a lady sitting on Izumi's skirt in the train refuses to get up, despite Izumi's calling out to her and staring the woman in the face. The mystery deepends when, after the girls manage to get out, the lady comes after them to apologize for what happened. In the core, this is a good everyday life mystery: it's a situation that is imaginable and yet strange enough to nag at you. But the solution is not satisfying at all, because it comes out of nowhere. The detective doesn't reason his way to the truth: he pulls out a random piece of trivia out of nowhere and it is expected from the reader to just believe this. The lack of convincing power is what breaks up the story and the magic of the otherwise good setting of the puzzle.

Gakusai Broadway ("School Festival Broadway") is better, though it actually features something that could almost be considered a crime. Izumi's class is performing two plays in English  as part of the school festival. Having finished Team A's performance of Sleeping Beauty, Izumi and Asana wander to the make-shift Dressing/Prop Room, where they discover that Cinderella's dress for Team B's play is gone. More students arrive and they all look for the dress, but nobody is able to produce results. In the end, they gave Cinderella Sleeping Beauty's dress, but the question of where Cinderella's dress went still roams in Izumi and Asana's heads. This story is a lot better than the title story, with better (but still vague) hinting, and a much more interesting build-up of the story. It's a slow buid-up though, making it feel like the pages/plot ratio is not optimal.

The third story, Oru Kami Tsunoru Kami ("Folding Papers, Raising Papers") is a bit chaotic. At first, it looks like it'll be a story about whether the process of assigning every student new seats in the class was done fairly or not, as the lots were all in different colors (and seats in the back of the classroom are a luxury). But then it turns into the strangely compelling story of raising funds for a good cause. Izumi is 'lent out' to the school volunteer club by her own club in exchange for services rendered by the voluteer club: she, as well as other students from other classes, are to help with collecting money to help a girl get an operation abroad. The whole weekend, the students are split up in teams in the Tenjin (downtown) area and the Hakata Station area, trying to collect money. Izumi's on the Tenjin team, while the Volunteer Club president is on the Hakata Station team, but on the last day, Izumi discovers that the president wasn't at Hakata Station at all this weekend, and the members of the Hakata Station team actually thought the president was at Tenjin the last few days. The answer to why the president lied is actually quite good: it fits the school theme perfectly (like the previous story actually). It is however once again not really well hinted at. Overall though, I think this was the best story of the collection, as it has a mystery that is puzzling, but not really serious (where was the president during the weekend while everybody else was collecting money), while it also has a satisfying, and believable answer. The previous story is good too, but there the puzzle (the missing dress) seems a bit more 'serious' than the mystery here.

The final story, Cantaloupe, has Tobiki helping out his friend Uehara. One of the pupils at his elementary school is for some reason lying about the plant he was raising for a school project. Uehara made notes about which pupil planted what, but this boy keeps saying he had another plant, and that it died yesterday. Uehara doesn't mind giving the boy a new plant, but he does want to know why the boy is lying. The solution to the problem is really disappointing, as it comes out of nowhere and it is kinda hard to believe as a reason for what happened. The story luckily adds one last surprise that has been building over the course of the book, which was actually quite brilliant. The best part of the book perhaps. But strangely enough, it was just 'the extra', not a main puzzle. I actually think Yoshino should've written a story with this last part as the main gimmick, as that would've resulted in a very surprising, yet satisfying everyday life mystery. Now I think: "You should've given me that sooner!".

I did enjoy the writing of this novel a lot. Both the narration and the dialogues of Izumi, Asana and the other high school students are really fun to read, the characters do come alive on the pages. Wordplay, random chatter about familar school topics, as a youth novel, Houkago Spring Train is quite enjoyable. And for me, it gets a lot of bonus points for being set in Fukuoka. And not just Fukuoka: the whole book is mostly set around my activity zone when I lived there: Tobiki is a student of Q-University (= Kyushu University), working at Hakozaki Campus, which is where I was situated too. Izumi's lives just across the road of the campus, while her high school is located in the area where my room was. So it was nice to see all kinds of familiar places mentioned. Of course, most readers won't have this emotional bond, but as it was a reason for me to purchase the book in the first place, I was more than happy to see how 'my' Fukuoka was portrayed in the book.

With the knowledge that this book is Yoshino Izumi's debut novel, I'd say that Houkago Spring Train is still a bit rough around the edges, but definitely in possession of potential. The middle part of the book is fairly good, but the start and end are less entertaining. The writing is good though, and I'd to see more of the characters and the setting. Let's hope more will follow and Yoshino will be able to develop as a mystery writer too.

Original Japanese title(s): 吉野泉 『放課後スピリング・トレイン』: 「放課後スピリング・トレイン」 / 「学際ブロードウェー」 / 「折る紙募る紙」 / 「カンタロープ」

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Clue of the Dancing Puppet

ほら ti ta ta ta 
ガラスの針 十二回の刻を打てば
「Marionette Fantasia」(Garnet Crow)

Look ti ta ta ta
When the glass hands strike twelve
On the holy night, the seven-headed shadow
reaches out for the powerless doll
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

I've never really thought the covers for the Kindaichi Shounen series to be really attractive, but lately, they have been really boring...

It's been a while since my last review of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R") series. Logistics is one reason: my orders are usually centered around Detective Conan, which is nowadays usually released almost a month after Kindaichi Shounen. But the other reason is content: most stories in Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R are longer than one volume, meaning I often can't review a complete story if I only do one volume: usually I can only do the end of one, and the beginning of another. So lately, I've opted to do reviews of two volumes in one go, which should result in reviews with slightly more depth than "we'll have to wait until the next volume to see what the result is".

We first start with Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 8, which was released in January. This volume starts with a rare short story of only three chapters. In Why Was The Fireplace On?, freelance writer Itsuki takes Hajime and Miyuki along to the reading of the last will of a publisher, who used to look out for Itsuki in his early days. He suspects trouble, as there's a nephew with need for money, a niece with the same needs, a mistress and a self-proclaimed daughter of the deceased. And indeed, The reading is done at the holiday villa park run by the mistress near a lake and things soon heat up. The climax follows when Itsuki discovers the self-proclaimed daughter's dead body in her lodge. With all the doors and windows locked and the knife that cut her neck in the girl's hands, it appears to be suicide, but Hajime quickly suspects something sinister lies behind this.

It's a very short story for Kindachi Shounen, and while I generally prefer short stories over longer stories, I do have to say that especially lately, this format has not been the best for this series. In comparison to Detective Conan, there is usually less information per chapter (because of the way dialogue is written and the layout/size of the comic boxes) and it usually results in bland-feeling stories. Add in the fact that this is one of those 'hey, did you know about this neat bit of trivia that allows you to solve this puzzle?' story, and I think you can understand why I am less than enthusiastic.

The Hitogata Island Murder Case on the other hand is a showcase of a Kindaichi Shounen story done (mostly) well. This tale is long even for series' standards, as it occupies not only the rest of volume 8, but almost all of  Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 9 too (which was released late March). After solving a code left to Hajime's teacher by her grandmother telling her to go to Hitogata Island, Hajime and Miyuki do precisely that. Hitogata Island is famous for its doll memorial services. Like in other places in Japan, you can offer dolls and puppets you don't need anymore to give them one last farewell and appease the souls within. The ceremony on Hitogata Island is also connected to the legend of the village chief, a person who centuries ago cut his body in three to offer to the gods to calm a series of disasters. Other guests on the island include the writer-trio Persona Doll, who all dress like puppets (including masks), freelance writer Itsuki and a collegue, some other guests who wish to offer their dolls and even Inspector Kenmochi, who has a doll to offer too. But things don't stay calm on the island, when the members of Persona Doll are killed one by one, and cut up in pieces like the legend of the village chief. And Hajime being the person he is, naturally vows to find the "Cursed Puppet" who is behind these deaths.

First thing I have to note: I'm pretty sure that lately it's been Hajime who's been randomly giving the murderers funny names. In the beginning of the series, the murderers would adopt names like "Phantom" or "After-school Magician" in a Scooby-Doo-esque way, The last few years though, it's Hajime who names his invisible enemies. Imagine yourself being a murderer, doing your best at completing your task and suddenly being called by a random name like Antlion by some kid. There's that post-modern look at heroes and how they create their villains (Batman is a famous example, but it also works for series detectives), but here it's really Hajime who is painting the murderer as some lunatic.

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R has felt like a return to the original series since the start, with more stories set on islands and stuff, and this one is no exception. Even the length is reminiscent of the old stories. While the core trick isn't that complex, the available pages are put to good use to paint a very atmospheric story. I often think a lot of Kindaichi Shounen stories feel hasty, despite being quite long. Here there's a good pace, without feeling dragging. Overall, I'd say this story is one of the better efforts until now. Like I said, the basic idea behind the murders isn't that complex, but the overall structure is done quite well, which is a lot more entertaining than an incredible trick, but executed badly. The level of this story reminds me of the better Tantei Gakuen Q stories, which had a lot of series that are not masterpieces that will be mentioned in the Canon of the Genre per se, but are really well-made detective stories.

The story does have an unbelievable chain of coincidences though. Most of it is not needed to actually solve the crime, but it does make the characters and the motive a bit weak, as there's simply no way that could've happened by coincidence. Detective fiction does not need to be realistic, but by the time you have circumstances that in no way can be coincidence, you do want a better explanation than "Meh, it happened".

Overall though, I'd say Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 8 & 9 were good volumes, because of The Hitogata Island Murder Case. Why Was The Fireplace On? on the other hand is a story I will have forgotten about in a week or so. Volume 9 also features two chapters of the next story, but I'll hold reading those until the next volume is released. Whether I'll do a review of volume 10 on its own, or one of 10 and 11 will depend on the contents of volume 10.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一少年の事件簿R』第8&9巻

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Doing All Right


"There are no major or minor cases."
"Bayside Shakedown"

How I want to see the latest Detective Conan film! Afraid of spoilers, I've only seen little bits of people writing about The Darkest Nightmare, but it's apparently an awesome film, even if light on the mystery-side of things. Guess I'll wait for the home-video release..

April is traditionally the most important month in Detective Conan's yearly schedule. It's when the latest film is released (just in time for Golden Week), which is also accompanied with the release of the latest volume. In my review of the previous volume, I lamented how utterly boring it was, as it only featured two complete stories, which weren't that great anyway. Detective Conan 89, released last month, on the other hand is one of the best volumes in recent years, despite not featuring a high profile story! It starts with the final chapter of The Girl Band Murder Case, which started in the previous volume. A member of an amateur girl band is murdered inside a rented studio, but 'luckily', Ran, Sonoko and Masumi were also at the rental studio complex to rehearse for their own girl band. The problem revolves around a security camera that was partially blocked off and what the other band members did as they went in and outside the studio. This is a very decently constructed mystery story, with a fairly clever way of getting rid of the murder weapon. At the core, this is a very by-the-numbers story, with three suspects, a limited setting and a gimmick trick, but the trick is both simple, yet smart and I'd say this is a fantastic example of how to do a good short story.

And the same holds for Inconsistent Testimonies. During Dr. Agasa's Christmas shopping for the kids, a chef of a restaurant in a department store is stabbed. The attempted murderer runs down the staircase, and Conan quickly gives orders to the Detective Boys, who are all on different floors, to keep an eye out for the person. In the end, three persons trying to quickly leave the department store are detained, but the Detective Boys all make conflicting testimonies about the person they saw fleeing through the staircase. The gimmick of inconsistent testimonies is something that has been done earlier in the series, but it was not done as elegantly as in this story. Like many of the short stories, this story revolves around a gimmick, but the gimmick is transformed and rearranged three times, to result in the three different testimonies. A lesser writer might've stuck with the initial gimmick, but Aoyama cleverly changes this in a much more complex story, without making it feel cheap. Once again, a prime example of a good short story.

The title of The Suspect Is An Alien tells it all. Mouri Kogorou is hired to find out the truth about an UFO a high school student saw flying some time ago, and during the investigation, the gang stumble upon Detective Chiba, who is investigating a murder apparently commited by an alien. The editor of a magazine on extraterrestials was choked to death and his body left on (at the time still) wet concrete. A UFO maniac was found lying next to the dead body in the concrete, who claims an alien killed the other man. The man is obviously regarded a suspect, but the footsteps left in the concrete show that it was unlikely he could've commited the murder, and gotten rid of the murder weapon. As an impossible crime story, this one is okay. It is mostly built around some trivia knowledge, which is something I seldom like in detective stories (if not properly hinted at), but there are some other features about the impossible situation that are actually quite neat. And there's a running gag about Chiba suddenly losing weight A LOT which is hilarious.

In Search For The Lost Marriage Registration Form!, Yumi of the Traffic Department has mislaid a rather important document: a marriage registration form already signed by her boyfriend (Yumi: "Ex-boyfriend!"), who is a celebrated shougi player. The caretaker of her apartment building (and hardcore shougi fan) has found the document, but refuses to return it to Yumi, unless she solves his riddle and proves she is actualy worthy of marrying the shougi master. Luckily for Yumi, she's accompanied by Detective Satou, the Detective Boys and Conan. Usually, I'm not a fan of code cracking stories, and the way the old geezer messes around with people's private lives is more than a little bit disturbing, but I thought the code was surprisingly fun, though that was probably because it's connected to some random trivia I do happen to have learned recently. If not, it's kinda random, and overall, this is the weakest story of the volume by far. The volume ends with the first chapter of The Message Cut Out With Scissors, which will apparently reveal a bit about the history of the toxin that shrunk Conan to his current size.

Detective Conan 89 was all in all a huge improvement over the previous volume. It might not have big, long stories, but it shows that good short stories are still good and this volume has a good collection of those. With volume 90 appearing in the summer, we'll finally have reached that last stretch before the series'll hit the 100s. Perhaps I should start working on my big Conan posts on volume 80-89 soon.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌『名探偵コナン』第89巻

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Aria of the City

time after time
ひとり 花舞う街で 
『Time after Time 花舞う街で』 (倉木麻衣)

Time after time
I am now alone in the city of dancing flowers
We can't go back to the time before they scattered,
But as my tears fall for that scenery that never changed
I am still waiting here
"Time After Time ~ In The City of Dancing Flowers" (Kuraki Mai)

Aesthetically, I think the cover of today's book is okay, but historically, it's as incorrect as you can get...

In I.J. Parker's Rashomon Gate (2003), Sugawara Akitada, a minor official in the Ministry of Justice, is asked by his old mentor Hirata to investigate a blackmailing case going on in the Imperial University. By (bad) luck, professor Hirata was passed a threatening letter meant for a different professor, which suggested that something fishy is going on in the university. Sugawara is to infiltrate the university as a temporary teacher, find out who the blackmailer and his victim are and if the reputation of the university is in any danger. One of Sugawara's new pupils is Lord Minamoto, grandson of Prince Yoakira who recently disappeared into thin air from a temple (which was observed from outside). The emperor has declared Prince Yoakira's disappearance a miracle, but Lord Minamoto wants Sugawara to find out what really happened to his grandfather.

Because most of what I read is mystery fiction from Japan, I never had a real interest in non-Japanese fiction about Japan, to be honest. Sure, I've discussed Bertus Aafjes' Judge Ooka several times, but that was definitely an outlier. But when I first heard of I.J. Parker's Suguwara Akitada series, I have to admit my interests were piqued. While I have read Japanese historical mysteries, I don't think there are many series set in the Heian period (794-1185) written in Japan. The Heian period is a time in history when Chinese influences on Japanese culture were at their height. Religions like Buddhism (which found its way to Japan via China) and Taoism flourished, literature imitated the mainland and the court culture was based on China. The capital of Heian Japan, Heiankyou, was modeled after the Chinese city of Chang'an. Heiankyou is nowadays known as the city of Kyoto, and the city layout as it is now is still based on its Heiankyou days. Sugawara Akitada, the protagonist of the series, is also a name that probably rings a bell with people who have studied Japanese history. The Sugawara family was scholar-politician family in the Heian period. The most famous family member is Sugawara no Michizane, a scholar-poet who after his death was revered as Tenjin, a deity representing scholarship (partly because people thought he was a vengeful spirit out to destroy the palace with lightning bolts).

I think the easiest way to describe Rashomon Gate is... Judge Dee. And not simply because both are historical detectives set in an Asian setting. Like I pointed out above, the Heian period was the time when Japan really did its best at imitating the mainland, and that results in a world that is actually very much like the Judge Dee novels. Similarly, Sugawara Akitada also makes uses of a reformed man of the streets for undercover investigations while Akitada himself moves in the higher ranks of society and Akitada is also involved with multiple cases at the same time in Rashomon Gate, all mimicking the Judge Dee stories. I can't say I was surprised when I read on Wikipedia that I.J. Parker was influenced by Robert van Gulik's writings and I don't think it's a bad thing per se; it's just that these books set in different countries are actually a lot more similar than you'd suspect at first. Heian is an important part of Japanese history, but it is in essence based on Chinese culture. So readers who want something "typically" Japanese or were expecting samurai or anything like that, might be a bit disappointed.

In terms of mystery plot, Rashomon Gate is also similar to those in the Judge Dee novels: not particularly surprising or anything, but usually fairly well connected to the 'setting' of the world. Rashomon Gate has two impossible crime situations: the one where Prince Yoakira disappears from a temple despite its exit being watched from the outside, and a murder on a girl in a park of which the guards says nobody had even entered, but the solutions to both conundrums are not likely to excite longtime readers of impossible crimes.

Obviously, setting a mystery novel in an 'exotic' setting is always dangerous as it is difficult to judge what elements can be considered known to the reader (and thus 'fair') and unknown to them ('unfair'). Obviously, if I write about a locked room murder on an alien planet, but only at the end reveal that the aliens there can walk through walls, then it's not fair. With historic settings, it's a bit more difficult, because your mileage might vary a lot from another reader. With Rashomon Gate, it's definitely not unfair, but I think that unfamiliarity to a certain setting will always influence the perception of fairness of the reader and especially with special settings, be it historically correct settings or fantasy settings, the writer needs to help ease the reader into the setting and give all the necessary information. With Rashomon Gate, I think it missed just that little extra to help the reader, though nothing that would really confuse the reader.

Overall, I enjoyed Rashomon Gate for its unique setting, but at first sight, one might find it very hard to differentiate it from the Judge Dee series. But if you're interested in a period of Japanese history seldom addressed in mystery ficion, this is the place to be.