Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Port of Call


Like a sail waiting for summer
I'm always...
Always always thinking about you
"Like A Sail Waiting For Summer" (ZARD)

I had to chuckle a little when I first saw the name "Akunin", as it means "villain" in Japanese. I don't know anything about Russian pronouncation by the way, but in Japanese, the name "Akunin" is written with a longated "u" (Akuunin), which at least sounds less evil in Japanese.

The massacre in Lord Littleby's residence in Paris in 1878 was dubbed 'the Crime of the Century' in the newspapers and that was perhaps the perfect description. On the first floor, seven servants and two children of the servants were poisoned. On the second floor, Lord Littleby himself had been cruelly bludgeoned to death with a golden statuette of Shiva, which was also taken away by the murderer. The murderer however accidently left a special golden badge in the crime scene, which was more than enough for Gustave Gauche of the French police. After finding out that the badge was a present to all first-class passengers of the passenger ship the Leviathan, Gauche deduces the murderer must be one of the passengers and he too boards the ship in search of his "client." Paying special attention to those who appear not be in possession of their badge anymore, Gauche quickly limits the number of suspects to a limited number, including a Japanese army officer, an English aristocrat and a Russian diplomat called Erast Fandorin. However, the trip is a long one and the murderer responsible of ''the Crime of the Century'  has more than one surprise left for their fellow passengers in Boris Akunin's Leviathan (1998)

Leviathan, or Murder on the Leviathan as it's known in English releases, is the third novel in Russian novelist Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series and my first encounter with both the writer and the series. Apparently, Akunin conceived the Erast Fandorin series as a summary of the complete mystery genre: each volume takes on another of the many subgenres of the wider mystery genre, for example a spy-mystery, comical mystery etcetera. Leviathan is the one most interesting for this blog, as it is what is described as an "Agatha Christie-style" novel, with a whodunnit plot set in an exotic place.

While Christie was not as cozy as some appear to be thinking, nine people poisoned and another man beaten to death in one go is still rather a bit more brutal than Christie usually was though.

I enjoyed Leviathan a lot, almost surprisingly so. Most of all, it's really well-written story. The story starts off with some newspaper clippings on 'the Crime of the Century', and then the narration 'zaps' between Gauche and all of his suspects. The personalities of each of the characters really shine throught in the parts they narrate and it's quite fun to see the same event through different eyes. The characters are all a bit larger-than-life and coupled with the setting on the Leviathan, it really invokes a "Classic Detective Story" vibe.

I do have to admit that the overall mystery plot is not that surprising; I think a lot of people will correctly guess who Gauche's target is after a while, because at times Akunin is playing a bit too close to the genre conventions and as a detective story. I can't say that Leviathan had something truly surprising to offer. Yes, it was fun, and yes, it follows the genre conventions in an adequate way, but don't expect an Evil Under the Sun or Murder on the Orient Express from this. The writing does help a lot in making this book memorable though.

Leviathan opens with a summary of the 'Crime of the Century' set in Paris and while there are no notes, I am pretty sure it's based on the infamous Teigin Case that happened in Tokyo, 1948. A man claiming to be from the Public Health Department showed up at the Teikoku Bank (Teigin), saying he was ordered by the US occupation troops to inoculate the staff against a sudden outbreak of dysentery. The staff-members were all given a pill and a liquid, which they took at the same time on the mark of the man. The liquid, however, turned out to be a cyanide solution and while everyone was incapitated, the man ran away with a fortune  (I wrote a little on the case at Criminal Element). The case would serve as an inspiration for several stories, like one by Matsumoto Seichou, Yokomizo Seishi's Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku or Ellery Queen's real crime short story Tokyo’s Greatest Bank Robbery. It's funny to see how the Teigin Case also inspired a Russian writer.

Anyway, Leviathan was a very amusing read. The set-up, like the pay-off, is very classic and while it is not particularly original in terms of mystery, the writing is sharp and funny and overall, the reader should be left satisfied. I am not sure if I'll read more of the series though: like I said, Leviathan was the book most fitting to my own interests, with other subgenres used in the Erast Fandorin series, like the spy-thriller, just not as appealing to me as a reader.

Original Russian title(s): Борис Акунин "Левиафан"

Sunday, June 26, 2016

End and Start

スタートを切ろう 君とリセットして
「START」( 愛内里菜)

Let's start and make a reset together with you
I want to take the next chance that comes
"Start" (Auichi Rina)

I think that Shinjuku Station is still the most complex railway station I've ever visited. It's more like a chimaera, with a maze-like structure of stations from different railways and metrolines merged together with other facilities like department stores. Ikebukuro Station is a solid second place.

Ueno Station is one of the major railway stations in Tokyo, used extensively not only by commuters, but also by tourists from outside Tokyo (or the country), being near Ueno Park and the Keisei-Ueno Station which connects to Narita Airport. And traditionally, Ueno Station has also been the terminal station for the lines that connect to the north of Japan. With many people moving from the more rural northern areas to the big city, Ueno Station is to any both the terminal station, as well as the starting point of a new part of their lives. To seven friends from F High in the Aomori Prefecture, Ueno Station stood symbol for their new lives in Tokyo and seven years passed, each going their own way in the metropolis. Now the seven friends once again gather to fullfil an old promise: to go on a short trip together back to Aomori in the night-train Yuzuru. Six of the seven friends board the train together, thinking the last one just couldn't make it, but little did the group know that their friend had been murdered in the bathroom of Ueno Station. When another friend disappears from Yuzuru overnight, the group of friends, as well as the police start to think something is going on. While Inspector Totsugawa is leading the investigation of Nishimura Kyoutarou's Terminal Satsujin Jiken ("The Terminal Murder Case", 1980) from the Tokyo-side, his faithful subordinate Kamei is taking the case personally, as he himself also hails from Aomori and he knows what it is to be far fom his hometown.

Nishimura Kyoutarou is best known for his Inspector Totsugawa series, starring the titular inspector in what is often called a travel mystery in Japan: mystery stories with a travel theme (usually by train), often set outside Tokyo or the other major cities. And when you're talking about mysteries involving trains, then the words alibi trick probably pop up in your mind, and indeed, Totsugawa's M.O. often involves figuring out some ingenious alibi with the use of the railway timetable. Terminal Satsujin Jiken (1980) is one of Totsugawa's best known adventures, having won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award and been made into a TV drama three times. Detective Conan's Aoyama Goushou also recommended this title in his regular corner where he introduces the reader to other mystery series (in volume 22, which also features an Inspector Totsugawa-esque story involving a train).

I haven't read much of the Inspector Totsugawa series: some random volumes (like The Mystery Train Disappears, available in English) and none of them were really remarkable. But considering it's basically always an alibi trick, I was sorta interested in this well-received volume of the series. And indeed, it has a rather alluring situation, where one man is killed, while all the suspects were on a moving night-train towards the north of the main island of Japan. There are also some other complications, like a (rudimentary) locked room murder, but the main dish is the alibi trick. Which is actually very disappointing. For someone as experienced as Inspector Totsugawa, you'd think that actually checking out the railway timetable in detail should be one of the first things he'd do in such a case... The trick used in the book is only surprising in the sense that you wonder why the police hadn't noticed it right away. Even the other elements of the story can't do much to make the story more appealing on a plot-level. Matsumoto Seichou's Points and Lines is somewhat similar in that the main trick makes use of a blind spot, but there's a lot going around besides that.

On a sidenote, I am pretty sure that stories involving alibi tricks using trains/the subway only work well in Japan, as in general, the trains do actually run according to schedule. By which I mean to the minute, and not with two to five minutes of leeway. I still remember that some years ago, the train I took to school in Tokyo had a very minor delay (less than five minutes), but the company still issued official papers stating they had indeed a delay (to show at school/work, to prove you're not lying). It must be great if you live in a country where you can depend on the punctuality of the trains when commiting a crime.

I do have to admit that Nishimura does a fantastic job at depicting Ueno Station as a special gateway point of Tokyo: the place where people from the north arrive to start their new lives in the metropolis, or where people leave to go back to their real home. Nishimura succeeds in portraying Tokyo as a sometimes alienating melting pot of people from many different regions, not nearly as nice as the more rural areas further away from the capital. I never really felt it in other works I read by Nishimura, but here you really get the feeling you're reading a travel mystery novel, involving human beings moving around the country, each of them carrying their own past and the scent of their hometown. Shifting the focus from Totsugawa to Kamei, like the victims and suspects someone from Aomori working in Tokyo, was certainly a great idea.  The book reminded me of the film Kirin no Tsubasa, which was also about people from outside Tokyo arriving there and building up a new life.

The motive for the crimes is rather weak, or at least not very convincing as it is written now, and basically impossible for the reader to guess in advance because of the lack of proper hints, but I have to admit: the build-up to the reveal of the motive is absolutely fantastic and when all the curtains are drawn, it still manages to impress, despite the earlier mentioned hiccups.

Is The Terminal Murder Case a real masterpiece in the travel mystery subgenre? No, the mystery plot is a bit too underwhelming for that, even if it certainly does some great things in terms of characterization. When the alibi trick was first revealed I was really disappointed with the story, but having finished it and looking back, I'll admit that I enjoyed the book a lot more than I myself had expected to do.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『終着駅(ターミナル)殺人事件』

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Through the Curtain

うなれパンチ とどろけキック さみしいときには
燃えてシンギング ヘッドバンキング 切ない時には 
太鼓ドーンドン 響けカッカッ ほらね忘れちゃう 
ワワワワンダーモモモモーイ これぞファンタジーな七不思議 

Cry out, my punch! Roar, my kick! When I'm lonely
I sing and shout anime songs and these tears fly away
Burn! I'll be singing and headbanging and when I'm sad
The taiko drum goes baaaam-bam, and again boom-boom, and see, I already forgot!
Wowowowonder Momomomoi This are my fantastic seven mysteries!
"Wonder Momoi" (Momoi Haruko)

I usually try to avoid posting reviews of the same franchises in a row, but ah well, since both are recent releases...

The office of Naruhodo houses not only a trio of talented defense attorneys best known for their miraculous feats as in the courtroom, but also a talented magician in the form of Naruhodo's adoptive daughter Minuki. Minuki has been booked together to perform at a live event at the newly opened Pegasus Town shopping mall, together with two other young and rising stars of the entertainment world: the self-proclaimed "comedy artist' Choukakkou Nadare, and the fruit-cutting idol Momogaya Sumomo, known for cutting fruit art while dancing and singing on stage. As the head of the Naruhodo Anything Agency, Naruhodo naturally comes along to see his daughter perform, but also to meet wit Minuki's fellow performers and of course the mall manager who organized the event. After the event however, Nadare is found dead in his dressing room, stabbed in his chest with Sumomo's knife, which makes her the prime suspect. Asked by Minuki, Naruhodo decides to defend Sumomo in court, but things are not easy: two witnesses place Sumomo at the scene of the crime, while prosecution is also led by Yugami, a master in psychological manipulation. All seems hopeless in Takase Mie's 2016 novel Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Idol ("Turnabout Trial - Turnabout Idol"), but that's how every day goes for Naruhodo.

While there have been short stories before, Gyakuten Idol is actually the very first novel published based on the long-running videogame Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series. I already mentioned it in my review of the latest game, Gyakuten Saiban 6, earlier this week, but the successful mystery game franchise has explored all kinds of media besides the videogame form, like like film, musicals and manga. The book is an all-original story, set several months after the events of Gyakuten Saiban 5 and features original illustrations by Kikuyarou, who also does some official artwork for the Japanese e-zine for the Ace Attorney series.

To be perfectly honest, I had not very high expectations of this novel when I first heard of it. It's being published through the Kadokawa Tsubasa Bunko label, which is a label specifically aimed at children. The fact the cover art consisted of a badly made copypasta of existing artwork for the videogames wasn't really encouraging either. On the other hand: author Takase Mie is a veteran writer, specializing in mystery novels, light novels and novelizations of popular game series like Kirby, Persona, and Fire Emblem. So there was definitely a chance that this would turn out to be a good book.

And it was. I was pleasantly surprised by Gyakuten Idol, because it's really a fun mystery novel based on the Ace Attorney series. Like in the games, the case starts out simple, but witness testimonies quickly make the situation worse for Naruhodo and his client, and he has to point out contradictions in the witness testimonies in order to save Sumomo. Naruhodo, and the player, usually know very little about what the witnesses will say at the witness stand in the courtroom, so the contents as well as the implications of each testimony are always a surprise, leading to exciting and dynamic story developments. Like with the games, a lot of smaller mysteries are solved one after another, which all lead to the solving of the 'greater' mystery. This structure keeps the story exciting throughout, instead of pushing all revelations to the end of the story, like a lot of other mystery novels do.

And it's a pretty tightly structured mystery story too. And while the novel is definitely short and obviously aimed at younger readers, written with easy-to-read prose, it's also clear this was plotted by someone with a lot of experience with writing mystery stories, so I really did enjoy it. Heck, I was genuinely excited when I first opened the book and saw it included a map of Pegasus Town. Things like that would make any mystery fan excited, right? As a mystery novel meant to be read by younger readers, I really have no complaints about Gyakuten Idol.

Fans of the Ace Attorney series should be able to enjoy this book, as it does have all the elements you'd expect from such a story. From the outrageous characters to the way the story develops and the in-jokes, it never feels out-of-place. The short story featured in the Ace Attorney-themed guidebook Gyakuten Houtei for example didn't really feel like a real story set in the universe, but Gyakuten Idol is a story I could easily see as being part of the actual universe.

So yeah, I enjoyed the book, because it's precisely what it should be. An amusing, well-plotted mystery story aimed at younger readers, set in the universe of the Ace Attorney games. I definitely wouldn't mind seeing more of these in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 高瀬美恵 『逆転裁判 逆転アイドル』

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Countdown to Heaven

光が集まる 優しい梢の下で 
幼い心に 不思議な力 宿りて
豊かに濯いだ 蛍の河の流れに
抱かれて眠れば 遥かな面影 何処 
「シェンファ ~江清日抱花歌~」(伊織)

There were the light gathers, beneath the gentle treetops
A mysterious power dwells within an infant spirit
Embraced by the rich stream of the river of fireflies
You sleep there , a faraway memory of a face, somewhere
"Shenhua ~The Song of the Flower Embraced by the Sun in the Pure Bay" (Iori)

Pretty sure I lament about this at least once every year, but I wish there were more people writing/blogging about mystery fiction in more mediums than just books and the occassional TV drama/film. Videogames have so many interesting experiences to offer for fans of mystery fiction, but for some reason there's some sort of gigantic uncrossable gap for many writers.

Naruhodou Ryuuichi has seen a lot of incredible things in his long career as a defense attorney, but spirit channeling was definitely one of the highlights. His former assistant Mayoi (the little sister of his deceased boss) is the last of the main family line of the Ayasato, a clan of mediums who can actually channel the spirit of the dead. Now he finds himself in the Kingdom of Kurain, where the technique for spirit channeling originates. Naruhodo is here to pick up Mayoi, who has been training in the mystic arts in the Kingdom of Kurain in order to become the true master of the Ayasato clan, but circumstances lead to a forced appearance of Naruhodo at the defense's bench at a murder trial. There he first learns that in this kingdom, defense attorneys are hated and thought to be obsolete. There is even a law that rules that defense attorneys are considered guilty of the same crime if their client is found guilty, which has pretty much eradicated all attorneys in the country. The second surprising discovery Naruhodo makes, is the existence of Spirit Channeling Visions. The Kingdom of Kurain is the kingdom of spirit channeling and this technique is also used in the courtroom: the priestress Leifa, Princess of Kurain, can actually show precisely what a deceased person saw and felt in their last moments before death through a spiritual projection on a Water Mirror. And you can bet it's pretty hard to defend someone who was seen by the victim themselves just before they were brutally murdered! Meanwhile back in Japan, Naruhodo's subordinate Odoroki is also busy in the courtroom during Naruhodo's absence, but both attorneys could not have guessed their paths would eventually cross in the 2016 3DS videogame Gyakuten Saiban 6 ("Turnabout Trial 6"), to be released in English in a couple of months with the localized title of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice.

As you can safely guess from the title, Gyakuten Saiban 6 is the sixth entry in the main series of the Gyakuten / Ace Attorney series, which is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary this year. Longtime readers of the blog will know the drill by now: I am a huge fan of the colorful, humurous, but very well-made mystery series. In the past I've discussed not only 2013's Gyakuten Saiban 5 and spin-off titles like Gyakuten Kenji 2, Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban (crossover title in a fantasy setting) and Dai Gyakuten Saiban (set in Victorian London and co-starring Sherlock Holmes), but also entries in other media, like the film, the musical and the manga. To say Gyakuten Saiban 6 was an anticipated title, is an understatement.

I think I say it every time I do a game review, but I think the core mechanics of this series are still the most memorable way of properly doing a mystery game. I discuss mystery fiction in a lot of forms on this blog, and every medium has its owns pros and cons, but to me, the Gyakuten Saiban series has been one of the few games that actually managed to present mystery fiction in an interactive form that allows the player to think and deduce on their own. While the series has changed in the last fifteen years, the core has always been the same, as thought of by series creator Takumi Shuu (see also this essay). Gyakuten Saiban has always been about finding out contradictions, usually contradictions between testimonies made by witnesses and suspects in the court, and the evidence in your hands. Takumi was obviously inspired by Columbo when he came up with this innovative game-idea, because like Peter Falk, you'll be pointing out lies, which prompts witnesses/suspects to make up new lies, which you relentlessly follow until you figure out the complete truth. As a game-mechanic, this feels as satisfying in 2016 with Gyakuten Saiban 6 as with the first Gyakuten Saiban released in 2001. Whereas a lot of mystery fiction end with one big denouement in the end, the games are designed to give you a new mystery to solve one after another, and this process leads you to the final truth. It's interactive, it's exciting and it results in dynamic storytelling a lot of mystery fiction in 'traditional' paper form simply don't have, because they are not designed as interactive, but passive experiences. What a lot of people often seem to misunderstand is that Gyakuten Saiban was never designed as a whodunit. Like I outlined above, the series has always been much closer Columbo in spirit and game design and it is the road to finally proving the murderer's guilt that is the focus of the games (rather than figuring out who it was).

Spirit channeling, as a concept, might seem like an element not fit for mystery fiction, but as I have often posed on this blog: mystery fiction does not need to be realistic. It only needs to have alluring mysteries that can be solved with logic in a fair way. And yes, logic exists in fantasy settings. In fact, there are a lot of great mystery novels out there that build on fantasy-settings (for example: Snow White, Cat Food, Death of the Living Dead). As long as the rules within that fantasy world are clear to the player, a world with spirit channeling is as fair as a mystery story as anything written by Ellery Queen. The new Spirit Channeling Vision system in Gyakuten Saiban 6 is clearly a variant on the familiar contradiction system, but it's really, really fun. You'll pointing out contradictions between the known facts, and the last moments of the victim as seen and experienced through the victim's own eyes. These visions are not only based on the victim's sense of sight, but all of the five senses. You might for example perhaps be pointing out that the victim heard something they shouldn't have been able to hear. This new system really feels original, with its fantastical setting and focus on the human senses, and is something that 'regular' mystery fiction often lack in terms of set-up: a desire to do something truly original and exciting.

As a piece of mystery fiction, I think Gyakuten Saiban 6 has been a great entry in the series. Like always, the game is divided in several 'episodes', each featuring its own murder case and its own colorful cast of (usually) sorta wacky characters. The original series creator Takumi Shuu is not working on the main series anymore, and the current team has definitely its own take on mystery stories. Takumi's stories tend to start simple, with the discovery of each new contradiction leading into more complex situations. The current team usually starts with very big, baffling situations, which are broken down by clearing up each contradiction. The cases are varied, and show a lot of originality (helped by the supernatural setting of the Kurain Kingdom). But even a 'conventional' case like a disappearing act at a magic show turning into the appearing act of a dead body is great fun. The last case of the game in particular is a great example of how to do a fair mystery story with a supernatural setting. Personally, I loved that a couple of cases required spatial awareness of the player: it's something you seldom see in mystery fiction, but the videogame, as an interactive visual medium, is definitely one of best places to do such stories, and I had been lamenting the fact they did so little with spatial awareness in the previous game (with Gyakuten Saiban 4 the first to really utilize that). Also, like in the previous game, there's some clever foreshadowing done throughout the game, like mirroring and juxtaposing situations from previous (unrelated) cases to later cases in surprising ways that work as hints to the attentive player. The writing can feel a bit tiring though, as cases move much slower than they should be doing: too many characters have too much to say, with little real content or importance. The game definitely felt much longer than it actually was, in a bad sense of the saying (though it's definitely not a short game).

Gyakuten Saiban 6 is however a difficult game to recommend to people who have played none of the other games. It is heavily connected to plotlines from earlier games and that's definitely what also hurts the game in a way. Practically all cases involve the main cast in some way or another, while in previous games, the cast was just hired to act as the defense in criminal cases. While the game definitely has good mystery plots, it's all too connected to characters the developers just expect you to have an emotional bond with. Oh, and for those who indeed have all those emtional investments in the characters and overall storyline: I think this will be a dividing game. Also, I like the main story and the new Spirit Channeling Vision system quite a lot overall, but I do think the atmosphere of this game feels a bit different from the previous entries in the main series. In spirit and scale, I feel Gyakuten Saiban 6 is at times a lot closer to spin-off titles like Dai Gyakuten Saiban and Professor Layton VS Gyakuten Saiban. It's a great mystery game, but I do feel the overall concept, and the things the developers wanted to archieve with this game, could perhaps have worked even better outside the main series.

And just a short bit on Gyakuten Saiban 6 as a game: it looks great, with attractive visual designs and graphics, but I thought the music a bit lacking. Perhaps it's because composer Iwadare has done five games in this series now, but while there were a few good atmospheric themes, most of the music I really can't even remember. Perhaps it's time for a composer change. Actually, until Gyakuten Saiban 5, all games in the main series had different composers, which really gave each game its own feel, but Iwadare (who did Gyakuten Saiban 3, 5 and the two Gyakuten Kenji spin-offs) has sorta become the series' main composer of late, which I personally find a bit tiring. I'm definitely open for another change in tone now.

I accused Gyakuten Saiban 5 of being 'too safe a sequel' back in 2013. That's definitely not something I can say of Gyakuten Saiban 6. It feels fresh as a mystery game, with original and daring plots. But it is also a game that is deeply connected to previous games, that can only be enjoyed best with the emotional investment in the characters. And it's without a doubt a dividing game for precisely those with that emotional investment. So yeah, even I am not sure what to think about it. I am really curious as to how this series will evolve now. As for now, I say: if you like mystery games, definitely get this, but do play the previous games for maximum enjoyment.

Original Japanese title(s): 『逆転裁判6』

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger


Even if you have a secret you want to keep hidden
As if you're being suspected by me
I'm trying to learn more about you because I love you too much
Let's go and leave the hearts of us two on the other side of the moon
"Mysterious" (Naifu)

Another Dutch book this month? It's becoming scary now!

Henri Revers made his name not only as legal counsel, but also as a gifted amateur detective who occasionally solves cases for clients in matters they'd rather keep silent about (like thefts), but also bigger cases involving the police. But Revers' biggest case will always be the tragedy people called "the mystery of Rijswijk". Baron Albert Meyer-Rosing was found in his garden with a Japanese dagger sticking out from his chest on New Year's Eve and the prime suspect was his cousin Max Meyer-Rosing, who had given Albert the Japanese dagger (together with a wakizashi sword) and claimed to have been sleeping in the library overlooking the garden during the murder. The strange thing is that all those who inherited the title of Baron Meyer-Rosing died on the exact same spot in the garden for the last five generations. Max is acquitted because of insufficient evidence, but as the clouds of suspicion prevent him from marrying the love of his life, Max hopes Revers will find out who did kill his cousin and why. Revers' investigation however reveals a lot of secrets and schemes in A. Bertrand's De geheimzinnige Japanees ("The Mysterious Japanman", release year unknown).

Johan Versteeg was a Dutch writer born in 1873 who used a lot of pen names. Apparently, he only wrote three mystery novels in his otherwise prolific writing career, and his first mystery novel was De geheimzinnige Japanees under the name A. Bertrand (his other mystery books are written under the name J.T. van Leiden). The inside of De geheimzinnige Japanees mentions next-to-no details on the publication itself, so the exact publication year can't be traced, but most sources on the internet seem to set it between 1904-1910, making it a fairly early mystery novel. I was actually quite surprised I got my hands on the book for a relatively low price and it still looks great as a hardcover with neat illustrations.

To be honest, there is very little to be found on this book on the internet and I only became interested in the book because of the title and the cover art. The title features the archaic word "Japanees", which looks like the English "Japanese", but the word isn't used in modern Dutch anymore and looks pretty strange (which is why I rendered it as "Japanman", like "Chinaman"). The cover in turn features the titular "mysterious Japanman", who actually looks more like a "Chinaman" than a "Japanman", leading me to suspect this was some kind of Yellow Peril-esque novel. Obviously, as a Dutch person writing about Japanese mystery novels, I was quite curious as to the contents of the book and was quite pleased when I finally found a copy of it.

De geheimzinnige Japanees was also better than I had expected, though like I said, I was perhaps expecting little of it. The first two chapters do a good job at setting Henri Revers up as the protagonist, who is obviously inspired by Sherlock Holmes. With a keen eye for details, the legal man manages to solve two cases of theft and espionage in as many chapters and the espionage case is actually quite neatly done and practically an impossible crime! The story then moves on to the main course of the book and does a great job at introducing us to all the actors involved with "the mystery of Rijswijk" and the Meyer-Rosing family. Revers is given some hints as to where to start with his investigation in the death of Baron Meyer-Rosing, but more and more people with a motive to get rid of the baron pop up as the plot moves on. The murder mystery is spiced up with hints to an old family curse and the use of the Japanese dagger as the murder weapon and by now, the reader has all the things he could've wanted from a mystery novel.

And of course, there's the titular mysterious Japanese and it's here where you suddenly remember that you aren't reading a mystery novel from the 1920s~1940s, but one from the late 1900s. De geheimzinnige Japanees remains an entertaining mystery novel, but yes, given the title and the period, the mysterious Japanese is indeed rather a crucial part of the errr, the mystery, in an almost too predictable fashion. The story does its best at trying to divert suspicion to different characters at several points in the story, but it's always clear that in the background, there's the mysterious Japanese and here you can feel that it's just plot bias that leads Revers to the man, rather than the Holmes-esque thinking work he shows at other points in the story.

Funny is how the book has some segments that show that the writer had knowledge on Japanese culture to some extent, but also parts that show he was fairly bad at making detailed notes or something, because some Japanese words would be spelled right in one chapter only to become something horribly different in another chapter. Some chapters also showed rudimentary knowledge of the Japanese language, while others were just made-up. The author probably looked some things up in a book, but didn't with others, but it is kinda funny to see how sometimes the book features information nobody uninformed should ever know, while at other times it's obvious there's also been a lack of research.

That said though, I had a good time with De geheimzinnige Japanees. I'm tempted to say its set-up is classic (as in 'classic puzzle detective fiction starting around 1920'), but this book actually predates that period. There are actually quite some false trails, plot twists and moving around of the accusatory finger over the course of the book to keep the reader entertained and it reads quite well for a 1900s Dutch novel (I've read 1930s novels with more annoying spelling conventions than in this novel). A real puzzler, it is not, but definitely much, much better than I had expected based on just the title and the cover.

The book features eight illustrations which also look incredible. Though like the cover, the "Japanman" is mostly dressed like a "Chinaman" in the illustrations with long robes and a hat...

Anyway, I'm quite happy I got my hands on this rather obscure Dutch detective novel with a Japanese touch to it. It was quite fun to read and much better than I expected at first. Also, I think this is actually the oldest book I own at the moment and it still looks quite good, so from a bibliophilic point of view, I'm a content reader.

Original Dutch title(s): A. Bertrand "De geheimzinnige Japanees"

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Cat Who Sang for the Birds

「Nora」(Garnet Crow)

I can't even tell you farewell,
But even so, I'll leave here today
Will I ever meet a wonderful person again?
Whimsical and free, I'm a stray cat
"Nora" (Garnet Crow)

I've been postponing writing this review for weeks. Which isn't that bad a thing, save for the fact that by finally writing this review, I'm postponing a different review for even longer. At this point, I'm not even sure whether I'm going a review on that book anymore, because it's slowly sinking deeper and deeper away in my memories...

Professor Niccolo Benedetti is usually called in with particularly nasty situations that ask for his expertise on human evil, for example with the horrible serial killings chronicled in The HOG Murders. So Ron Gentry, Benedetti's disciple, was a bit surprised to hear the Maestro accepted the request to help mediate between the two Pembroke twins. The feud between Claude (birdwatcher) and Henry (manx cat breeder) has been going on for decades, but their quabble becomes government business when Claude puts out his veto on manufacturing an air-cleaning device the brothers invented: Claude thinks his brother is responsible for an aviaric disappearance from their grounds. Benedetti thinks evil is behind the flight of the birds and his suspicions soon prove to be right when the mediation session becomes a kidnapping case with a deadly result in William L. DeAndrea's The Manx Murders (1994).

Running a blog on fiction does not mean I can actually read and think: that's why I jumped from The HOG Murders to the third novel in the series, The Manx Murders, even though I already have the second book and I'm pretty sure the correct reading order is mentioned somewhere in the books themselves...

Anyway, The Manx Murders is the third time the public is told about the adventures of Professor Niccolo Benedetti, his disciple Ron Gentry and Gentry's wife in their fight against evil. Evil's Benedetti's lifework mind you, and not detecting, he is sure to tell you, which is why he accepted the job even if it's not as big a case as The HOG Murders. In fact, The Manx Murders feels a bit underwhelming most of the time. Disappearing birds? Dead cats? Even when the stakes get higher when one of the twins is kidnapped and bodies (of the not-so-living anymore kind) start to pop up, it's still nothing compared to the terror we experienced with the unknown serial killer in The HOG Murders. Benedetti still does his paintings thing (he starts off painting realistic paintings when he investigates a case, which turn more surrealistic as the investigation continues, turning into subconcious hints), Ron and his wife still have their banter and stuff, but it's like they're stuck in the wrong story, because The Manx Murders is just not a story that would need these characters.

The Manx Murders has a very limited setting, both in terms of cast and location and while that is not a bad thing per se, I wouldn't say these elements were done exceptionally well in The Manx Murders. The length of the book does not allow much room for exciting plot developments or interesting confrontations between characters. Personally, I think the mystery plot would've worked better as a shorter story (with a few trimmings), as the current length of The Manx Murders just isn't optimal: either a longer, or shorter length would've resulted in a better-flowing story, in my opinion.

I lean towards the shorter version because the puzzle plot is a bit simple this time. The murderer is incredibly obvious (especially after the second thing) and while the clue leading to the identity of the murderer is fair and good enough, it's not nearly enough to sustain a whole novel-length story. It'd worked much better in a different type of story I think (I especially think this idea would've fitted perfectly in a Columbo episode, for example).

The Manx Murders is not a bad mystery story. But I do think it'd be a lot better in a different form and maybe even if moved outside the Professor Benedetti series. Ah well, I still have to read The Werewolf Murders, which apparently is a lot closer to The HOG Murders in terms of set-up, so that should be fun.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Hungry House Blues

追いかけて 溢れ返る人の中で
「風とRAINBOW」(Garnet Crow)

The wind and rainbow
Keep on following them among that mass of people
And beyond those closed hearts
You kept on searching, right?
"Wind and Rainbow" (Garnet Crow)

It's been a strange month where I found not one, but two old Dutch book gift certificates at home. Which really come in handy considering the relatively high Dutch book prices.

Having secured his house with window and door shutters, spotlights and cameras with motion sensors and telling next to nobody where he lived, Fred Duijster, big shot in the Dutch criminal underworld, probably was not expecting someone to just walk inside his house and slice him up. On the security footage, the police recognize Rafaël "Raaf" du Mez, a (self-proclaimed) reformed criminal with a history with the victim. While the police is working on sealing the deal by finding the last pieces of evidence to get Raaf in convicted, laywer Sjoerd Guikema is hired by Raaf's sister Elvira to save her brother. While Sjoerd tries his best at weakening the police's cases, and manages to find some weak spots, he realizes his only chance to get his client out of jail is to prove someone else could have pulled off the seemingly impossible feat of entering the victim's home without being captured on camera. And so police and defense try to outsmart each other in M.P.O. Books' Een afgesloten huis ("A Sealed House", 2013).

Een afgesloten huis is the eight book in Dutch mystery writer M.P.O. Books' District Heuvelrug series, set around several police divisions in the central Netherlands area. For the non-Dutchies, sorry, but the books are not available in English (yet?). Previously, I already reviewed De laatste kans and Cruise control. And as you might have noticed, I read the books in a rather random order, but both of them were quite entertaining. And given that Een afgesloten huis had a locked room murder premise (of sorts), I was quite curious as to how this would work out.

Like Carr's The Judas Window, Een afgesloten huis revolves about a murder in a sealed space that seemingly could only have been commited by one man, making it a locked room mystery, if you accept that the suspect is not the murderer. The plot of Een afgesloten huis keeps the investigation into the truth behind the murder interesting by moving the spotlight back and forth between the police (who are convinced Raaf is the murderer) and Sjoerd & Elvira (who try to find evidence of Raaf's innocence). The result is a story where both parts compete against each other and as both sides have their shares of (little) victories and losses, the reader is invited to keep on reading until the very end.

M.P.O. Books obviously likes this narrative technique of jumping between various parties, as he used it in all the stories I've read by him, and I have to admit that by now, it's feeling a bit forced, or too predictable at the least. Granted, as Een afgesloten huis follows a dual structure, jumping between narratives is necessary, but the biggest problem I have with this is that Books jumps way too often. Sometimes you read one page about character X, then it jumps to character Y for another page, only to jump back to character X again. The strange thing is; often there is little need for having to interrupt character X's narrative for one page of character Y. Sometimes, the next section starring character X starts at practically the same time & space as where the previous section with X ended, so why cut it up in two sections with an interruption? Because of that, the pacing of this book feels a bit strange, as you are forced to take speed bumps every other page. And while it's a problem some serialized novels have too (I look at you Rampo, sir), Een afgesloten huis is a paperback original, so it hasn't the excuse of different publication origins.

The parts with Sjoerd & Elvira are the most entertaining, as we follow the duo in their attempts to get Raaf out of detainment and solve the locked room murder mystery. The series is a police procedural, but personally, I prefer amateur detectives, so that explains that. The idea behind the locked room murder is okay, I think. It's a very simple solution that I doubt would have really worked in a story starring a Great Detective solving crimes like doing the newspaper puzzles, but it works well in the context of the series and the specific situation created here.

The trail leading to the identity of the murderer I thought less refined though. Like Cruise control, this novel features psychological clues among others, but they are so open for interpretation you might as well wave them away. Then again, by the end, after the main puzzle solving, Een afgesloten huis suddenly took a rather hardboiled way out, so maybe it was to be expected. Also, Cruise control will spoil a very significant part of Een afgesloten huis and you probably should read them in order, unlike me.

The mix of detecting couples, police procedural and locked room mystery works quite well in Een afgesloten huis and I think the book should appeal to Dutch readers wanting to read a classically inclined detective novel. I do have to admit that stylistically, I hope that other books will feature less narrative jumpiness, as at times it feels like it's only there to drag things out. But overall, a good read.

Original Dutch title(s): M.P.O. Books "Een afgesloten huis"