Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Truth Can Never Truly Die

"The dead shall speak. Let's put together the truth of what happened here.
"Trauma Team"

Trauma Center: Under The Knife (2005) was one of those quirky Nintendo DS games that really showed off the use of the dual touchscreen system (years before we all got our fingers attached to our smartphones). It was a medical simulation game, where you assumed the role of a surgeon and used the stylus on the touchscreen to perform surgery and fight off a bio-terrorist attack of superviruses. Calling the game a cult-hit might be going to far, but it had its share of fans, and became a series that was published on both Nintendo DS and the Wii. The series is known as Trauma Center in the English-language world, while in Japan, the series is known as Caduceus.

Trauma Team (2010), known in Japan as HOSPITAL - 6-nin no Ishi ("HOSPITAL - The Six Doctors") is the most recent entry in the series, released for the Wii. In the original game, you only played a surgeon, but as the title suggests, Trauma Team has you assuming the role of six different medical specialists working at the medical facility Resurgam First Care. Prisoner CR-201 (Surgery), Maria Torres (First Response), Hank Freebird (Orthopedics), Tomoe Tachibana (Endoscopy), Gabriel Cunningham (Diagnosis) and Naomi Kirishima (Forensics) each have their own storylines, which occassionaly intertwine with the others (a patient Gabriel diagnoses might be sent to Surgery, for example). As each of the stories develops, the specalists all notice that a medical threat is looming and they need to work together to fight off a new and aggressive virus.

To make it clear right away: this is mostly an action game, where you use the motion controls of the Wii to simulate medical operations. For example, in Surgery you'll be cutting people open to remove tumors, while in Endoscopy you'll be shoving down a cable down a patient's throat to check out lungs and other organs. These parts are not as difficult as the original Trauma Center (luckily!), but it's still nothing at all like the mystery adventure games I usually review here. So why a review? Well, while most specialists don't really belong here, Diagnosis and Forensics are actually pretty much mystery adventures on their own, and really deserve a special mention. As such, this review will only focus on these two specalisms and not the game as a whole. So I'm only looking at the game as a mystery game.

The field of forensics is of course obviously very closely linked to mystery games. In this part, you play as Naomi Kirishima (a protagonist from earlier games), who is given the job of solving unsolved cases. This usually means you need to investigate corpses and other material for clues. You also get the chance to go out to the crime scene and gather evidence there with gear like luminol (bloodtest) and fingerprinting tests. The usual CSI-stuff. Your investigations give you clue cards, and you can combine clue cards with each other to generate new clues (deduction). For example: an Exit Wound and an Entry Wound combined together result in the Trajectory of the Weapon. Combine all the clues together and arrive at the truth. A simple, but effective way to structure a mystery game.

While the gameplay in Forensics isn't particularly original (every other mystery game uses a variation of the clue card system), it's done quite well here, even if it's not really difficult. Of course, Forensics is only a part of the larger game that is Trauma Team, so of course you shouldn't expect a supecomplex mystery plot from it. Still, the game has you investigate a wide variety of crimes with just enough surprises in each of the episodes to keep it from becoming stale.

It's Diagnosis that's actually surprisingly original though. In fact, I think a lot of people won't even associate it with the mystery genre immediately. As Gabriel Cunningham, you need to find out what your patient is suffering from. You have several options to gather your 'medical clues' (symptoms): from simply asking your patient what is wrong with them, to making visual observations and doing various medical tests (like bloodtests and MRI scans). During your diagnosis session, the situation of your patient occassionally changes, making it necessary for you to adjust your diagnosis.

So how is this a mystery game? Well, like I wrote in this post on clues, a lot of mystery novels have you determine the identity of the murderer by first figuring out the characteristics the murderer must have, and then comparing those to the characteristics of all the suspects. You actually do something similar here. After a preliminary diagnosis, you're give a list of possible diseases the patient may be suffering from, and it's then when the sleuthing begins. You need to read through the details (symptoms) of each of the deseases and compare them to what you found. Sometimes you have multiple candidates for your 'culprit'. You'll be making additional tests then, for example brain scans or bloodtests, to determine the exact identity of the disease that the patient is suffering from. This way of working is a lot like the method of clueing I wrote about, and in fact, I think this is one of the few games that actually present its mystery-solving process as such. Which is quite unique, as Trauma Team isn't really a specialized mystery game. It has a bit of a House-vibe to it, but I really think that the Diagnosis part of Trauma Team, where you hunt for the identity of not human criminals, but the identity of diseases, is one of the more original mystery games I've played in recent years.

For people who aren't good with action games, I can't really recommend Trauma Team though. Forensics and Diagnosis are just a part of the game, and you need to complete the stories of all specialists to unlock the second half of the story for everyone. The game is not as difficult as previous entries in the series (in fact, it's a lot easier), but still, trying to stabilize four patients in First Care can be quite stressful if you're not used to motion-controlled action games that also require precision.

That said though, I do think Trauma Team might actually be one of the best mystery games on the Wii, even if it's only partly a mystery game. I enjoyed the game as a whole, so if you're interested in a bit of medical simulation with an interesting approach to mystery games, try it out.

Original Japanese title(s): 『HOSPITAL  6人の医師』

Monday, September 26, 2016

No Time To Die

"It belongs in a museum!"
"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"

Oh man, it's been more than six months ago since I last did a review on a TV drama! I used to do these more often... Anyway, two Japanese mystery specials today for the price of one today!

Hanzai Shiryoukan - Hiiro Saeko Series: Akai Hakubutsukan ("The Crime Archive - Hiiiro Saeko Series: The Red Museum") is a TV special broadcast on August 29, 2016, based on Akai Hakubutsukan, a 2015 short story collection by Ooyama Seiichirou. Terada Satoru was a promising police detective until he made a major mistake handling evidence. He is transferred to the Red Museum, a place inspired by New Scotland Yard's The Black Museum. Files and evidence concerning cases of which the statute of limitations has already passed are stored in the archives beneath the old brick mansion. While the function of the museum is simply preservation of cases of which the police can't arrest the culprit anymore, the slightly difficult-to-handle director Hiiro Saeko still thinks there's merit in finding the truth and often starts new investigations in closed cases on her own. One day, Terada is witness to a traffic accident. Before the victim died however, he told Terada he once commited a murder exchange in the past, two decades ago. Digging in the victim's past, they find out his wealthy uncle was murdered two decades ago, while he himself had a perfect alibi. Hiiro concludes that for a murder exchange to have happened, there must be another unsolved murder featuring someone with a perfect alibi and starts poking around, but not everybody is happy with the interference of the Red Museum.

Ooyama Seiichirou's output as a writer is a lot less than I had hoped it to be, because I really enjoyed the stories by him that I've read. His mystery stories fall under the Queen-Norizuki school of logical reasoning. Misshitsu Shuushuuka for example was a brilliant display of doing locked room murders in the form of a pure, logic-driven puzzle plot. So I had high expectations of this TV drama, which would also be the first TV adaptation of Ooyama's work.

I was a bit disappointed though. From what I understand, the TV drama is mostly based around one of the stories in the original short story collection, with some elements from the other stories, but the TV drama itself was rather chaotic. One problem is that it tries to address too many past cases at the same time: not only do we follow the investigation about the murder exchange (so that's two murders), the story also puts a spotlight on two personal tragedies in both Hiiro and Terada's past, bringing it up to four cases, and that's just at the beginning of the story! One storyline in particular felt like nothing but time-filler, making the whole feel less cohesive than it should've been.

As for the mystery plot, it was a bit bland. It wasn't precisely what I had expected (I had expected something more firmly set in the Queen-Norizuki school), but it was also not fair to the viewer. Not only was there a convenient piece of evidence that simply told Hiiro the truth behind the murder exchange, this piece of evidence wasn't even shown to the viewer! I mean, they intentionally didn't show it on the screen. Well then, you kinda lose my goodwill then. The mystery about the tragedy in Terada's past was good though. I do like the concept of the Red Museum and it seems they might want to do a sequel one day (about Hiiro's own past and her relation with her father), but I can't say I'm really looking forward to it, if they're going to present the mystery plot like this again.

Note: I translated Norizuki Rintarou's short story The Lure of the Green Door.

Yuukai Mystery Choukessaku: Norizuki Rintarou- Ichi no Higeki ("A Kidnapping Masterpiece: Norizuki Rintarou - The Tragedy of One") is a TV drama special broadcast on September 23, 2016 and is based on Norizuki Rintarou's 1996 novel Ichi no Higeki ("The Tragedy of One"). It also marks the first time a work of Norizuki has been adapted for television. I already reviewed the original book some years ago, but to give a short summary: the well-to-do Yamakura household is shocked by a phone call telling them their son Takashi has been kidnapped and demanding ransom money. However, Takashi is safe at home. It appears the kidnapper accidently took Takashi's classmate Shigeru, who came around the house in the morning to pick Takashi up on their way to school (Takashi didn't go because of a fever). The kidnapper doesn't appear to have noticed their mistake though, so they demand Yamakura Shirou, father of Takashi, to bring the ransom money. But Shirou doesn't succeed in his task because of both bad luck and almost insane demands of the kidnapper, and Shigeru's body is dumped somewhere on an empty lot. Police investigations bring a man called Miura in sight, but this man has a foolproof alibi: he had spent the whole day with Norizuki Rintarou, mystery writer and son of the police superintendent in charge of the kidnapping-murder investigation.

Overall, I'd say this was a pretty competent adaptation. Highlights were definitely the violin music (I wish they'd release this soundtrack!) and Hasegawa Hiroki's take on the role of mystery writer Norizuki Rintarou. While it's often hard to get a hold on a character through just one TV special, I'd say that Hasegawa's Rintarou is already almost perfect, and I'd love to see a series starring him based on the Rintarou short stories.

In terms of the mystery plot, there were some changes. Some were to streamline/simplify the story, other changes had to be made because of the difference in medium. A bit of a shame they pulled the "let's not show the decisive piece of evidence to the viewer" card again though. And while I said I thought this was a competent adaptation, I'd also say it's a weird adaptation, in the sense that yes, all the things that needed to be there were present, and the overall gloomy atmosphere of the original book was depicted very well, but there were also some very characteristic elements that didn't made the jump to TV. In fact, one of the reasons the book carried the title The Tragedy of One is because it was written in the first person (the sequel was naturally written in the second person). There was another reason why the book was titled like that, which was related to the mystery plot, but that too didn't make the jump. So the title The Tragedy of One doesn't even really make sense in the TV drama, because all the connections to "One" didn't appear on TV. 

In the original book, the story was written from the POV of Yamakura Shirou and because of that, Rintarou didn't appear that often on screen. But you can't do that with the leading actor in a TV production, so we see a fair amount of him. Because the character is not particularly talkative though, they added a new character to the Norizuki household. In the original novels, it's just father and son Norizuki, but in this special they added a very talkative housemaid with a love for TV mystery shows. This Djuna to the Norizuki's Queen household is supposed to add a 'relatable' POV for the scenes at home, I think, but her bright personality doesn't really fit the overall atmosphere of the story, I think.

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎 (原) 『犯罪資料館 緋色冴子シリーズ 赤い博物館』、法月綸太郎 (原) 『誘拐ミステリー超傑作 法月綸太郎 一の悲劇』

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Never Go Away

愛よ消えないで もう u um
I need you ずっと捜してた
『CITY HUNTER~愛よ消えないで』 (小比類巻かほる)

Oh Love, pease don't go
I need you / I've searching for you
"City Hunter ~Oh Love, Don't Go Away" (Kohiruimaki Kahoru)

Another non-Japanese review! I think that three of them on a row is usually my limit: I always come back to Japanese fiction. The only times when there are more than three reviews of non-Japanese books in a row is when I read the books and write the reviews as a series on purpose, like with the Drury Lane novels earlier this year.

The first disappearance mystery in the English town Winchingham ("Wincham" for the locals) involved a Miss Janet Soames. She had eloped with her husband-to-be, a Mr. Philip Strong, and were to stay for one night in Winchingham and marry the following day. The wedding however never happened, because Philip Strong quite suddenly and impossibly disappeared from Janet's eyes. The second disappeareance mystery starred a Mr. Stokes and his lovely secretary. The two were busy with their own disappearance act, with company money, when their car decided to stop running. Posing as a married couple, Mr. Stokes and the secretery book rooms in the Welcome Inn, just outside Winchingham. Here the 'couple' come across a room that appears just as as easily as it disappears, and even the police can't make any sense out of the mystery of the disappearing room. Finally, a Mrs. Prattley, invited over to Winchingham by a gentleman friend, becomes witness to an awfully curious murder in cul-de-sac near a rivier, but when she brings the local beat cop, they discover the whole street is gone. Lancelot Carolus Smith of the police has quite a lot to solve in Norman Berrow's The Three Tiers of Fantasy (1947).

Last time, I wrote about Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan. I got that book together with The Three Tiers of Fantasy. I read The Footprints of Satan first, because the cover was more attractive in design, but I now discover that The Three Tiers of Fantasy was not only written earlier, it is in fact the first book in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series, about the fairly open-minded police inspector who has to deal with a lot of strange going-ons in the otherwise 'normal' town of Winchingham.

Perhaps I should have left more time between reading the two books, because reading them one after another makes it too obvious what Berrow's strengths and weaknesses are. The Three Tiers of Fantasy shares its pros and cons with The Footprints of Satan, which is a bit disappointing. Once again, the book's strength lies in its atmosphere: the build-up to each of the disappearance acts is great and unique enough, and as we go from the disappearance of a man, to a disappearance of a room to the disappearance of a whole street, there's definitely build-up over the course of the whole book too. Berrow loves to play with suggestions of the supernatural, and each of the three 'tiers' feature some background story that ties it with the unscientific. The feeling of repetition is also strengthened by the character of Melrose, who has the same function as Ms. Pendlebury in The Footprints of Satan: 'an expert in psychic and other supernatural phenomena' who 'helps' the investigation with err... insightful opinions.

But once again, the puzzle plot is very simple. Berrow has a great knack for building up the suspense and the mystery, but when it comes to actually taking away the illusion and having to explain them himself, he shows not as much imagination as with the build-up. Each of the three mysteries is basically solved by the most obvious solution anyone would think of. These are very safe solutions: they are the solutions most people would think of because they are the most practical, the most feasible. It's the reason why I have trouble writing about the solutions of this novel. They work, okay, but I can't help but shrug at them. The gap between how much imagination Berrow shows when he writes the set-up, to how much he shows during the solution is rather significant, and it makes his books feel a bit more disappointing than they should. For they are decent mystery novels. Only the good parts are skewed towards the build-up.

That said, I once again have to stress that Berrow's stories are very plotted very well. The Three Tiers of Fantasy has more than enough hints for any reader to solve the mysteries and in terms of fair play, I'd say that few even try to play the game as fair as Berrow. In that respect, I really love reading his stories, as between the lines you can feel how he wants the reader to solve the problem and give them a good feeling, like a teacher teaching a child to solve a problem. Yet, it never feels belittling or anything like that. It's simpy the wish of a writer who wants to see a reader solving the mystery he created, rather than just baffling the reader. The only 'problem' is that Berrows solutions in the end are too simple, and thus offer not nearly as as much satisfaction as you'd be led to believe from the build-ups. I think that even a bit more complexity to the puzzle plots would have given me much more satisfaction, especially if you consider how well the rest of the stories are plotted.

This review of The Three Tiers of Fantasy is basically the same as my review of The Footprints of Satan, but I guess it couldn't be helped, because those books do share the same good, as well as the same bad points. It wouldn't be right, nor fair, to say that you can enjoy Berrow's books if you don't expect too much from them, but they do have some problems. Still, I did enjoy The Three Tiers of Fantasy in general and I might read some more Berrow later.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Walking Into The Sunset


"You can think whatever you want. If you believe you can convince your readers, write it down in one of your novels. Even if the police or courts won't accept it, it might work as fiction."
"A Study in Vermillion"

Lately, it seems I've only been writing reviews once a month. Though I usually write 3, 4 reviews in one or two days then, so I average out on one review a week (which is the schedule I want to keep on this blog). It's really been a while ago since I wrote my last review, though it shouldn't really be noticable for the readers.

Oh, and the disclosure message: I translated Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle.

Criminologist and university teacher Himura is often asked to help with police investigations, but it's rare for him to be asked for help by one of his own students, especially as his professional assistance to the police is a secret. Akemi has developed a strange phobia for the color of deep, intense orange (vermillion), which means she can even pass out by looking at the setting sun. The origin of this phobia comes from her association of the color with several family tragedies in the past. She hopes Himura can solve a murder that happened in her own personal circle three years ago, to which Himura agrees. And it appears there's something going on, because Himura has only started when one very early morning, he and his friend Alice (a mystery writer) are asked to go to a certain apartment room in a flat (known as the "Ghost Flat") near Alice's home. There they find the dead body of Akemi's uncle, and clues indicate that this new murder might be related to the murder Himura was asked to investigate. The investigation quickly shows that one person is suspicious. No, it even seems like this person was the only one capable of committing the murder, thanks to the testimony of both Himura and Alice, but Himura thinks there might be more behind this in Arisugawa Alice's Shuiro no Kenkyuu ("A Study in Vermillion", 1997).

The drama Himura Hideo no Suiri was broadcast early this year, based on Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice series. From the first episode on, it was clear that the series would also include an adaptation of Shuiro no Kenkyuu, with early appearances of Himura's students, including Akemi, so I decided to quickly read the original book, before the drama adaptation would appear on TV. Note that this review is posted now, even though I read the book late January...

Whereas I think all of the books in Arisugawa Alice's Student Alice series are really complex, and also fun mystery novels, I have found the books in the Writer Alice series to be less consistent in quality. Shuiro no Kenkyuu is one of the books I personally didn't really like. The book is split in two parts: in the first part, Himura and Alice are investigating the murder on Akemi's uncle in the empty apartment room. Evidence and testimony point to one person at first sight, but after some good sleuthing by both Himura and the proper authorities, a sorta surprising reveal is made. I say sorta, because I actually already saw the same trick used one in Detective Conan already (though this book pre-dates that Conan story). It has ties with the impossible crime, but saying more might spoil what's going on. Then again, the trick itself isn't really surprising, considering the elements you're given and that's why I thought this part was very slow: this trick would've worked much better in short story form, rather than as part of a longer story, especially as its links to the second part are superficial at best.

In the second part, Himura and Alice finally get around to investigating the murder that happened three years ago (as asked by Akemi) and it's here where the story takes on a Five Little Pigs-approach, with Himura and Alice questioning the people who were involved with the incident in the past. I thought this second half was weak at best. Unlike Christie, who mostly focused on psychological evidence, Shuiro no Kenkyuu focuses on an interpretation of physical evidence to arrive at the solution. This is certainly not surprising as Arisugawa is obviously inspired by Ellery Queen who so often used physical evidence to point to the murderer. However, Shuiro no Kenkyuu's line of reasoning is fairly weak compared to the impressive feats Arisugawa has already shown in earlier books (for example, Kotou Puzzle). In the end, the book focuses much more on the motive of the murderer, which is nearly impossible to 'deduce' from the facts and goes deep into the human drama more often found in Higashino Keigo's work. Which can work, but not in this way, where it's not intertwined with the complete work. In Shuiro no Kenkyuu the human drama motive really appears out of nowhere.and it makes the whole narrative feel disjointed.

In my mind, I associate the Student Alice series with the closed circle trope, set in isolated locations like islands or little villages. As a counter, I associate the Writer Alice series with the city and indeed, a lot of the (short) stories are set in Osaka, Kyoto and other urban settings. But despite my 'gut feeling', Himura and Alice do actually appear often in isolated settings in the novels, like in 46 Banme no Misshitsu or Sweden Kan no Nazo. And I enjoy those stories actually a lot better than the novels in the series set in 'open' settings, like Dali no Mayu or Shuiro no Kenkyuu.

As the time I'm writing this, the TV drama Himura Hideo no Suiri still has some episodes to go before Shuiro no Kenkyuu, but I guess that the selection for the book is an understandable one. Human drama is obviously something they want in drama shows, as it attracts also viewers not especially into mystery fiction. Personally, I thought the book was just a mediocre entry in the series. Arisugawa has written much better mystery novels, also within the Writer Alice series, so I wouldn't recommend this as a must-read.

Original (Japanese) title(s): 有栖川有栖 『朱色の研究』

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

It Walks By Night

I hear your footsteps
What a spooky sound 
I hear the stairs creak 
I'm in trouble now
"Foot Steps" (Kitadai Momoko) 

To be honest, I loved the thumbnail of the cover of today's book a lot better than the illustration at full size. The composition of the cover is great, but the actual drawing is a bit rough. 

Having recently lost his wife, Gregory Cushing decides to visit his old uncle Jake in Steeple Thelming, who lives a simple life mostly consisting of his books, his faithful donkey Boomer and frequent (and somewhat excessive) visits to the local pub. One morning, after a snowfall, Greg and other locals discover a most curious set of footprints left in the snow: The prints of a bipedal being with hooves appear out of nowhere, goes up the gardens of several of the houses of the villagers, crosses fences and walls with ease, takes a walk on somebody's roof and ends at the foot of a dead tree. It is said that in a faraway past, a witch had been hanged from this very tree, but there's a very dead body hanging from the tree this time also. Who might have commited suicide, or have been hanged there by the mysterious walker. Imaginative minds quickly associate the seemingly supernatural being who made the hoof-marks with a certain ruler of Hell, and even Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith is not really sure what to think initially in Norman Berrow's The Footprints of Satan (1950).

Norman Berrow was born in the UK, but moved down under soon after his birth, where he eventually became a fairly prolific impossible crime author. This is the first time I read anything by him, but I have to admit: when I first heard he was from New Zealand, I was expecting a story set there, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that The Footprints of Satan was set in a quaint little English town. Ah well, at least the donkey Boomer is named after a boomerang (because he always finds his way back).

The Footprints of Satan is a novel in the Detective-Inspector Lancelot Carolus Smith series and at least preceded by The Bishop's Sword (as several references are made), but can be read perfectly standalone. On the whole, I think The Footprints of Satan is an okay story. Its biggest merit is definitely the atmophere: the way the story slowly builds to the appearance of the marks, the realization that these marks aren't natural and finally, the discovery of a dead body is great. The suggestion of the supernatural is done quite well here, with a fairly entertaining character who keeps ensuring everyone, including the police, the death was caused by the ghost of a witch, while she refers to fields like philosophy and history. On the downside, some might find the initial build-up a bit slow, because nobody dies until about a third in the book.

Though now I think about it, the characters in this novel were in general all quite funny. It's not slapstick comedy or really witty writing, but the banter between the characters is acutally quite amusing.

The puzzle of the mysterious prints is an alluring one that includes quite entertaining links with the devil, but if you look exclusively at the puzzle element, I think a lot of readers will realize it's also a very simple one. In fact, the very first idea I got in my head about the whole case, including the identity of the culprit, turned out to be correct. It's basically the first solution most people would come up with given this particular impossible crime situation and there is little to make it really unique. In that sense, I'd say that The Footprints of Satan was a bit disappointing as it took the easiest way out of the situation, though I have to say that the book is also very fairly clued (which also showed me I was on the right track as I was reading it) and there's definitely nothing unfair going here.

Disappearing footprints in the snow is of course one of the better known versions of the impossible crime in mystery fiction, so in a way, doing a story on the trope means you 'challenge' all those who have tried before you. Mystery fiction might not be academic research, but it'd be nice if in terms of puzzle plot, The Footprints of Satan had shown a bit more inspiration, because while it's a competently constructed puzzle (that is: a puzzle consisting of a problem, its solution, and clues leading up to the solution), it lacks a bit of punch. Of course, not all mystery stories need to feature shocking solutions. I've enjoyed many mystery stories that were very "nice" to the reader, where you could feel the writer was leading the reader in the correct way because they simply wanted someone to solve their story, but The Footprints of Satan is like a kid on school that does okay, but could've done much better, as the initial set-up is quite compelling.

I quite liked the map on the back of Ramble House's edition of the book by the way. Apparently, the map is not part of the original book, but an addition by Ramble House, but it's definitely appreciated. Less a fan of the missing page (two sides) in the middle of the book (a POD mistake, I guess).

To recap: The Footprints of Satan's puzzle plot is a bit on the easy side, but depending on how much you value that over atmosphere and characterization, I think that a lot of readers can enjoy this simple, but fairly amusing novel.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Famed Author To Live In Wrightsville

'Country looks good, by jake,' murmers Mr Queen enthusiastically. 'Green and yellow. Straw colors. And sky of blue, and clouds of white' -bluer blue and whiter wite than he recalled ever having seen before. City - country; and here they met, where Wrightsville station flings the twentieth century ito the astonished face of the land.
"Calamity Town"

I 'finished' reading the Ellery Queen series last year, but I have not reviewed all of the books on the blog (you can find the reviews either through the Ellery Queen tag, or in the library). Reviewing all the books here is certainly not a goal of mine, but I might reread some books and post a review on them once a while. Like today.

In order to get some peace and quiet, as well as inspiration to write a new book, Ellery Queen decides to move to Wrightsville: your typical New England town where everybody wishes you good morning by name, and life is simple. Using the brilliant fake name Ellery Smith, Ellery rents a furnished house from John and Hermione Wright, the oldest family of the town. He is the president of the Wrightsville National Bank, she is the top hen in Wrightsville society. Ellery is told that the house was originally intended as a wedding present for daughter Nora Wright and her husband-to-be Jim Haight. Jim however ran away from Nora and Wrightsville the day before their wedding, three years ago. After that incident, a potential buyer for the property had a heart attack right before the deal was sealed, so the house was given the name "Calamity House" by the people of Wrightsville, as it was reponsible for so many tragedies. Ellery becomes close to the Wrights, and especially Pat, Nora's younger sister, and gladly gives up his house when Jim sudenly returns to Nora, who quickly marry and move into their new home. However, Ellery and Pat discover that Jim might have deadly plans for his wife and despite precautions, Ellery can not prevent that a murder is commited under his watchful eye, even if the victim was an unexpected one. Can Ellery help his friends in Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942)?

Ah, Wrightsville, one of the most important places in Queen history. Wrightsville first appeared in Calamity Town, but Ellery Queen (both the character as well as the writers) grew fond of the simple town and would revisit the place several times in his career as writer and amateur detective in both novel and short story format. The place was also featured once in the TV series (The Adventure of the Chinese Dog). There are several reasons why Wrightsville would become so important, but one of them is definitely that Wrightsville, as a fictional town, simply works well as a setting. The opening chapter of Calamity Town paints a quaint little New England town that sounds nice to live in. The buildings described, the people and the relations portrayed: they all make up for a believable setting that. Calamity Town is often praised for its characterization, which is debatable I think, but one cannot deny that the town itself is done memorably. It kinda reminds of Dr. Sam Hawthorne's Northmont. And if you think about it, that's not strange. Queen novels have often featured memorable settings: the Roman theater, the French Department Store, the lone mansion in The Siamese Twin Mystery, the Spanish Cape. Sure, these might be smaller and slightly more specific locations, but setting has never been a problem in Queen's stories in my opinion and Wrightsville is a great example.

Wrightsville, as a whole character on its own, is also memorable because the way it changes over the course of the story. Whereas Ellery first comes to enjoy Wrightsville, he also starts to notice cracks in the perfect picture when the murder is committed and he sees how Wrightsville as a community basically starts to shun the Wright family, being the source of a scandal. Later stories also show darker sides of the model town, though I remember that being more like Cabot Cove (a setting for crimes to happen), than a portraying Wrightsville as a whole.

Calamity Town, together with Wrightsville, also stands symbol for a transition in Queen's style of plotting. The overly complex deductions and fantastic murder settings of his early novels (especially the "nationality" novels), were replaced with simpler plots with, well, more 'living characters' and less of random Suspect X, Y and Z. Like I mentioned, I don't think Calamity Town is especially impressive when it comes to characterization (save for Wrightsville itself), but in comparison to the earlier Queen novels, things certainly look a bit more human. The interaction with the town and its inhabitants also makes Ellery (the character) much more human and there is little of the pompous bibliophile from the earlier novels. By the way, the Dutch translation of the book features the title De Verliefde Detective ("The Detective In Love"), which also highlights a change in the character that started with The Four of Hearts.

But is the change a good thing? To be honest, I thought the mystery plot of Calamity Town was way too simple for an Ellery Queen novel. I want overly complex puzzle plots that focus on combining all kinds of hints and facts together to form a logical prison around the suspect when I read Ellery Queen. I don't want an Ellery Queen who literally takes months to solve the kind of murder he'd solve in minutes in earlier novels. I doubt seasoned readers of the genre will have any trouble figuring out who the murderer is in Calamity Town and even people without that much experience should figure out that a certain piece of misdirection really shouldn't be that misdirecting. It is a very minimalistic mystery plot and one that doesn't feel "Queen-like" per se. A novel like Ten Days' Wonder, also set in Wrightsville, for example, features a plot that one can distinctly recognize as Queen, but that is less so with Calamity Town. Because of that, I actually forgot most of this book. This is the second time I read the book, but I noticed I had forgotten most of it. The plot is just rather nondescript compared to other novels in the series.

For the Queen reader, there are some interesting points. On one hand, some familiar characters don't appear at all in this book, save for short references. With the move to Wrightsville, we also lose sight of Inspector Queen, who hadn't appeared in all of the previous books, but was certainly a character who appeared in most of the books. Also, it's pretty interesting to see Ellery so deeply involved with the stars of the drama so early on: in earlier novels, Ellery usually only arrived at the scene after the crime was commited, or very shortly before it.  Here, Ellery has been cultivating relations with everyone for a long while and thus has a personal connection to the whole ordeal. Very different from the 'detective coming from the outside' role Ellery used to have. On the other hand, the circumstances in which the murder is commited are very Queen-like: in a (relatively) open space with a lot of people around. It's been like that ever since The Roman Hat Mystery, but in Ellery Queen stories, the murders are often commited in fairly public places, or the corpses are discovered in such places. In that respect, Calamity Town does have a Queen-like feature, even if its scale is a lot more limited than in older books.

In general though, Calamity Town is very well-regarded as a detective novel, though as you can guess, I am not of the same opinion. H.R.F. Keatings for example had in his Crime and Mystery: the 100 Best Books for example, while the book also ranked in at 90 in the most recent edition of Japan's Tozai Mystery Best 100 for non-Japanese books. So obviously, your mileage may vary from mine on this book. There is a Japanese film based on this book, Haitatsu Sarenai Santsuu no Tegami ("The Three Undelivered Letters" 1979) by famous director Nomura Yoshitarou (Suna no Utsuwa, among others) which is supposedly quite good, though I haven't seen it yet. Considering that Nomura has done a ton of mystery films emphasizing human drama with a larger society backdrop (a lot of Matsumoto Seichou film adaptations for example), the choice for Calamity Town is an understandable one though.

Anyway, I don't think Calamity Town is the classic so many appear consider it to be, though I have to admit that the characterization of Wrightsville is done quite well in the book. The thing is: when I read Queen, I am not reading it for characterization or 'real' characters. That is an extra. I want complex puzzle plots that challenge me on an intellectual level. And in that respect, Calamity Town is not particularly rewarding,

Friday, September 2, 2016

Any Old Port In A Storm

グッと飲んでパッとやってtry try try
たまにゃはずして feel so good (feel so good)
万が一 金田一 迷宮入りする前に

Gulp down some drinks and go wild / try try try
You gotta let go sometimes / feel so good (feel so good)
Just in case Kindaichi can't solve the case
"That's Guts!" (Ulfuls)

Hey, Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files R") are released around the same day again! Though looking at the preview, it appears this was just luck, as the release dates will be off one month again the next time.

Last time I wrote a review of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, I said I wasn't sure whether I'd do a single review of volume 10, because usually stories in this series are longer than one volume. So I was quite surprised to find out that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 10 consisted mostly out of shorter stories featuring the young high school detective Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke. The volume starts with the final chapter of The Case Files of Sommelier Akechi Kengo, which started in the previous volume. Hajime and childhood friend Miyuki are hired as part timers for a private wine drinking party held at a fancy restaurant, because the usual staff all got sick. While Hajime is washing dishes in the back, waitress Miyuki is surprised by the arrival of Superintendent Akechi. The sommelier of the restaurant is also sick, so he asked his old friend Akechi to fill in his position at the party, because Akechi holds a Wine Expert license of the Japan Sommelier Association. The wines are part of a private collection, and the owner has invited business friends over. Near the end of the night however, one man dies because of a poisoned glass of wine. But how could he have been poisoned? Everyone drank from the same wine bottles, and it was Akechi himself who poured all the glasses.

This is the second time Superintendent Akechi's starred in his own story in the R series. It's a short one, but the story has an interesting theme once you realize that the writer of the manga, Amagi Seimaru, is also the writer of the manga Kami no Shizuku ("Drops of God"), a series about wine that actually influenced interest in wine and sales of wine in Japan. Amagi Seimaru is only one of the many, many pen names Kobayashi Shin (a former comic editor) uses by the way, and he writes Kami no Shizuku under the name Agi Tadashi.

The story makes good use of knowledge about wine, and while I usually dislike mystery stories that hinge on the use of trivia, the hinting is actually done well enough so people who don't know anything about wine can still solve it. It can even be a bit too obvious, because this story features the 'let's compare all the Xs and pick the odd one out', a device very often used in this series. Usually, it's just one element of the complete problem solving, but because this is a short story, it kinda stands out. Overall though, this is a decent story.

Sommelier Akechi Kengo's Case Book is followed by The Black Ghost Hotel Murder Case, which is not a very long story either. Hayami Reika, the popular idol, is shooting her new film The Black Ghost Hotel, and they need some part-timers, so she thought this was the perfect opportunity to get Hajime over to her place (little did she know that Miyuki was also reading Hajime's chat apps). Both Hajime and Miyuki gladly take the jobs and make their way to an old hotel in Hakone, where the film is being shot. The hotel is the perfect shooting location for the film, because it has its own rumors of a dark figure haunting the hallways. But by now, employers everywhere really should learn to not hire Hajime and Miyuki, because it always ends with murder. The first shoot, of a scene of the lead actress playing the piano, goes horribly wrong when there's a power failure, followed by a chandelier falling on top of the actress. And this wasn't the ghost's only victim...


Usually, a Kindaichi Shounen story is about twelve chapters long. This one was six chapters long. It felt as a very concentrated Kindachi Shounen story because of that, as it did have all the usual tropes you expect from the series. From a 'spooky backstory', to multiple murders which kinda seem impossible and red herrings. Though, to be perfectly honest, the ghost story about the dark figure haunting the hotel was absolutely useless. Gather all the panels in which the ghost is mentioned and you might have one whole page. Perhaps. It's basically not present. I did like the rest of the story though. The chandelier murder is pretty neat, though I do think it needed one extra hint to really make this a good story. I guessed what was going on, but to be really fair to the reader, the story really did need one extra hint to have all the necessary steps included within the story, especially as it's also related to the second murder (which was okay, but not particularly well-hinted at).

Hmmm, now I think about it, this volume did not have any real impossible crimes. The chandelier can be seen as one, but it is not presented as such, which is the same for the sommelier story. It's pretty rare for this series to not feature impossible crimes! 

The volume ends with the first chapters of a new story, but I did not read them, as I want to read the whole story in one go, when the next volume is released (assuming it ends in the coming volume).

Overall, Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 10 is a decent volume, but nothing particularly outstanding. I already mentioned in my previous review of the series, but despite having the same amount of pages, there happens a lot less in this series compared to Detective Conan, because of the way it's paneled. To be honest, this volume feels only like half a Detective Conan volume in terms of content, but it's amusing enough.

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10巻