Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Red Chipmunk Mystery

「渡月橋 ~君 思ふ~」(倉木麻衣) 

The Togetsukyou-Bridge is colored crimson
I wish for the day that we'll be led here
Sending my prayer along the stream of the river
"Togetsukyou ~Thinking About You~" (Kuraki Mai)

And as I had hinted at in the previous post: the final post this year is about Detective Conan. It's becoming a bit of a tradition now, a Conan review either at the end of the old year, or at the beginning of the new year, which is of course because's there's usually a new Conan release late December.

The 94th volume of Detective Conan, released in December 2017, starts with the final chapter of The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa, a story which started in the previous volume. Osaka-bred high school student detective Hattori is in Tokyo to compete in an inter-high school kendo competition, and he has decided he'll tell his not-quite-girlfriend Kazuha how he feels about her if he manages to win the gold. Hattori's chances are pretty good, despite some serious competition in the form of Onimaru and Okita, who both make a guest appearance from Aoyama's earlier fantasy action-comedy series Yaiba. Luck has it however that a murder is discovered in a faraway corner of the gymnasium grounds during the competition. The victim was one of the judges, which means that the person who was capable of slicing the victim's neck with one single clean cut must be an accomplished swordsman too. A blind witness however heard the murderer flee into the public toilet. The kendo gear the murderer wore is found, but the murder weapon is gone and inside the toilet the police find three persons, who of course all claim to know nothing about the murder. Can Hattori and Conan figure out where the murder weapon went, who the murderer is and get back in time for the kendo competition?

Like I mentioned in the review of the previous volume, The Two Swordsmen from Naniwa is basically a sequel to a story from volume 31, which was also about a murder during a kendo competition, a time limit for Hattori to work with and guest appearances of characters from Yaiba. Okita makes a more substantial appearance this time, as he invites himself to the murder investigation and is revealed to be a classmate of Oo'oka Momiji, the self-proclaimed fiancée of Hattori, who debuted a few volumes earlier and one of the main characters of the 2017 Conan film The Crimson Love Letter. I was really excited about this story when it started in the previous volume, but I have to admit that my final impression isn't as favorable. This is partly because it's been four months since I last read the first three chapters of this story: I had forgotten most of the details, and this volume starts right away with the final chapter. But there were some other points that bothered me: the idea of the disappearing murder weapon is fairly interesting, as it is a very original variation of an old trick that works perfectly in this setting, but it's not hidden very well, and there's no way the police wouldn't have figured that out on their own even through a routine examination (though one can say that Hattori's time limit can be an excuse). Another clue however depends on some knowledge of kendo wear, and it's a visual clue too, but I found it hard to make it out on paper even after being pointed to it, and again, it's something I wasn't aware of in the first place, so it doesn't really feel clever. In fact, most of the fun I had with this story was the character interaction: Okita plays a funny fool at the crime scene, while Hattori (and Ran) are trying to work as fast as they can so they can get back to the competition and win it.

In Ran's Travel Plans, Kogorou and Conan follow Ran into a restaurant after seeing her act all giddy, only to learn that she's meeting with Sonoko and Sera there to make plans for the upcoming school trip to Kyoto, and that she hopes Shinichi (Conan's real identity, before he was turned into a child) will participate with the school trip too, as Shinichi is still a student of Teitan High and it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the waiters in the restaurant however is murdered in the employee locker room during the lunch. The man, an ex-boyfriend of the manager of the restaurant, was a prolific foodie blogger, who had ruined the business of several restaurants with his harsh criticism, including those of the brother of the manager, who used to be the former chef cook of the restaurant (who had left to take over his father-in-law's restaurant) and that of the parents of a fellow waitress. The likely suspects were all in the restaurant during the murder for convenience's sake. What makes this case puzzling however is that the murderer appears to have tremendous strength, as they swung a heavy decorative standing vase filled with flowers and water like a baseball bat to the head of the victim and of course, none of the three suspects appears to have been able to accomplish that feat. At least, that's what the story wants to sell, but the murder method is hinted at too obviously, making it extremely easy to guess how it was done. The question of who relies on an extremely minor visual clue, that sorta makes sense because of a certain reason, but man, you need to look very, very carefully to pick up on it. Overall a very minor story that's mostly meant to be set-up for the school trip.

And that can be said of The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap too. Conan wants to participate with the school trip to Kyoto, so he begs Haibara for the experimental antidote to the drug that gave both him and Haibara the body of a child. Haibara refuses to give it to Conan however: the effect on Conan's body is becoming less with each use, and while at first the drug managed to remain effective for several days, the last few times the drug only lasted him a few hours, so she considers it far too dangerous to let him go on a school trip. Also: Haibara is an awful mood. She managed to buy the final phone strap with a cute figurine of the soccer player Higo at a match, and Higo even held it in his own hands, making the thing extra special for Haibara, but she lost it on the train back, when a sudden stop made everyone in the train bump into each other. Conan swears to find Haibara's phone strap, hoping to get on her good side so he can go to Kyoto too.

The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap is really light mystery story, which has Conan deduce the destination station of a father and his kid who they suspect picked Haibara's strap up by accident. What makes this story 'memorable' however is that we actually got a very deep look into how this story came to be in the first place. October 2017 saw the release of Gōshō Aoyama 30 Years Anniversary Book, which celebrated the long career of Aoyama Goushou. Besides illustrations, interviews and messages and art by fellow comic artists, you'll also find a segment that goes into detail into how Aoyama actually creates Conan. As he has to turn in a chapter each week, things are very hectic, with him only sleeping for three hours a day. About three days of the week are spent on storyboarding, five days a week are spent on drawing the actual chapter (yes, there's some overlap, hence the eight days). The mystery plot is usually decided upon within one single day, with the help of his editors. As most stories in Conan usually last for three chapters, that usually means they have a story meeting once every three weeks.

Gōshō Aoyama 30 Years Anniversary Book also contains a transcript of the meeting Aoyama had with his editors for The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap, giving us insight in how Aoyama creates the mystery plots for this series. The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap's meeting lasted for six hours (starting at midnight), and as it was already decided this would be like a prologue to the following story, most of the meeting was about deciding the mystery plot. The core tricks in Conan are apparently usually suggested by the editors: they bring all kinds of random ideas to Aoyama, who tries to incorporate them in his story. For example, one of the editors brought a fidget spinner (Aoyama had never heard of them), explained how they worked and gave some suggestions for how they could work in a mystery story. They also brought a novelty fake Coke bottle, with a secret compartment in the middle so you could hide something inside the cola, which obviously has potential in a mystery story (these ideas were not used in The Whereabouts of Haibara's Strap by the way, so no spoilers). Conan's editors will bring like four or five of these ideas they might use for a mystery story each meeting, and then Aoyama and the editors will have a long chat, in which they eventually decide on the main trick of a story and work out into a complete story, with setting, general story flow (accommodated for the planned number of chapters), and things like who'll appear. Once they're done (this meeting was over in the morning at 06:00), Aoyama starts working on the storyboards for that week's chapter.

Detective Conan 94 ends with the first four chapters of The Scarlet School Trip, with the opening chapter marking a milestone in Conan history, as it is chapter 1000! Conan was given the experimental antidote by Haibara under some conditions, so he manages to turn back to his former teenage self to go on the Teitan High school trip to beautiful Kyoto in the fall, mingling among old friends and of course, enjoying his time with Ran. Shinichi runs into the actress Kurachi Keiko at Kiyomizu-Dera, who's a friend of his mother Yukiko (a retired actress). Keiko want Shinichi to solve a code left by a friend who committed suicide at Kiyomizu-Dera. Her latest film is a remake of a film her friends made when they were students, and like her, all of them have become famous people in the industry as actors/directors/screenplay writers etc. Shinichi and Sera are interested as detectives, while Sonoko and Ran are simply interested in the film, so they take on the job, but it's only moments later when the screenplay writer is found murdered inside his hotel room, and bloody footsteps left on the ceiling suggest something pulled the man up to the ceiling, stabbed and dropped the victim on the floor, and then walked on the ceiling to the window to fly away. Or simply said, it's as if the Tengu from their film has come to life! More seemingly supernatural attacks and murders follow, but Shinichi is unable to focus completely on the case as he also has to make sure he doesn't turn back into Conan in front of the others.

The Scarlet School Trip is obviously a story Aoyama created for the special occassion, and it's absolutely packed. Conan/Shinichi having to manage his use of the antidote during the school trip, school comedy involving Shinichi and the rest of his class, the serial murders involving the Tengu, te code, and many, many guest appearances, from Hattori to Oo'oka Momiji and Okita (all three of appearing in The Two Swordsmen of Naniwa), as well as the first appearance in the manga of Inspector Ayanokouji (and his chipmunk pet), who was originally created for the 2003 theatrical feature Crossroad in the Ancient Capital and has become a recurring character in the Conan film series since. The Scarlet School Trip is so incredibly stuffed that I have to admit that the main mystery plot is a bit underwhelming: the murders themselves are rather straightforward at this point (with only the bloody footsteps left behind being weird) and the code is obviously one I'll never figure out on my own. I have to admit I had hoped for murders what would have made more an impression, but it's all drowned out by all the antics going on besides the murders, with all these characters appearing and interacting. I'll have to read the end of the story to see how this'll work out, but at the moment, The Scarlet School Trip is better enjoyed as fanservice, rather than a mystery story.

Detective Conan 94 shares its release date with the first volume of the Conan spin-off Meitantei Conan: Hannin no Hanzawa-san ("Detective Conan: The Culprit Hanzawa") by the way! Last year, I wrote an article about "The Dark Shadow", the figure you see committing the murders and other crimes in visual mystery media like anime and manga before the viewer is allowed to know the identity of the culprit. Like I mentioned in that article, the Dark Shadow had become a meme in Japanese mystery on its own, and now they're even the protagonist in their own spin-off! In Hannin no Hanzawa-san, we follow Hanzawa who has recently moved to crime capital Beika to murder a certain person, but that's easier said than done: while the crime rate in Beika is insane, the police always manages to capture every single murderer, sometimes with the help of even elementary school kids, so life's difficult for a potential murderer, especially if you have just moved to Beika. Finding a dirt cheap, good apartment for example is pretty easy in Beika, but only if you don't mind living in a room where somebody got killed, as it's neigh impossible to find accomodations in Beika where someone hasn't been murdered. And forget about getting your address changed on your driver's license at the police station: the police is far too busy solving murders!

Last week, I reviewed the Kindaichi Shounen spin-off Hannintachi no Jikenbo, which follows a similar premise (a gag comedy about the culprit), but they are actually quite different. Hannintachi no Jikenbo is a parody of existing Kindaichi Shounen stories, and as I mentioned in the review, it's absolutely funny if you know those stories, but otherwise you won't get any of the jokes. Hannin no Hanzawa-san on the other hand is much better accessible, as it's not a parody of a specific story, but a parody in general on the notion of ingenious murders happening in Conan every week, usually all within Beika. So I'd say that Hannin no Hanzawa-san can be recommended even if you're not that well-read in Conan, while you really need to know your Kindaichi Shounen to appreciate Hannintachi no Jikenbo.

Detective Conan 94 thus proved to be a somewhat disappointing volume: most of the stories were very light, as they were basically just there to pave the way for The Scarlet School Trip, but that story itself is at the moment not as impressive as a mystery story as you'd hope, even if it is a blast reading it as a character-centred comedy story. As a spin-off, Hannin no Hanzawa-san manages to hit the right notes, and while it's definitely not deep material, it's hilarious to see the world of Conan from the other side for a change. There's no planned date/period for the next volumes for both these series by the way: Aoyama has to take a rest from his busy schedule to recharge his battery while Hannin no Hanzawa-san is running on a somewhat irregular schedule. I assume however that Conan 95 at least will release in April 2018, together with the new theatrical feature Zero's Executioner.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第94巻
青山剛昌(原), かんばまゆこ 『名探偵コナン 犯人の犯沢さん』

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Turnabout Memories - Part 7

"I have to go over everything that's happened. I have to remember" 

Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

I'm wrapping up the year on the blog like I've been doing the last few years, with a short overview of the titles and articles published this year that stood out most in my mind (that I still remember). Because making lists is something everyone does at the end of the year. Of course, because of the way of how I try to spread out my reviews to approx. one a week (so I have a buffer in case things get busy), some of these books were read/seen closer to 18~20 months ago, rather than only a year... Anyway, the categories are basically made up as I go, so it's not really that serious. And that's it for this year. Or not. I might slip in a Detective Conan review in before the formal end of the year, but I might also push it back to 2018. Hope to see you next year too!

Best Cover Seen in 2017!
Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower")

In a time when everybody is just looking at little thumbnails of covers for e-books that readers don't look at anyway on their e-readers, the art of making good cover art might've become less important to some publishers, but there are luckily still publishers who go the extra mile to make good, sometimes absolutely gorgeous cover art for their books. The anthology 7-nin no Meitantei ("The Seven Great Detectives") featured funny silhouettes of the seven authors who contributed to the book, which gave it a unique feeling. Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") is another example of the great art the Urazome Tenma series has had ever since its initiation, making use of bold colors (especially yellow!). For some good-old retro cover art, seek no further than Shinsetsu Lupin tai Holmes ("The True Tale: Lupin VS Holmes") and while I hate clowns, even I have to admit Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") looks fantastic. But it was the first book I reviewed this year that one. Academy Award winner Miyazaki Hayao's cover for Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower") is absolutely stunning.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The Ginza Ghost

Okay, this was a no-brainer. In 2015, I got the chance to translate Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, published by Locked Room International. 2016 was followed by LRI's release of Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle. And 2017 too offered me the opportunity to translate a great Japanese mystery. Oosaka Keikichi's short story collection The Ginza Ghost features twelve great stories of mystery and imagination from before World War II, by an author who for a long time had been forgotten in Japan. Set in a quickly industrializing Japan that tries to combine the traditional with the modern, these twelve stories (most of them impossible crimes) serve as a showcase into a Japan long-gone, and as a window into the psyche of a gifted mystery author who really perished way too soon (my personal favorites are The Mourning Locomotive and The Hungry Letter-Box).

Most Surprising Form Of Mystery Fiction Experienced In 2017!

Early this year, I read/played the two Famicom Detective Club gamebooks by Ikeda Misa based on the Nintendo adventure videogames, and I enjoyed them a lot! It was the first time I played a mystery gamebook, though I have played many sound novel games, so I was quite interested to see how it'd work out with a real gamebook of paper. Both of them were good, and showed me all kinds of interesting ways to do mystery fiction in the form of the gamebook, but as the first one, Famicom Tantei Club - Kieta Koukeisha ("Famicom Detective Club - The Vanished Heir") was very difficult, with several instant death sequences or game overs if you got the wrong item and little leeway for mistakes, I'd say the second one, Famicom Tantei Club Part II - Ushiro ni Tatsu Shoujo ("Famicom Detective Club Part II: The Girl Standing In The Back") is the better one, as it's much more forgiving and fun to read/play. I hope I'll come across some more mystery gamebooks in the future.

Best Mystery Movie Or TV Series! Seen In 2017!
Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter

In my mind, I only had to two options to choose from. Kizoku Tantei was an excellent TV adaptation that went beyond the original work, and on the other hand, there was Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter which I really enjoyed from start to finish in all aspects. In the end, I went with the latter. I didn't see that many mystery films this year, and only two of them were released this year. I enjoyed Murder on the Orient Express more than I had expected, true, but Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter managed to impress by being a good mystery film, a good rom-com sports drama and overall a good Detective Conan film too. It brings a whole variety in entertainment, and all the elements are worked out quite well, making it easily one of the better Detective Conan films, but also a great experience regardless of whether you know Conan or not. Murder On The Orient Express (2017) had some light 'action' scenes added and shuffled with the sequence of events to make for a more easy watching experience, but comparing it with The Crimson Love-Letter is like day and sun, as the latter manages to be much more entertaining as a theatrical release.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2017!
Murder Mysteries Set In Fukuoka

I definitely don't write as many non-review pieces as I actually should, or even want, but for some reason I never get to them. When I do finally get to them, they're usually written on the spur of the moment. Like this article on the many moustaches Poirot has had in visual adaptatons (I am going to guess it's one of the more detailed pieces on the topic), which was obviously inspired by the 2017 film of Murder on the Orient Express. Or this article on in-depth story guidebooks/reference books on mystery fiction, which I wrote after reading the excellent 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016. The most serious piece this year was probably my article on the notion of false solutions, and the foil detective in mystery fiction, but still, the one I enjoyed most writing was the article on mystery fiction set in the city of Fukuoka. It had actually been on my mind for some years now, complete with map and all, but I just never got around to it. With most mystery fiction set in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, I thought it'd be interesting to look at a different setting for a change.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2017! But Probably Older!
Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2

I guess that in terms of mystery games, 2017 marked several long-awaited new installments of series I like. January brought New Danganronpa V3, which was overall an entertaining third installment in the hyperactive psychodelic pop mystery game. September also brought a new Tantei Jinguuji Saburou on the 3DS in the form of Ghost of the Dusk, which was a great return to form for the hardboiled detective series, even if it is admittedly a very limited form. Other mystery games I enjoyed were the novel game Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P and J.B. Harold: Manhattan Requiem, but the cake has to go to Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2. While it basically only works in conjunction with the first game and many of the mystery plots are rather obviously 'borrowed' from classic mystery fiction, the grand scale of the overall storyline, the inclusion of an original take on Sherlock Holmes and most importantly: sheer fun in gameplay as you solve the mysteries this sequel serves you, make this game my favorite mystery game played this year.

Some other non-mystery games I enjoyed a lot were The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (wouldn't you want to see a mystery game where you play the murderer using this physics and chemistry engine?!), Bye-Bye BoxBoy! (final installment in a charming puzzle game series), Splatoon 2 (I never play online multiplayer shooters. I ADORE THIS GAME) and the freeware adventure Majo no Ie ("The Witch's House").

Favorite Premise of 2017!
The Detective Rights Auction in Danganronpa Kirigiri 2

A new category for this year. I take the word premise broadly, so that could be "there was quadruple-layered locked room murder", but also "that book uses different fonts to differentiate between narratives" or "that mystery plot is set in a fantasy world, but with clear rules to magic". Other good examples of this category would be Awasaka Tsumao's 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards"), which had a novel-inside-a-novel that also served as hint,  Takemoto Kenji's Hako No Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box") that utilized two intertwined narratives that each accused the other of being fictional, and Madoy Van's Jikanryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout of the Time Traveller") which made brilliant use of the concept of time travel to make a fair-play mystery plot. The title story from te short story collection Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo ("The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery") was a great example of the seemingly small, yet puzzling mystery of why all the change at a local festival is given in 50 yen coins, rather than the usual 100 yen coins. I ended up going with Danganronpa Kirigiri 2 by Kitayama Takekuni however, because the idea of the Detective Rights Auction in this book does not only serve a goal as a Liar Game-esque game to drive the plot, it's also a crucial part of the locked room murders of this novel. The synergy going on in this story is absolutely crazy, and I was quite impressed when at the end, it's revealed how all the elements of this story were related to the core mystery plot

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List
- 11 Mai no Trump ("The Eleven Cards") (Awasaka Tsumao)
- Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower") (Edogawa Rampo)
- Suizokukan no Satsujin ("The Aquarium Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
- Danganronpa Kirigiri 2 (Kitayama Takekuni)
- Misshitsu Satsujin Game 2.0 ("Locked Room Murder Game 2.0") (Utano Shougo)
- Gyakuten Saiban - Gyakuten Kuukou ("Turnabout Trial -  Turnabout Airport") (Takase Mie)
- Dai Gyakuten Saiban 2 ~ Naruhodou Ryuunosuke no Kakugo ("The Grand Turnabout Trial 2 ~ The Resolve of Naruhodou Ryuunosuke") (Director: Takumi Shuu)
- Itsutsu no Tokei ("The Five Clocks") (Ayukawa Tetsuya)
- Hako No Naka no Shitsuraku ("Paradise Lost Inside A Box") (Takemoto Kenji)
- Jikanryokousha no Gyakuten ("Turnabout Of The Time Traveler") (Madoy Van)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Cat Who Could Read Backwards

「NORA」(Garnet Crow)

Without even saying farewell
I left this place today
I hope I can meet with a wonderful person once again
Whimsical and living freely, I'm a stray cat
"NORA" (Garnet Crow)

English-language mystery novels don't pass by here on this blog that often anyway, but I think that the Roger Scarlett re-issues have at least prevented an all-time low this year.... Phew.

Inspector Kane series (Roger Scarlett)
The Beacon Hill Murders (1930)
The Back Bay Murders (1930)
Cat's Paw (1931)
Murder Among The Angells (1932)
In The First Degree (1933)

When you're a millionaire, people tend to put up with whatever you do. History already proved that when the city of Boston decided that Martin Greenough's Gothic mansion, complete with tracts of lush lands with hills for some pleasant horse-riding, would remain, and that the planned major road would have to go around it.  So when Martin's siblings died, they naturally made their well-to-do brother the legal guardian of their children, and "Cousin Mart's" nephews and niece also learned to give in to his whims. While Mart was not particularly emotionally invested into them, he always shared enough of his fortune so they could go out in the world and enjoy themselves with whatever vice they had, but they also remained financially dependent on him as he strictly forbade them to make any money of their own, even well into their adulthood. This was of course not a problem as long as Cousin Mart would provide for them financially and they would inherit his fortune after his death, but the announcement on his birthday that Cousin Mart would finally marry his long-time companion Mrs. Warden certainly caused some panic, especially when he said he'd need to have a talk with his laywer the following day. And this time, Cousin Mart misread the situation horribly, as he's shot dead the same night, and it is up to Inspector Kane of the Boston Police Department to solve this family matter in Roger Scarlett's Cat's Paw (1931).

Cat's Paw is the third novel by Evelyn Page and Dorothy Blair, who wrote together under the name Roger Scarlett. All five of their novels are set in Boston, and feature Inspector Kane as the main protagonist, often assisted by narrator/laywer Underwood and Sergeant Moran. As you might remember, I have read the five books in a rather peculiar order: I first read the fourth novel, Murder Among the Angells, as it was easily available in Japanese some years ago. Then this year, I read the fifth novel, In The First Degree, then followed by the first and second novel (The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders). There's no distinct chronology in these books (or at least, nothing vital, besides a "hey, remember the time we solved that case?"), so it doesn't really matter in what order you read them, but my reading experience turned out to be more interesting than I had expected.

When I first read Murder Among the Angells, I was fascinated by the presence of the setting of the story, an oddly L-shaped mansion where the murders took place. The curious architecture and closed-off location with a Gothic atmosphere made not only an impression on me, but also several influential Japanese mystery authors like Edogawa Rampo and Yokomizo Seishi and through them, on a fair amount of Japanese detective authors after them (see for example Ayatsuji Yukito and his House series, which is obviously about murders that take place in houses with idiosyncrasies). The eeriness of the location was taken even further in In The First Degree, which featured a plot that admittedly relied less on the layout of the place, but more on the atmosphere, as it had a distinct, Gothic horror tone to it with suspicious inhabitants acting as suspiciously as possible. In my mind, this focus on location and the effect it had on its inhabitants had to be a focal point in Scarlett's writing.

So imagine my surprise when I read The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, in which the locations made less of an impression on me. Sure, they were still set in big houses set in Boston, but they were not as daunting. They were not closed-off, Gothic houses, and while the inhabitants had their characteristics, it wasn't as if you really felt something was brewing like in Murder Among the Angells or In The First Degree. The mystery plots in these first two novels were also very focused on the alibis of each of the characters and their movements in the buildings, which could make the novels feel a bit slow to read as you'd be stumbling about timestamps all the time. Anyway, the gap between these two novels, and the last two novels was quite large in my mind, so when I started with Cat's Paw, I expected, or at least I hoped it would prove to be the key to this change in tone across five novels.

And that it was. Mostly. I mentioned S.S. Van Dine and Philo Vance a lot when I reviewed The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders, and I'd say that Cat's Paw borrows a bit from Ellery Queen this time, most obviously in its structure: the novel is divided in four parts, The Question, The Evidence, The Case and The Solution, each focusing on a different part of the tale. This dividing of the chapters in distinct parts is something you often saw in early Queen novels, and you'd almost expect Scarlett to also play with the initials of the chapter names (I checked, there's nothing there sadly enough). The Question is a very short prologue, while the bulk of the book is made up by The Evidence and The Case. The Evidence shows us the couple of days leading up to Cousin Mart's murder, as his nephews (and if applicable, girlfriends/wives) arrive in his Boston home per Cousin Mart's wishes. The seeds for the murder are planted in this part, but it might also ask a lot from the reader: more than half of the novel is devoted to this build-up to the murder. You get a good sense of the tension building up in the house, and most of the red herrings and vital clues are set-up in this part, but I can't deny that it can be a bit tedious, as there's no formal detecting going on here yet, it's all mise-en-place (as Mart's not been killed yet). Most of the red herrings and clues do work because they are given the proper amount of time to develop though, so I would say the length was a deliberate design choice. It's also in this part where you can see how Scarlett's style shifted from the alibi/movement-focused story to a more atmospheric story with disfunctional families as seen in the latter two novels. The Greenoughs are all dependent on Cousin Mart's finances, but it's obvious none of them really want to be dependent on him all the time, and every one of them appears to have a reason for wanting Mart dead as they pretend to be nice inside his Gothic mansion. The step to Murder Among The Angells, where a family is ruled by a will of the former patriarch is not a large one.

Cat's Paw moves a lot faster once we get to The Case and The Solution. In The Case, Sergeant Moran conducts some preliminary investigation, while Inspector Kane takes over in The Solution, using the facts and discoveries made in the previous two parts... or does he? The solution proposed by Kane is in the same tradition as the previous two novels, with a focus on possible character movements during the proposed time of the murder (though less focus on the floorplans this time), but the solution also takes a bit more from Queen this time, especially in his focus on physical clues, but Scarlett does at least one thing differently from Queen (in his prime), and that is in the department of fair-play. That Kane gets a few good guesses based on instinct rather than real clues, okay, I can live with that because he actually finds clues to collaborate his suspicions and this is some time before the final conclusion, but the final piece of evidence turning out to be one that Kane that had not been mentioned once until he unveils it to Underwood and Moran, that's not playing fair. What's even more vexing it's actually part of a different clue that had been discussed earlier: Scarlett only chose not to mention that other characteristic at all until Kane did in the final pages, even though it was the decisive clue. The thing is, the mystery plot is actually quite good, with twist and turns and mostly adequate clewing, and with good use of red herrings that were set-up in The Evidence that still manage to help out the main mystery plot in a good way, so why slip up on something like an unfair, final clue?

Having read all five of the Scarlett novels now, I think the first one I read, Murder Among The Angells is still the most enjoyable one, with a more unique premise to set it apart. Both Cat's Paw and In The First Degree are good too, with Cat's Paw a more traditional mystery story and In The First Degree taking its cues from Gothic horror novels in terms of atmosphere. The first two novels, The Beacon Hill Murders and The Back Bay Murders aren't bad per se, but they resemble each other a lot, and in comparison with the later novels, not as entertaining a read.

But to conclude with Cat's Paw: Scarlett's third novel is one of potential, and of missed chances. It manages to break away from the first two novels which were too much alike, and it feels much more ambitious, with its formal division in four parts and a more intricate mystery plot, but it isn't completely fair to the reader either. Granted, by far most of the book can be solved perfectly by the reader based on the clues presented, and even making an educated guess as to the identity of the murderer is quite possible but obviously, holding out on the last clue will result in a weird aftertaste, especially considering the Scarlett novels have mostly been following the Van Dine/Queen school which focuses on fair play and physical clues.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Wild Run

『金田一少年の事件簿外伝 犯人たちの事件簿』

"I beg of you, stop talking about the flaws of my trick in front of everyone...!!"
"The Young Kindaichi Case Files Side Story: The Case Files of the Culprits"

Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") was a game-changer when it first started its serialization in 1992. The series about the adventures of Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, and his childhood friend/not-quite-girlfriend Miyuki, was the first major detective manga that actually offered a fair-play mystery for the readers to solve, making excellent use of the visual medium to offer clues and mysteries in ways regular books couldn't do. The manga series was a hit, paving the way for other mystery series like Detective Conan, and also spawned both live-action and animated TV, and theatrical adaptations as well as a plethora of other spin-off materials as videogames, audio dramas and more. The first season of the manga concluded in 2000, after which the creators worked on Tantei Gakuen Q. The second season started in 2004: an irregular series of one or two stories a year continued until 2011, after which it was followed by the 20th Anniversary limited series (2011-2013) and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R (2013-2017). It was announced in October 2017 however that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R would conclude its serialization this year, and that from January 2018 on, a new series will follow, which will feature an aged-up Hajime and Miyuki, aimed at an older audience.

And that means Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R 14 (2017) is the final volume of this series, which collects the remaining chapters of The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case (which started in the previous volume). Fumi is Hajime's younger cousin who as of late, has become a big fan of the Shinsengumi, an almost legendary police force from the late 19th century. She wants to participate in a children's cosplay event at a local Shinsengumi festival, so Hajime and Miyuki come along to babysit. Hajime could of course never have anticipated that Fumi would get kidnapped. The kidnapper, who calls themselves Okita Souji after the legendary swordfighter of the Shinsengumi, demands a hefty sum of money for the girl, to be delivered by a group of six persons present at the festival who happen to share names with members of the historical Shinsengumi. Hajime pleads with those persons to make the ransom money exchange to save Fumi, and the candidates eventually agree. The kidnapper has the six money-runners carry smartphones and identical bags (one of them with the ransom money), and the group is to start at a train station. Hajime and the police naturally try to follow the group, but by sending the six on and off the trains of Tokyo in various directions through orders by smartphone, the kidnapper manages to shake off the tails of the modern-day members of the Shinsengumi. Hajime deduces that one of the money-runners was in fact in cahoots with the kidnapper, but they are already murdered by the time the police find them. Can Hajime figure out where the kidnapper-murderer fled to and save Fumi?

Okay, even with a title like The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case, anyone could guess that Fumi wasn't the one going to be killed, especially not as this is the last story in the series....

Fans of the series will obviously quickly make the connection to The Hayami Reika Kidnapping Murder Case from the first season, which followed a similar story plot: the idol Reika (and personal friend of Hajime) was kidnapped, and Hajime had to follow all kinds of orders made by the kidnapper on his way to the ransom money drop-off point, and eventually a dead body appears.  In that sense, The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case feels a bit like a rehash to be honest, though it's actually also a good story to show how long this series has been running now, and how it always manages to remain relevant by incorporating the latest changes in society and technology in its mystery plots in meaningful manners. The one thing that stands out most: the use of smartphones! Back in 1997, the kidnapper ordered Hajime around with notes and by calls to public telephones, but now twenty years later, the money-runners who share names with members of the Shinsengumi are all controlled directly by chat apps on smartphones, allowing for on the moment changes in plans! The kidnapper for example notices Hajime as one of the tails, and sends a message to the smartphone of one of the money-runners, telling Hajime to back off. Later in the story, after the murder has been discovered, the police decide to check up on the alibis of all the surviving money-runners (as they lost track of them) with the help of the GPS in each of the smartphones. The use of these "new" technologies are of course a given for us, and you do seem them in modern CSI-esque crime series, but they are not used as often in classically-styled fair-play puzzle plot mysteries, so it's nice to see things like that used effectively in this story.

Like in 2011's The Game Mansion Murder Case, The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case manages to bring some extra excitement in comparison to the usual murder plot by featuring a story-in-progress (the build-up to the ransom money drop-off). This part is obviously also intricately connected to the murder case later, with most of the vital hints to be found here, so that's a great way to structure a story. The execution of the kidnapping, and murder plot is definitely not bad (in fact, I enjoyed it), but it might be a bit confusing for some readers. While the necessary knowledge to solve this mystery is presented in the story itself, it defnitely helps to have some rudimentary knowledge about trains and stations in Tokyo. The six people are all sent off to different stations on different lines, and if you don't know anything about the stations or lines in Tokyo, all you'll see will be a random station and train line names being dropped that convey absolutely nothing to you in terms of relative distance, direction etc. Tokyo's train lines are infamously complex, with several private and public companies running various lines there, and with some lines having their own stations, while at other places, the stations of the various lines are housed within (more-or-less) the same building/maze (more often, the stations have just... grown into each other). The story does make good use of actual architecture etc. of real-life places and works wonderfully as an example of a mystery story set in a true metropolitan setting, but a bit more effort into conveying the train lines and stations might've been better. Perhaps an animated adaptation, with cuts to characters moving on top of a route map, would portray this part of the story better.

Overall though, I enjoyed The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case as an adequate mystery story in a setting we don't see often in this series, and also making good use of technology we take for granted now, but still don't see often enough in fair-play mystery stories nowadays. One thing I want to remark though is that it's not really a series finale. It kinda feels like the series was suddenly canceled, as there's nothing particularly special or grand about this story, like the original finale to the first season was, or the finale to the 20th Anniversary series. It does what it has to do as a mystery story, but it's kinda weird to see this series end with this particular story.

The final volume of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R was released half November 2017, and shared its release date with the first volume to a new spin-off series. Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Gaiden - Hannintachi no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files Side Story: The Case Files of the Culprits") is a gag parody manga by Funatsu Shinpei that doesn't star the young detective, but the murderers from earlier stories! This manga revisits some of the earliest stories, like The Opera House Murders and The Seven School Mysteries Murder Case, but from the point of view of the murderers, and in a comedic tone. 'Cause when you think about it, some of these murderers had to do some ridiculous feats in order to commit their murders. Like one of the murderers remarks in the manga (which was actually tested in the Japanese variety program Suiyoubi no Downtown): they might as well have competed in SASUKE/Ninja Warrior, as the physical strength needed to pull off some of these murders can be quite impressive. Or how about having some meddling kid pointing out that one little mistake over and over again even though you yourself are actually quite aware that that wasn't among your best work and you're already quite ashamed of it?

I laughed a lot with Hannintachi no Jikenbo, but I really have to say this series is aimed an extremely specific audience, namely those who know their Kindaichi Shounen quite well. This series obviously spoils the identities of the murderers of each of the stories included (all from the first season), and the scenes parodied are also often quite specific. This manga very roughly tells the murders as they happened in the original series (with some of the panels being traced from the original comic), but it jumps from one scene to another, and little is explained. It assumes you know the story in question and that you kinda remember the iconic scenes and the rough order of the events: if you fit those conditions, you'll have a hilarious parody manga that uses the inverted form to show a whole different side to a story you thought you knew through and through. This first volume managed to reach quite an audience though: the first print was sold in two weeks, so a second run followed soon (I had to wait a few days for my order as the second run hadn't been printed yet).

The manga reminded me of the legendary Kindaichi Shounen videogame Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo - Hoshimitou - Kanashimi no Fukushuuki, where you play as the murderer trying to commit the perfect crime, with Hajime pouncing on you the moment you make one little mistake. Normally you would want to see Hajime win as the detective, but playing these mystery tales from the side of the murderer really changes the mood, and the moment you realize you left a vital clue at the crime scene and that Hajime will without a doubt prove your guilt is absolutely horrifying.

Anyway, long story short, I enjoyed both the final volume of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R, and the first volume of the new series Hannintachi no Jikenbo that actually goes all the way back to the first volumes of the series. The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case is definitely an entertaining mystery story, that sadly enough shouldn't have been used as a series finale however. And the new parody series is really only meant for a very specific audience, but if you fit in there, you should have a blast with it.

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14巻
 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(原)、金成陽三郎(原)、船津紳平(漫画) 『金田一少年の事件簿外伝 犯人たちの事件簿』第1巻

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Curtains for Three

「NORA」(Garnet Crow)

The sunset is glowing, and look, the rain is stopping
And the roads are getting filled with the smell of dinner
"Nora" (Garnet Crow)

And yes, I have to read at least one detective story set in Fukuoka every year...

After the disappearance of his father, who once had the best ramen noodle food cart in town, Yuge Takumi had to drop out of school, but with the help of his father's friends, he eventually managed to become a private detective in the city of Fukuoka. Between his investigations for laywers, protecting clients from stalkers and getting involved with gang wars in, Yuge spends his free time on his hobby: ramen noodles. He loves visiting his favorite places, but also discovering new restaurants and see how their versions of tonkotsu ramen noodles turn out. And occassionally, Yuge even works on recreating the ramen noodles his father used to make, as both he and the people of Fukuoka still long for a good bowl of Yugefuku ramen. Yuge's love for ramen also plays a big role in his cases though, as more often than not, it's ramen that gives him that little nudge in the mind that allows him to solve the case in Nishimura Ken's short story collection Kanshoku! ("Finished!", 2015).

Long ago, I discussed the first two volumes in Nishimura Ken's Hakata Detective Case Files series. It was the main setting that had me hooked right away: it was set in Fukuoka (and I love Fukuoka) and was about a detective who solved his cases through his knowledge of ramen noodles (and I love ramen). The execution was sadly enouh a bit uneven. I think it's clear from the blog that hardboiled detective fiction isn't my favorite subgenre and the short stories in this series often took that form, so I was quite aware that it might've been a bit unfair from the start, but what I really thought was disappointing was how the link between ramen noodles and the case often felt unnatural and forced. When it worked, the stories were really great: with anecdotes on ramen noodles (and the history of the dish) proven to have some significant parallels to the case at hand. But more often than not, the connections were vague, and incredibly contrived. But on the whole, the series wasn't that bad and as it was planned as a trilogy, I did plan to read all of them. I'll have to admit that I had kinda forgotten about the series though, so I hadn't even noticed that Kanshoku!, the final volume in the trilogy, had actually been released in 2015 already....

On the whole, Kanshoku! is not very different from the previous volumes, with Yuge working on a variety of cases that either have a direct link to ramen noodles, or ones that are solved through him noticing a parallel between his case, and some random bit of ramen trivia. The big difference however is that Kanshoku! is the final volume of the trilogy, so we finally learn why Yuge's father disappeared. The final story, Saigo no Kizuna ("The Last Link") is, for now, the end of the series, revealing the fate of Yuge's father, why he disappeared and how Yuge moves on from that. About half of the stories in this volume help build up to this finale. Of those, two of them can hardly be considered mystery stories though. Chichi to Ko ("Father and Child") in particular isn't about any mystery at all. Yakuza (gangs) in Japan have traditionally shown a desire to prove their legitimacy to the public, and its rivals, for example by helping out during natural disasters, as to prove their place in society. Their link with shrines and temples is part of this, and in the old times, yakuza and shrines and temples would work together on ennichi festival days. Yuge's surrogate father, who took him in after his father's disappearance, is a yakuza boss who's organizing such a shrine festival in downtown Fukuoka, but he fears a rival gang may want to ruin his 'party' to shame his face. While the topic itself is interesting, nothing of importance happens in this story at all, not even a mystery, as it's basically sowing seeds for the finale. Aji no Kioku ("Memory of A Taste") has Yuge and a reporter friend attempting to uncover a large corruption scandal involving a town renewal project and a yakuza gang, but the way the two manage to find evidence is just slightly better than simply stumbling upon a random heap of files on the street.

Shuumeisha ("Successor") is the opening story and one of the few stories really about ramen. The second-generation owner of Touryuu, a ramen restaurant near Kyushu University's Hakozaki Campus, was assaulted on the street, and both the victim and a witness say the assailant was the head chef of the Touryuu restaurant. After the demise of the first owner, his son-in-law took over, and he started to open new Touryuu restaurants across town. They become very popular among a younger public, but only because they serve a different kind of ramen noodles. The head chef of the original Touryuu restaurant on the other hand was still making the soup just like the first boss did, and refused to change along, leading to a cold war between the second owner and the head chef. The head chef denies the accusation of assault, and says he was on the way home at the time the attack took place, and Yuge is hired to prove his innocence. Takumi's also working on another case that happened on the same night, in the same area, as he needs to prove a husband had been assaulting his wife out on the street. It's revealed the two cases are linked through a ramen cart, but I find it disappointing this link was rather weak, and Yuge basically stumbled upon evidence of his case by pure coincidence. There's also a sort of code-cracking part to the story, but no way anyone is going to figure that one out in advance.

In Mawarimichi ("Detour"), Yuge is hired by the widow of a friend who had recently died in a car accident, being overrun near the station. Her husband had originally gone out for a business trip to Tokyo, but it was cancelled on his way to the airport, so he had parted with a collegue there and was going home. The problem is that his whereabouts between him leaving his colleague, and him being getting overrun by the car are unknown, as it wouldn't had taken the husband almost six hours to make it from the airport back to their home. Fearing his last day alive might've been spent cheating on her, the widow wants Yuge to find out what he did that day. The story could've been much better with the hinting. The definitive clue isn't even described to the reader until Yuge reveals it to the widow, so the only way anyone could've solved that was if they knew the station themselves where the clue was, and knew what stood at that particular spot that told Yuge everything. There's some subtle hinting going to support Yuge's theory, that I admit, but it's a bit drowned away by all the time schedules of the various transportation lines that are quoted all the time.

Chuukeiten ("Relay Point") is a short mystery story, where Yuge needs to figure out how a small group of gangster known to be involved with an illegal weapons deal managed to get rid of the weapons in their car, even though they had been tailed from the start until the time the police stopped them. The solution is rather simple, but for once, the link between this tale, and the random ramen anecdote actually works. The connection in Tabi wa Michizure ("Good Company On The Road Is The Shortest Cut") on the other hand is pretty weak, but it's still an entertaing story. Yuge's travelling with his girlfriend and two other acquaintances by train. Among their fellow passengers, Yuge spot two people whom he suspects are money runners involved with a recent corruption scandal, as well as two undercover cops tailing them. The way Yuge deduces how the money runners are going to shake their shadows is pretty interesting, and the ending is actually surprising. There's a subplot going on, where Yuge needs to sort out a fight between the daughter of an old friend, and her fiancé, as they are having a huge row about something. The explanation to that is absolutely brilliant, and really fits well with the ramen theme. The one problem is that the average reader will probably have problems figuring it out themselves, as it requires somewhat specific knowledge. It's a topic I myself am really interested in, so I didn't felt really 'cheated', but a bit more hinting would've made this a classic tale in a very specific subgenre!

Tousaku ("Inversion") is a borderline impossible crime story. In the past, Yuge managed to help a client out who was being stalked by a man who dated her once. While the stalker was caught, his client decided to move anyway, but one day, Yuge just happened to spot the stalker again near his client's new home. The local police, who were aware of the stalker's history, had already been contacted by Yuge's client, as she found hand-posted threatening letters in her mailbox. A camera is installed over the client's mailbox, in the hopes of obtaining new evidence to put the stalker behind bars, but for some reason new letters keep getting posted, even though the stalker is not seen on the footage. So how did he manage to post them? I said it's a borderline impossible story, as it really isn't, and I think the solution is pretty easy to guess once the rather lenthy set-up is out of the way, but I quite liked this story, especially as the jump from the random ramen anecdote to the truth of the case didn't feel as forced as in other stories.

For people interested in tonkotsu ramen though, there's once again a wealth of information to be found here. Nishimura is obviously very knowledgeable about the matter (ramen is serious business), and you'll learn a lot about the history of tonkotsu ramen, not only as a "dish" as well as an object of interest in cultural history. People interested in food history, food culture, early twentieth century history and antropology will be pleasantly surprised. Many of the restaurants mentioned in Kanshoku! are real by the way, so you can visit them yourself.

But on the whole Kanshoku! is not very much different from the other two volumes in the series. Yes, it brings closure to the series, but like always, the link between the case and ramen isn't always clear-cut, and therefore not convincing. When it works, it feels very satisfying, seeing this effect of how a random bit of info on ramen (history) ties to a seemingly unconnected case. But most of the time, the link feels forced. Mirroring can be a very effective device for mysery tales, to serve as a clue to solving the case, as seen in Father Brown or the A Aiichirou stories, but Nishimura wasn't able to get to that quality over the course of the three volumes in the Hakata Detective Case Files series. My thoughts on this series have thus not been changed: worth taking a look at if you're interested in Fukuoka and/or ramen noodles, but otherwise it's not a very consistent mystery series.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村健 『完食!』: 「襲名者」 / 「回り道」 / 「父と子」 / 「中継点」 / 「味の記憶」 / 「旅は道連れ」 / 「倒錯」 / 「最後の絆」

Monday, December 11, 2017

Étude in Black

"Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood."
"A Study in Scarlet"

As individual chapters for many manga series are published in pretty hectic schedules, most professional manga artists (who can afford it) have assistants for specialized jobs, like cleaning pages, inking, lettering or for example drawing backgrounds, trees or fabrics. The job of assistant is also often a first step into becoming a professional themselves. Oda, creator of the hit series One Piece for example, is known to have been an assistant to Rurouni Kenshin's Watsuki for example. I knew that Aoyama Goushou, creator of Detective Conan, had a team of assistants too of course, but even so, the stories told in the recently released Gōshō Aoyama 30 Years Anniversary Book were quite a surprise. I for example had never known that his assistants have been there with Aoyama even from before Aoyama's debut, having been standing by his side since their college days, all the way up to this day. His assistants seem to be quite content as Aoyama's support.

Tani Yutaka is one of the better known assistants of Aoyama, as he's not solely working as support. Some might know his name from the Detective Conan Special spin-off series, with original Conan stories written and drawn by other people besides Aoyama. Tani was also the author of the first two original Detective Conan paperback novels. The first novel, Meitantei Conan - Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu, was released in 2005, and as you might remember, I wasn't too big a fan of it. The third novel, Meitantei Conan: Enjinbara no Witch (2008), was much better, but was written by Taira Takahisa, who would also pen several of the novelizations of the Detective Conan live-action drama specials and episodes. There are at the moment no other original paperback novels of Detective Conan by the way save the trio of Koushuu Maizoukin Densetsu, Ejinbara no Witch and the book of today's post: the rest are novelizations of the films, episodes from the manga or from the live-action series.

The second of the original novels was also written by Tani Yutaka, and is titled Meitantei Conan: Satsujin Symphony ("Detective Conan: Murder Symphony", 2006).  The Haido Theater of Arts has recently been completed, and as the New Teito Philharmonic Orchestra will be calling the theater its new home now, they will also be opening the theater with a performance of Symphony No. 9 by Mahler. The stars of the show are of course Yui, violinist of the orchestra and Asakaze Akira, conductor of the orchestra and Yui's fiancé. The Sleeping Detective Mouri Kogorou is also invited for the grand opening, with Ran and Conan coming along too. After the performance is over however, a dead body is discovered in the dressing room of Yui. The victim is a paparazzi journalist who had been hinting at some scandal behind the New Teito Philharmonic Orchestra for some while in his articles, so at least some of the people in the orchestra might have a motive for wanting to kill him, but the problem is that  none of the people on stage that night could've killed him, as the victim had only come to the theater after the performance had already started, so the whole audience can vouch for the alibis of all the performers. Conan however suspects some foul play is at hand here, as his main suspect is indeed someone who Conan himself saw on stage all night.

I had read this book a long time ago already and I was not really impressed by the book the first time, but given that I had only just started studying Japanese at the time, I thought that this second reading might change my thoughts about it. It's always possible that I misunderstood some of the finer details for example, so I figured it can never hurt to read the book again now I have more reading experience.

Sadly enough though, it seems my first impression was the correct one. While better than his first attempt, Tani's second original Conan is still rather unsatisfying, especially if you realize that the third novel (by Taira) is so much better. What Tani does do correct is emulating the structure of a classic Conan story. One can easily imagine this to be a three-part story in the original manga, with the first chapter setting things up and ending with Conan setting his eyes on his main suspect, the second chapter with Conan gathering information and the third explaining howdunit. In terms of scale and structure of the plot, Satsujin Symphony does everything what'd you expect from a Conan story.

So then we arrive at the mystery plot and it's... well, bad is probably going too far, but it's far too simple. It's too little to build a whole novel around. Granted, these original novel paperbacks are aimed at a younger public, so I can't be demanding Anthony Berkeley-esque shenanigans here, but even so, the alibi of Conan's main suspect basically hinges on one single fact, and it's right from the start obvious that that someone might've played a trick with that fact. A simple trick might work if it's expertly combined with other elements to come up with a product that is greater than the sum of its parts, but that is not the case with Satsujin Symphony. It's a simple, short story that hinges on a simple, short trick and it does not try to do anything more than that. I just mentioned that structure-wise, this story does resemble the original manga, but most three-part stories in the manga feature either a more intricately designed trick, or several simpler tricks strung into an series so it's not dependent on one single thing. That is not the case here. The clewing is okay-ish, but again, with an idea so simple, clewing is hardly necessary.

Interestingly enough though, this is one of the few Conan stories about an orchestra and/or classical music. One might be tempted to think of the theatrical feature Detective Conan: Full Score of Fear, but that was released in 2008, two years after this book. Even considering the fact that production of a Detective Conan movie usually starts nearly two years before the actual release, considering the time needed to write a novel, I think Tani was first. The orchestra theme is used fairly well though in this book, though it's a missed chance that Tani did so little with the "Curse of the ninth", as he barely mentions it, after which he moves on to other subjects. A bit more fleshing out would've done wonders for this book, as a fleshed-out background was one of the things that made Taira's Ejinbara no Witch stand out as a Conan original paperback.

It's such a shame these original Conan paperbacks are more often a miss than a hit, as the novel series for the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series were almost all fairly to quite good, to the extent that the're actually part of the story (events and characters from the novels have found their way into the manga series eventually). The difference is of course that those novels were also written by the writer of the manga series. The two Tani Conan novels however are obviously of lesser quality than the original manga, and as they are not part of the series, you can just ignore them, basically sealing their fate: they are basically only intended for the fans, and even then they're not really worth your time, while I'd say most of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo novels could be read perfectly as standalone mystery novels too.

So Meitantei Conan: Satsujin Symphony is one of those parts of the grand Detective Conan franchise that is unlikely to find its way outside Japan, unlike the theatrical films etc., but it's certainly not a big loss for overseas fans. Of the three original paperback stories, Taira's Ejinbara no Witch is without a doubt the best, so if you really want to read one of them, make sure it's that one.

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌(原)、谷豊(小説、絵)『名探偵コナン 殺人交響曲』

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Name of the Game

"I live in the games. I search through systems, peoples, and cities, for this place."

The last few years have seen an uprising on blogs on mystery fiction, and it has led to a small ecosphere, where people talk about their love for the genre over the internet. Often, the discussions will be about specific works or authors, but sometimes, you'll also see discussions on the best locked room murder trick, or how a murderer made a stupid mistake in an otherwise flawless plan, and at other times, these people will not only try to compete with a book author and the fictional detective in "a battle of the wits", but also with fellow people on the internet, with detective games or puzzles. But all of that is still peanuts compared to today's book.

Somewhere in a back alley of the internet, you'll find a small private video chat group populated by a colorful lot. "The Mad Header", "044APD", "aXe", "Zangya-kun" and "Professor Ban Douzen" are not ordinary people. That is not only because they use voice changers or wear funny masks like that of Darth Vader (The Mad Header) or Jason Voorhees (aXe). It's also not just because they love mystery fiction. This group is not ordinary, because they play a certain game. Once in a while, the group comes together to play a game of intellect: one member has to pose a locked room murder problem to the others, who will need to solve it using the available hints. But the catch is that the host of the problem must commit their locked room murder in real life. So the participants need to solve a real life locked murder, using the information gain from the news, as well as any additional information or hints provided by the host. Eternal glory awaits those who manage to solve a locked room murder, or who manages to mystify their fellow members. Utano Shougo's Misshitsu Satsujin Game 2.0 ("Locked Room Murder Game 2.0", 2009) details a new series of linked short stories about these ingenous, yet monstrous games of deduction.

I read the first Misshitsu Satsujin Game back in 2015 (the review wasn't posted until 2016 because of timey-wimey stuff) and it became one of my favorite reads of the year. It was not only highly entertaining as a short story collection focusing on locked room murders (some of them were really brilliant): the whole set-up of the tale, as well as the characters were memorable. The video web chat setting was not just a gimmick, but was used to its fullest, leading to surprising developments. One fine example was one member having an alibi for their locked murder, as they were busy video-chatting with the others during the murder in an earlier story! The characters, despite only interacting through webcams and hiding behind masks and avatars, were also incredibly lively, each with a distinct personality and way of talking, resulting in very entertaining chat sessions, making the whole book an absolute delight to read. So it was only a matter of time before I'd come back to the world of the Locked Room Murder Games.

For those who have read the first book and are wondering: at first the connection between that book and this one might seem a bit odd considering how that one ended, but a proper explanation is given over the course of the stories. The plot structure for most stories is fairly similiar: a host details the murder they committed, supplying some additional details about the victim and murder with pictures and videos they took of their deed, followed by several chat sessions where the participants propose solutions while bantering and bickering a lot. Occasionally, the chat sessions are interrupted by moments where we see the participants trying to gain more information in real life, for example by questioning the witnesses themselves or visiting the crime scenes in person. Each story is an entertaining read as all the participants keep throwing their thoughts at each other, constantly developing the plot further.

Q1: Tsugi Wa Dare Ga Koroshimasu Ka? ("Q1: Who Is Going To Kill Next?") starts with a surprising statement to the police by a young man who got arrested on suspicion of a series of murders. He only wrote down a series of numbers, mentioning only that this was all a game. "The Mad Header", "044APD", "aXe", "Zangya-kun" and "Professor Ban Douzen" quickly deduce that the man must also be playing some kind of internet murder game, just like themselves. The people in the other group are apparently murdering their victims in similar ways, making it appear like a serial murder. Working on the assumption that the series of numbers must have some meaning to the suspect's group, our group tries to figure out what that message is, and the details behind the other killing game. As an opener, it's a bit disappointing this story isn't a locked room mystery, but basically a code-cracking story. It's a pretty good one, granted, because as the stories develops, the other game is revealed to be quite shocking, and the way 'our' group deduces that truth is fairly solid. The story also functions as a fair introduction, as we see how the members of our group each gather information in their own way: some only look at the news, while others actually go to the crime scene themselves to gain an advantage over the others. So it's a good code-cracking story, but most people won't be reading this book for a code-cracking story....

Q2: Misshitsu Nado Nai ("Q2: No Locked Room At All") is a short intermezzo, as Professor Ban Douzen tries to lighten the mood with a short locked room puzzle (so this is not a murder they actually committed). The answer to their puzzle of how a murderer managed to attack a man living in  a house that had been closed off completely is utterly ridiculous, but oddly fair, due to the careful wording. It's obviously meant as a joke problem though. A variation on the same problem is offered with a more serious solution, which is better, but again, this is just light stuff compared to the actual murders they commit.

Q3: Kirisaki Jack Sanjuppun no Kodoku ("Q3: Jack the Ripper - Thirty Minutes of Solitude") is our first genuine locked room murder of the book, and it's a gem. A man was killed inside one of the buildings he owns. His daughter found him inside one of the office rooms, but at the time of the discovery, the only office door was blocked by something on the inside, so she had to push hard before she could open it. The objects blocking the door were her father's legs: his torso was lying in the middle of the room, his stomach cut open and all his organs had been pulled out. The legs had been put against the door after it had been shut and that door is the only exit out of the office. So how did Zangya-kun commit their gruesome murder and then managed to "lock" the door with the legs? The story has a nice pace, as the group banters on about the horrible murder case and Zangya-kun keeps on provocating the others for not being able to solve their murder. It's a very tricky locked room murder too, as it even features a trap. The story is also a good showcase of how a deduction should be based on clues: at one point Zangya-kun decides to reveal a clue on purpose to help the group out, and it's that one clue that changes all the deductions up to that point, changing the problem they had been playing with in something different. The way that one clue manages to turn everything upside down is absolutely brilliant, and results in an incredibly memorable locked room mystery. This story is titled after after a Shimada Souji novel by the way.

Q4: Soutou na Akuma ("Q4: An Unbelievable Devil") is an alibi deconstruction story, as the impossibility comes from the fact that the Mad Header couldn't have committed the murder they committed. The victim had been in Osaka on the night of her murder, and while her body was found buried somewhere thereabouts, her head was found inside the refrigerator of her own apartment back in Kanagawa Prefecture, near Tokyo. The problem however is that on the day of the murder, the Mad Header held several video chat sessions with his group, one of which together with the body even. These chat sessions however place him until a certain time in Tokyo, which means it would've been impossible for him to make it all the way to Osaka in time to do his video chat session with the victim's body. So how did he manage to make it in time to Osaka for the murder? The solution to the alibi is a bit simple, and not really impressive, but it's in fact no the main attraction of this story: once you realize how the alibi was created, a new riddle arises of how that situation could've been orchestrated in the first place, and that's when the story ventures into very surprising areas, making excellent use of its unique setting as a web-based story. I'd say this tale is more memorable because of the latter revelation (which is really surprising) than the (ostensibly) main puzzle, and one with a really nasty aftertaste (designed on purpose). The title is a play on Arisugawa Alice's Soutou no Akuma ("Double-Headed Devil")

Q5: Mittsu no Kannuki ("Q5: The Three Latches") is named after Carr's The Three Coffins, and features a special 'coffin' with three latches. aXe's victim was stuffed inside a transparant coffin, which had been locked from the inside by three latches, and the coffin itself stood a few meters away from a lonely automobile road. Snow had also fallen that night, but no footprints were found that led to or away from the coffin. The locked coffin and the untouched snow means a double impossible situation to solve for the chat group. The solution is a bit... dissappointing isn't the right word, but I'd say less impressive than the previous efforts? The other participants make the same complaint actually, but a transparent box dumped near a road isn't that memorable, and as early on aXe admits they themselves created the box, the reader will soon suspect there's something err... to suspect about the box. The way the impossible situation was created is in practical terms okay, but it misses... imagination, I guess.

Q6: Misshitsu yo , Saraba ("Q6: Farewell, My Locked Room") is the last full story in the volume, and is all about 044APD's daring locked room murder. The person 044APD announced they'd kill was indeed found murdered, but what baffles everyone is the fact the victim was found lying dead inside an apartment he had no connections to whatsoever. One of the inhabitants of the apartment was also murdered, but she and the victim had no ties at all. Furthermore, the apartment door and windows were naturally locked, and the only entrances leading inside the building are either the emergency exits (which can't be opened from outside), or the entrance which is being watched by a guard all day, with visitors being required to sign a register. So how did 044APD manage to get their victim inside a random apartment, in a secured building? This is by far the longest story, with 044APD holding several chat sessions as nobody manages to solve the conundrum. The solution is incredibly daring, with many steps required to accomplish the impossible. This is why we read mystery fiction! The sheer imagination and audacity needed to pull this murder off is what tickles our interests! And not only does it feature several ingenious red herrings (which also take on a completely different meaning when you know the truth) that manage to send the other participants in the wrong direction, it also makes good use of the internet chat group setting again to set off some other surprises on the way. This is really a good story that combines a great locked room mystery in a natural, but meaningful way with the overall plot, setting and the characters as established in the previous stories. Definitely this volume's MVP.

The book ends with the one-page long Q?: Soshite Tobira ga Hirakereta ("Q?: And Then The Door Was Opened"), but this is nothing more than a teaser for the third book in the series.

Like the first volume, Misshitsu Satsujin Game 2.0 proves to be a great locked room murder short story collection. The combination of a "modern" setting like a video chatroom (used to its fullest!), with a incredible cast of totally crazy people who commit murders for their own entertainment, and incredibly imaginative locked room murders means that this second volume is a gem too in the genre. There's so much goods going on here, from genuinely captivating conversations to surprising plot twists and usage of the web-setting, that I can only recommend Misshitsu Satsujin Game 2.0 wholeheartedly. The one minus point I could give it, is the fact that it resembles the first volume a lot, so it lacks the initial shock, but this is still a very good book.

Original Japanese title(s): 歌野昌午 『密室殺人ゲーム2.0』