Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Like many people, I enjoy reading series. Most of the things I review here are part of a series, whether it's a novel series, or an ongoing manga series or videogames. Some are short, with for example just five to ten different installments, while others have been going for decades. One problem with longer series in general is of course that there's so much history. Take Detective Conan for example, which has been running for over two decades now. A lot of stuff has happened in the more than 90 volumes times 180 pages, and while I sometimes re-read stuff, you can't expect me to remember every little detail of each and every story.

And that's just talking about the general storyline. When we look specifically at the mystery plots, well, things get really hazy at times. Sure, the truly fantastic stories will stick around, but even then most readers will probably not remember all the characters that appeared in that one great story ten years ago, or how the murderer pulled off that brilliant locked room murder. You might remember the trick hinged on the presence of an open window in the room for example, or that the murderer used a string, but do you really remember all the details of the mystery plot and how the detective figured out who the murderer was? And that's me talking about the memorable stories: some minor stories I can hardly remember even after re-reading them.

Sometimes though, you have need to check on plot-related stuff. Someone blogging on mystery fiction for example might want to check what that one trick was in that story, or how a certain piece of misdirection was done, or the exact order of events up to the murder. With details like this, a quick read on a Wikipedia entry (if available) is often not enough, so then there's no other choice but to actually re-read the book or watch the film or whatever, and that's assuming you still have access to that particular work (you might've borrowed it from the library for example, or seen it once on TV).

Enter reference books and guides! Books on books (film/TV series/manga/etc) are not rare of course, and there are quite some works in the world of mystery fiction that are specifically about other works and series. Books on locked room murder mysteries are not particularly rare for example, and some even include short summaries about the situation and the tricks used. But even then, it's rather brief, and the focus lies on the "locked room", rather than the story in general. Strangely enough, there seem to be few guides and books on series that focus on the whole mystery mystery plot, as opposed to the more limited technical and more abstract parts (locked room, alibi trick, etc.). Is there for example a book on all the stories of Ellery Queen that give a brief overview of the plot, of the characters (character relation charts!), the mystery plot (how the murderer committed the crime), the clues and how Ellery uses them and things like that?

Case entry from Conan Drill

I have quite a few of these books for Japanese productions, actually. I mentioned how long Detective Conan was, but the publisher has also making some extra money by publishing story guidebooks once in a while, summarizing both storyline and character development plots, as well as mystery plots, detailing the murders in each story and what kind of tricks were utilized by the murderer.

The guidebook Conan Drill for example has a short summary for each story, but also a list of the most important characters. what the murder weapon was, what kind of trick was used by the murderer, what the decisive clues were. There are also extra notes to show how each story relates to the main storyline (if applicable). Heck, it even lists who the policeman in charge was! Conan Drill was a one-time guidebook and only contains summaries up to volume 40, but publisher Shogakukan has also been publishing the Detective Conan Super Digest Books for a while now, with each book summarizing ten volumes worth of content (Detective Conan 90+ SDB, summarizing the events up to volume 90 for example is scheduled for an April release). These reference books are fantastic for fans who need to check something quickly (Conan Drill in particular has some really obscure lists like one of the restaurants Mouri Kogorou visits throughout the series).

I have a similar book for Tantei Gakuen Q, summarizing the events in the manga and it's really handy if you only want to know how a certain trick was done or how the story tied in to the main storyline. I even have a handy guide for the TV drama TRICK: it was released in 2010 to coincide with the third film and TV special released back then, and it contains handy character relation charts, short pieces to highlight the key events of each story, the various (magic) tricks and illusions used by both the murderers and the protagonist and much more.

Timeline from 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016

The one I'm most impressed by with however is the recently released 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016, a rather hefty guidebook for the Gyakuten/Ace Attorney game series. The book not only has handy summaries and character relation charts for each and every case, it also lists every piece of evidence featured in a story, as well as other key events. But the big one is the case timeline: the events of each case have been plotted on their own seperate timeline, which shows exactly what all the important actors in a story did both before and after the crime. So you can check exactly on a timeline all the things the murderer did before and after the crime, and check where everybody else was at the same moment, but also when the protagonist found a certain clue and how they deduced who the murderer was. The amount of effort necessary to compile over forty different timelines (as there are over forty cases) must have been immense, but it is really appreciated.

I am not sure why these kind of reference books seem much popular with series originating from other media (like TV/games) compared to novel series. I'd love to have a Poirot guide with timelines for each story and character lists and stuff! Who wouldn't want a book on the Ellery Queen novels that feature a summary of Ellery's deductive chains and the evidence which form the foundation for that!? A book that details all the things the murderers do before Lieutenant Columbo arrives on the scene? Anyway, I want my guidebooks!


  1. There are reviews galore of Sherlock Holmes. One Of my favorites was In the Footsteps Of Sherlock Holmes by Michael Harrison, which reviews the geography of the Holmes stories.
    I can think of at least three books that review detective characters volume by volume, usually with the authors' biography as a framework:
    1. Norman Donaldson: In Search of Dr. Thorndyke for that character
    2. Francis M. Nevins: Royal Bloodline: Ellery Queen Author and Detective
    3. William S. Baring-Gould: Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: An excellent book on Wolfe for those who may like this character.
    I'm sure there are some more out there. A quick check of Amazon.com turns up something called The Lord Peter Wimsey Companion by Stephan P. Clarkes (no further data).

    1. I was aware of those kinds of literary biographies, but while not dismissing the admirable research behind those books, they are not at all what I look for. Books like those are more focused on extrapolating a "story" from the canon, to pose a comprehensive biography of the characters.

      What I'm more interested is in a more abstract break-down of each of the mystery plots, and how these stories are connected to each other (references, recurring characters, etc.). Reference books where I can open the Red-Headed League page to see where it took place, who the culprit was and how Holmes figured it out. A summary of Ellery's various deductions in The Greek Coffin Mystery, with cross-references to the physical clues he based them on and an explanation for why those clues exist in the first place. A Carr book that allows me to quickly look up which books feature what kind of impossible crime, the solution and how Merrivale or Fell figured it out.

      I absolutely love the case timelines for 15th Anniversary Gyakuten Saiban Series Encyclopedia 2001-2016 for example and I think they'd be perfect for a book on Columbo. Those break-downs per case for trick/clues/murderer/victim/policemen involved etc. in the Detective Conan books are also fantastic whenever you need to find something quickly. In fact, a lot of these books are fantastic reference materials for fanfic writers (and I know a lot of Japanese fans use these kind of books for that purpose), so I find it strange these kinds of reference books seem to be less available for Western fiction (especially of the novel kind).

  2. The books I referenced are not literary biographies, but rather reviews of the books as a survey of the corpus involving those detectives as a whole. I think what you are looking for is a sort of category index or an encyclopedia of the characters. The only character I have ever seen with such thorough indexing is Sherlock Holmes.

  3. The existence of these guides doesn't surprise me as I recently read an article concerning a survey where Conan was ranked #2 (behind One Piece) of manga readers drop due to length. As an American reader, it's the only manga I still regularly purchase/read. Even though we're thirty volumes behind Japan, the fact that I've been following the story for almost half my life brings a feeling of comfort and consistency for each new release.

    1. Oh, I saw that article too. Not very strange of course; suppose someone started reading Conan in 1994 at age 6, that'd mean they'd be 28 by now. Most people will not stick with a (running) series for so long, especially it's published at relatively speedy rate of one chapter a week/ a volume every three~four months (which sets it apart from for example most film/novel/TV series which are less regular). It's an enormous (emotional) investment, and interests change.

      The guides do help with getting new fans on board though. The twentieth Conan film, The Darkest Nightmare, was a huge hit, also attracting a lot of fans who had no interest in Conan previously or had lost it. I remember they released a special guidebook focusing on the focal characters Amuro/Akai detailing their background and all the stories they starred in (both anime and manga), giving the new fans an easy way in to the lore.

  4. hello,

    should I read Edogawa Ranpo's "the vampire" ?

    is it a good Akechi story ?

  5. do you know where i can find edogawa novels in japanese online ?

    i thought that since his works are in public domain if could be possible

    1. Aozora Bunko (the Japanese Project Gutenberg) is the place to be, but there's still a lot that hasn't been converted to the Aozora Bunko format yet.

  6. The John Dickson Carr Companion, maybe? The Amazon preview is worthless, but it might be what you're looking for. There's also the Masters of Detection series. The first revolves around Carr, the second has Queen, Van Dine, Lathen, Blake, and Dexter, but I think Queen has the most of it.

    ----The Dark One

    1. Oh, the Master of Detection series does look kinda interesting. Thanks!