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』

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