Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Turnabout Memories - Part 8

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

Another Code R: Journey into Lost Memories

Like always, I am wrapping up this year with a short overview of the posts of 2018 that stood out most in my mind. At least, as far as I can still remember them. And yeah, because of the way I schedule my posts way ahead in time, that means some of these titles mentioned I already read in 2017, and that the reviews of some of the better reads I have read in 2018, won't be posted here until in 2019. Timey-wimey stuff. And as I don't really like to make lists, there's actually not that much thought going into this post, as I just make up categories as I go along and write down the titles that sorta stuck in my head. Unlike previous years, there's no new Detective Conan volume released at the end of the year, so this will really be the last of the year! That said, I already have my reviews for the coming months all lined up, so next week, same Bat-Day-of-the-week, same Bat-Channel, there'll be the usual review. Hope to see you too in the new year!



Most Impressive Cover! Seen in 2018!
Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter

Wasn't a big fan of Unno Juuza's Hae Otoko ("The Human Fly"), but man, that cover was awesome!  I also have a weakness for the cover of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") (there's something uncanny about the art) and I absolutely adore the vivid use of colors of the covers of Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder") and the two Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner") volumes I reviewed this year. But I think the cover of Detective Conan: The Crimson Love Letter, the novel version of the 2017 Detective Conan film based on Ookura's original version of the screenplay, stuck with me the most. What I like about this cover is that it's of course super adorable, but also because it features art that's not like the usual Detective Conan art. Everyone knows how Detective Conan looks like in terms of artstyle, so it's cool to see a completely different take on the characters, in a style you seldom see on covers of mystery novels anyway.

Best Project Outside The Blog!
The 8 Mansion Murders

Okay, like last year, it's not like there's much competition here, but I'm personally also quite pleased that I was able to translate Abiko's debut novel for Locked Room International. In 2015, I was able to work on Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders, followed in 2016 LRI's release of Arisugawa Alice's The Moai Island Puzzle. 2017 was a step back in time with Osaka's short story collection The Ginza Ghost, but 2018 was another example of early shin honkaku mystery. What I especially like about this novel that it's easily the funniest novel I've worked on until now, and it's also a work that is so clearly a work by Abiko: if you've read other works by him, you'll immediately recognize his style of comedy. Publishers Weekly not only deemed it "one of the funniest and cleverest novels of its type to hit the English-language market in years," but even elected it as one of the best mysteries released in 2018 in their Best Books 2018, which is of course something I hadn't expected at all.

Best Mystery Movie/TV series/other linear audiovisual media! Of 2018!
Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") (Detective Conan episodes 603-605)

Some heavy competition here.  I also saw some minor Agatha Christie adaptations which were not that special, but also an insanely fun adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, as Mitani Kouki's TV special Kuroido Goroshi ("The Murder of Kuroido") went far beyond my expectations as an adaptation of a notoriously difficult-to-adapt novel. The annual Detective Conan movie, Zero the Enforcer, is not really a contender as its rather light on the mystery element, but I have reviewed several episodes of the animated TV series written by screenplay writer/storyboarder/director Ochi Hirohito which were excellent. Both Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") and Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") were both absolutely stunning as locked room mysteries, with the former was better suited for the visual format, I think. In the end, I have to say the latter was the best however, as it made use of its longer runtime to present a larger story, that not only built on the themes explored in Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, but went even further.

Best Premise! Of 2018!
Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead")

With premise, I mean the basic setting/idea on which the whole plot is built. And I came across a few interesting concepts this year. I really liked Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll ("End Credits of Fools") for example, which came up with a good idea that allowed normal school students to work on a locked room murder (they had to come up with the solution for an unfinished mystery movie). Ashibe Taku's novel Double Mystery made brilliant use of the format of the novel, with a book that you could start reading at either end, and with a set of sealed pages in the middle. Chan Ho-Kei's The Borrowed (org. title: 13.67) was an interesting trip back in time, as you went back in time in Hong Kong's history with each following story, and the temporal changes were always clearly present in the story. But in the end, I have to go with Shijinsou no Satsujin, because it's a premise that is simple, but also so alluring and you immediately start wondering about all that could be possible the moment the idea is mentioned. Because who wouldn't like a fair play puzzle plot locked room mystery that is set during a zombie outbreak?

Best Non-Mystery! Of 2018!
Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi ("Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar")

Not a really fair one perhaps, as I only reviewed two non-primary sources on mystery this year. 21 Seiki Honkaku Mystery Eizou Taizen ("The Encyclopedia of 21st Century Honkaku Mystery Video") was an informative guide on (mostly) Japanese mystery productions for TV and film (both live-action and anmated). It was a comprehensive guide, but the quality of the seperate entries could differ widely. Fukui's Honkaku Mystery Manga Zemi however is the seminal work on the topic of mystery manga, offering a staggering overview of the many, many, many mystery manga that have been published since World War II in Japan, all placed within the proper historical and publication context. Anyone interested in mystery manga as a genre must read this.

Best Non-Review Post! Of 2018!
Glasses in mystery fiction

Did anyone notice I wrote a lot more editorials this year? Of course, usually I only write like one or two of them a year, so it's not that difficult to write a lot more than usual, but still... Most of them were about minor topics of course, like physical books versus e-books, or novels versus short stories (why am I only looking for confrontations?). I was also happy with the one about floorplans/diagrams, as usually I don't really have visual-oriented posts and I think the one about mystery-related merchandise was fairly unique too. But the one I actually thought about before writing, was the one about the various ways in which a pair of glasses can feature in a mystery story. Considering nobody commented on it, I assume it's also a very self-indulging topic, but still, as someone who loves his stories about physical clues, I really enjoyed looking at a specific item in mystery fiction that isn't even a murder weapon!

Best Plotted Mystery! in 2018!
Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless")

The buzzword on this blog this year was synergy. I first used the word consciously in my review for Mitsuda Shinzou's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") to describe the incredible feat Mitsuda had done in this novel: while every problem in the novel, from the mysterious decapitations to the impossible disappearance, could be related back to one single underlying theme that explained all, Mitsuda had not only created several diverse applications of that theme, he had also managed to make sure that each iteration and element in the book was there not just to make the story longer, but most importantly, they were there to help strengthen the other parts. Each element in the book had several reasons why it was included, and each of those reasons basically came down to making this a better mystery novel by strengthening all the other elements. Later in the year I also read Mitsuda's Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend"), which did a similar thing, and Ochi's screenplay for Detective Conan Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken ("The Case of the Séance's Double Locked Room") is also an excellent example of having various elements that aren't just there to have a longer story, but there to help strengthen and improve the overall mystery plot. In the end, I still think that the first novel that got me thinking about synergy in mystery fiction, is still the best example of how to really plot an interconnected mystery plot where you really can understand why each element is there and how it relates to the rest of the story.

Most Interesting Mystery Game Played In 2018! But Probably Older!
Detective Pikachu

Okay, to be honest, I didn't play that many outstanding mystery games this year. I played some minor releases, like Buddy Collection and Kiss of Murder, which were okay, but no more than that. Of the major releases, Tantei Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou - Prism of Eyes") was overall disappointing as 75% of that game was just a rerelease of older material with a new coat of paint, while the prequel spin-off Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz could've used a bit more of brushing up in regards of storytelling. WorldEnd Syndrome was an interesting, and amusing mystery game, but it wasn't the type of story that really had you as the player actively investigating a case yourself. I didn't review L.A. Noire on the blog, which I did play this year, and while it has some interesting segments and ideas as a mystery game, it's also fault-ridden as it doesn't really knows what it wants to be in terms of both story and game. Detective Pikachu however was so much fun. Yes, it's a fairly simple adventure game, but the way it utilizes Pokémon and their unique abilities to create new types of mystery problems was both original and inspired and I had a blast start to finish. The new live-action film based on Detective Pikachu however.... that's going into Uncanny Valley material.

To name a few other non-mystery games that were great this year: Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has to be named of course, and I also had fun with the miniature garden puzzler Captain Toad. I also enjoyed the sound novel Okuri'inu, which was created by the writer of one of the greatest horror novel games ever, Gakkou de Atta Kowai Hanashi. And Ryuu ga Gotoku Kenzan! was absolutely fun as a Yakuza game starring Musashi Miyamoto!

The Just-Ten-In-No-Particular-Order-No-Comments List 
- Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") (Imamura Masahiro)
- Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono ("Those Who Cast A Curse Like The Headless") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- 13-Ninme no Tanteishi ("The 13th Detective") (Yamaguchi Masaya)
- Meitantei Pikachu (Detective Pikachu)
- Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder") (Aosaki Yuugo)
- The Borrowed (org. title: 13.67) (Chan Ho-Kei)
- Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend") (Mitsuda Shinzou)
- Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura 3 - Routarou ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny - Mr. Wax") (Nemoto Shou)
- Youtou S79-Gou ("Phantom Thief S79") (Awasaka Tsumao)
- Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly") (Detective Conan episode 187)

Sunday, December 23, 2018

The Raven Chaser

「三郎、思考の樹を育てろ」
『ダイダロス:ジ・アウェイクニング・オブ・ゴールデンジャズ』 

"Saburou, nurture the Tree of Knowledge"
"Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz"

Last review of the year (not the last post)!

Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series 
1: The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case (1987) [Nintendo Famicom Disk System]
5: The Unfinished Reportage (1996) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
6: At the End of the Dream (1998) [Sony PlayStation / SEGA Saturn] 
7: Before the Light Fades (1999) [Sony PlaySation] 
8: Innocent Black (2002) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
9: Kind of Blue (2004) [Sony PlayStation 2]  
10: The White Phantom Girl (2005) [Nintendo GameBoy Advance] 
14: Ashes and Diamonds (2009) [Sony PlayStation Portable] 
15: The Red Butterfly (2010) [Nintendo DS] 
16: Rondo of Revenge (2012) [Nintendo 3DS]
17: Ghost of the Dusk (2017) [Nintendo 3DS]
18: Prism of Eyes (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

00: Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz (2018) [Nintendo Switch/Sony PlayStation 4]

Novels
The Ghost of Shinjuku (2006)
A Bright Future (2007)


It was only a full month after the death of Jinguuji Kyousuke that his grandson Saburou learned of the death of his beloved grandfather, and to his utter shock, he also found out Kyousuke had been murdered. Kyousuke had been considered the black sheep of the Jinguuji clan, head of the Jinguuji Konzern, as he had moved away from Japan to New York in his younger days to escape the power struggles within his family. In New York, Kyousuke had become a well-respected and much loved private detective. Saburou suspects his grandfather's murder may have to do with his job, so he decides to fly off to New York to find out why his grandfather was killed. In New York, he is reunited with old friends he met at summer camp when he was a kid, but also with new allies, like Kyousuke's assistant Dan and police detectives Joshua and Hal. As Saburou learns more about the life his grandfather had in New York, he also stumbles upon the last case his grandfather was working on, which may have led to his death. With the words "Daedalus" and "The Cursed Town" as his only clues, Saburou sets out to find the murderer of his grandfather in the 2018 Switch/PS4 videogame Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz.

The Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series (also known as the Jake Hunter series) is a long-running mystery adventure game series which started in 1987 with the Famicom Disk System videogame Shinjuku Chuuou Kouen Satsujin Jiken ("The Shinjuku Central Park Murder Case"). The series revolves around the titular Jinguuji Saburou, a private detective who operates from Shinjuku, Tokyo. With the support of his assistant Youko, Inspector Kumano of the Yodobashi Police Station and other friends, Jinguuji has managed to solve many, many cases over the course of thirty years of game history. The hardboiled crime stories often have a focus on human drama and lean towards the social school of mystery, but will also occasionally feature puzzle plot mysteries and other classic tropes, resulting in a very eclectic form that at least greatly entertains me. The most recent game in this series is Prism of Eyes, which I reviewed in August of this year.


But before the release of Prism of Eyes, it was already announced that we'd see another entry of this series soon, though in a completely different form. Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is the first prequel/spin-off game the series has seen in its more than thirty years old history, and is set about 10 years before the main series, portraying a younger Jinguuji Saburou as a student, long before he became the ever-smoking private detective we know of the other games. From earlier games, we knew he had taken after his grandfather and that like his grandfather, he had also lived in the United States and that during his time in New York, he had first met his future assistant Misono Youko as both got involved in a certain case (as mentioned in the PSX entry Yume no Owari ni), but we never got any details about this past. Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, which is written by the same scenario writer as of Yume no Owari ni, gives us the details of Saburou's time in New York.


Why Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is touted as a spin-off title rather than as the newest numbered entry in the main series, becomes obvious the moment you look at the game. It looks nothing at all like the previous games. Sure, the character designs are always different each game, and I really like the character designs this time. But gone are the old-fashioned commands like "Look" or "Talk" which you use to interact with static screens featuring static characters, as now each location is depicted as a 360 degrees panorama picture. It's pretty to nice to actually be able to move the camera now and look all around you. Instead of choosing the "Look" command, followed by "Telephone" like in all the previous games, you can now directly move the camera towards the telephone and select it to interact with it. Functionally, it works actually precisely the same as in the old games, but it certainly looks flashier. (If you're thinking of Sherlock because of the floating text: Sherlock takes a lot of cues from game grammar). I guess the idea is that these changes allow the player to really experience the world through Saburou's eyes, interacting directly with everything and everyone, rather than using commands. I love the use of the panorama view based on real photographs by the way, which reminds of the real photographs used as backgrounds in previous games like Yume no Owari ni and Tomoshibi ga Kienu Ma Ni.

Gameplay-wise though, Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz is almost the same as the other games, providing a fairly linear experience. It's a mystery game, but most of the time you'll not be able to do any thinking yourself, as much of the story is streamlined: you can only continue in the story if you go to the right location to talk with the right person/find the right piece of evidence, and only then can you continue to the next location, etc. It's a fairly stress-free experience, but there's not freedom here. This game also introduces a so-called "Stance" mechanic (where you can react to a person with different attitudes), but in reality it's nothing but a multiple choice system, as there's usually only one correct stance to pick, and the game will eventually always force you to pick the correct stance.


New in Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz are the end-of-chapter confrontations, where Jinguuji confronts a person of interest with his findings. These confrontations are fairly simple, as you're basically asked a few questions, which you answer to with the discoveries you already made over the course of the chapter (basically, it's just checking whether you paid attention). Though these are one of the few moments where you can get a game over screen (besides a few select other points in the games), which is fairly surprising, because I don't think the series has featured a game over screen since the very first game!

So despite all the flashier looks, Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz doesn't really differ from the other games mechanically, focusing much on telling a mystery story, rather than really challenging the player with game mechanics that allow them to think for themselves, but how does it fare as a mystery story? Well, I really want to like it more than I do. I quite like the new chapter structure, with Saburou solving a major incident at the end of each chapter (previous games were more like one long story), but these incidents are usually incredibly straightforward. When you find the proverbial bloody glove with the fingerprints of a suspect, you can be sure that the clue means the murderer was indeed the owner of those fingerprints, and that it's not some kind of red herring. These far-too-simple chapter cases seldom make feel like you've uncovered something big like in the previous games, which usually started with a small incident (a missing woman or something like that) which eventually are discovered to be part of a bigger case (often involving organized crime etc). Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz does become a story with scale eventually, but the smaller chapter cases are far too short and simple, with very few shocking surprises awaiting the player. What doesn't help is it often feels like there are holes in the storytelling and direction, as if scenes or lines had been cut. Sometimes things are mentioned as if we had heard about them before (which I'm sure we didn't or at least vaguely) and sometimes, the direction of scenes is just too vague, making it unclear what actually happened until they discuss it afterwards ("Oh, so thaaat's what happened). It's especially the moments where they treat a fact as commonly known, even though it's only been vaguely alluded too earlier, where Daedalus feels off. The overall story of Daedalus has some really good emotional moments, but also some choppy moments because of this uneven storytelling. It does become a bit silly at certain points regarding the backstory, but overall, I did enjoy the story. Warning though: Deadalus starts incredibly slow and the first chapter, set in the past when Saburou was at summer camp with his friends Abby, Leo and Ben, is arguably the worst one too, so you have to make your way through that until it becomes more interesting.


Though I have to mention this: the events of how Saburou and Youko first met in New York as depicted in Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, don't exactly match the story alluded to in Yume no Owari ni, even though they're written by the same writer! Which is more than a bit strange considering the concept of this very game was to give the details about the incident that brought them together! Also: Youko is depicted very differently from how we know her in the other games. She's almost... tsundere! Funny is how Saburou is still a minor in this game, so he doesn't smoke nor drink, which are like the two things he always does in the main series (heck, the main series has a dedicated "Smoke" command, which usually functions as a "Hint" command).

The subtitle The Awakening of Golden Jazz refers not only to the awakening of Saburou as a detective, but also to the fantastic jazzy soundtracks that are a staple of the series. To be honest, at the start of the game, I thought the music was okay, but not really fitting to the series, but as you progress in the story, the music also changes and by the time you get to the end, the music does really sound like something you'd expect from the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series, so the 'awakening' of jazz as you proceed in the game was a really nice touch! The music of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou is my default 'writing' background music by the way.

To be honest, at first I wasn't really looking forward to Daedalus: The Awakening of Golden Jazz, as the idea of a prequel game simply sounded rather uninspired to me. Having now played the game, I think my hesitations have shifted focus. Overall, I did have fun with this game, more than I had initially expected, and I am most definitely a fan of the graphical and music style they chose for this spin-off, but this game could also have been much more enjoyable if the storytelling had a brush-up, as many moments don't come across as intended because of clunky direction at times. I think the overall story works quite fine as a mystery story that doesn't quite feel like it would work in the main series, but perfectly as a spin-off prequel, but had the developers had more time to flesh out the seperate chapters too with more depth, I think this could've been a much, much better game.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ダイダロス:ジ・アウェイクニング・オブ・ゴールデンジャズ』

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Mystery at Lilac Inn

「Aの予感」
『名探偵コナン 14番目の標的』
 
"A sign of 'A'"
"Detective Conan: The Fourteenth Target"

Like the two Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de volumes and Kagi no Kakatta Heya last month, we have a novel today I had been postponing for several years now because I already knew the contents in some way.

The Villa Lilac was once the home of a wealthy merchant, but after his suicide, the house in the mountains of Chichibu fell in the hands of the Japan Art Academy, which offered the facility to its students. One day, the caretaker and his wife welcome a group of seven students who are to stay a few days in the Villa Lilac. The Japan Art Academy is the result of a recent fusion between a music academy and an art (as in paintings) academy, and the background difference between these schools is also reflected in members of the colorful group, who don't really all get along with each other. Part of that is because of professional rivalry, but human emotions also play a role: the first night Tachibana and Salome announce their engagement to the others, which shocks at least three people heavily. The change in atmosphere is clear, and small, but strange happening occur afterwards, like a raincoat being stolen and all the spades being taken from a deck of cards. The following day, a local charcoal burner is found dead near the villa, with the stolen raincoat. At first, the police thought it was murder, but the fact the Ace of Spades was found near the body raised some questions. But they could never have expected that more deaths would follow in the Villa Lilac, and besides every body a Spade is found, counting up as the number of murders increase in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Lila Sou Jiken ("The Villa Lilac Case", 1959).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was an influential post-war mystery writer and editor who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries. Lila Sou Jiken is one of his best known novels (Kuroi Trunk is probably the best known) and actually one I already sorta knew before I even read this book! For long, long ago, I read the short story Jubaku Saigen, which served as the prototype for Lila Sou Jiken. While a lot was changed, with complete sections omitted or changed (the setting for example was from Kumamoto to Chichibu) and the overall backstory quite different, one can still recognize the core plot of Jubaku Saigen in Lila Sou Jiken, although one of the more remarkable elements is missed, as Jubaku Saigen was also a crossover between Ayukawa's two best-known detectives Inspector Onitsura and the private detective Hoshikage Ryuuzou, while in Lila Sou Jiken, it's only Hoshikage who appears at the end of the novel to explain everything.

Given the premise, it shouldn't surprise the reader Lila Sou Jiken is breathing classic puzzle plot mystery from every single page. Seven students (and two caretakers) staying at a mountain villa who are killed one by one is as classic a set-up as you can get, and with a prop like the playing cards being placed beside every body, you know somethings fishy is going on. People who have read The Decagon House Murders will certainly notice the influence Lila Sou Jiken had on Ayatsuji, with the students gathering at a remote location, the cracks of the friendship between the students showing and even a scene where they play cards together. A lot of people die over the course of this story, which is even a bit unbelievable considering the fact that after the first couple of murders, the police is at the scene to keep an eye out on the situation, and even then people die, and even then the police doesn't allow the students to move to a safer place for the time being. Anyway, many murders happen, but interestingly enough, they all get killed in different manners, and that is also a driving mystery of the plot: why is the murderer being so varied?

As you read this novel though, you might notice that Ayukawa's writing is a bit... dry. One can feel that he was focusing everything on constructing a tightly plotted whodunnit, but the result is that a lot of the events feel rather abrupt and sudden, brought to the reader just as a matter of fact. Like I mentioned, you'd expect the students, and certainly the police to react a bit more, either emotionally or with action, to the fact a serial murder is in the house and committing murders while the police's there, but the narrative brings each subsequent murder just as 'oh yeah, that happened.' The novel's not short, and the string of events that happen, but don't really happen to the characters can feel rather long because of that. Usually, when a new murder or some new mystery occurs in a novel, you're given all kinds of new information to process, or new clues that either bring new light to prior events or manage to muddle things even more, but in Lila Sou Jiken, most of it feels like discrete events happening one after another, with each subsequent event not having much effect on previous events, so by the end of the novel, you might feel a bit tired. There's variation in the murder methods, but besides that, it's just reading on as you're given new murders every few pages.

So how does Lila Sou Jiken fare as a whodunnit? I'd say this is a well plotted and complex mystery, that does suffer a bit from the aforementioned lack of real effect and consequence shown to the reader. Looking solely at the core plot, one can see Ayukawa's skill: a lot of ideas and tricks are utilized for the murders, and all of them are used very competently. One particular, physical clue I liked especially, as it's so obvious in hindsight once you think about it as it's part of everybody's daily life. Other parts of the mystery are well-done, but a bit dependent on trivia: the clue that explains how a certain poisoning was done is really impossible to get unless you just happen to know one certain, obscure fact. There's another gimmick that Ayukawa often likes to use I think (I have certainly seen it in another of his short stories), that was handled pretty well, with multiple, diverse clues that help the reader deduce a certain fact in a fair way (one clue wouldn't be fair perhaps: multiple yes). But the plot does feel a bit sterile: each event is given little time to really settle, and with so many things going on, nothing really gets a chance to stand out. A lot of these ideas would've worked very good in short story whodunnits, but now they're thrown into one novel (even if connected in a believable way), weakening the impact of each seperate element. I think you have material here for three excellent short stories, but with this novel, you know that each part is pretty smart, and that they are still connected in a meaningful way, but you still wonder, perhaps the sum of everything isn't equal or more than the parts.

That is not to say that Lila Sou Jiken is a badly plotted mystery novel, as it really isn't. Most authors would kill to come up with something as tightly plotted as this. But having read my share of Ayukawa novels and short stories, I feel that this book wasn't as "novel-like" as his other novels. That said though, Lila Sou Jiken is an impressively structured whodunnit mystery that is as classic as you can get. Lila Sou Jiken isn't considered as one of Ayukawa's best known novels for nothing, and for those who really enjoy a traditional puzzler, this is a no-brainer.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『りら荘事件』

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Riverboat Ruse

「あま もし さいしょから やりなおす ことが できれば なんとか なるのに・・・」 
『ミシシッピー殺人事件』

"Oh dear! If only we could redo this all from the beginning..."
"Murder on the Mississippi"

In general, I take a positive approach when writing a review here. Even when I don't really like a book, I at least try to identify or guess what aspects do hold potential, or what elements might others even if the work didn't resonate with me personally. As I don't have any obligation to write something about anything I consume, I don't really see the point of me writing something down if I truly can't find something interesting to note about a work. Of course, some people might enjoy the act tearing a work apart (and they may be completely right too), but I myself don't really go out of the way trying to uncover bad mystery fiction.

That said, I really wanted to write about one piece of mystery fiction that is notoriously bad. When you consume a lot of mystery fiction, you usually have the masterpieces stand out in your memory, alongside the other works that might have made a lasting impression on you for some reason or another, but usually "bad" mystery fiction just becomes part of the pool of mediocrity, that sea in your memory where all the 'meh' books melt into one messy goo. It'd take a really bad work to stand out even among that dark mess. There are quite a few works where there's some kind of consesus that that agree that the work in question is an exceptionally good mystery novel. But what are the negative standouts in mystery fiction?

In Japan, there's a certain mystery title that is widely considered a total wreck and the source of much ridicule and jokes: the videogame Murder on the Mississippi: The Adventures of Sir Charles Foxworth. The game was originally released in 1986 by Activision and is available for various systems like the Commodore 64, Commodore 128 and the Apple II, but it's the exclusive Japanese version available on the Famicom (Nintendo Entertainment System) that is infamously bad, it's actually often also named as one of the worst, if not worst Famicom game. And there were quite a few Famicom games that weren't that good! Mississippi Satsujin Jiken, as Murder on the Mississippi is called in Japan, is set on the ship the Delta Princess, which is making its way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Aboard are also the famous detective Sir Charles and his assistant Watson (who is called Regis in the original English text). The two go out to meet the other people on the boat, but discover a dead body in one of the cabins, who is identified as Mr. Brown, who owns the boat. Sir Charles and Watson set out to find out who the murderer is.


At the heart of things, Murder on the Mississippi follows a familiar pattern, with a detective present on a boat where a murder occured. In theory, you'll be going around speaking with all the people on the boat, uncover hidden pasts and ties, find evidence and finally accuse the murderer. And to be honest, there are some interesting ideas in this game. Unlike games like the epoch-making Portopia Satsujin Jiken, you don't use preset menu commands like "Go" or "Investigate" to play the game, but you as the player control Sir Charles directly, like in a platforming game. It gives you a good sense of the Delta Princess, as you walk from room to room in search of evidence and questioning all the guests. The game also has an interesting mechanic where Watson can write down one (1) sentence per testimony made by a witness, which you can then present to the other witnesses (something you'd later also see in games like Danganronpa).


But the problem is, this game is really bad. I don't mean just that the graphics are bad (they're not, particularly), or that the characters are moving so slow, or even that the idea of Watson taking memos is hopelessly flawed as you only have one chance to write down the correct testimony even though you can not possibly know in advance what will be needed later and once you missed that window of opportunity, you're stuck until you reset the game and start all over again. No, what makes this a bad game, and a bad mystery story is that little of it makes sense. The most infamous part of this game is right as you walk inside the first room you see. For after just a few steps inside the (empty) room, Sir Charles will suddenly fall through a hole in the floor which wasn't there before, killing the player at once, leading to an instant game over. Watson notes it must be a trap and wishes he could re-do everything. The player obviously has to replay the game, but what makes this instant death trap absolutely nuts is that at this point the player hasn't even discovered the body yet. If you happen to walk into one of the two rooms with the invisible holes in the floor before you went to the room with the victim (which you are likely to do, one of the hole rooms is the room right next to yours!), you'll die before the case even started. I mean, why would the murderer even lay a trap door (which, practically speaking, can't even be done in a cabin room!) for Sir Charles when the body hasn't even been discovered and nobody's even aware of a murder!

Granted, the two rooms with the trap holes you can already enter before discovering the body are only present in the Japanese Famicom version (the original game is a bit nicer to the player), but there's another room where a knife comes flying straight at Sir Charles the moment he steps inside! Unless you know about the knife coming in advance and immediately move to avoid it, you are likely to get a knife right in your forehead. Again, this trap can be set off even before you ever find the body and learn a murder has happened on the boat (in fact, this makes Sir Charles the first victim...).

So if you somehow manage to avoid the death traps, select all the right testimonies needed to make all the suspects talk, find all the pieces of evidence even though one of them can not be seen and you just have to decide to examine a certain spot on the boat for no particular reason and you finally accuse the murderer and uncover how Brown was killed and why, the game also shows why it's not just a bad game, it's also a bad mystery story. Sure, the basic plot is already incredibly simple (if you know what you have to do, you can clear it within the hour), basically boiling down to finding a weapon and a document that proves motive, but even that bare-bones plot is riddled with plotholes. Confronted with Sir Charles' accusations, the murderer confesses they did it, but they say it was done in self-defense. The problem: this goes against all the things seen in the game seen so far. Why are there death traps laid out across the boat for Sir Charles if it was done in self-defense (and that's ignoring the fact the traps are active even before the player discovers a murder happened!). Why was the bullet hidden inside a desk, even though it had supposedly fallen through a hole!? Why had nobody heard the gunshot, unless it was timed exactly with the morning bird shooting of the other passenger? And what makes this the most ridiculous story is that eventually, every other passenger will immediately forgive the murderer and even offer to help hide the truth, as apparently everyone but Sir Charles and Watson basically hated the victim and they already knew enough about the murderer's past to want to protect them now they learned who's the murderer. It's almost like the game sets out to portray Sir Charles as the bad guy for uncovering the identity of the poor murderer!

As one of the earliest mystery adventure games on the home videogame console, Murder on the Mississippi has made a lasting impression on the generation that grew up with videogames, and not in a good manner. Of course, games like Portopia Renzoku Satsujin Jiken and the early Tantei Jinguuji Saburou games had their quirks too (the two Famicom Tantei Club games were extremely well done in comparison), but Murder on the Mississippi is both a bad game, in the sense that is not designed to give the player a good time, and it's a bad mystery story, as the events that unfold don't match up with what's said had happened, resulting a thin plot, that's still somehow filled with more holes than there are trap doors in the Delta Princess. And this is why Murder on the Mississippi is a mystery story that a lot of people know and why it's also widely considered a horrible one too.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ミシシッピー殺人事件』

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A Matter of Form

Be our guest
Put our service to the test
Tie your napkin 'round your neck, cherie
And we provide the rest
"Be Our Guest"

A few years back, I reviewed some novels written by Dutch writer/translator/radio script writer/actor Jan Apon. I had curiously enough first heard of this author through a Japanese source: the novel Een zekere Manuel (1935) had been mentioned in a 1958 essay on European mystery fiction in the for the mystery genre important literary magazine Houseki. Apon's books don't appear often in the used book market, so it isn't easy coming across them (heck, I had to read a German translation of Een zekere Manuel), which is why I don't get to review his books as often as I had hoped.

Anyway, today's another Jan Apon novel, De gast van kamer 13 ("The Guest in Room 13", 1938), and one starring his main detective Raoul Bertin no less! The narrator meets up in Paris with his old friend and consulting detective Raoul Bertin, who has just succesfully closed a case. The two travel to Nice for some leisure, and in Nice, the duo are entertained by Inspector Vitelli, an old collegue of Bertin when he was still with the Sûreté. During an excellent dinner, Vitelli tells his guests about a curious case he's working on. The Sestinatti is a hotel on the Quai with a good restaurant, and last Sunday, the guest residing in room 13 was found dead in his room. The merchant had apparently hanged himself by hanging a cord from a hook on the wall that was originally carrying a painting. A suicide letter was found that was determined to have been written by the man, so there don't seem to be any problems, yet Vitelli's gut feeling says something is wrong, as despite the letter, the man had no reason to suddenly take his life.  His instinct is proven correct when during the dinner, Vitelli is informed that another suicide has happened in room 13 of the Sestinatti, and once again, it appeared the victim, an English student who was travelling with his French girlfriend, hung himself despite having no reason to do so. Bertin decides to help his old friend out with the case of this murderous room.

I'm actually not sure how many books Apon wrote starring Bertin: the few sources I found on the internet are either wrong or contradictory to my own experiences (I have seen both Een zekere Manuel and Het gorilla-mysterie described as Bertin novels, which they most certainly aren't). So this might be the second novel starring the ex-police detective turned consulting detective, or perhaps even the third. It's surpisingly difficult to find information about these old Dutch mystery novels.

Anyway, De gast van kamer 13 certainly starts with an interesting premise: a room in a hotel where the guests keep on committing suicide. Or it is murder, in which case the question becomes why are the guests of room 13 killed one after another? In the first Bertin novel, Paniek op de Miss Brooklyn, there was clear suggestion of the supernatural, as that story revolved around a LP which had recorded a cursed incantation of the African M-bu-ti tribe. This time, Apon doesn't do much with what could be a great premise for a supernatural tone, as the many characters are looking at these deaths in very rational ways, weighing the evidence for and against suicide or murder carefully against each other and not really leaning towards the "it's a cursed room!" explanation.

This is noticable from the way Apon handled the deaths. Somewhat disappointing, we get situations that are just not locked room murders. For example the first death, of the merchant, occured while the door had been locked from the inside.... but the balcony door was open, meaning someone could've climbed to another balcony or to the roof. The second death (of which Vitelli is informed during dinner) too is a case of something that could've been dressed by the author as an impossible murder mystery, but wasn't. If anything, Apon remains pragmatic, though the questions that weigh on the detectives' minds still hold for us readers too: why are these events happening?

One vexing, and major point of Apon's writings have always been that while the core mystery plot is always entertaining, he for some reason always manages to conjure up new clues and evidence at the conclusion of which the reader had never ever heard of before. This is sadly enough also the case for De gast in kamer 13. While it is certainly fairly easy to guess who did it based on some of the hints, Bertin also refers to a whole heap of other clues that were certainly not ever mentioned before in the narrative. Some of the hints would've been very damning, basically spelling out the name of the culprit had they been mentioned, but other hints could've been incorporated quite nicely in the story in a natural way, showing them to the reader in a fair way, so I have no idea why Apon keeps on pulling out these clues out of nowhere at the end. It's pretty drastic too this time, as the whole motive for the curious deaths of room 13 can't be deduced beforehand based on actual clues, while Bertin apparently has a whole gigantic library full of evidence he collected here and there that he forgot to mention for half of the novel. A lot of the interim deductions are also based on information we don't get beforehand, but those I can forgive because they work to further the plot, but it's a whole different story when basically all vital clues are witheld from the reader.

The thing is: De gast van kamer 13 is pretty entertaining to read as a mystery novel. It's a real page turner, and the plot, while quite simple, manages to keep you entertained until the end. But for some reason Apon keeps on writing these otherwise fun mystery novels in a way that is not fair to the reader, as Bertin is basically always cheating, conjuring up a bloody knife with fingerprints and handwritten confessions by the murderer or other damning pieces of evidence out of nowhere, which he explains as having obtained between that one scene change. But it's also always so easy to see how this could've been rewritten in a true fair play whodunnit in a relatively simple manner, making the disappointment in an otherwise good novel the greater. In short: a fun novel, but with very obvious flaws.

Original Dutch title(s): Jan Apon "De gast in kamer 13"

Friday, December 7, 2018

A Case of Identity

「友達じゃない」
『ミス・シャーロック』

"She's not my friend."
"Miss Sherlock"

Huh, I've used the Sherlock Holmes tag at least once every year since I started this blog, even when I wasn't really writing about mystery fiction.

I think my own introduction to Sherlock Holmes was the series of Austrialian TV cartoons based on the novels (with Peter O'Toole as Holmes, though I watched them dubbed in Dutch), and while I don't consider myself a Holmesian by any means, Holmes has been a series close to me since. Holmes is in fact a being close to a lot of people in this world, as evidenced by the ridiculous amount of appearances he still makes nowadays in various manners. Be it in a confrontation with Dracula or Cthulhu, in the twenty-second century with a robot Watson, or reimagined in the form of a mouse or dog, creators always reach back to Holmes. I have to admit that I can be a bit of a cynic when it comes to "new" interpretations of Holmes, and I still can't see how a confrontation with Dracula could work out in a positive and entertaining manner but sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised. For example, I really didn't see the use of having a Sherlock Holmes series set in modern times, but I loved BBC's Sherlock right from the very first episode, and who could've guessed that a videogame where Sherlock Holmes is always making the wrong deductions would actually be an excellent and unique interpretation of the beloved character?

That said, the first time I heard of the 2018 drama series Miss Sherlock, my expectations were really not that high, as the premise of a Sherlock Holmes-inspired show with two female leads in modern day Tokyo wasn't particularly exciting. The gender swap was something I could shrug at, as I don't really care either way, but the concept of "modern day Tokyo" was enough to sound the alarms, because I had a feeling that this drama would not be inspired by Sherlock Holmes, but by Sherlock. It reminded me of the TV drama adaptation of Arisugawa Alice's Writer Alice/Himura Hideo series a few years back. It was an excellent mystery show on its own, but oh man, all the cues it took from Sherlock in terms of direction.... It's hard to not see Sherlock if the protagonist is dressed in a long coat while having semi-maniacal fits and words are projected on the screen.

And Miss Sherlock sadly enough turned out to be indeed a series that draws major inspiration from Sherlock. I mean, the coat and the projected words and stuff don't even seem that bad, but when you consider that even Miss Sherlock's theme music seems to be inspired by Sherlock's main theme, it's really hard watching this without being constantly reminded where most of the ideas came from.


But okay, if you can get past the extreme Sherlock-ness of Miss Sherlock, what do you get? Well, it's a reasonably entertaining Sherlock Holmes show. Miss Sherlock starts with the return of doctor Tachibana Wato (because: Wato-san) from Syria, where she worked as a volunteer surgeon (considering Japan has a Self-Defense Force, a logical change). She was wounded in an explosion in Syria, prompting her return to Japan. Upon arrival in Japan, she's welcomed at the airport by her old mentor and friend, but a mysterious internal explosion blows up the stomach of Wato's mentor, killing him on the spot. In the ensuing police investigation, Wato learns that Inspector Reimon has called in the consulting detective Sherlock, a rather rude and self-centered, but also brilliantly sharp woman (she took on the name "Sherlock" after a certain incident). More people are killed in the same way as Wato's mentor, but Sherlock manages to solve the case with the help of Wato, who has to move in with Sherlock as Wato's own accomodations had had a rather unfortunate mishap.

What follows is a show that is a decent and fairly amusing, but not remarkable interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Some episodes of Miss Sherlock are more heavily inspired by the original stories than others, while others feel more like they were inspired by Sherlock. There's an episode heavily based on The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire for example, but the extended twist at the end works  well enough as a way to really make it feel like a real story set in modern day Japan and a good example of a reasonably good adaptation of the original source story, followed by some original material of the production team. The episode based on The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor has a nice twist that actually feels Holmesian, though it seems rather silly to go through all that trouble for that goal. Another early story feels quite Holmesian with a seemingly meaningless act (a vandalized painting) at the start that builds up to a story of larger crime. The emphasis on the "modern" can be a bit much though, with deadly new viruses and poisons becoming the McGuffins of the episode a few times.


Eventually, the story will also build up to something larger as it approaches the grand finale. I think most people can guess that Sherlock will eventually face a "Big Bad" at the end of the series. Your mileage may vary here. I thought the concept behind the Big Bad was not only far too obvious, but also reminiscent of the lesser parts of Sherlock and I couldn't really take it serious. By the way, I have seen far too many Japanese productions with some link to Sherlock Holmes now with characters whose names are based on Moriarty....

As depictions of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, I think Miss Sherlock's Sherlock is more inspired by Sherlock's Sherlock than the source!Sherlock Holmes, but Wato works quite well in the context of the series. She's not an army surgeon like other depictions of Watson, but a private citizen, a doctor who suffers from PTSD after her experiences in Syria, and she works well as a humanizing factor, though admittedly, this also means she kinda ends up as the 'says or does something that helps Sherlock solve the case' character, with little else to contribute to the investigation.

Miss Sherlock is undeniably a Sherlock-inspired series, and that brings a certain burden. The series can be a bit uneven, and I think the first half, which is more firmly rooted in the source material, is more entertaining than the second. It works reasonably as a Sherlock Holmes-in-the-modern-day adaptation, and the gender/location changes too work well enough as something different once in a while. But while the series can be fun, Miss Sherlock has little truly original to offer, and most of the time, you'll have the feeling you have seen this already in one form or another. It's a decent series, but misses just that extra oomph.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ミス・シャーロック』

Thursday, December 6, 2018

The Perfect Plot

 形がないものならば
いつも感じていればいい
「今宵エデンの片隅で」(Garnet Crow)

If it has no form
You can always keep on feeling that emotion
"Tonight, in a corner of Eden" (Garnet Crow)

Speaking of mystery stories about comedians, that TV special a couple of years ago starring real-life Japanese comedians like Bakarhythm, Date from Sandwichman, Hakata Daikichi (who also voice-acted in Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer) and others playing themselves as suspects in the murder of Bananaman's Himura: that was a weird special.

The second volume of Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum") brings us two new adventures of the brilliant high school student Touma Sou and his classmate Kana in this continuation of the original Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series. As per custom, we have both a "conventional" murder story as well as a non-murder story in one volume, and this second volume starts with the non-violent one. In The Naked Emperor, Touma is asked by his classmate Yuubari to help her brother. Yuubari Yuuki was one half of the rising star comedy duo Order to Leave, but two years ago, his partner stopped to go work in a normal company. Since then, Yuuki's been trying his luck as a solo comedian, but his story is not that one of success, and he has sorta made up his mind to give up on his dream, but not without going out with a bang. The last few months, he has been writing his own one-act comedy play called The Naked Emperor, which is by far the best he's ever produced according to friends and his fellow young comedians. The rumors about his fantastic play however also reach the ears of the highly popular comedian Suzuka Santa and his ruthless manager Akashi, who want to get their hands on that play so Suzuka can star in it. One day, Suzuka visits the dressing room of the venue where Yuuki and several other comedy groups are performing. He first asks to if he could read the play, but when he offers to buy the play from Yuuki, his offer is refused. When Suzuka leaves the dressing room, Yuuki discovers his (handwritten) play is gone, and suspicion obviously falls on Suzuka, but there is one problem: Suzuka was completely naked when he entered the dressing room so how could he have smuggled the play outside without anyone noticing? Touma has not only have to solve the mystery of the missing script, but also find a way to help Yuuki succeed with his play.

The 'impossible' disappearance of the script is just the very beginning of the story, and quite simple to solve, but it certainly makes an impact, as the thief (Suzuka) was completely naked and empty-handed as he entered and left the dressing room. It doesn't take long for Touma to solve this disappearance (it's really simple), but Yuuki's problems aren't solved quite yet, as he's eventually hired by Suzuka as an employee to direct and rewrite the play so Suzuka can star in it anyway (together with Yuuki and some others), and slowly, Yuuki realizes he's being bamboozled out of the play he wrote for himself. What follows is a "mystery" story of a kind you never see in Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, as we see Suzuka's manager Akashi, but also Touma himself trying several schemes to help out their respective "clients" and while everyone can guess that it's Touma who ends up victorious in the end, the kind of plan he comes up to help out Yuuki is unlike anything in the other major detective manga and almost closer to the schemes in series like Liar Game (watch the drama, it's an excellent mystery series!). It's extremely unlikely everything would go exactly as Touma had anticipated, but it's certainly possible to deduce what his plans are once you're presented the semi-Challenge to the Reader. Like In The Year of Quantum in the first volume, this story requires you to consider several facts mentioned throughout the story and combine in a purely logical manner to see how they pertain to each other and that the implications are. 

The second story, The Form of Murder, is a "normal" murder story. It's summer, and Touma's friend Sid Green, AKA Loki (whom he knows from his MIT days) has invited Touma and his assistants (yes, multiple, as more girls besides Kana wanted to come along) to Malta, where Loki's uncle runs the Hotel Geometry, a hotel for academics who need some rest. One of the guests is Alf Lets, an Oxford mathematics professor, whose wife Camilla was murdered four months ago in Malta, in the very same hotel. Her death was considered a robbery-gone-wrong by the local police, but Alf is convinced it was a planned murder, and has been searching the whole of Malta to find a clue that'll lead him to Camilla's murderer. He's accompanied by his friends the Goodmans and his solicitor Bris, who were also in Malta on the night of the murder. Seeing how Alf is exhausting himself in search of clues, Loki wants Touma to solve the murder, which indeed has a few interesting points.

The arranged marriage between the carefree, partying Camilla and the bookworm Alf was by all means a complete failure, as Camilla was getting worse and worse with his treatment of Alf and quite openly flirting and cheating on him with other men. On the night of Camilla's murder, Derek Goodman warned Alf he should divorce from Camilla, while Franny Goodman was getting quite enough of Camilla hitting on Derek. Bris too was of the opinion Camilla meant nothing but trouble for Alf, but he had no intentions of listening to his friends. That night, Camilla had a hangover and a headache, and asked Alf to get her something to help ease the pain. Alf left the hotel keys with reception as he went out to the store, and the Goodmans and Bris also went their own ways, but when Alf returned, he found his wife dead with a knife in her. The murder was committed in the period everyone was roaming around on their own, but the door and windows to the room were locked and the keys were kept at the reception desk, so even if a robber didn't commit the murder, who did and more importantly, how did they get in and out the seaside hotel room?

Unlike Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Q.E.D. stories are about 100 pages per chapter (story) due to the magazine in which it is serialized, which gives it the freedom to build a different kind of story than one that is structured around multiple chapters each about 18~20 pages, and with a mini-climax/cliffhanger at the end of each chapter. The Form of Murder however is an example where you can also sense the advantages of a more rigid structure, as The Form of Murder likes to meander a lot, and the pace is really, really slow. Having chapters like Conan or Kindaichi Shounen would've at least brought a more focused way of telling the story. The way in which the locked room was constructed was okay, even if it was a bit unclear whether that certain action was possible or not (better clewing would've been appreciated), but the story kinda stumbles over the things the murderer did, and attempted to do besides the murder, resulting in a somewhat unguided, and at times even confusing story.

Like with the first volume, I find Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou 2 to be decent, but not unique enough to get me really invested in the series. The non-murder stories, that employ the scientific field of logic are definitely what set Q.E.D. iff apart from its rivals and can be very fun, but I still haven't come across the story that'll convince me to go out and buy the other volumes. That said, I still have another volume of iff I got in the free offer, so expect a review of that volume in the future.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. iff -証明終了-』第2巻

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Magical Mystery Enemies

"That's all magic is, an illusion."
"Jonathan Creek"

I thought it had been several years since I last read a Rampo, but it wasn't even that long ago that I read the excellent Yuureitou. Guess I forgot because it wasn't about Akechi.

After defeating the crazy murderer the Spider-Man in the novel Kumo Otoko (1929-1930), amateur detective Akechi Kogorou decided to take a long deserved holiday, resting at a lakeside hotel. There he becomes friends with Taeko, the beautiful daughter of the wealthy jeweler Tamamura Zentarou. After she returned to Tokyo, Akechi of course hoped he'd be able to meet her again, but he couldn't have guessed their reunion would come so soon: Akechi is contacted by the police, who want his help involving a mysterious threatening case. At first, Akechi refused, until he learns that it involves Fukunaga Tokujirou, the uncle of Taeko. Letters with numbers counting down have been appearing in the man's house every day now, and Fukunaga is afraid that once the countdown reaches zero, something horrible will happen. Akechi takes the first train back to Tokyo, but he's immediately kidnapped by an unknown party and during Akechi's absence, Fukunaga is murdered inside his locked bedroom by apparently a gigantic man. It seems like Akechi's latest foe can truly make the impossible possible and stopping this fiend won't be easy in Edogawa Rampo's Majutsushi ("The Magician", 1930).

After a series of short stories with the amateur detective Akechi Kogorou, Edogawa Rampo (father of the Japanese detective story) also had Akechi appear in novels. Akechi'd slowly transform from a bookish student to an amateur detective, to a dandy gentleman detective over the course of his career, with Majutsushi still being set in his amateur days, though he finally opens a true detective agency at the end of this novel. Akechi also meets his future assistant/wife in this novel, who's often an active character in subsequent Akechi novels, as well as in the Boys Detective Club series, so for fans of the character Akechi Kogorou, Majutsushi is a must-read for fleshing out his life.

Rampo had Akechi confront a terrifying, almost inhuman murderer in the thriller Kumo Otoko (1929-1930) and Majutsushi continues with that trend. In fact, most Akechi novels pit him against some kind of superfiend, like a Scooby Doo! monster, with whom Akechi will have several confrontations over the course of the story. This is also what happens in Majutsushi, where Akechi sometimes outwits, and sometimes is outwitted by a murderer who appears in front of Akechi as a circus magician, and who is hell-bent on killing all members of the Tamamura family. Besides the silly super-criminal trope, you also have the usual Rampo tropes here, like a focus on voyeurism, with several of the murders being displayed in public in all their goriness. Like I mentioned in my review of Issunboushi, exhibitionism, and a delayed realization of that plays a big role in Rampo's detective stories. In Majutsushi too, the eponymous Magician stages for some of his murders (or chopped off body parts) to appear in public, and usually people first look at it, find it odd, and only after that, it slowly starts to dawn upon them that what they just saw, was something horrible. Lenses and mirrors are also a Rampo-thing, and true enough, mirrors also appear in this story (not so curious of course, considering Akechi is fighting a magician).

As a mystery story, it's a bit like most Rampo novels, that is, not particularly memorable. Majutsushi is a serialized novel, and give it some credit, this is one of the better plotted ones by Rampo because with most of his other serialized novels, you can really tell he's simply winging things as he's going, while Majutsushi is actually reasonably tightly plotted, but still, the whole thing feels like a somewhat unambitious pulpy thriller. Most of the events that happen are just there to 'shock' the reader, even though they never really do, and the few truly horrifying scenes we get, are taken from Edgar Allan Poe stories (which Rampo also points out in his own look back at this novel). The locked room murder at the start of the novel has a silly, uninspired solution that Rampo has actually used in other novels in better ways, and other events in this novel aren't about detecting anymore, but at "look at how gruesome that is!". This is a pulp thriller, a very pulpy one at that too, but not nearly as entertaining as other Rampo pulps like Kurotokage.

There's a juvenile version of this novel by the way, also titled Majutsushi, set in the Boys Detective Club series. Rampo rewrote several of his stories as juvenile stories for this series starring the young assistant of Akechi Kogorou, Kobayashi.

So overall, Majutsushi is very typical of a Rampo serialized novel, that is, it's an incredibly pulpy story brimming with Rampo's trademark tropes. Judged solely on its mystery plot, Majutsushi does nothing particularly special, even if it tries to throw some surprises at the reader, but overall, I think this novel is most notable for its place in the Akechi timeline, establishing both the background of his future wife and Akechi's move to a professional private detective.

Original Japanese title(s): 江戸川乱歩『魔術師』

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Memories of Murder

決してその手を離さずに
振り返らないでいて
願うだけしか出来ない私を
いつの日か裁くでしょう
「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

Without letting go of your hand,
I will not turn around
Hoping for that is all I can do
But one day, I will certainly be judged
"An Imperfect Sound" (Garnet Crow)

Sometimes you start reading a book expecting it'll lead to an interesting review. And sometimes, those expectations don't come true.
 
After the publication of his latest short story Whip the Dead, mystery author Ayukawa Tetsuya and his editor are shocked by the review of an influential critic, who accuses Ayukawa of plagiarism: his story has more than a few similarities with the short story The Unfinished Manuscript, which was written by the female author Ishimoto Mineko and published ten years ago in the now defunct magazine Zero. Ayukawa assures his editor he based Whip the Dead on an unpublished story he himself wrote thirteen years ago, during a period when he was a starting author, sending manuscripts here and there in the hopes of getting published. He eventually lost sight of the story, assuming it disappeared in a desk drawer of some magazine editor, but now Ayukawa suspects that Ishimoto found, and plagiarized his story ten years ago, resulting in his predicament now. Hoping to restore his honor and position as a mystery author, Ayukawa and his editor set out to find Ishimoto Mineko and set things straight in Ayukawa Tetsuya's Shisha wo Muchi Ute ("Whip the Dead", 1965).

Ayukawa Tetsuya (1919-2002) was a highly influential post-war mystery author, who specialized in classic puzzle plot mysteries, from the impossible crimes in his Hoshikage Ryuuzou series to the alibi-deconstruction tales of his Inspector Onitsura series. Later in his life he would also become an important editor at publisher Tokyo Sogen, with writers like Ashibe Taku and Arisugawa Alice making their debuts in the special publishing label named after Ayukawa. Shisha wo Muchi Ute however is basically a parody of himself, as "Ayukawa Tetsuya" stars in the tale, being accused of the heinous crime of plagiarism!

Starting with this very meta-opening, Shisha wo Muchi Ute remains a moderately funny and interesting parody, and pastische of not only Ayukawa, but the whole post-war industry of Japanese mystery fiction. As Ayukawa and his editor try to track down Ishimoto Mineko, all kinds of episodes strongly related with the real history of Japanese mystery fiction are told, from the rise and fall of pre- and post-war magazines for mystery fiction and the phenomenom of writer salons, to observations about how editors and publishers used to work. Ayukawa (the author, not the character) is obviously basing this on his own experience, and he gives an interesting look into how mystery writers lived in the early post-war period. A story like that of an rookie author initially plagiarizing Craig Rice successfully because it was hard to get information on foreign works soon after the war is something that sticks with the reader for example, and Ayukawa also has a lot of mystery authors appear, or at least name-dropped, throughout the novel (both male and female), though with slightly altered names. Some of them are still known, but there are also plenty of names which are long forgotten now, or were even long forgotten by the time Shisha wo Muchi Ute was originally published! Shisha wo Muchi Ute is thus an insightful look in the turbulent history of mystery fiction soon after World War II.

The mystery plot however... is not that attractive. Up until now, I've only seen Ayukawa come up with very intricate puzzle plots, with impossible crimes, perfect alibis or mathematically precise whodunnits. Shisha wo Muchi Ute is more a detective-adventure, with the character Ayukawa chasing after the elusive Ishimoto Mineko. The story has Ayukawa tracing old editors who used to work at Zero and digging in people's memories, but the core mystery plot is not at all like what I'm used to with Ayukawa's work and to be honest, it's not really that interesting. A few deaths occur during Ayukawa's investigation, which might or might not be murder, but they do hardly anything to make the plot really exciting, or alluring, and by the end of the novel, I realized that the mystery plot was not engaging at all. The ending has quite the surprise and while it is hinted at, I'd argue the hinting was a bit weak.

I described this book as a parody, as it is obviously parodying Ayukawa himself (the character Ayukawa is definitely Ayukawa himself, and not another entity who happens to have the same name, like the Ellery in the Ellery Queen novels or the Alices in Arisugawa Alice's two Alice series). The comedy in this novel is not really funny though. Your mileage may vary of course, but Shisha wo Muchi Ute is not a "Haha funny" parody. Most of the work I've read by Ayukawa is 'normal' serious, but with Shisha wo Muchi Ute's unique premise, I was expecting something with a more pronounced comedic tone, but alas. Ayukawa sometimes tries for slapstick-esque comedy here, but it seldom feels more than an attempt. Recognizing all the slightly arranged names of real authors is fun though, as are some of the episodes Ayukawa relates which are probably based on real life episodes.

So Shisha wo Muchi Ute is definitely more interesting as a  dressed-up look back at the post-war period of Japanese mystery fiction, especially in regards to the writers and the magazines of that time, rather than as a mystery story on its own. You can really tell Ayukawa is digging through his own past here, in his own experiences as a writer who first started out sending out manuscripts and doing odd jobs here and there for various magazines and eventually became a professional full-time writer and editor, but the mystery plot itself is simply not nearly as engaging as the biographical parts of the story.

Original Japanese title(s): 鮎川哲也『死者を笞打て』