Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Old Cat And Mouse Game

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been?
I've been to London to visit the Queen. 
Pussy cat, pussy cat, what did you do there? 
I frightened a little mouse under her chair. 

Several years ago, I reviewed Yamaguchi Masaya's Death of the Living Dead (1989) which I lauded as a fantastic debut novel that managed to mix the logical reasoning school of Ellery Queen, with a plot featuring something as fantastical as zombies.  It was absolutely amazing how Yamaguchi's first novel could be so polished and brilliantly planned, as the combination between fair play, logical reasoning-based mystery plot and the setting of a world where recently the dead had started rising from their graves was surprising, original and most of all, excellently executed. Turns out though that Death of the Living Dead wasn't really his first book, though there's a weird story behind that.

For two years before Death of the Living Dead, Yamaguchi Masaya had already one book published. The catch here is that 13-ninme no Tanteishi, which also carries the English title The 13th Detective, wasn't a "normal" novel, but a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, or gamebook! Published in JICC's "Adventure Novel" series, The 13th Detective had the usual staples of the genre: at set points in the story, the reader is required to make story-related choices, which lead to branching storylines. In a normal novel, the protagonist might for example be destined to take the left turn in the maze, but in a gamebook, the reader will be given the choice to go left, right or back, each choice leading to a seperate outcome (going for the left option might send you to page 122, right to page 250, and going back to 57 for example). The 13th Detective had the reader on the trail of a serial killer, and depending on your choices you might find out who the murderer is, or be murdered yourself (or you might get stuck in a different bad ending, like giving up on the case because you get married). It was The 13th Detective that caught the eye of the influential editor Togawa of publisher Tokyo Sogen, which eventually lead to Yamaguchi's debut with Death of the Living Dead. In 1992, Yamaguchi was offered the chance to once again revisit The 13th Detective, as he rewrote the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book into a form that is closer a normal novel (but more about that later). I read this novelization, mostly because the original gamebook is crazy expensive as opposed to the fairly easily obtainable novelization.

Oh, by the way, I reviewed the two Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebooks of the Famicom Detective Club series last year, if you're interested to hear how the gamebook genre would work with a mystery plot.

The 13th Detective is set in "Parallel Britain", which is not a world where Brexit didn't happen, but a world that is sorta like ours, but slightly different in some key elements. For example: World War II appears to not have happened yet, and Shakespeare's Hamlet was in fact a comedy. A fundamental change in society is the fact that all the fictional detectives we know do exist in Parallel Britain. The successes of Sherlock Holmes and his successors like Poirot, Dr. Fell and Ellery Queen led to Edward's Law: detectives belonging to the Masters of Detective Association are allowed to lead and command any official criminal investigation for 72 hours, during which the police force must follow the detective's orders. Masters of Detectives earn points based on their exploits, with the prestigious title "Emperor of Detectives" appointed to the very best of them, making them the head of the association. The far-reaching authority granted to the Masters of Detective Association has made it the de-facto crime-fighting institution in Britain, while Scotland Yard has been reduced to a mere supporting role, with many of the "police detectives" being nothing more than punk hooligans or gang members who simply try to earn a bit of easy money as a cop.

The last few months, there have only been two topics of discussion in Parallel Britain. One is the upcoming Detective Centenary, which is to celebrate the publication of A Study in Scarlet, the first published record of the exploits of Sherlock Holmes. Many celebrated detectives, including Holmes' son and former Emperor of Detectives Sherlock Holmes Jr., are to attend the festivities. But fear also reigns in London, for a series of murders on detectives has been going for almost a year now. Eleven famous Masters of Detective have already been murdered and the two links between the various murders are that the murders are all modeled after verses of a certain thirteen verse long Mother Goose rhyme, and that there's always something connected to a cat left behind at the crime scenes. This has earned the detective-murderer the name of Cat the Ripper, and it is said that whoever manages to catch Cat the Ripper, will become the next Emperor of Detective once Lord Browning finishes his term. 

And that term has ended more quickly than expected, because the unnamed protagonist of The 13th Detective (1993) awakes in the office of Lord Browning, who himself has been murdered by a strange blade-like weapon. The protagonist suffers from amnesia, and can't remember who he is and why he's in Lord Browning's office together with the Lord's body, but the police, in the form of mohawk-wearing punk police detective Kidd Pistols and his rainbow-haired assistant Pink Belladonna, figure the protagonist's condition, and the strange dying message "CAT IS" left by Lord Browning, written upside down, are both moot points, as the office of Lord Browning was locked from the inside, and the only person who could've committed the crime is the protagonist. And given that the Lord was working on the Cat the Ripper case, and there's a cat-related objected left behind on the scene, it appears the protagonist is in fact Cat the Ripper. The protagonist manages to escape from Kidd and Pink and enlist the help of a Master of Detective, who under Edward's Law now has 72 hours to figure out who really killed Lord Browning.

It's here where the reader is clearly reminded that The 13th Detective was originally a gamebook. For even though Yamaguchi rewrote the book to omit most of the choices the reader had to made in the original, the most important choice is still intact here. The reader is given the choice between three different Master of Detectives to enlist at the end of the first chapter, leading to three distinct "routes" to the end. The reader can hire Dr. Henry Bull (disciple of Dr. Gideon Fell and expert on locked rooms and strange weapons), the hardboiled private detective Mike Dashiell Barlowe (specializing in organized crime and drug crimes) or the model-turned-detective Beverly Lewis (who has successes with solving dying messages). Each route will focus on a different aspect of Lord Browning's murder, and will lead to very different adventures and revelations for the protagonist and his detective of choice. The three routes all converge at the end for the conclusion by the way, so you don't need to be afraid you won't figure out who Cat the Ripper is by choosing the wrong detective (even though bad endings are a staple of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebook genre).

The three routes are what both make The 13th Detective a fun, but also flawed experience. To start off with the good: few books are as insanely varied as this book. Yamaguchi explains that he simply wanted to do everything in the original gamebook, which is why this story features a locked room murder, a protagonist with amnesia, an odd murder weapon, a dying message, an alibi-deconstruction plot, a code to be cracked, even a gimmick like opening the story with the confrontation scene with the murderer.... The 13th Detective is packed with tropes from mystery stories and I'm not even mentioning the references to other fictional detectives in the world of Parallel Britain. Each of the three routes are written in distinctive styles: if you choose Dr. Henry Bull, you get a Carr-like story that even features a mini Locked Room Lecture, while Barlowe's route will have you go through scenes that are familiar to the hardboiled mystery reader. Some of the ideas featured in this novel, especially the dying message "CAT IS" turns out to be an entertaining, original take on the trope

But the downside of this variety is of course that on the whole, many of the ideas feel a bit underutilized. They may not be bad, but as the book needs to handle a lot between the covers, most concepts and ideas are only given a little bit of time to develop, which often makes the book feel both hasty and superficial, even though anyone could see many of those ideas could've been explored much deeper if it hadn't been so densely packed. The rewrite from Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book to regular novel is far from perfect either. Because there are three routes, a lot of text is actually copy-pasted between those routes, as it concerns vital information for the base plot. Kidd Pistols and Pink Belladonna's report on Lord Browning's murder for example is exactly the same for all three routes, repeated three times, as it is necessary information for all three routes. In a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book, shared sections are quite common, and one can imagine that in the original gamebook, the police's report is a seperate section, which would end with "If you're working with Dr. Henry Bull, proceed to page XX. If you're working with Mike Barlowe, proceed to page YY. If you're working with Beverly Lewis, proceed to page ZZ." In this novelization however, the same section is simply repeated across all three routes and that happens several times. Yamaguchi also didn't cut away the game-over sequences/alternative routes from the original gamebook. In this novelization, the protagonist sometimes makes a wrong choice that leads to a bad ending like him dying, but then it's brushed off as simply a "dream". It's incredibly artificial here to keep those fake endings in the novelization, and they don't really serve the plot in any way but to remind you that The 13th Detective was originally a gamebook (note that looping stories/stories with "bad endings" can result in good mystery stories, like with Rei-Jin-G-Lu-P, but The 13th Detective is not a good example of that).

The 13th Detective was also turned into a PlayStation videogame titled Cat the Ripper - The 13th Detective in 1997. It's notorious as a pretty bad adventure game, with horrible art design (which is also horribly animated), horrifying "music" (two or three tracks of maybe seven notes long) and terrible game design (incredibly convoluted puzzles and instant death traps). In fact, the only redeeming factors are its voice actors and the base story, which is actually quite faithful to The 13th Detective, save for the convoluted puzzles. I first learned about The 13th Detective by watching a Let's Play of this game, and while the game was definitely a so-bad-it's-almost-good type of game, I did recognize the entertaining mystery story beneath the weird appearance, which is why I decided to read the book.

The 13th Detective is technically also part of Yamaguchi's Kidd Pistols series, which apparently stars the mohawk-bearing punk hooligan police detective and his assistant/girlfriend Pink and the mysteries they encounter in Parallel Britain. I haven't read any of the other books in this series, but they're supposed to be all short story collections, each of them patterned after Mother Goose rhymes (like The 13h Detective). The 13th Detective is a special case within this series, being the only novel and also the only one to feature Kidd Pistols in a smaller role instead of as the lead.

Despite The 13th Detective's obvious flaws, which mostly derive from the fact it was originally a gamebook with several routes for the player to play through, I really did enjoy the book. It's brimming with love for the classic mystery genre and is a good mystery novel on its own too. It's very clear though that it's basically a rewritten gamebook, so the reading experience can feel very unnatural at times, but if you can get through that, you're presented with a mystery novel that is both unique and fun.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也 『13人目の探偵士』

Friday, February 23, 2018

Might solve a mystery / Or rewrite history!

"That doesn't even look like me!"
- "Does Mickey Mouse look like a mouse?"
"The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader"

A while back, I caught the pilot episode of the 2017 reboot of DuckTales, the Disney animated series about the adventures of Scrooge McDuck and his family, somewhat based on the Scrooge McDuck comics by Carl Barks. I grew up watching the original DuckTales series like many of my generation, but this new series was at least as fun as the original series! To be absolutely honest though, I have always had a weak spot for the Duck family since my youngest days. And I think that holds for a lot of people in the Netherlands. The weekly magazine Donald Duck (which features Disney comics) is the best-read magazine for readers under 12 years, and even adults can enjoy it: the Netherlands is one of the few countries with its own Disney comic studio, where they are allowed to script and draw their own comics, which means that Donald Duck often features comics that address Dutch culture or the latest news or happenings (for example, elections or Sinterklaas), making it a joy to read for both the young and old.

Mickey Mouse is in general more popular than Donald Duck across the globe of course, but in the world of Disney comics, the Mouse's adventures are usually just not as entertaining as the treasure hunting stories of Scrooge, or the Duck-down-on-his-luck stories featuring Donald and the other inhabitants of Duckburg. However, there was one type of Mickey Mouse story that I absolutely devoured, though I think few people outside Europe are familiar with them. For did you know there's a whole comic series of Mickey Mouse as a detective?

While the tradition originated from the original (American) Mickey Mouse comics, with Mickey battling the likes of the Phantom Blot, Mickey Mouse's adventures as a private eye absolutely flourished in Europe. For a mouse who is often characterized as either a do-gooder, or a mischevous being who tries hard to clean up his own mess, the role of intelligent detective might seem strange, but I grew up watching the head of the House of M dressed in a raincoat and fedora solving the most fanciful crimes together with Goofy, Chief O'Hara and Detective Casey! I have an idea that this side of Mickey isn't really well known outside Europe, as the Mickey Mouse-as-private eye comics are mostly published in the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy.

One story that made an enormous impression on me for example is the comic with story code D 94021, which is apparently a Danish Mickey story originally published with the title Damen i blåt ("The Lady in Blue"). (Dutchies can find this story with the title De laatste uren van Mickey Mouse in Donald Duck Pocket 37: De eerste Olympische kampioen). The story starts in media res, with Mickey desperately hunting for the mysterious woman in blue who poisoned him in the few remaining hours he still has to live. The whole story plays like a noir thriller, with Mickey trying to find out who poisoned him and tracing down every clue as the clock is ticking. Mickey has to rely on the help of a colleague for the brawn, as the poison is slowly starting to work, while the Lady in Blue keeps on taunting the mouse in his dying hours, even going as far as preparing a figure of a dead Mickey in a hotel room.

The story is pretty exciting, and even makes use of some visual clues to foreshadow what is to come, which is why it has always stuck with me as a very iconic Mickey Mouse story, even though many will not be familiar with this side of the Mouse. And yet to a lot of European readers, this is how they'll know Mickey. A Mickey who solves crimes, often in stories that feature visual clues and a genuine trick to some kind of jewel robbery or some other mystery. In my review of Ellery Queen's Drury Lane's Last Case, I also mentioned that I was very fond of the Italian story Topolino e il segreto di William Topespeare when I was a kid and that I only later found out it was based on Drury Lane's Last Case. So for many children, Mickey Mouse is actually a first step in detective fiction.

In the Netherlands, Mickey often acts as a detective in short one-page comics titled Mickey lost 't op ("Mickey Solves It"). These are very short whodunnit comics of just a few panels, where the reader is quickly introduced to a mystery like a robbery, and with Mickey declaring in the final panel that he knows who did it, with the solution often either printed upside-down at the end of the page, or printed elsewhere in the publication (if applicable). These mysteries are very much like Encyclopedia Brown, or for the Dutchies, like the ones the comic Inspecteur Netjes, being rather simple in set-up, but they do make good use of the visual medium, often with a visual clue hiding in the background that the reader has to relate to something said by the characters. Dutchies can read a selection of these comics on the official Donald Duck magazine website by the way!

These one-page whodunnit Disney comics have a long history in the Netherlands by the way. Different characters starred in comics in the exact same format in the past, for example Basil and Dr. Dawson from The Great Mouse Detective and the Mickey Mouse comics character Shamrock Bones (known in the Netherlands as Sul Dufneus). In fact Shamrock Bones/Sul Dufneus had a long series of mystery comics, and short stories in various Dutch Disney publications in the eighties and early nineties, though Mickey took over his role in Dutch Disney publications after that.

So while to many this might sound strange, Mickey Mouse was actually one of the characters who really got me interested in mystery fiction from a young age on. I wouldn't go as far as saying that I only got interested in mystery stories because of him as a child (as that isn't the case), but his adventures as a detective were certainly one of my favorites to read, and I suspect that the 1-page whodunnits have always made an impression on me, as the lines of reasoning based on the elimination process based on physical clues (often brought visually) used in these comics are certainly what I still hold highest in mystery fiction in general. I wonder if more people have read mystery comics from an early age on. For me, mystery comics/animation have been a constant since I was young, starting with these Disney comics and cartoons like Scooby-Doo!, and from my teens on with series like Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, but it seems like most of the other mystery bloggers started with series like Conan well into their adulthood. Which is probably also probably because of availability in a language they know, sure, but let's say in general for mystery comics with a fair-play element in them. I myself can't even imagine my youth without these mystery comics.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Fly by Night

flying gone 
「flying」(Garnet Crow)

flying gone
I'm falling down like I'm in a dream
"flying" (Garnet Crow)


Business brought the great detective Homura Souroku to the city of Osaka, but little did he know that he'd stumble upon one of his weirdest cases. One day he wakes up to find the whole neighborhood around his hostel making a ruckus about a horrible smell hanging in the air. Homura traces the smell back to the home of Doctor Kamoshita. A note on the gate says he's out of town for a while, but inside the police find a dead body hanging upside down above a fire in the fireplace. While searching the house, Homura also gets attacked by an unknown assailant wielding a machine gun, but he manages to make it out alive. The discovery of a letter threatening the doctor changes everything, as it is signed by someone calling themselves "the Human Fly". A letter signed by the same man had been delivered to Tamaya Souichirou, together with a dead fly. With the dead corpse found in the Kamoshita mansion, the police doesn't dare take any risks and provide for police security for Tamaya on the time his death was predicted. The man was hiding inside his room, of which the doors and windows were locked from the inside, with waiting policemen outside, yet the Human Fly managed to kill the man under these circumstances. Can Homura stop this man who can slip inside locked rooms in Unno Juuza's Hae Otoko ("The Human Fly", 1937)?

Unno Juuza (1897-1949) was a writer who debuted in 1928 and remained active until his death. While he debuted as a mystery writer, he is best known as one of the founding fathers of the science-fiction genre in Japan. And because I seldom read about authors before reading their books, I actually didn't know about this until I realized this about halfway through the book (I'll explain later). This book is the second in a series collecting Unno's stories featuring his detective Homura Souroku, combining the novel Hae Otoko with four short stories.

Hae Otoko starts out as one of those 1920-30s Japanese mystery novels that mix the detective genre with distinct (grotesque) horror and science-fiction elements that you might remember from Rampo's writings. The novel was originally published as a serialized story, so the writing can feel a bit chaotic and directionless at times (with characters appearing and disappearing and weird connections between parts) and I'm pretty sure Unno improvised a lot during the serialization. Elements like the shocking discovery of the first body, the narrator who seems to be addressing the reader directly, beautiful ladies in danger and murderers using weird names who are kind of enough to send a letter in advance to announce who they are going to kill when remind of a time long past for readers now, but were quite normal in 1920-30s Japanese mystery fiction. The story is a pleasant read, and there are some interesting impossible locked room murders that happen that should capture the reader's interest.

But then you're reminded that Unno was most of all, a science-fiction writer. While the set-up is classic enough, the solution is barely any different from having a killer-robot appear in the story who can use his magical powers to fly in and out of a locked room. I mean, Rampo had his share of "freak" characters who could do almost impossible things, like in Kotou no Oni, but in comparison to what happens in Hae Otoko, Rampo'd be like the pinnacle of realism. Last year I reviewed Rampo's Yuureitou, which had some elements that seemed a bit advanced for the time, but in this novel, we see things that aren't even possible now, even though the book was written in 1937. And that kinda kills Hae Otoko as a mystery story, as when you're suddenly presented with (30s) science fiction elements, the whole mystery plot just becomes unfair. Hae Otoko is fun to read as a variant on the Gothic horror novel using a mystery motif, but it is not a fair mystery story.

The science fiction aspect is not seen in all of the other four stories found in this volume. Angou Suuji ("The Number Code", 1938) is probably the best "pure" detective story in the book. In it, Homura is chasing after a numerical cipher used by foreign spies in their communications, and he has his hands on a clue that will lead him to the precise numbers. I am guessing Unno loved maths, as the code involves a maths problem with only a few numbers known, and Homura spends a lot of time deducing which numbers go in the blanks, but it was a bit too theoretical for me. The story ends up to be a fairly good variation on a Holmes story, but a bit predictable due to the way the story was introduced.

Machi no Tantei ("The City Detective", 1938) is a short story that combines two super-short stories with a similar theme, but they seem more like an excuse for Unno to talk about science and chemistry than actual tales. Chihayakan no Meiro ("The Maze of the Chihaya Mansion", 1947) on the other hand goes full horror, with Homura and his client finding themslves wandering inside a maze built underneath the Chihaya Mansion in their hope of locating a certain person who was seen in the neighborhood. This tale reads more like a gothic adventure story with even a slight pinch of Indiana Jones. The truth behind the case really comes out of nowhere by the way.

Dansougan ("The Crooked Face", 1947) is the weirdest story of the volume. While the story was written in 1947, the story was set in the faraway future of 1977. So in Hae Otoko's 1938, Homura was impressed the culprit could ride an automobile like a sophisticated modern man. In the 1977 of this story however, an elderly Homura has an android girl assistant, people travel by conveyer belt through town and mankind has visited Mars already. And returned. Unno was expecting a lot of those thirty years! There is a story somewhere about Homura being hired to get rid of a stalker who's been popping up near the wife of a Mars-astronaut, but nothing will beat that shock of this immense change in background setting.

Hae Otoko was thus in the end not at all what I had expected it to be. It started out as Rampo-ish detective-adventure story, but suddenly pulled the science-fiction card. And I think if you can appreciate 1930s Japanese science-fiction, there's probably something interesting to find here. I figure that people who like Hoshi Shinichi might find some resemblance in their works. I myself am not against science fiction in the mystery genre, but I think the way Unno used it in Hae Otoko was the least interesting way possible, as it does not contribute to the mystery plot itself. It seemed more like an excuse to use science-fiction horror. So not a big fan, but I imagine that if you start on this with a different mindset, a reader can actually learn to enjoy the totally wacky story, as I can at least say that Unno was an imaginative chap.

Original Japanese title(s): 海野十三 『蠅男』: 「蠅男」 / 「暗号数字」 / 「街の探偵」 / 「千早館の迷路」 / 「断層顔」

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Captured In Her Eyes

"A foolishly foolish idea born from the foolish mind of a foolhardy foolish fool."
"Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Justice for All"

This book reminded me I once went to a film screening of a Film Club during the university festival of Kyushu University. I think there were two short films, and you were supposed to hand in a questionnaire after the screening. I can't remember a thing about the films themselves though.

The four members of the Classic Literature Club of Kamiyama High School are still working for their project for the school festival when they are invited to see a short detective movie made by the people of class 2-F for the school festival. The story is about a group of students visiting an abandonded mine town, and the murder of one of them inside a locked room in a theater, but the film ends right after the body was discovered. The girl working on the script collapsed due to stress, making it unable for her to continue, but the problem is nobody knows what her plans were for the ending, making it an unfinished detective story. And while several of the clasmates have suggestions for solutions, it's hard to judge which one was the originally intended ending. Irisu Fuyumi of Class 2-F however, known throughout the school as the "Empress" because she's extremely good at getting the right people to work on the right things, wants the Classic Literature Club to act as observers and evaluate the suggested solutions so Class 2-F can finish their film. But it appears that perhaps the members of the club are better fit to find the real solution in Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll ("End Credits of Fools", 2002).

Gusha no End Roll is the second book in Yonezawa's Classic Literature Club series (also known as the Hyouka series, as the anime series is named after the first novel). It also carries the English subtitle Why Didn't She Ask EBA, a reference to Christie's Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The series falls under the everyday life mystery genre, which keeps itself busy with solving enigmatic events that might occur in the normal, daily life, as opposed to bloody murder. So more mysteries like "Why is that man on my bus always along for the ride for only one stop?" or "Why did that woman remain in her seat even though this is the terminal station for this train?". Obviously, it's more realistic for freshmen high school students like our four members of the Classic Litereature Club to be paining their heads about these kinds of problems, rather that of violent death.

Which is why it's funny that Gusha no End Roll is indeed about murder! A fictional one, mind you, but still. The idea of having the students detect the murderer in an unfinished mystery film is actually quite brilliant, as it allows for Yonezawa to involve his characters with a type of crime he usually wouldn't be able to. The unfinished film is set in an abandoned theater, with one of the students killed inside one of the backstage chambers which was locked. The only key available was in the manager's office next to the entrance of the theater, but to get that key you'd need to pass the hall and the hallway unseen, which would've been impossible as all students were wandering through the theater). This unfinished film is treated as a text in a historical or bibliomystery: the Classic Literature Club members, but also the students of Class 2-F use the film/text as the base for their deductions, searching each frame for a clue as to what the intended solution was. But like in a historical/bibliomystery, the text is not the only source for our detectives, and that is what sets it apart from a conventional mystery, as there is a layer "outside" the film world. While the script writer is out, the club members also interview other people involved with the filming, like one of the prop builders, to learn more about the fictional world, and about the script writer and how this film project came to be in the first place, all in the hopes of figuring out what the solution is supposed to be.

And as this is the second book I read in this series, I'm now starting to see patterns, and I can say that Yonezawa loves his multiple solutions. Hyouka already had a double-layered solution, but this one has like four or five solutions. Several involved members of the filming crew, like the assistant-director, suggest their solution to the locked room conundrum to the Classic Literature Club, all firmly based on both the "text" and their knowledge of the project circumstances (for example, the props that were prepared). These hypotheses, while grounded, are all rejected one by one based on small oversights made, though each hypothesis does add some new revelation to be used for the next. It has a Berkeley-like effect, and it's something you don't often see done this well in the everyday life mystery genre, so I could appreciate that. The solutions are also different enough to keep the reader entertained (the fake solution marathon can feel tiring at times if done badly) and it also invites the reader to read the "film text" carefully, as a lot of hints are hidden there, while the multiple solutions also show how wildly different each viewer can interpret (the importance of) a scene.

Oh, and as a side-note, the final solution is a lot easier to guess if you know your Holmes! If you're not that well-read, you might not understand a certain hint, but I think the true solution to what happened fits wonderfully with the whole theme of the book, giving true meaning to all the false solutions that came before it.

What is also interesting is that Oreki Houtarou, the narrator and main detective of the series, is shown to be a fallible detective once again. While he does get it at the end, he's not likely to get there in one step, and often falls in the trap of the false solution himself before he finally gets it. It fits his personality perhaps (he's not really a pro-active detective), but the often mistaken detective trope is not one you often see with younger detective characters, at least not seriously (as opposed to what you see in series like Scooby Doo!, where it's most definitely a source of comedy). There is something like a larger story playing across the books in the series with Houtarou's older sister trying to push her brother to be a bit more active, and the books are also slowly working towards the school festival it seems, so we might see more of Houtarou's growth in subsequent books in the series.

Gusha no End Roll is thus a very enjoyable entry in the Classic Literature Club series, as it introduces murder in a convincing and amusing manner in a series that is supposed to be about minor mysteries you'd encounter in your daily life. The result is a book that takes on very large themes in mystery fiction like the locked room mystery, text-based mystery solving and multiple solutions, but dressed like a school comedy drama. Can't wait to read the rest of the series!

Original Japanese title(s): 米澤穂信 『愚者のエンドロール』

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Undying Butterflies


I'll become a happy butterfly, riding on the sparkling wind 
I'll be coming to meet you now
"Butter-Fly" (Wada Kouji)

The first impression of most people who first meet Kindaichi Hajime (and that includes the reader), is that of a lazy, underachieving high school student, who usually only shows his brilliant mind as the grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke when faced with an intellectual puzzle that challenges him, which usually means a series of gruesome impossible murders. While most of his adventures we know were set during his high school student days, there have been also mysteries for him to solve in other periods in his life: in some of the short stories, we've seen Hajime solving minor problems in junior high, while last month, a new Kindaichi Shounen series started its serialization, which is titled Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo (The 37-old Kindaichi Case Files) and obviously about his later years.

Last month however not only brought us the introduction of this middle-aged Hajime, but also a younger one: Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 1: Karasujima no Kaijiken ("The Kid Kindaichi Adventures 1: The Strange Incident on Crow Island") is the first entry in a brand new series of children's novels in the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label. There have been originals novels in the Kindaichi Shounen series in the past already (I also reviewed a couple of them), but those featured the exact same setting as the original comics (high school student Hajime), and were obviously also written for the same audience. This new series is aimed at a younger audience and tells us about the adventures Hajime and Miyuki had as sixth graders. So while Hajime's still up for some crime solving, you don't have to expect mutilated corpses or decapitations here or what'd usually expect from Kindaichi Shounen. In fact, the obi for this book has testimonials from several "junior editors" of the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label with the youngest being in fifth grade of elementary school, so that should give you an idea what the intended audience is. This novel is written by Amagi Seimaru, who is the series supervisor and the current writer of the comics series (and of the other novels), and the couple of illustrations included are also done by Satou Fumiya, which means it's the exact same duo working on this novel as on the main series, so at least 'feeling-wise', everything is exactly like you'd expect it to be from a spin-off of the Kindaichi Shounen series, even if aimed a younger audience.

(For those wondering: yes, Amagi is a very prolific writer. Not only does he writes the Kindaichi Shounen novels and the story for the comics, he's usually working on a lot of other series too at the same time. Amagi Seimaru is just one of the many pen names of Kibayashi Shin, and sometimes he's working as the writer of six or seven weekly serialized series under various names, and also stories for novels and games. He used to be an influential comics editor, which might explain how he's able to juggle so many series)

The set-up of Karasujima no Kaijiken is also quite familiar to fans of the series, sans the killings. Hajime, Miyuki and long-time classmate Souta are heading out for Crow Island as part of their club activities for the Fudou Elementary Adventure Club. Their teacher and supervisor of the club, Houjou, has brought the small group of children there to 'find a treasure', as an old riddle discovered on the island long ago seems to hint at the existence of a hidden treasure somewhere there. Due to its shape, the island's been named after not a crow, but after the Karasu-Ageha, a type of swallowtail butterfly of which the Japanese name translates to Crow Swallowtail Butterfly. The boat arriving at Crow Island is not only dropping the kids and their teacher off though, but also two groups of two men each, who are all apparently in the tourist industry, hoping to develop the island as a resort. One of these duos quickly leave the rest to explore the island, but later in the day, the kids witness one of those men being dragged inside one of the caves, and there they run into a giant, masked figure who seems to fit the description of the legendary Island-Dweller rather well, and they flee. Later, the kids witness a human skeleton on the beach, but it disappears in the few minutes it took them to get down, even though they took the only path there. Has a ghost taken those men, or is something else going on on Crow Island?

Karasujima no Kaijiken really can't be better described than as a Kindaichi Shounen story for a younger audience. The writing style is of course kept fairly simple to accomodate for the younger reading audience, and the mysteries are also much more simpler and less gorey: no locked room murders with victims of whom the limbs were torn off or anything bloody like that. Yet, the story set-up and characters are undeniably Kindaichi Shounen, from the 'treasure hunt' hook we know so well from other stories to the little moments that show how serious Hajime can be and even smaller elements like featuring semi-regular classmate Souta in the story too (Souta usually appears in the short stories as a good friend of both Hajime and Miyuki and we know they've been classmates for a long time, but apparently the three have been friends since elementary school).

As a mystery novel, it's a bit too simple though, even if you keep in mind it's for kids. There is basically one "impossibility", that of a skeleton disappearing from a beach in the time it took for the group to get down there along the only path there, but the solution to this conundrum is not only simple, Hajime basically solves it the moment he commences his preliminary investigation. Even for kids, this is way too simple, as the solution is pretty much given as-is. The whodunnit element of the book is better though, as that actually requires the reader to do a bit more thinking themselves (in the a=b, b=c, therefore a=c type of reasoning) and the identity of the culprit is reasonably clewed.The various story elements of the Island-Dweller, the treasure hunt and the folklore surrounding the practice of ubasute (senicide by leaving the elderly in the mountains to die) however don't really work well together, with especially the treasure hunt not integrated very well: it's basically just a reason for the Adventure Club to go the island, and then it's mostly forgotten until a few pages before the end of the tale, when Hajime (once again) happens to come across the one vital clue needed to solve the riddle.

The two children's novels based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, released in 2016 and 2017 and written by Takase Mie, have set a certain high standard within my mind to which I compare other children's mystery novels, as they were really good mystery novels, that still worked perfectly for the intended, younger audience. They featured impossible situations that required some lateral thinking to solve, but they were also fantastically clewed, making these more complex situations also accessible for a younger audience: a more experienced reader might've been able to recognize the clues and their implications fairly easily, but heck, few "serious" mystery novels could do clewing as good as these novels. As the first entry in this Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series is similarly published within an existing established children's novels line like the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels, comparisons are quickly made, but while Karasujima no Kaijiken isn't bad, it's certainly not as good a mystery novel as the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels.

Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 1: Karasujima no Kaijiken thus ends up as an okay-ish, but never outstanding children's mystery novel. For children who don't know the Kindaichi Shounen series yet, it's an accessible entry-point that foregoes with the gore and bloody murders of the main series,  while still keeping the tone of the characters and story set-up intact. While not formally announced as a series, the numeral 1 in the title suggests we'll see more adventures of Hajime and Miyuki as sixth graders, so it'll be interesting to see how this series will develop in terms of mystery plotting.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(文)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一くんの冒険1 からす島の怪事件』

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Locked Doors

あの夢この夢 君にみえるかな
「君の思い描いた夢 集メル HEAVEN」(Garnet Crow)

Can you see it in all of your dreams /
The Door of Novalis where the blue flower blooms
It is up to us to create tomorrow
Our worlds are connected
"The MÄR HEAVEN Where We Collect Your Dreams" (Garnet Crow)

There are quite some Japanese mystery stories with titles based on And Then There Were None, now I think about it. More than in English, I even suspect.

Two men and two women wake up to find themselves locked inside a nuclear bomb shelter. The last thing each of them remember is having tea with the mother of their friend Sakiko, who died three months ago in a car accident. Sakiko had invited her two friends, and their boyfriends for a triple date to the holiday villa of Sakiko's family (one of the boyfriends couldn't make it, so they ended up with five people). A big row between the friends resulted in Sakiko leaving the villa in her car, which was later found beneath a cliff. Sakiko's body was only retrieved from the sea much later, and the police deemed it an unfortunate car accident. It appears however Sakiko's mother disagrees with the police, as one can guess from the fact that she has taken her daughter's four friends prisoner as well as the message "You Killed Her" painted on the walls. The four friends think Sakiko's mother has gone out of her mind and try to escape the shelter, but as they talk about Sakiko's death, they realize that their assumptions about her demise might be horribly wrong in Okajima Futari's Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta ("And Then The Door Was Closed", 1987).

Okajima Futari is the pen-name of a writing duo consisting of Inoue Izumi and Tokuyama Junichi, who wrote mystery novels together between 1981 and 1989 until they disbanded again. The name is derived from okashina futari, or "Two curious people". I had never read any of Okajima's novels before, though the few novels published have been received quite well by the Japanese mystery community and even experimented a bit with the genre, as they also wrote a mystery gamebook in 1986. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta is one of their later works.

In theory, I should've liked this novel a lot more than I actually do. The closed circle setting, where a group of people (among them the culprit) is isolated from the outside world is a a classic trope of mystery fiction, and for a good reason. The core mystery plot is combined with suspense elements as we know the murderer is among the group, and that any of them might fall victim without a chance to escape from their predicament. Many of the books I discuss here (especially Japanese ones, now I think about it) use this setting. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta at first seems to go the traditional way by locking everybody up in a bomb shelter, but this time, the characters are forced to think about a case that happened in the past, with no direct danger threatening the group. The setting is a highly original one (strangely enough, it's not the first time I've seen it in mystery fiction), and as time passes by, you can really feel how tense the atmosphere must be inside the small rooms, with the pressure building as each of the characters starts to doubt the others.

As the story is set inside the shelter from start to finish, the four characters are forced to rely on their memories of the day Sakiko died, occassionally helped by some "useful" objects they find inside the shelter that are also connected to the case. The book is thus completely built around the discussions the four characters have, and the deductions and recollections they have as they put their minds together. Ocassionally something mentioned by one person will help the memory of someone else, or one character remembers seeing the other acting awfully suspicious, etcetera. As the story progresses, what appeared to be an accident will take on the form of murder, and while I wouldn't say the plot is bad, it's also not especially engaging or exciting. The four recall things, talk a bit, fight a bit, and repeat. The revelations made are never shocking. In fact, it takes ages for the story to really move (it's probably only around the halfway point when you get enough material to deduce yourself), and everything up to that point is more filling in blanks in the tale, as each of the characters look back at the day of the accident. As for the truth that is revealed in the latter half of the book, it's a bit predictable.

What I myself really did not like however were the four characters, and especially the protagonist. While not in equal measures, I'd say each of them are in fact horribly selfish and selfishly horrible people and none of this would've happened if any of them had acted in a more decent way towards each other. None of them even needed to be good people, they just needed to be more thoughtful of each other to avoid all of this! The story has a rather melodramatic streak to it, with love triangles and more, but it kinda falls flat with this cast, as each time you learn more about the group, you realize how being just ever so slightly more considerate to the others would've resulted in well, an outcome without any death at all, and at least more persons with some happiness. Note also that these four are the only characters who appear in person in the book (other people only appear in flashbacks), and the whole story is driven by the conversations between the four, you may imagine how each page made it even more difficult for me to continue with this cast of characters.

So my first experience with Okajima Futari was not a particularly good one. Soshite Tobira ga Tozasareta has an original setting, but a mediocre plot, and horrible characters who are also sadly the focal element of the story, as everything is built around their conversations and interactions. I understand that the whole book is plotted around the fact that these four characters are being held prisoner, but I think I would've enjoyed the plot better without this plot device, without me having to deal with these characters all the time. Being locked up with them from start to finish can really drive a reader insane.

Original Japanese title(s): 岡嶋二人 『そして扉が閉ざされた』