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』

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