Friday, March 30, 2018

It's All in the Game

「ピカッとひらめいた! 」
"A bolt of brilliance!" 
"Detective Pikachu"

While they have been a while for a long time, episodic videogames really took off with the many games by TellTale Games like Sam & Max and The Walking Dead and is now a commonly seen format in the videogame industry. Like the term says, an episodic videogame is like an episode of a series: it is considerably shorter than the usual videogame (and also cheaper, of course), but it is intended as part of a larger, contineous series and are released in a more frequent schedule than conventional videogames. This format results in cheaper releases that can be delivered more quickly to the consumer and it gives the developers an early stream of income as they work on subsequent episodes in which they can also incorporate consumer feedback on earlier episodes. This format is somewhat similar to the serialization of novels (which is also an ongoing service), though still very different in key elements, with the most important distinction being that episodic videogames can stand on their own for the most part, while installments in serializations are usually not standalone, as you need the context of the installments before, and also after to make sense of the story. An episodic videogame ideally is a vital part to the whole series, but should also feature its own storyline that is mostly resolved within that particular episode, giving the player some closure at the end of the deal. That is of course not often the case with novel serializations, as the installments are basically excerpts.

Episodic mystery fiction is not common, but there are some examples. Videogames like Famicom Tantei Club and Trick X Logic were originally episodic releases for example. If we look at printed books, the interlinked short story collection is an example, if the short stories themselves are published seperately first before being collected in a volume, though usually, the overall storyline of episodic videogames is far stronger than those you'd usually see in interlinked short stories. Basically, episodic videogames and interlinked short story collections are standing right opposite each other: the interlinked short story stands on its own, but can also be read in relation to the other stories, while the episodic videogame is intended as a vital part of a series, but also happens to work as a seperate piece.

Two years ago, I reviewed the 3DS download-only videogame Meitantei Pikachu ~ Shin Combi Tanjou ("Detective Pikachu ~ Birth of a New Duo"), which was a simple, but entertaining mystery videogame starring Nintendo's famous Pokémon franchise. I absolutely loved it as it was a funny game that actually made creative use of the creatures for its mystery plots, but I mentioned it was only the first episode in what was obviously supposed to be a longer series. I even ended my review with "Let's hope new episodes will follow soon.". At the time, I assumed new episodes would follow in a few months, half a year tops, as that was the standard release schedule for an episodic videogame. How wrong I was. It seems they eventually simply gave up on the episodic format, and decided on releasing a single, full-length standalone version of the game instead! So instead of releasing seperate episodes, they made us wait until March 2018 to release Meitantei Pikachu (Detective Pikachu) on the 3DS, which includes all the chapters of the story (the first episode that was originally released in Japan corresponds to the first three chapters of the final product). So I was a bit bummed I had to wait two years for this mystery to be finally solved, but as I really liked the original release, I had no choice but to get it.

The story is of course exactly the same as the original release. Young Tim Goodman moves to Ryme City in search of his father, a private detective who has gone missing while working on a case. Immediately after his arrival in the city, Tim runs into a talking Pikachu, an electric mouse was actually the partner of Tim's father Harry. Harry and Pikachu got in an car accident and only Pikachu was found. Pikachu lost his memories of what happened, but he gained the powers to communicate in human speech with Tim. Together, the two try to find out what happened to Harry. The original episode ended right after Tim got his first real lead to what happened to his father, but the story of the complete version of Detective Pikachu obviously goes beyond that, and while it still leaves some questions unanswered for a potential sequel, Detective Pikachu works perfectly as a standalone game or a "first season" of a series.

I was reading through my review of the first episode again, and to be honest, there's little I want to add to that. I really recommend you reading that review first, as the full version of Detective Pikachu runs on the exact same way the first episode paved, so all my points still stand. During their hunt for answers, Tim and Pikachu come across problems they have to solve or mysteries that need to be explained. After collecting evidence and testimony at the scene, Pikachu will lead Tim through some questions to see if they can solve their conundrum (=testing the player). Once the problem is solved, the story progresses, bringing new locales and new challenges for the duo. What makes Detective Pikachu stand out is how it incorporates Pokémon into its mysteries. There are about 700 different species of the creatures they call Pokémon (Pocket Monsters), each with their own special powers and characteristics. People use them for a variety of activities, from pets to using them for Pokémon fights and having them help with work. Pikachu, the best known Pokémon for example, is a yellow mouse species of the Electric type, capable of generating electricity for attacks. Only a selection of them appear in this game, but Detective Pikachu makes excellent use of the well-documented powers of the Pokémon to bring a detective story you're unlikely to find elsewhere. For example, Pokémon usually can't speak with humans, but through Pikachu's interpretation skills, Tim's able to question Pokémon for valuable testimony, testimony that human characters usually can't give. These 'humanized animals' allow for all kinds of neat things in the mystery plot, like getting testimony from Flying-type Pokémon, while in the real world, you wouldn't be able to question a bird even if they were witness to some crime.

The fact all the Pokémon are all fleshed-out creatures with special powers is also cleverly used for the mystery plots, as sometimes the powers of a Pokémon are used to commit a seemingly impossible crime, or you yourself have to use their powers to accomplish a task, or even deduce the identity of a culprit-Pokémon by examining the skills it used or other characteristics. Because Pokémon are so well-documented regarding what they can and can't do, it's still a fair-play mystery even if some Pokémon can turn invisible or walk through walls, and everything you need to know to solve the mystery is within the game, so you don't need to know much about Pokémon to enjoy this game.

The cinematic presentation is also top-notch by the way, and I think that people who like Zootopia will really enjoy this game. The banter with Pikachu (who sounds and talks like an middle-aged man) is really funny, and really gives the game its own voice and face. Detective Pikachu is also slated for a Hollywood live-action adaptation by the way, and I'm actually very curious to see how that'll turn out! The source material is certainly brimming with potential for a great film.

They also released an amiibo-figure of Detective Pikachu, which I couldn't resist. I think this is the biggest figure I have of a detective character (then again, the only other figures I have of detective characters are some small keychain mascottes of Detective Conan and Ace Attorney...). Sure beats the classic Sherlock Holmes bust!

So while it is undeniably a very simple adventure game, Detective Pikachu manages to be a very entertaining experience. It has great presentation, and while the story is a bit predictable in a cartoony way, it also brings creative mystery plots that make great use of the fact that this is a Pokémon game, resulting in a detective story that is totally unique and more importantly, incredibly fun.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵ピカチュウ』

Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Double Clue

Out flew the web and floated wide- 
 The mirror crack'd from side to side; 
"The curse is come upon me," cried 
 The Lady of Shalott. 
The Lady of Shalott

In 2015, I reviewed the Japanese TV adaptation of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Mitani Kouki, playwright and director of comedic theater and film productions and also creator of Furuhata Ninzaburou, the Japanese Columbo. His two-part Murder on the Orient Express was an entertaining production. While it at times had trouble finding its own voice in the first episode, the second part made up for it, as it presented an inverted telling of the story from the POV of the murderer(s) which really managed to wonderfully mix Christie's story with Mitani's trademark warmhearted grand-scale 'backstage' comedy stories, and it even cleared up some matters which even the original novel didn't! So I was quite pleased to learn Mitani's getting a second opportunity to adapt Christie for TV, as in April, a TV adaptation of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd will be broadcast! The story will once again feature Poirot-replacement Suguro Takeru and be set in Japan, but I'm pretty excited to see what Mitani will do with this story, as it's infamously hard to do good as a TV production.

The Japanese television-viewing audience certainly don't seem to get enough of their Agatha Christie adaptations, as in the weekend of 24-25 March 2018, two other original Christie adaptations were broadcast too, produced by the team responsible for the Japanese 2017 And Then There Were None TV adaptation. And Then There Were None (2017) consisted of two two-hour episodes, but this time each story got one two-hour slot, and like with And Then There Were None (2017), the settings of these stories were changed from their original post-war UK settings to modern day Japan. The stories chosen were two Miss Marple stories: 4.50 from Paddington and The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side.

Paddington-Hatsu 4-Ji 50-Pun - Shindai Tokkyuu Satsujin Jiken ("4.50 from Paddington - The Sleeper Express Murder Case") was broadcast on Saturday March 24th, and stars not English village busybody Miss Marple, but Amano Touko, once a gifted police inspector, but who quit her job to take care of her ailing husband, and who became a consultant after his demise. Her mother was one day riding the Orion Express, when she witnessed a murder happening in an compartment of the Sleeper Express Asagiri when the two trains happened to be running parallel to each other. Unlike the authorities, Touko believes her mother's story of having seen a murder, and starts poking around. She realized that if a murder did actually occur on the Asagiri, the body had to be dumped from the train before arrival at a station, and that the best spot for that is in the woods around the tracks that belong to the Tomizawa family, known for Tomi Confectionary. Touko decides to send her friend Aya, known as the "super-housekeeper", to the Tomizawa Residence to scope the land. Aya not only finds the body, but also detects something sinister brewing among old man Tomizawa and his sons/daughters/son-in-law regarding the Tomizawa fortune that might have to do with the body from the train.

While the story is set in modern-day Japan and we don't have Miss Marple chasing after McGillicuddy 's story anymore, this special is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the original story. The problem being that to be honest, 4.50 from Paddington wasn't a very exciting mystery story in the first place. The opening is great: a murder happening in one train that happens to be witnessed from another train is a great way to start of a story, and reminds of Rear Window. But this segment is actually somewhat detached from the rest of story, as it only serves as a way to introduce the viewer to disfunctional Tomizawa family. From there on, you have your traditional 'all the family members hate each other and they all act as suspiciously as possible' story, and the whole train part of the story is considered over, as especially once they've found the body on the lands of the Tomizawas. There is a murder plot somewhere, but it is one we've seen Christie use a lot in her stories, so it's hard to get really impressed by it. Most of time, the story is just going through very familiar motions, and this particular adaptation does little to help that.

The move to modern-day Japan and a new protagonist sadly enough doesn't do much either. Besides the fact that it makes no sense that the Asagiri is pulled by an actual steam locomotive despite being set in modern-day Japan, I think the character of Amano Touko doesn't really work either (she is played by Amano Yuuki by the way, who voiced Curaçao in Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare). She's apparently so well-regarded during her time with the police that even now, high officials respect (and even fear) her talents, and while they at first didn't believe her mother's story about witnessing a murder on a running train, the police actually soon start listening to everything Touko has to say. It results in a very different dynamic than we had with Miss Marple in the original story, which isn't a bad thing per se, but Touko is supposed to be so good, the way everyone is acting it's like you have a whole army of detectives working on a case which isn't really that interesting.

4.50 from Paddington was followed the next day by Daijoyuu Satsujin Jiken ~ Kagami wa Yoko ni Hibiwarete ("The Great Actress Murder Case  ~ The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side"), which starts with the return of the actress Irodori Madoka to the silver screen after 13 years. She has bought "The Divine Mansion" as her new residence, also for use in her comeback film, but during a party held for the local high society, a woman is poisoned to death after drinking a cocktail meant for Madoka. It appears someone has been threatening Madoka and that the threats have become reality, even if someone else fell victim to it. The cool-headed Inspector Shoukokuji is put on the case to prevent more tragedies from happening, but that's easier said than done.

In this adaptation of The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side,  Miss Marple is replaced by Inspector Shoukokuji, an original character who was created for the 2017 And Then There Were None adaptation (as unlike the novel, this particular production of ATTWN needed a proper detective character). As a stereotypical stoic-but-capable character, Shoukokuji isn't really interesting, but still, funny to see how they connect these productions through this original character. Once again, the story is, ignoring the modern setting, fairly faithful to the original story, which is famously based on a tale that really happened (you probably don't want to read up on this until you've read the novel/seen this special). As a mystery story, The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side's definitely not one of my favorites, though I do like the motive behind the story. Then again, the whole story is really only built around this motive (which in turn is based on real life), and there's little else besides that that really makes The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side stand out. It also has the usual Christie tropes of faux hints/tropes ("we didn't meet for x years and I don't recognize you at all anymore!" or "she had this look on her face!"), which can work in some stories, but I wouldn't say this story provides an exceptional example of that practice.

The gripe I had with these two specials is that they managed to do so little with the changed settings. As a Japanese production, it's not strange they decided to relocate the stories to Japan, and a modern day setting is also easier to pull off than a period piece, but with And Then There Were None (2017), they actually managed to do more than just "hey, this story happens in modern-day Japan", but really incorporate this new element of the story in the mystery plot properly: there was a perfectly fine justification for that particular production of And Then There Were None to be set in the modern day, and it worked! But this is not the case for these two specials based on 4.50 from Paddington and The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side: they may be fairly faithful adaptations, but they don't benefit from taking place in modern day Japan, as nothing truly clever has been done to incorporate that into the plot besides "Oh yeah, I checked her blog". And Then There Were None (2017) consisted of [fairly faithful adaptation] + [modern day Japan] + [extra elements], but these two specials miss the [extra elements]. I really wish there was that little bit extra, as And Then Were None (2017) should it could be done, to result in at least a unique adaptation.

So these two adaptations of two of Miss Marple's more famous adventures were fairly well-done adaptations on their own, but they had very little originality to offer, despite the fact that the changed setting offered so much potential for that. Some might prefer adaptations to be as faithful to the original novel as possible, but given that this is another medium, and the fact that due to more practical circumstances, these two adaptations were planned to be set in modern day Japan, I really wish they had just gone that extra mile to somehow incorporate that more firmly into the plot to bring a truly unique adaptation of the source material, instead of 'just another one.' I hope that Mitani Kouki will be able to bring his own unique charm in his adaptation of The Murder of Roger Akroyd soon!

Original Japanese title(s): 『パディントン発4時50分 寝台特急殺人事件』&『大女優殺人事件 鏡は横にひび割れて』

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Indigo Ashtray

"Yes, you are right, Madame; the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and yet you forget that everywhere there is evil under the sun."
"Evil Under The Sun"

Man, I had been sitting on this audio drama for ages, I noticed now. Oh well, that's not a rare thing to happen here, I said as I glanced at some unread books which have been lying here for some years.

Akagawa Jirou is an incredibly prolific best known for his lighthearted, comedic mystery novels like the Calico Cat Holmes series. He also has many series starring young women, most notably his long-running Three Sisters Investigate series (of which the first novel is also available in English, by the way). Female teenagers are also the focus in the audio drama Hai no Naka no Akuma ("The Devil In The Ashes", 1993). Several students of the Hanazono Academy for girls are being harrassed and blackmailed with mistakes made in the past, from cheating at tests to shoplifting. As amateur detectives, the trio of Yuriko (tomboy), Akiko (aspiring actress) and Kyouko (heir of former nobility) naturally have an interest in this case, especially as Kyouko was already once attacked by a neurotic victim who was convinced Kyouko was the blackmailer (Kyouko practices aikido luckily). While they're investigating the case though, Yuriko's classmate Fumiyo is outed as a former shoplifter, but she loses her memory after a traffic incident. Strange men however appear to be after her. Can our trio find out who is behind the blackmailing and save Fumiyo?

Hai no Naka no Akuma (1989) was the first full-length novel in Akagawa's juvenile Devil series, though the trio of high school students originally made their debut almost a decade earlier in the novelette Kagami no Naka no Akuma ("The Devil in the Mirror", 1980~1981). Considering the long period between the publishign years, it's understandable that most people consider Hai no Naka no Akuma the true start of the Devil series, and it would turn into a reasonable success, as it ran for about ten volumes long. The title Devil might sound a bit scary, but the actual contents are actually fairly light-hearted and presented in a comedic manner, like through girls' banter. No demons appearing in this series, at least, not actual demons, as the "Devil" that appears in the title of each of the stories refers to the devil residing in human beings.

I have not read any of the books in this series by the way, but I decided to listen to the audio drama based on Hai no Naka no Akuma, which was released in 1993. I have no idea how fateful an adaptation this drama is, though a quick look at the Wikipedia page for the book makes me suspect that it is at least not a grand departure of the original tale. The voice actors featured include some very well-known names like Kanai Mika and Orikasa Ai. The drama is not long (a bit over an hour), but as most of Akagawa's novels are fairly light, I guess that's about what I had expected.

As a tale of mystery, Hai no Naka no Akuma is really, really light material. Considering the subject matter (blackmail at school, juvenile crime and there's also kidnapping of minors), things could've been portrayed a lot darker, but it remains fairly light on the whole. Even at the times when some of the girls are kidnapped, you never have a sense of real threat, as you already know they'll escape somehow as you listen to the banter of the girls calling each other names and all during their predicament. The whole presentation is a bit cartoony, which is not a bad thing per se, but there's certainly a discrepency between the 'scary' title The Devil In the Ashes and the actual tone of the story. This is best shown by the character Kyouko, who comes from such a ridiculously rich and powerful family she at one time even conjures a helicopter out of nowhere for use during her investigation of an incident happening at a high school. Kyouko is without a doubt the MVP by the way, as she uses not only money, but also her brains and occasionally even her fists to get all the girls unscathed to the end of the story.

The mystery of the blackmailer and Fumiyo's assailants is as expected nothing particularly engaging. The story is sorta enjoyable as a girls' adventure story, but nothing more than that, as the underlying plot is rather ridiculous: the Big Bad's plan is rather convoluted, in a Scooby-Doo way, and all the "deductions" the girls make are more fantasy than something based on a logical conclusion based on the facts presented (which still turn out to be correct, of course).

All in all, Hai no Naka no Akuma was a rather mediocre juvenile mystery audio drama. The story is really written for a certain audience, in a certain time (early 90s) and one can't really fault a work for doing exactly what it's supposed to do in an okay manner, I guess, but I also don't think this is a story that has something really interesting to offer besides the character interaction (which I did enjoy by the way). Adaptations of Akagawa's works for TV are certainly not rare, but the Devil series never had that much exposure I think besides these audio dramas. I wonder how an animated TV series aimed at a younger public would fare?

Original Japanese title(s): 赤川次郎(原) 『灰の中の悪魔』

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Go Away Ghost Ship

"It was no disgrace, French thought, for any detective to take a leaf out of Holmes' book."
"The Loss of the Jane Vosper"

Never been that long on a ship, actually, now I think about it. The longest was spending the night on the ferry from Busan back to Fukuoka, but that was actually mostly lying for hours right in front of Fukuoka Harbor as it was still too early to land...

Inspector French series
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)

The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936)
Fatal Venture (1939)

The Jane Vosper was a steamer owned by the Southern Ocean Steam Navigation Company and like her captain, the ship was nearing retirement, but still more than capable of performing her job splendidly, like carrying various shipment towards South-America. Of course, mentioning one's retirement is close-by is what we call raising a death flag, so the genre-savvy reader is probably not as surprised as the Jane Vosper's crew by a series of mysterious experiments sinking the steamer to the bottom of the ocean, with luckily no human casualties. As the shipments and the steamer itself were insured by various companies, the financial hit for the primary victims is not huge, but the underwriters themselves find themself in a predicement, as the pay-out is not insignificant for them. An inquest and investigation by the various insurance companies show however that the explosions probably did not occur by accident, which means there was design behind the sinking of the Jane Vosper and its shipments. An insurance detective hired by the Land and Sea Insurance Company is sent to investigate whether their client might've sunk the ship on purpose, but he disappears one day without a trace, and Chief-Inspector French, a personal acquintance of the missing detective, steps in the world of insurance fraud in Freeman Wills Crofts The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936).

When people think of Crofts and Inspector French, they think of time-tables and alibi tricks, which is of course correct, but there are also few themes as Crofts-like, like the industry. Previous books I've read had introduced me to the financial worries of various young entrepeneurs, but also daring new ventures that tried to make a big buck. Crofts' debut work, The Cask, too opened with a look at the London docks and the various shipping companies. It's this world we see again in The Loss of the Jane Vosper, as we take a good look at the shipping companies again, as well as the insurance companies who have underwritten them. The opening chapter for example is probably the most tenseful text I've read by Crofts until now, as it details the ordeals of the captain of the Jane Vosper and his crew as they are caught off-guard by sudden explosions in the hold and their courageous, but ultimately hopeless efforts in trying to save the ship. Crofts is often accused of being a boring writer, but there's absolutely nothing boring about this opening and it's almost surprising how much happens in this first chapter, as it's definitely not what you'd normally expect from Crofts.

It's only when we are back in London, with the various insurance companies trying to find out whether the sinking was foul play for insurance fraud, that we are shown in detail why Crofts has the reputation of being boring. As much as I've enjoyed previous Crofts I've read, and I like to think myself to have gotten somewhat acquainted with his writing, but man, things move slowly in this book. The first few chapters are dedicated to the insurance detective's investigation into the sinking of the Jane Vosper, but he disappears soon, which paves the way for an entrance by Chief-Inspector French. What follows are chapters that show how incredibly meticulous the police works, but also how incredibly slow things go. French's method is to check things out in detail, so we see him tracing the last-known movements made by the insurance detective, but 90% of the middle part of the book consists of French learning very little new information, only getting confirmation on fact X or statement Y we had learned already. A lot of the book feels simply like its repeating what was said earlier already, and that can feel very tedious.

Of course, this is what Crofts does. But I never experienced it as intrusive in the other novels I read. For one, several of the other Crofts I read are inverted mystery novels. There the narrative follows both the culprit and French, and that results in a very different kind of story: that of the culprit first planning an ingenious detailed plan, who is then slowly cornered by Inspector French's meticulously conducted investigations. In these stories, seeing French chasing every possible lead thoroughly feels as a tool of creating tension, there is dynamic and there is momentum. In The Loss of the Jane Vosper however, a true suspect remains absent throughout most of the novel, so what you get is French investigating a lead, figuring it leads to nothing, moving on to the next lead, rinse and repeat. There is no momentum until the latter quarter of the book, so the path towards the end is very slow for most of the time. This is the first time I truly thought a Crofts was boring to read, and it made me understand the people saying that a lot better.

In a way, the book is built around the investigation of two alibis: Inspector French is trying to find out where the insurance detective went, so that means an investigation into his alibi on the day of his appearance. French does this like he'd do with a suspect, tracing every step the target is known to have taken, timing them, finding witnesses to collaborate the stories. Meanwhile, French is also taking a look at the sinking of the Jane Vosper, as an investigation into that means also an investigation into the footsteps of the disappearing detective. It is assumed explosives were smuggled into the hold of the Jane Vosper to sink them, but it seems impossible for the explosives to suddenly appear among the cargo. So this is a reverse alibi-investigation into an object: how did the object appear at a certain time in a certain place (its alibi), even though there is no trace as to how it could've appeared there. In theory, this structure should've been quite interesting, but again, the lack of any developments until very late in the book makes The Loss of the Jane Vosper less engaging that it should've been.

The truth revealed about the fate of the insurance detective, as well as the mystery of how the Jane Vosper was sunk the bottom of the ocean is, well, not bad. There is an ingenious scheme going on behind this all, and one has to admit, Inspector French was only able to solve this case because he works so incredibly meticulously, because he checks, double-checks and triple-checks every little detail he comes across. The question is: how many readers are still there when he finally unveils the plot?

For those interested in a mystery(-oriented) series about an insurance investigator: the manga Master Keaton is great!

So I find it difficult to be really positive about The Loss of the Jane Vosper. When you turn the final page, you're left with a mystery plot that is certainly what you'd expect from Crofts, with a crafty scheme going on set in an industry background which is described in detail, but the way the story is told is quite slow, and I thought that as someone who has read Crofts for a while now and never found his writing as dreadful as his reputation goes. Dreadful is not the word I'd use for The Loss of the Jane Vosper either, not at all, but I wouldn't pick this book as my first Crofts either.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Haunted Showboat

The show must go on

There are many mystery stories set on means of transportations, like ships or trains, but I wonder how many there are set on a bicycle. For example, what about an impossible murder where the rider is stabbed in their back, while there was someone else sitting on the carrier in the back (who isn't the murderer of course).

Awasaka Tsumao's Kigekihikigeki ("Comedia Tragedia Magica", 1982) introduces the reader to Kaede Shichirou, disciple of a renowned magician and once a fairly succesful magician himself, but he became more interested in the bottle after his wife ran off with a man, and the last few years, he's been barely able to make a living with his performances. An old friend however manages to find a job for him that might change his life. He's to fill in as a magician for the variety show held on board of the Ukon-Gou: an old transport ship refurbished to look like a paddle steamer, which will provide various forms of entertainment like revue shows and dining as it cruises along the Japanese coast. The original magician who got the contract has disappeared, while the Ukon-Gou's maiden voyage is scheduled for tomorrow, so Shichirou is hired for a month, with an option for a longer contract. He's also appointed a new assistant, Makoto, who's a young, but enthusastic amateur magician herself. But Shichirou soon regrets taking the job. The diverse entertainers on the Ukon-Gou include not only fire eaters, clowns, tigers and dancers, but also Utako, his wife who left his side. When the clown is murdered however, Shichirou sees how the manager is doing everything to keep the murder under wraps for the sake of opening day, and he realizes that the magician he was sent to replace also died under very suspicious circumstances on the ship. And the strangest thing about both murders is that the only thing connecting the two victims is that the names of both victims were palindromes, and due to the manager's hobby, several other entertainers aboard have palindromes as names.

Kigekihikigeki has an alternative English title Palindrome Syndrome, which is an apt title, though not a palindrome (or kaibun) like the original Japanese title. In the Japanese mora/syllable alphabet, ki-ge-ki-hi-ge-ki is read the same both ways, so a palindrome. Due to certain qualities of the Japanese language, like the syllable-based alphabet, but also the fact that voiced and unvoiced consonants count as the same (for example, /ki/ and /gi/ are the same), it's fairly simply to make palindromes in Japanese, and author Awasaka has a lot of fun with this. Many characters have palindromes as names, and they become potential victims of course. What Awasaka does brilliantly is hiding some of the palindromes at first. Some names are very obviously palindromes, but other people are revealed to have palindrome names too in surprising ways, that make you hit yourself on the head because you should've seen that coming. Palindromes play an important role in the story itself, but they are also important at the meta-level: the title of the book isn't the only palindrome, as all the chapter titles are palindromes too. And yes, this would be a very challenging book to translate.

As mentioned in earlier reviews, Awasaka was not only known as a mystery author, but also as a stage magician. His debut novel 11 Mai no Trump was a masterpiece featuring amateur magicians, but this time, we're presented with a professional magician (and his assistant), as well as other performers and artists in a circus-like setting. Awasaka shows once again he knows his stuff, as he expertly uses his knowledge of stage magic to spin a tale. Some of the tricks are used for the murder plots, but other tricks are simply revealed to give the reader more insight in how stage magic and illusions work. While Kigekihikigeki is not as focused on stage magic as 11 Mai no Trump, it's still obvious from reading this that Awasaka really loves his magic. We are also given a glimpse in other performances, like fire eating. And while the characters make it feel like a "normal" circus, I have to say that the show boat setting is really unique. The fact that this troupe is performing on a ship is definitely integral part of the mystery plot, making the Ukon-Gou (also a palindrome in japanese by the way: U-Ko-N-Go-U, with the ko and go being the voiced and unvoiced version of the same mora) a very memorable setting.

I do have to say I found the overall story a bit dragging. The first half of the story is very slow, and spends a lot of time focusing on Shichirou, his past and his drinking problem. His assistant Makoto is a great foil to him as the peppy girl assistant who manages to surprise her boss with her detailed studies in magic, but still, things don't move really fast. Even after the halfway point, which introduces some more suspenseful (and comedic) plot points (somewhat reminiscent of Awasaka's A Aiichirou series), the plot feels like its moving only at eighty percent speed. This isn't helped by the rather nondescript individual murders. While the murders do make good use of either stage magic or other performances (there's for example someone burning alive on stage), the tricks behind them are fairly simple. The emphasis lies on the whodunnit plot, but even that is surprisingly uncomplicated. By the time the motive is introduced, you're basically left with only two suspects, and only one of them is really viable as a suspect. There's a pretty neat hint placed earlier in the story to allow the reader to deduce which of the two it is, but the reader is barely given time to process that themselves, so that segment too felt rather underwhelming. And while the murderer did do one thing that might seem impressive/surprising to the reader, it does feel very similar to what was done in 11 Mai no Trump (which was also about magicians/stage performances), so there was a bit of déjà vu there.

Kigekihikigeki was in a way very similar to the other Awasaka novels I read the last few months, focusing on one theme or topic (in this case, palindromes) and running with in surprising ways.  And it's something Awasaka is good at, at mixing comedy, mystery and a unique topic he obviously adores. But in comparison with Awasaka's debut novel 11 Mai no Trump, which featured a similar magicians/performers setting, Kigekihikigeki feels less refined, with simpler murders and a less impressive structure leading to the identity of the murderer. I love the setting of the show boat, but as a mystery novel, Kigekihikigeki is just a decent work, compared to the masterpiece that is 11 Mai no Trump.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『喜劇悲奇劇』

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Strong Poison

I'm still in a dream, Snake Eater 
"Snake Eater" (Cynthia Harell)

Never seen a snake I think (except for in the zoo) and I sure am not planning to see one any time soon...

Kamiki Raichi is a very attractive senior high school student who practices enjou kousai, or "compensated dating". In theory, this means that older men are paying younger, attractive women for their companionship, but as a social issue, and especially in the case of Raichi, it means she's prostituting herself, as the services she renders are most definitely of the sexual kind. One of her regular clients is the police detective Aikawa Hiroshige, whom she first met during a murder investigation, which was also when Aikawa discovered that Raichi is a brilliant amateur detective. One morning, Aikawa decides to tell Raichi about a recurring dream he has since he was a baby, where he is attacked by two snakes inside a dark room. Aikawa's parents had told him that when he was a child, snakes had indeed snuck into his bedroom once, which would explain the dream, but Raichi points out a fatal contradicton in the explanation of Aikawa's parents, which prompts him to ask them what really happened. The truth however is much stranger than he could have imagined, as he is told he was involved with two utterly impossible incidents involving snakes when he was very young. One incident in which a venomous snake managed to assault Aikawa's mother (who was still carrying him inside of her at the time), kill another man, and leave a cabin without leaving any traces, and one in which a snake managed to find its way into the baby bedroom... on the twenty-seventh floor of an apartment building. It's this double mystery that Raichi decides to solve for her paying sex customer in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Souja Misshitsu ("The Locked Rooms of the Twin Snakes", 2017).

The fourth book already in Hayasaka's series starring the self-prostituting Kamiki Raichi. The series has been quite unique in its use of sex as a genuine part of the mystery plot. Usually mystery fiction only features sex to spice things up, but in the Kamiki Raichi series, sex is an integral element of the mystery. The erotic scenes can seem a bit graphic at times (though that actually softens a lot with each new book), but it's always with a cause. Occassionally, Raichi simply uses her sex appeal to get things done or to get information from suspects, but more often than not, these scenes contain subtle clues or link up in surprising manner to the mystery, and are thus always a vital jigsaw piece of the puzzle. The mystery plots of this series wouldn't work without the sex, and that is quite different from how sex is usually handled in mystery fiction. That said though, the eroticism is actually toned down a lot in this novel. Partly because most of the story consists of a flashback starring police detective Aikawa's parents, rather than Raichi herself and to be honest, the erotic adventures Raichi has this time feel less 'necessary' for the plot in Souja Misshitsu compared to previous books.

Souja Misshitsu revolves around two different impossible situations, both involving snakes. The one involving a snake finding its way to a baby room in an apartment on the twenty-seventh floor is titled The Locked Room In The Sky. The window of the baby room was open, but it faces a river, and the veranda was unreachable from either the roof and the room directly below, so how did the snake fly up there? The solution is... troublesome, in the sense that it hinges entirely on some trivia you simply might happen to know. Or not. The whole plot revolves around this piece of trivia, and there's little more to it than that. The use of this concept shows almost no originality, as it's basically used as-is, which means that it is a very simple locked room, solely dependent on something that is probably not common knowledge and without any innovative repackaging of the idea. Sure, the idea of using this concept is original (in a way), but it definitely could've been polished up a bit to give it more of an unique taste.

The Locked Room On Earth is more interesting. The cry of both victims led to the discovery of a man poisoned to death, and a woman carrying a baby inside of her still suffering from a venom attack, both inside a cabin, soon after the rain stopped. Both victims have signs of having been bitten, but no snake can be found inside the cabin, nor around it (the ground around the cabin is still wet from the rain). The theory that a snake didn't do it, but that the woman used a poisonous needle to kill the man to make it seem a snake did it, and then pretended to be bitten herself too is proposed, but this leads to the same problem, as no needles can be found in or around the cabin, and the wounds show that the two victims were discovered very soon after their attack. So how did the murder weapon, be it a snake or a needle or something else leave the cabin without leaving any traces?

The solution to this conundrum has to be one of the most original tricks I've ever seen, and also one of the silliest. It's an ingenous way to poison someone, and I have to admit, unlike the solution to The Locked Room In The Sky, this problem was more than adequately clewed and brimming with its own unique take, but even so, I doubt many people will figure this one out in time, as it's simply so unexpected, so daring that I dare claim that this is one of the most original tricks I have ever seen to poison someone under impossible circumstances. It's also a trick I can only imagine happening in this series: someone like Carr could never have pulled this off. In a very vague way, it kinda reminds of Mori Hiroshi's Subete ga F ni Naru, but only in one specific point. The biggest problem with this trick however is... that while it's absolutely original, it's not practical at all. The circumstances that led to this impossible poisoning are extremely unique, so you're tempted to cry out that this is absolutely absurd, as this could never have happened normally. And you're right.

But then again, that has always been the modus operandi of this series. Hayasaka made his debut with Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken, which was the first book in the Kamiki Raichi series, and that too featured a trick so singularly unique and yet also downright silly, people felt quite divisive about it. Other stories in the series too featured surprising and almost comedic ways to use sex as a viable element in mystery fiction. In Japan, there's the term baka-mys, or "silly mystery fiction", that refers to mystery fiction that feature such silly (yet possible) solutions that can make you laugh at its brilliance and throw the book against the wall at the same time. The Kamaki Raichi series is often also considered baka-mys, and it shows especially in this novel and Hayasaka's debut novel.

Overall though, I thought that Souja Misshitsu was the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books. The Locked Room In The Sky is overall rather disappointing, while The Locked Room On Earth is highly original, but the execution is not as polished as in previous novels, leaving much room for the reader to ask questions starting with "but....". Also, because most of the book is actually told through flashbacks, we see very little of Raichi in this book, which is a shame, because she's the most interesting character to watch.While she was not in the spotlight all the time in the previous books either, her absence this time is especially felt, making this book perhaps feel a bit tedious and longer than it actually is, as it's in truth a very short novel.

So one fairly weak locked room mystery, and a highly original, but not completely convincing locked room mystery in Souja Misshitsu. It's clearly the weakest of the four Kamiki Raichi books, and even the link with the eroticism is a bit weaker than usual this time. But at least the main mystery felt perfectly fit for this series, resulting in a book that is not likely to end up in the best-book-of-all-time lists, but that will remain in reader's memories as "oh yeah, that's the one where the victim was poisoned by......". And that's a feat on its own, perhaps.

Original Japanese title(s):  早坂吝 『双蛇密室』

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Dark Side

"Allora, sono abastanza cattivo?"
"MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine"

"Am I badass enough for you now?"
"MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine"

I never knew Mickey Mouse lived in Mouseton until a few weeks ago. In certain European countries, like the Netherlands, Mickey lives in an neighborhood within Duckburg (the town where Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck live). Their comic adventures seldom cross, but still, the fact the Mouse lives in the city of the Ducks shows how big Donald Duck and his family are in European Disney comics compared to Mickey.

As I wrote in an article last week, Mickey Mouse often acts as a private detective in European Disney comics, where he usually gets the support of Goofy, Chief O'Hara, Detective Casey and other familiar faces from the Mickey Mouse universe. But what would happen if you put the Mouse in a completely new environment without his friends, and where the friendly demeanor of his modern depiction might literally mean the death of him? Mickey is one day informed of two shocking facts: not only does he learn that he owns half of the detective agency of his college friend Sonny Mitchell, said Sonny has also disappeared from the face of the earth. In order to find out what happened to his old friend, Mickey decides to travel to the city of Anderville, a big metropolis that also serves as the crime capital, with gangs and corrupt businesses and politicians ruling the city. Mickey might be a big shot detective who has the trust of the police back in Mouseton, but here nobody even notices a small wannabe mouse detective, and he soon learns that his old ways of detecting won't work here, as you need to be mean to survive in Anderville. Mickey realizes that Sonny got himself mixed up with something big, and now the underworld also has its eyes set on Sonny's partner Mickey, but he sure isn't going down without a fight in the Italian comic series MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine (1999-2001).

While I was reading up for my Mickey Mouse article of last week, I not only learned that most of the Mickey Mouse-as-a-detective stories I knew came from Italy, I also came across the existence of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine, a short-lived Italian comic that put the Mickey-as-detective character in a completely new setting (Anderville), aimed at a somewhat older audience than the usual comics. I also discovered that this series was also published in Dutch relatively recently (in the Disney Premium Pocket line), so I picked the corresponding volumes up immediately (the series is available in various languages across Europe, but not in English it seems).

Simply said, MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine is Mickey Mouse in Gotham City. Let that sink in for a while. Mickey as a crime fighter is not an unfamiliar sight for those familiar with the 30s/40s Mickey Mouse comics by Floyd Gottfredson, or the European Disney comic tradition that built on that, but even so, MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine really feels different due to the setting Anderville. It's a place where Mickey has no friends, where his usual tricks don't work, where the average gang member is infinitely more dangerous than any of the criminal masterminds he meets in Mouseton. The chaotic metropolis is ruled by crime and corruption. It's a depressing place, especially as Mickey can't leave the town to see his friends as he's seen as a suspect in a certain case by the Anderville Police and the only salvation left for Mickey are the rare allies he finds in Anderville. The tone of the comic is also a bit dark, but not really dark: it's still a Mickey Mouse comic, and there are also lighthearted segments with Mickey bickering with his secretary or the regulars and the cook at his usual hang-out Little Caesar.

MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine is a hardboiled mystery comic, and the cases Mickey works on often involve organized crime or corruption in the business or political world of Anderville. While Mickey still has to figure some underlying criminal plot out at times, you shouldn't expect a fair-play puzzle plot mystery of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine, as it really isn't. That said though, this series really works well as a hardboiled mystery series with Mickey. He solves cases by outsmarting small fry criminals and using his wits and his fists to win from assassins and the individual cases are interesting enough as hardboiled mystery stories, thrilling from start to finish and with some kind of mystery for either the Mouse or the reader to solve (even if it's not always presented in a fair way). Some of the more interesting stories are Run Run Run, where Mickey is forced to compete in the Anderville Marathon by a "fan" who has planted bombs along the route and Mousetrap, where Mickey is blackmailed to participate in a bank robbery to set himself up as a scapegoat. There are also some character-oriented stories that focus on Anderville and its inhabitants.

There are some missed chances for fair-play mystery plots, even if that wasn't the goal of this series. Black Mask has Mickey and a few others trapped inside the supertrain Black Mask, with one of the other passengers actually an assassin sent to kill Mickey. It's a very tense story with the assassin making several attempts at Mickey's life , but even though this could've been an excellent fair-play whodunnit, the identity of the assassin was hardly hinted at in the story. In another story, Firestorm, there's actually a fairly-clewed segment where Mickey Mouse and reluctant ally and police cop Patty manage to fool a group of hitmen who want to take out Mickey (with the puzzle presented to the reader as to how they managed to fool the hitmen in the first place), so it's not like a fair-play mystery is impossible within the hardboiled mystery structure of MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine.

The series is relatively short, as low sales and the radical different depiction of Mickey (a Mickey closer to his 30s/40s Floyd Gottfredson comic depiction, rather than his modern do-gooder depiction) led to a premature conclusion in Italy, ending the series at only twelve issues, with a very forced ending with hardly any closure to it. It's almost as if the writers were told one or two issues earlier they had to end it, as basically none of the ongoing storylines in the series were resolved satisfactorily, and it basically ends with Mickey leaving Anderville right in the middle of events. It's a shame the creators weren't given a few more issues to give this series at least slightly more closure, as now it's almost like only the last eight or so pages of this series were available to wrap the whole thing up.

Overall though I really enjoyed MM Mickey Mouse Mystery Magazine as a hardboiled mystery series that happens to star Mickey Mouse. Could it have worked without Mickey Mouse? I don't know: I didn't think this Mickey Mouse was that much removed from the Mickey I knew from the other European Mickey-as-detective stories. The setting of Anderville is used to do stories that you couldn't usually do in Mouseton, but Mickey still feels like himself, only better adapted to his new environment. For readers who are interested in seeing a different kind of Mickey, I really recommend this series with the caveat that it has a very abrupt ending.