Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Double, Double

"Wait a minute, let me get this straight: Twice came in and shot the teller and Jim Fell."
- "No, he only shot the teller, Jim Johnson. Fell is ill."
"Okay, then after he shot the teller, you shot Twice"
- "No, I only shot once"
"Twice is the hold up man"
- "Then I guess I did shoot Twice."
"Police Squad!"

Though the uprise of e-books is certainly noticable in Japan, it's always been a strong place for physical book releases, which is why it's not that uncommon for publishers to go just a bit further than a standard book release. For example, it's not that rare for manga (which are usually printed in greytones) to include one or two pages printed in color on better quality paper. Or for us mystery-readers: the fold-out map! Sometimes, when a diagram for a mystery story is just too large to be printed on one page, or too detailed to for a normal two-page spread (because it's hard to tell what's on the inside margins), publishers will print the diagram on a double-sized page with a fold. Other neat little things I've seen with physical releases is for example the use of different fonts for different narratives within a novel (something not possible with a lot of e-books as usually you can't have different fonts for different sections within one e-book), or even the use of different-colored paper for different narratives (the Japanese deluxe edition of the fantastic horror-manga The Drifting Classroom uses different colored pages depending on whether the part's about Earth, or the other world). The latter is of course something that no e-book can even hope to replicate, and while my experience with them is fairly limited to standard releases, I don't think many publishers working with a print-on-demand model can really pull something similar off.

One of the more interesting things I've seen Japanese publishers pull off are the 'sealed pages': in these releases, two pages are left uncut during the printing process, resulting in a sort of envelope which "seals" all the pages between those two pages. So it's up to the reader themselves to unseal them by cutting the pages open. I've seen this used in two novels in Higashino Keigo's Kaga Kyouchirou series for example (though technically, the sealed pages for both Dochiraka Ga Kanojo wo Koroshita and Watashi ga Kare wo Koroshita are for the post-novel commentary and not part of the novel itself), but also in the gamebook Famicom Tantei Club: Kieta Koukeisha for example. There's something really exciting about these sealed pages: the act of actually cutting open these pages to reveal what's inside feels special. Are you really ready to do this? Once you've cut them, you can't go back! It gives a book a once-in-a-lifetime experience and obviously, buying the same book used (and cut) won't give you the same sensation as cutting the pages yourself.

Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery (2016) is an interesting novel that also makes use of the sealed pages, but in an even more alluring way. As the title suggests, Double Mystery is about two mysteries, told in two distinct stories. The gimmick behind this book is that you can start from either side of the book: if you start from the normal side (that is, from right to left), you'll start with the whodunnit Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel. Should you however choose to start from the 'back' (from the left side), then you'll start with the suspense story Non-serial Killer. Anyway, you can start at either side, but both tales end in the middle of the book, where you'll find the solution to both stories within a set of sealed pages, which you of course are invited to cut open and read once you have read both stories.

Books and literature are a prevalent theme throughout Ashibe's work: sometimes it's a bibliomystery, sometimes it's a parody or pastiche of some Golden Age detective, and at other times his stories feature countless of references to literature or historical events and facts, but "texts" are something you always have to keep in mind when reading Ashibe's work, and as a fellow bibliophile, I certainly am often very much entertained by his stories. So the concept of Double Mystery, a mystery novel that actually makes use of its own medium as a physical book, allowing you read from either end and with sealed pages in the middle, is something that makes me very excited. I can imagine someone less into "books" as a medium might simply shrug and consider it's a mere gimmick, but I absolutely love mystery tales that actually make use of the unique characteristics of the medium, be it books, audio dramas, videogames or basically anything. In that regard, I'd give Double Mystery full points, as you simply don't see these kind of attractive ideas often anymore in today's market.

As the two stories come together in the middle, and the solution to both stories are sealed within the same set of pages, it doesn't take a genius to realize that the two narratives are indeed connected to each other, but arriving at the precise relation between the two stories might prove quite tricky. The recommended reading order by the way is to start with Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel and then continue to Non-serial Killer before you go to the ending, though the reverse order is also possible if you want a more tricker reading order, the book says, so that's what I did. The two sides are both fairly short by the way, more novelettes than full-fledged novels.

Non-serial Killer is touted as a suspense story and consists of the (private) online diary entries by "Bluewildpear", a freelance journalist for Independent News Agency.  When the father of the baby she was carrying died in a car accident after being overworked, Bluewildpear was naturally sad, but still: she had already broken up with him because she didn't think he'd be any good as a father, so it wasn't as dramatic as some might've thought. Kenta might've been a nice man and he might've been sincere when he said he was going to do better now, but the work he did at the film production company Fantascope Co. showed all she needed to know about his future prospects. But Bluewildpear's interests are piqued when she learns that more people working at Fantascope had died in accidents recently from what appeared to be overwork, from a gifted animator to a producer. She starts to think that these might not be simply accidents after all and starts digging, and slowly she figures out there's something connecting all these people. What's funny by the way is that the text here is printed horizontally, from left to right (Western convention) like you'd normally see on a Japanese website, while the other story is printed with the lines vertically from top to bottom, like most Japanese fiction is written.

In Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel, attorney Morie Shunsaku is invited to a private viewing of a film that was thought to have been lost. The show will be held at the Chinese Lute Hotel, located on a tidal island, similar to Mont Saint-Michel. When Morie arrives at the hotel however, he learns that four other people were invited here too, but all for different reasons. By the time they realize they have been lured to the island, it's already too late: high tide has swallowed the road that connected the place to the mainland, making it into a true island (technically a car might make it through, but the salt of the sea water will ruin the car, so nobody wants to try it out). The one employee of the hotel has also disappeared, but in their stead the five guests find a sixth, unwanted guest: Judge Chidi'iwa. Morie knew the judge from the Nanase Incident, in which he as defense attorney more than sufficiently made it clear there was insufficient proof to convict his client, but where the judge still ruled a guilty verdict, all just to protect the 99.9% conviction rate of Japan's prosecutors. The judge's narrow-minded rulings had also ruined the lives of the loved-ones of the other four guests, and it's then that Morie realizes what is going on: in And Then There Were None ten people were lured to an island to be killed one by one, but here, five potential murderers were lured to an island to kill one and the same hated potential victim. And while Morie at first thinks it's impossible that normal people would suddenly resort to murder, he finds he's wrong when the judge is found hanged, and what's more, it appears that only Morie himself could've committed the murder!

So when you're done, you're clear to cut the sealed pages open and find out who the murderers are in both Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel and Non-serial Killer. While both stories are actually fairly simple (and Non-serial Killer isn't even a real whodunnit, but a suspense story) and there's no mindblowing trick performed here, I do have to say that Double Mystery does something neat with the double narrative structure. The two stories are obviously connected, by finding out how is done pretty interestingly, and the narrative of Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel in particular manages to pull of something that would've been impossible to in a normal, straightforward narrative, but works wonderfully in a split-up narrative. Could this only have been pulled off with two narratives that work towards the middle, instead of for example the two narratives one after another or with alternating chapters? I do not think so, but I do think the idea works better by having the actual physical seperation of the two narratives, so the way Double Mystery was printed is definitely the best way for this idea to work. The clewing in Murder at the Chinese Lute Hotel is a bit lacking, in the sense that the jump from one admittedly good clue to the deduction of the decisive attribute of the murderer is rather big, but one the whole, I think that Double Mystery was quite enjoyable, that managed to elevate an okay, but short and simple mystery story to a higher level by making excellent use of the medium.

Double Mystery was thus an enjoyable read: while the core mystery plot might be not as grand as one might expect from the concept of this book, it's still a solid mystery that still makes meaningful use of the idea of having two seperate narratives and a sealed section. I can't deny that I had hoped for something even bigger, as the idea behind the book is absolutely fantastic, but I guess my expectations might've been unreasonably high. Still, the book itself managed to turn a mystery story that otherwise might've been less impressive into something bigger, and in the end, that for this story, this form might be the best and I can't deny it was a fun experience. I'd love to read more mystery stories that make use of the format!

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『ダブル・ミステリ』


  1. 'Double Mystery' sounds interesting, with two interpolating tales and a (literally) sealed solution!

    My local library only stocks a Chinese translation of 'Murder in the Dream of the Red Mansion' - which, I believe, might also have been translated into English? Hopefully there will be a translation of 'Double Mystery' appearing in my local library, though only the first person who borrows it gets the fun of opening up the sealed pages.

    P.S. I'm excited that the first volume of Kindachi 37 will be appearing soon!

    1. Yeah, there's an English translation of that book, but I still haven't read any version of it, though I do have a Japanese copy somewhere.

      I never thought about library books in regards to sealed pages actually! Would cutting the pages open count as damaging the books? :P

      Looking forward to the first volume of 37 too! I think there's also a limited edition of the first volume, with some clear files, so I might go for that versoin, and the second volume of the Kid Kindaichi children's novels series should also release on the same day.

  2. Hopefully there will be a collectors’ edition for the Chinese translation. But while they exist in theory for previous volumes, I’ve never come across one. Clear files - as in folders for documents?

    1. Yeah. I'm not 100% sure that they'll be clear folders though: the Amazon entry only mentions the special edition'll have three bonus goodies, but I think I read elsewhere those bonuses would be clear folders.

      I haven't seen many special editions for the Kindaichi Shounen manga myself: I have the two 20th Anniversary volumes that came with the two-part OVA adaptation with the Black Magic Murder Case, but that's about it. Conan too has had a few the last couple of years with DVDs of specials like the Conan Disappearance Case and Episode "ONE".

  3. The idea of sealed pages is not new but has been used infrequently in the West. I have a few Golden Age books where the publisher sealed the solution pages.

    1. I wouldn't call them common in contemporary Japanese publications, but I've seen them often enough now not to be surprised by them anymore.

  4. All early John Dickson Carr's books use the sealed pages device. There was even a short-lived attempt at reprint editions with the glued pages.

    Incidentally, the concept of a turn-the-book double-narrative detective story is remarkably similar to Boris Akunin's _Quest_ (2008). It features (as Akunin frequently does) two narratives united by locations but separate in times, but, unlike the more normal way of alternating them or putting one into even chapters, it prints them at both sides of the book, daring to choose your own way in how to deal with them. Of course, neither story is really complete without the other one (and there are also false endings and two different conclusions depending on the choice).

    1. Wait, they used to glue them? That seems a much more troublesome process compared to just leaving pages uncut.

      The Akunin book doesn't seem to be available in English translation sadly enough :/ I just checked to see whether there are more Japanese mystery novels with double-oriented narratives, and Orihara's Tousaku no Kiketsu (2000) had that too, though different from Ashibe's book: Ashibe's book uses different writing conventions in his two narratives, so if you start from the left side, you'll also read horizontal left to right, and when starting from the right, you'll read vertically right to left. The Orihara novel on the other hand has you flip the whole book over if you want to start from the other side (as one side is printed upside down).

    2. This actually reminds me of a mystery play my friend watched, with what I thought was innovative stagecraft. The entire stage was a 360-degree circle made up of two semi-circles. And so the audience was split into two halves, with one halve per semi-circle. The events that make up the play are performed on the stage twice - as the audience sees only part of the story depending on which semi-circle they belong to. The solution only becomes clear when the audience switches semi-circles.

    3. Ooh, that sounds fun! Never been to a live mystery play myself before, only watched recordings of them.