Saturday, June 30, 2018

Eye on Crime

Objects are often important to a mystery story. If a murder is committed, the culprit is likely to utilize an object, that is, a murder weapon, to accomplish their goal. A button left at the crime scene could prove as evidence to the identity of the murderer. Or perhaps the disappearance of an object that should be there will become the focus of an investigation, leading the question of why a certain object was so important it had to be removed. An object is thus usually a clue, something that links it to the solution of the mystery (which could be a murder, but it could be any enigmatic happening).  An object might tell you who committed a certain crime, or how it was done, or perhaps why it was done.

Today I'd like to take a short look at a very specific type of object that you might sometimes see as a physical clue in mystery fiction: glasses. Glasses are objects many of us use daily (I do too), and both due to the properties of these personal items, you see them utilized in various ways in mystery fiction. I'll take a look at some of the applications of glasses, and contact lenses, in mystery fiction as a little case study to see how objects can be used in mystery fiction (and I'll of course stay away from specific story spoilers).

The first application that comes to mind is perhaps the least interesting one, as it's not really convincing in any way. Glasses often feature as part of a disguise, because for some reason, some people are suddenly unable to recognize someone if they wear glasses. The most infamous example of this is not from a mystery story of course, but from the world of comics: for some reason people are unable to recognize that Clark Kent looks awfully a lot like Superman without his glasses. Glasses (frames) can of course change the impression of a face somewhat, but to the point of no recognition?  For some reason, Conan is also able to fool the people around him with glasses in Detective Conan. After a run-in with a mysterious criminal organization, high school student detective Shinichi's body was shrunken to that of a six-year old, but he manages to fool his childhood friend Ran (and her father) by taking on the fake name of Edogawa Conan, and by wearing a pair of his father's old glasses. Ran sorta notices the similarities between Conan and the face of her best friend she has known since kindergarten, but for some reason the glasses still manage to fool her. It might be interesting to note that Conan's glasses were upgraded by Dr. Agasa with all kinds of technological gadgets, allowing him to trace a set of markers with the built-in radar in the original comics, while the movies even have Conan wearing bulletproof glasses or glasses with an infrared binocular function. Another example of a detective using glasses to change her look is Houshou Reiko from Higashigawa Tokuya's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de series: Reiko is not only a rookie police detective, but unknown to her colleagues, she's also the insanely rich heiress of the Houshou Group, an economic superforce. She too wears non-prescribed glasses when she's working, as a semi-disguise, but also because she thinks it makes her look intelligent.

Contact lenses are of course more interesting as a disguise, as color contacts allow people to change the color of their eyes. The plot twist that someone was hiding their blood relation to someone else using color contacts is actually relatively common and also more believable than simply the notion of glasses changing someone's face that dramatically.

Glasses and lenses are also usable as murder weapons, though I have to admit I haven't seen much of these stories. I imagine there's a locked room murder mystery out there somewhere where a fire was mysteriously started in a locked room killing someone inside, where at the end it is revealed the sun started the fire through a pair of farsighted glasses. Glasses are also something that are handled often by their wearers, so a bit of poison smeared on the arms of a frame seems like a likely idea for a story. Lenses are of course a bit easier to imagine as murder weapons, as it's an object you stick in your eye: I have seen stories where the culprit tampered with the contact lens solution so the victim would cause a traffic accident.

Now I come to glasses and lenses as physical clues, and it is in this role you usually see these items appear in mystery stories. To start with the simplest example: leaving your reading glasses behind at the crime scene is probably something you want to avoid as a murderer. This can of course also be extended into a deeper clue by turning the notion around: the simple version is saying the murderer was at the crime scene because their reading glasses were found there. Say the murderer did retrieve their reading glasses later, one could build a story that revolves around proving the reading glasses were at the crime scene, and thus proving the murderer was there. I can think of an episode of a certain mystery show for example that used this idea. In this case, the clue is rather direct, as it revolves around the physical presence of personal glasses. Lenses are the same story of course: a struggle might lead to a fallen lens, which can be traced directly to the wearer because of the prescription and other forensic clues. I'd say that fingerprints of the victim left on the glasses of the culprit, or the other way around, would also fall under this first category.

Another simple application is the absence of glasses/lenses: if the culprit lost their glasses or lenses during the crime, it could render them unable to perform certain actions, say for example driving a car or reading the small print. This too is a basic clue based on glasses/lenses, and one you see often.

If one goes one step further however, you arrive at what I find the most interesting application of the object "glasses" in a mystery story. Here it is not clear at first that glasses (or lenses) are in any connected to the crime: in fact these stories are about the culprit actively hiding the fact glasses were involved. An example: the body lies on the rough wooden floor of the room, with all the drinkware and bottles removed from the bar and broken on the carpet. What has happened is that the culprit broke their glasses during their struggle with the victim, with fragments scattered all over the floor. Prescribed glasses are of course very personal items, as one could check out the strength of the glasses, so the culprit wouldn't want to leave the fragments lying around. Because the flooring is so rough, some of the fragments have even fallen between the cracks. Unable to get them, the culprit decided to hide their glass fragments among other glass fragments: hence the broken glassware and bottles. This is just a basic example and a simple variation would be a culprit who decided to use the vacuum cleaner to clean a certain spot in an otherwise dirty room. But this core plot thus invites the reader to 1) pay attention to the oddities of the crime scene (the broken glassware/clean spot), 2) deduce the motive why this action was taken (to hide glass fragments) and 3) connect the glasses to the culprit.

This notion of wanting to hide the glasses making it necessary to take another action is something I often see in glasses/lenses-related mystery story. With lenses, I can think of stories where the culprit had to take certain actions to find the lenses they dropped, which is course easier said than done. Imagine a murder taking place inside a sandbox. If later in the story the reader discovers a strainer was stolen from a nearby home with an open kitchen window, one could come to the conclusion it was used to find the lens. Lenses are perhaps even more difficult to locate than glass fragments,so culprits wanting to hide/find their lenses usually lead to interesting crime scenes, where the action taken to find them usually leads to a very enigmatic crime scene. These kind of stories are the most fun to read/watch, as they go one step further, having you first deduce what the actions were the culprit took, why they were taken, what the implications of those reasons are and finally, to what clue they directly connect.

I have only looked at a few basic applications of glasses and lenses as clues in mystery fiction, but the basic ideas behind these applications also work for other physical clues of course. Glasses and lenses however are items many of us use every single day, without giving them much thought, and that is what makes them interesting props for a mystery story, especially if their role is hidden at first, challenging the reader to first arrive at the idea that that thing on their face might actually be important. I can think of a few other, specific usages of glasses in mystery fiction, but I'll refrain from mentioning them because of spoilers, but it's surprising how many examples of an ordinary object being used in mystery fiction come to mind once you think about it. I doubt this post will turn into a series about all kinds of objects, but I hope this post has given a peek at how physical clues can be developed in mystery fiction.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Night on Haunted Mountain

The bear went over the mountain, 
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see, 
And all that he could see, 
Was the other side of the mountain

I love the covers of this series by the way, the characters look really creepy!

Toujou Genya has not only made a name for himself as a horror/occult novelist who travels across Japan researching local folkore, he also has a knack for running into weird crimes, and solving them. It is for this reason that sometimes letters are delivered at his publisher from people who want his help making sense out of some mysterious experience they may have had. The manuscript from one Gouki Nobuyoshi caught the attention of Genya's editor in particular, as it concerned a little mountain community Genya happened to had visited last year. Gouki Nobuyoshi is the fourth son in a prominent family in Hado, a mountain village in the faraway rural outskirts of Tokyo. Unlike his father and brothers, Nobuyoshi was not made for the rough mountain life, and after he managed to find a job as an English teacher in Tokyo, he decided never to return to Hado, but a few months ago, his grandmother pleaded with him to return to at least conduct the Rite of Adulthood, which is a local custom. The curious incident that happened to Nobuyoshi during the Rite has weighed so heavily on his mind however that he has turned neurotic since then, not able to make any sense out of it all. Genya agrees to look into the matter and find a rational explanation for the baffling and horrifying experience Nobuyoshi had during the Rite of Adulthood in Mitsuda Shinzou's Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono ("Those Who Sneer Like The Mountain Fiend", 2008)?

The Rite of Adulthood is conducted by climbing the three interlocked mountains near Hado all by yourself to pray at the three shrines there, and it usually takes the better half of a day for people used to the mountains, but when Nobuyoshi conducted his Rite, he got horribly lost in the mountain woods, leading to frightful encounters that reminded him of the old ghost stories his grandmother used to tell him about the Mountain Fiend, a monstrous being that would lure wary travellers into the depths of the woods by calling out to them pretending to be a human. Eventually Nobuyoshi realized he had gone off-course in the worst way possible, as after the sun set, he found himself on Kanayama, the "forbidden" mountain of the region that is thought to be cursed by the local people and avoided by all. Eerily enough though, he stumbles upon a little cabin on Kanayama in the night, inhabitated by old Tatsuichi and his family: Tatsuichi is the eldest son of the Kasumi family, a once prominent family of the village of Kumado, which lies on the other side of the mountains to Nobuyoshi's own Hado. Tatsuichi had left his village when he was a young man and became basically a nomad, dwelling across the mountains of Japan. A few months back, he and his family too got lost on the mountains, and he found he had returned to his home village for the first time in decades, so he decided to stay for a while before leaving again. Nobuyoshi is offered a bed, and the promise that they'll show him the way down from the mountain the following day, but when Nobuyoshi awakens in the morning, he finds the breakfast table set up completely, but strangely enough nobody else is in the cabin. And what frightens him the most is the fact that the cabin is locked from the inside, meaning that Tatsuichi and his family couldn't have left the cabin in the first place. Nobuyoshi eventually finds his way down the mountain the village of Kumado, where he confides his tale with Kajitori Rikihira, basically the head of Kumado, but also the childhood friend of Tatsuichi who gave him permission to use the cabin for the time being in the first place. Enquiries by Rikihira and Nobuyoshi make it clear that Tatsuichi and his family couldn't have made their way down from the mountain without being seen that morning, as all the paths from the mountain were under observation since the early hours, and when the two return to the cabin, they find that the set breakfast table was also cleaned! Genya thus needs to solve the Mary Celeste-esque disappearance of a whole family in a double-locked situation, but what first appears to be "just" a strange, personal experience changes in something far more sinister as the day after Genya arrives in Kumado, someone is found murdered inside the locked mountain cabin, and it appears the murder is styled after a certain nursery rhyme about Kanayama!

Early this year, I reviewed Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, which was not only my first encounter with Mitsuda Shinzou, and his Toujou Genya series: it was also a fantastic mystery novel, easily one of the best I had read in years. So yeah, I was sure to revisit the series about the occult and folklore specialist and writer Toujou Genya. Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is the follow-up novel to Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono not only in publishing order (this is the fourth novel in the series), it's also slightly connected to the third novel content-wise: Toujou Genya made an early, but short appearance in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, when he's on his way to the village where the murders of that novel occur, when he gets distracted by some stories about the folklore surrounding the Mountain Fiend local to Kumado and Hado. Not able to contain his curiosity, Genya changed his travel plans to head out for Kumado, meaning he wouldn't get involved with the murders of Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono until much later, which probably also means that that case would've been solved much earlier had he not changed plans at the start of that book! Anyway, during his stay at Kumado, Genya became friends with Kumado's Kajitori Rikihira and learned much about the Mountain Fiend from him, which explains why he became so interested in Gouki Nobuyoshi's story in this novel.

I have to admit that Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono started out incredibly slowly for me. The first one-fifth of the book (more than a hundred pages) consists of the manuscript by Gouki Nobuyoshi, where he explains the strange happenings that occured to him during his Rite of Adulthood, from his apparent run-ins with the Mountain Fiend in the mountain forests to the Mary Celeste-inspired disappearance of Tatsuichi and his family from a locked cabin. This part is mostly written as a horror novel, which isn't odd as the Toujou Genya is explicitly marked not only as a mystery series, but also a horror series, and in both novels in this series I've read now, there are also slight elements that are left unexplained and up to the imagination of the reader (though of course, the elements surrounding the core mystery plot are all explained rationally ). While the novel thus starts with an investigation into an impossible disappearance, it changes into a full-fledged serial murder investigation once Genya arrives in Kumado to investigate what happened to Nobuyoshi.

My praise for Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono was mostly directed at the ingenious use of a certain theme in that novel: while several murders occurred there under very different circumstances, there was a common, underlying theme that connected all these murders, that served as means, opportunity and motive for the execution of all these crimes. The synergy going on in that novel was absolutely crazy, as it managed to do so many different things with one common idea. I was pleased to learn that this concept of synergy is actually also present in Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono! For example, the disappearing family from a locked room, a man whose face was burnt off in a stove inside a locked mountain cabin and the naked man killed inside a mountain shrine are all completely different mysteries in this novel: they are committed in different ways and come about in varying ways, but there is still an underlying theme that connects these mysteries, that explains why these events happened and why certain actions were taken by the murderer. It can be debated that in this novel, the two locked room situations (impossible disappearance from the cabin and the murder inside the cabin) are not directly related to this overall theme (i.e the locked rooms were not made possible because of this theme, like it was in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono), but still, the reason for these mysteries are still ultimately same. And Mitsuda manages to come up with wildly different applications of this theme: the reason for the Mary Celeste-esque disappearance of Tatsuichi's family from the cabin is absolutely brilliant for example, but that wouldn't work for the reason why the murdered man inside the cabin had his face burnt off, and yet it all comes down to the same theme. Whereas most mystery writers would use various ideas for one novel (a locked room murder, and a dying message, and a... ) to bring diversity, Mitsuda somehow manages to always use one single idea, but then come up with a myriad of applications that still surprise the reader. This meaningful repetition of one single theme in all kinds of different ways really makes his novels a joy to read, as there is plot consistency from start to finish and you never feel any part is unnecessary, as everything is done to strengthen the underlying theme.

While there are two reasonably simple locked room situations in this novel (one of which is solved early on), the main question driving the plot is why, and from there it becomes a who. The why is the underlying theme and I really can't praise that enough. The jump to the question of whodunit is also great. The last two chapters where Genya explains how he solved the crime are extremely long (once again about one-fifth of the fairly long novel) as he also goes into detail in some of his mistaken hypotheses about the identity of the murderer. Genya proposes several fake solutions that are actually all pretty good, but each of them are proven to be wrong by some small clue in the spirit of Queen, for example by proving suspect A knew about a certain fact, so they couldn't have been the murderer etc. These fake solutions however are never discarded completely, but elements of them always make it into the next solution, so it's a great experiment in deduction, as it shows how solution A turns into B, and C and finally, the true solution. To be honest, I had my eyes set on the right person fairly early on because of a certain somewhat obviously described clue, but I had completely missed most of the other clues that would set-up the basis for this conclusion, so I didn't feel very accomplished for figuring out whodunnit, as much as I wanted to hit myself for missing out on all those other, brilliantly placed clues (even if not all of them were directly connected to the real murderer).

The novel is incredibly atmospheric by the way, with stories about local folklore and a distinct, post-war air of rural Japan that one might recognize from Yokomizo Seishi's work. In fact, people who like Yokomizo's work should really check out this series, as there's so much in common. This novel in particular seems to be inspired by one of the better known books in Yokomizo's Kindaichi Kousuke series, though I'll refrain from title-dropping as it could work as a spoiler. A series of murders styled after a nursery rhyme is of course also very Yokomizo-esque by the way. Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono actually features a very short Nursery Rhyme Murder Lecture. Though not nearly as extensive as the Decapitation Lecture in Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, it's still an interesting thing to read and to see how the nursery rhyme murder is used in this novel.

Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is thus another excellent mystery novel that brings surprising variety by delving deeply in one single, certain theme of mystery fiction. While I'd argue that the previous novel is better, it's the difference between Extremely Good Mystery Novel and Extremely Good Mystery Novel That Is A Bit Better. Readers who like a bit more conventional mystery fiction might perhaps even prefer Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono, as at least in this novel, Genya appears throughout the novel and actually does detectivey stuff as opposed to his minimalist appearance in the third novel. I am someone who prefers short stories, but Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono is a good example of why some mystery stories can only work in a longer format, as it offers more room to really explore and play with ideas, in a meaningful manner.

Original Japanese title(s):  三津田信三『山魔の如き嗤うもの』

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Sailing In The Sunset

「涙のイエスタデー」(Garnet Crow)

Don't you feel like getting lost in some unknown place?
It'd be more fun if I'd be with you
Even my pain would eventually go away
"A Yesterday Made Of Tears" (Garnet Crow)

I think the only time I set foot on a sail boat was when I was a kid, at a birthday party of a friend... Now I think about it, I haven't set foot on that many boats in general.

After an eleven-month trip across the seas, Uchida Youichi returned to Japan as a hero, as the first Japanese person to succeed in sailing around the world non-stop on his own. The feat earned him fame, a beautiful wife and a very lucratrive contract to promote a series of consumer yachts. So when the news was reported that Uchida had died in a car accident, people thought of James Dean: here they had a man in the prime of his life, lost in a tragic accident. The discovery by the police that the victim had consumed cyanide before his death though suggests that murder is much more likely than an accident and young police lieutenant Totsugawa is ordered to investigate. Digging into Uchida's life quickly shows that all's not well: he cheated on his wife, he cheated with his sailing record and there were more than a few "fellow" sailors who were very jealous of Uchida. But as Totsugawa dives deeper in the case, he finds that his most likely suspect is also the least likely one, as this man was participating in a sailing contest from Japan to Tahiti during the time the poison was planted on Uchida. Can Totsugawa find out the truth behind this perfect alibi in Nishimura Kyoutarou's Akai Cruiser ("The Red Cruiser", 1973)?

The last Nishimura novel I discussed (Tokkyuu Fuji Ni Notteita Onna), I decribed as precisely what you'd expect from a mass-produced novel. The book, originally published in 1989, showed exactly why Nishimura's able to churn out three, four books a month and have almost 600 books to his name as I'm writing this. It wasn't fun to read at all. It was an uninspired, by-the-numbers tale of "mystery" that really wasn't about anything engaging. I noted that Nishimura's earlier novels were, even if not perfect, at least much more entertaining than that novel. So I decided to go back in the past, to read one of Nishimura's earlier novels, before he became the king of the Japanese travel mystery subgenre, and before his books were nothing more than The Stereotypical Two-Hour Suspense Drama.

This is actually the first book featuring Totsugawa, Nishimura's long-running series about a Tokyo police inspector (and his team) whose cases often involve ingenous faked alibis using train schedules. In Akai Cruiser though, Totsugawa is still just a lieutenant, and the first case through which the readers got to know him wasn't about trains, but about boats! Well, that's almost as surprising as reading the first Perry Mason and discovering he doesn't really do much in the courtroom in that novel either!

The main problem of this book is that it's way too long. I mean, the whole first half could've been condensed in a few pages, and I think the story still would've worked. After the prologue that details how Uchida was found after his car accident, the story decides to spend a lot of time looking at the backstory of the victim and of the various suspicious characters who may or may not have a motive to kill Uchida off. This part takes ages. And is written a bit boring. But okay, all of this is of course perfectly fine if this was a conventional whodunnit. But it isn't. Around the halfway point, you'll realize that the one person who got a lot of attention in the first half, but was ignored because he had a perfect alibi is in fact the most likely candidate for murder. So why devote all that time at pretending like the other people were viable suspects? Sure, there's such a thing like fleshing out characters and backstories, but no way did it need that many pages to do that. It feels like a fake-out, and a bad one too, as when a story decides to devote a lot of attention to a suspect only to pretend he can't possibly be the murderer because his alibi is that he was out at sea competing in a race to Tahiti, of course I'm going to guess that he'll turn out to be the murderer. Had the story right from the start pointed at him as the murder, emphasizing the impossibility of the situation, that'd have made a much more enjoyable story.

You don't even have to go all Crofts by making it an inversed story, but do it like Matsumoto Seichou's Ten to Sen and Jikan no Shuuzoku, by making it clear something fishy is going on, but not revealing what did happen. That'd have been more interesting that a large part of the story turning out to be fairly obsolete.

For the impossible crime angle is, at the core, quite interesting. How was the suspect capable in murdering the victim while also sailing (with two other crew members) to Tahiti? The solution to that conundrum is... workable. It's not mindblowingly brilliant, but fairly engaging (even if based on a story by Matsumoto Seichou, as the murderer confess at the end of the tale). Though I have to say, the murderer had to do an awful lot to succeed with his crime. What he did to commit his murder was ironically overkill.

So Akai Cruiser was not a perfect novel either, but at least I felt Nishimura poured effort in this book. The plot is fleshed out (too much so, at times), the impossible crime is alluring and original and the whole setting of the yachting world is actually quite interesting. Akai Cruiser may not be the best Inspector Totsugawa novel I've read, but it's far from the worst either, luckily enough.

Original Japanese title(s): 西村京太郎 『赤い帆船(クルーザー)』

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Brand New Story


"I don't wanna solve mysteries anymore!!"
"The Case Files of the 37-year old Kindaichi"

The adventures of Kindaichi Hajime, grandson of the famous detective Kindaichi Kousuke, and his childhood friend/not-quite-girlfriend Miyuki as chronicled in the comic series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files") originally started serialization in 1992, but the series is still going strong in 2018. After the initial series, consisting of the original Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, the CASE series and a series of short stories, the series went on a hiatus (during whih the creators worked on Tantei Gakuen Q). Hajime and Miyuki then returned in 2004 for a "second season" with several series: a more-or-less annual series ran between 2004-2011, which was followed by the 20th Anniversary limited series (2011-2013) and then Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R (2013-2017). Save for some select stories set in the past, these series were all about Hajime and Miyuki as 17-year old students at Fudou High, the high school with a rather alarming rate of students and teachers who either end up as a murderer or a victim.

So people were quite surprised when late last year, it was announced that Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo R would stop serialization in the weekly Shonen Magazine (a magazine aimed at children and teenagers that has always been the home of the series) and that a new series would start in the bi-weekly Evening (aimed at a teenage/adult audience). But the most shocking news was the title: Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"). The first volume collecting the first 8 chapters was released in June 2018, and as the title suggests, this new series is about a 37-year old Kindaichi Hajime, who is not a slacker in high school anymore, but a single, lowly ranked employee of the firm Otowa Black PR. It's been twenty years since we last saw Hajime, and while we know of all his detecting exploits in his past, it seems that he has had more than enough of his share of gruesome deaths, as the 37-year old Hajime really doesn't want to solve any mysteries anymore. Fate however has different plans for him. Hajime is given the task to supervise a new dating tour organized by his firm: five eligible men and five eligible women who have had no luck in love are to spend a few days in a resort hotel on a faraway, small island, where they'll get to know each other and hopefully find a partner. The problem? Said faraway island happens to be Utashima, the place where Hajime solved no less than three seperate murder cases, which were all connected to The Phantom of the Opera. The original Opera House where all those murders took place was destroyed the last time Hajime went to Utashima, so he hopes nothing goes wrong this time, but his wishes are of course not heard. While Hajime tries to do a good job of conducting the perfect dating tour by organizing games for the participants etc., the curse of the Phantom appears to be too strong, as it doesn't take long for one of the bachelorettes to be killed on the island, but the body disappears without a trace. And that's only the start of this fourth appearance of the Phantom...

This won't be a full review of this fourth Phantom story, as it continues into the next volume which won't be released until October, so I'll only give my first impressions of this new series. Note that the series is about a twenty years older Hajime, but that it's not set "twenty years in the future". The series is set in contemporary times (of time of writing), as has always been in the case in this series (like how The Kindaichi Fumi Kidnapping Murder Case how had everyone using smartphones and GPS functions, even though in Kindaichi The Killer pagers were like the pinnacle of consumer communication technology, even though there should only be one (1) summer vacation between those two cases). Anyway, as Evening has a slightly older audience, we see bit more graphic nudity (although for jokes) here compared to the older series, but this is still mostly the Kindaichi Shounen we know, even if Hajime's far less eager to throw himself in the mystery solving now. Which isn't actually too strange if you realize how many deaths he's seen in his younger days. It's pretty interesting to see a Hajime who doesn't want to solve the mystery himself anymore, who simply wants to do his job in a good way and who even calls Akechi for official police assistance in the case. A reluctant Hajime isn't a new concept: the third live-action drama series (starring Arashi's Matsumoto Jun as Hajime) started out like that, and the live-action drama special of The Vampire Legend Murder Case (with KAT-TUN's Kamenashi Kazuya) had a Hajime who absolutely hated being reminded of the fact he was the grandson of Kindaichi Kousuke, but I think the reluctant Hajime works best in this new series, as unlike those live-action Hajimes, this Hajime seems to be simply tired of all that excessive mystery solving, rather than just being a teenager rebelling against his talents or blood. For long time readers, we also have quite a few of cameos of familiar faces in this first volume (phew, Souta wasn't murdered in those twenty years).

I'll write a review of the actual mystery plot when the second volume's out, but I'll leave a picture here now with the goodies included with the Special Edition of this first volume: a postcard with the cover art of the very first volume from 1992, a memo pad, three clear folders with Hajime, Akechi and the Phantom, and an "invitation" to become a suspect in a future story (someone is chosen from those who send in their invitation to the publisher). I don't have much merchandise of mystery series actually, and this is the first time I got anything of the Kindaichi Shounen series (though I do have the OVA DVDs...). Anyway, as for now, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo is still the mystery series we have known for so long, only with more responsible Hajime and I'm having a good time.

But to flesh out this post a bit more, let's go back to the past: Kindaichi-kun no Bouken 2: Dokurozakura no Noroi ("The Kid Kindaichi Adventures 2: The Curse of the Skull Cherry Blossom Tree") was released a few days before Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo. Kindaichi-kun no Bouken is a new series of children's novels in the Kodansha Aoi Tori Bunko label, which started earlier this year (I have a review of the first volume here). This series is about the adventures Hajime and Miyuki had as sixth graders, as members of the Adventure Club of Fudou Elementary. The club is supervised by their HR teacher Kanae, and the club activities include investigating and reporting on strange events. Whereas their first adventure was set on an island, this second adventure takes place at their own school. One October morning, the children of Fudou Elementary find some mysteries words written on the blackboard in the class. Hajime quickly realizes this is only part of a message, and checks out the blackboards in the other 6th grade classes to find the complete warning: "Stay away from the Skull Cherry Blossom Tree". The Skull Cherry Blossom Tree is a cherry blossom tree that stands in the corner of the playground, which when in full bloom, resembles like a skull due to some lesser-grown parts in its foliage. Lately, the school's been thinking about cutting the tree to place new playground equipment there, but this message seems to be warning the school against that. The message also reminds of one of the seven mysteries of Fudou High, the ghost story of the Skull Teacher, who was based on the teacher who planted the cherry blossom. Is it his ghost who wants to protect the tree?

Like the first volume, this is a rather mediocre mystery story, even if you consider it's for a younger audience. There is little focus, with some smaller mysteries which aren't really interesting. The idea is that the mystery should be about who the Skull Teacher is and why he's doing what he's doing, but most of the time, the novel feels like a random collection of ideas. The mystery of a Skull Teacher who suddenly appears in the corridor is okay, with good clewing, but the mystery of the children being locked up in the school basement is incredibly simple and not really well-thought out: the moment a certain observation is made by Hajime, it becomes painfully clear what has happened, making any attempts of misdirection completely useless. The motive of the culprit for doing all this is also incredibly convoluted, considering there are far easier ways to do what they set out to do. I think I compared the previous volume to the two children's novels based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, released in 2016 and 2017 and written by Takase Mie, in my last review too, but there's a good reason for that. As children's novels spin-offs of established franchises originally aimed at an older audience, they have a lot of common ground, but it's clear that the Gyakuten Saiban children's novels were so much better as mystery stories, even when considering they're for children. The two volumes of the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series up until now however are far less inspired.

Though it's kinda fun to see how the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series does try to flesh out the setting of the series. In the review of the first volume, I already remarked it was a nice touch having semi-regular Souta as one of the members of the Adventure Club (as we knew from the main series Souta had been friends with Hajime and Miyuki since they were kids). In this second volume, we even have Senke appear as a semi-rival to Hajime (Senke's a semi-regular of the early stories who first appeared in The Hanging Academy Murder Case). I mean, come on, Senke of all people!

Anyway, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo is one series I'll definitely continue to read, as it's the official continuation of the series, and it's pretty interesting to see Hajime acting differently this time. Not sure about the Kindaichi-kun no Bouken series though: the two volumes up until now were rather disappointing as mystery stories and while I like how it incorporates little things from the main series, I can't say that's enough to keep me hooked. We'll see how that ends up. Anyway, the next volume of the 37-old Hajime is scheduled for October, so until then, I guess.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第1巻
天樹征丸(文)、さとうふみや(画) 『金田一くんの冒険2 どくろ桜の呪い』

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Message in Red

"I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can."
"The Red House Mystery"

Oh, poor review, I usually line up my reviews chronologically, but sometimes I have to shuffle, and sometimes things get pushed back, so I think this review was written nearly a year before its publication...

Antony Gillingham spends his time wandering the world to admire all the layers of society, helped by the fact that he is in fact quite well provided for. One day, he finds himself in the English countryside when he learns that nearby lies the Red House. House owner Mark Ablett is having a house party, and one of the guest being entertained there is Bill, an old friend of Athony's. Hoping to find Bill there, Antony makes his way to the Red House, but what he finds there is more than just a friend. A murder has just occured in Mark's office, and the victim is identified as Robert Ablett, brother of Mark and the black sheep of the family, who had only arrived at the Red House moments ago after spending fifteen years in Australia. Mark however has disappeared, and suspicions are soon aimed at the master of the Red House. Antony, assisted by his Watson Bill, however suspect that there might be more than meets the eye, and the duo decide to find out for themselves what happened in Mark's office in A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery (1922).

A.A. Milne is of course best known as the author behind beloved children's book series Winnie-the-Pooh. To be honest, I've never read the books, and I am more familiar with Disney's take on it. The Red House Mystery is Milne's only foray into the mystery genre, and dedicated to his father. I had heard good things about it, though I knew basically nothing about this novel when I first started on it besides the educated guess that it was unlikely we'd see Winnie here.

What made an impression at once was the overall pleasant writing style of Milne. The Red House Mystery is on the whole a pretty funny novel to read. Antony and Bill fulfill their respective roles as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson quite admirably and the chats they have as they try to figure out what's going in the Red House form a very strong backbone to the novel, that spur the reader to continue on. I had only planned to read a chapter or two before going to sleep, but by the time I noticed it, I had already finished the book in one go. Their dialogues and adventures are definitely the star of the novel.

As a straight mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is actually quite different from what I had expected. At the start of the novel, we're presented with the stereotypical English country house that is stately Ablett Manor: the Red House. We're also told about a house party with diverse guests who like to play golf and have tea and whatever people do at fancy English house parties. So what'd you expect to see is the Stereotypical English Countryhouse Murder Mystery right? What you think of whenever you think of Christie even though she didn't really write that many of those novels? In truth however, The Red House Mystery reads more like a novel released ten, twenty years earlier, as it is much closer in form to the Gothic novel than anything else. For example, the titular Red House plays a large role in the story, and Antony and Bill spend a lot of time figuring out the dark secrets it holds. The biggest secret they uncover is straight out of the Gothic novel, and while some people (Van Dine) wouldn't be too accepting of it, I'd say that the trope works well for The Red House Mystery, especially as it isn't the one-and-only-answer to every question.

There's also the matter of the incredibly small cast. The members of the house party are dangled in front of us at the start of the novel, but they are all sent away within a chapter of two, leaving us with the two detectives Antony and Bill, and one (1) suspect. It doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out whodunit. Most of the novel is more about Antony and Bill poking around and looking for clues without giving the game away to their one suspect, and again, this device to create tension, combined with the country house setting, makes the novel feel more like a Gothic thriller than post-1920s mystery fiction. Not that that's a bad thing (My first review of last year was about Edogawa's Yuureitou for example, and I loved that!), but it's perhaps not what some readers might be expecting. Note that despite the Gothic thriller mode, it's still a reasonably lighthearted story to read thanks to Antony and Bill's talks, as mentioned earlier.

As a mystery novel, The Red House Mystery is not particularly exciting. Perhaps the plot just aged badly, but most of the nefarious scheme of the culprit can already be guessed by the time the corpse is discovered, which is in the third chapter of twenty-two. The questions of who- and howdunit are thus not extremely exciting forces of propulsion for the plot. The hinting on the other hand is adequate, though early on, Milne uses a fairly cheap device: Antony apparently has a photographic memory, which allows him to remember insane details, but only when the plot wants him to. Tantei Gakuen Q showed how to use a character with photographic memory in a detective story in a much more natural way, without reducing it to a handy plot device that is only used when the writer doesn't know how to further the plot in a different manner.

The Wikipedia entry for The Red House Mystery refers to it as a "locked room whodunnit mystery" by the way, which it definitely is not. And no, I'm not saying it's not a whodunit because it is fairly obvious who is it. The murder in The Red House Mystery is simply not a locked room mystery and never once presented as such in the narrative itself. For some reason, collective memory seem to refer to it as one though. Ellery Queen's The Chinese Orange Mystery has the same problem by the way: it really isn't one, and if you do refer to it as one, you're actually creating a lot of problems for future readers, by creating certain expectations.

Soooo, A.A. Milne's The Red House Mystery. All-time classic of mystery fiction? Nosirree. Looked purely at the mystery plot, it's simply too simple, too obvious. It does fit well with the Gothic thriller mode the story has adapted. But The Red House Mystery does provide an entertaining narrative though, not the least thanks to the duo of Athony and Bill, who play a splendid Holmes and Watson.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

The Eleventh Striker


"Hey! We have one person too many!"
"They Were Eleven!"

A few weeks back, I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, a seminal work on the history of the mystery manga genre in Japan, clearly showing how the genre evolved through an incredibly extensive look at mystery manga publications from the post-war period until the present. With over 800 different titles mentioned in the book, there were a lot I had never ever heard of, and want-to-read lists were quickly made of course. While the book obviously focused on mystery manga, as is: mystery fiction in the form of manga, the book also name-dropped some titles that aren't mainly mystery fiction, but that were still closely related to either the genre, or the development of the genre. It shouldn't surprise the reader very much that there were also thriller and horror titles dropped here and there that also had an influence on artists or series.

Still, I have to admit that there were still a few titles that were mentioned that I certainly hadn't expected in a book on mystery manga. 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was perhaps the title that surprised me the most. Fans of classic manga and anime might have heard of this title, and even if not, no manga-reading fan with an ounce of self-respect would ever dare admit to not have heard of its creator: Hagio Moto. Hagio is considered one of the most influential female mangaka, being a pioneer in shojo (girls) manga, the Boys' Love genre and science-fiction manga in the 70s and 80s. It's not even an exaggeration to state that modern manga as an art form would've looked quite differently if not for Hagio's work. My knowledge of her was perhaps why I was so surprised to see 11-nin Iru! mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar. I knew Hagio had also worked on series like Poe no Ichizoku ("The Poe Clan"), which incorporates horror and mystery genre elements, but in my mind, she was especially the pioneer on shojo and science-fiction manga, and I knew that 11-nin Iru! was one of her most well-appreciated science-fiction series. The three-part manga mini-series won her the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1976 and is widely seen as a science-fiction classic. Turns out that it was also built on a classic mystery structure.

A theatrical animated movie adaptation titled 11-nin Iru! ("They Were Eleven!") was released in 1986, which is mostly faithful to the source material. Warp travelling has become possible in the future, expanding the world of the humans. In mere 200 years, humans colonized over 50 planets, but they also came in contact with other civilizations in outer space. Earth, or Terra, is now part of a space alliance with three other allies, which is also head of the prestigious Space Academy. Becoming a cadet there means a glorious future and also prestige back home, so many, many try, but only a miniscule fraction of the candidates is accepted in the school. As the final test in the entrance exam, ten candidates are sent to a decommisioned spaceship: if they can survive for 53 days on that ship all on their own, they will be accepted as new cadets of the Academy. Any problems they come across they will have to solve together, with no contact with the outside world. If overcome by an obstacle they can not solve themselves, it is possible for them to contact the academy for help, but that also means forfeiting the exam. For the ten candidates who have been dreaming all their life about getting into the academy, spending not even three months on a spaceship seems doable, but there is one little problem: when the candidates left for the spaceship all donned in face-hiding spacesuits, there were definitely only ten of them, but when they arrived in the spaceship, they were eleven! Who is the eleventh candidate and what are they doing on the ship?

As I mentioned earlier, I already knew about 11-nin Iru!, at least, I knew it existed and that it was critically very well received,  but I had always thought it was a science-fiction story that focused on human drama, a mode that is strongly associated with Hagio. And in a way that's right. 11-nin Iru! is precisely that, but it utilizes a rather alluring mystery story structure to tell its story. The idea of suddenly having an eleventh crew member along is incredibly creepy, and as the ten (eleven) candidates never got a good look at each other until their arrival inside the spaceship, there is no way for any of them to know who is the eleventh wheel. Because the candidates don't want to give up on their exam, they don't want to contact the school, leaving them in a self-inflicted closed circle situation, cooped up in an abandoned spaceship with one person who shouldn't be there of whom the motives are unknown. Unlike something like And Then There Were None, the candidates aren't killed one by one, though accidents that might not be accidents do happen a few times and we also learn that not everyone is exactly who they appear to be at first, with hidden pasts for several characters, so as the story progresses, everybody does start to grow suspicious of each other, until it reaches boiling point.

Or to be precise: 40 degrees Celsius. It also happens that a poisonous plant has grown throughout the ship, which releases its toxic pollens at the temperature of 40 degrees Celsius. The climate inside the ship can normally be controlled of course, but bombs set off the moment the crew arrived at the ship not only messed the computers up, but also sent the ship in an orbit moving them closer to the nearby blue sun, edging the inside temperature slowly but surely towards 40 degrees. This combined with the growing tension surrounding the identity of the eleventh crew member makes 11-nin Iru! a rather thrilling view from start to finish.

But I have to reiterate that 11-nin Iru! isn't formally a mystery story, or at least, not a fair one. For those who want to have a fair shake at figuring out who the eleventh crew member is: you'll be disappointed as there's no proper logical process behind this story, complete with hints and clues, that allow you to deduce who the extra person is. At the end, the eleventh person more or less simply confesses to being it. The motive for the presence of the eleventh crew member is better, but again, not really telegraphed in a fair way towards the viewer. How the parallel storyline regarding the poisonous plants is eventually resolved is funnily enough telegraphed much better than the storyline of the eleventh passenger, and reminds of the climax scenes of the Detective Conan films, where Conan usually has to figure some way of escape, in a way that is always properly hinted at. Of course, I could've guessed that 11-nin Iru! wasn't likely to be a full out original mystery puzzler with clues and stuff, as they were quite rare back then, as shown in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar.

11-nin Iru! is overall a science-fiction story that uses a mystery story structure to portray an interesting cast, who have all entered the Space Academy entrance exams for their own reasons. The varied casts allows for the story to take on human drama, romance and comedy themes with ease, as well as the aforementioned mystery element, and 11-nin Iru! manages to present an amusing and diverse story through its shifting tone, yet it always feels as one consistent tale. As a not particularly long story (about 90 minutes), 11-nin Iru! is a neatly concise story that does most of what it wants to do in an adequate way, resulting in a good science-fiction movie that leans on the mystery genre.

I haven't read the original three-part manga, so I don't know whether the mystery element is stronger in that format or not, but overall, I enjoyed 11-nin Iru!, even if it was not precisely what I had expected. The really alluring premise had me hoping for a true closed circle mystery, and with a bit of better hinting, 11-nin Iru! could've become that, I think, but as it is now, I'd say that 11-Nin Iru! is a good science-fiction thriller that comes very close to also being a good mystery film, but just doesn't quite manage to do it. I'd love to see a new movie adaptation of this story that would try to sell it more as a puzzle plot mystery!

Original Japanese title(s): 『11人いる!』

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Black Orchids

林原めぐみ -『名探偵コナンラジオ 第6回』

"Could you stop yelling 'Raaaaan!' all the time in the movies?"
Hayashibara Megumi (voice actress of Haibara Ai) in "Detective Conan Radio - Episode 6"

I'm kinda bummed that the cover of the short story collection discussed today doesn't match the covers of the previous short story collections in this series (this one and this one)  at all, on the other hand: this cover is definitely much better-looking.

Nikaidou Ranko series
Jigoku no Kijutsushi ("The Magician from Hell") (1992)
Kyuuketsu no Ie ("House of Bloodsuckers") (1992)
Sei Ursula Shuudouin no Sangeki ("The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent") (1993)
Akuryou no Yakata ("Palace of Evil Spirits") (1994)
Yuri Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Lillies") (1995)
Bara Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Roses") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Deutsch Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Germany") (1996)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - France") (1997)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Tantei Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Detective") (1998)
Jinroujou no Kyoufu - Kanketsu Hen ("The Terror of Werewolf Castle - Conclusion") (1998)
Akuma no Labyrinth ("The Devil Labyrinth") (2001)
Majutsuou Jiken ("The Case of the Sorcery King") (2004)
Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts") (2007)
Haou no Shi ("Death of the Ruler") (2012)
Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids") (2014)

Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Case of the Giant Ghost Mammoth", 2017)

Ranko is a young woman who has made a name for herself as a brilliant private detective, having solved countless of horrifying murder cases. Her powers of reasoning are not only appreciated by the wider public and the Japanese police force, but occasionally even foreign governments rely on her mind. She first honed her deductive skills as a high school student, when she and her brother-by-adoption Reito (Ranko was adopted into the Nikaidou family) solved the murder case involving the Magician from Hell. Reito has chronicled many of their adventures, among which Ranko's long-standing fight with the superhuman criminal Labyrinth, but also her exploits in solving the baffling case that happened in the Werewolf Castle on the French-German border. Nikaidou Reito's Ran Meikyuu ("Labyrinth of Orchids", 2014), collects three novellas/short stories with smaller problems for Ranko to solve, like a five-layered locked room murder mystery and a mystery that lies in the faraway past.

It's been a while since I last read a book featuring Ranko! I absolutely devoured the Ranko novels in the early days of this blog, despite the sizes of those bricks (most Japanese paperback pockets I read end up somewhere around 350~500 pages long. Nikaidou's books on the other hand usually start at 600, and can go up to 900) and I think I read almost all of them (the ones I'm still missing are either brand new, or not very well received). The books have a distinct old-fashioned atmosphere: they are set in the 70s, but the many (MANY) locked room murders and other impossibilities committed in creepy mansions evoked a Carr-ish world, especially as the Ranko stories more often than not also involved themes like family curses, Western esotericism and medievalism. There was a significant change in story style though halfway through the series. What I described mostly applies in the books up until Jinroujou no Kyoufu (probably still the longest locked room mystery around). Ranko would disappear in Europe for three years at the end of that story, so the books jumped a few years back in time, to chronicle Ranko's intellectual battles against the master criminal Labyrinth, who was basically an artificial human created during World War II who had genetically engineered monsters at their disposal or something like that. And while Ranko still solved some impossible crimes in those Labyrinth novels, they were never as impressive as the ones seen in the earlier books, and her encounters with Labyrinth were often more like science-fiction horror novels with slight elements of the mystery genre, like you'd expect from mid-period Edogawa Rampo, rather than the you-aren't-going-to-get-more-classic-than-this, conventional mystery tales published before Labyrinth's first appearance. The three stories collected in the short story collection Ran Meikyuu are all set in different periods in Ranko's life, and thus also have a different tone to them.

The first story, Dorogune Hakase no Akumu ("The Nightmare of Professor Dorogune"), is set before the events in Jinroujou no Kyoufu, when Ranko was still a university student, but already a famed detective. The police wants her help in an absolutely puzzling case: Professor Dorogune, who had used his fortune to research supernatural phenomena in search of a way to revive his dear dead wife, had been found murdered inside a building, behind four locked doors, with only the victim's own footprints on the snowy path leading to the building in question! Fuyuki Mayako claimed she could teleport and control objects with her psychic powers, so the professor had the building especially designed to test her powers of teleportation, promising to bestow upon her a fortune if she was the goods. The building was basically designed like four squares laid within each other, each one smaller than the next, like four Matryoshka dolls. You'd need to go through four doors, each door leading deeper into the next square (and deeper inside the building), to reach the center square (room), which was where the professor was found dead one morning, with a knife in his back. But as all four doors were locked from the inside (with even the keyholes blocked by handkerchiefs stuffed inside), and only the footprints of the victim himself were found on the only path leading to the building, it seems that only Mayako, with her powers of teleportation and psychokinesis, could've committed the murder!

Okay, let's get the obvious out of the way first: YES, the premise of this story is absolutely amazing. A four-layered locked room mystery, plus missing footprints in the snow? So basically a five-layered locked room mystery? This is what I want to see in a Ranko story! And now you're expecting me to say how disappointing the solution was and how it didn't live up to the set-up, right? You'd be right, but only partially. What Nikaidou does here is use tricks and solutions that are in no way new or original on their own: even beginning readers of the genre might have come across these ideas. But Nikaidou does show his craftsmanship in the way in which he uses those familiar ideas, as he combines very basic tricks with confidence and expertise to create this five-layered impossible murder situation. The result however is a story that fails to truly surprise at the conclusion, as almost all of the crucial parts of the solution are so recognizable. On the other hand, one have to admit that Nikaidou certainly showed skill in how he used these familiar elements to craft a locked room mystery that's still absolutely stunning in terms of premise, and far more than average in turns of clewing. I would have preferred a completely original solution of course, but at least this story manages to solve this five-layered locked room in a plausible manner, and doesn't resort to really bad solutions.

Ran no Ie no Satsujin ("The Murder In The House of Orchids") is set after the events in Jinroujou no Kyoufu and Haou no Shi, when Ranko has returned from Europe back to Japan, as a single mother raising her son Aran. She runs an art gallery in Karuizawa together with Reito, now a married man and also a news journalist. Ranko had stopped her work as a private detective so she could focus on raising Aran, but with Aran two years old now and her sister-in-law Noriko around, Ranko is starting to feel the need for mystery solving again. It's Noriko who has a mystery for Ranko: her friend Kaori is engaged with Karai Shinji, son of the famous artist Karai Leonard. Leonard was a true prodigy, but also very loose in his relations with women, often fooling around with his models. Twelve years ago, when Shinji was still a child, Leonard died due to cyanide poisoning, though it was deemed suicide. Some days later, Shinji's mother called her sister saying she had killed Leonard, and she too took her own life with cyanide, inside a locked room within the orchard house in the garden. While the scandal had been suppressed, the deaths (and possible murders) of his parents has weighed heavily on Shinji's mind, preventing him from taking the next step in his relation with Kaori. Kaori wants Ranko to find out what happened twelve years ago to ease Shinji's mind, and as Ranko is also asked to sell Leonard's remaining work through her gallery, she and Reito make their way to the House of Orchids and start digging in the past.

The story itself mentions it already, but Ran no Ie no Satsujin is very much inspired by Christie's Five Little Pigs: the plot of an investigation into the suspicious death of a womanizing artist a decade or so ago by asking the witnesses to recall the day of the death is basically the same. Unlike Christie's story though, that focused on the psychology of the suspects, Nikaidou's story is built on a core involving a locked room mystery (the death of Shinji's mother inside the locked orchid house), combined with a poisoining plot (of Leonard). I find it difficult to judge this story. My main gripe is that the story is very, very long and as the basic structure mirrors Five Little Pigs fairly closely, leaving few surprises there, and as the narrative's mostly talking about events that happened many years ago, things move very slowly. The locked room mystery is workable and very cleverly clewed, but has trouble standing out amidst the constant talking about the past, and has trouble actually leaving any impression because it's snowed in between the boring parts. The poisoning part of the story however is basically impossible for anybody to solve, at least, not with a chain of reasoning with a solid foundation, as no way anybody is going to connect those dots. There are some good points to it, but I wouldn't call it fair.

Aoi Mamono ("The Blue Monster") too is also set after Ranko's return from Europe, but while Ran no Ie no Satsujin was still mostly a story that relied on classic mystery tropes like the locked room mystery, Aoi Mamono is much closer to the Labyrinth stories, with a rudimentary mystery plot mixed with grotesque science-fiction/horror elements in the tradition of the Sherlock Holmes' story The Creeping Man. Ranko is working on a case involving wild dogs attacking and killing two Caucasian men in Kamakura. Meanwhile, two children adopted by Doctor Moro'o plead for help with the police, claiming the doctor, known throughout the town for his ecccentric behavior and strange experiments, has gone mad and tried to kill them. While Ranko does use some kind of logic to explain the strange events portrayed in this story and it's arguably based on hints in the text, one can best read this as some horror story, as it's nothing special as a mystery story. The weakest link of the collection.

As a short story (novella) collection, Ran Meikyuu actually manages to give a fairly good idea of the sort of stories one can expect to find in the Nikaidou Ranko series. The opening story, while quite smaller in scale and not as impressive in terms of originality, does remind of the earlier Ranko stories, with her working on fairly baffling impossible crimes that you'd expect from the Golden Age. The second story in turn fits the scale of the other short stories in this series, while the final story is very reminiscent of the weird horror-science-fiction-mixed-with-detective-plots later in the series. The first story is by far the best, and while I'd consider none of them timeless classics, I have to admit I enjoyed reading about Ranko again, so I might go after the couple of books I haven't read yet in the near future.

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『ラン迷宮』: 「泥具根博士の悪夢」 / 「蘭の家の殺人」 / 「青い魔物」

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Prism of Eyes

So in my review of Ashibe Taku's Double Mystery, I noted how it used the format of a physical book to bring an interesting experience: you could start from either side of the book, and it had a sealed section, which required you to cut the pages open yourself to reveal what was inside. With the ever-rising popularity of e-books, I really appreciated how the novel made use of certain qualities of the physical book which e-books couldn't imitate easily, and I mentioned a few other examples of neat ideas I had seen in physical mystery books in the introduction to the review that weren't likely to be seen in e-books soon.

The e-book as a format however is of course unlikely to disappear from our lives, as it has also brought mystery readers a lot of good. E-books, and modern print-on-demand services, have allowed rare out-of-print stories to come back alive for prices lower than a human sacrifice and your soul, and with issues like stock out of the picture, the price of e-books in general have also gone down. A handy e-book reader will allow you take a lot of books with you without actually having to carry the physical weight of each individual book, and handy features like being able to change font sizes, or to use dictionaries and set bookmarkers help the overall reading experience too. There are some other things an e-reader can't do of course (like easy borrowing and lending), and I do think that cover art has worsened a lot since the uprise of e-books, but that is a matter for another day.

For many I think portability is also a factor, as not only can an e-book reader carry more books, it is usually a bit smaller than a physical book too. As I mostly read Japanese books however, I find that Japanese pockets are usually even easier to take with me. Most Japanese novels I purchase are in the bunko format (A6), and that's a format that can easily fit in my coat jacket, and even when packed in the train or metro like a can of sardines, I can read with one hand and hold a hanging strap with my other.

I still do most of my reading in the physical format, with occassionally an e-book in between, but lately, I have noticed that my reading when dealing with e-books is less than ideal, and I wonder whether more people feel the same. While this is not exclusively something that has to do with mystery fiction, it does influence my reading of the genre. My biggest problem is that I simply remember less of what I've read when read something in e-book format. I simply don't absorb the text as good as when read from actual paper. I miss details, I seem less engaged when reading from my e-reader. When I read a physical book, I find it much easier to remember what I read, and also where/when. When you have an actual book, with pages you have to turn around, you have all kinds of things that help you remember story details and the flow of a story: from page number to the 'feel' of how many pages are left, to how many pages away you were from the chapter opening or the next chapter, or whether you read it on the left or right page (and where) and other physical markings like that one crease in the page. "Oh yeah, that happened on the right page, about halfway through the book" or "That was one or two pages after the chapter opening, right?". But when I read an e-book, it all becomes one big mess of indiscrete, nondescript words projected on a display, and I just can't read a book as well as I can with a physical book. As all "pages" on a e-book reader are projected on the same display, each page just... becomes one muddy image in my head and this extends to my memory of the story itself. With a proper mystery story, with proper foreshadowing and clewing, this is of course something less than ideal, and in general, I find myself less immersed in actually solving a mystery when in e-book form. Especially as times passes by, I notice that the memories of books I read on an e-reader some months ago, are less vivid and detailed than those of the physical books I read in the same period.

I also really miss being able to easily page through a book. I find myself going back and forth in mystery novels more often than in other books, as you'll often want to check on previous statements (which again, I can more easily remember where those passages are in the first place in physical books), but also diagrams and other useful pages. And yes, you can place bookmarkers in an e-book, but I find just placing my fingers between the two pages and flipping back and forth much more convenient than calling up a digital page one at a time, also e-books don't really allow you to check and compare two (or more) pages as quickly as in a physical book. I'll do some super-sneaky stealth-marketing here and mention The Decagon House Murders, The Moai Island Puzzle and The 8 Mansion Murders here. While I obviously worked on the translation of those books on my computer, on a screen, my own first reading experience with these books was in physical form. All three novel feature a number of floorplans and other diagrams and personally, I can't imagine myself actually checking the plans in detail and flipping back and forth if I had read these books as e-books, even though I most definitely did when I first read them as physical books and consider it part of the reading experience of these mystery stories. I've been reading the Toujou Genya novels by Mitsuda Shinzou lately, and there too I found myself constantly going back to the pages with the family trees ('cause Mitsuda has some CRAZY family trees in his book), but I might not even have bothered in e-book form because it's just not as convenient. The same with character name lists by the way: many books I read have such handy list, and I have to check them regularly as I am horrible with names, but again, I hate doing that in e-books. And you can imagine how I feel about foot and endnotes!

By the way, and this has nothing to do with the readability of e-books, but as I already mentioned The Decagon House Murders: people who have read the novel, will know there's one single sentence that turns everything around. In the Japanese version (which reads from right to left), this sentence was printed as the sole sentence on the right-hand page, so you needed to flip the previous (left-hand) page over to read that one sentence (it was the last sentence of the chapter, so the rest of the page was blank). It had a really crazy effect. I was sadly enough not able to reproduce this effect in the English translation due factors like word count and text mark-up, so I had to settle by placing that sentence at the very end of the left-hand page, which made sure the reader wouldn't see that sentence until the very last moment, as they were unlikely to see the sentence while flipping the previous right-hand page over. These games with the page layout to place certain sentences at certain spots on the page are of course also something an e-book can't really reproduce perfectly, due to the ability to change the number of words on a page and the font size.

So in general, I find myself only using my e-book reader for mystery stories if I have no other (reasonable) choice. I mean, if I can get a book for cheap digitally while a physical copy runs into the three digits, sure, I'm not going to complain, but I do notice that reading mystery stories on an e-book reader is significantly less enjoyable to me than in physical form, and I really do think it's a shame. I wonder if more people have trouble with reading e-books, or perhaps whether they find reading from an e-reader actually preferable (in terms of pure reading experience)?