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」


  1. "...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..."

    This is disheartening. I remember what you told me about the page-count problem when it comes to translations and suppose a 600 to 900 page-count makes an English translations of Nikaidou mysteries an unlikely prospect for the foreseeable future. I really would have liked to take a peek in Nikaidou's Carr-ish world.

    1. Well, larger publishers obviously have an edge here. Vertical never continued the series, but they at least have a copy of Kyougoku (Kyogoku)'s The Summer of the Ubume out, which is quite lengthy too. There's also an e-book version of Miyabe's The Puppet Master out (published in multiple volumes, like the original), which is an extremely long mystery story. I think the current paperback pocket version is four volumes long.

  2. Oh man Summer of Ubume sounds nice, but it's out of publication. Big shame... It would have fitted nice with their reprinting of the Tokyo zodiac murders.

    This current book sounds also nice. But to be fair no japanese book sounds bad...

    I was just speaking to a Japanese person I met her about how Japan is the Mecca of the traditional detective book and how sad I was that I did not speak Japanese precisely for that and he didn't know about it....

    1. To be fair, there are probably bad Japanese mystery books, just like in any language, but I'm not going out of my way to buy and read them :P

    2. You are right about The Summer of the Ubume. It is a good mystery but the used book prices for it are insane.

    3. It seems Summer Of Ubume has been adapted to movie and to manga. Its something at least...

  3. Thanks for the review, but I'm not sure if I'd get round to reading any of the Ranko stories - I tend to shy away from short stories and overly-long novels. Are there any Ranko novels of a reasonable length...? My standard of Chinese probably won't hold out even if I try to work through 'Werewolf Castle'. 😵

    1. I think The Devil Labyrinth was relatively short, but that was technically two novellas (though very closely connected). The first three Ranko novels (The Magician from Hell, House of Bloodsuckers and The Tragedy at the Saint Ursula Convent) are all around the 600 pages long I think (with a lot of dialogue lines, so lots of white space). I think these three would only feel like "a bit long" rather than the *really* long Palace of Evil Spirits, and then the mammoth that is Werewolf Castle.

      Speaking of Mammoths, the latest (The Case of the Giant Ghost Mammoth) isn't too long either, but not really good or representative of the series either (yes, already read and the review's already done, but it will take a while for it to be published)

  4. Do you think there's a chance at least one Nikaido book will be translated one day ?

    since these novels are so old...

    1. Age shouldn't really be a factor, I mean, plenty of translated books being published that are easily more than five, ten, fifteen years old, and there are plenty of recent books that aren't being translated at all.

  5. I was just wondering, "Man, I haven't seen a Nikaidou review in a while, I wonder..." And lo and behold, here you are. These premises are amazing and batty at the same time.

    Now when do we get that Jinroujou no Kyoufu translation? ;) (Kidding)

    On a pettier and unrelated note, do you know where I can get a good image of the title screen for Turnabout Time Traveler? Blogspot crunched the two I used and I'd like to get that review up something this decade. :P If you can't help I apologize. D:

    ---The Dark One

    1. I have a few more Nikaidou reviews lined up for the coming few weeks to make up for the blank period :P

      My best guess for the title screens would be to check Ace Attorney Wiki: they usually have all the still screens of all cases, including the title screens, in the respective case pages or in the page gallery. Otherwise, I guess you could always check a playthrough of the iOS/Android version on Youtube or wherever and see if you can take a clean screenshot.