Sunday, July 29, 2018

The Melody of Death

「悪魔ここに誕生す 」
"Here the devil was born."
"The Devil Comes Playing The Flute"

It's really weird to see actors you only know from one, specific role playing someone completely different. The only drama I've seen with Yoshioka was the excellent Dr. Coto's Clinic TV drama series where he played the titular Dr. Coto. I watched those series like ten years ago, so it was weird to see him in a very different role now.

Yokomizo Seishi's Kindaichi Kousuke is arguably Japan's greatest fictional detective in literature, and there have been more than a few adaptations of his adventures ever since his debut in 1946's Honjin Satsujin Jiken. Two years ago, NHK (Japan's national public broadcasting station) produced an excellent TV special adaptation of Gokumontou, starring Hasegawa Hiroki as the famous detective dressed in a shabby hakama and a hat. Some months back, it was announced that NHK would produce the follow-up TV special, though interestingly, this second special featured a different lead as Kindaichi Kousuke: apparently the concept is that they will cast a new Kindaichi each time, to fit the atmosphere of the specific work and the script. On July 28th, 2018, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku ("("The Devil Comes Playing The Flute") was broadcast on NHK Premium, starring Yoshioka Hidetaka as private detective Kindaichi Kousuke. Kindaichi is asked by Tsubaki Mineko to investigate the circumstances of her father's death, Viscount Tsubaki. The viscount was the prime suspect in the so-called Tengin Poisoning Case several months ago (based on the real Teigin Case, also featured in Ellery Queen's International Case Book), but the viscount was able to prove his innocence. However, the viscount decided to commit suicide some months afterwards, leaving a message to his daughter that "the shame is too much for him to bear and warning her for the devil who comes playing the flute." But even after his death, family members claim to have seen him hanging around the house playing his flute music, so it is decided they will hold a seance to see if he's really dead. Kindaichi is invited to watch the seance, which ends abruptly when a mysterious mark dubbed the Mark of the Devil appears on the seance table and the Viscount's flute arrangement "The Devil Comes Playing The Flute" suddenly resounds throughout the mansion. This is just a prologue for the tragedy though, as the following day, former Count Tamamushi (Mineko's great uncle) is found murdered in the seance room, and it appears this was a locked room murder!

The novel of Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku was originally released in 1973, and I have to admit I have a soft spot for it, as it was in fact the very first Kindaichi Kousuke novel I read in Japanese (I had read the English translation of Inugamike no Ichizoku before). The works ranks as one of Yokomizo's better known works and it has been adapted for both the silver and the small screen several times, though the most recent adaptation before this 2018 one dates from eleven years ago already.

I praised 2016's Gokumontou as a faithful adaptation of the source material. To be honest, I am not sure what to think of this adaptation of Akuma ga Kitarie Fue wo Fuku. On one hand, it has incorporated some of the very small details of the original novel, which is something I really appreciate. On the other hand, the ending has some extremely drastic changes that really transform the work into something different, and personally, I didn't like the direction of this final act of the special, so I am quite torn. As a mystery story however, both the special and the original novel focus on the why and who, rather than the how. Most of the murders featured in this novel could've been committed by anyone, and for example the trick behind the locked room murder is not particularly original nor surprising. The emphasis thus lies in the motive behind the murders, and this is tied directly to the insanely complex relations between the various characters in this story. The initial situation within the Tsubaki mansion isn't simple on its own, with Viscount Tsubaki and his family, the family of his wife's brother, as well as her uncle (and lover) all living together, but as Kindaichi starts to dig around to see what Viscount Tsubaki's last words might have meant, he starts to uncover that few of the people in the house are what they seem to be, and what he finds is almost grotesque. The story thus focuses on figuring out the deranged backstories of the various characters, which does lead to a rather slow TV special, as very little happens and it's mostly Kindaichi having a conversation with someone else.

This TV special really went all-out going into the dark aspects of this story though, even changing some story elements in the denouement just to make it even heavier on the heart. As a portrait of how unhinged people can become and how it can lead to murder, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku does more than a good job, but this focus on human psychology does mean the mystery-solving itself feels less important. While there's an interesting clue that points directly towards the identity of the killer, most of the very long denouement is spent on Kindaichi hesitating whether he should tell everyone his shocking findings, and the reactions of everybody on his revealings. For people into motives, Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku will probably be a very satisfying special, as man, it's unique. This does explain why Yoshioka was cast as Kindaichi for this special. Yoshioka plays a somewhat older Kindaichi than previous ones, as judged from his graying hairs, but the human warmth and gentleness of his Kindaichi is what really saves this special from becoming far too heavy and I couldn't imagine Hasegawa's Kindaichi to have given the proper counterbalance to the atmosphere of this special. I do find it a shame that the original ending was changed quite drastically, as I felt the original novel at least showed some light at the end of the tunnel. I did like how the very final scene in the special manage to salvage one part of the original ending, when Kindaichi realizes that he could've guessed the identity of the murderer right from the start thanks to a clue that has been presented to the viewer right all throughout the special.

Akuma ga Kitarite Fue wo Fuku is a very atmospheric TV special, resulting in a work that really explores the dark aspects of the original novel. This dark feeling is luckily countered by a new Kindaichi Kousuke who brings something unique, but some of the plot changes were only made to make this a heavier story, despite it already being a dark story from the start, so this special ends on a really depressive note, something I think wasn't necessary per se. At the very least, it is obvious that NHK is willing to approach each of these Kindaichi Kousuke adaptations in completely different manners, so it'll be interesting to see how their next adaptation will turn out (which is heavily hinted to be Yatsu Haka Mura). At any rate, I'll be sure to watch that one too, as despite the story changes, I do think this was an adaptation worth watching.

Original Japanese title(s): 横溝正史(原)『悪魔が来たりて笛を吹く』

Saturday, July 28, 2018

That's Snow Ghost

"It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast."
"His Last Bow"

I suddenly remembered I have ridden on an elephant once, at some children's festival. Weird how you suddenly recall things when writing.

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 Giant Phantom Mammoth Case", 2017)

Nikaidou Ranko has made a name for herself as a young, yet brilliant detective with a strong sense of justice. She also likes to solve mysteries of either the fictional kind, or at least less bloody-serial-killings-in-locked-rooms-and-other-impossibilities kind, which is why she, and her brother Reito are also members of the Art of Murder Club. This small informal club meets once a month in Ranko and Reito's regular cafe, with the members a diverse bunch, including the owner of the cafe and Professor Speer, a German who moved to Japan after World War II. In these meetings, the members propose tales of mystery (fictional or real) and challenge the others to solve them. In an earlier meeting, Professor Speer had told about his younger days, when he was a covert agent for the German army and came across the impossible disappearance of a whole mansion in a few hours in Russia, which was also where he first met with his late wife (who is revealed to be the surviving daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the last sovereign of Imperial Russia). Nikaidou Reito's Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken ("The Giant Phantom Mammoth Case", 2017) has Professor Speer reveal more his spy past during the Russian Civil War, in a sequel to the prior story.

Young Lieutenant Speer is ordered by his superiors to find "the Valley of Death" beyond Lake Baikal in Russia. The German army has reason to believe "Rasputin's Brides", a group of spirit mediums who used to serve Rasputin, are held by the White Army in that Valley. They are believed to have psychic contact with the Russian Empire in the future (which has apparently taken over the world), allowing the White Army to utilize (war) technology from the future. One of the generals of the White Army has set up base in the Valley of Death, which is believed by the people to be protected by a phantom mammoth from ancient times, capable of throwing giant boulders to crush tanks coming in. Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II and secretly the lover of Lieutenant Speer, is also held in the valley. Speer's orders are to kill the spirit mediums and Anastasia, though he himself naturally wants to save his lover. Lieutenant Speer therefore, under the name of "Sergei Ephrussi", joins a certain unit of the Merchants, a group affiliated to the White Army. This unit, led by Captain Frolov, is scheduled to deliver goods to the White Army in the Valley of Death, which is the easiest way for Speer/Sergei to get inside the valley. The Red Army is everywhere though, making it a difficult trip for the Merchants to deliver their freight, especially as a mysterious person they call the "Chaser" is on their trail, who has already offed several men of the unit without leaving any footprints in the snow. Professor Speer hands the relevant diaries and documents to Ranko and the others in the Art of Murder Club, challenging them to figure out who the Chaser is, and how this person managed to commit the impossible murders.

I started reading the Nikaidou Ranko novels again this year, after a long reading hiatus. The direct reason for my return to this series was actually the release of this novel: Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken was not only the first full-length Ranko novel since 2012's Haou no Shi, it was also a special novel to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the series, as Jigoku no Kijutsushi released in 1992. With the medicore Labyrinth saga finished, which had unfolded in the last four Ranko novels, and the fact this was released especially for the occassion, I was hoping that this new novel would be a return to the more classically structured grand puzzle plot mysteries with impossible crimes and Ranko being involved early on, like in the earlier novels, rather than the more 1920s/1930s science-fiction horror mystery adventures that made up the Labyrinth stories. Chronologically Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken was also set in the time period that featured the more classically-styled stories: this novel takes place after the short story Russia Kan no Nazo, when Ranko and Reito were still students (in the 70s), with Ranko's greatest adventure (Jinroujou no Kyoufu) still ahead of her.

The Ranko framing story is only book-ending the main body of the story however, which consists of excerpts from the diaries Lieutenant Speer (Sergei) and Captain Frolov kept during their trip for the White Army's secret base in the Valley of Death. To be honest, I felt great disappointment when I realized this was the story structure. Jinroujou no Kyoufu is the only story wherein the story-within-a-story framework worked for this series, and that's a special case, as each of the two seperate narratives were full-length novels on their own, and they were followed by two lengthy volumes that followed Ranko as she started her investigation into the two narratives presented earlier, so she had plenty of room herself. Soumenjuu Jiken and Haou no Shi however were not very enjoyable (or not enjoyable at all), as Ranko herself barely appeared on those stories, and most of those stories were more focused on bringing an 'oh-my-god-what-is-happening' atmosphere, rather than a good mystery story. There is less dwelling on gore in Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken, but still, it mostly reads like a spy thriller adventure novel, with a few mystery elements, rather than a full-fledged mystery novel.

The main problem I have with this novel is that it feels disjointed, like a collection of ideas here and there that however never really manage to become one whole. Take the titular Phantom Mammoth for example. The novel starts with a very short account by the sole survivor of a Red Army unit which had been annihilated by the ghostly monster, which obviously paints the being as an impossible mystery. But then the whole story about the Mammoth is mostly brushed away for the Merchants/Chaser story and while the "mystery" of Phantom Mammoth is revealed at the end of the story, when Sergei and Captain Frolov arrive in the Valley of Death, the "solution" given for the being is basically the most boring one you could give, and it's not like there were any real clues to that explanation. So why have the Phantom Mammoth feature in the title at all if it's actually a minor element in the story that isn't particularly good anyway?

The mystery surrounding the Chaser of the Merchants and how he twice manages to commit murders without leaving footprints in the snow is constructed in a more capable way, though still somewhat underwhelming. The Chaser pulls of the trick twice, in somewhat similar situations. The first time, Lieutenant Speer/Sergei and Captain Frolov arrive at a house where one of their unit members has been killed just moments ago. The only snowprints leading to the house are that of the victim, but there is no sign of the murderer inside despite a search by the two. The second time something similar happens is when the Merchants are invited to the home of Maiya Myskina, a former Bride of Rasputin. During the night, Myskina is murdered and decapitated, and the same happens to her daughters. The body of one of the daughters is missing, while the Siamese Twin is found in the chapel, but while the person who brought the body there left footprints in the snow, there are none found leaving the chapel, yet nobody is inside. The solution to both these impossible episodes hinges on the same concept at its core, and it's... okay, I guess. It's nothing original, but mostly an okay combination of various elements that seasoned readers of mystery fiction will know, or will likely come across quite often. It's not a particularly inspiring solution to the impossible crime though, and the impossible situations themselves are treated rather lightly within the context of the story, so it's hard to feel really engaged with them. The biggest issue I have is the rather bland clewing. The clues on their own are not original either and Nikaidou does nothing new with them and the implementation is rather disappointing. I wouldn't say I felt cheated, but it feels more like Nikaidou added the clues just so the reader can't say he cheated, rather than he really tried to make it a fun game for the reader to solve.

In the afterword, Nikaidou mentions he got the inspiration for the title of this novel, and for the contents from Shimada Souji's Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken, which was also about Anastasia surviving the revolution in Russia. While Shimada's story was more rooted in actual history, Nikaidou employs much more fantasy in his story, which is certainly an element that has been present in most of the series. The use of folklore and the occult (or the belief in the occult by certain figures) has always given the Nikaidou Ranko series a creepy atmosphere that went really well with the grand murders, with tales about subjects like the Spear of Longinus, vampires, the Pied Piper of Hamelin woven into the narrative. But the occult is seldom as upfront as in this novel, as the whole reason Lieutenant Speer is sent to the Valley of Death is because the German spirit mediums say the White Army's spirit mediums are in contact with the future and stuff. I mean, the occult itself does not infringe upon the core mystery plot of the no-footprints-in-the-snow conundrum, but still, it's a bit weird to see it so prominently, especially as it's not as much 'you can choose to believe it or not' occultism, but actually occultism (Speer for example gets a revelation through Rasputin's Brides at some point, showing him an early glimpse of World War II). We had genetically engineered gorilla-like monsters in Soumenjuu Jiken, but even that is more believable than receiving messages from the future.

So I wasn't too big a fan of Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken as a novel. The core mystery plot (the missing footprints motif) would've worked just as well as a much shorter form (novella or even short story), as as it is now, the novel feels disjointed, as the titular Phantom Mammoth is just a very small element of the story (and not a particularly good one either). There are elements that work better becauese there's the framing story and the story of Lieutenant Speer/Sergei, Captain Frolov and the Chaser, but even so, I'm not sure whether the longer length is really an improvement over a hypothetical shorter version, even if that version might not incorporate those elements as well as the current form. While not a bad novel, I find Kyodai Yuurei Mammoth Jiken surprisingly bland, especially as I had hoped that for the occassion, we'd have something more similar to classic Ranko. I have only one Nikaidou Ranko novel left unread now by the way, but the reputation of that novel is not particularly good, so I'm not sure whether I'll be reading it any time soon (especially as I have already read three of them this year).

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『巨大幽霊マンモス事件』

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Classic Creep Capers

"Can't sleep! Clown will eat me!"
"The Simpsons"

In Japan, there's a very lively market for self-published works, commonly referred to as doujin works. You can find doujin material in any form, from fanzines (doujinshi) to self-published videogames, music to audio dramas, and the contents can also be either based on an existing IP (say, a fanfic comic based on Detective Conan or parody games of Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney), to completely original material from the doujin author themselves. While nowadays, a lot of doujin material is also sold in digital format, there are still many, many doujin circles that publish their work in physical format, and half of the fun of making a doujin comic is sending off the data files to a professional printer and binder, and then bringing your box of freshly created booklets to a convention or some other event to sell the fruits of your labor yourself, meeting with each and every customer. Indeed, the biggest anime/manga/game related event in Japan is in fact Comiket, an event that is held twice a year, where countless of doujin authors sell their newest, self-published creations. Comiket nowadays attracts half a million guests, so that shows there's a market for self-published work. For some artists, self-published doujin is a first step in getting a contract with a large publisher to become a professional artist (there are a lot of professional mangaka who started out in the doujin scene), while others simply publish doujin as a hobby. And you also have professional mangaka who are still active in the doujin scene, as a self-published comic is something distinctly different from one published by a large publisher.

Nemoto Shou is one of those professional mangaka who's still active in the doujin scene (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma/A Single Six-Tatami Mat Room in Sapporo). For about ten years now, Nemoto has been self-publishing a mystery comic series titled Kaiki Tantei ("Detective of the Uncanny") which has been quite well received among those who have read it, but due to the scale of self-publishing, the number of people who were actually able to read his comics was obviously quite limited. Fukui, author of the excellent Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, also mentioned this was a title to look out for: he wasn't able to include it in his excellent history of mystery comics because at the time of writing, these comics were still self-published, but thanks to the efforts of publisher Bungeishunju (Bunshun) and the wonders of the digital world, Nemoto's wonderful mystery comic was finally made widely available in the major e-book stores in Japan in April 2018. The first of the three volumes is titled Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura - Hebi Ningen ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny: The Snake Man", 2018), which collects the original first four issues.

The first story, The One-Eyed Clown, introduces the reader to the two protagonists and the basic setting. Of all the school clubs at Shimoyama Middle School, two are forced to share one classroom for their club activities, because both clubs are on the verge of extinction, each having only one member left. Scientific-minded Sharaku Homura (yes, that is a play on Sherlock Holmes) is the last member of the Experiments Club, while the one-year younger Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke is the last member of the school's Karate Club. While the two have widely differing interests, the two do share the same inquisitiveness into the many odd incidents happening in and around town. For example, as of late, an one-eyed clown has been seen attacking people near Shimoyama Middle School, so the two decide to check it out, but little did they know this would turn into a gruesome, and baffling mystery, as the clown not only kills one of the school's teachers by impaling him (further proof that clowns are, in fact, evil), the clown also manages to disappear twice from what seems to be an inescapable situation!

The art and the comedy in the first few pages is a bit deceptive, but as the story continues, it's easy to see the similarities between Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. Both focus on murderers who like to dress up like Scooby Doo villains, and both series are actually quite gruesome. With Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, one could guess from the art (especially in the earlier volumes), but man, I was surprised by that first impaling in this story! What follows is an excellently plotted mystery story that might be a bit simple, but it's written and drawn in such a capable manner, I can't but enjoy this series. There are two distinct impossible disappearances in this story: one wherein the clown manages to disappear from an alley with a dead end, and one where the clown disappears from a classroom. The first is simple (it's the first mystery in this story, and Homura solves it immediately), but it has an excellent visual clue, which also signifies the importance of visual clues throughout the series overall (more on that later). The disappearance from the classroom is much better. It is in principle a very easy trick (again excellently clewed), but what would practically be a very clumsy manner to fool the detective becomes a very memorable locked room situation due to the reason why the clown disappeared from the room in the first place. I really didn't see that one coming! Fantastic way to turn a simple idea into something much, much more.

This first story has a lot of visual clues, making excellent use of the comic format. It's also clear that Nemoto loves to play fair with the reader: he even refers to specific pages and panels to show he plays absolutely fair. For example, in the case of the clown disappearing from the classroom, Karate Kid suggests the clown might've been hanging from the ceiling, but Homura says it's impossible, and then we see a flashback to an earlier panel, where we see the room from a low angle aimed at the ceiling! This panel is particularly good, as the focus is aimed at Homura trying to turn on the light switch, but it also conveys the information nobody's hanging from the ceiling. Nemoto is quite good at hiding clues and foreshadowing in these panels by the way, as we'll also see in other stories. The identity of the clown is a bit obvious, also because of these visual clues, but overall I'd say this first story was really entertaining.

Takeshi had only just joined the Karate Club as its second member in Village of the Bloodsuckers, when he died together with his father in what seems a simple case of food poisoning, but during the funeral service, Homura and Karate Kid learn that something sinister might be going on. The Kibasawa family are the descendants of Kakure Kirishitan, people who continued to practice Christianity underground during its ban in the Edo Period, and they have a fortune in gold coins as their family treasure. Lately, a figure resembling a vampire has been seen around the village, who says he came over from Europe to Japan centuries ago, but was defeated by the ancestors of the Kibasawas back then. Now he has returned to take revenge and steal the treasure. Takeshi's father held one of the two keys that lead to the treasure, but that key was stolen. Takeshi's uncle has the last remaining key to the treasure, but despite Homura and Karate Kid's efforts, Takeshi's uncle is murdered in front of Homura's eyes with an iron maiden. Homura suspects that a human, not a vampire was responsible for these deaths however, but the two main suspects both have perfect alibis for the murder of Takeshi's uncle....

It's going full Kindaichi Shounen now, with a bloody murder with an iron maiden and a semi-impossibility due to the perfect alibis of both suspects. The alibi trick is a bit easy to guess as the fact that something happens to Homura a few times is enough of a hint to get you on the right track. It is perfectly well-clewed though, and the misdirection is also well thought-off. There's a dying message too that points directly at the murderer, but it's rather straightforward if you happen to know a certain word, or practically impossible because you don't happen to know that specific word, so it's a not particularly clever dying message.

The Dancing Dead is a very short story, that is more horror than mystery. Homura and Karate Kid are visiting a small fishing village to look for rare starfish, when they learn about a cliff that's a popular spot for people to commit suicide. There they find a figure dressed as Ebisu, who kills a person who had just decided not to commit suicide. A clumsy slip of the tongue allows Homura to deduce who this Ebisu is, but this part is extremely simple. The rest of the story deals with a direct, physical confrontation with this murderer.

The final story included is The Snake Man, which is the name of a mysterious figure creeping around the more rural, eastern part of Shimoyama City. Homura and Karate Kid are introduced through a newly arrived transfer student to Saikawa Kenji, a classmate at his previous school. There are plans to open a large shopping mall in the eastern part of Shimoyama City, and the land owned by the Saikawas is needed for that, but the Saikawas are warned by the Snake Man not to sell their land. The Snake Man is the manifestation of the curse of a legendary giant snake, which was defeated by an ancestor of the Saikawas. To appease its spirit, the giant snake was enshrined in a small shrine inside a cave, with a long corridor of torii gates (painted green, instead of red) marking the entrance to this cave, similar to Kyoto's famous Fushimi Inari. At first, the Snake Man seems to be a creepy, but ultimately harmless being, though Homura and Karate Kid are witness to it being able to run over water. Later, the Snake Man turns out to be quite harmful, as the realtor who wants develop the shopping center is found dead in the garden of the Saikawas. The realtor's hands are cut off, and when everyone makes their way to the underground shrine, they find the realtor's hands inside a small container decorated by snakes. Homura suspects one of the Saikawas committed the murder, but she has one problem: none of the Saikawas had enough time to bring the realtor's hands to the cave after the murder, which means they all have an alibi. The way the murderer gives themselves away is a bit of a cliche, but the semi-impossible angle of how the hands were brought into the cave is pretty original, even if a bit obvious (though that is also partially because it's very similar to a faulty theory proposed earlier in the story). And while all these stories have a surprisingly dark aftermath, I'd say this story had the nastiest aftertaste.

This volume of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura was really surprisingly well done, providing a very entertaining mystery manga. The stories do follow a somewhat similar formula with the dressed-up supervillain vs detective set-up, but as a mystery story, this manga is really good, being absolutely fair, with original plots and a fairly unique artstyle. I'm really happy this series is now widely available as e-book, because the old, physical doujin format of self-published booklets meant that only very few people were able to get their hands on these books. I already have the other volumes purchased, so expect more reviews in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 1 蛇人間』

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

In The Mind To Suffer

"Paris in the fall, the last months of the year, at the end of the millenium. The city holds many memories for me, of music, of cafes, of love, and of death."
"Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars"

As people may have noticed, I'm not a big fan of John Dickson Carr. Not that I dislike his works, but unlike other authors with similar reputations I never really caught the virus. I liked The Judas Window a lot for example, and I think The Hollow Man has some great moments (it's a bit too contrived at times though), but I never felt the urge to read all of Carr (or certain series), while I did have that feeling of wanting to read more and more with Christie's Poirot and Ellery Queen. In fact, I can't even see what people prefer in Carr over early Queen in terms of pure mystery plot (I can see the point if we're talking about story 'fluff', but in terms of the core mystery plot...). I might read some Carr whenever I come across them and most of the books I read have some okayish-to-good ideas and concepts in them, but for some reason I never get that "I need to read more" epiphany. So I usually average out on maybe one Carr review once every two, three years...

After her divorce with cheating and ne'er-do-well Ned Atwood, beautiful Eve Neill got herself engaged with Toby Lawes, of the respectable Lawes family. The Lawes lived right across the street from Eve in the city of Paris, which is also the reason why Eve was scared to death when one night Ned appeared in her bedroom, with the helpf of a spare key he had kept. Unable to give Eve up, Ned pleads with Eve not to marry Toby, and to come back to him, but Eve rejects him vehemently, but with her in-laws right across the street, she's afraid to make a scene, as being seen with her ex-husband in her bedroom late at night probably doesn't look good. Ned refuses to give up however, and even threatens her sexually to prevent her from marrying another, but as he notices that Sir Maurice Lawes, father of Toby, is in the study, he walks over to the windows to draw attention to him and Eve. Eve tries to stop him, but the two see a horrifying scene. Sir Maurice has been bashed on the head, and it's obvious he's not among the living anymore, and Ned even spots someone leaving the room at that very moment, though he's not willing to share the identity of the owner of the brown gloves with Eve. Eve tries to get Ned out of her house as quickly as possible, fearing the police and her in-laws will come as soon as the murder is detected, but pushes Ned off the stairs in her haste. Ned manages to leave the premise with a bloody nose and a bump on the head, but this turns out to be a grave mistake, as Eve is later suspected as the murderer on Sir Maurice, as the police found blood on her clothing (which we know is Ned's), as well as a shard of a snuff-box once owned by Napoleon, which has just been purchased by Sir Maurice that night and which had been smashed into pieces at the crime scene. And to make things even worse: the fall on his head resulted in a concussion for Ned, and he's been unconcious for days, unable to collaborate Eve's story. Luckily for Eve though, a certain doctor is able to find a way out for her.

The Emperor's Stuff-Box (1942) is, as far as I know, widely considered as one of Carr's finest works, and interestingly enough not even a locked room, or impossible mystery. It felt in my eyes a lot like a Christie-esque story in fact, with a focus on psychological misdirection. Which granted, Carr also liked to use, but with a thriller-like set-up, the relatively simple murder (no 'dressing up', but just a corpse lying in the study with quite a few bashes on its head), the members of a single family at the crux of the problem and rather limited setting, The Emperor's Stuff-Box felt surprisingly familiar to me as someone who has read much more Christie than Carr. Christie's 4.50 From Paddington (1952) dates from later than this novel, but uses a similar opening scene by the way, with someone witnessing a murder through the window (in Paddington's case, it's someone seeing a murder happening in a train that's running parallel to the one the witness is riding). The idea of a window literally serving as a window into a world of (possible) murder is probably best known from Hitchcock's Rear Window, my guess would be.

So no over-the-top, mystical magic tricks in The Emperor's Stuff-Box, though obviously, psychological misdirection is part of any good magic trick. And what's done in this novel is quite brilliant. What happened in Sir Maurice's study is essentially really nothing more but one of the most basic of magic tricks, combined with another very common mystery trope, but it is pulled off in a very convicing way here. To be honest, I figured out quite early on what was going on, because once you recognize the pattern, you'll realize you'll have seen dozens of variations of the same idea in other mystery stories, but knowing what was going on made my reading experience an educational one, as I saw more clearly why some things happened. For example, I am normally a bigger fan of the short story format, and at first, I also felt this story might've worked better as a short story (more on that later), but I realized what was going on, I understood why this misdirection worked much better in a full-length novel, as it has more time to settle. The misdirection also works on more levels than just the story-level (in fact, it works outside the book itself!), but it also needs the room a novel offers to fully work. It's interesting that the misdirection starts even before the first page of the story, in a way, but it'll remains quite fair towards the reader. Simpler variations of the same idea can often be found in courtroom drama mystery, now I think about it.

In fact, I am inclined to say that this piece of psychological misdirection is an especially fair one. In general, I think psychological clewing is a hard to do in a truly fair way in mystery fiction. When we get to "He may have felt X, so that's why he believed Y", I feel (hah!) there's too much uncertainty. Sure, the writer can repeatedly say character Z has this or that character trait, so there was no doubt Z would do that, but still, these explanations can feel a bit forceful. The Emperor's Stuff-Box however makes good use of its medium (a book), as well as the fact that part of the misdirection is not only aimed at a certain character in the book, but also at the reader at the same time. The reader who is fooled until the end will thus not feel "cheated" by the explanation about the psychological misdirection in the denouement, as very likely, they'll have been victim of that same idea too.

I am a fan of logic school mystery fiction and there human psychology is usually reduced to one easy-to-remember rule: any character is to act in their own best interest, given the knowledge they have at that moment. That means a murderer might take actions that seem strange, but they make perfect sense considering the knowledge they have at that very moment. There is less uncertaintity about human psychology and the things they might do there, as it's mostly based on self-preservation and knowledge flow.

I do really have to point I really disliked most of the characters in the book. There are very few nice people here. Most of them are actually quite nasty, and to be honest, I found it quite a chore to read the book because each scene was filled with characters who I really didn't like talking in melodramatic ways. And part of that might be design, but man, it's been a while since I read a novel with basically no likeable characters.

So in short, I found The Emperor's Stuff-Box to be an entertaining mystery novel, that manages to take an otherwise a very common, and basic trope from both stage magic and mystery fiction and use it in a very effective manner, with a novel that is clearly built around this certain piece of psychological misdirection. It's an excellent example of using craftmanship to make much more of a simple and common idea. That said, the characters are definitely not the main attraction here.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Moving Target


"The justice of the police is sending the evil to hell, and saving the good from hell. Finding the fragments of truth and putting them back together, is like issuing tickets destined for both heaven and hell."
"Yajima Kihachirou"

I might be wrong, but I have a feeling I am one of the few mystery bloggers who regularly also discusses mystery fiction in the videogame medium. For me, mystery fiction in the form of a videogame is as normal as mystery novels, TV series or audio dramas and there's all kinds of exciting things videogames can do with a mystery plot that are neigh impossible to do in any other medium, so I never really understand why people who like mystery fiction in general, would even want to ignore something as important as mystery videogames. One of the most important systems for mystery gaming was to be the original Nintendo DS line, where a plethora of mystery adventure games were released for. Its success is in hindsight no surprise: its dual screen, touch screen control and portability basically foreshadowed our obsession with smartphones now, making gaming both accessible and easy to take with you and the system also managed to hit an excellent price point for its games, as game cartridges (memory cards) were becoming cheaper, while a DS game in general didn't need as much development costs as games for home consoles like the Wii or PS3. Lots of mystery adventure games were thus released for the DS, as they were relatively cheap to develop, and these kinds of story-based games appealed to a lot of non-traditional gamers.

Nishimura Kyoutarou is an extremely prolific writer who, as of now, has more than 600 books to his name, is not only strongly associated with the travel mystery genre, but also with the numerous TV suspense dramas based on his books or original ideas by him. He was also one of the writers who jumped into gaming early on, with games based on his works released for systems like the Famicom (known as the NES in the West), PC and 3DO. What's unique about these games are that they aren't adaptations of existing novels, like sometimes happen with an author like Agatha Christie. The games featured originals tories, and Nishimura was usually credited with the original plot or at the very least, with his supervision over the project, making him usually at least somewhat connected to these games in terms of contents, instead of just signing off his name.

A while back I reviewed Nishimura Kyoutarou's not-so-good novel Tokkyuu Fuji ni Notteita Onna and a commentator asked about some of these games, and I had to admit I had only played one of them. But it was a long time ago, and I played it when I had just started studying Japanese, so I thought now was as good a time to play the game again. I had to dig around, but I finally found my cartridge of the Nintendo DS game with the overly long title DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana ("DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense - A New Detective Series: Kyoto - Atami - The Lone Isle In The Deep Sea - A Murderous Trap", 2007). Nishimura Kyoutarou is credited with the original plot and supervision for this game which features a new, original detective character. The 35-year old Arata Isshin is the son of the private detective Arata Kenshin, who was murdered three years ago. Unable to cope with the death of his father, Isshin left Japan to wander around the world for three years. Realizing he can't run forever, Isshin decides to return to Japan and step in his father's footsteps as a private detective. Upon his return to Japan, Isshin finds that his first task is to find his father's disciple Asuka, as he can't possibly run a detective agency without her help, but he finds that she has stopped working as a detective and is now working as a maid in a traditional inn in Kyoto. Isshin runs off to Kyoto to get her back, but he's only just arrived when a murder occurs in the traditional tea room in this faraway inn in the ancient capital of Japan.

I'll just refer to this game as DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1, as the full title is way too long. This game, which was followed by a sequel in 2008, is designed to be like the TV dramas based on Nishimura's work, which is also evident by its presentation, with the overly dramatic music and even "eyecatchers" for the "commercial breaks". Storywise too, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1 feels very much like a "stereotypical Nishimura Kyoutarou" story, with a murder happening at popular tourist destinations or other exotic places and an emphasis in the mystery plot on alibis and the use of time-schedules (when you say Nishimura, you say elaborate alibi tricks using train schedules). This game consists of three stories, each set somewhere else: the opening story A Maze Four-and-a-half Tatami Mats Wide is set in the ancient capital Kyoto, where Isshin tries to convince Asuka to come back to Tokyo to work with him at the detective agency. The second story, A Miniature Garden of Love and Hate, starts Isshin and Asuka returning to Tokyo by Shinkansen, when their train is stopped in popular sea resort Atami because of a bomb threat. The final story, Broken Similarities, has Isshin and Asuka being kidnapped to a solitary island, where he's forced to prove that the current defendant for his father's murder is actually innocent.

As a game, DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1 is extremely beginner-friendly. It follows the standard adventure format: you wander around various locations as you interview people and gather evidence or testimony. The evidence and testimony you have gathered allow you to answer the quiz-like questions asked in dialogue confrontations with allies or suspects, which will further develop the plot and eventually allow you to solve the case. DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series 1 is very easy to pick up for non-gamers, as there's no penalty for giving wrong answers (it asks you to reconsider your answer), and the game also makes it clear to the player where you should go next or who to interview next, making it impossible like in older games to wander around for hours as you don't know who you should talk to about what in order to advance in the game. The downside of this accessibility is of course that this game is almost ridiculously easy, as you can't possibly stray from the correct path. So you're really here just to enjoy the story.

Mystery-plot wise, the game is never really surprising (again, the difficulty is fairly low), but the core ideas are usually okay, though one can question where they wouldn't have worked even better in a different format. A Maze Four-and-a-half Tatami Mats Wide has some nice ideas in terms of clews in relation to the crime scene (a small room for the traditional tea ceremony) and it really fits the Kyoto vibe. A Miniature Garden of Love and Hate is pretty ambitious and is perhaps the most "Nishimura Kyoutarou"-esque, with its focus on the Shinkansen bullet train and multiple crime scenes in both Tokyo and Atami. There's a pretty daring plot going too, but the step-by-step presentation that doesn't allow the player much freedom does prevent this story from becoming truly surprising. Interesting is the guest mention of Nishimura's most famous creation, Inspector Totsugawa and his subordinate Kamei, who are helping the Atami Police in this case. The final story, Broken Similarities, is set in a 1:1 replica of the building where Isshin's father was murdered. Isshin is first forced to prove that the current defendant is innocent, even though it was Isshin himself who first discovered his father's body three years ago, with the defendant standing near the body with a gun in his hand. During this new investigation however, a new murder happens in the exact same way his father's was murdered, and this time, it's his father's best friend Agata who's found holding the gun. While the "strange building on an island" reminds more of Ayatsuji Yukito than Nishimura Kyoutarou, the mystery is actually very Nishimura-like, with an emphasis on alibis and character movement. The trick behind the seemingly impossible murder is actually very clever, and there's a brilliant clew staring in you in the eyes that only becomes obvious in hindsight, but I can't deny that this final chapter is also a bit draggin, and it's a bit obvious who the murderer is as they have the widest variety in character animations prepared for them compared to the other characters!

This game also has a mode called West Village (literal meaning of Nishimura), with 50 short mystery quizzes and riddles. In some of them you have pick out a contradicting line in a story to solve the mystery, in others you have to figure out an alibi trick with a train schedule by moving trains around to arrive at a certain spot by a certain time. These are usually fairly entertaining short quizzes that serve as a break for the main game, and the latter quizzes are easily the more challenging part of this game, surpassing the main story!

DS Nishimura Kyoutarou Suspense Shin Tantei Series: Kyoto - Atami - Zekkai no Kotou Satsui no Wana is overall never an exceptional game, though it's never a bad game either. It's obviously created in a way so non-gamers can also enjoy this game and in that sense, this game is a pretty good introduction for people to see how a mystery story can translate to a game. There's little challenge here, and the mystery plots do suffer a bit from this streamlining, but overall, I have to say I did have fun with this second playthrough of the game. I never got around to playing the second game in this series actually, and I might pick it up, as it's cheaper than lunch nowadays.

Original Japanese title(s): 『DS西村京太郎サスペンス 新探偵シリーズ「京都・熱海・絶海の孤島 殺意の罠』

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Knight Time Terror

「Marionette Fantasia」(Garnet Crow)

I meander in hopes of remembering you,
my beloved with your wounded right arm,
Wandering around in search for your sword
"Marionette Fantasia" (Garnet Crow)

I've seen a couple of those small free libraries pop up in the neighborhood, where you can exchange novels and books for free: you can simply leave a book you'd like someone else to read behind, and readers can take a book with them for free. I got today's book from such a library.

Every year on the third Tuesday of September, the Speech of the Throne is held by the monarch of the Netherlands in the Hall of Knights, informing both the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives on the outlines of government policy for the coming year. The speech always starts with the sentence "Members of the States-General...," but this year, it is all the monarch managed to say, as at that exact moment, one of the chandelier light fixtures in the Hall dropped down, killing several members of both the Senate and the House, as well as the head security of the parliament. With the several members of the States-General deceased and the Speech of the Throne interrupted, the country is facing a constitutional dilemma, as a lot of procedures that should've been finished now haven't yet. Police Inspector Hendrix is put on the case to investigate whether this was an accident, an act of terrorism or something else, and the Speaker of the House of Representatives decides to have Elizabeth Brederode, the Head Clerk, appointed to the investigation too as Hendrix' partner considering her knowledge about the procedures and on-goings in the political world. As Hendrix and Brederode dig into the curious incident, they slowly realize that there was malice hiding behind it all in Theo Joekes' Moord in de Ridderzaal ("Murder in the Hall of Knights", 1980).

Theo Joekes was a Dutch journalist, writer and member of the House of Representatives during his life and Moord in de Ridderzaal, his very first detective novel, was written during the period he was still an active member of the House of Representatives. The subject matter of this novel was thus more than familiar to him, and while the book opens with a note that the various political functions that appear throughout the book are not based entirely on reality (the political parties mentioned for example are fictional), one can feel that the writer had quite some affinity with the stage of this tale, where various political games, but also the personal lifes of politicans play an important role.

The most singular characteristic of this novel is perhaps the detective role: while Police Inspector Hendrix is obviously a very obvious choice for a detective-character, having the Head Clerk of the House of Representatives act as a detective is quite surprising. Joekes did a good job at utilizing the device of having two detectives: early on in the novel, the two each act according to their own hypotheses, with Brederode of the opinion the incident was a planned murder, while Hendrix following the idea that it might just have been an unfortunate accident. Later on, when the clues gathered seem to suggest murder, the two bounce ideas of each other, with Hendrix obviously having more experience as in criminal investigation, while Brederode shines a light from surprising angles because of her experience in the political world. The Speaker of the House is also added to the mix, as he acts as a 'judge' between the two detectives, weighing their hypotheses and evidences against each other. The result is a fairly chatty detective novel, with two detectives working with each other despite different ideas, and that's something I quite like actually, as it gives a mystery novel a certain dynamic that's sometimes absent in stories focusing on one single detective who only acts on their own ideas.

As for the mystery plot... I did not like it that much. I think my main gripe is that it feels very contrived. The initial incident, of the falling chandelier, serves as an impressive, graphic story opener, but what follows is a plot that hinges on a lot of coincidences or unlikely events. For example, witnesses who just happen to see, and remember, some incredibly minor event that turns out to be important even though nobody would've had any reason to pay attention to that. But then the opposite happens too, with obviously suspect incidents being brushed off as having nothing to do with the case until several pages later, the surprising reveal is made that that suspicious scene was indeed *gasp* important. The scheme uncovered at the end that explains the titular Murder in the Hall of Knights is almost insanely contrived, asking for way too many steps and opportunities for it to fail. if it was only once or twice, okay, I could live with that, but that is not the case here: everything feels artificially conceived, and not in the 'fiction is good because it's artificial' kind of way. Interestingly enough, the plot seems like it'd have fitted perfectly with Higashino's Galileo short stories (not the novels, mind you), even though this book is like two decades older. And while politics do play a role in the plot, you don't need to be afraid for complex political schemes that endanger the whole country or something like that. At the core, The Murder in the Hall of Knights is a fairly standard mystery story.

To illustrate how unimpressed I was with the story: I only remembered halfway through the story that I already knew the thing! Some years ago, I listened to an old Dutch radio play based on this book (which was quite faithful to the original book, I know realize), but I had completely forgotten about it. You'd think that a setting like the Hall of Knights and the Speech of the Throne would make a better impression with me, but no. The radio play was originally broadcast in 1982 by the way, so two years after the book's original release.

One thing I realize now as I write this is that I think the setting is pretty good. If you say "political center of the Netherlands", one might think of some faraway place only accesible for those in the world, but I think most Dutch readers will be quite familiar with the Binnenhof, which houses the Senate, House and the Prime Minister. I don't know how it is in other countries, but the Binnenhof (Inner Court) is easily accessible for everyone and most people actually simply use it as a short-cut to head for the shopping center of The Hague. In every-day use, it's more like a street than "the political center," so it's a place many people will be familiar with even if they have no affinity with politics.
So I am not overly enthusastic about Moord in the Ridderzaal. While I think the story does have some interesting features in the form of its detectives and its location, I think the overall plot is strained with most of the plot-driving developments feeling rather unnatural and manufactured. Joekes did write more detective novels after this first one, but I doubt I'll be going after them actively (then again, I got my copy of this book for free too, though I may just place it back for someone else to read).

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Monsters Unleashed

"How many times do I have to tell you? There is no such thing as ghouls, ghosts, goblins or monsters! Listen up, there is absolutely absolutely no such thing as.... MONSTER?!!!!" 

Today, a book I really didn't want to read. I think I bought it used when I was in Kyoto, but the things I heard about it were so discouraging I left it unread for almost six, seven years. But I guess I had to read it some day.

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)

The celebrated detective Nikaidou Ranko and her brother Reito first learned of the horrible murders and other crimes committed by the super criminal Labyrinth in the adventures chronicled in Akuma no Labyrinth. Nobody knew who or what Labyrinth was, but he, or she, was able to commit the most horrifying murders and other mystifying crimes, and was also very eager to challenge Ranko in public to try and solve their 'exploits'. During the events of Akuma no Labyrinth, Ranko and Reito came across an old abandoned house that Labyrinth had used for some reason, and they discovered that Labyrinth had some of the old furniture there shipped off elsewhere. Soumenjuu Jiken ("The Case of the Double-Faced Beasts", 2007) starts with Ranko, Reito and the police hot on the trail of that set of furniture, and their journey brings them to the southern island of Kyushu. There they learn that two grotesque and blood-curling serial murders happened there the last few days: a whole hospital was completely destroyed from within, with the victims horribly mutilated with limbs torn off and worse, while elsewhere, the inhabitants of a whole village were also similarly killed as if they were mere broken toys. The only clue for Ranko are the testimonies of some survivors, which seem to point to the existence of genetically-engineered two-faced monsters created during World War II, who are being used by Labyrinth to... do what actually?

A few weeks back, I reviewed Nikaidou Reito's short story collection Ran Meikyuu, which also marked my return to the Nikaidou Ranko series after quite some years. The reason I hadn't touched this series for so long was basically this novel. I had already read most of the series, and I actually quite like it: I love post-war 70s atmosphere, the locked room murders and other impossibilities are often grand, over the top and always sure to leave an impression and the distinct occult/horror tone that pervades throughout the series is something perhaps not all can appreciate, but most of the time, I think it works out quite good. That is, the above holds mostly for the series until the mammoth work Jinroujou no Kyoufu (which is probably the longest locked room mystery ever, spanning four pockets of over 700 pages each).

The Nikaidou Ranko books written after Jinroujou no Kyoufu introduced a new storyline (though chronologically set before Jinroujou no Kyoufu), and a nemesis for Ranko: the enigmatic super criminal Labyrinth. These novels also meant a shift in tone: whereas the earlier novels were like Carr on crack, the Labyrinth novels were styled more closely to the henkaku horror mystery stories by Edogawa Rampo, which were lighter on the mystery, and much heavier on adventure, horror and grotesque story elements, reminiscent of the 20s-50s pulp science-fiction novels with evil scientists and things like that. The first novel in this mini-series, Akuma no Labyrinth was not that bad, but the fourth novel and ending to the Labyrinth series (Haou no Shi) was at best mediocre, with a disappointing mystery plot and an over-emphasis on horror and science-fiction elements. I had also heard that the two novels in the middle, Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken were far worse, with especially Soumenjuu Jiken often panned as horrible, so I wasn't too eager to read them. But like I mentioned in the introduction, I only learned of Soumenjuu Jiken's reputation after I had picked it up, so it remained unread in my collection for a long time. I haven't read Majutsuou, nor do I have a copy at the moment, but the events in Majutsuou Jiken and Soumenjuu Jiken happen almost simultaneously: while Ranko is investigating the case of the double-faced beasts in the south of Japan, she learns of a horrible murder that occured during the show of an illusionist in the north and realizes Labyrinth is also behind that case.

But to get back to Soumenjuu Jiken: I have to agree with the general consensus that this was not a very entertaining novel. Most importantly, it's not really a mystery novel. It is pre-World War II science-fiction horror. Unno Juuza is quoted in the book, and yeah, that's certainly a name that'll pop up while you read this novel, as well as things like Conan Doyle's The Creeping Man, Rampo's Kotou no Oni or Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau. For the double-faced beasts that feature in the title? Yeah, they exist. The novel opens with an account by a woman who, as a girl, had miraculously survived the extermination of her village by the titular double-faced beasts. She lived on Skull Isle, an island housing a secret laboratory of the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, with her village serving as camouflage. Strange experiments went on in that laboratory, all in the hope to win the war. The double-faced beasts were one of the weapons produced by these experiments: the gorilla-like animals had four arms, stremendous strength and stamina, possessed poison breath and could burn people with rays from their eyes. The beasts were taken away at the end of the war, their existence kept top secret by the extinction of the village on Skull Isle. We also learn that Labyrinth too was o a product of genetic engineering by the Imperial Army during the war: Labyrinth is a ruthless superhuman with extraordinary mental and physical traits originally designed as a super-soldier until they escaped the clutches of their creators, so Labyrinth gaining possession of these double-faced beasts is not good news.

The bulk of Soumenjuu Jiken consists of accounts by various people who had encounters with either the double-faced beasts or Labyrinth, both during the war or now, twenty years later, when Labyrinth and the double-faced beasts are leaving a bloody trail throughout Kyushu. Ranko learns about all these accounts as she's chasing after Labyrinth, slowly puzzling the tale of the double-faced beasts and the origin of Labyrinth together. These accounts are very grotesque and basically horror-stories, as we learn about the horrifying acts of these genetically engineered creations, with every single detail about how limbs were torn off and things like that explained. There's no mystery to be solved here, just sheer horror. At the end of the novel, Ranko does make a few deductions that show that not all events were as they seemed at first, but the things she figures out are poorly clewed and rather unimpressive. Soumenjuu Jiken reminded me of Shimada Souji's Nejishiki Zazetsuki, as that novel too revolved around an account of something that seems incredibly fantastical, and which invites to an alternate interpretation that is a bit closer to reality, but the 'alternative' interpretation by Ranko of the events and the existence of the double-faced beasts in Soumenjuu Jiken only involves small parts of the story: most of the monsters-are-loose story is true, and with genetically-altered monsters from World War II wiping whole villages out and things like that, it's kinda hard to care about what Ranko has to say about things that ultimately make no difference at all to the problem they're facing. (that is: that they have to fight genetically-altered monsters from World War II).

And what really kills this novel is the length. It's incredibly long. The version I have is about 750 pages long in double columns: the paperback pocket release consists of two volumes, each nearly 600 pages long. The thing is: it really doesn't need to be this long. The novel consists of accounts by various people on the double-faced beasts, and the story of Ranko and Reito piecing the whole thing together using these accounts, but I think almost half of the book is repeating itself. For example: there's an extended account by a teacher who discovers how a hospital was raided by the double-faced beasts, with everyone inside horribly ripped apart. This is followed by the Ranko narrrative, where she learns about the hospital case and then gets a report from the police. The problem: there is a lot of overlap. All the important facts we learn from the accounts, is always also repeated again in the Ranko narrative, so you're almost always told something twice. Obviously, something good could be done with a dual narrative structure: the discrepency between the eyewitness account and what Ranko learns from the police might for example be connected to some mystery. This however never happens in this novel. It's always a horror account, followed by a more business-like account of the same facts. This repeats itself over and over again, which explains why this book is so ridiculously long even though very little happens here. So even read as a science-fiction horror novel, I can't say Soumenjuu Jiken is good: it's a very repetitive novel and the horror-side of the story doesn't really work towards a (worthwile) climax anyway, so you'd better have no expectations there either.

So no, I can't say I can recommend Soumenjuu Jiken, not even if you like the Nikaidou Ranko series. It's completely different from the earlier novels, and while the other two Labyrinth novels I'd read where also a bit more focused on horror, they at least featured stories one could recognize as a mystery plot, with locked room murders or other impossible crimes. Soumenjuu Jiken on the other hand is all about monsters causing bloody havoc, which at the end is followed by a flimsy attempt at turning it into a mystery story by having Ranko making insignificant deductions, considering they do nothing at help solving the problem that they are facing double-faced four-armed monster gorillas. I remember that Haou no Shi (the last of the Labyrinth novels) kinda revealed the plot and outcome of this novel, so for those who have emotionally invested in this series, I can say you can just skip this novel and skip to Haou no Shi if you really want to see how the Labyrinth saga ends (even if that novel isn't that great either).

Original Japanese title(s): 二階堂黎人 『双面獣事件』

Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Quest of the Missing Map

Convenient for reading this post: a post on glasses in mystery fiction.

Don't you just get excited when you open a mystery novel and you discover there are floorplans or other diagrams inside? There's just something romantic about a visual depiction of the setting of a story. In some stories, having a clearly drawn map might be necessary in order for you to solve the mystery, while in other stories, the map is merely there to assist the text, just to make things a bit more clear and perhaps to add a bit of flavor. And as I've also mentioned in my reviews of novels like Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken and Murder Among the Angells, settings like houses, mansions or castles can also act as a character on their own in mystery stories, and floorplans really help giving life to these sinister settings.

For this short post, I wanted to show a couple of floorplans that made an impression on me. I won't be talking about them too much, as in some cases one can even figure out something important by looking at these diagrams if you know what to look for, but I think that no matter what, these floorplans just look impressive.

Ayatsuji Yukito - Meirokan no Satsujin ("The Labyrinth House Murders", 1988)

The title basically says it all. After his debut novel The Decagon House Murders, Ayatsuji continued with this series featuring the creations of the architect Nakamura Seiji and this third novel features an underground 'house' designed after the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, and the building is absolutely insane.

Shimada Souji - Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion", 1982)

The second novel in Shimada's Mitarai Kiyoshi series has an interesting diagram, as it's drawn with depth. Floorplans with perspective aren't really common actually, and I really like how this house looks with the tower.

Nakai Hideo - Kyomu he no Kumotsu ("Offerings to Nothingness", 1964)

These floorplans are a bit smaller in scale compared to the previous ones, but I love the hand-drawn feeling of these plans. Kyomu he no Kumotsu is an infamous anti-mystery novel where the protagonist detectives try to figure out how a murder was committed even though there's no proof it's a murder and they just want it to be a murder because it's more fun and they hope more murders happen. These plans of course help them with their deductions.

Ayatsuji Yukito - Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken ("The Kirigoe Mansion Murder Case", 1990)

Another novel by Ayatsuji. Technically, Kirigoetei Satsujin Jiken isn't part of Ayatsuji's House series, though the connection is heavily hinted at and the floorplan certainly seems similar in its complexity. This one is remarkable because of its sheer size, and this is just the ground floor!

Nikaidou Reito -  Jinroujou no Kyoufu - France (" La Terreur Château du Loup-garou La Second Partie: France, 1997)

Jinroujou no Kyoufu is a mammoth of an impossible crime mystery, consisting of four volumes of 600~800 pages each. These 8(!) floorplans are of the Blue Wolf Castle, which lies in France. A serises of horrible murders and other gruesome crimes happen in this gigantic castle, but what makes this a true terrifying experience is that this just half of the mystery: the Blue Wolf Castle is just one half of a set of twin castles, and another series of murders happen in the Silver Wolf Castle, just across the border in Germany. The Silver Wolf Castle has the exact same layout as the Blue Wolf Castle, but the happenings that occur in these two castles is just amazing, and one can sense the scale of this story just by looking at these castle plans.

Chisun Inn

 Oh, wait, this isn't from a mystery novel. This is in fact a floorplan of the Chisun Inn, a hotel located in Nagoya, Japan. Which also happens to look exactly like something from a mystery story. The hotel is designed in a spiral form, with a lot of rooms in a fan form, but one can easily imagine this to be the setting of a series of murders, right? I for one would make sure my door was locked and double locked if I were to stay here, as there's bound to be someone who's planning some kind of ingenious alibi trick or an impossible murder!

Anyway, these were a few floorplans from mystery novels that made an impression on me because of how they were designed, the scale of the setting or simply how they were drawn. Feel free to leave a comment with the floorplans from mystery novels (or TV series/manga/games) that made an impression on you.