Saturday, August 4, 2018

Crime in the Queen's Court

"Not quite. Actually, it's from Carroll's other book, Through the Looking-Glass. And to complete the title?"
"Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There."
"The Mad Tea Party"

Two reviews with Alices in one week?!

Last week, I reviewed the first volume of Nemoto Shou's comic Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura. This series was originally a doujin manga, meaning it was self-published by Nemoto himself (under the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma) in very small numbers, sold at events etc. This meant few were actually able to read the comic, but earlier this year, Kaiki Tantei - Sharaku Homura was made widely available in the e-book format thanks to publisher Bungeishunju. I enjoyed the first volume a lot, so my expectations for the second volume were obviously quite high. Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura - Youki no Kuni ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny -  The Land of the Wondrous Beauty") collects the next five issues of this series about girl detective Sharaku Homura and Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke. As the last members of respectively the Experiments Club and the Karate Club of Shimoyama Middle School, the two are forced to share a classroom for their club activities, but more often than not, the two end up chasing after curious criminals who like to dress up like Scooby Doo villains while committing impossible murders and other baffling crimes.

This second volume derives its subtitle from the opening story, The Land of the Wondrous Beauty, which is absolutely nuts. Homura finds her one day chasing after a rabbit with a watch, but she falls in a hole and loses conciousness. When she finally wakes up, she discovers that she has shrunken to a miniature size and wandered into a curious land. When she is finally captured by a soldier resembling a playing card, and confronted with the Queen of Hearts who breaks both of Homura's hands, Homura realizes to her shock that she's in Alice's Wonderland! Homura is helped by Alice herself to escape from Wonderland, but then another girl from Homura's school is captured by the Queen, as well as Homura's parents, and a priceless gem owned by the girl's jeweler parents is demanded as a ransom. Advised by both Homura and the police, the parents refuse to hand the jewel over, and keep it in a highly secured room of which both the door and the glass case in which the jewel is held is locked. Yet the people from Wonderland manage to steal the jewel from under the noses of its owner, the police and Homura herself!

Did I already say this story is nuts? The opening of this tale is really weird, with Homura wandering into Wonderland, and while this series has had its share of weird villains in weird dress, having the Queen of Hearts as the main opponent is more than strange in a detective tale. This is a tale of mystery however, and as we have come to expect from Nemoto, it's also a well-structured, and always fairly clewed puzzle plot mystery. The premise is crazy, but the logic used to explain how the jewel was stolen from its double-secured room is both clever and surprising, explaining also why the set-up of this tale is a bit on the longer side (and of course, there's a logical answer as to why Homura ended up in Wonderland). The ending of the story, when Homura and the police have cornered the criminal reminds a lot of Edogawa Rampo pulps, with a crazy chase inside the culprit's lair that is strangely enough incredibly large. I mean, why steal a jewel when it's obvious your secret lair you used for your evil schemes costs you a lot in the first place...

Quiz Master is a shorter story, where Homura is kidnapped by the titular Quiz Master, who challenges Homura to an epic battle of... quizzes! If Homura manages to answer three questions correctly, she'll be released, but for each wrong answer, a suit of armor holding a lance will move closer, and with the third wrong answer, she'll be made in to shish-kebab. The catch is that the Quiz Master's questions are incredibly nitpicky, so Homura does her best to stall for as long as possible until help arrives. The main clue pointing to the identity of the Quiz Master is something I should have picked up, though it could have needed a bit more to really make it a good clue. The explanation as to how Homura managed to get help is a lot better, and the clew is deviously well-hidden.

In The Scorpion Code, Homura and Karate Kid happen to walk right into a desperate struggle for power within the notorious Scorpion Gang. The boss of the gang wants to retire, and he has made a secret code that leads to the hiding place of the majority of the gang's loot. The one who solves the code, will become the new leader of Scorpion. The other gang members just want to get their hands on the loot however and don't care about the future of the gang, and try to capture their boss to make him hand over the loot just like that. While on the run, the boss runs into Homura and Karate Kid, and he confides into them the secret code, which they now must solve before the other Scorpion members get there. It's a relatively simple code-cracking story that is fairly clewed, but it does lack a sense of genuine wonder or surprise that most of the other stories do offer.

In The Distorted Face, a man with a horribly distorted face is popping up in various parts of Shimoyama City, asking the directions for a home of a certain old man. The old man used to be a robber, and one day, he tried to steal a bulldozer from a construction site to use in a robbery. He was discovered by someone at the site, but he killed the man by crushing his head with the bulldozer. He fled abroad a rich man, and returned when the statute of limitations expired for his murder. With each sighting of the man with the distorted face obviously out for revenge, the old man becomes more anxious, and in the end he decided to stay inside his locked house the whole day. Yet one night, when the police is staking the house out, they suddenly hear yelling, and when they break into the house, and into the locked bedroom, they find the old man dead, and with obvious signs of a horrible fight having happened inside. Yet the man with the distorted face is nowhere to be found, and logically, he could never have entered the house in the first place, so how did he assault the old man? A well-clewed story, and while the impossible angle isn't very surprising, the hinting is good, and Nemoto does a good job at giving a good reason for why there's a locked room in the first place.

Paintings of the Dead has Homura being hired to solve a weird puzzle: her client owns a painting by Ikichi Taken, a painter who was so obsessed with the idea of making a painting of the dead, he stole the corpse of a young lady to make paintings of the body as she'd rot. He was captured, but one of his paintings, still in the early phase of the rotting process, came into the hands of Homura's client. He has been threatened by a mysterious figure who says they'll complete the painting by having the corpse decay even further. The painting is held in a small storage room, with the painting secured to the wall. While Homura, Karate Kid and the owner stand guard in the room with the door as its only opening, the lights go out, and when they return, they find that the corpse in the painting has indeed changed, with more of the flesh decayed! Nobody could've entered through the door during the blackout, as they would've noticed, and the painting couldn't have been switched out of its frame in that short a period, so how did the painting change? A brilliantly thought-off story: the explanation is so simple once pointed out, but oh-so-devious, and excellently hinted. The horror-vibe of the story also helps, and the whole thing works towards a really creepy ending.

I forgot to mention it in my first review, but while these volumes collect the original self-published comics of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, these e-books also contain some exclusive material, with some stories (like the title story) featuring brand new epilogues that shed some new light on the culprits and their motives.

So this second volume of Kaiki Tantei Homura Sharaku is again excellent mystery comic material. While most of the stories do have a similar vibe because of the trope of the 'dressed-up villain' with insanely complex plans that are a bit silly if you think about it, the mystery plots are usually really entertaining and precisely what you want in a puzzle plot story. Many of the hints are visual, making excellent use of the medium. A difference between this volume and the first is definitely diversity: from the crazy opening theft story to a code-cracking story to a short like Quiz Master: there's a lot more variety here, which serves as a welcome change after the first volume. Only one volume left!

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚『怪奇探偵・写楽炎 2 妖姫の国』


  1. I wonder what would have become of Japanese popular culture if Lewis Carroll had never written the Alice books?

    1. It's not even that prevalent in general popular culture, but man, you're sure to come across quite a few references when you read shin honkaku mystery! Of the three shin honkaku novels I translated, both The Moai Island Puzzle and The 8 Mansion Murders definitely had clear references and even indirect quoting, can't remember if The Decagon House Murders had them but I wouldn't be surprised.

  2. Manga and anime are filled with them also. Anime Planet lists 3 pages of stuff and Anime News Network lists seven items more.