Saturday, September 29, 2018

This Love is Thrill, Shock, Suspense

"They were good days. Yes, they have been good days."

Hmm, I thought I was doing far too few mystery videogame reviews this year, but I'm actually not doing bad, even better than last year.

Mihate-chou is a small seaside town that lately has gathered some attention through the popular novel WorldEnd. The fantasy-romance novel was based on local Mihate-chou folklore, which says that once in a hundred years, deceased persons will come back to life and roam the town. According to the legend, these "People from the Underworld" will return in the summer, and while they themselves don't realize they are dead, they will eventually become the cause of a horrible tragedy in the town. WorldEnd became a bestseller, and this summer, a film adaptation of WorldEnd featuring the popular idol-singer Nikaidou Rei will be filmed in Mihate-chou. The protagonist of Arc System Work's 2018 videogame WorldEnd Syndrome (Switch/PS4/PS Vita) arrives in the early summer in Mihate-chou as a transfer student. He is soon invited to join the Folklore Research Club of Mihate High School, a new school club created by Kaori Yamashiro, his home-room teacher and also the author of WorldEnd. The club is still just a test, as Kaori hopes to make it an official school club next year, so there's only a handful of students, who also happen to be all girls. A summer of bitter-sweet youth romance seems to be awaiting our protagonist in Mihate-chou with five eligible love interests , but the image of Mihate-chou as a nice seaside town turns out to be nothing more but a facade. A murderer lurking around Mihate-chou has already killed two high school students and this case appears to be connected to the Folklore Research Club. Is it a coincidence that the dead are said to come back to life exactly this year?

When WorldEnd Syndrome was first announced last year, my interests were immediately piqued. It was marketed as a Romance X Mystery Adventure game, which are two game genres rarely put together. The background story of the dead returning to life and mingling among the living also sounded as the basis of a cool mystery story (somewhat reminiscent of novels like Another or Death of the Living Dead), so I really looked forward to this game. I was therefore quite bummed when the game was delayed suddenly from April 2018 to August 2018. The wait was worth it though!

In essence, WorldEnd Syndrome is a dating sim videogame with a mystery theme. I'll probably need to explain the "dating sim" genre to non-gamers here, but basically, a dating sim is a story-driven videogame, that focuses on a protagonist developing a romantic relationship with one of the eligible characters within the context of the story (see also my review of Buddy Collection if - Shukumei no Akai Ito-). By speaking with certain characters or helping them out, you'll raise your affinity levels with them, and certain events will play out between the protagonist and a character if you manage to raise the affinity levels high enough (for example, you unlock an event where the two go on a date). WorldEnd Syndrome has five eligible heroines, from the energetic, strongminded Maimi to the mysterious Miu and the clumsy Hanako and more, and eventually you'll "lock on" a certain route, giving access to exclusive events with a specific girl. WorldEnd Syndrome, like many dating sims, gives you a limited resource (time) to woo your girl: each day of August is divided in three periods (morning, afternoon and evening), and you can choose to visit one of the various locations each period. If you happen to meet up with Maimi at school in the morning for example, your affinity with her will rise, while that also means you won't be able to meet Miu at the restaurant at the same time. There are diverse scenes with all the girls, from rom-com-esque conversations to scenes where the girls open up more to the protagonist. Choices have to be made, and eventually you'll end up with one certain girl for the rest of the story, which will offer some light summer romance scenes with that specific girl (and obviously the other girls become less important once you're locked onto a route). Occassionally, you'll have to make certain choices during story events, that may influence how much affinity you gain, or even change the further flow of the story (I definitely ended up dead because I picked a choice I thought was quite innocent...).

WorldEnd Syndrome is however also a mystery story, though it takes a long time to really get there. The mystery revolves around the murders of the school girls, and the question of whether a Person from the Underworld has really found their way among the living in Mihate-chou, but it's not like the characters are actively trying to solve these mysteries. Each route (depending on which girl you end up with) gives you a different look at the various events that unfold during the summer, and they each offer fragments of the truth: for example, in the case you end up dating Hanako, you'll learn more about the incident with the stalker of the idol Nikaido Rei, while the Miu route will explain more about the folklore surrounding the People from the Underworld (and you hardly hear anything about the stalker case here). You'll have to play through all five routes to eventually figure out the truth behind all the incidents that occur in Mihate-chou: while each route does unveil some part of the picture, it's always incomplete, and they usually conclude with a bad ending. It's only by replaying the game with all five heroines you'll be able to find out what really happened this summer and find a happy ending for all. This does mean that the first half of the game hardly feels like a mystery game: you are not actively detecting anything and you only see fragments of the plot. It's only in the latter half that things start to fall in place in your mind (luckily, you can skip any text/scenes you have already seen, making subsequent playthroughs fairly swift).

In the end, the game doesn't really expect you to solve all the mysteries in advance based on fair-play clewing, but once you've arrived in the final few chapters, you'll realize that there were definitely also hidden clues available and signs of foreshadowing, and there are a couple scenes spread across the routes that suddenly take on a different meaning in hindsight. The sensation of having all the broken story fragments fall in place is pretty good, and I'd say that WorldEnd Syndrome definitely works as a true mystery story, and not just as a dating sim game. For people not used to playing these kinds of games, where you have to replay certain parts over and over with different story outcomes, the story might be a bit confusing, but overall, I think WorldEnd Syndrome is a good example of how to make a mystery story work in this game genre. Even the supernatural background setting of the dead coming back to life works: while there are no "rules" or anything governing the supernatural phenomenon like you usually see in (good) mystery fiction with special settings, there are still scenes throughout the game that make more sense in hindsight once you realize what was going on, and they never feel cheap.

By the way, the backgrounds of this game are really cool, with nice touches like pinwheels moving in the background or swaying light sources. Most of the game is voiced too, which is nice. For a completely original new IP in a rather niche genre, this game was some good production values. There are also a few collectibles spread throughout the game to encourage multiple playthroughs.

The ending hints heavily at a sequel, and as I enjoyed WorldEnd Syndrome, I sure hope that sequel comes. As a game, it definitely feels more like a dating sim game for most of the time, but once you arrive in the latter half in the story and the jigsaw pieces start to fall in place, the game also starts working as a mystery adventure game. The game does a pretty good job at presenting a disjointed mystery story that comes together in the end, but it is really, really slow the first time. But if you'd ask me, "Is WorldEnd Syndrome really a mystery adventure game?' I'd say yes, and a fun one too.

Original Japanese title(s): 『ワールドエンド・シンドローム』

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The E-mail Mystery


"You will die after one week. Mailer Daemon"
"The Terror of the Mailer Daemon"
Design-wise, I still like those old clamshell flip-phones, and I'd actually prefer them over smartphones if only they could match smartphones in some way in terms of functionality.

Kamiki Raichi series
Marumarumarumarumarumarumarumaru Satsujin Jiken ("The ???????? Murder Case", 2014)
Niji no Ha Brush - Kamiki Raichi Hassan ("Rainbow Toothbrush - Kamiki Raichi On the Loose", 2015
Dare mo Boku wo Sabakenai ("Nobody Can Pass Judgement On Me", 2016)
Souja Misshitsu ("The Locked Rooms of the Twin Snakes", 2017)
Mailer Daemon no Senritsu ("The Terror of the Mailer Daemon", 2018)

The attractive red-haired Kamiki Raichi is one of the more unlikely detective characters you'll come across. Of course, the fact she's a senior high school student who loves playing amateur detective isn't that strange on its own: we have enough examples of that. But her main source of income might be reason for some raised eyebrows, as she practices enjou kousai, or "compensated dating". In theory, this means that older men are paying younger, attractive women for their companionship and in practice, and also in Raichi's case, it means she's prostituting herself and she's good at her job. She has a few "regular clients" who visit her at regular intervals in her own luxurious apartment, one of them being the student Jin. One day, he shows Raichi a strange e-mail he received on his phone with the message "You will die after one week," sent by the "Mailer Daemon". It was sent one week ago, meaning that Jin's supposed to die that very day, but they don't think much of it, and after their usual private time, Jin leaves Raichi's apartment. He is killed on his way home however, and Raichi vowes to find out who this Mailer Daemon is and to avenge her client. She learns from the police that the Mailer Daemon had struck once earlier: a female office worker had been killed in her own apartment, and she too had received the same e-mail. The one link between the victims is that they both still used old feature flip-phones (garakei) from the service provider X-Phone instead of smartphones. While Raichi's investigating the case, she also learns that Inspector Aikawa, one of her "regular clients", wants to resign from his job after previous events (see: Souja Misshitsu) and has now gone off somewhere, so she now also needs to help her old friend in Hayasaka Yabusaka's Mailer Daemon no Senritsu ("The Terror of the Mailer Daemon", 2018).

It's been four years already since Hayasaka Yabusaka's debut with the first adventure featuring his self-prostituting Raichi, and this series has remained quite unique within the wide mystery genre due to its use of sex as vital part of the mystery. In most mystery fiction, sex is only used to spice things up if it appears, but in the Kamiki Raichi stories, sex is an integral part of the core mystery plot. The descriptions of Raichi's sexual adventures might seem a bit graphic at times, but they are always there for a cause: they contain vital hints to solving the crime or link up to the mystery in rather ingenious ways and the mystery wouldn't work without those scenes. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is graphically quite tame compared to the first two entries in the series by the way, but you definitely need to think a bit dirty if you want to have a chance at solving the mystery of Mailer Daemon.

Each of the previous three novels were obviously written around their respective, major twist solutions. I can easily summarize each of the previous novels with "oh, that's the one where XXX", and you'd instantly understand what I'm talking about. What Hayasaka did well for each of these entries was working these single ideas out to full-fledged novels. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu feels quite different as a mystery novel, because this time, there's not really one major twist that explains most of the happenings. Instead, this novel is packed with a lot of smaller ideas and mysteries to be solved. What I found disappointing was that the various ideas didn't seem to connect well, and at times Mailer Daemon no Senritsu felt quite disjointed, even if it had a few good ideas. The first half of the novel has some short, but pretty interesting situations. The locked room murder in the prologue is excellent: it is only a locked room murder in the eyes of the victim, as she's suddenly attacked in her apartment room even though she made sure there was nobody in the room save for her dog. The police swiftly figures out what happened, as does Raichi, but the simple locked room mystery is both smart and really quite what you'd expect from the Raichi series, as it preys on the reader (and the victim) to make a certain assumption. Near the half-way point, there is another death that is first assumed to be a suicide, but soon proved to be a murder: this one is fairly simple, partly due to the good clewing in the novel, but it's also a highly original concept to use in mystery fiction. The circumstances are slightly unique to Japan perhaps, but it's a good example how to use modern technology in puzzle plot mysteries set in this age.

The second half of the book revolves around Inspector Aikawa, who's staying in a strange pension in a small fisherman's village. He learns that Raichi's involved with the Mailer Daemon case and that she tweeted extensively on a certain day, when she was observing the four main suspects of the case while they were viewing a certain theatre play together. The other guests in the pension turn out to be acquaintances of Raichi too, and spurred on by the Challenge to the Reader tweet Raichi wrote, the group decides to try to find out who the Mailer Daemon is, based on the tweets of Raichi made during that theater visit. This part really feels disjointed from the first half of the book, as the pension guests focus solely on the tweets from the theater now. It is an interesting part, with each guest adding a bit of their own to the solution, but once again, the mysteries here are more like a series of minor, not directly connected ideas rather than a well-structured whole. There are some ingenious parts though: one idea makes brilliant use of the way Twitter works for example and it is quite amazing how this part was written. As always, the solution also depends on some erotic aspect of the story, and while the initial reveal was pretty good, I thought the actual explanation of the how and why this came to be was a bit underwhelming. The motive for the murders too is at one hand understandable in a real-world manner, but would anyone go as far as murder to accomplish this? In the end, I felt that Mailer Daemon no Senritsu had its share of good ideas for mystery plots, but they didn't always worked well together to form one consistent novel, and perhaps they would've done better as single ideas in short stories, rather than thrown together.

By the way, while Mailer Daemon no Senritsu can be read without any knowledge of this series, I'd strongly recommend you reading this one as last. I don't know if Hayasaka has concrete plans for Raichi's future at this moment, but for now, it seems Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is written to be the final part of this first "chapter" of the Raichi series, spanning four novels and one short story collection. Mailer Daemon no Senritsu is brimming with references to the earlier stories, and there are also quite a few guest appearances from the other novels/short stories, who all help out a bit in solving this mystery. Heck, even Hayasaka himself makes a guest appearance (in a television show)! The whole novel is filled with fanservice, so it's really best to read the previous stories first and the ending of this novel seems to suggest that we are at least not likely to see the secondary cast from the last few novels (like Inspector Aikawa and his subordinate Komatsunagi) any time soon again. Speaking of the cast, the names of the characters this time are pretty awful in a fun manner (everyone basically has a Very Literal Name, like Raichi's client having the character for "customer" in his name).

I have to admit I find it hard to make up my mind on Mailer Daemon no Senritsu. It doesn't work nearly as well as previous novels as one consistent, well-plotted mystery story, but it has some really good small ideas in it (I love the locked room murder in the prologue) and it also makes fantastic use of original fields in mystery fiction, especially modern technology like smartphones, Twitter and the garakei flip-phones. The many guest appearances and the packed plot make for a rather hasty story that feels a bit light, but it's certainly an entertaining read for those who have followed Raichi's adventures until now, with lots of fanservice. The ending seems to be saying Raichi will be taking some time off to find new clients, but I do hope that Raichi will return in a future novel, because I certainly still haven't had enough of her!

Original Japanese title(s):  早坂吝 『メーラーデーモンの戦慄』

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Burglar in the Library

"Everything in red. I keep thinking of that darned scarlet letter."
"The Scarlet Letters"

I think I'm in the minority here, but I really can't study in libraries. I always found it amazing how fellow students managed to study in the university library, because I really couldn't focus in a public space like that. Seeing people studying in family restaurants in Japan was the other extreme, of course.

Urazome Tenma series
The Gymnasium Murder AKA The Black Umbrella Mystery (2012)
The Aquarium Murder AKA The Yellow Mop Mystery (2013) 
The Kazegaoka 50 Yen Coin Festival Mystery AKA The Adventure of the Summer Festival (2014)
The Library Murder AKA The Red Letter Mystery (2016)

The Kazegaoka Library serves an important community role for the Kazegaoka district of Yokohama, from meeting spot for the elderly, place where a child picks their own books to read, to studying spot for the local students. One early September morning however, two librarians find that someone has used the library in a very different manner: they find the college student Shiromine Kyousuke lying dead on the floor, surrounded by a few books which flew off the bookcase. Kyousuke, a regular of the library, was beaten to death with a hardcover copy of Yamada Fuutarou's Encyclopedia of Human Death. The police investigation soon stumbles on various problems, ranging from how and why Kyousuke snuck into the library in the first place to why he was killed in such an odd place. But what stumps the police the most is the dying message left by the victim: there was a Japanese character "ku" (く) written in blood, but the protagonist on the cover of the popular detective novel Radio Control Detective was also encircled with blood. With no explanation for the two messages, the police decides to call in their "consultant" Urazome Tenma: an incredibly lazy, yet brilliant high school student who ran away from home and is now living in secret on the school premises. Earlier in the year, Tenma managed to solve the murders in his school's old gymnasium and in the local aquarium, and even though he's right in the middle of his end-of-semester examinations, he decides to focus his mind on the body in the library in Aosaki Yuugo's Toshokan no Satsujin ("The Library Murder", 2016).

Oh, man, I love the covers in this series. Anyway, Toshokan no Satsujin, which also carries the alternative English title The Red Letter Mystery, is the third novel in the Urazome Tenma series, and the fourth entry overall. The paperback pocket edition was released in September 2018. Aosaki made his debut with 2012's Taiikukan no Satsujin, the first in this series, and his publisher already lauded him as the "Heisei-era Ellery Queen" then (little did they know at the time that the Heisei era wouldn't last that much longer). As this nickname, and the alternative English titles of his novels suggest, Aosaki is heavily influenced by the Queen school of mystery fiction: this type of mystery focuses on long deduction chains based on physical clues and on the identification of characteristics of the killer: clue A, B and C tell us that the killer must be D, E and F, and only X answers to that description. For those who enjoy a true pure puzzle mystery plot, one that really challenges you into logically deducing who the murderer must be, Toshokan no Satsujin offers exactly what you want.

Like the early Queen novels, the crime scenes in this series are set at semi-public areas, from the school gymnasium to a local aquarium. In this novel's case, we have a public library. And I say semi, in each case, there are still restrictions to the accessibility of these scenes: in the gymnasium murder case, we actually had a locked room murder, while in the aquarium case, the murderer must've been in the backyard area of the aquarium. In Toshokan no Satsujin, the public library scene is restricted because the murder occured in the night inside the library, and obviously only a couple of people could've gone inside the library at that time. The book has a nice diagram of the library to help you visualize the place, and it's actually also quite handy while deducing some of the actions of the murderer. Now I think about it, spatial movement is one of the more important factors in Aosaki's mysteries: you'll always be focusing on the actions of the murderer, but that also includes where they went in what order, as it's exactly that what usually allows you to identify some important characteristic of the killer ("if they first did X, and then went upstairs to do Y, then that means Z").

But physical evidence is always the foundation to solving the case. I can tell you right now, you are never going to solve this 100%. I mean, this is a clever book, an incredibly clever book even, and that also means the deduction chain necessary to identitfy the murderer completely is very, very long. The starting point of these chain focuses on several pieces of evidence, most notably the two dying messages, the books spread around the body and several smudges of blood around them. In order to solve this case, you'll need to develop multiple threads of reasoning based on these pieces of evidence and work with them simultaneously: sometimes you'll be intertwining these threads, sometimes you'll be following them independently of each other. I'd be impressed if you managed to get more than half of the conditions you should end up with, as these are really tricky, but well-founded deductions. Not even the one chain The Moai Island Puzzle is as complex as what's done here. What luckily makes Toshokan no Satsujin a readable experience that there is sort of a halfway point: Tenma's explanation of the case isn't completely end-loaded, but he will reveal a couple of his deductions throughout which help the reader out and result in story development, and especially one reveal in the middle is good: the reader actually has the advantage over Tenma, but even then you might not guess what Tenma's going to reveal then. As an experiment in deduction however, Toshokan no Satsujin is fantastic, as it showcases a lot of different ways of how to develop one single clue into a full chain of thought. I'd hesitate recommending it to someone who has never read such a type of mystery novel however, as the explanation part after the Challenge to the Reader is really long: there's just so much the book expects you to deduce to figure out whodunit.

The way Toshokan no Satsujin handles the dying message by the way is great. Dying message stories can be a bit of a hit or miss if they focus on the meaning of the message, like they usually do. Sometimes the solution is far too farfetched for something written by someone dying, other times the meaning is far too obvious. The meaning of the dying messages do matter in Toshokan no Satsujin of course, but Tenma actually manages to deduce quite a lot about the identity of the murderer not based on the meaning of the dying messages, but how they were made. As I've mentioned earlier in a post on clues: these type of mysteries focus on the actions and inactions of the actors involved, and the reason why certain actions (or inactions) are taken. Toshokan no Satsujin does a tremendous job showing how the circumstances that led to the creation of these messages are a clue on their own, giving the meaning of the message less importance. This alone makes this a worthwhile read.

Don't expect much of the motive though. I mean, motives almost never ever matter in these types of elimination-method-mysteries, where you're identifying specific characteristics of the killer, but even as someone who doesn't really minds weak motives, I have to say that the motive of the killer in Toshokan no Satsujin is portrayed really weakly. It basically comes out of nowhere and doesn't even really make sense. The logical prison built around the suspect is solid, but you really wonder why that suspect committed the crime in the first place. The novel also focuses much more on its recurring cast, and don't expect to learn much about the suspects either besides some basic characteristics.

Moving away from the core mystery plot (gasp!), I found this a fairly entertaining and funny novel as usual. The geeky Tenma offers loads of obvious and less obvious to manga, anime, TV drama and other outings of popular culture (really fun to see how many of these you get), and the banter between his "assistant" Yuno and her classmates about school and other stuff is always amusing to read. All the four books in this series are set in the same year by the way: Taiikukan no Satsujin and Suizokukan no Satsujin are set before summer break, the short story collection Kazegaoka Gojuuendama Matsuri no Nazo is set during summer break, and Toshokan no Satsujin is as said set in early September, in the week of the end-of-semester exams (each chapter is in fact named after the exams held that day). The books can be read standalone, but there are always references to people they meet and other stuff to earlier stories (no spoilers by the way), so it does pay off to read them in order, especially as there's a very light sub-plot of Yuno trying to learn more about Tenma's background with each novel (though that's moving really, really slowly).

I had been looking forward to reading Toshokan no Satsujin for a long time now (as I waited for the pocket release...) and I'm happy to say that it definitely met my expectations as a logic-focused puzzle plot mystery. It's at one hand a very accessible novel, with a lot of easy banter and a YA vibe, but the core mystery plot is as complex as you can get, and if you're not used to this, I can imagine people getting frustrated at the enormous long chains of reasoning Tenma explains at the end. For fans of early Ellery Queen or The Moai Island Puzzle for example: this is the goods! Smart, surprising deductions based on seemingly meaningless clues, and a plot that makes good use of the public library as its crime scene. Personal favorite for this year, but it might be a bit too Queen-ish for some, despite the lighter YA fiction atmosphere throughout the novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 青崎有吾『図書館の殺人』

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Stolen Turnabout

『ルパン三世 カリオストロの城』

"No, he did manage to steal something very precious. Your heart."
"Lupin III - The Castle of Cagliostro"

It's been a while since I did a review of a short story collection, let alone one where I actually discuss all of the stories!

Resort towns across Japan have been hit by a nasty series of jewel thefts lately and all of the incidents all have one thing in common: the capers, some of them committed in what seems to be impossible circumstances, were all done with both genius and audacity, which has led to the police's conclusion the thefts were all committed by one and the same person. This thief is indicated with the codename S79 in the police files and a special task unit was formed to investigate, and capture S79. Just like how Lupin had his Ganimard, S79 has to watch out for inspector Tougou and his subordinate Ninomiya, who see S79 as their arch-enemy and will stop at nothing to capture the brilliant thief. Awasaka Tsumao's Youtou S79-Gou ("Phantom Thief S79", 1987) collects all twelve of the S79 short stories with impossible capers and more.

Awasaka Tsumao (1933-2009) should be a familiar name on this blog now. The mystery author and stage magician has written some of Japan's finest mystery stories, from the wonderful A Aiichirou  short stories (many of the A Aiichirou stories rank among the best impossible shorts from Japan), while I have also been enjoying his novels as of late, with 11 Mai no Trump being a true gem in the genre. Youtou S79-Gou marks a return to his short stories for me, though I have to remark that Youtou S79-Gou is a linked short story collection, like Yamada Fuutarou used to write them: while the short stories (originally published between 1979-1987) can be read apart, the best experience is gained by reading them in order, as they are actually interlinked and there are often references made to events from earlier stories or characters reappearing.

Youtou S79-Gou is also a remarkably varied short story collection. In essence, the S79 stories are 'phantom thief' stories in the spirit of the Arsène Lupin stories, with the focus lying on the mystery of how S79 manages to pull off some of these fantastic thefts, though there are also some interesting differences with what you'd usually expect from such a collection. For example, there is no one single detective character in this series. S79 always manages to escape with the loot, but the character who eventually figures out how the theft was committed is not limited to only police detectives Tougou or Ninomiya: a character who only appears in that one particular story is just as likely to solve the impossible crime. The stories aren't all (impossible) capers either: many of them are 'traditional' howdunnits, but there are some screwballs there too, and some of the impossible capers become really impossible to solve if you focus only on the impossible aspect.

The collection starts with three fairly traditional howdunnit capers. In Ruby wa Hi ("Ruby is Fire"), we first learn about the thief S79 when a ruby is stolen at a small beach at a resort, with only a few people on the beach. Inspector Tougou and Ninomiya had been watching the place all the time, so while they don't know who S79 is, they know that one of the people present on the beach must be the thief. They figure that a simple body search should solve the problem of S79, but to their surprise, nobody is possession of the ruby, so how did S79 get rid of it? While the solution is simple, it's also very cleverly clued, and there's even a good fake solution! Ikiteita Kaseki ("The Living Fossil") is the direct sequel to the previous story, as Inspector Tougou is still convinced one of the people on the beach was S79. He has invited all of them to a exhibition featuring an extremely rare seashell, hoping that he'll tempt S79 into trying to steal the shell. The seashell is kept inside a glass display, watched by guards and with an alarm that'll go off the instant somebody touches the glass. And yet, the seashell disappears from the watching eyes of the guards, the policemen and other visitors! The solution is highly original, but also highly unlikely to be succesful in real life.  Sapphire no Sora ("Sapphire Sky") has S79 help a young girl stage a fake kidnapping, as the girl doesn't like her stepmother. She only wants to see her stepmother suffer, so she asks for her sapphire as the ransom money and wants to see it fly away into the sky tied to a balloon. S79 can keep the sapphire if the thief can figure out how to retrieve the balloon. But even with policemen tracking the balloon the moment it is released from the top of a temple, S79 manages to do the impossible: the container tied to the balloon holding the sapphire only has a thank you letter from S79! This is an ingeniously plotted impossible situation, which had a great piece of misdirection, but also some minor points which make the whole trick a bit less practical than you'd think. Still a surprising good story.

The following four stories are not all howdunnits, and are perhaps more surprising in seeing how more obsessed Tougou is becoming with S79, imagining the thief behind everything. In Koushinmaru Ibun ("The Curious Tale of the Koushinmaru"), Tougou and Ninomiya received tickets for a New Year's performance of a "hyper-realistic" performance of the kabuki play Sannnin Kichisa. The performance is hyper-realistic, so the actors not only speak normal dialogue instead of 'theater dialogue', they also all speak "realistically" (i.e. not loud so the audience can actually hear them), and other elements like their hairstyles and even the fights are done 'hyper-realistically'. Near the end of the play though, Tougou suddenly announces to the whole audience S79 is in the theater! The mystery lies in how Tougou figured out that S79 was connected in any way to this play, and the solution is brilliant. This story is similar to many of the A Aiichirou stories, where you'd never even suspect you're reading a mystery story until it's suddenly set loose upon you and you see how much foreshadowing there was. Kiiroi Yaguramasou ("Yellow Cornflowers") has Tougou and Ninomiya set a trap for S79 during an elementary school's sports competition, as they know a necklace the thief stole is hidden in the school garden. The way S79 manages to get away with the necklace is brilliant, and incredibly funny. In Moebius Bijutsukan ("The Moebius Museum"), two museums receive letters from S79 that some paintings will be stolen, and despite Tougou and Ninomiya making their rounds in the museum, S79 does manages to get away with the paintings. This is a very tricky story, as there are several plot-lines running simultaneously, but the way in which the thief manages to fool Tougou and Ninomiya in order to steal the painting is brilliant, yet very, very impractical, as it's unlikely nobody would've noticed (as there were other visitors in the museum). By Mizunotototori Kumi 129537 ("Water Rooster -  129537"), Tougou is really seeing S79 everywhere, as he suspects with no real reason that the thief will try to cash in on a lottery using a proxy representative. A suspicious figure does appear who wants all the money cash, but no matter how hard they look, the lottery ticket Water Rooster -  129537 seems genuine, and the man leaves with the money. The policemen tail him, but a simple, but smart trick shakes the men off. The way how S79 managed to get the lottery money is devilishly simple, yet effective, though in no way could it ever work in the modern day and age. There's a nice piece of misdirection too.

In the following three stories, S79's targets are rare pieces of art and while they are technically impossible capers, you aren't likely to solve them by focusing on the impossibilities, as the solutions require some very out-of-the-box thinking. Kurosagi no Chawan ("The Black Heron Tea Cup"), Nanpo no Yuurei ("The Ghost of Nanpo") and Himouji no Kannnonzou ("The Kannon Statue of Himou Temple") are similar in the sense that a piece of antique art manages to disappear from a place under observation. Kurosagi no Chawan is interesting as this caper happens within Ninomiya's home. The theft is a bit simple, but there's an interesting subplot running too that makes the thing more complex and entertaining. The other two stories hinge upon a similar idea actually, but you'll never recognize that in time, and the way these pieces of art managed to disappear is absolutely stunning. 

The collection ends with S79-Gou no Taiho ("The Arrest of S79") and Tougou Keishi no Hanamichi ("The Crowning Achievement of Superintendent Tougou"). In S79-Gou no Taiho, Tougou and Ninomiya travel to France, as it appears S79 has been active in Paris for some months now. S79's latest target was an art piece in the possession of the Sernine (ha!) family. While Ninomiya recognizes the Japanese woman visiting the Sernine family as their main S79 suspect, she still manages to walk off with a priceless piece of art due to a brilliant piece of misdirection. A very surprising story, as besides the theft, there's another very clever trick pulled by a different person. The S79 series ends with Tougou Keishi no Hanamichi, which isn't a mystery story per se, but it has Tougou finally figuring out who S79 really is and gives a happy ending to the story (complete with everyone from previous stories appearing again).
Youtou S79-Gou is a very good, at times absolutely excellent short story collection that manages to mix brilliant originality with very humorous characters. While some of the tricks are arguably repeated within this collection, Awasaka is very good at redressing these tricks into completely different ideas, with different results and new surprises. There's also a lot of variety within these stories, from normal capers to kidnappings to stories that only reveal themselves to be proper mystery stories at the very end. While I'd say the A Aiichirou shorts are still the best I've read from Awasaka, Youtou S79-Gou is certainly worth the read.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『妖盗S79号』:「ルビーは火」/「生きていた化石」/「サファイアの空」/「庚申丸異聞」/「黄色いヤグルマソウ」/「メビウス美術館」/「癸酉組一二九五三七番」/「黒鷺の茶碗」/ 「南畝の幽霊」/「桧毛寺の観音像」/「S79号の逮捕」/ 「東郷警視の花道」

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Borrowed Place

“I will now lecture on the general mechanics and development of the situation which is known in detective fiction as the ‘hermetically sealed chamber.’ Harrumph. All those opposing can skip this chapter."
"The Hollow Man"

Ever since Dr. Fell made the utterly shocking confession that he's in fact a fictional character in a mystery novel, we have seen more people, fictional or otherwise, thread in the good doctor's footsteps and take a look at the mystery genre in general, rather than a specific problem in a specific novel. Dr. Fell's locked room lecture provided a now infamous classification of how locked room murders could be achieved in tales of mystery and imagination, for example by making it seem like the crime happened earlier or later than thought, etc. The notion of attempting a taxonomy of a certain trope in the genre (that is, the locked room murder or impossible crime) is actually quite interesting, as it freely admits that there is no such thing as pure originality, and it is a clear confession that most of the time, every single idea in mystery fiction is just a variation of something else, some admittedly more inspired than others.

On the other hand, the possibility of a taxonomy also emphasizes the game-like element of the genre, I think. I have mused over "winning the game of a mystery novel" before, but I think that efforts like the Locked Room Lecture really show this element very well for this particular form of game.  A well-designed videogame for example, will present obstacles and problems for the player to conquer and more importantly, build on that as the game continues. To take the famous level 1-1 from Super Mario Bros.: the very first section of the level, the game first teaches you can 'jump', it will show you can 'jump on an enemy' to defeat it, and that you can 'jump higher if you hold the button longer'. What follows afterwards are increasingly difficult variations on these notions: you might be asked to jumped consecutively, or beat multiple enemies, or do tricky jump combinations of various heights. The further you progress in a game, the harder it gets. But the thing here is: the game is designed knowing that you have cleared the previous obstacles. A good stage design knows you are in the possession of certain skills and the knowledge of how the game world works ('jumping on an enemy kills it') and how objects and enemies move in a game. In short: it teaches you to recognize patterns, and in a way, that is what mystery fiction also does. As the Locked Room Lecture shows: most examples of this particular sub-genre can easily be identified as a varation of a certain pattern. If you, as the reader, want to "win" this intellectual game, you need to be able to recognize the pattern being used despite all the misdirection and apply your knowledge to this particular version of the pattern.

The plot device of having a character in a novel suddenly hold a lecture about a certain trope in the genre can feel a bit pretentious, but I think it works if you take mystery fiction to be a game of wits. Going back to Super Mario Bros.: say you make it to stage 8-3. I can, assuming you didn't use the special warp pipes or had someone else help you, perhaps assume you have played the previous levels and overcome the obstacles and problems presented there. I can therefore estimate how good you are at the game (at least good enough to do X). That is a different story with a novel: Carr is not likely to know how much you know about the mystery genre, or locked room murder sub genre, if you pick up The Hollow Man. It could be the very first novel you ever read, or just the last in a decennia-long diet of only impossible crimes. The in-novel lecture can thus function as a gauge: by presenting the patterns, the author openly shows the difficulty level they are working at, allowing the reader/player to estimate their own position. Is this author operating at a difficulty level much higher than what I used to, or is it just right? So I am quite fond of these kinds of lectures.

There have been many writers after Carr who have played with the Locked Room Lecture (Amagi made a typology and example stories for each category), or more specific examples of the impossible crime like Nikaidou Reito's Footprints-in-the-Snow lecture. I happened to have translationed one on locked room murders myself even, with Shinji, one of the characters in Abiko's The 8 Mansion Murders, agonizing the suspects and the police as he babbled on about his own locked room lecture, heavily inspired by Carr's. Shinji also refers to a famous essay by Edogawa Rampo by the way, where Rampo doesn't just attempt to categorize the tricks behind locked room murders: Rampo decided to categorize every single trick from mystery fiction. I don't have a full translation of the essay, though I do have a short translation of the various categories Rampo identified. As mentioned in that post, Rampo also has an interesting taxonomy of unique motives featured in mystery novels.

But I have to say, I am infinitely more partial to in-novel lectures on genre tropes, rather than standalone essays. And I also think it's not a secret that I'm actually not so singularly focused on locked room murders and other impossibilities as some of the other mystery bloggers around. Therefore, I'm usually very fond of lectures on mystery tropes other than locked room murders, even if you don't see them a lot. Granted, not every type of mystery works really well in a taxonomy. The 'list-up-all-the-characteristics-of-the-culprit'-type of whodunnit as championed by authors like Queen, Arisugawa and Aosaki for example doesn't really lend it well for it, though I have made a feeble attempt in the past by sketching an idea for a typology for clues used in these type of stories.

But to mention a few other interesting typologies: Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle (disclosure: I translated the English version) features a very short Dying Message Lecture by Maria, which I quite like because the dying message itself is a trope that is often used as just a minor touch to a mystery story, seldom taking the spotlight. Mitsuda's Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono has a very unique and specialized one, as it is about the topic of decapitated bodies. I mean, once you start thinking about, you'll quickly realize that a taxonomy of this trope is quite possible (the question being why a body is decapitated) as there are a few variations, but it's still a surprisingly original lecture topic.

I didn't really have a point to make in this post, but "hey, I like lectures" but to finish with some more thought-provoking, I thought I'd add in a translation of Arisugawa's categorization of alibi tricks. The alibi is of course a very important notion in mystery novels, and is often also a crucial element of "true" impossible crimes, as well as semi-impossible crimes ("He couldn't have done it because he was seen elsewhere at the time of the murder") and variants. Arisugawa's lecture is featured in his 1990 novel Magic Mirror, and unlike his usual Queenian efforts, this novel is actually more inspired by the work of Crofts, explaining the lecture. And I haven't read it yet, though I will eventually, of course.

Anyway, if you have something to say about lectures on any trope of the mystery genre, or perhaps the alibi lecture specifically, leave a comment.

(from: Magic Mirror (1990))

- The witness is intentionally lying.

a. Mistaken time.
- The watch of the witness has been tampered with; mistaken day of the week or date; etc.

b. Mistaken location.
- The witness is mistaken about the location they were with the culprit (the exact apartment, train, mountain, river, etc.)

c. Mistaken identity.
- The culprit had someone impersonate them.

- For example the crime is committed in the mountains of town A, but the body is moved to the mountains of town B to make it seem like the murder was committed there.

- For example the faked photograph.

a. Made to look like it happened earlier than actually happened.
- For example the victim is made to appear like they were killed at 2 o'clock, even though it happened at 3 o'clock, and an alibi is obtained for 2 o'clock.

b. Made to look like it happened later than actually happened.
- For example the victim is made to look they still lived at 4 o'clock even though they died at 3 o'clock, and an alibi is obtained for 4 o'clock.

A. Medical trickery.
- The time of the crime is faked through tricks like heating or cooling the corpse, tampering with the contents of the stomach, etc.

B. Non-medical trickery.
Using non-medical tricks to accomplish 5a and 5b.

* Both 5A and 5B feature an a and b variant.

- For example it takes one hour between points A and B, but an overlooked route between those points is only thirty minutes. This category is especially often seen in mystery stories about train timetables, but one can also think of shortening an one-hour hike from the mountains to mere minutes by jumping off a cliff with a parachute.

a. Mechanical trickery.
- A pistol that is fired through a clock mechanism etc.

b. Psychological trickery.
- Having a person under hypnosis or suffering from conditions like sleepwalking commit dangerous acts on their own.

- Giving the victim such a tremendous psychological shock they commit suicide.

- That what the culprit claims is an alibi isn't a real alibi at all, but only said to make other people think they have one.

Original Japanese source:  有栖川有栖 『マジックミラー』

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Mistletoe Mystery

「世界は一つ 東京オリンピック」

"One world - The Tokyo Olympics"
Slogan of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics

Came across a lot of familiar sights in this novel! Not only the main setting (more details below), but a fair amount of the story is also set in Takaragaike, which was right behind my dorm when I was studying in Kyoto, and I went there at least once a week as they had a nice and large used book store there!

Mitarai Kiyoshi series
Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Astrology Murder Case") [1981]
Naname Yashiki no Hanzai ("The Crime at the Slanted Mansion") [1982]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Aisatsu ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Greetings") [1987]
Ihou no Kishi ("A Knight in Strange Lands") [1988]
Mitarai Kiyoshi no Dance ("Mitarai Kiyoshi's Dance") [1990]
Suishou no Pyramid ("The Crystal Pyramid") [1991]
Atopos [1993]

Russia Yuurei Gunkan Jiken ("The Case of The Russian Phantom Warship") [2001]
Nejishiki Zazetsuki  ("Screw-Type Zazetsuki") [2003]

Okujou no Douketachi ("Clowns on the Roof") [2016]  

Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The Locked Room of the Tori'i - The One Santa Claus In This World") [2018] 

If you have ever visited the city of Kyoto, it's likely you also wandered around the streets between Sanjo-Kawaramachi and Shijo-Kawaramachi, as that's the main shopping area of the city, with plenty of shopping arcades, department stores and even markets to be found here. It's almost always quite busy here, especially near Nishiki Market, where you can find many of the local food and goods. If you walk down Nishiki Market towards the river-side of the shopping area, you'll eventually stumble upon a weird sight: in the covered shopping area stands a tori'i shrine gate, wedged between a hamburger chain restaurant and a boutique selling used clothes and accessories. This tori'i gate indicates the entrance to the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine, located right in the middle of the shopping area. The shrine was obviously here long before the shops and restaurants came and in their attempt to maximize the use of the ground, something unique happened. The Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine tori'i gate is not just wedged tightly between two buildings: it actually penatrates them. If you go to the second floor of either building, you'll find a piece of the tori'i gate sticking out of the wall into the room.

In the year of 1975, Mitarai Kiyoshi was still a student of Kyoto University and in an earlier novel, he became friends with Satoru, a graduated high school student who was still studying for the entrance exams of Kyoto University. Satoru tells Mitarai about Kaede, a girl he knows from his cram school, who had both a horrible and wonderful experience eleven years ago, when she was still an eight-year old girl who lived in one of the buildings flanking the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine tori'i gate. It was on Christmas morning 1964, that she received her very first Christmas present from Santa, who even left a letter telling her sorry he had not come earlier. Jumping out of her room with her present in her arms, she found her aunt waiting for her and after a short talk, they both left for her aunt's home. What eight-year old Kaede didn't know at the time was that her mother was lying dead on the first floor, and that her father had committed suicide that morning jumping in front of the first train. Before her father died, he had called his sister to take care of Kaede and make sure she wouldn't see her mother's body. However, the police soon realizes there's something strange going on with this murder: all the doors and windows on both floors were locked tightly from the inside, and the only keys to the home were in the possession of Kaede's mother. Not even Kaede's father could've come inside, as her mother had kicked her husband out in preparation of divorce. Yet Kaede's mother was  strangled (ruling out suicide) by someone who must've come inside the house. And there's proof that at there was at least one intruder in the house on Christmas Eve, as Kaede's present most definitely did not come from her parents, so Santa Claus must've gotten inside the house some way to leave her a present. A suspect for the murder of Kaede's mother has been held in custody for eleven years now, even though Kaede does not believe that man did it, and having heard the story, Mitarai too decides to put his mind to the mystery of Santa Claus and a murderer intruding her house in Shimada Souji's Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The Locked Room of the Tori'i - The One Santa Claus in This World", 2018).

Shimada Souji has been writing for a long time about his detective character Mitarai Kiyoshi. The character first appeared in 1981's Senseijutsu Satsujin Jiken (known in English as The Tokyo Zodiac Murders) and since then, we have seen him appear in many novels and short stories. 2016's Okujou no Douketachi (later retitled as Okujou) for example was the fiftieth story featuring Mitarai. We have seen Mitarai in various phases of his life across these stories: he has solved mysteries when he was a just a wee li'l lad, but his resume also includes astrologist, private detective and university professor in neurology. Shimada's latest novel with Mitarai is set in his student days, long before he met his usual Watson/chronicler Ishioka, so the narration is this time reserved for his younger friend Satoru, whom he first met in Mitarai Kiyoshi to Shinshindou Coffee ("Mitarai Kiyoshi and the Coffee of Shinshindo").

I remember I found Okujou no Douketachi to feature an interesting idea, but that it didn't really work as a full-length novel: it had to twist and turn itself to accomodate for everything it wanted to do to approach novel-length, while in my opinion, it would've worked better in a simpler, but more focused approach. Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus is somewhat interesting in that regard, as Shimada wrote both a novel-length version, but also a short story version of the same story. Originally, Shimada wrote the short story Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus ("The One Santa Claus In This World") especially for the 2018 anthology Kagi no Kakatta Heya ("The Locked Rooms"). Eventually, he decided to also extend this story into a full novel. Both versions were basically published at the same time: the anthology Kagi no Kakatta Heya was released on August 29, 2018, followed by Tori'i no Misshitsu the very next day!

As you read Tori'i no Misshitsu, it's pretty obvious to notice how this originally started as a short story, as in the end, all the mysteries presented in this book revolve around one concept, but unlike Okujou no Douketachi, I'd say Shimada really succeeded in making this one cohesive novel with everything tying nicely together, rather than just a series of very unlikely coincidences. Throughout the book, you are presented with various mysteries set in the ancient capital Kyoto: from a girl who says she saw monkeys moving the pendulum of an old grandfather clock and a series of nightmares haunting the inhabitants of a building, to the murder on Kaede's mother, as well as the mystery of how Santa Claus entered the house that fateful Christmas Eve. What makes this work is that these mysteries are all connectedly through one base idea, and it's by solving one of these mysteries that Mitarai instantly realizes the truth behind every other puzzling incident. I'd say that the basic idea might not be extremely original, but Shimada does show his experience as a novelist here by spinning a more than amusing yarn by incorporating all these variations on the underlying concept. The main mystery of the locked room murder in particular makes wonderful use of its unique setting in Kyoto. I myself have seen that tori'i of the Nishiki Tenmangu Shrine countless of times while shopping there, and I have even eaten once at the hamburger chain that is now inhabiting the building on one side of the gate, but I never really gave the shrine entrance that much thought besides "oh, that looks neat", so it's pretty funny to see that particular part of Kyoto used as the setting of a locked room mystery.

Picture (C) Hidehiro Komatsu

I have not read the short story version of this tale so I can't comment on the exact differences between the two versions, but I assume that much of the background story is exclusive to the novel version: a substantial part of the novel is not told from Mitarai and Satoru's point of view, but as a flashback to 1964 from the point of view of one of the other characters, which also delves a lot into character backgrounds etcetera, and my guess would be that most of this was added to the novel, with the short story focusing more on the core puzzle plot of the locked room murder and how Santa Claus entered the house.

By the way, I thought it funny how this novel feels 'kinda' timely. I mean, the last day of August isn't really the day before Christmas, but assuming you don't buy this book day one, it's certainly close by, and the Tokyo Olymics are also often referred too in this novel. The first Tokyo Olympics, mind you, not the upcoming.

Even though I prefer the short story form in general, and I could also definitely tell this story would've worked as well in that form, I found Tori'i no Misshitsu - Sekai ni Tada Hitori no Santa Claus to be quite amusing as a well-structured and plotted locked room mystery. No, this is not one of those grand impossible crime stories like the earlier Mitarai stories with some mind-blowing trick behind them, but as a cute Christmas story set in a rather unique corner of Kyoto, this book gets my thumbs up.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司 『鳥居の密室 世界にただひとりのサンタクロース』

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Murder Is My Business

"My brother is my brother. And I am myself." 
 "Asami Mitsuhiko ~ The Final Chapter~"

Yes, it's time for my annual review of a mystery novel set in Fukuoka.

Uchida Yasuo (1934-2018) was a very prolific and well-known mystery author who passed away earlier this year. Uchida, Nishimura Kyoutarou and Yamamura Misa are often grouped together as hyper-prolific authors, who specialize in so-called travel mysteries: mystery stories often set in touristic destinations, with plots that involve local specifics, like local trains in the case of Nishimura, and local legends in the case of Uchida. The work of this trio is also often adapted for television. Uchida's most famous creation is Asami Mitsuhiko, a 33-year old freelance writer who travels across Japan for his work for the magazine Travel and History and who also has a born gift for stumbling across murder cases, and his inate curiosity and intellect won't allow him to ignore these crimes. Which often gets him into trouble with the local police, who usually end up taking Mitsuhiko to the police station. The subsequent scene is a staple of the Asami Mitsuhiko series, as it's only then when the higher-ups at the local police station learn that Mitsuhiko is in fact the younger brother of the Director-General of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the National Police Agency, which usually leads to Mitsuhiko's hurried release and a lot of apologies, even though Mitsuhiko himself doesn't really like to rely on his brother's function to get bailed out.

Hakata Satsujin Jiken ("The Hakata Murder Case", 1991) is the 47th entry in the series and starts with Mitsuhiko helping out at a historical dig in the city of Fukuoka, which is also known by its old name Hakata. The body Mitsuhiko digs up however isn't a few centuries old, but just one or two years and only half-decayed. This is of course a job not for archaeologists, but for the police and they quickly realize the body is that of Katada, the head of the Kyushu Division of the Eikou Group who had been missing for a year. The department stores and supermarkets of the Eikou Group had been expanding aggressively across Japan with their affordable, mass-produced products and the successes it had already booked on its path to become the number one department store and supermarket chain in the southern island of Kyushu had all been the product of the brilliant marketing mind of Katada, until he suddenly disappeared. Now his disappearance has become a murder, suspicion falls on the Amanoya Department Store, as they benefited the most from Katada's literal elimination from the department store war. Sengoku of Amanoya's Information Office is the prime suspect, as he knew Katada personally and was seen arguing with Katada on the day of his disappearance, but Mitsuhiko receives a strange request from his brother: usually the Director-General of the Criminal Affairs Bureau of the National Police Agency would tell his younger brother to stay out of trouble, but this time he tells Mitsuhiko to find out who killed Katada and why, and most importantly: save Sengoku.

Yes, this is an ugly cover. I usually praise covers I really like, so let's do the same for ones I really don't like. I don't even understand the composition. I mean, yeah, sure, there are women in this novel... but is that the only connection between the cover and the actual contents of this book? Even now I've read the book I don't understand the reason for this design. 

Like I mentioned, I picked this book out because I wanted to read a mystery tale set in Fukuoka. To be honest, Hakata Satsujin Jiken was a bit disappointing in that regard, as we don't see much of the geographical setting that is Fukuoka. Ten to Sen featured the neighborhood of Kashii and Kashiihama for example, while Houkago Spring Train featured several landmarks from Higashi-ku and downtown prominently. The Fukuoka in Hakata Satsujin Jiken in comparison felt less pronounced. That said though, the department store war that is the main theme of the book is based on something that had happened in reality in Fukuoka: the Eikou Group and the local Amanoya Department Store from the novel are easily recognized as a thinly disguised Daiei Group (a chain that operates throughout Japan) and Iwataya Department Store (the oldest department store in Fukuoka). I hadn't at first even realized that Iwataya was based solely in Kyushu, with the Fukuoka store as its main store: I often visited Iwataya during my time in Fukuoka (the bread store!), but never realized that Iwataya wasn't to be found elsewhere in Japan. So that's typically Fukuoka, I'd guess, but I think on the whole you don't really get a 'local feeling' from reading this book, especially not if you're not familiar with Fukuoka, as you don't get a good sense of local landmarks.

I have only read a couple of the Asami Mitsuhiko novels (and seen a few of the drama adaptations), and they're usually whodunnit stories. Hakata Satsujin Jiken isn't one really. To be honest, I have trouble categorizing the novel in terms of mystery plot, as it's definitely not really giving you a fair chance to guess whodunnit, but it's not about an "obvious" problem like a locked room murder or a perfect alibi. In essence, you're given a lot of suggestive and cryptic puzzle pieces, like Christie-esque "she had that look on her face" recallings of previous meetings or hearing parts of conversations etc,  all elements that eventually help you figure out why Katada was murdered, as well as other enigmatic events that occur over the course of the novel, like the disappearance of an Amanoya floor receptionist and rumors of company spies within Amanoya. Eventually, Asami reveals how all the puzzle pieces fit together, but even then the story's a bit chaotic. I think that the central, binding theme behind the various events and murders is a good one, one that has parallels with the 3DS game Detective Conan: Marionette Symphony and which remains fairly neatly hidden until the end, but the unfocused storytelling doesn't really help, as the moment Asami explains the whole case, you don't have that catharsis feeling of seeing all the pieces fall in their proper place, but rather one of 'okay, that is one way to connect the pieces but that's more-or-less guesswork rather than actual detecting, right?'. Granted, guessing is also something that Christie utilized in her work, but her plots work better with the intuitive mode, as they are usually based on something simple, but flipped around or something like that. The plot of Hakata Satsujin Jiken isn't simple in form however, so you don't get that 'aha' feeling that the intuitive mode can bring.

Hakata Satsujin Jiken is on the whole, an unremarkable mystery story. There's an original theme for the background story (the department store war), there's a good idea for a mystery there somewhere, and for fans of Mitsuhiko as a character, this novel has some funny and interesting moments to offer too (the unusual request from his brother, and Mitsuhiko's usual warm welcome from women), but the structure is just too unfocused, with too many puzzle pieces that don't even look like they're from the same puzzle, and where the final picture is not that one of a neat form with straight lines, but one with little curves and bumps.

Original Japanese title(s): 内田康夫 『博多殺人事件』

Saturday, September 1, 2018

The Temple of Lost Souls

nobody knows, only I know it 
(you're already know, already over) 
everybody loves despair 
さあ Recall from THE END

nobody knows, only I know it 
(you're already know, already over)
everybody loves despair 
Come, recall from THE END

It's been a while since I last read a volume in this series!

Samidare Yui and Kirigiri Kyouko are not only both students at the same Girls Missionary Academy, they are also the only students there to be officially registered detectives. At the start of the Danganronpa Kirigiri series, Yui and Kirigiri learned about the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, a sinister group which organizes the Duel Noir, the ultimate battle of the wits between criminals and detectives. The Committee sells perfect crimes to those who want to take revenge, and supplies murder schemes, the objects and location needed and even a completely new identity for after they're done. However, the Committee at the same time will also invite a detective on the scene, who has either prevent the murders, or identify the murderer within a week. Yui and Kirigiri are determined to stop the Committee, which of course has noticed the presence of these two. In Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri 5 (2017), Yui and Kirigiri are still caught up in the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples: if they manage to solve all twelve locked room murder mysteries within a week, the second-in-command of the Committee agrees to step down. Yui, Kirigiri and some new allies managed to solve nine of them in the previous two volumes, leaving the final three for this volume. Can they conquer the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples?

Danganronpa Kirigiri is a spin-off novel series of the videogame series Danganronpa, focusing on the past of the character Kirigiri Kyouko, but the connections to the main series are so light one can easily read this series on its own, without any knowledge of the games. The novels are written by Kitayama Takekuni, an author who specializes in mechanical locked room murder mysteries and err... not a very fast writer, it seems, as Danganronpa Kirigiri is released really slowly, with one, two year gaps between the books even though they're so short. Kitayama was also consultant on the mystery plots for 2017's New Danganronpa V3, but still.... Usually, a slow release schedule isn't really a problem, but Danganronpa Kirigiri is an exception, as from volume 3 on, the seperate volumes couldn't be read independently anymore. By which I don't mean that some story plot points carry over to the next volume: in Danganronpa Kirigiri, you'll stop right in the middle in a scene, which is only continued in the next volume. For example: Danganronpa Kirigiri volume 4 from late 2015 gave us the introducing scenes of a murder and an impossible disappearance in the Libra Girls Academy, but then the story cut away, and only continued in the subject of today's review, which was released in 2017! Volumes 1 and 2 can be read more-or-less independently, though you do want to read them in order, but volumes 3, 4 and 5 really need to be read together in one go.

Anyway, Danganronpa Kirigiri 5 is the end of the The Twelve Locked Room Temples story arc, and presents the reader with three impossible crimes. The murder in the Bar Goodbye is by far the least interesting. One of Yui and Kirigiri's allies is sent to check out the bar, which is situated in a dark back alley of a dilapidated and abandoned entertainment district. The detective has brought the real estate agent along to gain access to the closed bar, but the agent is suddenly called by someone who's obviously quite confused: the man on the phone says he just woke up in a place he doesn't know, that he's tied to a chair and that the only things he could reach was a cell phone, which was set to call the real estate agent. The only clue to his whereabouts is a matchbook, which says Bar Goodbye. The detective and the real estate agent realize the man must be inside the bar. They knock on the door and confirm over the phone they're at the right place, but when they enter the bar, they find the man stabbed in the back, even though he was still alive and talking to them just seconds before. While there's a door in the back, the murderer couldn't possibly have stabbed the man and gone out through the back door in the few seconds they were off the phone to open the door, so how was this crime committed? The solution is slightly better than a needle-and-thread trick, but only barely. It's very basic, especially compared to the far more complex impossible crimes we've seen in this series, though to be honest, this impossible crime was more like a bonus, as its main goal is to help the main plot develop in other ways.

Yet another of Kirigiri and Yui's allies was sent to a local university's Museum of European Middle-Age Torture Instruments, with the announcement that the murder would be committed with an Iron Maiden. But when the detective arrives at the scene, she learns that the only death that happened recently was that of a professor who had died in a fire in a small shack on the museum's grounds, a fire presumably caused by smoking in bed. The detective does find an Iron Maiden however, placed in the outer garden of the museum overlooking the shack, and for some reason it's decapitated.... This murder (yes, it turns out to be murder of course) is much better than the previous one. While a bit obvious once you see the floorplans of the whole story, the method of killing is quite original, but suitably clewed. The neat thing about the Danganronpa Kirigiri series is that the detectives always receive a 'grocery list' in advance of what the murderer will use: they'll for example know what the murder weapon is, and whether an alibi trick will be used, or an impossible disappearance etc. But writer Kitayama still manages to present the reader with surprises despite spoiling these elements in advance. This story is a good example of playing with expectations through the grocery lists to come up with a relatively small-scale, but still perfectly fine impossible crime.

The final locked room mystery in this novel is the murder in the Libra Girls Academy, which started in the previous volume. Yui wakes up to find herself trapped inside a chapel, next to a dead body. She also spots the murderer, who runs out of the room. Yui chases after the culprit, but the figure disappears behind a door. When Yui opens the door, she finds a small room with no other exits and two coffins in the middle. Inside the coffins, she finds two girl students who are tied up very tightly, so they can't be the murderer either. But where did the murderer then disappear to? This impossible disappearance is quite clever, though perhap a bit easy to guess if you know Kitayama's reputation for constructing technical, and mechanical locked room murders. That said, this is by far the best impossible situation of the book, which is also very neatly clewed through surprisingly diverse clues, from one that's been staring you in the eyes from the beginning, to small happenings that don't really catch your attention when they are mentioned, but that take on a very different meaning once you know how the trick was done. However, there was absolutely no reason why this story had to be split up across two volumes: at first I thought Kitayama was planning something neat with the split-up, but in the end, having the first few scenes in volume 4 was only to have people read on in volume 5.

What the three mysteries all have in common by the way is how very, very bare-bones they are in terms of plot. The focus lies completely on the howdunnit, and the culprit is almost always just an afterthought (and likely the one single new character to appear in the story). This can be explained because of the main story of course (where the emphasis lies on solving the impossible crimes), and that Kitayama needs to cram in a lot of mysteries in a limited amount of pages, but one can't deny that at times, these mysteries feel more like drafts or basic set-ups, which would usually be developed into full stories later on. So they can feel quite empty save for the core impossible situation. This volume tries to do a bit more with the whodunnit angle, and more-or-less succeeds with that, but still, don't expect a full-fledged novel experience from this.

The story arc of The Twelve Locked Room Temples ends in volume 5, but immediately sets up a completely kind of challenge for Kirigiri and Yui as they continue their fight with the Crime Victim Salvation Committee. In general, the trial of The Twelve Locked Room Temples that started in volume 3 is much better in concept than in execution, as it resulted in impossible situations that were, on the whole, okay to quite good, but also incredibly bare-boned, with little more but those locked room murders (which could've been dressed up more for more impact) and at times, you'd even forget about the characters. Danganronpa Kirigiri 5 is similar to the previous volume a minimalistic volume with some good ideas that, with a few pages more, could've been a more substantial experience. The review of the next volume will probably follow soon, and by the looks of it, volume 6 might be the penultimate volume of the series, so things might move forward there!

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切5』