Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Locked Room

 Liar Liar 嘘も誠も 
Tell me Tell me 見えなくなるよ
「Face Down」(嵐)

Liar Liar  / I lose sight of
Tell me Tell me / Both lies and the truth
"Face Down" (Arashi)

Huh, I managed to read this book in one day. I've been a very, very slow reader lately, so kinda surprised by that, but then again, this was a great book.

It was many years ago when a friend recommended the author Kishi Yuusuke to me, and while in hindsight I'm pretty sure she didn't even recommend him as a mystery writer (as he also writes horror), man, I was quite impressed by his locked room mystery The Glass Hammer and it got me hooked on the Security Consultant Detective Enomoto Kei series. Enomoto Kei runs the shop Forewarned & Forearmed, which sells anything concerning crime prevention, ranging from locks to security cameras. When the attorney Junko first met Enomoto, she found his expertise in cracking a triple-layered locked room mystery indispensible, though after a while she also started to suspect that the man was in fact a thief himself, as his expertise on how to get into a secured room was a bit too practical. Nonetheless, Enomoto has become a very useful man to know, as Junko's been getting more and more cases where her client wants her to prove that what appears to be a suicide or an accident in a sealed room, was in fact a locked room murder. In the third book of the series Kagi no Kakatta Heya ("The Locked Room", 2011), Enotomo and Junko find themselves working on four different locked room mysteries.

The title Kagi no Kakatta Heya might sound familiar to the television-viewing audience here: when the Security Consultant Detective Enomoto Kei series was adapted as a television series in 2012, the series was titled Kagi no Kakatta Heya, after this third book. The series was based on all three books which were out at the time (The Glass Hammer, Kitsunebi no Ie and Kagi no Kakatta Heya: a fourth book was released last year). This series was absolutely fantastic by the way and a must-see for fans of locked room mysteries. The locked room mysteries of this series are in general already great, but the TV drama really managed to give the whole thing something extra. What was especially amazing was that for each episode, they made little scale models of the crime scenes, which Enomoto used to explain his various theories of how the locked room murder was done. It was also followed by a good TV special one year later. Anyway, I think I purchased a copy of the short story collection Kagi no Kakatta Heya soon after watching the TV series, but as I already knew the stories from the TV adaptation, I figured I'd read it later, after I'd ve forgotten most of the details. So now, in 2018, I finally decided to read Kagi no Kakatta Heya.

The book opens with Tatazumu Otoko ("The Standing Man"), which was incidently also the basis for the first episode of the TV series. Enomoto and Junko are asked to see whether an apparent suicide couldn't have been a murder. The CEO of an undertaker's had indeed been suffering from cancer, so the notion of him deciding to commit suicide wasn't too farfetched on its own, but there were still many questions. The man was found inside a small villa in the mountains, where he had been working. The room in which he had been found was completely sealed: the four French windows had all been locked (one of which broken when they first discovered the body), and the only door to the room had been practically sealed: a table had been moved so close to the door, which just enough space for the victim to be sitting there with his knees up and his back to the door. At the other end of the table, a sofa had also been placed. With the door being blocked by the victim, a table and a sofa in that order, no murderer could've left through the door, which itself was also covered by a large white sheet and flanked by flowers and a scroll with a Buddhist text, all invoking a traditional funeral service. As there was also a last will found on the table, the police have no other reason to believe that this was a suicide, but the lawyer of the victim is convinced it was a murder, committed by the victim's cousin and also the man who together with the laywer first discovered the body. A young witness who thinks he saw the murderer standing in the room however seems to be the key to solving this mystery.

An excellent opening story. As with most of the short stories in this series, the whodunnit is quite obvious and not even remotely hidden, but it's the question of how it was done that's really a brain teaser. The goal of the murderer is revealed very early on to have this case closed as a suicide, so they really did their best making sure that it couldn't be anything else but a suicide. With both a sheet and the victim themselves blocking the door directly, and a table and a sofa also preventing the door from opening wide, it really does seem impossible for the murderer to escape the room and it's both a delight and a disappointment when you see another of your ideas shot down like a lame bird. The actual solution to the conundrum is brilliantly hinted at through two seperate clues and very plausible. It might require slightly specific knowledge, though it's something mystery fans are likely to know about, so I can definitely live with that.

Kagi no Kakatta Heya ("The Locked Room") is the title story, and starts with the story of Aiichirou, a former sneak thief who had just spent five years in prison for an unintended murder during one of his outings. His sister died during those five years, but he wasn't able to go to the service, as he didn't want his nephew and niece know that he's a criminal. Now he's free, he's finally able to go visit his brother-in-law and see his beloved nephew and niece, but something is wrong: his nephew won't come out of his room, and it is locked from the inside with a new lock. After drilling a hole in the door, Aiichirou manages to use his old tools of the trade to open the lock from the inside, only to find out that the door has been taped tightly to the wall. Eventually, Aiichirou, brother-in-law and niece manage to get inside the room, but they are too late, as they find Aiichirou's nephew has committed suicide through mono-dioxide with the help of a barbecue inside his room. While Aiichirou, as a master thief who can open any lock, knows the door he opened was properly locked and taped down when he opened it, he still suspects his nephew's death was no suicide, and the suspect is his brother-in-law, who is not the biological father of the two children, but as Aiichirou doesn't know how it was done, he decides to ask his old friend Enomoto for help.

Again a masterpiece: with the door and windows locked and taped down, and the expert testimony of a thief who specialized in opening locks, it seems like this couldn't have been anything but a suicide, but it's of course murder. But how?! Like in the previous story, some rudimentary knowledge of science is quite handy, especially as the necessary piece of knowledge is not really well hinted at this time (if you don't know it, you'll only learn about this at the conclusion), but it's a gem, and also perfectly designed, with every single element in the story serving a clear purpose. What makes this a surprisingly devious scheme is that in a different setting, the solution might be easily guessed at. However, set in a normal house, in the room of a teenager, this solution isn't likely to come up in your head any time soon. 

In Yuganda Hako ("The Crooked Box"), a teacher is all set to marry with his collegue and move into their new home, but there's one problem: their newly built home is a total disaster. A small earthquake (which happen fairly often in Japan) has revealed a whole list of fatal flaws in the house, as the far too weak concrete foundation has cracked, resulting in a crooked house: the living room has a horrible slant which also collects all the leaking water in a corner, the doors don't fit in their frames anymore and the kitchen might collapse. He decides to kill the contractor, who denies any blame, as his aunt, who is the vice-president of the company, will no doubt build a new home for him. He dresses the death like an accident, by making it seem like the man slipped and hit his head while in the living room. We don't get to see how the teacher manages this, so we are only presented with the result, which is a true locked room mystery: the windows were covered in plastic sheets taped to the wall from the inside, the door to the kitchen was kept closed at all times and taped off carefully because it had become a supporting wall due to the shifting foundation, and the door to the hallway wasn't exactly locked, but simply jammed stuck into the framework: the doors of the house didn't fit the frames anymore, so to "close" the door, one needed to kick, punch, hit and push the doors at multiple spots to get them inside the framework, and this could only be done from inside. The living room was thus a locked space, so how did the teacher escape from this room?

I vividly remember the TV adaptation of this story, and again, it was absolutely fantastic. The introduction of a certain object used in the story could've used a bit more build-up, but the way the murderer managed to create this locked room is absolutely brilliant. It has some parallels with the solution of the Detective Conan episode Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, though still very different. What I realize now as I write this is that Kishi also manages to use very different kind of solutions even though these first three stories are very alike in concept: namely simply a locked room. There's no question of whodunnit, and each story is solely about how the murderer managed to create a locked room. While all the solutions are very mechanically inclined, they all focus on different elements in the room, and nothing is reused or redressed. In terms of "visualization", I'd say both this story, or the opening story Tatazumu Otoko came out really well in the TV adaptation, and I'd certainly recommend at least these two stories from this collection.

The last story in this collection is Misshitsu Gekijou ("Locked Room Theater"), which is a sequel to Inu Nomizo Shiru DOG KNOWS in the previous short story collection. Enomoto and Junko solved a murder within a theater groupe back then, and this time, they are invited to see ES&B's latest play: Yonder Bird. It's the most horrible play Junko has ever, ever witnessed, but at the end of the play, a performer who starred in the pre-show with three other performers is found dead in one of the dressing rooms. The problem is that the murderer couldn't have escaped from the crime scene: the victim was found in the dressing room to the left of the stage, and the hallway with the dressing room in question only has two exits: either to the lobby (where someone was standing watch all the time), or the stage itself. The troupe members of ES&B all came from the dressing rooms on the right side of the stage, meaning that the only persons "free" to kill the victim were the three other performers in the pre-show. Yet not one of them could've left the crime scene without being seen by either the people in the lobby, or the audience and the actors on stage. Enomoto however says he can solve the case in a mere thirty minutes.

Like Inu Nomizo Shiru DOG KNOWS, Misshitsu Gekijou has a different tone from the other stories, which is distinctly more nonsensical and focused on comedy. And once again, I have admit I didn't really like the comedy here. The humor just doesn't work for me. The solution to the locked room murder is also a bit hard to swallow: I can definitely see it work in a smaller scale, but it's not likely to work in reality and in this particular situation, even if it's a fairly well-hinted solution that works well in the general setting.

Kagi no Kakatta Heya was overall an excellent short story collection though that provided some fantastic locked room mysteries. Even though I knew these stories already from the TV adaptation, I really enjoyed reading them, and I had forgotten just enough about them to be still surprised by some of them. I know a fourth book in this series, Mystery Clock, is already out, though I'm still waiting for the paperback pocket version to be released, but I'll be sure to read it once it's out!

Original Japanese title(s): 貴志祐介『鍵のかかった部屋』:「佇む男」/「鍵のかかった部屋」/「歪んだ箱」/「密室劇場」

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Clue in the Ancient Disguise

If there is one word that you'll see used constantly on blogs on mystery fiction it's "GAD". These three letters are of course not an utterance of shock, but stand for Golden Age of Detection. Besides referring to an actual time of period which nobody seems to be able to agree upon exactly, GAD is often used to denote mystery novels of the type that flourished in the same-titled time period, that is to say, puzzle-plot oriented mystery plots that thrived on fair play and a game-like element between the author and the reader.

It is also a term I don't really like, which is why I seldom use it here.

To me, the use of "GAD" seems to strengthen a sense of nostalgia, a longing for times long lost, even though we're usually talking about a certain form, a certain mode in fiction, with its own sets of "rules", logic and tropes. And yes, this type of novel might've developed strongly in a particular period in time, but the puzzle plot mystery was also alive after that period (even if it had its ups and downs) and still going strongly in various spheres. "GAD" seems to me always to suggest a form that is of the past, that doesn't belong in the present anymore, even though there are plenty of fantastic mystery novels of the puzzle plot type written even now, many of them that can easily challenge the best of the Golden Age of Detection. When people say they're reading a GAD novel, I always wonder whether they read a certain mystery novel because it's a puzzle plot mystery (which would be my own main reason), or because it's from a certain period. It is a feeling I can never shake off, because the term "Golden Age of Detection" specifically refers to a period of time, and not to a form. So even when I discuss a novel from the Golden Age of Detection, I am far more likely to say it's a puzzle plot mystery or something in that spirit.

The Japanese terms honkaku, which means "orthodox" or "authentic" has its own sets of pros and cons of course, the major ones being that it doesn't tie the puzzle plot mystery to a period (pro), but inherently places a certain quality ("authentic") to this specific form of the mystery genre (con).

Anyway, everyone will use whatever word they want, but this did get me thinking: how hard would it be to do a mystery blog about specifically puzzle plot mysteries, without going back to the Golden Age of Detection, without discussing novels or stories published in that period? Or to go one step further, is it hard to mainly write reviews about puzzle plot mystery fiction that is published recently (let's say, the last twenty years)?  And then I remember that is kinda what I'm doing. So I went and checked the reviews I posted this year (2018) to see how much of what I discuss can be considered recent, and in what degree I have to rely on older material.

I only counted reviews of fiction for this (so no reviews of guidebooks or overview posts), and I gave "dated" mystery fiction an extreme advantage, because I decided that everything first published before the year 2000 would be "old". So that is not only real GAD novels, but also stuff released after that until as recently as the 90s! I also realized that I review a lot of detective fiction in the form "modern" media, from TV and films to especially comics and video games (which will skew things towards the new) so I decided to make sure to keep "novels" and "the rest" apart. The results were both expected, and surprising.

As of now, it seems like I reviewed 23 novels/short story collections published before 2000, and 21 novels/short story collections after 2000, which is really close and a deviation that is basically insignificant (I had two pre-2000 books the last two weeks; I have two post-2000 books scheduled for the coming weeks, so it's just normal deviation for this blog). Long-time readers will know that most of what I review are pretty orthodox puzzle plot mysteries, so at the very least, there's plenty of that coming out even after 2000 (Had I moved the cut-off line to 1990 or 80, things would've been skewed extremely towards "modern" by the way, making GAD just a minor blip on the radar here). But if we count in mystery fiction in other forms too, I end up with reviews for 27 works first published before 2000, and a whopping 52 works from after 2000. And at the moment, my list of best-reads of this year is also heavily skewed towards post-2000. Conclusion: yes, it'd be pretty easy to do a puzzle plot mystery-oriented blog even if you only review stuff from after 2000, especially if you don't stick with only novels.

I have the advantage of course as most of what I review comes from Japan, where pure puzzle plot mysteries specifically are doing better than in a lot of other countries, but still, it seems strange at times seeing so many focus on the term "GAD" and the period, while the form itself is still developing as we speak in fantastic ways, and in my eyes, it'd make more sense to focus on the broader form of the genre, rather than the history behind it.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

A Question of Proof

『Q.E.D. iff -証明終了-』 

"Why can't Dad arrest him?"
"Because of iff."
"Q.E.D. Iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum"

When I reviewed Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar a while back, I noted how the informative historical research into the development of mystery manga gave much deserved credit to the trio of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, which formed the water-shed moment for the genre. These three series released soon after another in the early~mid nineties paved the way for puzzle-plot oriented mystery stories and also proved their economic worth as multi-media franchises. Of these three titles, I regularly review Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Detective Conan, but you might've noticed I pay next to no attention to Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou here (also: do not confuse this Q.E.D. series with that other mystery series titled Q.E.D....). That is not to say it's a bad series: it really isn't. But long, loooong ago, I tried the first few volumes, and while it was an okay mystery series, I just didn't feel the urge to go out and get the remaining 20+ volumes that were available at that moment (when it was still in 20+ volumes length range). The live-action TV drama didn't manage to change my mind about continuing, and neither did the first volume of the spin-off C.M.B. And from a certain point on, I just didn't feel really like starting with a series fifty volumes long...

But a few weeks ago, the first couple volumes of the series Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum") were offered for free as e-books and as I can definitely be lured with free stuff, I decided to return to this series. Q.E.D. iff is the sequel series to the original Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, which officially ended in 2014 when Monthly Shonen Magazine+, where the series was serialized, was cancelled. In 2015, the new series Q.E.D. iff started in Shonen Magazine R, which is set just a few months after the original series. The protagonists are still the brilliant Touma Sou and his athletic classmate Kana. Touma graduated from M.I.T. at the mere age of fourteen, but moved back to Japan to experience a normal high school life there. One of the few friends he made at school was Mizuhara Kana, an energetic (and sometimes nosy) girl who also happens to be the daugher of Inspector Mizuhara. Kana's busybody personality often leads to her and Touma getting involved with mysterious cases (not always murder), but Touma's highly analytical mind always eventually manages to prove what happened. In Q.E.D. iff (if and only if) Touma and Kana are now in their final year at high school (as opposed to first and eventually second years in the original series) and Touma has moved into a new home, but the adventures they have are still the same. As always, each volume consists out of two semi-long stories (due to the fact Q.E.D. is traditionally serialized in a monthly with long installments). Q.E.D. iff contains the stories iff and In The Year of Quantum Energy.

The opening story iff starts with a short introduction to the characters of Touma and Kana for newcomers, but it doesn't take long for Kana to conjure up a murder for Touma to solve. The plans to renovate the school's kendo dojo have to been cancelled as the sponsor for this project, Misago Taimei, was killed. The famous sculptor was an alumnus of the kendo club and had promised to pay for the renovation, but his sudden death put a stop to those plans. Hoping to still pry some money out of this, Kana visits the art studio of Misago, only to find her father investigating the murder. It appears the man was killed in rather mysterious circumstances. During the day, four people were present at the art studio: two of Misago's disciples, his manager and a model. Misago was found dead in his own atelier at the end of the day with his latest work vandalized, but as his manager had been working at the desk overlooking the door to the atelier, it doesn't seem possible for anyone to have gone inside to kill the man. Kana quickly realizes that the disciple who discovered the body could've commited the murder before telling the others, but Touma points out that while that person could've committed the murder, it does not mean that all the requirements of the murderer apply to them (if and only if), and therefore Touma himself decides to solve the case.

A rather weak opening story. It's not really a locked room murder of course, but it's painfully obvious who'll turn out to be the murderer because of the way the story tries to avoid putting too much attention to one person, and once you're there, it's easy to focus on the parts where that person appears and figure out how the murder on the sculptor was done. Even as an introduction of the title iff, I think it doesn't really succeed well.

In The Year of Quantum Energy is much stronger in comparison, and an interesting story of a type you don't see in either Detective Conan or Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. A kooky inventor who hopes to fabricate a machine that can transform vacuum energy into electricity is looking in the mountains for a place for a lab together with his real estate agent, when the two find a little deserted cottage. The cottage used to be the possession of the Tategami Sect, a new religion which was active in Kyoto a century ago, but which suddenly vanished completely. Inside the cottage, the two discover a mummified body beneath a heap of rubble, and the corpse is identified as Tategami Kaijirou, the head of the sect who had disappeared at the same time as the demise of his sect. Touma becomes interested in the mystery of how the Tategami Sect went down a century ago, when he manages to buy a few of the 1920s science magazines found in the cottage (sold by the inventor for some quick cash), and discovers among those magazines a diary by a reporter who lived in the community of the Tategami Sect. Touma and Kana visit the inventor at the cottage, where they also meet with the great-granddaughter of Tategami Kaijirou, who too wants to learn what happened to her great-grandfather. Combining the diary in Touma's possession and the documents in possession of Tategami An, the four slowly learn about the curious sect that lived in the outskirts of Kyoto and it doesn't take long for Touma to pick up on some clues that help solve the mystery of why the people in the sect were slaughtered in a massacre a century ago and why Tategami Kaijirou was discovered a mummy in this cottage.

A really neat type of story that you don't see in the other big mystery series, as it revolves solely around delving into historical documents. The historical account of the happenings in the Tategami Sect a century ago take up most of the narrative, so you don't see much of Touma and the others. but the story-within-a-story is fairly entertaining on its own, portraying a somewhat suspicious new religion, but that does do good for the people that believe in it. There is a sort of mystery presented in this historical account about a semi-miracle performed by Tategami Kaijirou (where he can instantly put a doubting Thomas to sleep), but the solution is rather far-fetched and hardly clewed and almost comes down to something as ridiculous "they happened to have a secret machine there to do that and you totally should have guessed even though there were no real clues."

The mystery about what eventually brought the downfall of the sect is much more entertaining though. The whole tragedy is based around a certain realization, which is excellently plotted and integrated in the story. While the jump from this realization to the conclusion that this must've caused the tragedy is a bit big, it's certainly possible to arrive at the realization itself, and if you get to this point, you should at least have an idea that it played a key role in what would happen later. The type of plottin utilized here is actually seldomly used in Conan and Kindaichi Shounen, but it really works well in Q.E.D. iff, as the fundamentals of this concept ultimately lie in the scientific field of logic. As a historical mystery story-within-a-story, In The Year of Quantum Energy is surprisingly fun and a good example of Q.E.D. doing not seen in other series.

In the end, I wouldn't say that Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou 1 really managed to convince me to read the rest immediately, but it's certainly nice to see a kind of mystery story not done in either Conan and Kindaichi Shounen. I have a few other volumes of iff I got in the offer, so I'll probably be reviewing those in the future too.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. iff -証明終了-』第1巻

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

This Won't Kill You

"We're sorry to bother you at such a time like this, Mrs. Twice. We would have come earlier, but your husband wasn't dead then."
"Police Squad"

It's not like I write a review on every piece of mystery fiction I consume, but still, sometimes I really don't want to write about a book, or just wish I had read something else instead. Usually, that's not even for bad books, but simply books I feel indifferent about. It's usually also reflected in the quality of the review, so err.. yeah, sorry in advance.

Sakaguchi Ango (1906-1955) was a prominent novelist and essayist in early post-war Japan, who also wrote several mystery stories. His first, and also most famous mystery novel is Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken (1948), though many people might know his name through the 2011 anime mystery series Un-Go, which was also based on his writings (though in a completely different setting than the original work). I haven't seen Un-Go myself, and my own experience with Furenzoku Satsujin Jiken was that it was a rather tiring novel, as it featured like thirty characters with everyone having some motive to kill someone else and more shenanigans like that. So he kinda fell of my radar, but now it's time read a few of his short stories. Noumen no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Noh Mask", 1976) collects eight mystery short stories by Sakaguchi, originally published between 1950 ~ 1955. These stories were most famously written by Sakaguchi as an intellectual game for his own entertainment, as he had read everything that was available to him at the time.

To be honest, I found this collection to okay-ish, at best. Most of these stories are very short, but the mystery plots and tricks are seldom really surprising, and are often far too obvious, as the ideas behind them are too simple. Take for example Shougo no Satsujin Jiken ("The Noon Murder Case"), where a writer is shot to death in his home at noon (duh), with only possible suspect in the house, who of course denies having killed the man. The solution to this conundrum is almost ridiculously simple, and very likely the first answer to pop up in the reader's mind as they read the story. Some others included in this collection, like Yama no Kami Satsujin Jiken ("The Mountain Deity Murder Case") and Kage no Nai Hannin ("The Undetectable Culprit") are far too simplistic too, or barely a mystery story (a story with a proper mystery, and a logical conclusion/solution to that mystery). These stories are all written around one core idea,but this core idea is never what you'd really want from a proper mystery short story, but something far, far simpler. The title story Noumen no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Noh Mask") is about a man who died in a fire in a manor, with a blind masseuse as a vital witness, but again the most uninspired way is taken to deal with this familiar trope of mystery fiction.

Nankinmushi Satsujin Jiken ("The Nanjing Bug Murder Case") is a story I want to highlight not because it's such a good mystery story (it's not really), but as an oddity in Japanese language. The story starts with an elderly policeman and his daughter (who is also a police officer) chasing after two men who had left the home of a beautiful pianist in a rather suspicious manner, but not only do the father and daughter lose the two men, they also find out the pianist was killed in her home and that it was determined she was "Miss Nanjing", a notorious dealer in drugs and smuggler of "Nanjing bugs". I had never heard of the "Nanjing Bug", and looking it up tells you that Nanjing Bugs are the Japanese name for bed bugs. Which made no sense, as why would someone deal in bed bugs? It took me a while for me to learn that long, long ago, small wristwatches for ladies were called Nanjing Bugs. And that was a more sensible object to smuggle. Anyway, sometimes you come across really weird slang in these post-war stories. As a mystery story, Nankinmushi Satsujin Jiken is sadly enough not as interesting.

Senkyo Satsujin Jiken ("The Election Murder Case") and Shinrei Satsujin Jiken ("The Spirit Murder Case") are somewhat similar in the sense that they ultimately focus on the question of motive. The first story is about a factory owner who recently has decided to run for Diet member. His campaign is extremely strange though, and it seems he's not really trying to become a Diet member, but why is he holding a campaign then? A journalist suspects something dirty is behind this all and this results in a story that features a surprising, and original motive, but that lacks convincing power. Shinrei Satsujin Jiken features a murder during a seance: the Scrooge-like victim had never given his offspring much financial help, but lately, he's told his four remaining children that their oldest brother, who had died in the war, had come to him in a dream: he had actually survived the war and was living in Birma, and got married there and had children. Yet the dream also revealed his eldest son would really die soon, so now his father wanted to use a spirit medium to trace his son's whereabouts in Birma to find his grandchild. The other four children can't believe their old man would go all that trouble to chase after such an impossible story, yet a spirit medium is invited to find out the whereabouts of the Birman grandchild. It's during the seance, held in a pitch-dark room, that the victim is stabbed to death. The solution of how is not that important, though I have to say the motive is extremely original. It makes no sense why a certain character thought a certain action was best taken in this way, but still, I was really surprised by the motive behind the murder and it was a properly clewed one too. Certainly one of the best stories of this otherwise disappointing collection.

Pitcher Satsujin Jiken ("The Pitcher Murder Case") is the longest story in this collection I think, and also the most "traditional" as a puzzle plot mystery story: it has no less than two diagrams and even a Challenge to the Reader! The titular baseball pitcher is having an affair with an actrice, who has a rather stubborn husband: he will only divorce her for a very high stack of cash. The baseball pitcher is an upcoming star, so he decides to contact some scouts here and there in an attempt to sell himself to a new team to get the necessary sum of money. He eventually manages to secure a new contract, together with the sum of money he needed in cash, but he is murdered the same night, with all the money gone. As a whodunnit story, with a true Challenge to the Reader, Pitcher Satsujin Jiken is a bit simple, as there's basically only one base clue that points to the identity of the murderer, and from there it's a straight line to the finish. There's an alibi trick in this story too, which works pretty well in conjunction with the whodunnit part of the story, but again, it's all a bit too easy. As a pure puzzle plot mystery, Pitcher Satsujin Jiken is easily the best of the whole bunch, but even then, it leaves you wondering whether it couldn't have been just a bit more than what was actually served.

In the end, I didn't manage to say much about Noumen no Himitsu save that overall, the stories are just too simple and not particularly inspiring or original, and I guess that in a way, this rather sloppy review reflects that. There's just little to say about this collection, as you will have seen most of what appears here in other stories, only better and/or worked out in more impressive forms. As for Sakaguchi Ango's work, I think the only significant mystery story by him I haven't read are the ones that form the basis for the anime Un-Go, but I do not know whether I will ever read the original novel, or watch Un-Go, as up until now, my experience with him have not been bad per se, but not exceptionally entertaining either.

Original Japanese title(s): 坂口安吾 『能面の秘密』:「投手殺人事件」/「南京虫殺人事件」/「選挙殺人事件」/「山の神殺人事件」/「正午の殺人事件」/「影のない犯人」/「心霊殺人事件」/「能面の秘密 」

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Captive Witness

"Wax on, wax off"
"The Karate Kid"

The problem with listening to audio dramas before sleeping is that I always fall asleep halfway through.

The murder on Josiah Perceval, assistant at a photograph studio, was quickly solved when Miriam Cromer, wife of the society photographer Howard Cromer, confessed fully to the crime. The woman was being blackmailed over some indecent photographs taken from her past, and eventually, she thought it would wiser to poison the decanter of wine with potassium cyanide than to keep on paying. Miriam is now on death row, with just a few weeks until her execution, when a photograph is sent to the Home Office, which cast doubt upon Miriam's story: the new facts revealed by this photograph suggest that Miriam couldn't have obtained the potassium cyanide to commit the murder. Sergeant Cribb of London's Criminal Investigation Department and his assistant Constable Thackery are ordered to figure out what the real deal is behind Miriam's confession in the radio drama Waxwork (1987), based on the same-titled 1978 novel.

A few months ago, I reviewed Peter Lovesey's A Case of Spirits, a novel in the Sergeant Cribb series. While I hadn't given the Victorian mystery series much attention or thought until then, it's been quite well received in general: the novel series has been adapted as a television series (Cribb), and six of the eight novels have also adapted for the radio by the BBC. I decided to try out the radio drama adaptation of Waxwork, because I really like audio dramas, and I had heard good things about this particular story. The original novel is at the moment the last of the Sergeant Cribb novels by the way, but no prior knowledge is necessary to enjoy this story.

I think that Waxwork is a good example of a good story, that manages to be quite entertaining general even if the core mystery plot is rather limited in range and originality. If you look solely at the mystery parts of Waxwork, you'll have to look really closely before you come across truly original elements, as so many bits and pieces of the story feel so familiar. The method by which the true murderer managed to snatch the potassium cyanide as explained by Cribb for example is an extremely common concept, and it's not like it's been repackaged into something more surprising. The true goal of Miriam's confession ultimately builds on a trope that is often seen in mystery fiction. So looking purely at the mystery plot, I'm afraid that Waxwork has little originality to offer. With a rather limited cast of characters and a fairly small problem (the poisoning), Waxwork is not a mystery story to really delve into for a mental challenge.

That said though, Waxwork works as a yarn. As in A Case of Spirits, the Victorian background is always nothing but the background: unlike some stories that like to remind you you're reading a Victorian story every single sentence, Lovesey is far better at letting his background speak for itself. Concepts like society photographs, class society, Newgate Prison and the hangman do date the story and mix well with the mystery plot, but it's not like you're reading a Wikipedia entry about Victorian Britain which some historical novels sometimes tend to turn into. The result is a pleasant experience, that combined with the light comedy that especially derives from Constable Thackery's scenes is fun to listen to.

I have not read the original Waxwork by the way, so I can't comment on how faithful (or not) this radio adaptation is. I'm just going to guess/assume that the story here is mostly the same as the novel, and not that we have a completely different culprit or type of murderer.

Waxwork is on the whole an okay mystery story, with the emphasis on story. As a mystery, there's just too little that is truly original, and much of the core plot will feel familiar one way or another. Combined with the Victorian setting and the story though, Waxwork is enjoyable enough. I enjoyed A Case of Spirits much better as a mystery story, but I think I'll keep on trying this series in the future too, be it in novel, audio or television drama form.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Have You Got Everything You Want?

"The human and personal element can never be ignored."
"The ABC Murders"

You know, while I spent all full three days at the Kyoto University November Festival (campus festival), I mostly remember just sitting inside the Mystery Club's assigned classroom to sell our club anthology, instead of walking around.

Houtarou's plans for his three years at Kamiyama High School had been to get by, doing as little as possible, but his school life turned out quite differently after his older sister forced him to join the school's Classic Literature Club to save it from dying out. As all the older club members had now graduated, it was up to Houtarou and the other three first-years to continue the tradition of the club. After joining the club, Houtarou found himself involved with all kind of small adventures at school: at the wishes of the club president Eru, the four digged into the history of the club's magazine "Hyouka" and its link to the school festival, while they also helped out class 2-F with their short mystery movie they filmed for the school festival. In Kudryavka no Junban ("The Kudryavka Sequence", 2005), the school festival finally starts! The Kanya Festa is a three-day event where classes and school clubs can show off their activities. For the Classic Literature Club, that means selling the latest issue of their club anthology "Hyouka" at the festival, but there is a "small" problem: due to a mistake, they ordered not thirty copies at the printer's, but two-hundred. As a niche product of a virtually unknown club, two-hundred seems like an utterly impossible number, but as they need to earn back the costs, all members try to come with plans to sell more anthologies, from asking other clubs to help selling "Hyouka" to participating in the various competitions at Kanya Festa to raise the name value of the Classic Literature Club. As the festival continues however, a series of curious thefts occurs, where small objects are stolen from various clubs and at each 'crime scene', a message is left by the thief who calls themselves Juumonji.

Kudryavka no Junban (subtitle: Welcome To Kanya Festa!) is the third novel in Yonezawa Honobu's Classic Literature Club mystery novel series (also known as the Hyouka series, as the anime series is named after the first novel). The series falls within the everyday life mystery genre, that focuses on the solving of enigmatic events that might occur in the normal, daily life, as opposed to bloody murder. It's a sub-genre that naturally fits the high school setting of Classic Literature Club much better than let's say every day a bloody impossible murder after school, and when done well, the everyday life mystery genre can be very entertaining. One of my favorite examples of the genre is from another series by Yonezawa, where the whole mystery revolves around the "impossibility" of how someone could've poured two cups of hot cocoa despite some limitions in the kitchen. That said though, in the second novel of the Classic Literature Club, Yonezawa had the students work on a fictional murder (they had to deduce the ending of an unfinished mystery movie) and that was a really entertaining mystery novel too. But I have to admit that the everyday life mystery genre also often lets me down a bit. It is really hard to come up with a good, everyday life mystery that is both alluring, yet "normal" enough and holds for the solution.

The Classic Literature Club series had been building towards the Kanya Festa ever since the first novel, as all the events in the first two novels basically only occurred because people were preparing for the school's cultural festival. Whereas the first two novels in the series were exclusively narrated by Houtarou, Kudryavka no Junban has us jump between the four members of the Classic Literature Club during the three days of the school festival, as each of them are busy trying in their own way to sell all two-hundred anthologies. This gives the reader an interesting look in the school festival, with for example mood maker Satoshi having fun at the various events (in order to make a name for the Classic Literatue Club) or club president Eru working with the management and news clubs of the festival in the hopes of getting a better chance at selling their wares. Read as a novel about life at a high school, Kudryavka no Junban can be quite interesting, delving into themes like expectations, and due to the varied cast, it's unlikely to really bore.

Unless you're reading the book for a mystery. It takes quite a while for the mystery plot of the thefts to really get going and even then, the core plot is a bit lean on the meat. The idea of a thief stealing seemingly insignifiant objects from various clubs can be fun, but the "surprising" relation between the various thefts is revealed very soon in the story, and afterwards little happens until the conclusion. The mystery doesn't have enough charm to its enigma, and the solution, well, you are not really going to logically deduce that in advance, with proper clewing as the basis of your reasoning. Of course, the everyday life mystery is often built on 'interpretation'  and seldom with mathematical reasoning, but for example, the first novel (Hyouka) was much more engaging as a mystery story, as it dealt with multiple hypotheses built upon each other, with new hints devalidating older hypotheses, but these still remained the basis of further theories. The scope of Kudryavka no Junban is far smaller, with a solution to the thefts that begs the question: "Why in heavens go through all that trouble to accomplish that?". Especially after the brilliance of the second novel, I have to say I felt a bit disappointed by this novel, as it's simply too lite as a mystery novel in comparison.

So yeah, of the three Classic Literature Club novels I've read until now, Kudryavka no Junban was the least interesting as a mystery novel. I have to admit that as a juvenile novel, this might the most interesting of the novels until now, giving us four different narrators and a varied view on the school festival, but read as a mystery novel, it's simply not as intricately plotted as the previous two novels, which had all those false solutions and playing around with Houtarou as a fallible detective and other things like that. I'm not sure whether I'll continue with the series. The anime series Hyouka covers the events of the first four books (three novels and one short story collection), so I might just try out the short story collection too. Or I might not. It won't happen soon anyway.

Original Japanese title(s):  米澤穂信 『クドリャフカの順番』

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Dimensional Sniper


My weapon is a Colt Python 357 Magnum.
The only thing I can't shoot, is the heart of a beautiful woman.
"Chance" (Kamiya Akira)

The cover art of this volume is SOOOO going to form one complete illustration with the cover for the next volume.

In the previous volume in Kitayama Takekuni's Danganronpa Kirigiri series, the young detective Kirigiri Kyouko and Samidare Yui managed to give a painful blow to the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, an organization which sells perfect crime schemes to people who want to exact revenge on others, but which also invites private detectives on the scene to see if they can solve these perfect crimes. In Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 (2018) however, Kirigri and Yui aren't trying to solve these Duels Noir directly themselves anymore, as they have been challenged by Johnny Earp. Earp is not only one of the three best detectives alive, bearing the highly coveted "triple zero" qualification, he's also a secret agent of the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, specialized in 'cleaning up' people. He's also quite amused by Kirigiri and Yui, and challenges them to a series of sniper duels held during the Duel Noir. Kirigiri and Yui are given a sniper rifle, and some basic information regarding an upcoming Duel Noir, indicating the location, the kind of murder scheme ("a locked room murder", "mistaken identity" etc.) the client bought from the Committee and other information. Kirigiri and Yui not only have to deduce what the exact murder plan is based on this grocery list, they only have three bullets to stop this murder from happening, for example by shooting the culprit, or by sniping some of the tools they might need. Earp on the other hand is on the "defense" team, and will use his sniper rifle to prevent Kirigiri and Yui's attempt at stopping this Duel Noir in progress. As Earp is a master in all firearms who boasts an Olympic Games-level skill in sniping, Kirigiri and Yui have no chance of winning in a straight shoot-out, and they have to outwit the triple zero detective, obstructing the Duel Noir from a distance without being spotted by Earp.

Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 is still part of the same spin-off novel series of the videogame series Danganronpa as before (knowledge of the games is not necessary to read this series), but whereas the previous novels focused on author Kitayama Takekuni's specialty (mechanical locked room murder mysteries), this sixth volume brings something completely new to the table. The earlier novels had Kirigiri and Yui trying to solve locked room mysteries based on a grocery list of murder weapons, murder tricks and other items while investigating on scene, while this time, the duo can't even come close to the scene (due to Earp's sniping skills), and they have to deduce 1) how the murder is going to be committed and 2) somehow stop this murder scheme using the sniper rifle and 3) not getting spotted by Earp in the meantime. It's a very different dynamic, and it results in different types of locked room mysteries compared to those we've seen before. This time they are simpler, but they only serve as the background drop for the sniper duels, and the mystery lies in how Kirigiri and Yui are going to stop the murders with their shots. The mystery is thus two-fold: the underlying locked room mystery, and the 'meta' mystery of how Kirigiri and Yui are going to invade, and stop that plan.

To be honest, the concept is much better than the execution. The prologue offers an interesting, but ultimately very simple example of how the sniper duel could go: while the locked room mystery presented there is very rudimentary, Kirigiri and Yui show their wit in stopping the murder from happening by destroying a vital element of the murder scheme, while keeping out of Earp's sniping range. This first part shows a lot of potential, especially if the following sections would be about more complex murder schemes, which would not only be more difficult to predict, but also with more occassions for Kirigiri and Yui to interfere with their rifle.

The rest of the book however is quickly filled with short, disappointing intermezzo and the final sniper duel which runs according to very different rules than the first sniper duel. There's an interesting impossible murder there, where Kirigiri and Yui, while under fire, have to solve the mystery of someone being shot right in the face inside the mirror house of an empty entertainment park, even though no other people besides the victim were inside the mirror house, and the shot doesn't seem like it could've come from anywhere. The solution is a bit hard to swallow though, as the murder method is rather impractical and it doesn't seem like it could be pulled off in one go, which in turn would've left much more evidence. But the true disappointment is that by this time, the sniper duel with Earp has more-or-less been abandoned, and the potential shown in the prologue isn't even touched upon. There's another subplot that is properly clued, but it's not as good as it could've been, considering what the prologue showed.

Danganronpa Kirigiri 6 manages to change gears significantly compared to the previous books, but it doesn't make any good use of the amazing potential it does offer. What could've been an amazing double-layered mystery with battle-of-wits-and-sniper-rifles being played against a backdrop of locked room mysteries, turns out in the end to be a collection of random moments and ideas that never really come together. The series does seem to be heading towards the ending though, which the cover also seems to suggests. I'll be reading this series to the end, but I have to admit that on the whole, Danganronpa Kirigiri seemed to have peaked way too early (volume 2 was fantastic) and since then, its potential has always been much more than the actual, final product.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り6』

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Justice For All

「零 - ZERO」(福山雅治)

There is always only one truth
But there isn't only one justice 
"ZERO" (Fukuyama Masaharu)

The first new Detective Conan review of this year! Volume 95 will be released in a few weeks, so expect a review near the beginning of November!

Detective Conan manga & movies:
Part 1: Volumes 1 ~ 10
Part 2: Volumes 11~20; The Timebombed Skyscraper (1) / The Fourteenth Target (2)
Part 3: Volumes 21~30; The Last Wizard of the Century (3) / Captured in Her Eyes (4)
Part 4: Volumes 31~40; Countdown to Heaven (5) / The Phantom of Baker Street (6)
Part 5: Volumes 41~50; Crossroad in the Ancient Capital (7) / Magician of the Silver Sky (8) / Strategy Above the Depths (9)
Part 6:  Volumes 51~60; Private Eyes' Requiem (10) / Jolly Roger in the Deep Azure (11)
Part 7: Volumes 61~70; Full Score of Fear (12) / The Raven Chaser (13) / Lost Ship in the Sky (14)
Part 8: Volumes 71~80; Quarter of Silence (15) / The Eleventh Striker (16) / Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17)
(You will find the links to the reviews of volumes 70, 72~76, 78, 82~94 and the films Quarter of Silence (15), The Eleventh Striker (16), Private Eye in the Distant Sea (17), Dimensional Sniper (18), Sunflowers of Inferno (19), The Darkest Nightmare (20) and The Crimson Love Letter (21) in the library)

The Tokyo Summit is scheduled to be held in the Edge of Ocean, a newly built leisure spot in the bay of Tokyo, but one week before the prestigious international meeting takes place, the International Forum in the Edge of Ocean is blown up completely, killing several police officers who were preparing for the summit. While at first it seems the explosion might've been an accident, the Public Security Bureau manages to find a set of fingerprints on the cover of the cable that sparked the explosion, and to the surprise to all, they belong to former police officer Mouri Kogorou, now famous as the master detective the Sleeping Kogorou. Maps of the Forum and other schedules related to the Summit are found on his personal computer, and Kogorou is arrested on suspicion of terrorism by the Public Security Bureau, despite protests of Kogorou's loved ones and his allies in the Metropolis Police Department. While trying to save Kogorou, Conan finds out that he has one formidable opponent this time: the mysterious Amuro Tooru. Amuro, who is known to have no less than three different identities, is seemingly out to frame Kogorou for the explosion and with both the Public Security Bureau and Prosecutor's Office working surprisingly hastily to get Kogorou's trial started, Conan has little time left to find out who's really behind the explosion and what Amuro's true goals are.

Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is the twenty-second theatrical feature of Detective Conan, first released in April 2018 (the home-video release was released last week). The first Conan film, The Time-Bombed Skyscraper was released back in 1997 as an extra project to accompany the animated television adaptation of Aoyama Goushou's mystery comic series. What was originally intended to be an one-off thing, turned into an annual event however, and so every April, a new Detective Conan film is released in Japanese theaters. While you'd think things would slow down a bit after twenty-two years, the opposite is actually true: the Detective Conan films have been breaking record after record the last few years. In fact, last year's fantastic The Crimson Love Letter was the highest grossing domestic (Japanese) film in 2017 overall, showing how good these films do in the theatres.

Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is in several ways very different from the very accessible The Crimson Love Letter. First of all, we have a new director, Tachikawa Yuzuru, who replaces Shizuno Koubun who was responsible for the last seven films. Shizuno's films were more focused on action than on the mystery plot, though he peaked with The Crimson Love Letter as a really complete mystery film. And whereas The Crimson Love Letter was a rom-com mystery films with sports and action elements that didn't require much prior knowledge of the series, I'd say that Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer is far less easy to get into. I'd definitely recommend viewers to at least read the manga until volume 85 to get a better image of the character of Amuro, who is the focal point of this film.

The scenario for this film was written by Sakurai Takeharu, who in the past was also responsible for Private Eye in the Distant Sea (2013), Sunflowers of Inferno (2015) and The Darkest Nightmare (2016). Sakurai is known for writing scenarios for various police detective dramas, especially the social school-inclined police procedural Aibou, and in a way, Zero the Enforcer is very much like an Aibou story. The political thriller deals with the goals of the various organizations within the Japanese police and the Ministery of Justice. In a way, everyone involved tries to do what they think is good for "Japan", but the lengths they're willing to go to accomplish their goals are all different, leading to in-faction fighting and all kinds of hidden deals. I'd say that Zero the Enforcer is perhaps the most difficult Conan film up until now for children to follow, as the names of divisions within the police are thrown around constantly and in the end, a lot of the focus lies on the motivations of the characters. Zero the Enforcer is easily the Detective Conan with the strongest theme running across the whole work, but it's sure nothing at all like the far more easy, yet well-plotted entertainment that was The Crimson Love Letter. As a mystery story, Zero the Enforcer is a bit simple, as you basically have one major clue to the identity of the terrorist and almost no suspects, but it is wonderfully well integrated in the grander story of what drives each of the characters and their respective groups. That said though, the ultimate goal of the culprit was a bit drastic. I mean, had they completely succeeded in their plans, they might've been responsible for the most damage caused ever in a Detective Conan film and I assure you, the last few years the criminals have not gone easy on their explosions!

As for action, the last half hour or so has some nice action scenes. The idea behind the Detective Conan films is also to do things they can't do in the original comics, and this usually means grand explosions and a lot of action, and this one doesn't disappoint. Some feel a bit like alternative versions of action scenes seen in earlier movies, but the finale is really something that befits a film that is about a character called Amuro...

Speaking of Amuro: this film is truly all about Amuro. He is portrayed as a character with various faces, sometimes kind and funny, sometimes cold and calculating, and as he also juggles with various identities and loyalties in both the original series and this film, he comes off as a good character to juxtaposit against Conan, who is far more straightforward in his beliefs and actions. You never really know what's on Amuro's mind and whether you should view him as a friend or foe. I think Sakurai tried to do the same thing with KID in Sunflowers of Inferno, but that didn't work there at all, as "the attempts" to portray KID as a kind thief gone rogue were incredibly sloppy and not convincing at all: with Amuro in Zero the Enforcer, this idea of a character-focused drama based around a character who might or might not be an ally to Conan feels so, so much better.

Zero the Enforcer has been an enormous hit in Japan by the way, especially among the female viewers. The phrase "Amuro's woman" became a catchphrase for all the people who fell for the mysterous Amuro in this film (usage: "I became Amuro's woman!") and even talkshows had segments talking about this phenomenon. With many of the original viewers of Conan now grown up, it's not strange to see that these older fans are attracted to an adult character like Amuro. Personally, I do have the feeling that the last few years, characters like Amuro have been given a bit too much attention in the marketing etc and it appears that author Aoyama himself is also a big fan of the character, giving him all kinds of nice scenes and lines, but I think he worked really well in this movie.

But is Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer truly a Detective Conan film? That's a hard one! It's certainly not the "traditional" Conan film like The Crimson Love Letter was, and the political thriller mode Zero the Enforcer adopts is not a story-type you often see in Detective Conan. But it does work as an exciting thriller with a mystery plot that feels grounded within the Detective Conan universe. I'd never recommend this movie to someone who has never seen Detective Conan as it's not really representative of the series, but as this is the twenty-second film, I do think that it works as "something different once in a while". With its focus on character and the underlying theme, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer manages to carve its own place within the long history of the Detective Conan films and it works very well as suspenseful action-triller that can stand on its own. As per tradition, the next Detective Conan film (which will be released in April 2019) has also been announced in a post-credits teaser, and I'm interested to see how the new director will continue these films.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン ゼロの執行人』

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Grim Judgment

闇の国へと連れていかれた あの日
君の温もりさえも ah
「未完成の音色」(Garnet Crow)

That day you were taken away to the Land of Darkness
And only your warmth, ah
Was left on the earth
"An Incomplete Sound" (Garnet Crow)

It is no secret that I often prefer the short story form over the full-length novel when it comes to mysteries. As someone who focuses a lot on the core mystery plot, and the solution, I find that the short form works better in terms of execution and focus, as the limited number of pages forces an author to really think about what is important to the main mystery plot and how to effectively present that, while the plot in full-length novels sometimes tend to meander, and relying more on filler for misdirection than anything else.

Another reason I prefer the short story form is a simple one: I want my mystery fast. The fewer pages it takes me to get to the first corpse, or impossible theft or anything, the better. It doesn't even have to be the main mystery yet (though that's usually the case of course in the short form), but at least present me my mental task early on. Some writers can get away with something else in the short form: many of Awasaka Tsumao's excellent A Aiichirou series are funnily enough only revealed to be proper mystery stories at the very end, as you don't even realize something was being played on you, but those I can forgive because 1) Awasaka's an amazing writer and 2) the short story form means it still doesn't take long for me to get to the main plot. But in general, I'm a very vulgar reader who wants his deaths (or other mysteries) as soon as possible.

It's for this reason I have to admit I found the first half of Mitsuda Shinzou's Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono ("Those Who Bewitch Like The Evil Spirits", 2006) extremely tiring. It's not a short novel by any means (600 pages!), but the first true mystery for the reader to solve isn't introduced until the halfway point, near the 300 page point! It took me about two months to get through this first part, as I have the bad habit of reading multiple novels at the same time, and because things went so slow in this novel, I finished no less than five other novels in the time it also took me to read this first part, which I all started after beginning reading Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono. In its defense though: after I was past the midway point, I finished it within two days. What kept me reading all that time, albeit very slowly, was of course the fact that the other novels I read in Mitsuda's Toujou Genya series were excellent: Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono was an amazing start of the year with one of the best mystery novels I've read in years, and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono was surprisingly enough a true masterpiece on its own too. Those were respectively the third and fourth novel in the Toujou Genya series, so I thought it was time to read the first novel in the series.

Toujou Genya is an author of horror stories, who travels across Japan to research local folklore, religions and legends. His travels in the late 1950s bring him to Kagagushi Village, a small mountain community flanked by Kaka Mountain and Kugu Mountain. For centuries, this area has been known for people being spirited away mysteriously, and Genya is also interested in the local belief in the fearsome mountain deity Kakashi, who is deified in the form of scarecrow-like figures placed around every corner in the village, and within all houses. The village has two prominent clans: the Kagachi Clan and Kamikuji Clan. The Kamikuji Clan is the "White Clan", as they represent the auspicious Kaka Mountain, while the Kagachi Clan is considered the "Black Clan", as this family is aligned with the inauspicious Kugu Mountain, which is the home of the feared Kakashi. It's also the Kagachi Clan which since ancient times has been a family line of spirit mediums: female twins (who are all called Sagiri across all generations) are very common in the family, and they are easily possessed by the spirit of the mountain deity, making them also powerful spirit mediums who can exorcise other evil spirits from other people with the help of Kakashi's powers. The Kamikuji and Kagachi Clans have long been vying for the top position in the village, but lately some within the Kagachi Clan have been plotting to escape the stigma of being a family that is possessed by an evil spirit, and they hope to join the two clans together by marrying Renzaburou, youngest son of the Kamikuji Clan to Sagiri, the youngest daughter and current spirit medium of the Kagachi Clan. Somebody seems to be very against this plan however, as the morning after Genya arrives in the village, a travelling monk who had been the guest of grandmother Sagiri, and in on the plot to join the clans, was found hanged inside the meditation hall of the Kagachi residence and dressed up to look like Kakashi. At first, it seems that either granddaughter Sagiri, or her insane aunt Sagiri (twin sister of young Sagiri's mother) must've done it, but the time table based on statements of several witnesses makes it look impossible for them to have really done it, and then more murders happen, with all victims dressed like Kakashi, but also seemingly impossible for anyone to have done it. It doesn't take long for people to start to fear that it was the mountain deity Kakashi itself who executed divine judgment on those who wanted to put an end to the Kagachi Clan.

As this was my third time I read a Mitsuda novel, I had some expectations of what would come, and of course, the post-war setting and tropes like local folkore/religions, small mountain communities absorbed in said folklore and more were exactly what I expected. The novel also had a distinct horror flavor, as the Toujou Genya series is explicitly described as a horror-detective series (each novel also has some unanswered parts that contribute to the horror flavor). Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono had a slow beginning too, but like I said, it was really slow this time, as the first three-hundred pages are mainly devoted to a very detailed set-up, with insights into the backgrounds of the Kagachi and Kamikuji Clans, the history of Kagagushi Village and neighbouring Haha Village and the local folklore. Getting a good image of the character relations in particular is incredibly difficult, with every other woman in the Kagachi family called Sagiri (written differently in Japanese, but all prounounced the same), clans with several branch families, divorces and second marriages and more. While the story in this first half does have some mysterious, and especially horror parts regarding some children being spirited away in the past, the main mystery (the murders) really takes a long time to start. Not to say that the first part is completely obsolete of course: the background of the families IS of vital importance to the plot, and there's plenty of hints and foreshadowing to be found here, but still, one does wonder whether it couldn't have been a bit more concise.

I praised Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono and Yamanma no Gotoki Warau Mono for being absolute masterpieces in synergy: each component in both novels worked to enhance the other elements there, which was possible because each of the mysteries, from the impossible murders to other enigmatic happenings, could be ultimately led back to one single concept. Each of these novels utilized unparalled originality in bringing one single theme in so many various forms and variations, all for a clear purpose. Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono is similar in concept, as basically all the mysteries can indeed be led back to one single answer, one concept that brings light to everything, but in terms of execution and finesse, this first novel in the series is not as amazing as the third and fourth, even if it's a pretty ingenious thing that's pulled off here. Once you're at the answer, you really want to go back and read the whole thing again, because you suddenly realize there must've been an abundance of hints and foreshadowing that you've missed completely. The concept is also only made possible due to the special atmosphere of the village, which really enhances the synergy of the whole novel. What is a bit disappointing however is that the individual mysteries aren't as alluring as the grand picture. The reader is presented several times with a situation that isn't exactly an impossible situation, but situations that simply leave quite a few questions open. Most of the time, the viable suspects aren't really dismissed, only seen as 'gee, they could've done it, but it doesn't seem likely because it would've been a bit difficult, and also strange for them to have done it like that'. But this leaves a lot of ambiguity as you read on, so the individual mysteries feel a bit lacking compared to the impossible disappearances or the brutal decapitations of the later novels. But to reiterate, the main idea behind the whole book is really ingeniously done. While the basic idea might seem familiar, this particular variation is definitely not. It is arguably one of the hardest variations to do, and I doubt many authors could pull it off with this much success. And while I admit this trick does work best with some page room, I still think that the set-up didn't need to be that long. And as noted before, these novels are also toted as horror novels, and there are always some elements that remain unanswered and in the mist, though the core mystery is of course always addressed properly.

These Toujou Genya novels also love their fake solutions by the way. Each time, Genya only starts announcing his suspicions at the end of the novel, but he always explores every possibility: meaning he will often start building cases against someone, only for him to dismiss it at the end before he moves on to someone else. These fake solutions are both brilliant and vexing. When you first start to realize who he's going for, your first reaction is "no way, that's just stupid" but as Genya continues his summation of hints and foreshadowing, you really start to have doubts, only for him to say he was wrong anyway and then moves on to the next. This fake-out solution isn't just for the shock element though: his latest hypothesis is always built upon the fundamentals of the previous one, showing his thinking process. He also incorporates the reactions and statements of the people present during his summation, so sometimes he actually deduces the identity of the murderer on the fly, adapting for the information obtained just minutes before by someone crying out how absurd his theory is. The fact these fake solutions are also properly clued really make the Toujou Genya novels a very tricky reads.

Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono is thus a very slow read, that is not as good as some of the later novels in the series, but it is still a very tricky, and ingeniously plotted mystery novel that makes fantastic use of its format and setting. It does pull of something I really can't see many novels do, but I wouldn't recommend this novel as a first step into the Toujou Genya series: the other two novels can be read on their own without any problems and are much more consistent throughout from start to finish. I think that in a parallel universe, Majimono no Gotoki Tsuku Mono would've been a crowning achievement for any writer, but in this world, Mitsuda manages to write even better mystery novels later on that improve on the ideas and writing found in this novel.

Original Japanese title(s): 三津田信三『厭魅の如き憑くもの』