Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Scissor Man

「これは記憶媒体?」
「記憶じゃない、思い出だよ」
 『名探偵コナン  純黒の悪夢』

"Is it a memory stick?"
"It's not memory storage... it's a memory."
"Detective Conan: The Darkest Nightmare"

It is no secret that I am a fan of puzzle plot mystery stories that feature supernatural powers, or fantasy or science-fiction elements. Some might mistakenly think that these "unrealistic" elements make a true fair puzzle plot impossible, but that is no true: as long there's consistency in what's possible in the specific world, a puzzle plot mystery works, whether it's our "real" world or a world where people can teleport and walk through walls. The key is of course to use the non-realistic elements to come up with a mystery story you couldn't otherwise, to utilize the tools specific to that world to create a plot that follows the internal rules, like the Three Laws of Robotics or specific rules to casting magic. Today's book is another interesting example of a puzzle plot mystery that uses a supernatural setting.

After the death of her parents, Yukari was brought up by her grandmother, but when she died too, it was arranged that Yukari would move to Tokyo to live with her father's cousin Shinsuke at least until she'd finish high school there. Ever since she was a child, Yukari has been in the possession of paranormal powers in the form of psychometry: she can read the memory of objects, seeing flashes of the persons who owned or touched the object in question. The fact Yukari's an esper turns out to come in handy at times for Shinsuke, as he's a police detective of the Metropolitan Police Department, and occassionally, Yukari manages to help out with his cases by reading the memories of objects involved with his cases. Imamura Aya's short story collection Hasami no Kioku ("Memories of Scissors", 1996) showcases four stories in which Yukari's powers turn out to be the key to solving the case.

This is funnily enough not even the first time I've seen psychometry used in a mystery story.  The manga Psychometrer EIJI is pretty famous, written by the author of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo. I've also reviewed the videogame Glass Rose in the past, wich had a protagonist who could read memories from people and objects. The power to read an object's memory might sound like a cheat for a detective story: an esper could just read the murder weapon and see what happened, right? Imamura however manages to do a few interesting things with the device of psychometry that makes this short story collection a worthwhile read. First of all, given that Yukari's just a high school student, Shinsuke obviously can't just take evidence with him to have Yukari touch it. But besides this practical reason, there's also a structural reason why psychometry isn't a cheat here. What Imamura does here is build her stories around a crucial contradiction between the facts as the police confirm them, and what Yukari learns through her psychometric powers. While the methods differ, the facts obtained from both sides are treated equal, and the mystery of these tales thus revolve around why there's a contradiction between these facts.

The opening story, 3-ji 10-pun no Shi ("Death at 3:10"), is by far the best story in the collection. One of her first friends Yukari made when she moved to Tokyo was Sanae, who worked at the flower shop, and she, or to be exact, her boyfriend Junpei is in trouble. Junpei's wealthy uncle was killed, and he is the main suspect, especially as a neighbor says he saw Junpei leave the house in the middle of the night. His alibi that he was with Sanae isn't trusted by the police, but Yukari learns that this alibi is correct, as she touched Sanae's necklace and read its memories. But who did kill the man then at 3:10, as shown by the broken clock? This is a really ingenious story that not only makes good use of the concept of psychometry to present a contradiction and a mystery (we, as the reader, know that Junpei's alibi holds), but the solution surrounding the mystery of the time of death also very devilishly clewed.

In the title story Hasami no Kioku ("Memories of Scissors"), Yukari is basically kidnapped by Noriko, a friend of Shinsuke and a manga artist, who desperately needs an emergency assistant to help finish up the last few pages for her deadline. After they're done, Yukari is chilling in Noriko's room when she touches a pair of sewing scissors and reads emotions of death, and memories of a loving mother and her son in pain from it. Most of Noriko's interior consists of things people threw away or discarded, and Noriko had picked up this pair of scissors too, from in a box with a handsewn teddy bear and more, only a few weeks ago. Suspecting the pair of scissors had been used to kill the boy from the memories, Yukari and Noriko start searching for the original owner, but they learn that she has died, and strangely enough, they learn of an episode years ago, when her son was still a child, where her young son accidently stabbed his mother with a pair of scissors, even though the memories of the scissors say otherwise. Compared to the first story, this story is far more focused on figuring out the exact relations between the various characters, which make it a less involved mystery story in my eyes, but still a tricky one. The first one would be the "technical" mystery, while this story I'd describe as the more "human drama" based one.

Bentoubako wa Shitteiru ("The Lunch Box Knows") is I think the shortest story, and involves the murder of a middle-aged man who had recently been let go by his company. He had been happily married with his wife for seven years, with many of his colleagues jealous of the lunchboxes she made for her husband, but some days ago, his wife suddenly disappeared, as the past caught up with her: an old boyfriend who was so crazy about her that he killed another man was recently released from prison and is now trying to find her. Fearing that not only she, but the man who actually married her, are in danger, she ran away, but it was too late, as her husband was found murdered at home. Shinsuke however discovers some discrepancies between the facts, and manages to get hold of one particular object that would allow Yukari to solve the case. A simple story, with a rather obvious conclusion/'punchline' coming up, but it works fairly well. There's not much of a mystery going on here though, as Shinsuke himself manages to work most of the story out himself.

Neko no Ongaeshi ("The Cat's Return of a Favor") has slight fantasy undertones. We are introduced to Masamichi, an elderly vet who quit his clinic after his son Masahiro died in a tragic traffic accident as he swayed to avoid a cat. Masamichi runs into Yukiko,  a woman who says she was classmates with Masahiro, back in elementary school when he was living with Masamichi's sister for a short period to recover from an illness. Learning of Masahiro's death shocks her greatly. As she recently came to Tokyo to find work, hoping that Masahiro would help her out, Masamichi decides to have her live with him in the house, doing the housekeeping until she finds another job. Funnily enough though, Yukiko appeared soon after a stray cat Masamichi often fed disappeared from the streets, and more than once, Yukiko seemed to show signs of perhaps being that cat, with her knowing the way around the house before Masamichi even said anything.  Yukari learns of this story through the drawing assistant of Noriko, but Yukari's suspicions are instantly raised, as she knows of a recent murder case, where a woman swindled her way into the life of an elderly, single man, living with him for a while after which she robbed him of all his money and his life. She informs Shinsuke of this, who goes to take a look, but he finds that Yukiko has already gone, but without stealing anything. The hand mirror she left behind however allows Yukari to solve the mystery of Yukiko. The mystery here is a bit simple, as one particular memory Yukari manages to read from the mirror is basically the solution as is. Cute story though.

Imamura died in a rather tragic manner in 2013 and Hasami no Kioku thus remains the sole story collection with Yukari and her psychometric powers. While not all four stories in this collection are as strong as mystery stories, the way Imamura manages to use psychometry in meaningful manners for this contradiction-based stories is quite admirable, and overall, this book is quite an entertaining read and a good example of how supernatural powers can still work in a fair play mystery story.

Original Japanese title(s): 今邑彩 『鋏の記憶』:「3時10分の死」/「鋏の記憶」/「弁当箱は知っている」/「猫の恩返し」

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Alice’s Evidence

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
(Nursery rhyme)

I always have to think of an old college classmate, whenever I come across something related to Alice in Wonderland, which is kinda strange because I'm pretty sure we only talked about the novel once. I guess she'd like this novel too though.

Humpty Dumpty had a great fall, but it was no accident. Some person, or animal, had oiled up the wall upon which the great egg had been sitting, and there was still a vaguely visible hand print left on one of the cracked shell shards. A murder in Wonderland! The Mad Hatter and the March Hare investigate the murder and quickly find a witness: the White Rabbit swears that Alice, and nobody else but Alice entered the garden where Humpty Dumpty was. Alice says she is innocent, but when the Gryphon is murdered too by suffocating on literally a mouthful of shellfish and Alice once again lacks a clear alibi, the net around her seems to be closing.

Lately, college student Kurisugawa Ari has been having these weird dreams that place her in some kind of mysterious and highly nonsensical Wonderland ruled by the Queen of Hearts. But once she started thinking about it, she realizes she has never ever had dreams about anything else: she always dreams about her being in Wonderland, having adventures with characters like the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. On the day after she dreamt Humpty Dumpty died, she is shocked to learn a student of her faculty died in a creepily similar manner, by falling of the roof of the faculty building. It seems it was a simple accident, but speaking with some of her fellow students, she learns that it was no coincidence: more people around her dream of Wonderland! The smart Imori, a classmate, turns out to be the dull-witted Bill the Lizard in Wonderland, and they realize that the deaths that happen in Wonderland are reflected in this world too. The two work together both in the real world and in Wonderland to prove of Alice's innocence and find the real murderer in Kobayashi Yasumi's Alice Goroshi (The Murder of Alice, 2013).

I have not read the original Alice in Wonderland, nor even seen any of the (animated) movie adaptations, but man, I come across it a lot in Japanese mystery fiction. In fact, I think I can more-or-less construct the whole original story, simply by putting all the references I know one after another. It's kinda like Star Wars, which is parodied and referenced so often one can basically guess how the whole story goes just by consuming other media. A few titles I have reviewed here are for example Alice Mirror Jou Satsujin Jiken, The Land of the Wondrous Beauty in the second volume of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, and several works like the short story Jabberwocky by Arisugawa Alice, who took his pen name from Alice in Wonderland. Actually, I even praised myself a bit for picking up on the Alice in Wonderland reference when I was translating Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle, exactly because I shouldn't even have noticed it as I don't have direct knowledge of the original story. Anyway, the concept of a mystery story that revolves around Alice in Wonderland wasn't special an sich, was what I was going to say.

Kobayashi Yasumi's Alice Goroshi seemed like an interesting title/topic when I first heard of the book, but I have to admit the title only really caught my attention when Kobayashi released a sequel titled Klara Goroshi ("The Murder of Klara"), with Klara being the friend of Heidi. Now things were becoming really interesting, as the premise of a whole series built around classical children's fiction seemed too good to pass. I opted to wait for the (cheaper) pocket re-release of Alice Goroshi though which was finally released in 2019.

Was it worth the wait? Yep, it sure was! As one can guess, story chapters alternates between Wonderland and the real world: in Wonderland we follow Alice and Bill the Lizard, while in the real world we follow Ari and Imori. The parts in Wonderland are fantastic. As said, I haven't read the original Alice in Wonderland, but the nonsensical dialogues and wordplay that go on in these half of the story are great and also sure to annoy you immensely (in a good way): everyone seems to get their wires crossed as they talk with each other leading to amusing, but nonsensical conversations, and that while Alice is desperate to find some way to prove her innocence. It's what you'd expect of Alice in Wonderland, and this novel really manages to capture that spirit. It's in this strange world that Alice tries to solve the murders, and it results in some really unique situations, with creatures like a Boojum also appearing as fanciful murder methods. Fantastical ways to kill off people are possible in Wonderland, and there's no scientific investigation like checking for DNA or blood of course, so the reader might be overwhelmed by all of this, figuring it's impossible to figure out who the murderer is: that is not the case. In fact, Kobayashi plays a nasty game with the reader here, as he plants some deliciously subtle clues in the nonsensical dialogues that actually allow you to identify at least some part of the mystery quite early on. If you manage to pick up on that, of course (I wasn't).

The events in the real world are of course less fantastical, but the more realistic tone here does really help the story, as 380 pages of only Wonderland would've been quite tiring. That said, the worlds do kinda seem to blend into each other as the story progresses. In the early chapters, Ari obviously has trouble accepting the truth that she's been living in Wonderland in her dreams and that she shares this dream with other people. But as events unfold, we learn of more people around her who have an avatar in Wonderland and certainly near the end, some human characters seem to resemble their Wonderland avatars a lot more than at the start of the story. The murders that are committed in Wonderland lead to death in the real world, but not in the exact same manner: the counterpart to the Gripphon for example was a professor at the university, but he died 'simply' of food poisoning (from shellfish), not by being force-fed them. That means that even though we're talking about a series of murders in Wonderland, there aren't even really murders happening in the real world, leading to a very unique situation where the human characters in the real world are investigating a series of murders in Wonderland. It's in Wonderland where they can find proof and interrogate witnesses, but due to the crazy characters in Wonderland, it's only possible for Ari and Imori to apply real logic to the problem and really think about the how and who while in the real world. There is an added thread of suspense here as Ari is also under investigation by two police detectives who suspect there's something fishy going on with all the deaths that happen at this university, and who are very eager to find out who Ari is in Wonderland.

You don't need Wonderland-logic to solve this mystery though. It's a surprisingly tricky plot, because it's split up in two distinct locales with their own narratives: for example it is possible to figure out who the murderer is in Wonderland fairly early on (or at least have founded suspicions), but that doesn't mean you know who that character is in the real world. You need to combine clues from both worlds in order to solve the mystery, which can be quite a challenge, especially as the dialogues in Wonderland can seem to be so crazy at times. The main clue to the identity of the murderer for example can be really easy to miss because the jumping between the two worlds, but once pointed out it seems so obvious. I myself only got the last big twist, but missed most of the stuff regarding the murderer. There's also a nice dying message near the end of the story that points towards the murderer in a very roundabout, but at the same time also very logical manner. It is a good example of how to do a dying message that is meaningful in the context of the story, without being too complex just for the sake to be too hard to decipher for the reader.

Oh, I do have to make a note that Alice Goroshi can become quite gory near the end. Guh. I mean, you might be thinking 'Haha, Alice in Wonderland, it's so cute,' but man, I didn't see that one scene in the house near the end coming. It's really frightening. It becomes really messy once you're past the halfway point.

So yes, I really enjoyed Alice Goroshi, as it not only had a really unique premise and setting, it also made excellent use of that to bring a tightly-plotted mystery plot that works because of the premise. The way it utilizes Alice-mythos isn't just for show, but in integral part of the plot, resulting in one of the more memorable reads of this year. I am definitely looking forward to reading the sequels to Alice: at the moment of writing this review, Klara and Dorothy (of The Wizard of Oz) have already featured in their own titles, so I hope the pocket versions are released soon.

Original Japanese title(s):  小林泰三 『アリス殺し』

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Wild Brood

One little nigger boy left all alone
He got married and then there were none

First impressions are ever-lasting, so I always imagine Kidd and Pink from these books exactly like they appeared and sounded in the PlayStation game Cat the Ripper, even though that was err... quite a bad game (though the voice-acting was okay).
 
Last year, I reviewed Yamaguchi Masaya's amusing The 13th Detective, a gamebook-turned-novel which was set in Parallel Britain, which is not a world where Brexit didn't happen, but a world that is similar to ours, but different at key points (for example, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet was a comedy, not a tragedy). The most important difference however is that all the fictional detectives we know, like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Gideon Fell or Father Brown, all exist in Parallel Britain. Their successes led to Edward's Law in Great Britain: detectives belonging to the Masters of Detective Association are allowed to lead and command any official criminal investigation for 72 hours, during which the police force must follow the detective's orders. Due to the superior position of the MDs in this world, Scotland Yard has been reduced to a lowly supporting role, and nowadays most police officers are just punk hooligans or slackers who consider policework nothing but a job like any other.

The mohawk-bearing Kidd Pistols is one of these punk police detectives of Scotland Yard. He and his girlfriend/subordinate Pink Belladonna form the National Unbelievable Troubles Section (NUTS) inside Scotland Yard, where they deal with weird incidents that normal police detectives can't handle, and therefore they often have to team up with rather eccentric MDs, like Sherlock Holmes Jr. (one of many who claim to be the son of the great detective) or Dr. Bull (a disciple of Dr. Fell). While Kidd is often mistaken for just another of those lazy, good-for-nothing punks who work at Scotland Yard, Kidd is actually often capable of out-thinking the proper MDs in the nutty cases he handles by acting exactly like a punk, not confirming to fixed views and looking at things from a completely different angle. In Yamaguchi Masaya's short story collection Kidd Pistols no Boutoku ("The Blasphemy of Kidd Pistols", 1991), we are presented with four NUTS cases patterned after Mother Goose rhymes which involve, among others, a dead hippopotamus, a plastered piece of shit and a locked room murder committed by the Jamaican spirit Duppy.

Kidd and Pink are called out to the home of the legendary actress Elizabeth Skinner, who lost her first love of her life in the war, and got dumped by her second love. After that, she remained cooped up in her own home for fifty years, never ever setting a foot outside anymore, only eating and drinking each and every day. The only people she let inside her house were her maid and her solicitor. Her pitiful life also ended in a pitiful way, because the rather corpulent Elizabeth was one morning found murdered in her home (and with corpulent, I mean they needed Kidd, Pink and two others to move her body out the house). Traces of poison are found in her dinner of the previous day, but the whole case doesn't jive: Elizabeth wouldn't have let anyone inside, the maid who prepared the food could hardly be so foolish as to poison the food she made herself and there are no traces of unlawful entry in the house. Kidd, Pink and Sherlock Holmes Jr. therefore have to figure out who murdered a poor woman who hadn't even gone outside even once in fifty years in the opening story "Mushamusha, Gokugoku" Satsujin Jiken, which also carries the English title The "Victuals and Drink" Murder Case.

The mystery revolves around how the murder could've taken place considering the rather unique and curious circumstances of the crime scene (the woman never let anyone she didn't know inside), and the exact location of the body. There are some pretty smart ideas going on here (I love the deductions revolving the location of the body). The solution does require you to deduce the actions of a certain person based on some clews which might not be completely farfetched, but do lack a bit of convincing power.

In Kaba wa Wasurenai or Hippopotamus Can Remember, Kidd, Pink and Sherlock Holmes Jr. find themselves investigating the murder on a zoo owner, and his pet hippopotamus. The victim left the dying message "H" on the floor with his own blood, but the mystery is of course why the hippopotamus was killed together with its master. As a whydunnit mystery, this story is rather simple as once you remember one early scene, you're very likely to figure out what happened exactly, but capably clewed.

Magatta Hanzai or The Crooked Crime has Kidd and Sherlock Holmes Jr. investigate a series of strange incidents: first a pet shop owner is killed followed by the murder on a businessman, who had purchased two cats from said pet shop owner. The businessman was discovered inside the junkyard/atelier of an artist with whom he had cut financial ties recently, as the "art" the man made was a bit too eccentric considering the cost. The victim's body had been covered in plaster, exactly like the artist's best known works, which obviously seem to suggest the artist had something to do with it, but Kidd manages to arrive at a completely different truth. This is the longest story in the collection, I think, and there are some good things going on here, like a very good, well-supported fake solution and some really neatly hidden clues (though it also has to be said that one early scene is very likely to attract a lot of attention because it's so obviously out of place, it has to be relevant to the solution). I think this plot might've even worked well as a full-length story.

The Punky Reggae Murder starts with the seaside live concert Sound System Live, organized by a pirate radio station. The main attraction is without a doubt Buster Solomon and his band the Little Criminals. Buster who started out as a poor boy in the slumps of Jamaica, has now become an major hit in Parallel Britain with his reggae music. He is also a devout believer of Rastafari and uses his music to help out the Labour Party in his home country, as they support Rastafari. This has earned him the treats of right-wing activists, who are likely the ones who are sending him and his band threatening letters with verses from the nursery rhyme Ten Little Niggers, signed by Duppy (a Jamaican evil spirit). Despite these threats, as well as physical fights between his two publishers who would wish the other's dead, Buster intends to play at the fund-raiser concert tomorrow. Everyone in the band, the publishers, as well as Kidd, Pink and Dr. Bull (who were invited through Pink's connectons) stay in cottages overlooking the sea that night. Kidd is called on the phone in the night by Buster, saying he thinks Duppy is hanging outside his cottage, followed by a cry for help. Kidd rushes to Buster's cottage, only to find the front door locked. The french windows on the seaside terrace however are opened, and inside they find Buster, stabbed in his chest and his dreadlocks cut. And to the party's surprise, they find (red) herrings spread around his head, like the verse "A red herring swallowed one and then there were three" from Ten Little Niggers. At first, it is assumed the murderer escaped across the terrace, but a narcotics detective, who had been sent here on a tip regarding a big heroine deal, had been watching the terrace all the time, and had seen nobody leave that way. As the front door was locked, this means this was an impossible murder, as the murderer couldn't have escaped any way from the cottage. Meanwhile, another band member is found dead in the cottage next door, and he has three horrible slashes on his back, like "a big bear hugged one".

The background setting of Rastafari and Jamaican religions is rather original and something I at least had never seen in detective fiction before. The use of Ten Little Niggers/And Then There Were None as a theme is of course a risky one, as anyone would be tempted to make a comparison with Christie's work, but this story is quite different, and manages to do very different things with the same rhyme. The fundamental idea that is played out here is not extremely original, but the clewing (with the red herrings) is fairly accomplished. The locked room situation too is not particularly awe-inspiring, though it is connected well, and naturally to the other events going on in this story, so it doesn't feel like it's just there because we needed a locked room murder (note by the way that Dr. Bull is an expert in locked room murders, which is why he's featured in this story rather than Holmes Jr.) One other major clue however is a bit harder to get: it is based on two physical clues, and while one of them is rather cunningly hidden (though to be honest, I had no idea that existed in that form, so I wasn't able to figure that out), but the other one is hardly addressed until the moment Kidd actually explains it.

My first introduction to Kidd Pistols as a character was a bit strange, as the game Cat the Ripper is really weird, and while I did like the novel adaptation The 13th Detective, Kidd wasn't really the protagonist there. Kidd Pistols no Boutoku is thus the first time I've read "proper" Kidd stories, but these Mother Goose rhyme-inspired stories are quite entertaining. The setting of Parallel Britain allows for some odd, but funny scenes (like Pink constantly stealing things even though she's a cop) and ex-drug addicts and other punks functioning as the world's narcs and coroners, and most of the stories are plotted well as mysteries, with rather crafty clues at times. And it's only now in this final paragraph that I realize that these stories all feature rather unique motives for actions, which adds to the zaniness of this world. Anyway, I'm certainly interested to see how the other adventures of Kidd and Pink will turn out!

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也『キッド・ピストルズの冒涜』: 「むしゃむしゃ、ごくごく殺人事件」/「カバは忘れない」/「曲がった犯罪」/「パンキー・レゲエ殺人(マーダー)」

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Just Bourbon

"What they call a gimlet is just some lime or lemon juice and gin with a dash of sugar and bitters. A real gimlet is half gin and half Rose's Lime Juice and nothing else. It beats martinis hollow."
"The Long Goodbye"

The previous book in the series discussed today had a gorgeous cover too, but I really like this one too! Definitely a contender for favorite cover for this year! Don't you just love covers for short story collections when they incorporate something from each of the stories?! And yes...this is the third Madoy review in a month. This review was actually written months ago already, the two FGO Mystery novels discussed earlier this month were just wedged in the schedule.

Almost four years ago, I read and reviewed Van Madoy's short story collection Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai - Koyoi, Nazotoki Bar Sangoukan he. If you want to look for the book now however, you might have some troubles finding a copy of Clover Leaf wo Mou Ippai: when the book was re-released as a paperback in 2017, it got not only a new cover, but also a brand new title: Kyoto Nazotoki Shikihou -  Machi wo Aruite Fushigina Bar he ("The Kyoto Mystery Solving Seasonal Report - Strolling In Town To The Mysterious Bar"). The sequel too follows these new title: Kyoto Nazotoki Shikihou - Kosho to Gokai to Ginga Tetsudou ("The Kyoto Mystery Solving Seasonal Report - Used Books, Misunderstandings and the Galaxy Railway", 2018) brings us five new stories starring Toochika Rinto, a young man who started life as a student at Kyoto University only a few months ago. Life has not changed much for Rinto since we last saw him: he is still a member of the city hiking student circle Kamogawa Rampo and while he fell in love at first sight, his relationship with fellow circle member Aoka Sachi still hasn't been updated to the dating status. What has changed however, is that Rinto hasn't been able to find the mysterious bar "No. 3" lately. Rinto himself knew from his own experience that "No. 3" wasn't just an urban legend of the university, but that there really was a bar hidden somewhere on the campus of Kyoto University. In this bar, you don't pay with money, but with a tale of a mystery you encountered. The drinks served by the beautiful bartender Souma Miki always managed to stimulate Rinto's brain, so he could figure out these mysterious events in his life himself. The bar seemed to have disappeared after the events of the first volume, but with some new everyday life mysteries awaiting Rinto in the summer and fall, his reunion with Souma isn't far off.

I enjoyed the first novel in this series because it reminded me a lot of my own year studying at Kyoto University: most of the locales featured were in the vicinity of Kyoto University (or set on the main Yoshida campus), so it all felt very familiar to me. The everyday life mystery genre can be a hit or miss, as the mysteries aren't about "obvious" mysteries like murder, but far more mundane mysteries (though still baffling), but it's quite difficult coming up with a mystery that is a) mundane enough to have some convincing power, and yet b) mysterious enough to pique your interest (and have a satisfying solution). Not all stories in the first volume were as strong, but overall, I liked the book, so it was only a matter of time before I'd continue reading the series.

The opening story, Tama ni Sedori On The Rocks ("And Occasionally A Sedory On The Rocks"), is set at the Shimogawa Shrine Used Book Fair, a book fair held every summer on the grounds of the Shimogawa Shrine. Rinto is this year helping out at one of the stands together with a few other members of Kamogawa Rampo, but none of them know that Rinto was given two secret tasks. One of them was to locate a certain book, which was listed on the inventory list of the stand he's working at. It's supposed to be a rare book, but Mystery Club president Mitsuru thinks nobody else has noticed the presence of the book yet, and hopes Rinto can help her secure the book before somebody else buys it. Rinto's other task was set upon him by his friend and vice-president of Kamogawa Rampo: somebody has apparently sold the address list of the club to a third party, and everyone is been receiving spam mailings at home now. There is a small list of suspects, and Rinto has to check which of them (all helping out at the book fair) is most likely to sell the list for some money. Some odd events happen during the day however: people keep coming asking for certain rare books which were never listed at their booth, and according to Sachi (who is working the register), it seems books have been vanishing from their stand, despite Rinto and another member being on watch inside the booth. Rinto has trouble making sense out of all this, until he runs into Souma Miki, who is enjoying a drink at the book fair herself.

Oh man, if there's one thing I remember of my own visit to the Shimogawa Shrine Used Book Fair it's this: bring an umbrella. I hadn't, and it suddenly started to rain extremely hard (happens often in the summer), so I went inside one of the booths, figuring I could just browse until the rain would stop. Of course, this was in the summer, in Kyoto (notoriously hot and sticky), and let me tell you this: you do not want to be stuck inside a small booth with plastic walls, with other people, in the summer. Anyway, the sedory in the title refers to sedori, professional used book dealers who know where they can buy a certain title cheap to sell for a better price elsewhere. This story is the most like a conventional mystery story, with books slowly disappearing despite two sets of eyes on guard and some other events that play in the background. The way the books are stolen wouldn't work normally in a normal brick 'n' mortar bookshop, but in this particular setting I can definitely see it going succesfully. I can't really write about the other plot points in detail as that might spoil too much, but I think Madoy does a good job at hinting at how it's done, even if it's a bit too obvious the way it's done now.

In Mienai Blue ("Invisible Blue"), Rinto's becoming rather worried when Sachi doesn't reply to his mail and doesn't answer her phone either, especially as he can't remember whether he said something stupid after having too many drinks at the Kamogawa Rampo get-together. While aware that it's kinda stalker-y, he decides to ask help from a fellow Kamogawa Rampo member. He hadn't much in common with the rather attractive Haibara Karen, but when he learns she lives in the same apartment complex as Sachi, he pleads with Haibara to let him inside the complex and go try visit Sachi. She, reluctantly, agrees, but the two are surprised to not only learn from Sachi's neighbor that he heard some loud noises from the room next door two nights ago, when Rinto tries the door, he finds it's unlocked, and they see blue plastic sheets covering everything! Haibara and Rinto spend some time together discussing Sachi and end up at a temporary No. 3, where bartender Souma Miki warns Rinto, as this mystery is far more than he could guess. This is a classic example of an "look at the events from a different angle" story, which is something that works quite well within this subgenre of normal, mundane mysteries. Indeed, there's nothing really strange going on in this story, but once the solution is out, you realize you might've taken some things for granted. As a standalone mystery story, this isn't a particular strong one, but it works really well as a way to further develop the relation between Rinto and Sachi, while still having a mystery plot as its foundation.

The aftermath of Nadeshiko wa Mou Suki Janai ("I Don't Like Nadeshiko Anymore") has Rinto in a rather depressing mood, and things only become worse. The circle Kamogawa Rampo was assigned a rather horrible booth spot for the upcoming November Festival (Kyoto University's school festival), so Rinto was to renegotiate with the festival comittee. Rinto arrives a few minutes early for his appointment, and has a few rounds of two-man poker with a former member of Kamogawa Rampo in a classroom next door, figuring he'd see the committee president pass by the hallway. But when he finally sees the president, Rinto's utterly surprised to learn that more than an hour has passed since their appointment, and that they'll get no new rooms, even though Rinto's sure he only spent a few minutes playing poker next door. Rinto checks different clocks at different times during the story, so how could the time suddenly change from a few minutes past six to long past seven? The solution is kinda easy to guess, as it obviously all revolves arounds clocks. The storytelling doesn't follow a chronological order, with some initial events somewhat vague because it's not been explained by a flashback yet, which makes this story only seem more complex than it actually is. I'd say this story is the most like conventional mystery story together with the opening story. The reference to Ayukawa Tetsuya's Itsutsu no Tokei is nice though, as that too is a story where somebody seems to have a perfect alibi vouched for by five different clocks. By the way, I think I forgot to mention this in my review of the first book, but this whole series with a mysterious bar etc., is a reference to certain series by Ayukawa Tetsuya.

The November Festival is on the way in 5-fun Dakedemo Matte ("Take Five"). On the second night, most student and circle clubs that have a booth in a classroom stay overnight on campus, in their respective assigned rooms. Haibara and Sachi, who have been chosen to be become the club president and vice president next academic year, are staying overnight too, while Rinto's gone home. Haibara and Sachi wake up in the very early morning (the others are still sleeping because of all the booze), when both of them make shocking discoveries. Sachi, who was working register at their booth, finds out that all the money bills from their money box have been removed. At the same time, Haibara realizes that the door of the classroom can't be opened: something is blocking the door. It turns out someone had filled a water mattress right in front of the classroom door, trapping all the members of Kamogawa Rampo who stayed overnight in their classroom. In the morning after they have been rescued, Sachi decides to ask Rinto for help in finding out what happened to the money, as things just don't add up: some other circles had been robbed of money too overnight, it seems, but why was Kamogawa Rampo the only circle to have been locked up in their classroom, and while they may have been all asleep during the theft, how did the thief manage to steal the bills without making any noise, as all the money, coins and bills, were thrown together in a metal tin box? I really like the motive, as it's realistic and firmly set within the culture of Kyoto University's November Festival and it fits wonderfully in the idea of an everyday life mystery, but I have some questions with the execution, as no matter how you look at it, why the water mattress? It's a really weird way to block a door, especially as this was in a hallway in a faculty building, where more circles were residing that night. It seems so unlikely nobody would've noticed a water mattress being filled in a hallway until Haibara and Sachi did early in the morning. I'd have loved some more hinting too: I don't think this is a bad story, by any means, but I do feel the story has much more potential than it shows now, and while the final product isn't my favorite story of this volume, I think the core idea is: if only the execution had been slightly different.

Gineiden no Yoru ("The Night of the Galaxy Eizan Electric Railway") is actually the story that I was looking forward the most, but also the most disappointing story. The Eizan Electric Railway is a small local railway line in Kyoto which starts out in Demachiyanagi and then heads towards Mt. Kurama. When I lived in Kyoto, I lived half a minute away from the Shugakuin Station on this line (you might also know it from the anime K-On!), so I was quite curious to see how this small railway line would feature in a mystery story, but this story does something completely different from what my (admittedly unfounded) expectations were. Having grown closer in the last story, Sachi has confided to Rinto something that happened to her when she was young and on holiday in Kyoto with her family. Her family was staying in an inn near the Eizan Railway at the time. She woke up in the middle in the night, and looked outside to see the Eizan train riding off into the sky. She doesn't expect Rinto to believe her, but she'd would like to know what it was what she had seen. There's so little happening in this story that writing anymore would veer into spoiler territory. Basically, when a certain prop appears in a certain scene, it's kinda easy to guess where this story will go to. It's not really a mystery story either, but more like a lite mystery book-end story so Rinto and Sachi can grow closer at the end of this volume.

As a pure mystery short story collection, Kyoto Nazotoki Shikihou - Kosho to Gokai to Ginga Tetsudou is probably too lite for most people: only one, arguably two are "conventional" mystery stories, while the others are plotted around misunderstandings in human relations. While the core is definitely mystery, I think most people would enjoy the book more if read as a YA novel. Of course, it speaks to Madoy's plotting that he can make these situations still feel like puzzle plot mysteries, and you never really feel like he's playing unfair, but I am quite aware that not everyone will have the same nostalgic feelings I definitely have when I'm reading this book. I for one really enjoyed seeing all these little mysteries set around locales and communities that should feel very familar to a student of Kyoto University, and some ideas like the Book Fair setting or the motive for the November Festival mystery work really well, I think, but yeah, if I were to give points in my reviews (which I will never do), I'd do the "you can subtract 2 points if the nostalgic factor doesn't count for you".

Original Japanese title(s): 円居挽 『京都なぞとき四季報 古書と誤解と銀河鉄道』:「たまにはセドリー・オン・ザ・ロックスを」/ 「見えないブルー」 / 「撫子はもう好きじゃない」 / 「五分だけでも待って」 / 「銀叡電の夜」

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The Hidden Inheritance

All, all are gone, the old familiar faces
Charles Lamb

So it doesn't happen often I buy (new) Dutch mystery novels, as I'm usually looking for older (used) books, but today's book, this one I decided to order from my local bookshop. Of course, I didn't know when I clicked the order button that day, that had I simply ordered it from a webshop, I'd have had the book delivered to my home the next day, while via the brick-and-mortar bookshop, it took three full days, and most of the fourth (I was notified the book was ready for pick-up near closing time). That's a pretty drastic difference in delivery time.

In 2015-2016, I reviewed a few novels by M.P.O. Books, a Dutch mystery writer who writes puzzle plot mysteries set in contemporary Netherlands. I found his books quite enjoyable, so I was also pleased to learn that he had also started writing short mystery stories under the name Anne van Doorn, as personally, I'm more a fan of the short, rather than the long form. It took me a long time to actually get started on the Anne van Doorn stories however. The stories were first released as individual e-books, which again is not a form I like (yes, I sound incredibly picky now). Hardcopy volumes were released later: De geliefde die in het veen verdween en andere mysteries (2017) and De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen en andere mysteries (2018) each collected five stories. But in spring 2019, a new hardcopy volume was released to replace these two earlier releases, collecting the first ten stories in Anne van Doorn's Robbie Corbijn series: De mysteries van Robbie Corbijn ("The Mysteries of Robbie Corbijn", 2019) introduces the reader to Robbie Corbijn, owner and head investigator of the private investigation agency Research & Discover, located in the city of Leiden. Corbijn is an ex-cop, who now specializes in (c)old cases the police won't work on anymore. Recently, he has hired Lowina de Jong (narrator) as an assistant-prospective partner in the business. At first, Lowina thought the job was rather uneventful and unrewarding, as there's usually a perfectly good reason why the police didn't manage to solve the case first (there's nothing more to be done, not even by Research & Discover), but occasionally, Lowina's boss shows he's actually really good at the job, solving baffling cases like a locked room murder dressed as suicide and other cases which would've been unsolved if not for Corbijn's interference.

In the introduction, van Doorn says the inspiration for these stories came from classic mystery fiction like Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy and yep, that's quite clear right from the start. Sure, the stories are set in contemporary, modern Dutch society, but the tricks being played here and some of the background settings are what you'd expect from classical puzzle plot mysteries, and sometimes even slightly older mystery fiction. Locked room murders, people dressing up as other people because that was super-easy in the 1910s-1920s if I were to believe all the mystery fiction I read, Dramatic Background Stories That Serve As Even More Dramatic Murder Motives, you know the drill. If you're a fan of the authors mentioned, you're certainly at the right place with this volume, though I also have to note that sometimes, things will feel too familiar. In fact, as I was reading through the book, often I'd think "well, this story, this one was obviously inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle", or another by Christie etc. I think it would've worked better if this would happen occasionally, but for example in this volume, basically half of the stories feel distinctly Conan Doyle-ish, which is a shame, because it constantly makes me think of the Holmes stories, rather than just of Robbie Corbijn.

The opening story is perhaps the least Doylish though. In De dichter die zichzelf opsloot ("The Poet Who Locked Himself In"), Corbijn is hired to investigate the death of Albert Meijer, a not-so-succesful poet and recluse locked in an unhappy marriage. The man spent his days in his log cabin out in the woods behind his house, a lifestyle he maintained even when his wife would go abroad for months to spend a long holiday. One day, the remains of Meijer were found inside his cabin, apparently shot by the shotgun lying next to him. With a locked door and a postcard from his wife from her holiday address saying she wouldn't give him even a penny anymore, it seems the poet committed suicide, but his son believes his stepmother committed the crime somehow and wants Corbijn to investigate. The problem of the tale revolves around how murder could've been committed, considering the log cabin had been locked from the inside. I like the idea behind this locked room, which is essence an idea that you occasionally see in more mechanically-inclined locked room stories, though executed in a completely different scale. The actual execution in this story however relies so much on coincidence and hindsight logic in order for it all to work out the way it did. Not only did a certain object needed to be available at that certain time, there was no compelling reason for the culprit to gamble and go through all the trouble, merely on the chance that they'd be succesful in creating the locked room. The culprit would also needed to have knowledge of certain facts, or simply gamble on the fact others wouldn't know, which seems really weird considering all the things they'd need to do to create this locked room. I do like the way how Corbijn first surmised what the real deal was behind the locked room mystery, a subtle but clever clue that is so easily missed.

Let's say the first story was more Carr-inspired than the Conan Doyle, Christie and Orczy from the introduction. Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen ("The Girl Who Remained") too is perhaps better categorized here then. Corbijn is hired to investigate a series of accidents on a lonely country road with a slight curve adorned by trees. Some weeks ago, someone crashed into the trees with his car, but before the driver lost conciousness, he asked whether the girl was okay. Apparently, he believed a girl had been standing in the road, which is why he drove into the trees. The problem: there had been no girl on the road, as per testimony of the two witnesses who saw the whole accident happen. The queer thing is that the same accident had happened some years before, with the driver trying to avoid a person who hadn't been there. Corbijn and Lowina learn that many years ago, a girl was run over on that road, and her mother (who lives near the road) still believes her girl haunts the place. The story with the most atmosphere of the whole volume, but the solution to the identity of the ghost is more practical than inventive, with a rather mundane explanation. The why is perhaps more important, but due to the rather small cast of characters (of whom the culprit really stands out like a sore thumb), the motive can be guessed rather easily.

In Het joch dat grenzen overschreed ("The Brat Who Went Too Far"), Corbijn is hired by a lawyer (who has a rather familiar-sounding name...) to clear the name of Geertruida Smelinck, who has been convicted for the murder on her nine-year old neighbor Ward, the Dennis the Menace of the cul-de-sac street of only three houses, all inhabitated by people who carried their share of pain in life. Ward was found dead in the garden of Geertruida, with a metal rod sticking from his body, and given the fact Ward had stolen her apples last year too, it was believed she had killed the boy in a rage for attempting to do the same this year. As Corbijn and Lowina visit the street again, asking the neighbor who lived between Geertruida and Ward about that day and reconstructing the movements of Ward, Corbijn realizes he might have a chance at overturning the verdict. This story is less 'mechanically' inclined compared to the previous two stories I mentioned, and perhaps also less intricate in terms of what really happened (the focus lies more on the unveiling, I think), though the story itself is perhaps more enjoyable as an actual "story", with more attention to character background. The real truth behind Ward's death is simple and not particularly shocking. In terms of dynamics, it also reminds me of a certain episode in a popular mystery videogame (which may well be sheer coincidence), but once you think of that game, it's very easy to guess what happened here.

De arts die de weg kwijt was ("The Doctor Who Lost His Way") is a distinctly Doylish story, reminsicent of The Greek Interpreter. In this story, a newly installed doctor is called out in the middle of the night for an emergency with one of his patients, but when he arrives at the house in The Hague, he finds not his patient waiting for him on the second floor of the building, but a woman who was shot and two men who seem to be up to no good. He is threatened by the men to help the woman, and afterwards is knocked out. The doctor awakens the next morning inside his own car (car keys inside) parked near Scheveningen Beach. He informs the police about the shot woman and they go to the house again, but he is shocked to find his real patient there, not the shot woman and the men. Considering the doctor was found inside his own car with his keys inside, the police thinks he probably came up with a cock-and-bull story about the shot woman for his wife to hide some affair, but the doctor needs to know what happened and asks Corbijn to help him. Both the problem of the disappearing house and the locked car are serviceable, but not particularly memorable. The car problem is barely a variant on a very classic locked room trick, so hardly impressive, while the problem with the house is... basically what you'd guess first.

De boerin die niet wilde sterven ("The Farmer's Wife Who Didn't Want to Die") too invokes Doyle (The Copper Beeches), with a private nurse having doubts about her new post, where she has to live on a remote farm to take care of a farmer's wife. Some specific working conditions like not only living on the farm, but not even being allowed to go outside, not even for a fresh breather, save for her day off seem odd, as is the fact her post seems to be screened. The story follows the familiar Victorian thriller thread all the way to the end, and is hardly a puzzle plot mystery. De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen ("The Mountains That Know No Oblivion") has Corbijn telling Lowina about the time a colleague wanted Corbijn for a second opinion. The case was a really cold one, as it happened in Albania in 1933. Deep in the mountains, the blood vendetta between clans is law, and in 1933, this blood vendetta hit a climax when a woman was shot inside a small attic room on top of a kulla e ngujimit, a tower especially built so people could lock themselves in when a blood vendetta would rear its ugly head again. There was only a small window in the attic room, but you'll only find a river a far way below that window, so it's unlikely she was shot through the window, yet the other people in the kulla heard her speak with her assailant right before she was shot, yet they found nobody else in the attic room. The long-running family fued plot invokes Victorian fiction of course, but the solution is basically borrrowed exactly from another, fairly famous mystery story and even with the new setting, it's not really one of my favorites. De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd ("The Lady Who Didn't Ask For Help") too is distinctly Doylish, with Corbijn telling Lowina about the time he was still with the police force, about a woman who'd always call the police but would deny having done so every time they arrived at her home. The solution lies in the psat, but this is more Victorian revenge melodrama than puzzle plot, I'd say.

De geliefde die in het veen verdween ("The Loved One Who Disappeared in the Bog") on the other hand is more distinctly Christie-esque (or Baroness Orczy-esque, perhaps). Corbijn is asked by their neighbor to help her niece, whose boyfriend Eickhout disappeared more than six years ago. Her boyfriend was a project developer who loved to hike, which he last did in the Belgian Ardennes. He had actually been in Belgium to pick up his engagement ring, as he planned to propose after his return, making this a full tragedy. It was thought by the police had been Eickhout 'spirited away' by some of criminal associates, as on that fateful day, several people had seen the hiking Eickhout being followed by a shady figure and it's believed Eickhouts body is now somewhere in the bogs. The client hopes that even if Eickhout's dead, she should at least give him a proper burial, so she hopes Corbijn can at least figure out what happened on that day. Like I said this story feels more like Christie, as much of the story depends on direct misdirection and making witnesses believe in certain patterns or happenings, simply because it seems likely that was what happened. As Corbijn shows, once you stop assuming things however, it can be easy to figure out what really happened. This story is fairly easy to solve once you let go of these assumptions, resulting in a story that feels very much like one of those Miss Marple shorts.

In a way, two other stories work on the same principle. De vluchteling die alles achterliet ("The Refugee Who Left Everything Behind") is about the disappearance of a Bosnian refugee, and the disappearance of Susanne Westera one day earlier from the island of Terschelling. The two were determined to have had a relation, and it is assumed they disappeared together, though it's a mystery how Susanne managed to get of the island completely unseen. Now many years later, her father is terminally ill and he wants Corbijn to give him closure on what happened to his daughter. The story is nicely plotted and like the best of Christie's short efforts, depends on the notion of the witnesses and the reader willing to assume things at face value and probably succeeding in that feat even though the reader's already warned. That is perhaps also a problem though, as Het hoertje dat geen spoor achterliet ("The Hooker Who Didn't Leave a Trace") is technically a good mystery story, but by the time you get to this story, it's so easy to guess what was going on. Marliende Vries, better known as the erotica author Patricia de Rooth, was caught and sentenced for murdering her husband, having caught him together with a prostitute in a room of a shady hotel. The evidence suggests Marliende shot her husband, though there's also the problem of the one witness (the prostitute) having run away. Marliende's brother however does not believe in his sister's guilt and wants Corbijn to find the real murderer so Marliende will be released. But like with Baroness Orczy's The Old Man in The Corner however, the solution is hardly shocking considering the underlying principle has been used multiple times already in the same volume.

De mysteries van Robbie Corbijn was an entertaining volume of Dutch puzzle plot mysteries that at one hand, is adequately plotted and written, but at times also feels too much like the stories that inspired the author. Compared to the books written under the M.P.O. Books name, these ten stories are definitely more pleasing to the puzzle plot story reader with more focused plotting, but these stories are also a lot less surprising, as they often feel too familiar in terms of structure, especially when read one after another. I'm definitely interested in reading future stories, though I guess I'll have to wait for the hardcopy version again (and of course hope that hypothetical volume won't be replaced by an even more hypothetical volume that has more stories for about the same price...)

Original Dutch title(s): Anne van Doorn De mysteries van Robbie Corbijn: 'De dichter die zichzelf opsloot' / 'De geliefde die in het veen verdween' / 'De arts die de weg kwijt was' / 'Het joch dat grenzen overschreed' /  'De vluchteling die alles achterliet' / 'De boerin die niet wilde sterven' / 'Het meisje dat bleef rondhangen' 'De bergen die geen vergetelheid kennen' / 'Het hoertje dat geen spoor achterliet' / 'De dame die niet om hulp had gevraagd'

Monday, June 17, 2019

番外編: A Smart Dummy in the Tent

So for the last two months or so, I kept telling myself, don't forget to write an announcement, it'll take no time at all, it'll just be a short post.... And in the end, I still didn't manage to write this thing in time...

Last year, Locked Room International released the hilarious impossible crime mystery The 8 Mansion Murders by Takemaru ABIKO, translated by yours truly. That was not the first time Abiko had been translated to English, as some of his work for videogames (like The Starship Damrey (3DS)) had already been available in the West, but The 8 Mansion Murders was his first proper mystery novel which had been translated into English. I was obviously happy to see that the novel was received pretty well when it released (if you haven't read it yet, please do). For those who enjoyed the novel, I have good news, as more Abiko is available now. The June/August 2019 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine (which should be available right now) features Abiko's impossible crime short story A Smart Dummy In The Tent (orig.: 1990), once again translated by me. The story is part of Abiko's Mario series, and stars a... ventriloquist's dummy as the detective. Yoshio is an incredibly gifted, but somewhat clumsy ventriloquist who performs together with his puppet Mario. However, Yoshio's great secret is that Mario isn't just a tool of his trade, Mario's a whole seperate personality of Yoshio. And despite his arrogant and wise-cracking personality, Mario's also actually really clever and sharp, which comes in handy in A Smart Dummy In The Tent, when Yoshio and his love interest Mutsuki get involved with an impossible crime that occurs in the backstage area of a circus tent.

Those who enjoyed the comedy and banter of The 8 Mansion Murders should really check out the story, as this one too is immensely fun to read, while the impossible crime angle of the story is also quite original, really fitting to the circus setting. I hope you'll enjoy the read! To end with a completely uninteresting note: I have been to the circus in real life only once, when I was a kid!

As for other projects and related announcements, that's a tale for another day. Another day that might not really ask for a DeLorean, but some patience will be necessary.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Movie Madness

"The show must go on." 
(English saying)

Last week, I reviewed Van Madoy's FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken, a novelization of a quest originally written by Madoy for the highly succesful mobile game Fate/Grand Order. The Fate franchise is a fantasy series about the Holy Grail Wars, fought between Masters and their Servants, spirits based on historical and fictional figures from all across the world like Sherlock Holmes, but also Murasaki Shikibu and Ozymandias (Ramses II). While most (limited time) quests in FGO obviously revolve around battles, Madoy's first FGO Mystery event (held in May 2018) was different as Madoy used the FGO characters to tell a traditional closed circle murder mystery story set on a remote island, with next to no battle gameplay. It was a battle of the wits, as players were challenged to correctly guess who the murderer was and Madoy offered a very classic whodunnit story, where you could arrive at the identity of the murderer through the simple (but actually not very simple) process of elimination.

In May 2019, a second FGO Mystery event started in the game with the title Murder at the MEIHO-SOU. This event too was written by Madoy, and novelizations of this event, as well as of the 2018 event, were released right after this second event ended near the end of May. This second volume too has an insanely long title: FGO Mystery Tomadou Meihousou no Kousatsu Meihousou Satsujin Jiken ("FGO Mystery - The Examination of the Puzzling Meihousou - The Meihousou Murder Case", 2019) however luckily also uses the far shorter alternative English title The Meihousou Murders inside the book. The story starts with the discovery of a small anomalous temporal singularity in the Caribbean sea by the Chaldea Security Organization. Strangely enough, the singularity appears to have the form of a film set, dubbed a 'virtual drifting Hollywood' by Chaldea. While the unstable singularity is likely to disappear within a few days on its own, it's still deemed wiser to fix the temporal singularity and that is by having the film set fulfill its role as the setting for an actual film. Murasaki Shikibu is asked to write a story to film inside the temporal singularity, and she quickly comes up with a story and get the people (Servants) she wants as her cast.

The film story is set in the fictional Republic of Nadai Nada. After the fall of the royal house and the kingdom of Nadai Nada, Miguel Cortez (a role played by Professor James Moriarty) had become the first president of the Republic. When he passed away, he left behind a young widow (and former adopted daughter) Gabriella (played by Murasaki Shikibu). A small private gathering in memory of Miguel has been organized at the Meihousou, a former royal holiday palace which had become the residence of Miguel and Gabriella. The guests at this gathering however aren't all what they seem to be: from former court composer Antiono Jovin (played by Antonio Salieri) to Roma Kureishi (played by Sakamoto Ryouma) and Vargus (played by Ozymandias/Ramses II), all the characters in the film seem to have come to the Meihousou with ulterior motives. As they have little time before the temporal singularity will collapse on its own, Murasaki Shikibu never had time to tell all her actors how the whole story would go and what their characters were like exactly, and that results in a major problem when Murasaki Shikibu herself is knocked out due to a too powerful medicine which was 'supposed to have her feel more relaxed'.  As none of the people involved with the film production know what Murasaki Shikibu's intentions were with the story, they are left with no choice: each of the actors tries to come up with their own version of the story, based on the clues left in the first half they had already filmed.


Oh, I have to say, I had not expected Madoy to come with this story, especially not after reading the first FGO Mystery novel. For that was really a classic whodunnit story set in a mansion on a remote island complete with a Challenge to the Reader, where you needed to follow a tight elimination process to arrive at the identity of the killer. This story however follows the less common unfinished movie trope. Trope, I say? Yeah, because funnily enough, I have read several mystery stories now that are about an unfinished mystery movie, where the actors themselves then have to guess what the solution was based on the hints already filmed, and everyone arriving at a different solution. Abiko Takemaru's Tantei Eiga is exactly about this theme for example, and a funny one too, as every actor wanted their character to become the killer (because that's the best role in a mystery movie). Yonezawa Honobu's Gusha no End Roll too is about an unfinished mystery movie filmed for the school festival,with again everyone coming up with a different solution to the locked room murder that occurs there.

Readers of classsic mystery fiction will definitely recognize the influence of Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley here, as those two writers too loved their multiple solutions. Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case is of course famous example of the detective story with multiple solutions, but Brand's novels too are always brimming with characters who come up with, well, quite plausible solutions for the matter at hand. In hindsight however, I have to say it shouldn't surprise me that Madoy came up with this. His Revoir series is about a private court set in Kyoto and in those trials, it's less about the truth, but about convincing the others/judge in accepting your "truth". The characters there are always coming up with new theories that suit their stance in the trial based on the evidence in front of them, so both defense and prosecution often come up with completely different interpretations based on the same facts. The Meihousou Murders does exactly that, as the five main actors come up with five completely different conclusions to the film based on the same first half of the film.

The various 'solutions' (conclusions to the movie) are fairly simple, but entertaining enough. Usually they're based on one single contradiction, or odd point in the first half of the movie, which is then the starting point to an idea that encompasses also a lot of imagination and fantasy. This story is definitely less 'rigid' in terms of mystery plot compared to the first, as a lot of the solutions proposed in this book are more in the spirit of  'Hey, this character acted odd in the first half of the movie, what if he was actually X and that his real goal is to...". It's an entertaining book, as you see all the characters coming up with widely different interpretations of the same base story, but as a detective story, it's not exactly fit for a Challenge to the Reader, which is strangely enough included in the story. As so much of the plot hinges on "I reject your reality and substitute my own", it's strange to be asked in a direct way to arrive at the one-and-only solution. The Challenge to the Reader is admittedly about a different problem (eventually Murasaki Shikibu wakes up, only to find everyone has come up with their own version of the story), and I think the final solution to save the movie is reasonably clever, especially on this scale and fits well with the theme (there's a weirdly specific hint that doesn't really work that well I think, but the base idea is something that a reader could definitely think of), but I don't really see the added value of a Challenge to the Reader for this story.

I think the first novel is more satisfying as a classic whodunnit mystery story, but FGO Mystery Tomadou Meihousou no Kousatsu Meihousou Satsujin Jiken is probably more enjoyable to readers as a piece of entertainment. This story was originally a quest in the game Fate/Grand Order (which is obviously not a mystery game at the core) and I think it's better in that regard compared to the first story, which can be far more difficult than this story. The Meihousou Murders is funnier, has far more character interaction with familiar faces (rather than "the original characters with borrowed graphical assets" from the first event), moves at a far more satisfying pace and is less 'precise' regarding its mystery plot, making it far more accessible.

Original Japanese title(s): Type-Moon (原), 円居挽 『FGOミステリー 惑う鳴鳳荘の考察 鳴鳳荘殺人事件』

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Mystery By Moonlight

運命のルーレット廻して
アレコレ深く考えるのはMystery
「運命のルーレット廻して」(Zard)

Turn the roulette of destiny
Thinking deep about this and that is a mystery
"Turn the Roulette of Destiny" (Zard)

The Fate series is a long-running multimedia franchise, which started with the fantasy game Fate/stay night in 2004. Since then, it has seen numerous installments in various forms of media, from games, to anime, manga and novels. Some of these installments are direct sequels/prequels in the same chronology, some involve alternate universes/retellings, but in general, the series revolves around a series of events called the Holy Grail Wars, with persons called Masters fighting each other with the help of Servants, spirits/familiars based on figures from history, mythology and fiction from all across the world like King Arthur, Ramses II and Sherlock Holmes. This is in fact basically all I know about the Fate series: while I naturally knew of its existence (it's really popular), I had never consumed any part of the franchise yet. At least, not until this week.

The most popular incarnation of the Fate series these last few years has been the smartphone game Fate/Grand Order, which started in 2015 and ranks amongst the most popular mobile games in the world: in 2017 it became the sixth highest-grossing mobile game, leaving titles like Pokémon Go and Candy Crush Saga behind. I don't play the game myself, but my interest was piqued when in May 2018, a special limited quest event started, with the title Murder at the KOGETSUKAN. What first caught my eye was that the event was penned by Van Madoy, who since a few years has been chiseling out a niche for himself by writing original mystery novels for existing game franchises (like Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney). While gameplay of Fate/Grand Order generally revolves around battles (by selecting a team of Servants) coupled with dialogue events, this event was presented as a pure, fair-play mystery story, based solely on the dialogues between the various characters. Players were also challenged to actively participate with the mystery solving: the event took over a week (daily updates), and polls were held on the official website: players were rewarded with in-game currency if the correct answers managed to pull in the most number of votes.

As I don't play the game, it ended with me just thinking 'Oh boy, this sounded neat', but in May 2019 a second FGO Mystery event commenced within Fate/Grand Order and novelizations by Madoy himself of both the first and second event were published right after the conclusion of the second event. The first novel (based on 2018's event) has the insanely long title FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken ("FGO Mystery - The Confession of the Trembling Koketsukan - The Kogetsukan Murder Case", 2019), but it also carries the alternative, shorter English title of The Kogetsukan Murders. The story starts with a strange experience happening to Fate/Grand Order protagonist Fujimaru Ritsuka, as he loses consciousness one night, only to find himself waking up in a completely different body! He learns that he is now inhabiting the body of "Rikka" a friend of Juliet Violet, oldest daughter of the Violet clan. The Violet and Goldie clans are two gangster families in the United States with a long history of rivalry, but their wars have left them in a weakened state and easy targets for foreign gangs. Family heads Aaron Goldie and Adamska Violet both realize a fusion of both clans is their only chance on survival, and in order to silence the voices of protests in their respective gangs, they decide to have their eldest children marry to seal the deal. The Violet and Goldie families are now gathered in the mansion Kogetsukan on a remote island to confirm the engagement of Morris Goldie and Juliet Violet.

"Rikka" had been invited to come along as Juliet's friend, but even to Ritsuka inhabiting the body of Rikka, it's clear that Morris Goldie is not the kind of person you'd want a good friend to marry and the arranged, political marriage will absolutely ruin Juliet's life. Meanwhile Juliet seems to have accepted her fate, as she doesn't want her younger twin sister to become the 'sacrifice' in her stead.  It seems however there is another person who wants to prevent the engagement, as threatening letters were sent that warned the clans to stop the engagement, which is the reason the deal is being discussed on a remote island under the protection of three agents of the Marble Trading Company, an organization of highly respected "fixers" acting as both witnesses to the engagement and bodyguards. On the first day, a shady detective calling himself Sheringham makes his way to the island, claiming he knows of the threatening letters and that he can solve the case, but that very night, that same Sheringham is killed. It seems a murderer is roaming Kogetsukan, and that they first got rid of the nosy detective. But who will follow, and can Rikka/Ritsuka make it out alive from the island?


When I bought the novel, my main worry was of course whether I'd enjoy the story without knowing anything about Fate/Grand Order. I was fairly confident that Madoy could deliver on an entertaining mystery story, but how much would it rely on me knowing the Fate series. The first few pages were therefore slightly worrying, as they were clearly meant for someone who somewhat knows the characters. As a defense mechanism in Ritsuka's brain for suddenly inhabiting a different body, every person he meets in the Kogetsukan takes on the form of a Servant he knows within his brain. In reality, this is of course because the game uses existing character art to portray "new" characters (the people Goldie/Violet/Marble Trade Company). But an explanation that Juliet takes on the form of the Gorgon sister Stheno in Ritsuka's mind doesn't tell me much of course, as I don't know how Stheno looks like in Fate/Grand Order. Some others were more easy to imagine though. The Violet family doctor is called Dr. Hawthorne for example, who funnily enough takes on the form of the Servant Professor James Moriarty. Meanwhile, the shady detective Sheringham is definitely the spitting image of the Servant Sherlock Holmes. What's also funny is that Ritsuka occasionally returns to his own body, and there he discusses the case with both Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty, who actually work together to figure things out.

Once you get past the character introductions of "X has the appearence of Y" though, I'd say the novel is fairly accessible even if you don't know Fate/Grand Order, and it's a pretty decent mystery novel on its own too. One can definitely tell it's written by Madoy, who was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club when in college, as the core is a classic guess-the-criminal set-up, with a proper Challenge to the Reader. While you can arrive at the identity of the murderer by simply guessing the motive in this particular story (as it's also aimed at people who usually don't read detective stories), the 'correct' way of reading this story is of course by arriving at the murderer by the process of elimination: identify what characteristics the murderer must comply too (for example, being at a certain place at a certain time, or being left-handed or something like that), and crossing off the people who don't fit that characteristic. To be honest, the elimination part of the story is on its own somewhat straightforward and not very exciting, as it mostly revolves around one single characteristic, coupled with an interpretation of a dying message which is basically 'given' to the reader. But Madoy wouldn't be Madoy if he didn't have some other tricks up his sleeve though: one point of misdirection is particularly well thought out. The trick makes excellent use of the presentation of the story and while people who do know Fate/Grand Order might be more inclined to fall for it, it still (kinda) works for non FGO-players, I think. These traps make the route to the identity of the murderer a far more entertaining trip and are nicely done. At least, in general. I do think some of the hints stood out a bit too much: some parts of the story seemed so blatantly weirdly worded at first, I actually thought it was an editing mistake in the text, rather than a hidden clue. I wonder whether Madoy intentionally made those parts stand out a bit, because the main audience were Fate/Grand Order players, and not mystery readers in general, as I have the feeling those parts could've been hidden in more subtle ways, without losing their functions as proper clues.

Depending on how much mystery fiction you read, bits and pieces of The Kogetsukan Murders will certainly feel somewhat familiar, like the motive or some of the 'traps' in the elimination process, but the manner in which these familiar elements are combined are good, and show how how an author, even with the same bricks, can still make an original building. Overall, I think Van Madoy did a good job at presenting a very classic mystery story to an audience (Fate/Grand Order player) that doesn't necessarily consists out of readers of mystery fiction, while still offering a story that is fairly complex in terms plotting.

Taken completely on its own, FGO Mystery - Hirugaeru Kogetsukan no Kokkai - Kogetsukan Satsujin Jiken is a decent mystery novel and can be enjoyed too even if you don't know Fate/Grand Order, but it definitely earns some bonus points if you are familiar with the source material and some elements of the mystery plot too work better with some knowledge. And while this was originally written to be experienced in the game, I'd say the novelizations works quite well too. While designed for a more general audience, this novel will also please regular puzzle plot readers and it's also just funny to see the Servants Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty working together to solve the murders at the Kogetsukan. I have the novelization of the second event too, and will probably review that one soon too.

Original Japanese title(s): Type-Moon (原), 円居挽 『FGOミステリー 翻る虚月館の告解 虚月館殺人事件』

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Wrong Track

すべて何かのイチブってことに 僕らは気づかない 
「イチブトゼンブ」( B'z)

We don't realize that
Everything is part of something
"Some & All" (B'z)

And another Great Merlini review this year.

It didn't take much to convince overworked promotion writer Ross Harte to forget about the newest rewrite for a moment to join retired-magician-turned-amateur-detective The Great Merlini in a new adventure. The Great Merlini is doing a new show on haunted houses, and one of the top locations eyed by Merlini is a haunted house located on Skelton Island in New York's East River. Skelton Island is owned by wealthy Linda Skelton, who lives on the island with her two half-brothers and other guests, including the psychic Madame Rappourt. Colonel Watrous was a true believer of Madame Rappourt's spiritual powers in the past, but as of late, doubts have crawled into his mind, and he wants Merlini to see if he can debunk her. He secretly invites Merlini to Skelton Island, so he can witness one of Rappourt's seances, but while they are sneaking on the island, Merlini, Watrous and Harte notice that something's fishy in the supposed haunted house. Inside, they hear suspicious footprints on the floor above and chasing after them, they find the body of Linda Skelton inside a room, who died of poison. While at first sight, this might look like suicide, the fact that Linda suffered from severe agorophobia, would've made it impossible for her to leave the comforts of her own house to come here. While they are checking the scene, the three discover more curious facts: footprints walking on the ceiling leading to the one open window, and a fire is started on the ground floor of the building. When the people on the island are informed of Linda's death, they also find that the phone line's been cut and that all the boats have been let loose, stranding the people on the island. It takes the magician's brain of Merlini to see the connection between all these events in Clayton Rawson's The Footprints on the Ceiling (1939).

The Footprints on the Ceiling is the second novel in Rawson's The Great Merlini series (followed by The Headless Lady, which I reviewed a couple months ago). I haven't read the first novel (Death from a Top Hat), though I vaguely remember having seen the film once. I am not completely sure, but I believe both Madame Rappourt and Colonel Watrous appeared in that first novel, with Watrous (a believer in the occult) now having doubts about Rappourt's true powers. Anyway, reading these novels out of order doesn't really hurt the experience, in case you were wondering.

What does hurt the experience is that The Footprints on the Ceiling is an incredibly packed mystery novel, with far too many subplots and ideas for its own good. The result is a chaotic, meandering bunch of ideas, that lacks focus and meaningful plotting. Last year, I reviewed a few mystery stories that in my eyes, were pinnacles in mystery plotting in terms of synergy: the novel Kubinashi no Gotoki Tataru Mono, but also the Detective Conan episode Koureikai W Misshitsu Jiken were both packed stories, with lots of sub-plots and events, but what made these stories so memorable, was the fact there was synergy going between all these events. Nothing there happened on its own: each story element was there to strengthen and support other elements in multi-lateral directions, with for example murder methods, murder scenes, motives and sub-plots all interconnected in meaningful ways, where it was impossible to remove one element without affecting the fundamentals of the whole mystery plot. The Footprints on the Ceiling is an excellent example of what happens when you have a mystery plot that lacks such synergy, where elements are thrown in haphazardly without true consideration of how and why it all ties together and most importantly: whether the inclusion of such elements really improve the overall plot.

When you're reading The Footprints on the Ceiling, you are presented with, amongst others, 1) a backstory of a haunted house on Skelton Island; 2) a semi-locked room where Merlini, Harte and Watrous hear footprints in a room, but don't find the person behind them; 3) the mystery of why Linda Skelton is dead, in a room where she wouldn't have gone; 4) the mystery of the footprints on the ceiling; 5) the question of whether Madame Rappourt is a genuine psychic; 6) the mystery of who cut the phone line; 7) the mystery of who set the boats drifting; 8) the mystery of an unknown, naked man being found in a New York hotel who died of the bends (decompression sickness); 9) the mystery of missing half-brother Floyd; 10) the mystery of who's been dusting for fingerprints besides the police; 11) the search for a lost pirate treasure; and so much more. And the things: a lot of the elements are just there to make this a longer novel. Everyone has something to hide, with lots of subplots going on, but they usually have no direct connection with the main mystery. They are just there to act as a semi-red herring, to focus the spotlight on something else for a moment only to tell you 'sure, this all happened but it had nothing to do with the murder!' and then the spotlight moves again to someone else. One could say this is misdirection, but throwing a mountain of random things to obscure the underlying picture is the crudest manner to do misdirection and hardly a skill.

There are interesting ideas going in The Footprints on the Ceiling, mind you, but the execution isn't always optimal. Inspector Gavigan also works on a case of a naked body being found in a hotel room who died of the bends (decompression sickness): this is actually a pretty interesting situation on its own, but this problem is hardly given enough page-time to really settle, and this part is solved far too fast, and is soon forgotten among the plethora of other things going on in this novel. The main motive for the murder is also fairly interesting, but again, it's only "well-hidden" because everything and the kitchen sink is thrown in this story and it's more chore to sift through all the random ideas and happenings than actual fun.

After reading The Footprints on the Ceiling, I read through a few reviews which were far more positive about this book than I am, so your mileage may very well vary on this, but I thought this book a good example of the easy way out of writing a lengthy mystery story: by stuffing it with sub-plots that don't really connect in a meaningful way to the core mystery plot, by adding elements that are only there so the author can say "Haha, made you look." The book is not devoid of good ideas: but there is no synergy going on between these ideas at all, resulting in what can only be described as a random collection of ideas that never come together.