Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Stop the Clock


"I have succeeded in restoring the time."
" ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service")

So in the time between me reading this book and the review getting published, this book won the Honkaku Mystery Best 10 ranking of 2018!

In the Koikawa Shopping Arcade on the East exit of the Koikawa Station, there's a small watchmaker wedged between the butcher and the photo studio. Mitani Clockmakers is run by Mitani Tokino, a young woman in her twenties who learned the trade from her grandfather and has now inherited the shop from him. But Mitani Clockmakers isn't a normal clockmaker. Besides the normal services like selling and offering maintenance on clocks and other timepieces, Mitani Clockmakers also offers another, rather unique service. One day, a police detective walks into Mitani Clockmakers to have the battery in his watch replaced, but to his surprise, he spots a sign that says that the shop also offers an alibi cracking service. The detective inquires about the service, which according to Tokino was started by her grandfather, who was of the opinion that a clockmaker's work involved everything connected to a clock and time, and what is an alibi but a statement that someone was present or absent at a certain location at a certain time? As luck has it, the police detective is working on a case where the main suspect has a perfect alibi and intriqued by this unique service, he decides to consult Tokino on his case in Ooyama Seiichirou's short story collection Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service", 2018).

It was through the PSP game Trick X Logic that I first learned of the mystery writer Ooyama Seiichirou, as he was responsible for one of my favorite scenarios from the game. Some time later, I read Misshitsu Shuushuuka, an absolutely brilliant short story collection. What impressed me most about that collection was that Ooyama was a writer who was obviously writing in the Queen school, yet he was tackling the theme of locked room murders. These are two modes that you usually don't see together in mystery fiction, because it's prettty difficult coming up with locked room murders and other impossibilities, that are also solvable through the method of pure logical reasoning, which simply requires the reader to combine the known facts, make the logical conclusion from that combination, eliminate possibilities and identifying certain conditions which apply all to the murderer. Impossible crimes are usually focused on the how of an impossibility, while Ooyama focused much more on the logical processes required to solve the problems, resulting in one of my favorite reads of that year.

In a way, Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu feels quite similar to Misshitsu Shuushuuka in concept, as this too is a short story collection that focuses completely on one single theme from mystery fiction: in this case, the perfect alibi. An alibi can be a kind of an impossible crime, if you assume that the suspect is indeed the murderer, despite having a perfect alibi, but your mileage may vary on how impossible you think the impossibility really is. Anyway, I'm actually quite the fan of the perfect alibi story, and combined with Ooyama's plotting, I knew this book would be a must-read.

The opening story Tokeiya Tantei to Stalker no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Stalker") introduces the reader and the narrator and unnamed police detective to Mitani Clockmakers and their unique service. Curious to whether Tokino can really help out, the police detective confides in her about the case he's working on. Hamazawa Kyouko, a professor of the local university, was found murdered in her own apartment room by her sister. Her time of death is estimated based on the pictures of her lunch/snack/dinner she posted on Twitter during the day, and also medically confirmed, and suspicion soon falls on her ex-husband, who had been stalking Kyouko for money. He however has an alibi for the time of death, as he had been drinking with friends. The detective has only just finished his story, when Tokino immediately solves the case and explains how this perfect alibi of the ex-husband was created. The solution is quite original, yet convincing and also somewhat "modern", as it's partly based on foodie photographs posted on Twitter, but while it can difficult to come up with the idea of how this alibi was created, I think Ooyama did a good job at clewing, as some of them really seem obvious in hindsight.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Kyouki no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Murder Weapon"), the police detective decides to visit Mitani Clockmakers again, as this time, he has a problem that involves the alibi of a gun. A gun was found inside a mail box when the mail was collected at 15:00. It's suspected the gun has to do with the gang war going on between two gangs who have their headquarters near that mail box, but later an employee of a pharmaceutical company is found dead in his apartment, and while it seems he has no ties with organized crime, the bullets found on the scene and in his body matched those of the gun found in the mail box. Eventually, suspicion falls on the victim's superior, who does seem to have a connection with the local gangs, but he has an alibi for the time: he was having a family gathering with his cousins at the time the victim was killed and the gun was thrown in the mail box. The solution Tokino explains is quite brilliant for creating this seemingly impossible situation. The actual clewing is a bit on the weak side, so it kinda expects the reader to just guess what happened, but the solution is quite complex, and one I could even see expanded into a full novel.

In Tokeiya Tantei to Shisha no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Dead"), the narrator has a rather nasty experience: one night, he was just out on a stroll, when he was almost hit by a drunken driver. Another man was less fortunate, and hit by the car. But in his dying breath, he confessed to the narrator that he had just committed a murder on a certain Nakajima Kasumi. Having been told the address of the victim, the narrator quickly notified his collegues, who indeed discovered a body inside the appartment of the victim. With a confession of the murderer himself, the case seems all wrapped up, until the police realizes that the man, who was a mystery writer specializing in alibi tricks, couldn't be the murderer, as it was impossible for him to commit the murder, and then made it back in time near his own home get hit by the car and die. The concept of a deceased person who himself confessed to the murder still having a perfect alibi is fun on its own, but it's the decisive hint to the solution that impresses the most, as it is absolutely brilliant and incredibly cleverly hidden: it's this kind of hint I love being fooled by!  In hindsight, there's not just a "decisive" hint, but a lot of hints that point to the major realization you should make, but Ooyama's done an ace job at hiding the clews in plain sight, and this is definitely one of the hightlights of the collection.

Tokino is asked to find an alibi in Tokeiya Tantei to Ushinawareta Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Lost Alibi") rather than breaking one. Kawaya Toshiko was a private piano teacher, who was found beaten and strangled to death in her own apartment room. The main suspect is her younger sister, with whom she was having an argument about selling the parental home they had inherited together (where the younger sister is still living). She however reluctantly confesses to the police she has no alibi for the murder, saying she was probably not only asleep, but even sleepwalking during the time of the murder. The narrator does not believe the younger sister did it, so this time, Tokino has to come up with an alibi. While this is still about alibis, the search for an alibi, and in extension, the identity of the real murderer, is a welcome shift in style. This solution is a bit hard to swallow, though admittedly more than adequately hinted at (the question lies more in whether that really could've been pulled off). Once you make a guess who the murderer is based on the very limited cast though, it becomes very easy to guess what they did to create their alibi.

Tokeiya Tantei to Ojiisan no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of Grandfather") is a cute story in which Tokino tells about her grandfather and how he trained her in alibi cracking when she was young. One day, he had a challenge for her. The shop's closed on Tuesday, so he would go out that day, but he would come and stop a certain clock in the shop at a certain time (while Tokino was upstairs doing her homework). However, he would also submit evidence he was elsewhere. And that Tuesday, the clock was indeed stopped, yet Tokino's grandfather also had some photographs developed that proved he was at the clock wall in the neighboring town around the same time. Tokino's guesses are quickly elimated one by one, as the roll of film was proven to be definitely of that day (because they celebrated her grandfather's birthday the day before and photographs had been taken on the same roll, and on the clock photograph, he was wearing the handkerchief he was given as a present by Tokino herself). The solution is very different from the kind of solutions in the earlier stories, which is pretty smart: usually it might be easy to think of this particular solution, but this one is almost so simply you're likely to overlook this one due to the complexity of earlier stories!

Tokeiya Tantei to Sansou no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi in the Mountain Lodge") has the narrator hurrying back from a holiday to Mitani Clockmakers, as he wants Tokino to save a boy. The police detective was forced to use up his free days, so he had gone to a ski hostel in the mountains. There he became friends with a fellow guest, a boy in junior high who wanted to become a police detective himself. On the first night, another guest was murdered in the annex clock tower of the hostel, with footprints left in the snow proving that the victim had first gone to the clock tower, later followed by the murderer who returned to the hostel. The police detective himself had been a witness, together with the boy who was visiting him in his room, of how the victim had gone out to the clock tower late at night, but subsequent police investigation show that nobody could've followed the victim at the estimate time of the murder, save for the boy after he had left the room of the detective. What follows is a story is that is the most like the Queen-like stories of Ooyama, as the solution is based on the interpreation of the physical clues (the footprints). There's a nice reversal at play too, where after a certain realization is made, the matter of the alibis is turned completely around.

Tokeiya Tantei to Download no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi of the Download") is perhaps the most "modern" of stories I've read in a long time. The narrator is working on the murder of Tomioka Shinji, a wealthy man, who himself turns out to be a murderer, as a few months after his murder, a skeleton was found buried in his garden. The skeleton is identified as the body of Wada Yuuichirou, an employee of Tomioka who disappeared some years ago. He was suspected to have fled because of embezzlement, but the discovery of his body on Tomioka's premises means he was likely killed to take the blame for Tomioka's crimes. The suspicion of the murder of Tomioka therefore falls on the son of Wada. The murder happened a few months ago on the sixth of December, but Wada remembers he had a friend come over to his room that night to play videogames. The friend is not sure about the exact date, though he knows he was there early December. Eventually, Wada manages to present an alibi: he downloaded a new song by a famous artist, which was only distributed on the sixth of December. It was a limited event and his friend saw both the download screen on Wada's smartphone, and even listened to the song, so that seems to prove Wada's alibi for the sixth of December, but of course, Tokino manages to poke a hole in his story. I think this is the first time I read a story where downloading something becomes an alibi, and I had a lot of fun with it! It's such a normal action in this time and age, and yet it's not something you often see in mystery fictoin, and the way it's used here is perfectly believable. The concept behind how this alibi was set-up is a bit tricky, as it depends heavily on a certain person not doing a certain thing, which is really something you can't control, but I do really like the way it was set-up.

Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu therefore ends up as an excellent short story collection that really delves into the theme of cracking the perfect alibi. There's quite some variety to be found within these seven stories and while the standard is quite high overall, there are some stories that really stand out due to their unique clewing or concepts. Misshitsu Shuushuuka didn't get a sequel, but I hope at least we'll see more of Tokino and Mitani Clockmakers in the future!

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎 『アリバイ崩し承ります』:「時計屋探偵とストーカーのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と凶器のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と死者のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と失われたアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とお祖父さんのアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵と山荘のアリバイ」 / 「時計屋探偵とダウンロードのアリバイ」

No comments :

Post a Comment