Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Circle of Blood

take my revolution 
「輪舞 - Revolution」(奥井雅美)

Let's live on bravely and heroically...
Even if the two of us will be seperated...
take my revolution
"Rondo - Revolution" (Okui Masami)

I tried to delay writing this review a couple of times: I just have so little to say about it. I really dislike writing reviews about books I feel somewhat indifferent about. With books I don't like, I can at least point out what I don't like and make comparisons with better examples with similar ideas. With great indifference comes... a great distinct lack of writing hooks. At least in my case.

Getting in the special crimes division had been rookie detective Kominato Shinsuke's wish, so there was much joy when he was appointed there as the subordinate of the veteran Umikata Fusanari. At least, that was until he learned that Umikata was an extremely lazy detective and that Kominato was mainly appointed to him to keep an eye on his boss. So he cherished his free days when he was released from babysitting Umikata, but his day at the horse races turned into a normal working day nonetheless. The man standing behind Kominato in the crowd was stabbed, falling on top of him, making him the first person to "find" the victim. When Umikata arrives at the scene, the veteran quickly recognizes the murder as the handiwork of Tsutsumi, a local gangster he knows. While not a professional assassin, Tsutsumi has committed several murders for his gang and Umikata says there's no need for the police to look for him: the orders for these kind of men are not just to kill their target, but also to confess to the murder with some fake, private motive and do the time for them so the gang won't face any trouble from this. The news that Tsutsumi himself was killed right after the first murder therefore came as a surprise to Umikata, but they quickly figure out who Tsutsumi's murderer is. But then this person is killed too... What lies behind this chain of murders in Awasaka Tsumao's Shisha no Rinbu ("Rondo of the Dead", 1985)?

This is the first of Awasaka's two novels starring the duo of police inspectors Umikata and Kominato, which now I think about it is pretty interesting, as practically all the books I've read by Awasaka up until now featured amateur detectives (EDIT: Yeah, I read this book and wrote this review long before I read Youtou S79-Gou. I shuffled a lot with this review) Well, A Tomoichirou was technically a secret agent of the Tokugawa Shogunate so something like a police officer, but his descendant A Aiichirou is a photographer, and other books featured for example magicians as detectives, or an ex-boxer-turned-financial-detective... I was kinda surprised to see a normal police detective duo as the protagonists. But once you see the banter between Umikata and Kominato, you're quickly reminded that you are indeed reading an Awasaka novel, as the comedic tone is instantly recognizable. In this novel, most of the comedy is derived from the very lazy inspector Umikata and the way he uses his subordinate Kominato. Umikata is actually a fairly competent detective when he puts his mind to it, being capable to make sharp deductions based on the smallest of hints, but he usually prefers the easy way out of things, and would rather have things sort themselves out than having to interfere himself.

We are not presented with an impossible crime or something similar this time, but an enigmatic problem that is featured in both the title of the novel, as well as revealed quite early in the narrative: there is some kind of murder relay going on, with the murderers of one case turning into the victims of the next one. This theory is proposed by Umikata very early on, and most of the novel is therefore not really spent on figuring whodunnit, or even howdunnit, but finding out why this is happening, and how they can stop it. One gripe I have with this novel is that the device of a murder relay is made clear very early on in this book, but there's little extra added to the plot from that point on. Most of the book is seeing how the relay further unfolds with the police as mere onlookers after the fact, so for a very long time, it feels you're reading about events you already knew were coming. As a mystery novel, I think the idea is that the appeal comes from guessing how this relay will eventually end, and Awasaka does play with the conclusion of this game, but on the whole, I'd say Shisha no Rinbu is a better in idea than execution. Whereas his debut novel 11 Mai no Trump was a tour-de-force in clewing, Shisha no Rinbu's clewing is pragmatic at best, as it's boring and hastily done, without properly going through the process of foreshadowing ~ pay-off.

"Simply going through the motions" is not the right way to explain it, but Shisha no Rinbu's plot feels so...bare compared to other Awasaka's novels. The initial idea of the murder relay is definitely alluring, but then it just... happens and there is little there to turn the idea into a real experience. The comedy between Umikata and Kominato is okay, but never as fun as in the A Aiichirou series. The captivating insight into special fields of interests like stage magic or toys as seen in other novels isn't here either. The expect and subtle clewing and foreshadowing that made other novels a delight is nowhere to be seen here. There's just too little in addition to the first idea, and while I wouldn't say Shisha no Rinbu is a bad novel, I have read enough Awasaka by now to know he could do much, much better than here.

And because the overall plot is fairly light, there's little I can add to what I've already said by now. Shisha no Rinbu has a great starting point with a murder relay as the focus, but it does not try to go far beyond this initial idea, resulting in a novel that feels a bit barren. The conclusion too will not come as a total surprise, and yet you feel it could've been pulled off better if we had seen more of Awasaka's A game here. So a missed chance here.

Original Japanese title(s): 泡坂妻夫 『死者の輪舞』

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Game of Shadows

「今回の犯人は、常にフェアプレイを好むスポーツマンです。人を殺したという以外は、実に公明正大な人物です。 そして、アメリカ大リーグで活躍する、ある日本人野球選手と全く同じ名前で、顔もそっくりです。しかし、別人です。お間違えのないように」

"This episode's culprit is a sportsman who enjoys a fair game. Save for the fact he killed a man, he's actually a spendid, upright person. He shares his name with a certain Japanese baseball player who's active in the American Major League and he also looks exactly the same. But they are not the same person. Don't confuse them."
"Furuhata Ninzaburou: The Fair Murderer"

Earlier this week, the Japanese news reported heavily on the announcement by baseball player Suzuki Ichirou, better known as simply Ichiro, that he was retiring. The mass attention for this announcement was not surprising. I myself know nothing about baseball, but Ichiro is known as one of the most famous athletes of Japan ever, and is a popular sportsman in both the American Major League and his home country. But to mystery fans, he is perhaps better known as that one murderer.

For Ichiro once starred in an episode of the television drama Furuhata Ninzaburou. In fact, it was only through Furuhata Ninzaburou that I first heard of him and because it has been a while, I decided to pop the DVD in again last night. The inverted mystery show Furuhata Ninzaburou, conceived by playwright Mitani Kouki, ran for three seasons and one final special season between 1994-2006 and was heavily inspired by Columbo. The show starred the somewhat eccentric, peculiar and very petty Lieutenant Furuhata of the Tokyo police, assisted by his bumbling subordinate Imaizumi and later the capable, but close-minded Saionji as they tackled cases in which we, the viewer, already knew who committed the crime and how and where like in Columbo, the fun was in seeing how Furuhata was going to solve the case. One unique characteristic of the show was that Furuhata talked directly to the viewer twice: in the avant-title, he'd start with a random story or observation which usually turns out to have something to do with the main story, whereas in the latter half of the episode, he'd always challenge the viewer directly when he figured the whole thing out, asking the viewer whether they got the answer too.

Furuhata Ninzaburou Final was broadcast in 2006 and consisted of three long specials and in the second episode, The Fair Murderer, we are introduced to the famous baseball player Ichiro who plays in the MLB in the States. In the avant-title, Furuhata assures us by the way that the Ichiro in this episode just happens to share his name with a certain famous Japanese MLB player and who also just happens to look exactly like that other man. Ichiro is back in Japan for a charity event for children. On the day of his arrival, Furuhata and his subordinates Imaizumi and Saijonji visit the hotel where Ichiro is staying, to visit their old friend and former colleague Mukoujima. Mukoujima recently quit his job as a police constable to work at this hotel as a security guard. To their great surprise, they see Ichiro himself coming down to the guards' office to have a chat with Mukoujima whining about wanting to get out for a quick snack, and it's only afterwards that they learn that Ichiro is in fact Mukoujima's younger half-brother. What they do not learn however is that Mukoujima's been blackmailed for some time now by a sleazy reporter with the name Kooriyama, who has not only found out a minor slip-up Mukoujima made when he was a police officer, but the man also knows he's the brother of Ichiro. Fearing his own slip-up will ruin Ichiro's sports career, Mukoujima plans to kill Kooriyama, but realizing his older brother will never be able to pull such a scheme succesfully Ichiro decides to murder the man himself to save his brother. After the body of Kooriyama is discovered in the underground parking lot of the hotel, Furuhata quickly realizes he's dealing with a strange murderer this time, because the killer has left clues on purpose, as if they are hoping for a fair game with the police...

What makes this episode so memorable is of course that Ichiro is really just playing himself. Apparently, the character in this episode was originally planned to be called "Hachiro", but Ichiro himself proposed to use his real name, and it results in a very strange experience where reality and fiction is mixed. This had happened before in this series by the way, when the five members of the boy band SMAP played themselves in a story where SMAP killed a blackmailer during their concert. What's also surprising about the Ichiro episode however is that... Ichiro's actually pretty good at acting. I mean, I guess playing yourself helps, but he really didn't feel out of his league compared to the other professional actors in the episode.

The core mystery plot of the episode is a bit simple, though that has an in-universe explanation, as Ichiro only took over from his brother at the last moment, and most importantly, Ichiro is portrayed as a sportsman who enjoys the game. Throughout the episode, he states he likes to play fair and square, which is why he left one clue at the crime scene so the police'd have a chance at getting to him, and throughout the episode, he never lies to the police to protect himself. In fact, Furuhata soon realizes what is going on, and even suggests that if he were to ask Ichiro on the spot whether he was the murderer, he was sure Ichiro'd sooner admit to the fact honestly rather than lie. This idea of a 'fair-play' murderer who tries to get away while not coming up with elaborate alibi tricks and similar idas definitely helps the otherwise simple mystery plot, really changing it into a game of wits, as Furuhata himself is too proud too to get Ichiro in a simple manner, and wants the sportsman to admit defeat on his own. The way Ichiro is finally caught is incredibly common in inverted mystery fiction, so it's not really shocking, but there are a few scenes that are memorable from a mystery point of view, for example the unique way in which Ichiro decides to get rid of a damning piece of evidence (only possible because he's Ichiro) and the initial deduction of Furuhata which first set him on Ichiro's trail.

If you have the occasion to watch this episode of Furuhata Ninzaburou, I can definitely recommend it. It's incredibly fun to see Ichiro playing himself as a murderer, and while the core plot might seem a bit too familiar at times, the little things in the script that help cement the idea that it's really Ichiro who committed the murder do really help set this episode apart in a series which is already full with memorable murderers.

Original Japanese title(s): 『フェアな殺人者』

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Secret of the Old Clock

『Confused Memories』(円谷憂子)

Time to live, time to lie
Time to cry, time to die
"Confused Memories" (Tsuburaya Yuuko)

I have a tendency to read mystery series, I noticed lately. Of the writers I regularly read and review, I don't think there's even one where I'm solely reading non-series. I just enjoy having a framework and recurring characters, I think, as you kinda know what to expect when you read a certain series in terms of style of plotting etcetera.

(Disclosure: I translated Norizuki Rintarou's short story The Lure of the Green Door)

So while I have read quite a few of short story collections by Norizuki Rintarou, Shiramitsushi no Tokei (2008) is actually the first time I read a non-series book written by him, as all the other books I've read by Norizuki were part of his Norizuki Rintarou series, which is about the same-named mystery author who solves crimes with his father Inspector Norizuki in a totally Ellery Queen-inspired set-up. The ten stories collected in this volume however here are not part of any series, save for the last story, which is an early version of what would later be rewritten to a series novel. The ten stories were originally published between 1998 and 2008 in various magazines, and range from suspense thrillers and pastiches to not-really-mysteries.

To start with the conclusion: don't expect the pure puzzle plot mysteries like the ones we know and love from the Rintarou short story collections. The stories where Norizuki really shows off his love for Ellery Queen and for logical reasoning, for classic mystery tropes as the locked room mystery, the true whodunnit and other brilliant and surprising ideas, as well as engaging and funny short stories are to be found in those short story collections. Shiramitsubushi no Tokei features a variety of styles I myself hadn't seen Norizuki utilize before, and I know the reception of this volume is fairly good because there's variety in here, but save for the title story and maybe two or three other stories, few of them are what I would consider "typically" Norizuki. Which isn't a bad thing per se, but I certainly don't think this volume is indicative of Norizuki's plotting talent. It's, to borrow Monthy Python's words, something completely different. It's like only reading Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot short stories, and then reading Witness for the Prosecution for the first time. It's just different, and perhaps not what you attracted you to the author in the first place.

Shiyouchuu ("Occupied") is inspired by Stanley Ellin's short story The Moment of Decision, and features a locked room situation, though it is not a locked room mystery. I can't write too much about it, as the story is basically building up to a punchline, but it involves an arrogant writer, his rather hopeless editor and a vengeful waitress at the cafe where the writer and his editor are meeting. Again, it's not really a mystery story, just a playful story that plays with the notion/concept of what a locked room murder is.

Double Play is a story I had already read some years ago, as it was included in the lackluster anthology Futoumei na Satsujin. It deals with a murder exchange, with our protagonist having just about enough of his wife when another man pops up at the batting center, asking our protagonist whether he wouldn't want to kill his uncle for him, offering to kill the protagonist's wife instead. This is a suspense story that is admittedly well-written, but it's a shame it wasn't written as a true puzzler, as a bit more build-up to the ending (more clues/foreshadowing) would've made this story better in my opinion.

Shirouto Gei ("Amateur Skill") is a fairly short story where a man accidently kills his wife after a row about her spending a fortune on ventriloquism lessons and a dummy. This wasn't the first time the two had a loud fight though, so this fatal fight alarmed the neighbor. As the husband realizes the neighbor isn't really put at rest just by him saying everything is alright and refusing to let the neighbor to see his wife, he quickly hurries to hide his wife's body as he's sure the neighbor will call the police. As he tries to fool the two detectives though, it seems the dummy has other plans for him.... A surprisingly funny short, but again not much of a puzzler, more a story that builds to a punchline.

Nusumareta Tegami ("The Purloined Letter") is not a pastiche of Edgar Allan Poe's Dupin series, but of Jorge Luis Borges' Death and the Compass, starring the detective Erik Lönnrot. This story is set before Death and the Compass, and has Lönnrot trying to solve the puzzle how his nemesis Red Scharlach managed to steal an letter of indiscretion written by the wife of a general, to a man she had fallen in love with. The wife had taken lengths to protect her letter to the man, with her locking her letter inside a special box, which was locked by a padlock of her own. After receiving this package, her lover locked the box himself with his own padlock and sent the box (with two padlocks now) unopened back to the wife, who then unlocked her lock, and sent it back to her lover for him to finally open the box. Yet somehow Red Scharlach managed to get hold of the letter which was at all times protected by at least one lock. The solution is rather obvious though, especially with the opening quote, and it's actually the same idea as another story in this collection, only in another context.

In Memoriam and Neko no Junrei ("The Cat Pilgrimage") are both not mystery stories, but stories that feature curious and surprising settings. In Memoriam is a short short of just four pages, about a secret club of authors who, as a game, write obituaries for collegues who are still alive. Neko no Junrei is the almost fantasy-like tale about the "cat pilgrimage", a journey cats undertake when they reach a certain age to a cave near Mt. Fuji. Sometimes, the cats run away from home for a month or two to go on the pilgrimage, but sometimes, worried owners make use of guided cat pilgrimage tours to bring their own cat to their destination. The story is about a couple making up their mind whether they'll allow their cat to go or not.

Yonshoku Mondai ("The Four Color Problem") is a pastiche of Tsuzuki Michio's Taishoku Keiji ("The Retired Detective") series, of which I have read nothing, but it is apparently about a police detective who sometimes talks about some cases with his father, who is a retired policeman himself. This time, the son is working on the strange murder of an actress, who starred recently in the action superhero series Time Task Force ChronoRangers as Chrono Blue. Leaks of photographs secretly taken of her and the female co-star who played Chrono Pink undressing and using the shower have been going around, and while an assistant-director on the ChronoRangers team had to take the fall, it appears that was just a studio cover-up, and the actress suspected that one of the four male leads (who played Chrono Red, Chrono Green, Chrono Yellow and Chrono Black) was behind it all. It appears she had confronted the person she suspected, who then stabbed her in the stomach. However, the actress hadn't died immediately, and for some reason, she pulled the knife out of her body to carve an X in her arm, and she removed her watch and necklace too. But why? It's one of those dying message stories that depends on rather specific knowledge to make any sense, and while Norizuki tries to set-up the decisive clue, it still doesn't take away from the fact that you won't be able to solve this unless you happen to know about a certain piece of trivia.

Yuurei wo Yatotta Onna ("The Woman Who Hired A Ghost") is a pastiche of Tsuzuki Michio's Quart Gallon series, which in turn was a pastiche of Ed McBain's hardboiled mystery I'm Cannon - For Hire (credited as Curt Cannon). Gallon was once a private detective who nearly committed a double murder after finding his wife and his best friend in the same bed, and now he lives in the Bowery, deprived of his credentials. Which doesn't stop people from trying to hire him anyway. A woman hires Gallon to find out what's wrong with her husband. The husband has been lost in thought the last week, and even bought a gun 'for protection', even though nothing has happened in the artists' shop he runs. An okay hardboiled story, but the title gives the game away, I think.

Shiramitsubushi no Tokei ("Leave No Clock Unturned") is the title story and the masterpiece of this collection. "You" find yourself waking up in a small, round room completely encircled by a hall as part of a job interview for a leading think tank. There are no windows in these rooms and the temperature inside is completely computer-controlled. In the hallway, "you" find 1440 different running clocks, each indicating a different time down to the minute (12:00, 12:01, 12:02 etc.). "Your" assignment: figure out which of these 1440 clocks is indicating the correct time, within a time limit of six hours! This is a true puzzler, with a truly devilish conundrum, for how are you going to find out the correct time if there's a clock for every minute of the day, which are obviously all running as you're working on the problem, and you can't even look outside to guess what time it should be! Norizuki however shows a perfectly logical manner to find the correct clock among the 1440 clocks. Shiramitsubushi no Tokei does feel more like a logic puzzle or quiz rather than literature, I admit, but man, this is what you'd expect from a mystery writer who places so much emphasis on logical reasoning like Norizuki! 

Two Of Us has an interesting backstory: it was originally written for the Kyoto University Mystery Club's club anthology Souanoshiro, which is sold at the annual campus festival in November. I have actually seen the original version of this story myself in one of the old Souanoshiros while I was in Kyoto. The story does feature Norizuki's characters Rintarou and his father Inspector Norizuki, though the spelling of Rintarou's name is different, as Norizuki Rintarou changed the spelling of his name when he became a professional author (if you go through the old Mystery Club magazines, you'll only find the old spelling). Two of Us was eventually rewritten to a full novel in the Rintarou series titled Ni no Higeki. Neither the novel, nor this original short story version would count towards my favorite Norizuki's to be honest, as the emphasis in this novel lies far more on the human relations than the deductions of Rintarou. In fact, for the true logic puzzlers you're off much better with the Rintarou short stories, as save for some early entries, the novels never really manage to be as awesome as the short stories in terms of pure puzzle plots.

So personally, I can't say Shiramitsushi no Tokei was my favorite Norizuki short story collection, with a very simple reason: all the awesome puzzle plot short stories we saw in the Rintarou short story collections weren't to be found here. If you are not as puzzle-plot focused as I am, you might enjoy the sheer variety of this collection, and at any rate, the title story Shiramitsubushi no Tokei is really a masterpiece, but in general, I'd say try out Norizuki's other short story collections before coming here.

Original Japanese title(s): 法月綸太郎 『しらみつぶしの時計』:「使用中」/「ダブル・プレイ」/「素人芸」/「盗まれた手紙」/「イン・メモリアム」/「猫の巡礼」/「四色問題」/「幽霊をやとった女」/「しらみつぶしの時計」/「トゥ・オブ・アス」

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Model Crime

"But you see, you didn't look like you were the boss here."
"I'm often told that."
"The Last Volume"

I don't remember when I first heard of mystery author Ookura Takahiro, but I know quite a few years passed between me first learning of him, and me actually getting to know something written by him.  Surprisingly through, my first experience with Ookura was through Detective Conan. Ookura was the scriptwriter for the 2017 Detective Conan theatrical feature The Crimson Love Letter, but in the lead-up to the release of the film, he also wrote the screenplay for episode 829, The Mysterious Boy, of the animated TV series, which was the first time I had seen anything created by Ookura. The Crimson Love Letter was an excellent mystery film (and the novel version written by Ookura was also okay), so I grew very interested in seeing more of Ookura's work, and what better way to start than with one of his more famous creations? And yes, I know he's also working on the 2019 Detective Conan: The Fist of the Blue Sapphire, but the trailer didn't really manage to hit the right places for me quite yet.

Fukuie is a small woman with short, black hair and a pair of frame-less glasses who is often mistaken for a college student, but she is in fact a lieutenant of the Metropolitan Police Department, in charge of homicide investigations. Despite her unassuming appearance and sometimes even careless habits (she often forgets her police badge), criminals are warned not to underestimate this woman, as she has a keen eye for details, and no matter how crafty a plan might be, you count on in it that Lieutenant Fukuie will not only figure everything out, she'll also be sure to come up with some way to actually arrest the criminal with proof. Whether you're a librarian trying to save the library from being sold off or an actress killing off her blackmailing rival, Lieutenant Fukuie will always find the weak spots in the criminal's plan and bring everything tumbling down in Ookura Takahiro's short story collection Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu ("The Greetings of Lieutenant Fukuie", 2006), which also carries the alternative English title of Enter Lieutenant Fukuie.

The Lieutenant Fukuie series is one of Ookura's best known series, especially as it has also seen TV adaptations. Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu is the first book in the still-running inverted detective series. As in the tradition of all great inverted mystery fiction, each story is told from the perspective of the culprit, who carries out their murderous plan. At first, their plans seem foolproof, but then the lieutenant appears, and starts picking out small contradictions left here and there. It might seem Lieutenant Fukuie is just guessing, but by the time the culprit realizes how crafty Fukuie really is, it's already too late and for the reader, the fun of the mystery lies in not guessing whodunit, but how Fukuie is going to figure out what really happened. The Lieutenant Fukuie series is obviously heavily inspired by Columbo, though something interesting has to be mentioned here. Ookura has penned several official novelizations of Columbo in the past and while Ookura was credited as "translator" for these novelizations, he was the person who actually wrote these novels (the prose) especially for the Japanese market. These novelizations were based on the original screenplays of existing episodes, or plot outlines for unfilmed stories, which Ookura then had to expand into a novel-form. For these books, people like Columbo creators Levinson & Link, or other screenplay writers were credited for the "original work", though technically, they didn't write the specific novel form of these stories, which were entirely Ookura's invention and don't exist outside Japan. In a way, it's no wonder Ookura would later write his own inverted mystery stories about a police lieutenant.

By the way, the animation sequence accompanying the fiftieth ending song of Detective Conan (La PomPon's cover of Zard's Unmei no Roulette Mawashite) has the regular cast dressed as characters from several famous police and detective TV dramas, and Ran is featured as Lieutenant Fukuie, looking in her bag for her police badge as always.

One thing I find difficult about writing about inverted mystery stories is figuring out how much I should write about the plot actually, as in most inverted stories, a lot is already revealed to the reader. In fact, the fun in these stories often lies in the fact that although the reader knows more about the facts of the case than the Lieutenant, she'll usually still out-think you. In order not to spoil too much, I'll keep my summaries for the four stories rather short. The volume opens with Saigo no Issatsu ("The Last Volume"), which stars Amamiya Sachiko, head librarian of the Enamito Library. Enamito Kousuke was during his life a true connoisseur of books and when he retired, he had his secretary Sachiko become head of his own library, but after his death, the library became the property of his son Hirohisa, a no-good bum who is keen on selling off everything as soon as he can to get some money. Sachiko plans to kill Hirohisa in order to save the library, and she dresses the scene so it looks like Hirohisa had snuck into the library himself in order to steal some rare books to sell. This first story is a not particularly baffling, but still entertaining mystery, with a few different points that attract the Lieutenant's attention which a careful reader will also notice. Some of these contradictions are presented quite open (fact A and fact B don't mesh), but some also require the reader to make another, logical assumption (if both fact A and fact B are true, that must mean fact C), and this also keeps the reader on their toes in this fairly short opening story.

In Occam no Kamisori ("Occam's Razor"), Lieuteant Fukuie is investigating the murder on associate professor Ikeuchi, who was seemingly killed by the same robber who has been roaming the neighborhood lately. The questions Fukuie has about the murder however lead her to Yanagida Yoshifumi, a university teacher who used to teach scientific investigation at the police academy, and who has actually taught Fukuie herself in her rookie days. What makes this story interesting is not only the fact we have an expert in crime investigation who commited the murder, the story is also written in a way so not everything about Yanagida's plan is explained right from the beginning, leaving also a few things for the reader to find out as they read on .For example, Yanagida steals a pack of cigarettes from the victim in their first scene, before the murder occurs, but the implication of that isn't explained until later. 

Aijou no Scenario ("A Scenario of Love") is about the actress Ogino Mariko, who's being blackmailed by her rival actress Kakinuma Emi to give up on a certain audition. Mariko kills Emi by feeding her sleeping pills, and then leaving Emi's car running in the garage so she'd suffocate. That way it'd seem Emi had simply taken her usual sleeping draught without switching her car off. A receipt of the things Emi bought at the convenience store gives Fukuie more than enough leeway to suspect this isn't just an accident. While the true motive of the murderer isn't really well-hinted at, I'd say that as a mystery, this short story works reasonably well with more than enough well-clewed parts that explain why Fukuie would start having her doubts about the whole case.

In the final story Tsuki no Shizuku ("Moon Tear"), Tanimoto Kichirou, owner of the Tanimoto Sake Brewery, kills his rival Satou of the Satou Brewery. The two had very different approaches when it came to sake: the Satou Brewery was producing in masses, but connoisseurs couldn't stand their awful sake, while the Tanimoto Sake Brewery did everything the old-fashioned way to maintain quality, but they could hardly produce enough to keep the company floating. Satou was trying to kill off Tanimoto Sake Brewery once and for all by adopting a cost leader strategy, which Tanimoto couldn't survive for long, so Tanimoto Kichirou killed Satou, making it seem like Satou had snuck into the Tanimoto Sake Brewery to spy on their sake and had fallen into one of the empty sake tanks. The decisive hint that shows Tanimoto killed Satou is quite brilliantly hidden within the text, and perfectly fitting for the story. Looking at this core mystery plot, I think this one is the best plotted one, with a really interesting situation for the reader to solve even though they should know more than Fukuie.

By the way, it's interesting how Lieutenant Fukuie is quite the nondescript character most of the time. While the spotlight's supposed to be on the culprit in Columbo, Columbo actually always has a presence on screen whenever he's in the scene. That doesn't really work with novels though. Mitani Kouki's novelization of his own Furuhata Ninzaburou series (also inspired by Columbo) shows this difference very well: while on the television screen, Furuhata has countless of quirky traits and commandeers every scene he's in, he's actually almost a traitless figure in the novel version, who appears only to put the pressure on the culprit. By putting as little emphasis on the detective character, the focus shifts almost completely to the psychology of the culprit and to how they view the detective. This is also more or less what happens in the Lieutenant Fukuie series, where Fukuie seldom becomes more than the woman with short black hair and frameless glasses who has an eerie smile on her face as she talks with the suspects.

Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu is on the whole a capable mystery story collection that really manages to scratch that itch for Columbo-esque inverted mystery stories. There's also surprising variety in these stories, so I am quite curious to see what other adventures Fukuie has in the following volumes and I'm sure I'll be seeing more of her soon here.

Original Japanese title(s): 大倉崇裕 『福家警部補の挨拶』:「最後の一冊」/「オッカムの剃刀」/「愛情のシナリオ」/「月の雫」

Friday, March 8, 2019

Sisters in Crime


"In the name of my grandfather, who they called a great detective in "that ancient past" of yours."
"The Case Files of the 37-year Old Kindaichi"

Man, I really miss the old days when new Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen volumes would be released every three months like clockwork: with the earlier hiatuses in Conan's serialization and Hajime doings his cases on a biweekly format now, releases for both series have been incredibly slow and irregular these last two years.

The new series starring detective manga icon Kindaichi Hajime started last year, with the teenage detective now a 37-year old man, and his adventures serialized in the biweekly magazine Evening (instead of the weekly Shounen Magazine), aimed at a slightly older audience. The Tower Block Madam Murder Case is the story that takes up all of the third volume of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), and a bit more to be exact: you'll find the first chapter of this story in the previous volume and it also appears an 'aftermath' concluding chapter will follow in the fourth volume, but the main murder plot plays out within the pages of this volume, so I thought I might as well write a review now, instead of waiting until June. Kindaichi Hajime, 37 years old, takes a day off from his mind-numbing work at Otowa Black PR to help his neighbor Momoka (to be exact: his attractive neighbor who is also a single mother). Momoka runs a small catering service and she desperately needs an extra pair of hands to help out at a small party organized by Misaki, who in the past has helped Momoka out by introducing her to some good clients. Misaki's party is a small informal gathering with food and karaoke for her neighbors who all live in the same luxurious high rise residential complex. While ostentatiously, these women get along well as good neighbors, there's a certain 'caste' system in this mini eco-system with the women who live in the more expensive apartments on the top floors standing at the top of the hierarchy, and it's Misaki who rules from the very tip of the pyramid. Three women of the lower floors have more than enough of Misaki's passive-aggresive ordering around, flaunting with her money and other actons with which she asserts her superiority over them, and the trio decides to kill Misaki. The plan is to murder Misaki during the party and make it seem she committed suicide herself by jumping from her apartment up on the 38th floor. Props for their plan include a fake SNS message sent from Misaki's smartphone to her "friends" just before she "jumps" (is thrown from the building) and an elaborate scheme to create an alibi for the three conspirators during the party. Of course, these three couldn't have known that that middle-aged waiter at their party used to be feared as a brilliant teenage detective...

The first story in this series, The Utashima Resort Murder Case, was in essence a more than familiar sight for readers who have been following Hajime since his younger detecting days. A series of murders on a remote island (Utashima, no less!), semi-impossible settings due to perfect alibis for everyone, etc. The story managed to add in some great comedy in the moments when things didn't exactly go like in in Hajime's teenager days, but overall, the story was what you'd expect from the series, even if it takes places twenty years in Hajime's future (note that the story doesn't actually take place in the future: the stories in all the Kindaichi Shounen series take place kinda around the time of original publication). In that sense, I'd say The Tower Block Madam Murder Case has something more original to offer to the reader, even if the core mystery plot is a bit simple. The whole case takes places in a high class apartment complex, with camera surveillance in the elevators, special high-speed elevators for the top floors, German-made keycards that open the doors to the private apartments, and most importantly, a story that revolves around the grudge and jealousy women can harbor and a close look at the mini eco-system of the inhabitants of an apartment complex. Quite different from the usual faraway isolated crime scene Hajime used to visit and it actually kinda reminds of the novel Shiro to Kuro, an adventure of Hajime's grandfather Kindaichi Kousuke, which was also set in a very different setting from what you'd usually expect from his adventures.

Another point of interest is the fact that this is an inverted mystery story. Inverted stories are not incredibly rare in the various Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, but this format was usually reserved for the short stories. I think this is the first time we've seen an inverted long story in this series: most of the scheme of the three murderers is revealed to the reader long before Hajime even starts suspecting something is going on. You have an advantage over Hajime as the reader, so part of the fun now is also figuring out how Hajime's going to figure things out.

The core mystery plot however is rather simple: many of the hints that give the game away to Hajime will also seem obvious to the reader, especially as they have an inherent advantage over him, being shown both sides of the crime. Most of the hints that help Hajime figure out it was not a suicide, but a murder are easy to pick up and not particularly original, not even only seen from the context of this series. There is another aspect to the crime, that is bordering to an impossible situation: we know the murderers somehow schemed to make it seem Misaki had gone to her apartment on the 38th floor before the party, but the conspirators are never seen on the security cameras going up to the 38th floor, nor going back down to the party, so how did they pull this off? Part of how this is done is told to the reader directly through the inverted format. The way this side of the crime is solved by Hajime doesn't work quite well in comic format and had this been a normal detective story, this wouldn't be really fair, but in this case, the reader had absolute knowledge a priori anyway. The part to the elevator trick that isn't explained explicitly has to be solved by both Hajime and the reader themselves, but I can't imagine it would a very large obstacle: the hinting is almost too good, so it won't be difficult to figure out how it was done.

So the overall story is rather simple, though I have to say I did have fun with it. Like most of the inverted stories in this series, The Tower Block Madam Murder Case has a rather humoristic undertone: with Hajime constantly pointing out strange points to the "suicide", the three women who committed the murder try to come up with all kinds of excuses and other plans to make sure the police will let things slide swiftly, and this results in some funny, panic-stricken actions, like the scenes you see in the spin-off series Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Gaiden - Hannintachi no Jikenbo (which retells the old stories from the POV of the criminals as a parody series) The fact the murderers are still actively working on their plan as Hajime's trying to solve the crime, also adds an extra sense of thrill. Hajime's subordinate Hayama, who's helping out with the catering service too, serves as this series' Miyuki for the moment and delivers some light touches, while we also have a familiar face acting as Hajime's new connection in the Metropolitan Police Department (as his usual ally, Inspector Kenmochi, is already retired of course).

So Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo 3 is by no means an exceptional volume, but both the tone and setting serve as a nice change from the usual menu for this series, and it works as a simple, but entertaining enough mystery story. The next volume is scheduled for a June release, but I suspect it will not contain a complete story, so I will probably wait with my review until the whole story is released (which will probably be nearer the end of the year). 

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第3巻

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Appointment with Death

Ave, Imperator, morituri te salutant
De Vita Caesarum  

"Hail, Emperor, those who are about to die salute you."
"The Life of the Caesars"

I love the cover art of this book!

Jarimistan is a small nation in the Middle-East which only a few decades ago shifted its focus from oil to a new foundation of the national economy. The Jarimistan Terminal Prison is a unique facility, as it houses those who have been sentenced to death from not only Jarimistan, but all over the world. Nations can transfer their condemned to Jarimistan for a fee, so they don't have to maintain a death row themselves. The thousands of inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are offered relative freedom: their only obligations are an 8-hour daily activity (with some salary) and classes to learn the Jarimistan language, after which they are free to themselves. (Light) alcohol and cigarettes can be bought, internet can be freely used and even a midnight stroll across the square is allowed. However, death for any of these inmates can come at any time, as the Sheikh of Jarimistan decides on a whim when the death sentence will be executed, only four days before the fateful day. With people of so many nationalities thrown together under such special circumstances, it's no wonder that the Jarimistan Terminal Prison has become a society of its own. One of the new arrivals is Alan Ishida, an American who was sentenced to death for murdering his parents and attempting to burn them together in their house. He is soon taken under the wing of Old Schultz, who is not only the oldest inmate, but also the person who has lived longest within the confines of the prison walls. In the many years he spent here, this head inmate of Prison Wing 2 had gained a reputation as a keen-minded problem solver, who has even earned the respect of the guards and management of the prison. And though they are destined for execution, it seems there's definitely a need for the presence of Old Schultz and Alan in the prison, as strange happenings do occur inside the four walls as depicted in Torikai Hiu's interlinked short story collection Shi to Sunadokei ("Death and the Hourglass", 2015), from an impossible double murder inside a cell block with guards inside, to the legend of the one man who managed to escape the inescapable prison.

My first review of this year was of Torikai Hiu's Gekisou Fukuoka Kokusai Marathon - 42.195 Kilo no Nazo, which I only picked because it was set in the city of Fukuoka. I had never even heard of Torikai before, but the novel was a nice surprise, as it was a very entertaining sports novel with a solid mystery basis. I decided to see what else Torikai had written, and my attention was immediately drawn to today's Shi to Sunadokei. Impossible situations and other mysteries to be solved inside a prison setting, and a special prison too, with only death row inmates and from various countries? I had read mysteries set in prisons before, like Ellery Queen's The Tragedy of Z, and the Kindaichi Shounen story Gokumonjuku Satsujin Jiken, which was set in a cram school that was originally a prison. With rules that govern the inmates inside and guards everywhere, a prison is a very alluring setting for a mystery story, so I knew I had to make this my next Torikai.

Maou Shafo Dolmayan no Himitsu ("The Secret of the Magic King Shafo Dolmayan") starts with the farewell speech of Shafo Dolmayan, a refugee from Central-Asia who had roamed Europe as a magician and freak show, but who was sentenced to death after a mishap in an oil state. He is scheduled to be executed tomorrow, as is a Japanese soldier-of-fortune, but the next day, Old Schultz and Alan are informed that both Shafo and the soldier-of-fortune were killed that night. The event raises many questions: How did the murderer enter the special death row cell block as there was a guard standing outside all night? Where did the murder weapon go? Why was the soldier-of-fortune killed with a clean cut, but Shafo horribly stabbed countless of times across his body and limbs? And most importantly, why kill two people who were scheduled to be executed anyway? A very fun opening story. Some of the hinting is a bit too obvious, so it shouldn't prove too much trouble to deduce where the murder weapon went and as a result, how the murders were committed, but this is a very well plotted story, with several hypotheses posed throughout the story, which keeps the reader on their toes and the motive of why these murders were committed in the first place is really well done, with surprisingly good hinting and set-up ( and there's even a very good fake solution in regards to the motive).

In Eiyuu Chen Weizi no Shissou ("The Disappearance of the Hero Chen Weizi"), Old Schultz and Alan are given three days to solve the disappearance of Chen Weizi, the one man who managed to escape from Jarimistan Terminal Prison. Chen was a Chinese surgeon whose liberal thoughts and support to rebels eventually earned him a death sentence. As a doctor, he was already a very popular man among his fellow Chinese inmates, but his escape from the prison several months earlier made him a hero among all prisoners. Inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are under observation through two systems: besides the watchful eyes of the guards, inmates also have a microchip implanted in them, which gives them a horrible electric shock should they ever enter places they shouldn't be. Nobody knows where this implant is as the patients are always under the influence of anesthetics during the operation, so removal is impossible. Chen Weizi however had somehow overcome these two hurdles, and what's more, he managed to escape on a bright night with a full moon and strangled the strongest and most fearsome guardsman in the whole prison on his way out. There's been no sign of Chen since his escape, but political pressure from China (where most of the inmates of Jarimistan Terminal Prison come from) has the Sheikh of Jarimistan desperate to find out what happened to Chen as soon as possible. This is the best story of the collection, as Chen's escape really seems impossible considering all the security measures going on. Of the two obstacles in Chen's way, one is relatively easy to guess how it was beaten, but the other is really brilliantly done, with a wonderful explanation for why Chen chose that particular night to escape and that guardsman as his victim. The conclusion is quite cynical too, fitting perfectly with the whole collection.

The inmates of the Jarimistan Terminal Prison are treated relatively well, but even so, some guards occasionally forget they are in fact working with humans and abuse their position. The Jarimistan Terminal Prison is therefore subject to an annual inspection, where the inmates can talk directly with the visiting inspector to talk about their living conditions here. Kansatsukan Gemaya Kaled no Toukai ("The Self-Effacement of Supervisor Gemaya Kaled") introduces us to Gemaya Kaled, the veteran supervisor who has been doing this job with pride and joy for many decades and who will retire immediately after his inspection this year has finished. During his inspection of Wing 2, Adamson, an American inmate, tells Kaled about Mubarac, a guard in Wing 1 who not only abuses the prisoners there, but even rapes them. Adamson had originally been in Wing 1 himself, until he bribed himself to Wing 2. Kaled promises to look into this, but he is murdered that night in his office. Schultz and Alan are also asked to think along, though the case seems clear as day: Mubarac's fingerprints were found on the knife that had been stabbed into Kaled several times, a witness had heard Mubarac enter the office and have a row with Kaled and another witness saw Mubarac leave some minutes later, after which Kaled's body was found. And yet Schultz has his doubts about what happened, and for good reasons too. As a mystery, this story is very easy to solve, as some of the wording used makes it very clear what must have happened, but I did like the clue Schultz points out that supports this solution: this supporting clue is easy to miss, but makes so much sense in hindsight.

Hakamori Lagba Garpo no Homare ("The Honor of Gravedigger Lagba Garpo") starts with Marco, an Italian inmate who's friends with Alan and Schultz, telling how he heard that the gravedigegr Lagba Garpo was seen eating a corpse he had dug up. Lagba is a Tibetan who despite his many years here has not learned the common language Jarimistanese, making it impossible for anybody to communicate with him. While most people would hate to be digging graves for their fellow inmates each and every day, Lagba does this daily task faithfully and few others would be so good for the job. Marco, Schultz and Alan check out the graveyard, and indeed find a freshly dug-up grave, and inside they see that the arms of the body inside have been cut off. Schultz warns the other two to keep silent about this, but this becomes impossible when Lagba is discovered right as he's busy mutilating another body. Sotojor was an immensely popular inmate, so many were shocked to hear Lagba was using his shovel to cut Sotojor's arms off and cut open his chest. Schultz does not believe Lagba was trying to eat Sotojor, but what were Lagba's intentions then? I like how one clue is used as the foundation of a fake solution, but given a completely other, and far more original interpretation in the true solution, but it is a bit hard to guess what Lagba's true motive is if you don't have knowledge about a certain custom. If you do know it, you might be able to guess what's going on here, but it is a lot harder without that knowledge (as it's hardly hinted at), though I have to say this is a thematically very strong story.

Joshuu Maria Scofield no Kaitai ("The Immaculate Conception of the Female Prisoner Maria Scofield") is the shortest story in the collection, and has Layla, the female doctor of the women's quarters visit Dr. Haji of the men's quarters, as well as Schultz and Alan. Maria Scofield is a woman who has lived in the Jarimistan Terminal Prison for over thirteen months now, but for some reason she's become pregnant. No men (guard or prisoner) are allowed in the female quarters and Maria even claims she's a virgin and never ever had relations with a man before, so how did this impossibility occur? This story is perhaps at its best when Alan is proposing all kinds of realistically sounding hypotheses of how Maria could've become pregnant now which are shot down by Layla one by one but after the first half, the story changes when Alan is brought to the women's quarters to have a talk with Maria herself. The story reveals itself to be something quite different than seems at first sight. Is it really still a mystery story? Yes, I guess, as in hindsight, there's a really cleverly formulated sentence at the start of the story, but both the length and the type of story make this the least interesting of the whole collection.

About two years have passed since Alan Ishida was transferred to the Jarimistan Terminal Prison, but now his time has come in Kakuteishuu Alan Ishida no Shinjitsu ("The Truth of Death-Row Inmate Alan Ishida"). With only four days left in his life, Alan Ishida decides to tell Schultz about the crime that brought him here. He was sentenced to death after killing his parents and attempting to set their house on fire, but Alan says while he did kill his (step) father in a rage, it was his father who killed his mother. As Alan tells Schultz about his past however, he realizes something about these events he had never done before, and with the deductive skills cultivated in his time spent with Schultz, he decides to reveal his conclusions at his farewell speech. The realization of Alan is rather easy to guess considering all the previous stories, but one has to admit this was really well set-up. One important clue is only mentioned in this story, but that only becomes meaningful when you realize you have to combine it with various minor, almost insignificant events that occured over the course of all the previous stories. This 'bringing the whole thing together' moment is quite fun and while the conclusion takes on a different tone from the rest of the puzzle plot mystery book, the cynical twist at the very end is one that really fits this collection well.

Shi to Sunadokei is thus a very entertaining short story collection that not only offers a very unique setting, it uses that setting to bring very alluring mystery plots. The prison is mostly used for impossible situations, but there's not only the expected impossible murder or impossible prison break, but even an impossible pregnancy, and the other stories leave an impression especially because they are set in this death row prison. I for one have no doubt this short story collection will turn out to be one of my favorite reads of this year.

Original Japanese title(s): 鳥飼否宇 『死と砂時計』: 「魔王シャヴォ・ドルマヤンの密室」 / 「英雄チェン・ウェイツの失踪」/ 「監察官ジェマイヤ・カーレッドの韜晦」/ 「墓守ラクパ・ギャルポの誉れ」/ 「女囚マリア・スコフィールドの懐胎」 /  「確定囚アラン・イシダの真実」