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.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

What the Hex Going On?


"Call upon the Witch of Selgrave"
"The Witch of Selgrave"

I don't have a particular preference for Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy, but I have played a lot more Dragon Quests than Final Fantasies. The only Final Fantasy I have played is VII on the original PSX (and that was actually quite recently, like two or three years ago). But yeah, in my mind, the "traditional console RPG" will always be Dragon Quest, not Final Fantasy.

Like always, college student Toshiaki was walking his dog in the morning, but when they arrived in the local park, master and pet came across an anomaly in their routine. The discovery Toshiaki made in the bushes of the park shocked him greatly in two ways. First of all, anyone would be traumatized by the sight of a murdered girl only five or six years old, left behind the park. But what perhaps disturbed Toshiaki even more was the note pinned to the little girl's back, which held the message: "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." To most people, this message would be nonsense, but not to Toshiaki and the rest of his old classmates. Nine years ago, when he was still a student of the Tsubamegaoka Elementary School, one of his classmates disappeared. Nobody knew what had hapened to Hosoya Tomoki, whether he had been kidnapped or had run away from home on his own, or even if he were alive or dead. At the time, a note was found in his room which too said "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." The line came from the RPG Dark Redemption, a popular videogame at the time where one of the final quests involves the hero being told to visit the Witch of Selgrave, who in the game world, is known to kidnap children. While at first the note was thought to be related to Tomiki's disappearance, it was eventually assumed it was just a memo written while Tomiki was playing the game, as a reminder as how to proceed. But now nine years later, this message has resurfaced again, but why? The answer lies in Takase Mie's horror mystery novel Selgrave no Majo ("The Witch of Selgrave", 2009).

A few years ago, I reviewed Gyakuten Idol and Gyakuten Kuukou, which were both original children's mystery novels featuring the characters of the excellent mystery videogame series Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney. The books, published in a children's label, were obviously written for a relatively young audience, but they were also really good mystery novels. They may have been a tad simple, but the plotting and clewing were done by someone who knew exactly what they were doing and I have read enough mystery novels aimed at "adults" that aren't even remotely as neatly plotted as these two novels. I was thus very curious to read more mystery novels by the author. The author, Takase Mie, has a long resume featuring both videogame novelizations and original novels based on existing popular videogame franchises, including Kirby, Persona, Growlanser, Style Savvy and Fire Emblem. The list of her own, original novels was quite a bit shorter though, and most of them were fantasy or horror novels. Selgrave no Majo however caught my attention as it was billed a horror mystery novel, rather than pure horror, and the videogame theme of course also interested me.

Still, most of the time, you'll be reading Selgrave no Majo as a horror novel, and a fairly entertaining one too. The narrative jumps between various characters, from Toshiaki and some other of his classmates from Tsumabegaoka Elementary School, to characters like Tomiki's mother and Tomiki's aunt Reiko and a few others too. Each of these vignettes will give you insight in the thoughts of the respective characters, as they learn about the new murders of the young girls (yes, more follow) and unveil their ties to the disappeared Tomiki and several of them will also try to figure out who the murderer is and how all these events tie back to "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave." The way the focus of suspicion keeps shifting is quite exciting, and the horror lies not only in the horrible murders of the girls, but especially in the hidden, sad past of all these victims (it's not monster horror, this is 'god why are humans such monsters' horror). Don't expect to be doing much detecting yourself though, as a lot of information is only conveyed to the reader as the characters make their own guesses (giving the reader little room to come up with ideas themselves), and most of the time, it's more like instinct/guesses ("He looks so suspicious!") than real deductions, but of course, that's how things go when you have a serial murderer prowling around a small, residential area, with all the people living there pointing fingers at each other behind their back.

Dark Redemption, the game referred to in the novel is of course not a real videogame, but think of traditional fantasy RPGs with heroes, witches, dragons like Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy and you're close. I was surprised how well Takase had fleshed out the story of Dark Redemption though. Of course, Dark Redemption plays a big role in the story, and the line "Call upon the Witch of Selgrave" left on all the victims is a deliciously alluring line, but if there was a real Dark Redemption, I'd really want to play it for the story.

I was a bit disappointed Selgrave no Majo wasn't a pure puzzle plot mystery like the Ace Attorney novels by Takase I read, but that said, eventually, the novel does show why it's touted a horror mystery novel, and not just a horror novel. Again, most of the revelations will unfold 'automatically', with little space for the reader to really figure things out for themselves, but all the way at the end, there's a segment that's completely fairly clewed, and quite neatly so too. The true fate of Tomoki can be deduced on your own, and while it's no locked room/alibi trick/grand whodunnit or any classic mystery set-up, Selgrave no Majo does show how Takase knows how to properly spread hints and clues across a narrative and build up to her conclusion.

Selgrave no Majo is most of the time more a horror novel than a mystery novel, and somewhat of a departure of what I normally review on the blog, but I quite enjoyed it in the end. It's really different from the other novels by Takase I have read, but that's not a bad thing. The novel has a rather dark mood, but Takase makes good use of it to create a novel that addresses several themes that are quite contemporary and grounded in real Japanese society, and while at times the novel does sound a bit stereotypical in regards to its themes, I think it ultimately works as horror novel that also has a fairly-clewed mystery element to it. I think people who like Higashino Keigo will like this novel too considering its human angle.

Original Japanese title(s):『セルグレイブの魔女』

Thursday, May 16, 2019

The Ozark Witch Switch

"A false tongue will never make a guilty person."
Susannah Martin (From the Rev. Parris account of the examination at Salem Village Meeting House.)

Funny how Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou never got an anime adaptation actually, while it did have a live-action adaptation.

When I asked for recommendations for Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series earlier, I was pointed to a storyline that starts in volume 10. The mysteries the young teenage prodigy Touma Sou and his impulsive athletic friend Mizuhara Kana usually encounter in Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou only span one single chapter, but In The Hands of the Witch was the first time a story spanned two chapters, and it even had a seperate story that acted as its conclusion in volume 12. I was quite interested to see what Katou could with the series when using a different format for his stories for a change so I decided to read these two volumes. Volume 10 (2001) opens at Kana's home, where Kana is entertaining Touma Yuu.Yuu had traveled all the way from the United States (where she lives) to visit her big brother only to learn that he's not at home, so she decided to hang out with Kana for the moment as she knows nobody else in the vicinity. Yuu has brought a postcard that was addressed to Sou in the United States. The postcard is not signed, and shows three children dressed for Halloween, with the message "See you again in the next winter." The children stand in front of what appears to the Witch House in Salem, and Yuu explains to Kana about the Witch Trials in Salem and how the town's relatively close to MIT in Cambridge, where her brother studied some years ago. She then remembers a case her brother was involved with five years ago that had to do with "witch trials", when a young Touma Sou had just started his studies at MIT at the tender age of 10.

Touma had a part-time job inputting data for the district attorney's office back then, which is where he also met Annie Crainer, a young prodigy district attorney and daughter of Daniel Crainer, a prominent figure in the legal world. The first case of the rising star of the Massachusetts District Attorney's Office was the murder on Marcus Osborne. Marcus was a wealthy man who in secret, was also the mastermind behind the arms smuggling in the region, even if the police couldn't find proof of his involvement. One night, cops on their beat heard a loud gunshot near the Osborne house and inside they found the man with a bullet hole right through his right eye. The only other person in the house was his young wife Sarah. The Osborne house stands at the end of a cliff, and the road was immediately closed, and the woods searched, but nobody was found, meaning that the only two persons present on the cliff at the time of the murder were the victim, and his wife Sarah. The fact that Sarah's twenty-two years younger than her husband and that she joined a shady sect called the Path to Arcadia a year earlier to which she donated a lot, raises suspicion with Annie, who soon decides to prosecute Sarah for the murder on her husband for financial gain. As the trial continues however, the defense attorney manages to take down each and every argument Annie can bring forward. Whats more, Annie becomes the target of public outcry, as she is accused of conducting a witch trial, persecuting Sarah only because she married an older husband and trying to get her convicted on flimsy evidence. Meanwhile Touma too is having doubts about himself, as he learns that his advice isn't always appreciated by the people around him. When Annie and Touma have a talk however, the two prodigies manage to give each other some well-considered advice, and Touma even manages to solve Annie's murder with one simple question that reaches the whole crux of the problem.

In The Hands of the Witch explores Touma Sou's past in a way I had not seen in this series yet, and the result is quite captivating. The core mystery plot is not incredibly impressive to be honest, but it works great as a vehicle to tell a genuine tale about Touma and Annie, resulting in definitely the most enthralling Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou story I've read until now. The story unveils itself to be a courtroom drama, following Annie as she tries to convince the jury that the defendant is guilty, while the sly defense attorney does a great job at turning each of Annie's witnesses and exhibits around in the defense's favor. I do like how Touma succeeds in pointing out the truth to Annie by asking her one simple question, suddenly connecting all kinds of small questions and happenings, and changing all the various points into one single line leading to murder. That said, there are still little things about this murder plan that seem rather difficult to swallow, as the whole plan needed either a lot of coincidence and luck, or uncanny planning powers that were not explained, to work out the way it did. The murderer would've needed to obtain a certain object for example, that was 1) not even sure to come into existence in that form and 2) it was unlikely they could actually retrieve the object. Also, the plan needed the presence of a certain person, bringing along a certain object, which again was something they couldn't count on 100%. So I really how Touma manages to point out this plan, but the plan itself is less impressive.

In The Hands of the Witch ends in a tragic way, which convinces Kana to hide the postcard from Touma, as she doesn't want to bring up bad memories again. Volume 12 (2002) therefore opens with In The Outskirts of the Universe, a 'normal' story where a witness drawing of an 'actual' alien is stolen from a storage of an 'authority on alien lifeforms', with Kana ending up as the main suspect, even if it seems impossible for anyone in general to have taken the picture from the suitcase it was kept in, as somebody was near the suitcase all the time. It's a minor story, and it's pretty easy to identify when the picture must've been stolen (which immediately points to the real thief and also in the direction of how it must've been done). Nothing remarkable here but the story ends on a different note as Touma happens to come across the "See you again in the next winter" postcard in Kana's room in the very last pages, prompting him to go to the United States to find out who sent him this postcard.

The Rainbow Mirror forms the concluding chapter of the Witch Trial storyline and opens with the shocking murder on an prison inmate, who was five years ago jailed due to the events of In The Hands of the Witch. The poor woman's drink had been poisoned while she was entertaining a guest visitor, and that visitor is none other than Touma himself. Naturally, Touma is taken into custody on suspicion of murder, and the scene of the boy being ushered into a police car outside the prison are broadcast all over the world, including Japan. Kana is contacted promptly by Yuu and Touma's friend Loki, and Kana decides to fly to the United States to find Touma. The three arrive too late in Massachusetts however, as Touma was already released by the police, as video security footage in the prison showed someone else tampered with the drinks machine in the visiting area of the prison. They learn Touma has gone off to visit the other related parties to Sarah Osborne's case and they chase after him, but to their shock they learn more incidents happen to these people after Touma's visits, like Sarah's defense attorney getting into a traffic accident because his car brakes had been tampered with. Fearing the bad outcome of the Osborne case might've weighed on Touma's mind more heavily than they could've ever imagined, his friends try to trace him, but find they are too late each and every time. But is it really Touma who's committing a series of murders, or is some other force at play?

Well, of course it's somebody else. The Rainbow Mirror concludes this arc in the manga, but taken as a mystery story on its own, it's very weak. There is little mystery as to the how of the deaths and other incidents that occur over the course of the story, while the whodunnit aspect is also rather undeveloped. The precise events that led to the motive are very hard to swallow for example (especially considering the way In The Hands of the Witch ended) and with a character like Touma, there' not even a single second where you'll be doubting whether he really did commit the murders. So the story is mostly just about Yuu, Loki and Kana chasing after Touma and visiting all the people related to the Sarah Osborne case again. It works as a book-end to the storyline, giving you a glimpse at the aftermath of the Sarah Osborne case and the five years that have passed since, but in an attempt to bring an emotional gripping story, Katou goes way too far, pulling cards out of nowhere that just don't seem very convincing.

It was fun reading Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou stories for a change that didn't feel so limited in reach. The core mystery plot of In The Hands of the Witch might not've been super-complex (in fact In The Outskirts of the Universe is far more complex I'd say), but it works well as a device to also tell a story about both Touma and Annie in a courtroom drama setting. The Rainbow Mirror is more troublesome. I definitely recommend reading it, as it's definitely part of In The Hands of the Witch's story, but some of the events that occur there are a bit ridiculous, at least in the world of Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou (had this been Detective Conan, I would've been more willing to swallow the premise).
Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. -証明終了-』第10, 12巻

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Dress Reversal

"The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic"
"The Blue Cross"

Due to frequent shuffling with my posting schedule, this review got delayed a lot. I can't even remember how often it got bumped down, but also up the list. In fact, at one time, this review was supposed to be posted soon after another Ashibe review, early in the year, but shuffling around means this review is posted first, and we're several months later than first planned.

High school student Remi is one day attacked on her way back from school, with her sudden assailant leaving a scar on her face with a razor blade. This attack alone left quite the impression on the girl, but it wasn't the only event to befall her family: her uncle had a motorcycle accident, and her little cousin was kidnapped and had been missing for a few days already. Curious as all these happenings may be, Remi didn't think too much of them together, until she meets a mysterious figure at a costume party, who tells her the Murder Comedy King is behind all these incidents, and that while Remi's family already had their turn, the figure warns Remi that more will follow, and those targets won't get off with just a scratch on their face. Scared by this warning, Remi decides to seek help from the attorney Morie Shunsaku, who has made a name as an amateur detective. That the fiend's warning was more than just words, is soon proven to be true when horrible murders occur one after another, like a man being murdered by having his spine cracked on the dial of a clock tower, or a woman who is drowned alive in her own cellar. Meanwhile, it seems the Murder Comedy King has more than one enemy on his trail, as the great detective Hanagatami Joutarou and his boy assistant Ariake Masahiko too seems on the case, and that's actually really odd, as Hanagatami is supposed to be a fictional detective! Can Morie and Hanagatami stop the monstrous serial killer Murder Comedy King in Ashibe Taku's Kaijin tai Meitantei ("The Fiend versus The Great Detectives", 2000)?

Many authors have different characters for different kind of stories, but Ashibe is someone who has somehow managed to use his series detective Morie Shunsaku in an incredibly diverse story selection. Morie Shunsaku is an attorney, so you'd expect a courtroom drama, right? Sure, Saibanin Houtei is even almost social school, as it was written to coincide with the introduction of the Lay Judge System in Japan. But then you also have the stories where Morie's like those old master detectives solving crimes in creepy mansions with weird gimmicks like hidden passages, like in Wadokei no Yakata no Satsujin. Historical and bibliophilic mysteries? Yep, got that one too. And what about a science-fiction detective story about parallel dimensions? Morie has covered that one too.... Every other Morie Shunsaku novel I read feels completely different from the previous one, as Ashibe will use him for whatever story he wants to write, and yep, Kaijin tai Meitantei adds another flavor.

Fiends, great detectives, you might've guessed already, but Kaijin tai Meitantei is a homage to the classic pulp thrillers by Edogawa Rampo from the 30s-40s, where Rampo's great detective Akechi Kogorou battles criminal masterminds with silly names like the Magician, the Golden Mask, the Dwarf, the Black Lizard, and of course the Fiend with Twenty Faces. While Kaijin tai Meitantei is set in contemporary times (the 2000s), the story reads as if we're still in the 1930s Japan with criminals dressing up as creepy figures to scare their targets and in the 1930s, it's also a lot easier to just kidnap people from the street without anyone ever noticing just by spraying sleeping gas and carrying your victim away with you or something like that (seriously: I never think about it much, but I can accept kidnappings much easier from 1930 pulp thrillers than stories set in modern days, because it's actually quite difficult to carry a body away from somewhere). The fanciful manners in which each of the targets of the Murder Comedy King is killed off are also clearly inspired by Rampo's work. Voyeurism is also a big theme in Rampo's work, as is exposition, and the gruesome murders in this novel could've fitted well in Rampo's novels, as yes, a man being tied to both the hour and minute hand of a clock tower so he'll get bent in middle is really icky, as is the murder where a girl is hanged from a balloon. Like in Rampo's work, the narration will often to the point of view of the victim here, leading to some real horror moments. Ashibe is having a lot of fun with these Rampo homages, and the book is brimming with references. In fact, each of the chapter titles in this novel is also a reference on its own to another chapter titles from Rampo's oeuvre and just figuring out where each title came from is a fun game for Rampo fans. Still, it's weird seeing Morie involved with a case like this, because the story is intentionally written to invoke the atmosphere of Rampo's novels, which is firmly set in 1920s-1940s modernizing Japan, while you know it's actually set in the 2000s.
As a mystery novel however, Kaijin tai Meitantei can not avoid falling in the same pitfall a lot of Rampo's novels also experience, though that might not have been Ashibe's goal in the first place. Anyway, there's a lot of gruesome deaths and scenes with the Murder Comedy King challenging his victims and the detectives, but there's not much to solve for the reader or Morie. The murders just happen and there's nothing particular to solve about them save for catching the killer. There's a kind of reveal about the Murder Comedy King at the end, but that's telegraphed rather obviously, but I'm not sure whether I should take it as a genuine reveal, or a "haha, Rampo's novels weren't that surprising in reality, so I'm going with a not-so-shocking reveal myself too" type of reveal. Sure, it feels like a Rampo novel with an ending like this, but I would've appreciated something that would've gone beyond that too. Ashibe also plays with meta-fiction in this novel, which is a theme he often utilises. Throughout the novel, you also learn that the great detective Hanagatami Joutarou is also working on the case, but he's a fictional detective by "Ashibe Taku," a personal friend of Morie, so how can a fictional figure also be working on a real case? There are some more segments that seem to blur the world of "reality" and "fiction" (within the setting of the story). There's an in-universe explanation for all of this, but it's more intended as a playful gesture to confuse the reader by Ashibe (the actual author).

Long story short, Kaijin tai Meitantei is exactly like one of those Rampo pulp thrillers, both in atmosphere and in execution. It's a very faithful homage to Rampo's work and his world, and as a fan of Rampo, I definitely had fun seeing these Rampo-esque situations. That said, I would never recommend Kaijin tai Meitantei as a first read in the Morie Shunsaku series, as its one purpose is just to revel in Rampo love. It's not really a Morie novel, and I also doubt readers can really appreciate the sheer silliness of this work without any understanding of Rampo's pulps.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『怪人対名探偵』

Saturday, May 11, 2019

The Clue in the Camera

"And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven."
"Genesis 28:12"

Huh, I seldom do a double review nowadays, and now I have two of them in a row...

Last year, I reviewed a few volumes of Katou Motohiro's manga Q.E.D. iff Shoumei Shuuryou ("Q.E.D. iff Quod Erat Demonstrandum"), which is a sequel series to the original series Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou. You will remember I have written very little about Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou in general: my first encounter with the series was long before I started this blog and I never stuck with it, so unlike Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen, I never did reviews of the latest volume as they were released. I've always experienced the adventures of Touma Sou, a teenage prodigy and MIT-alumnus who has returned to Japan to experience a normal high school life, and the athletic and impulsive Mizuhara Kana as reasonably entertaining mystery stories, but never reaching the heights and scale of the other two, more famous series. Anyway, a while back I came across a free multi-volume bundling the first five volumes of the original Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, so today I'll be doing a double review of volumes 4 and 5 of the original series (not iff). The first three volumes I already read in a faraway past and I don't really feel like reviewing them now, so I decided to jump right into volumes 4 and 5, both originally released in 1999.

Last year, Touma was awarded the first prize by the international April Fools Club for his grand prank, which is also the reason why he's not really looking forward to 1st, April, 1999: he doesn't feel like coming with something this year, but as the defending champion it's expected of him to make a proper effort. As he's thinking about what to do, Touma runs into an old friend from his time in the States: Baum comes from the small developing country the Kingdom of Clavius, where he made it to the honorable position of Foreign Vice-Minister. The Kingdom of Clavius however is in a crisis: the Japanese government has offered development aid funds for economic projects with a tender, and a Japanese company won the bid to provide the technology for a fish farm. By the time Baum realized this company cheated through inside connections to win the bid, it was already too late: the Kingdom of Clavius was duped into buying far too expensive, and too advanced technology, meaning each time there's a problem with the machinery, the local engineers can't fix it themselves and with slow 'support' from the Japanese home company, the fish farm has been producing a lot of dead fish lately. Meanwhile, the development aid is in essence a loan from the Japanese government, so that has to be paid back too despite the not-running fish farm. Baum has now come to Japan a desperate man, as he needs not only force the company to improve their support, but also make them sign a contract for a new mining project. Baum knows the company will try to dupe him and his country again, but is willing to go far to save the future of his country, even 'cheat' by luring his opponents with a 'magnetic monopole'.

1st, April, 1999 is the type of story you don't really see in Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen: the swindle story. Series like Liar Game and Kurosagi are all about stories told from the POV of the swindlers (I really should write something about the live-action Liar Game series one of these days...), where you enjoy the thrills of seeing whether the swindler will succeed in fooling their victim or not. In this story, we mostly follow Kana, who tries to help Baum in his effort in psychologically pressuring the Japanese company in signing the new contract by dangling a magnetic monopole in front of them. As we see the events mostly from her side, the reader has a pretty good idea of what is going on and how everyone is trying to fool each other, so really surprising, this story is not. A series like Liar Game is at its best when you know the protagonist is trying to fool everyone, but you don't have an exact grasp on how that's even possible, but it's less of a mystery here. The way the story juggles the pretty serious government-in-debt-and-corrupt-Japanese-industries theme with the light April Fools Club storyline is good though and the ending is pretty funny spy-action stuff.

Jacob's Ladder starts with an enormous chaos happening in Akihabara: something has caused all the traffic lights to jump to green, resulting in multiple heavy traffic accidents (no deaths, luckily) and all traffic in and out Akihabara being stopped to prevent further accidents. Soon after this incident, Touma is visited by his old friend Loki, who is being tailed by... none other than the CIA. Loki explains to Touma that their friend Eva is now being detained by the CIA, as it was determined that the AI she was developing caused the accidents in Akihabara in Japan. Eva works at MIT as a head researcher on artificial life, and she was running an AI that basically simulated life, following four simple principles (cells have to reproduce, cells will look for best location to reproduce, etc.) At first, her simulation of artificial life had reached an equilibrium state, with three cell tribes living in peace: a hunter tribe that followed orders from a leader cell looking for reproductive grounds, a herder tribe that followed a leader cell who themselves led the way in search of reproductive grounds and a farming tribe that gathered around a leader cell and reproduced in their own area. One day however, the hunter tribe attacked the other tribes, and when they tried to fix the AI program, it vanished from their servers. Touma now has to figure out why the AI suddenly broke the equilibrium state and how it ended up in Japan causing all those accidents in order to save Eva.

Err, yeah, this is a really weird type of mystery story. I could imagine it as a Detective Conan movie plot, but even, so it's really unlike what you'd see in Conan and Kindaichi Shounen. In principle, this is a story that should be based on the scientific field of logic, with Touma trying to figure out how the AI could've done what it had done based on the logic rules Eva had set upon the program as its guiding principles (somewhat like the Three Laws of Robotics in Asimov's novels). However, it doesn't really work in this story. Basically, the solution comes down to super-hacking powers and new elements being introduced that override the basic rules Eva set: so it's basically cheating, because apparently the rules can just be ignored. I've read a few of the sequel series to Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou (subtitled iff), and there I've read much better stories built on the premise of logic as a scientific field, where you combine several true rules or conditions to find a contradiction that allows you to logically deduce what happened). Jacob's Ladder has some interesting imagery going on (the titular Jacob's ladder), but as a mystery story, it hardly succeeds.

The Crooked Melody, the first story in volume 5, opens with the famous cellist Hirai Reiji in his country cabin, having just strangled the president of his sponsor company. The new president had been appointed by the bank to help the financially struggling company, and one of the first things the president wanted to do was stop sponsoring something as silly as music. After killing the president in a rage, Hirai quickly makes some calls, making it seem like the president had changed his mind about killing the sponsor contract and that he had left Hirai's cabin in peace. Just before he has time to hide the body outside however, Touma, Kana and her friends arrive at Hirai's cabin: one of Kana's classmates is a far relative of Hirai, and they had arranged to meet him here. The kids arrive and spend some time there with Hirai. Some days later, the president's body is found in his own house and as Hirai was the last one to have seem him alive, he's questioned, but the kids give him a perfect alibi for the time of the murder. The police suspects Hirai could've killed the president in the cabin, but the kids actually saw everything inside the small cabin during their visit: they had visited the bathroom and they had opened the refrigerator, cupboards and the cabinets, and they hadn't come across a dead body obviously.

Touma of course quickly figures out something's wrong, and the crux of the problem lies where Hirai could've hidden the body during the visit of the kids. Strangely enough, the story seems to ignore the fact Hirai could've simply hidden the body outside the cabin. The reader knows this can't be possible, because we see how Hirai's still dragging the body around in the living room when the kids are almost at the front door, but the police, nor Touma can ever know that, so yeah the body could've been hidden in a trash bin outside, and then all the statements of the kids of not having seen the body inside the cabin would've been completely worthless. Touma first points out some small mistakes Hirai made during the kids' visit, eventually arriving at the hiding spot of the body. It's a simple, but effective hiding spot that could've used a slightly better hint though: by changing the angle in a certain panel, you could at least show that that trick was possible, as not all [certain object used to hide the body] can work in that manner. It's a short, not particularly memorable story, but not bad either.

Afterimage of Light starts at a flea market, where Kana buys an old valuable camera for almost nothing. Touma and Kana find some old negatives with five photographs inside, and after developing them find they include some family pictures, so they trace the camera back to a small mountain village where it was initially sold to a pawn shop. They quickly find that the last photograph was taken at the pawn shop itself (when the camera was tested to see if it worked). They also find an old abandoned storage that was in one of the pictures, but as they explore the inside, they find a dead body was hidden inside the plastered walls. What's even more mysterious is that the body had the one and only key to the storage in their pocket, meaning they were plastered in the wall by someone who could not possibly have escaped the storage themselves, as there are no windows and the one door was locked by that one key (Touma, Kana and their companion broke the lock to get inside initially). They learn the storage used to belong to a girl with supernatural powers who could see through walls, though some thought she was nothing but a fraud. They also trace back the three children (now middle-aged adults) who were on the photographs, and Touma and Kana ask a bit about their family history and what their link is to the storage. Eventually, Touma figures out how the body ended up in the wall of a sealed storage and what they have to do with the photographs they found.

I haven't read much of this series yet, but this type of story too I recognize from the sequel series iff, where Touma comes across a story about some mysterious event in the past (the girl who can see through walls), that is also linked to a current incident (often a family tragedy) and him solving a historical mystery/crime based on old testimonies and evidence (in this case, the photographs). The mystery of how the girl managed to see through walls is based on a real phenomenon, so it can be easy to guess how it was done, though there's some really well-done misdirection there. The mystery of the man who was walled up in a locked storage is more interesting, and too has some really well-done misdirection there as to the exact order of events, but it does rely on a lot of coicidences. A bit more hinting as to how it was done would've made this story perhaps a bit more satisfying, especially as the photograph hint is nearly impossible to figure out (even if you figure out what the hint says, you will never figure out what it actually is).

I doubt that volumes 4 and 5 belong to the highlights of the Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series: both volumes contain a story that is fairly entertaining, but not particularly memorable, and a story that is slightly less well-plotted. So I feel a bit indifferent about these two volumes in general .I noticed that they recently published special Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou volumes with editors like Arisugawa Alice picking their favorite stories, but I'd really appreciate it if someone here can offer some specific volume or story recommendations for either the original series or iff, as I really don't feel like going through all 50+ volumes, though I do want to read more of this series to see what heights it can reach.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩 『Q.E.D. -証明終了-』第4, 5巻

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Rosy Waltz

「夏の幻」(Garnet Crow)

The approaching time of bliss
makes footsteps while accompanied by pain
"A Summer's Illusion" (Garnet Crow)

Okay, I don't have the book with this cover, but when I searched for images, I found this was the most interesting one in the sense that it still does feature a staircase, but not as the focal point of the design (most of them did feature staircases as the centerpiece, and there was an odd one that didn't feature a stairscase at all).

Sir John Judge was born in the Netherlands as Jan Rechter, but managed to make a name in the UK as a succesful entrepreneur and a philantropist, earning him his title and a new nationality. Recently, he has also shown to have a keen interest in politics, especially in fascism, but that has also garnered him some enemies, who seem to be after his blood: it started with letters that warned him for 'accidents', but there have even been incidents with people shooting at him, and he certainly would've been a goner already if it hadn't been for his childhood friend Tjako. John Judge, his wife Anja and their entourage are now back in the Netherlands for the late summer, but Anja is still very worried for her husband's safety, and asks for the police to keep an eye out on him. The man on the job is Inspector Lund, a young police detective who has made a name for himself after solving the Mondschein Sonate murder. Lund however is not able to prevent the murder on Sir John Judge, which occurs one day under impossible circumstances: the victim was found shot in his study, but the door was locked from the inside (the key in the keyhole) and the windows too were bolted on the inside. Other evidence shows it could not have been a suicide, and other events seem to muddle this locked room murder case like sleepwalkers, sightings of a mysterious man with crooked shoulders and the unaccounted noise of footsteps on the stairs in Willy Corsari's Voetstappen op de trap ("Footsteps on the Stairs", 1937).

Willy Corsari (real name: Wilhelmina Angela Douwes-Schmidt) was a Dutch female author who wrote children's novels and mystery stories. She debuted in 1927 as a writer, and was especially popular in the fifties and several of her mystery novels have also been translated in several European languages. Her detective character Inspector Lund made his debut in 1934's Het Mysterie van de Mondscheinsonate ("The Mystery of the Mondschein Sonata"), which has also been adapted into a succesful Dutch film. Voetstappen op de trap is I believe the second book in the series and is a way, exactly what you'd imagine if I asked you to expect the stereotypical Golden Age mystery novel.

Well-to-do, respected citizens residing in their summer country house, friends staying over for extended periods, everyone has some secret to hide, hidden pasts that come back to haunt those in the present, the police finding out the victim was not as loved first believed: if anything, Willy Corsari knew very well how to write classical Golden Age mystery novel and there's certainly no cultural shock when reading this Dutch mystery novel. If someone had said this had been translated (localized) from English and not an original Dutch novel, I'd definitely been fooled.

Which might be the reason that while Voetstappen op de trap is, on the whole, a decent mystery novel, it's also not really a novel that'll lead that much an impression, as little of the novel feels unique enough. Most of what you'll read will be familiar in one way or another and even the one or two twists thrown in the plot after the midway point won't be as surprising as actually intended, I think. The locked room mystery for example is built around a concept that is very common, and as it is done now, it's far too easy for the readers to guess what has happened simply because it's such a basic idea when it comes to locked room mysteries. There are some other, minor incidents that are involved with the locked room murder, but with half of them relying on coincidences and the other half too obvious in the way they're connected to the solution, my overall impression is that Voetstappen op de trap is a competently constructed mystery, with (most of the time) fair clewing and build-up, but it lacks something that actually sets its apart. Even the attempt at going for the least-likely suspect doesn't really work because they're not really the least likely suspect considering everything that was going on.

ADDENDUM: One day after writing this review, I also read the third Inspector Lund novel, Een expres stopte ("An Express Stopped", 1938). I really don't feel like writing a full review about it, as it's not really that good a novel, so I figured I'll just write a few notes about it here. The story is about the murder on a mister Kampen, who had been stabbed to death in his own attic, at a time nobody else was at home. What makes this a tedious novel is that everyone in the novel only acts as suspiciously as possible to make things difficult for the police and the reader, and everything would've gone much smoother if they wouldn't act so ridiculously overdramatic about small things. Also: Corsari attempts to go for the "least-likely-suspect" again in this novel, but to accomplish in her goals, she comes up with a rather ridiculous murderer. Finally, the title is.... weird? Sure, a train did stop... in a scene of the very first chapter. And that stop had no direct connection with the main plot of the story!  It'd be like calling A Study in Scarlet, Two Men Have Lunch.

I don't know if Voetstappen op de trap is one of those novels that has been translated already, but if it not: I don't think this is necessary per se, because on its own merits it simply has too little unique to offer, but it's a decent enough locked room murder mystery if you happen to come across the book. Een expres stopte on the other hand is one you can skip without any hesitation, as there's far too little redeeming material there.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Case of the Artful Crime

"Yes," said Father Brown, "I always like a dog, so long as he isn't spelt backwards."  
"The Oracle of the Dog"

It was only halfway through this novel when I remembered I had seen the movie adaptation already....

Dilettante-detective Philo Vance finds him helping D.A. Markham with a mysterious locked room murder. Archer Coe was by life a notorious collector of Chinese ceramics and, of course, hated by everyone in the house including his brother Brisbane, their niece Hilda and the suspicious Chinese cook, but could any one of them have committed an impossible murder? Archer was found with a bullet in his head and a pistol in his hand inside his bedroom, which was bolted from the inside, but there are several problems with assuming simple suicide, for example because the man was wearing his shoes even though he had already gotten dressed for bed above and it seems he had been writing letters mere moments before supposedly shot himself. The discovery of a wounded Scottish Terrier inside the house (of which the inhabitants all share a dislike for dogs) makes manners even more mysterious. It's Vance's knowledge of Chinese pottery and breeding dogs that allows him to solve S.S. Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case (1933).

The Philo Vance series is one of the few series I have actually read in order, but I now see I never wrote a review for the fifth novel, The Scarab Murder Case, even though I am sure I read it like one or two years ago. Guess it didn't really leave an impression. That is not to say that I liked Vance's sixth outing that much either....

As the sixth novel in the series, The Kennel Murder Case does everything you'd expect from a Philo Vance novel: District Attorney Markham wants Vance to help with a case handled by Sergeant Keath, narrator Van Dine has absolutely no added value in the story as he's basically never involved with any action but to observe Vance, with Markham and Heath working as better Watsons than Van Dine ever is, Vance spots all kinds of obscure clues based on the encyclopedic knowledge he has of topics like art, and then you have the murderer. The Kennel Murder Case does nothing new, and sadly enough, it also show the worst of Vance.

For half of the deductions Philo Vance makes throughout the novel are either unfair, or based on ridiculous psychological analyses. For example, there are quite a few deductions Vance makes based on stereotypical physical and cultural assumptions like "He looks like a person who doesn't like dogs, which means~" or "the Chinese are always sneaky, so if he's not sneaky, he's trying to be not sneaky on purpose to hide the fact he's being sneaky". Of course, the story eventually will prove Vance to be completely correct, but yeah, for someone who went so far as to make up twenty silly rules that don't really do much to help a detective story being fair in essence, S.S. Van Dine was pretty good at writing not very fair mystery stories. Another good share of the deductions made by Vance are based on facts that are either not mentioned to the reader until Vance suddenly mentions them, or based on facts related to art or other less common fields of interest that may or may not be completely made up by S.S. Van Dine, or at the very least not common knowledge shared by the average reader of mystery fiction, so I can't really feel impressed if Vance triumphantly declares a certain piece of art is a fake based on the thickness of the porcelain or something like that.

As a mystery novel, The Kennel Murder Case has a few good ideas, but by far most of the plot consists of unlikely coincidences strung together all just so we can have that initial locked room murder situation. The Scottish Terrier, which lends its name to the title The Kennel Murder Case for example, is a clue that feels incredibly contrived to "prove" the actions and psychology of the murderer. It is not a clue that is either inserted naturally in the plot, nor one that came forth out the setting thought out for the murder: it is a clue that feels out-of-place and artificial and you could use the exact same clue in any mystery novel you know: it'd feel as out place there as it does here. Like I said, there are a few, minor ideas in the novel that are nice, but they're completely drowned out by all the forceful fitting and glueing S.S. Van Dine did to construct the plot of this novel. It's one unlikely happening after another or even simultaneously. Most of the ideas aren't completely original either by the way. The mechanics behind how the locked room was created for example are of the kind that only have you shrug "Okay, sure, that works." and some of the attempts of the murderer to avert suspicion also seem rather silly and only done so we could have more contrived clues (In what way would hiding the ***** in the **** point the finger to that person???).

So no, The Kennel Murder Case was not a novel I liked at all, as it's basically all the less fun parts of the Philo Vance series concentrated into one novel. It is a novel that tries far too hard to be clever, resulting in a book that feels not only very contrived and artificial, but also simply not fun. It's a mish-mash of so many ideas that don't mesh well together, and the result is a mess of coincidences that exists only to create a case only Vance could solve, and that never feels satisfying nor clever.