Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Once Upon a Crime

"Be a detective and examine everything to unlock the doors of the mystery of time and space."
"MOTAS: Mystery of Time and Space"

Huh, apparently there are a handful of mystery novels in Japan about Escher...

After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan opened up its ports for trade after centuries of closure, but that didn't mean foreign traders were free to go anywhere they wanted. Foreign settlements were opened at select places across Japan, most notably in Yokohama and Kobe. The foreign settlement in Osaka was located in Kawaguchi, and it also provided the home for a certain Dutch civil engineer called George Arnold Esher (who has a son called M.C. Esher...), who was hired by the Japanese government as an advisor, overseeing hydraulic projects like the restoration of the Yodo river in Osaka. One night Escher returns to Osaka after overseeing the harbor in Mikuni, when he is kidnapped and stuffed in a hansom coach. The threats by his assailants make it clear they're actually not after him, but a tradesman called Hans Boemler, but attempts at clearing up the misunderstanding fail. The blinded hansom doesn't allow Escher to see much, but he notices that his kidnappers brought him to the Kawaguchi Foreign Settlement (which is where he was heading anyway), and he's brought into a room, where he finds... the body of Boemler, who apparently had already been found and killed by his kidnappers' boss. With a body on their hand, and a mistaken abductee, the fiends decide to burn the place down, but Escher is miraculously saved from the fire. But in the subsequent investigation, one problem arises: Boemler's body was never found. Escher and his comrades try to figure out what happened exactly that night, but none of their theories work, and Escher would eventually leave Japan.

Morie Shunsaku takes up the case of Mr. Shioji in 2001, who is accused of murdering Udou, a businessman who together with a few other men beat Shioji up at the golf course, after Shioji assaulted them first. Shioji used to be a police officer, but he was basically crippled by Udou and his friends back when they were students and participating in the student riots in the 70s, giving Shioji enough of a motive for murder. Udou had been strangled on the street at night, and with witnesses stating they saw Shioji tailing Udou, and even someone who saw the murder happen from across the street, Shioji's guilt seems clear, but he swears that he never touched the man and that Udou was assaulted by some invisible ghost, as he saw Udou suddenly struggling and falling down on the street even though there was nobody around. This alone sounds like an impossible crime, but Morie also learns that in 1970, Udou's circle of friends was involved with a mysterious murder. The friends had been drinking near the warehouse district, when Hikura headed back home. He made his way through Ajigawa Tunnel (a deep, long tunnel running beneath the Aji River) and at the other end of the tunnel, he discovered the body of Toomi, one of the friends he had been drinking with. While Hikura had not seen Toomi when he left (meaning Toomi could've come here before him), Hikura did see Udou and the others before he left and none of them could've overtaken him to arrive at the tunnel earlier and commit the murder, as there is only one single road to the tunnel. Morie has a nagging feeling that the Ajigawa Tunnel Murder has some similarities with the George Esher case he read about in a pamphlet, and he decides to try to solve these cases too in Ashibe Taku's Toki no Misshitsu ("A Locked Space in Time", 2001).

Toki no Misshitsu is the tenth entry in this series starring the defense attorney Morie Shunsaku, who more often than not ends up amateur sleuthing. And as you can gather from my feeble attempt at a summary, it's also a very ambitious work, that tries to do a lot. I do have to say that the title can be a bit misleading, as while they talk about sealed spaces and locked rooms all the time, most of the situations aren't really locked room mysteries. The 1876 Escher case for example is called a sealed space because the Kawaguchi Foreign Settlement is a "sealed space" (extraterrorial ground) from which Boemler's body disappeared. The Ajigawa Tunnel murder is considered a "locked room murder" because the suspects were all located at one side of the tunnel and none of them could've made it to the other side of the tunnel without being seen by the reliable witness (i.e. the area between the witness and the victim was "a locked space" for the suspects, but the murder was possible for anyone on the other side of the tunnel). There is another problem presented in the prologue, where Morie is riding on the Aqua-Liner aqua-bus with a certain package, but he can't figure out how his opponent is going to retrieve that package and escape from the police, as the canals and rivers of Osaka basically make any quick escape impossible. The only real impossible crime situation is that of the Udou murder, where the defendant says Udou was attacked by a ghost, and a witness says he saw the defendant assault the victim, but even then it's not really a locked room mystery. So the title is rather misleading.

To be honest, the four "sealed space" mysteries are not likely to make much of an impression if taken alone. The solutions for both the Aqualiner mystery and the Udou murder are fairly simple to guess and I wouldn't be surprised if you had seen similar answers elsewhere. The Escher and the Ajigawa Tunnel cases are more interesting, as their underlying trick is the same if the execution is different, and Morie manages to solve the Ajigawa Tunnel case only because he figured out the Escher case. It has to be noted that once again, their base idea is nothing particularly inspiring, but at least the synergy is here between these cases, and it is interesting to see how two completely different situations, set in very different times, are ultimately built around the same notion, and the way it ties back to M.C. Escher (who makes an appearance as a kid) is pretty neat. I actually thought this novel to be packed way too full (besides the four "sealed space" mysteries, there's even a code cracking section, and more), and personally, I think a novel only focused on the Esher and Ajigawa Tunnel cases would've worked better, as the other elements in Toki no Misshitsu feel far less integrated compared to these two parts. There is not that much synergy between the various parts, so at times the novel does feel like a collection of various mysterious events, rather than one cohesive story (especially as there's just so much going on in this novel across various time periods).

I've mentioned in earlier reviews of Ashibe's work that he loves weaving historical and literary research into his stories: the pastiche stories with famous fictional detectives in his The Exhibition of Great Detectives series (Part 1 and Part 2) are excellent examples of how Ashibe not only shows great understanding of the works he imitates, from writing style to publication history, but you also see how he does a tremendous amount of research in world history, as he also makes connections between his fictional tales, and real world events. His work is always brimming with historical references and explanations, which can also backfire a bit: I thought Satsujin Kigeki no Modern City  was going a bit overboard with its explanations of basically everything in 1930s Osaka. With a story set in the three distinct time periods (1876, 1970 and 2001), you're sure to find plenty of references and historical explanations in Toki no Misshitsu too, though I didn't find it as intrusive as with Satsujin Kigeki no Modern City. You are sure to learn a lot while reading this book, but the way Ashibe uses the historical A.G. Esher for his mystery for example is pretty neat and a good example of how to do a historical mystery. It's also clear that Ashibe loves the city of Osaka, and as always, you're always seeing a lot of the Water Capital in various forms. The amount of research in the city's history can sometimes a bit overwhelming and distract a bit from the main mystery plot, but readers into atmosphere will definitely love Toki no Misshitsu, and Ashibe's in general, I think.

I might not be the ideal reader of Toki no Misshitsu, as I freely admit I'm a reader who focuses more on the core mystery plot and less on "story". Personally, I think a tale focusing solely on the two most interesting situations, the Escher and Ajigawa Tunnel cases, would've worked better than the way it is now, with a lot going on. The idea of using Escher and the Kawaguchi Foreign Settlement is quite original though and the idea of a "sealed space" mystery with the tunnel is also interesting, even if the "locked room" moniker is a bit misleading. I do think that people who really like to read "an epic story" will like Toki no Misshitsu as Ashibe really went all-out here, with so much mysteries to be solved in the city of Osaka, spanning a period of more than a century.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓 『時の密室』

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Famous Mistakes


"It is my job to ask questions about everything."
"Do you know how rude you are? What station are you working for? Give me your name and your department."
'My name is Fukie. My department is the Metropolitan Police Department, Division 1."

Now I think about it, I don't really read many inverted mystery series. Sure, Conan and Kindaichi Shounen have some occasionally, but I haven't actually read a whole series that consists solely out of inverted stories... (with the Columbo and Furuhata Ninzaburou novels/short stories being exceptions, but not really series on their own in the first place).

Earlier this year I reviewed Ookura Takahiro's Fukuie Keibuho no Aisatsu, the first volume featuring the inverted mystery stories starring Lieutenant Fukuie of the Metropolitan Police Department. Ookura had in the past written several official Columbo novelizations for the Japanese market and the inspiration the Lieutenant Fukuie series takes from his grand predecessor are quite easy to pick up. Fukuie is a youthful-looking, small woman with frameless glasses who is often mistaken to be a college student, reporter, secretary or anything but a police detective, but she is in fact one of the sharpest officers in Division 1, in charge of homicide investigations. The first impression of most people is that of a scatterminded, clumsy woman, who has a knack for losing track of her police badge, but the real criminals soon learn that Fukuie is more than meets the eye, as the efficiency with she works, as well as her eye for fine detail usually put her right on their trail. Fukuie Keibuho no Saihou ("The Second Visit of Lieutenant Fukuie, 2009), which also carries the alternate English title of Reenter Lieutenant Fukuie, contains four stories told from the perspective of the criminals as they're being cornered by the Lieutenant, from a popular screenwriter who comes up with an elaborate fake abduction to secure his own alibi to one half of a comedy duo who takes drastic measures in order to break up his partnership.

Not much time passed between me reading the first volume and this second volume in the series, which usually indicates that this is a series I enjoy, obviously. And it is! Granted, the stories are all relatively short and because each of these stories follow the same inverted style, they eventually feel somewhat alike as most of the time the set-up of the core plot is rather similar (criminal comes up with perfect plan to commit murder, unforeseen happening during the crime allows Fukuie to solve the case), but nonetheless, this is great entertainment, and like an episode of Columbo, much of the joy comes from seeing how Fukuie slowly but surely manages to creep up to the murderer with evidence. Part of the fun also lies in the diverse backgrounds of each of the stories. In one story, you'll be reading up on the world of vinyl figures and counterfeit toys, the other is about a manzai stand-up comedy duo and the entertainment industry. Each story touches upon completely different worlds, so at least in that aspect, this series never disappoints. Like many of the Columbo episodes, the criminals are usually people who have been succesful in their lives (or at least in the past). Different however is that most of the murderers in this volume are driven to their crime because they're being blackmailed for a past mistake. Only one story features a motive that is closer to the "immediate gain"/"removing an obstacle" motive often seen in Columbo.

I didn't mention it in my review of the first volume, but the Lieutentant Fukuie also resembles Columbo due to the comedic undertones. Fukuie being mistaken for all kinds of people, the way the forensic investigator Nioka always ends up having to tag along with Fukuie as she goes off on a hunch of hers and the numerous hints to Fukuie's private life all bring some lighthearted moments. Fukuie makes no hints about her husband or any private relations, but she reveals herself to be a big fan of stand-up comedies and even children's action hero series, and it's a mystery how she manages to watch them as she never sleeps whenever she's working on a case. A lot of comedy is also derived from the many, many side characters who appear each story. Each story is usually divided in about 10 segments, and often, four or so of them are about related parties, like acquaintances of the victim or culprit or just the waiter from an often-frequented restaurant, getting a visit of Fukuie. These segments are usually very short, five or six pages, each featuring characters who only make their one appearance then, so while the stories are relatively short and the core crime fairly compact, you'll always see quite a few characters pass by as you follow Fukuie's investigation. These characters are also surprisingly well-defined despite their short time on the stage, and they too often lighten the mood.

Like I mentioned in the other review however, I do find it hard to write down my thoughts on the individual stories, as it's so easy to spoil too much about them. Their inverted nature mean that the reader will always know more than the Lieutenant and that much of the underlying mystery plot is revealed right from the start to them: from the way the murderer committed the crime to the lines of defense erected by them to divert suspicion. Most of the time, the mystery for the readers revolves around two points: how did Fukuie first start to suspect the true criminal, and how will she manage to prove her target did it? Usually, the trail is born because some unforeseen event occured during the crime, for example because the victim fought back or something else happened at the same time as the crime, and it's up to both the reader and Fukuie to deduce what that event is. This is also the case in the opening story, Max-Gou Jiken ("The Incident On The Max"). Harada Akihiro is the director of a home security company who who is an often-seen guest on television as an expert on his field, and his security company is preparing to do business in the States too. That is why Harada is desperate to hide the fact that long ago, when he started out as a private detective, he blackmailed people: it was this money that eventually made him the man he is now. His partner in crime then was Naomi, a freelance investigator. She too used her money to open her own business, but her bar has now folded, and with gambling debts too weighing her down, she turns to Harada "for old times' sake", with some audio tapes with incriminating conversations as her insurance. Fearing she'll forever keep him on a leash, Harada decides to kill Naomi. He invites her to the Max, a small leisure cruise ship that's usually carrying guests from Muroran, Hokkaido (Northern Japan) to Hakata/Fukuoka (Southern Japan), but  this time, the Max has been chartered by a tour operator for a overnight trip to the islands south of Tokyo back. Harada's plan is to kill Naomi and make it seem like another of her victims is the killer (as one of their men was sent to the Max too to keep an eye on Naomi). What Harada couldn't have guessed however that Lieutenant Fukuie would accidently become a stowaway on the Max (having lingered too long on the ship for a different investigation). Most of the mystery is already revealed to the reader, though it's a bit of a stretch of how Fukuie managed to guess that Harada would be present on the ship in the first place. The clue that proves that Harada is the killer however is done splendidly, with you knowing that something must have happened that neither Harada nor the reader know, but which Fukuie manages to deduce based on the same things both the killer and we know.

Ushinawareta Tomoshibi ("Lost Light") reminds slightly of the Columbo episode Negative Reaction, as it concerns a fake kidnapping. Toudou Masaya is a succesful screenwriter for both the silver screen and television, but nobody knows his hit debut work was actually stolen from a childhood friend who died young. Well, nobody except for a shady antiques dealer who happened to come across the same script when the friend's parents were selling the contents of their old storage. Toudou comes up with an elaborate plan to kill the antiques dealer. Mimuro Kanji is a unsuccesful actor who is a big fan of Toudou and even comes close to being a stalker. Toudou tells Mimuro he wants him to play the role of the kidnapper in his upcoming production. The final call is on the head of the director and the producer of the movie, so Toudou says he'll secretly go through the play together with Mimuro so he'll nail the audition. The two leave in secret to Toudou's villa in the forest to practice the role, but in reality Toudou's been secretly recording all of Mimuro's lines as a kidnapper. Later, he knocks Mimuro out, and uses the recordings to call his own secretary to fake his own abduction. Of course, Toudou kills the antiques dealer during his "abduction" and after his return to the villa, Mimuro is also silenced, with the scene looking as if Toudou killed Mimuro in self-defence. This is the longest story of the volume, with two murders no less, and it's certainly also one of the better stories in the series. Fukuie's suspicions are first pointed towards the curiosities at the abduction site. The clues are relatively "insignificant", but taken together really show Fukuie's suspicions are justified, like how the order of the shoes in the entrance was wrong, or how strangely enough, Toudou's laptop's battery was empty despite him having been captive for the day. The way Fukuie eventually manages to trap Toudou on the murder on the antiques dealer depends on a very old trope in inverted mystery stories, but the way this is set-up is good: Ookura leaves several incomplete and seemingly insignificant clues throughout the story that when taken together indicate a certain happening that forms the key to solving the case.

Aibou ("Partners") is about the manzai stand-up comedy duo Yamanote Nobori / Kudari, veterans in the trade but lately not doing as good as in the past. Half of the duo, Tachiishi Kouji, has been offered a chance to go at it solo, but his partner, Utsumi Tamao, is not willing to disband, at least not until the anniversary of the death of their mentor. The offer for Tachiishi however will not last for so many months. It also frustrates him that these last months, Utsumi has clearly been winging his gigs with Tachiishi, sometimes forgetting his lines or mistiming them, so Tachiishi decides the only way out is to eliminate his former partner. The plan is to lure Utsumi to their secret hide-out, a house they bought together long ago in the outskirts of Tokyo where they could practice their sketches. Knowing that Utsumi, who has lost his key, will try to climb the tree in the garden to get the spare key hidden in the potted plants on the balcony on the second floor, Tachiishi awaits Utsumi there to push him from the tree. He succeeds, but Fukuie, a fan of manzai comedy, quickly notices something's off. The greatest mystery here lies in the fact that Utsumi had taken a few weird actions before coming to the house (like dressing up in the clothing from when Yamanote Nobori / Kudari debuted). This is a riddle to both Tachiishi and the reader, so in that aspect, you're on level ground with Fukuie, who is still likely to figure things out swifter. Once you know why Utsumi did those things, it still takes a bit of imagination to arrive at the clue that will prove that Tachiishi killed his partner, but overall, this is a short, but nice enough story.

The final story is Project Blue. Arai Nobuhiro is the director of Swamp Imp, a project planning bureau that specializes in toys, coming up with toy designs, promotions for toys etc. 15 years ago however, Arai made money by manufacturing counterfeits of rare vinyl kaiju/monster figures. Nishimura, a toy modeler, has finally found proof of Arai's shady past, but Arai quickly eliminates this threat, and dresses the scene to look like an accident, with Nishimura "apparently" having been hit by his own car with bad brakes after he had parked it on a slope. When Fukuie first visits Arai, we learn his alibi for the murder: he claims he had been working on a model figure of the new version of Blueman. The hero of the show that is now airing will have a powered-up form next year, and final decisions on the design were only made last night by the TV production team: they immediately mailed the design to Swamp Imp, and Arai made and painted his prototype that same night, giving him the alibi. It's not particularly hard to guess how Arai managed to prepare his alibi, but the manner in which Fukuie eventually manages to prove Arai was at the crime scene at the time of the murder is again slyly done, with several smaller incidents that don't seem to mean much on their own, indicating an important event that had gone unnoticed by both the murderer and the reader until it's too late.

Fukuie Keibuho no Saihou is perhaps not very different from the first volume: here too you'll find four well-plotted inverted mystery stories that admittedly can feel somewhat similar in structure and in the way Fukuie manages to catch the culprit, but the stories are all really well done and the whole volume is a very solid read overall. It's very consistent in its quality, and I think for me, it'll be one of those 'safe reads' when I don't know what to read next and simply want something I know will be good.

Original Japanese title(s):『福家警部補の再訪』:「マックス号事件」/「失われた灯」/「相棒」/「プロジェクトブルー」

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Scissor Man

 『名探偵コナン  純黒の悪夢』

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Alice’s Evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Wild Brood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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