Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Adventure of The Silent Partner

I wanna be the very best 
Like no one ever was 
To catch them is my real test
To train them is my cause
Pokémon Theme (Jason Paige)

Sooo, was the biggest detective-themed Hollywood movie of this year for the west?

Tim Goodman is a young insurance agent who one day is informed his father, private detective Harry Goodman, passed away in a traffic incident. Tim had an estranged relationship with his father, but he travels to Ryme City to take care of the necessary formalities. Even in a world where Pokémon live, Ryme City can be called a unique metropolis. There are about 700 different species of Pokémon (Pocket Monsters), each with their own special powers and characteristics. People use them for a variety of activities, from pets to using them for Pokémon fights and having them help with work. In Ryme City however, humans and Pokémon live peacefully side-by-side and Pokémon trainer battles are even forbidden. An enormous surprise awaits Tim in Harry's apartment in Ryme City however: not only does he find his father's partner Pikachu (who was first presumed to have also died in the same accident) roaming around in the room, Tim can actually understand what this Pikachu is saying! The electric yellow mouse-type Pokémon is suffering from amnesia and can't remember much, but he tells Tim that he believes Harry is still alive out there, given that he survived the accident too. He is convinced the incident had to do with a case Harry was investigating, involving a mysterious gas container still left in Harry's office. Tim is the only human who can understand Pikachu, which makes Pikachu believe this is destiny and that they have to work together to find Harry. Tim is at first very reluctant to help Pikachu, but then they start uncovering a large conspiracy involving Pokémon experiments in the 2019 live-action movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu.

Given that Nintendo's famous Pokémon franchise is not 'just' a videogame series, but a worldwide cultural phenomenom that has lasted for some decades, I doubt I have to explain that much about Pokémon, and long-time readers of this blog will also be familiar with the title Detective Pikachu: it was a spin-off mystery adventure game released in 2018 for the Nintendo 3DS which I enjoyed a lot. The game may have been geared towards a younger audience, but it was fun, and actually did interesting things with combining the concept of Pokémon (creatures with unique powers) with puzzles and a mystery plot. The movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu, incidentally also the very first live-action movie based on the franchise, is based on this specific videogame, though you have to note that is not a 1:1 adaptation. The basic story of Tim and a wise-cracking Pikachu teaming up to uncover Harry's fate while investigating his last case is of course the same and there are scenes in the movie that will remind you of specific events/places of the game, but the game is quite a bit longer with far more locales/sub-storylines and in fact, the story of the videogame will continue in an upcoming sequel, while the movie is a standalone story that wraps up everything at the end.


For the mystery fans, I'd definitely recommend the game over the movie though. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is obviously aimed at a younger audience and it's fairly enjoyable as an adventure movie (though I still think photo-realistic CG Pokémon are creepy). Ryan Reynolds seems to have a blast voicing the supercute Pikachu and if anything, the interrogation scene with Mr. Mime (a mime Pokémon) is hilarious and a must-see. But as a mystery movie, it is quite lacking, especially considering the source material had plenty of great moments to offer. There' is barely any problem solving in this movie, no carefully thought-out clewing or meaningful foreshadowing. It's a buddy movie with a very straight path: Tim and Pikachu first find a clue in Harry's office, which leads them to location A, there they get a clue to location B, etc. And there's some really lazy fill-in-the-gaps moments where characters start to explain everything out of nowhere or the heroes stumble upon conveniently significant clues or locations, so the core mystery plot never feels rewarding, as there's never any proper build-up and clewing. One could just say, 'it's a kids movie', but so are the Detective Conan movies and most of them are proper mystery movies. And as I said, the source material (the Detective Pikachu videogame) does work as a mystery adventure game, despite being designed for kids too.

One element which made the Detective Pikachu game satisfying as a mystery game, was that it really incorporated the various Pokémon and their powers in the plot. The game was divided in chapters, in which Tim and Pikachu had to solve smaller mysteries/happenings during their investigation, for example 'accidents' that occured in a television studio or how to escape a blocked cave. Solving these smaller puzzle plots always involved the various species of Pokémon and their specific powers: sometimes you had to deduce which Pokémon was the 'culprit' by observing the clues and figuring out what kind of Pokémon would be able to do such a thing, sometimes you had to pick the right Pokémon to help you with a certain task, considering their special powers and characteristics. The game was also really intent on presenting a fair play mystery too, as it was always sure to inform the player in various ways what the characteristics of these Pokémon were beforehand, so even people new to Pokémon could enjoy the game. It resulted in unique situations, where you had 'crimes' committed by invisible characters etc., but which where still absolutely fair because each Pokémon and their powers are documented and well-presented in the game.


This element isn't really present in the movie, sadly to say. While Tim and Pikachu have plenty of screentime together, there's barely any mystery-solving that is truly dependent on Pokémon and their powers. Most Pokémon that appear are either just background characters, or have fallen victim to the experiments and gone berserk, attacking our heroes. There's one minor moment in the finale that actually has some good foreshadowing that involves Pokémon powers, but that is all: you don't get those moments from the game where Tim and Pikachu really sit down, consider all that has happened and manage to deduce how it was done and which Pokémon were used to accomplish certain tasks. Because of that, most Pokémon don't really even feel involved in the story of Pokémon Detective Pikachu: they're just there as props and hardly interact with other characters or the plot. Which is a real shame, for if there's one thing the Detective Pikachu game really did well, is portray a world where Pokémon and humans live together, and build a mystery plot on that.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu has its moments as a live-action Pokémon movie, even if it's never outstanding or going beyond (reserved) expectations. The quips and banter of Pikachu are fun to watch, and the story is not as bad as you'd first fear when hearing the words live-action and Pokémon together. It's just a shame that as a mystery movie, it basically ignores all the potential the original source videogame offered. Had it gone the effort to really integrate the fantastical of the various Pokémon species up to with a mystery plot or even smaller puzzles/problems in the story, I might have been able to recommend Pokémon Detective Pikachu as a mystery movie (for kids), similar to how the Detective Pikachu does work as a standalone mystery game, but as it is now, I can only see Pokémon Detective Pikachu as a Pokémon movie. Disney's Zootopia (2016) is similar in concept, but was more entertaining as a mystery movie too.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Girl Who Wasn't There

"Virtue has its own reward, but no box office"
- Mae West

When in doubt, read a Crofts.

Inspector French series
Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy (1927)

Inspector French and the Box Office Murders (1929)
The 12:30 from Croydon (1934)
Mystery on Southampton Water (1934)

The Loss of the Jane Vosper (1936)
Fatal Venture (1939)


Miss Thurza Darke had been advised by a mutual acquaintance to confide her strange tale to the police, but at first, Inspector French had no expectations of whatever the box office girl could tell him. That is of course, until she actually told him why she feared for her life. The young woman had been duped into a debt through a devious con scheme, and by the time she realized that her friend, another box office girl who had died some months earlier in a supposed suicide, had been swindled too by this same person, it was already too late. Her creditors now want Thurza to perform a certain, but yet unspecified action at her film theatre to repay her debt, but she is terribly afraid she'll eventually be killed, just like her friend in a way so the police will think it's a suicide. Inspector French tells Thurza to pretend she'll go along with the scheme, and that the police will stake-out their meeting tomorrow to nab the gang, but Thurza disappears the same day, and her body is found later drowned in, as she had feared, an apparent suicide. Realizing that the gang is far more dangerous than he had first suspected, Inspector French vowes to find the people who kiled Thurza in Freeman Wills Crofts' Inspector French and the Box Office Murders (1929).

If I had to describe Crofts' mystery novels with one single word, it'd be schemes. The criminals in Crofts' work like to plan, schedule, ploy, strategize and arrange. They don't do things haphazardly, they carefully define their goals, make lists of what has to be done, prepare for every single stage in the process and then execute their scheme. These schemes can be (barely) legal or illegal: Fatal Venture was about an ingenious business plan involving a cruise ship turning into a casino whenever it was in international waters, while The Loss of the Jane Vosper was about an insurance swindling scheme, and the inverted mystery novels The 12:30 from Croydon and Mystery on Southampton Water are about murder schemes, told from the viewpoint of a would-be murderer who carefully plans how they're going to kill their target. What these schemes all share, is the sheer attention to detail: every aspect, every single step of the plan has a purpose, whether it is of practical use for the scheme itself, or for protection, for example to delude the eyes of the public and the police. Crofts' novels are about first identifying the weak links in those schemes, which allows French to trace the individual steps in the plan, eventually revealing the complete image of the otherwise obscure plan. 

Inspector French and the Box Office Murders is a novel that does not stray from this focal point in Crofts' writing. Right from the start, this novel is basically only looking at the murky scheme involving the box office girls, with the actual murders of the box office girls playing second fiddle (at best), despite featuring in the title of the book! French's investigation is methodical, and the novel shows every single step in the police investigation. Order and method reigns here, as each action of French is a logical answer to whatever discovery or event preceeded it, which in turn is followed by a rational action. French's method is a mirror of the detailed crime scheme: he takes the time to consider each part of the flowchart, and then follows it to the next (or previous) process, taking care to understand why each action is taken by the schemers.

With the members of the gang already identified in the first chapter by Thurza's story, and the deaths of the box office girls basically confirmed as murder, the whole mystery of the book revolves around how the gang's plans involve the theatre box offices. To be honest, this part was rather easy to guess. Perhaps it was harder to guess back when this book was first published, but as soon as you hear the gang tries to involve box office girls, I'd guess that this would be one of the options to first cross your mind. Sure, Inspector French's investigation itself is fairly entertaining to follow, and the gang has laid a few traps here and there to trip French up, but ultimately, the scheme is far less... impressive than you'd hope it'd be. The road to the truth (French's investigation) is alright, but it's not something we haven't seen before in Crofts' work. Indeed, that's what makes this novel a bit underwhelming: Inspector French and the Box Office Murders does little that other Inspector French novels don't do, and what it does, is not bad per se, but certainly not remarakable compared to the other novels.

Inspector French and the Box Office Murders is thus a very typical Inspector French novel. It does everything you'd expect from such a novel, but does little beyond that and if you've read a few other Crofts before, you're sure to feel déjà vu. It does nothing really wrong, but Inspector French and the Box Office Murders is certainly not a work that stands out if compared to other novels in the series.

Friday, September 20, 2019

To Survive

"Space: The final frontier."
"Star Trek"

There are always many, many interesting-looking titles that I want to get to eventually, but which in the end never actually make it out of the wish list. Sometimes though, my interest in a title on the want-to-read list is reignited when I learn an adaptation is on the way, which prompts me to read the original work before the adaptation is released. This happened with Lord of the Rings for example, which I finally decided to read when the live-action films were almost released, even though I had been interested in them before. The same holds for today's title.

For I have been hearing for years about Shinohara Kenta's science-fiction manga Kanata no Astra, which also has the English title of Astra Lost In Space. This series by the creator of Sket Dance was originally serialized online on the Shonen Jump + (Plus) website/app between 2016-2017 and while initially it was touted as a science-fiction adventure series, I heard more and more mystery aficionados recommend Astra Lost In Space to other mystery fans as story developments unfolded, with people praising it as a rewarding mystery series too. Last year's excellent study into mystery manga, Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, too mentioned the title, so it had been on my radar for some time now. And by the time the anime adaptation started this summer, I figured it was really time for me to get started on this five-volume series. In the year 2063, space travel to other planets has become a viable means of transport, opening up the exploration of the universe. A group of students from Caird High School is sent to a nearby planet for Planet Camp: they are to live and work together on the planet McPa for a few days without the help of the adults. Almost immediately after the group arrives on the planet though, a mysterious sphere of light appears in front of them, swallowing the children. The next moment, they find themselves floating in the orbit of an unknown planet. The small boosters in their spacesuits turn out to be true life-savers, as they barely make it to an abandoned spaceship floating nearby.  When they check the ship's computers, they have the greatest shock of their life: they have been transported over 5000 light years from home! While the situation seems hopeless at first as the spaceship's communication systems are down, making it impossible to call back home for help, the group realizes there's still hope at returning home safely on their own. The students have to work and life together on board of the old vessel, now dubbed The Astra, as they depart on a three month journey back to their own home while visiting the few habitable planets with life and water on the route to replenish their own supplies. But small incidents on the dangerous trip also makes the Astra's new captain, Kanata, aware that their current predicament was no mere accident and that one of them may very well be a betrayer.


I didn't manage to finish reading the manga before the anime broadcast ended by the way, I only read the last volume a couple of hours after the last episode was broadcast in Japan...

Like Hogan's Inherit The Stars, this is a series that most would initially look at, and discuss as a science-fiction series (in Astra Lost in Space's case, an action-comedy science-fiction adventure), but which in hindsight can also be examined as a mystery story. Of course, I had the 'advantage' of knowing this in advance, as opposed to people who read this series with no prior knowledge, but once the series passes the halfway point, it becomes clear very quickly that this is also a mystery story. The first half however might make you think the focus is more on the space adventure. After the crew realizes they have a harsh three-month trip ahead of them, we slowly learn about the colorful characters together with the characters themselves, as most of them don't know each other either. The nine students have to learn to work together and trust each other, as they arrive at unknown planets to replenish their supplies (the ship can't store enough water/supplies to last for three months). Some are more willing to open up to their fellow students than others, but they all have interesting background stories, each posessing a specific set of skills which become useful as they explore the universe (Captain Kanata is for example extremely athletic, while Aries has photographic memory). The set-up reminds of titles like Hagio Moto's They Were Eleven! (about space cadets stuck on a broken spaceship which for some unknown reason, has one more crew member than should be) and the Danganronpa games, where students with extreme proficiency in specific fields are locked up together with other students they don't know in a closed environment, where they are forced to participate in a sadistic killing game and where they have to learn who they can trust and who not. This might make Astra Lost in Space sound like a dark story where everybody is suspicious of each other while cooped in claustrophobic circumstances, but the atmosphere of this series is actually quite lighthearted, as the crew members slowly become friends. There's plenty of room for comedy with the students fooling around and having fun with each other, and overall, the tone is really positive.


While the first half of the series is focused on introducing this cast to us and showing how they learn to work together as they try to survive, their early adventures on the various alien planets are actually already a good example of how Astra Lost in Space works as a mystery story. While some planets are almost like a paradise, other pitstop planets prove to be far more dangerous, with both 'obvious' treats as gigantic man-eating plants, but also other threats which only manifest when it's almost too late. Astra Lost in Space really shines in these moments, as these 'creeping' dangers on the various planets are always well-hinted and foreshadowed before they actually manifest themselves. On the second planet they encounter for example, the assumption that everything is as back home almost leads to fatal conclusions, but both the team, and the reader, could've foreseen the reveal, as Shinohara hinted at this threat in various ways from the moment the Astra landed on the planet. Shinohara does a great job at placing these Chekhov's Guns throughout the whole narrative, and then picking them up again as the storyline reaches its climax, showing you that that we all should've been prepared for that threat. We might not be reading about murders or impossible disappearances or any 'familiar' mystery tropes in Astra Lost in Space, but the execution is the same: proper hinting and foreshadowing that all make perfect sense when all is revealed to the reader.


From the fourth volume on, the story starts to focus more on the matter of why and how these students were thrown into space in the first place as the series works towards the conclusion. This is definitely a science-fiction story, involving a core mystery plot of a scale you will seldom see in any 'conventional' detective story (think Hogan's Inherit The Stars scale), but Shinohara makes it work, again, because his foreshadowing and clewing is really good. This is obviously a well-planned story, as Shinohara makes sure to prepare for the grand reveal through various little scenes he has cleverly spread across the whole narrative, and scenes that seem liked innocent filler turn to be extremely important. Whereas the Chekhov's Guns for the various planets are restricted to the chapters on the respective planet, the clues to the grand mystery of how and why these students were suddenly flung into the orbit of an unknown planet 5000 light years far from home are spread across the whole series, making it a cohesive and rewarding read. It's a mystery story that only works because it's a science-fiction story, but it's also a science-fiction story that really manages to impress because it's written as a tightly plotted mystery story. The motive for example could only work in a science-fiction story, but it's presented convincingly here, and the clewing is impeccable. Astra Lost in Space is a unique mystery tale in that sense, one that really manages to leave an impression.

I haven't seen the anime adaptation of Astra Lost in Space myself as I opted to read the original comic, but critical reception of that series seems to be quite favorable, so I guess one could also try that one out instead of the comic. But whatever the medium, I can definitely recommend Astra Lost in Space. Despite the relative short length for a Jump-branded title, it's  undoubtedly a genuine Shonen Jump story, with an emphasis on the universal Jump themes Friendship, Determination and Victory, but it's also an entertaining and excellently written science-fiction mystery story, with fun characters and a pleasant vibe. It's not your conventional murder mystery, or even anything you'd usually expect from a mystery story, but Astra Lost in Space goes a long way in showing how much fun the mystery genre can be in unconventional setting and a great example of how proper clewing and set-up can make a mystery story so much more satisfying.

Original Japanese title(s):  篠原健太 『彼方のアストラ』

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Where There's a Will

That's one small step for [a] man
Neil Armstrong

Last year, I reviewed the not very memorable Moord in de Ridderzaal by Theo Joekes, a novel I had picked up in the town's free library, where you can exchange novels and books for free: you can simply leave a book you'd like someone else to read behind, and readers can take a book with them for free. Moord in de Ridderzaal by the way, was swiftly returned.

A loooooong while back (this review was pushed back a lot), I was scanning titles again in the free library, when my eyes fell on a familiar name. At least, the name of the author was familiar to me: the Dutch title of the book didn't immediately ring a bell. For I have read a couple of Christianna Brand novels already, and most of them were excellent mystery stories, though the Dutch title Het geheim van de voetstappen ("The Secret of the Footsteps") didn't sound familiar to me. A look inside however told me this was the Dutch translation of Suddenly At His Residence (1947), a book I had heard about, but hadn't read yet, so the book was promptly pulled out from the shelf. Sir Richard Marsh, an eccentric elderly man, has a family gathering at his stately manor Swanswater every year in memory of his late first wife Serafita, despite being his second wife still being alive and well. Due to the unfortunate deaths of his own children during the war, only his four grandchildren attend to this gathering (three grandchildren of Serafita, one of his second wife Bella). Peta (daughter of the oldest son) is the favorite of Richard, but he doesn't really understand her modern ways. Philip (son of second son) is married with Ellen and they have a child, but he has fallen in love with Claire (daughter of third son), and wishes to divorce Ellen. Edward (grandson of Bella) is neurotic and spoiled, and is prone to 'space out', though even he himself doesn't quite know whether he's playing the role, or actually neurotic. Richard has always felt a generational gap between him and his grandchildren, but when he learns of the affair of Philip and Claire, and how everyone thinks so lightly of everything, he decides to disown the grandchildren, leaving everything to his second wife Bella (and Edward). As always on Serafita's day, he retreats to her beloved garden house to spend the night there, and this year, he decides to use his time there to alter his will. The following morning however, the old man is discovered dead in the garden house, and not only has his new will disappeared, it also seems his death was foul play. Inspector Cockrill, as an old acquaintance of the family is asked to investigate the matter, and Cockrill, and the family members soon realize that the crux of the case revolves around the one path leading to the garden house (rose bushes block any other way): fresh sand had been laid on the path after Sir Richard had retreated in the garden house, but the only footprints left on the path were of the people who discovered the body, so when had the murderer visited the man?

I kinda like this cover art by the way, it's in a style you don't often see.

Anyway, Suddenly At His Residence is most definitely A Mystery Story By Brand. Well, I haven't read that much Christianna Brand to be completely honest, but if there's one thing that all the novels I have read have in common, it's that everyone in her novels is very eager to offer false solutions, reasonable hypotheses and well-considered suspicions on everyone else. Seriously, everyone in her novels will at one point or another accuse another character of having committed the deed, and it's never just an accusation, no, it's always an accusation that's quite plausible! Suddenly At His Residence basically has two seemingly impossible situations. The murder of Sir Richard is the main problem of course, and the numerous false solutions can be roughly split in two variations:  either the murderer went to the garden house before the fresh sand was laid on the path, or after. The latter variation is of course a familiar trope in mystery fiction, often recognized as the 'footsteps in the snow' trope. If the murderer did go after the sand had been laid, how did they enter and leave without leaving footsteps? On the other hand, it can also be assumed the murderer went before the sand was laid, but here we are still confronted with several impossibilities, as the people known to have gone to the garden house at that time were for example in company of other witnesses, or seen not to carry anything with them with which they could've commited the murder.

This split in two kinds of impossibilities is quite interesting, as it really keeps the reader on their toes, as they are being "forced" to choose between one of these paths (before or after), and even then, they still have to figure out how it was exactly done. And Brand makes sure to toy around with the reader, as she'll name quite a few possibilities the reader will also consider, but yeah, it's very likely you're on the wrong track if one of the characters already voices your ideas with the same reasoning with still more than seventy pages left. There is a second death later in the book, and while that is an impossible situation though, with no footsteps left in the dust, this one is easier to guess and not directly connected to the first murder in terms of method (they are two distinctly different situations).

When I finally arrived at the part where the solution to Sir Richard's death is explained however, I realized I had already heard of this solution before. Mind you, I didn't realize this until after it had been revealed, and I hadn't even thought of this solution myself while I was reading the novel, so it didn't really influence my reading experience, but I believe it's one that's reasonably famous for this type of problem. The solution works well here, even if the clewing is a bit sparse, though I did have the feeling it felt a bit arbitrary due to all the false solutions preceding the final solution. That is to say, the previous false solutions were all discarded for several reasons, but never did you really feel a connection between those false solutions. They were just treated as false, but crossing them off your list didn't mean it'd get you closer to the final solution. Earlier this year, I read Mitsuda Shinzou's Mizuchi no Gotoki Shizumu Mono, which had a lot of false solutions too, but there the false solutions were all actually necessary steps, as elements from each false solution would prove to be important to mark the road to the true solution. In comparison, all the false solutions in Suddenly At His Residence felt as discrete instances, with no real consequences to the final solution. It's a completely different approach to the false solutions device, but at the end of Suddenly At His Residence, you feel like the novel could also have ended in the first few pages had Cockrill simply stumbled upon that solution first, as the other hypotheses had nothing to do with the real solution anyway.

Not that I think Suddenly At His Residence is a bad mystery novel though. Quite the contrary, it's a very amusing, and deep mystery novel that isn't afraid to be a real detective story, focusing on logical reasoning by offering so many plausible solutions to the problem, but still whipping up a surprise at the end, and a good example of how a Brand-brand mystery novel overall. And I am grateful that someone actually left a copy of the book in the free library. But the book did get me thinking about what I like about false solutions in mystery novels and what their function should be, and in that sense, I do have to say Suddenly At His Residence is, well, not disappointing perhaps, but I did make me long for a Brand where the false solution device is used in a more constructive way for her mystery plots. And to end this story: this book was returned to the free library, so someone else may also enjoy Brand!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

A Murder of Ravens

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore.
"The Raven" (Edgar Allan Poe)

In Japan, the term funiki gee (lit: "atmospheric game") is used to describe games that may not be impressive from a gameplay point of view per se, but which present the player with a unique, enjoyable atmosphere that manages to pull in the player. Usually, it's a mixture of the art, the music and the underlying world that helps create this ambiance, providing a whole package that is at least enjoyable due to the game feels despite minor or more major flaws regarding how the game actually plays.

Funiki gee is the word I had in my mind as I played the mystery point & click adventure game The Raven Remastered (2019, PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One), a remastered version of 2013's The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief. I played the original release back in 2013 (when it was released in three distinct episodes instead of one package), but had forgotten most of the details of the story, I realized as I revisited the remastered version. I did remember that this was truly a funiki game: it had an excellent atmosphere and feel, even if as a game, and even as a mystery story, it had it share of flaws. What most people will think of when they first start playing this game is one name: Agatha Christie. Christie was undeniably an enormous influence on this game, and everything feels like it could've been featured in a Christie novel. Even the opening setting is familiar: the Orient Express. This game is set in 1964, five years after Inspector Legrand shot and caught the legendary thief The Raven. But now five years later, a new thief rears its beak: the "Heir of the Raven", as people are wont to call the newcomer, has succeeded in stealing one of the two "Eyes of the Sphinx" jewels from a museum in London, though with much more violence than the old Raven ever used. The remaining Eye is now being transported to Cairo for an exhibition. The great Inspector Legrand is to accompany the Eye to its destination to protect it from further attempts of theft and he even suspects that he's not dealing with the "Heir", but the real Raven, and that the man he caught five years ago was not the real Raven. The Eye is to travel by the Orient Express to Venice, where it will be shipped further to Cairo. In Switzerland, the elderly police constable Anton Zellner is put on the Express to assist Legrand, despite the inspector's reservations about what help the old man could possibly offer. Zellner, seeing this as his last opportunity to show off what he's capable off, however proves himself to be a very capable police detective when the Raven sets off a bomb on the train, which convinces Zellner to stick around to protect the jewel until it's safely exhibited in Cairo.

A story set on the Orient Express, aboard a steamer making a voyage across the Mediterranean Sea and inside a museum for Egyptian art, with an international, always somewhat suspicious cast including a Jewish baroness, a jetsetting American heir, a travelling German medical doctor and famous British writer and her companion: yep, this feels a lot like a Christie story. In fact, one of the characters in the game, Lady Clarissa Westmacott, is a famous writer of mystery stories starring a certain Partout and has a personal interest in Archaeology: the name and background of this character sound rather familiar to people who know Agatha Christie. The primary protagonist Anton Zellner too reminds of old Poirot, with his constable roots and a moustache. The Raven Remastered oozes atmosphere, and is sure to entertain people who like British Golden Age detective fiction. 


Like I said, when one uses the term 'atmospheric game', it's usually meant as a word to praise the game despite minor or major flaws and while I did have fun with my second playthrough, The Raven Remastered also reminded me that as a mystery game, it has little in common with Christie's writing. It's not horrible, mind you, but it's definitely not a cleverly, but fairly-clewed mystery tale, and there is a distinct gap between the mystery story and the tasks you have to perform as a player. It's this disjoint that makes The Raven Remastered a game that is not nearly as clever as the atmosphere is good. Gameplay consists mostly of inventory puzzles, and going through key dialogues by talking with all the characters. For example, very early on in the game a traveler in the Orient Express is locked outside his compartment and asks Zellner for some help. You then control Zellner, speaking with people on the train and looking for tools to use and eventually you find a way to pry open the door. Classic point & click adventure formula. However, all these inventory puzzles and the like are not integrally related to the story itself. The core mystery of who the Raven is and what they are going to do are not addressed directly in these puzzles, they just stand in the way of actually investigating what is going on. And that's often the case with mystery point & click adventure games: the puzzles themselves do not ask of you to think of the main mystery, in fact they distract from what should be the main mystery. You're constantly doing small menial tasks (collecting inventory items so you fix a door or something like that) just to be able to finally proceed with the mystery story. 


And that's very dissatisfying: what you want is that each puzzle you solve, does bring you closer to the truth, like in the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney games, where you solve mini-puzzles (finding a contradiction in a testimony) one after another, and each solved contradiction will lead you closer to unraveling the whole mystery. The disjoint between what you want to do in The Raven Remastered (investigate who the Raven is) and what you are mostly doing (collecting items here and there to solve an artificial block in the way in solving the mystery) is somewhat frustrating. It's only part in the middle section where you truly feel like you're working on an investigation, as you actually collect pieces of evidence in a murder case that occurs on a boat and have to analyze them. Which incidentally is a locked room murder, but not a particularly original, or inspiring one. But this is just a small part, and most of the time you feel like you're busy solving puzzles that aren't related to the main story directly.

As for the mystery plot itself... it's not Christie by any means. The story was originally released back in 2013 in three installments, with one or two months between each release. When I first played it, I figured some of the problems I had with the story simply derived from the fact there were a few months between each episode and I had probably forgotten the details in the gap between the releases, but now I have played it in one go, I see The Raven Remastered is simply somewhat flawed in terms of the overall story. Some minor plotlines seem to be forgotten or ignored as you move from one episode to another, some characters that serve as red herrings barely have something to say and then suddenly disappear. I think the worst part is when at a certain point, you are suddenly threatened by the Raven and you have to guess who the person with the gun behind you is: when I first played this game, I really don't know, but even this second playthrough, knowing fully well who The Raven was, I'd still say the game showed next to no hints that set-up this reveal. You just have to guess who the Raven is, not based on any hints or clues shown in the narrative up to that point (and no, "he or she acted suspicious" is not a clue). It's here where that disjoint in solving minor inventory puzzles, and solving the mystery really feels largest: all the time you're busy finding ways to open doors or distracting someone or things like that, but when the game actually needs you to think and solve a plot-related mystery, it decides to forget about proper set-up. Opening doors and finding tools and other objects brought you not one step closer in the deductive process of solving the underlying mystery.


What is interesting to the game is that The Raven Remastered changes its protagonist half-way through: after going through the adventure with old Zellner, the narrative jumps back to tell the story from the beginning again, but from the point of view of another character. Some parts that seemed vague or unsolved in Zellner's part of the story are explained here, and that's pretty funny and interesting. In theory, showing the same events from two distinct POV can lead to an interesting mystery story, but there are still parts that feel somewhat undeveloped in general, even if this mult-layered style of storytelling is fun. But again, it'd have been more fun if you could already actually deduce what had happened in Zellner's part based on actual hinting and clewing, and that the game would then show you you were right as you played through the second half from the other point of view. This sadly is not really done well here.

So my second playthrough of The Raven Remastered doesn't differ much from how I experienced the original The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief back in 2013. In terms of atmosphere, it's quite enjoyable: the setting, the characters and the music all invoke a distinct ambiance that reminds of Christie's work. It actually feels more Christie than a lot of other games that are actually officially licensed Agatha Christie game adaptations. But most of the tasks you as the player have to perform, are not directly related to the main mystery plot, and in fact, the game gives you very little space to truly think over the (fairly disappointing) clues yourself. If you really want to feel like a detective yourself, this might not be the game for you, but as a game to enjoy a mystery tale, and allows you to focus on smaller tasks at hand as you go through the story, The Raven Remastered is an okay game.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Girl Who Couldn't Remember

Memento mori

The last few years, all my encounters with Kitayama Takekuni were through Danganronpa, whether it being through his spin-off novel series Danganronpa Kirigiri or through his advisory role for New Danganronpa V3. Today, I go back to his Castle series, which is how I was first introduced to him in 2011.

Castle series
'Clock Castle' Murder Case (2002)
'Lapis Lazuli Castle' Murder Case (2002)
'Castle Alice Mirror' Murder Case (2003)
'Guillotine Castle' Murder Case (2005)

Rurijou Satsujin Jiken ("'Lapis Lazuli Castle' Murder Case", 2002) starts in 1989, inside the so-called The Library At The End of the World, a small private library situated outside town on the northern-most tip of the northern Japanese island Hokkaido. One of the few frequent visitors of the library is the eighteen year old Kimiyo, who unfortunately due to a brain tumor only has about a half year of life left. She spends her days here in the library, accompanied by her friends: the two librarians Kirisame and Utamika, and the student Miki. One day, Kimiyo is suddenly spoken to by a new visitor, a man calling himself Kito. He has a rather odd story: he claims Kimiyo and he have already met in a previous life. In fact, he says that they have come across each other countless of times, destined to find each other with each new reincarnation. He claims this is the Curse of the Six Daggers, which each time will attract them to one of the daggers (and indeed, the library has one of those daggers in the storage). Kito says that each new life, Kimiyo and he become lovers, but in the end, one of them always ends up killing the other with one of the cursed daggers. The curse is supposed to originate from the thirteenth century, with their "original" souls being a French lady and her knight. Kimiyo obviously doesn't believe much of the story initially, neither do her friends, but the whole thing escalates in the worst possible manner, when one morning, Kirisame arrives in the library to find Kimiyo lying in a pentagram made out of books, with the decapitated heads of Utamika and Miki hanging in the room. But not only was the room completely locked from the inside, what makes this really baffling is that Kirisame swears Kimiyo wasn't stabbed yet when he saw her lying from outside the room, but she was stabbed by the cursed dagger when he finally made her way to her. Kirisame has no idea what's going on here, until a mysterious androgenous person calling themselves Snowy appears on the scene and declares they will solve this mystery.

Meanwhile, the reader is also introduced to two other time periods visited by this Snowy. In 1916's Germany, a French Second Lieutenant is fighting in the trenches, when one day, he hears of a story of German soldiers suddenly losing their head. He later finds an underground room in the trenches where four decapitated soldiers lie, but after a short fight, he finds all four bodies have disappeared completely from that room, even though there were soldiers on guard in all the passages leading away from that room. Snowy is also a visitor in 1243's France, home of the Lapis Lazuli Castle, inhabitated by Geoffroy on the orders of the House of Toulouse. Geoffroy's daughter, Marie is in love with Rayne, one of the "Six Knights for Marie", a special unit Geoffroy appointed to his daughter. Her mother disappeared several years ago without any trace from the castle, and she has confided in Rayne to investigate it. However, Marie's knights have only started when one night, all six knights disappear mysteriously from the heavily guarded castle too. Eventually, the six decapitated bodies of the knights are found near an upstream lake. But what is odd is that the knights were discovered there the morning after their disappearance, but it takes several days to travel that far upstream. Marie is desperate when Snowy appears to explain how Rayne and the other knights managed to disappear.

Rurijou Satsujin Jiken is the second book in Kitayama's Castle series and the last one I hadn't read yet, but if you go through the other reviews, you might notice that the books do not form one narrative or even share the same world. They are all standalone stories, each set in rather unique worlds with some supernatural elements, with the main connecting tissue being that they all feature castles or manors as their main decor. So you can read them completely independently from each other, in any order. There are some small references shared between them, but nothing major. For example, there is mention of a tale of six decapitated knights too in Guillotine Jou Satsujin Jiken and the titular Clock Castle's official name is actually Geoffroy's Manor. The major similarities between the stories are the castle settings, the emphasis on impossible murders (often featuring some grand mechanical trick behind them) and fantasy/science-fiction elements playing a role in the background. For example, reincarnation in Rurijou Satsujin Jiken is actually real, and yes, Marie from thirteenth century France is really Kimiyo in twentieth century Japan. You have to roll with these ideas in this series, but more about this later.

First: the mysteries. We are presented with three different situations this time, all set in different time periods and quite different, even if they have some thematic similiarities (decapitated bodies). One problem all three situations have is that the set-up for each of them is rather short: Snowy basically appears immediately afer the mystery is presented, and they start deducing right away. The 1989 library murder for example has few good ideas about how the room was actually locked, but you barely get any time to think about it. What is important to note however is that this trick is... really hard to imagine just by reading the explanation. I had to read the text a few times and still didn't really get, but one look at the diagram that followed was enough for me to finally comprehend it, even without the textual explanation. Kitayama's pretty infamous for his rather technical, and mechanically sound construction of locked room mysteries, but I often do need a visual aid to really get it. The trick behind how Kimiyo was stabbed in an instant is a bit shakey, but it's nicely camouflaged and relatively easy to imagine. But still, everything feels a bit hasty.

The 1916's disappearance of the four soldiers from the trenches is the least interesting mystery presented in the novel. The solution itself is a bit mundane, and it doesn't really help that the prose didn't do much to really support the presentation of the mystery: some parts are rather vague, so when the whole thing is explained, you just shrug and think, 'Okay, that could happen if it was like that, but it wasn't really clear in the text.' The disappearance from the knights from the Lapis Lazuli Castle is likely the one to leave the most impression. The concept behind how the bodies actually ended up so far within half a day is basically one of those 'if you happen to know this piece of trivia, you're good and else you're out of luck' which don't do much for me. How the knights actually disappeared from the castle is incredibly obvious once a certain prop is introduced in the story, but it's so wonderfully silly and grand, reminiscent of those early Shimada Souji stories, that I can't help but have a weak spot for it. It's insane, in a good way, and that's actually when this series is at its best.

Back to the reincarnation topic though. While reincarnation is treated as real in this story, and it's also used to spring some surprises on the reader, one might be surprised that it's not really part of the mystery plot proper. Some of the reveals Snowy makes about how reincarnation works and how it influences the plot of this novel come almost out of nowhere, and while they make internally sense, you are never really expected to figure how things work for yourself. Kitayama does use the reincarnation theme for a small, but clever event late in the book, but it almost feels like an extra. For the most part, you just roll with the reincarnation thing, and accept that some events work out this or that way, because of how it is explained within the novel (mostly by Snowy), rather than working the thing out in advance yourself.

Like all the other books in the Castle series, I think I ultimately do like them, but they are also always rather hard to just recommend to people. The science-fiction/fantasy settings can be a bit disorientating for some readers, especially as each novel has a completely different setting and you often feel like you're only reading part of a story, as if you're missing context regarding the rest of the world. This is also true for Rurijou Satsujin Jiken, though I have to say it's perhaps the best at presenting a complete, standalone world compared to the other novels in series. The three impossible situations are a bit hit or miss though as each time, the process set-up-discovery-solution is rather short. Unique however, this book certainly is and overall, I am definitely glad I now read all of Kitayama's Castle books.

Original Japanese title(s):  北山猛邦『「瑠璃城」殺人事件』

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Question!

I am a fan of the Challenge to the Reader (Viewer/Listener/Player/etc.) in mystery fiction. Yes, it's awfully artificial and meta to suddenly stop the story to directly address the reader to say that at that point in the story  all the clues have now been presented and that if they're an attentive thinker, they're now perfectly able to solve the mystery themselves now, but if one considers detective fiction to be an intellectual game, breaking the fourth wall at such a time is perfectly fine in my opinion. Whether it's Queen suddenly interrupting Ellery's investigation in the novels or Ellery himself addressing the viewer in the excellent television show, whether it's Furuhata Ninzaburou beneath the spotlight, or perhaps even the author Arisugawa Alice himself who declares Egami now knows whodunnit, I love the declaration that now all the pieces are in set in place and that I should be able to figure the mystery out. Series like Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo and Tantei Gakuen Q have similar moments, when the protagonists cry out they have now solved the mystery, implicitly suggesting that the reader should also have done so by now.


On one hand, it's of course the thrill of being addressed directly with a challenge to solve the mystery, but lately, I have grown more appreciative of a different angle to the Challenge to the Reader, namely how it works as an aid in constructing a good mystery plot. Let's say that the average mystery story is divided in 1) The discovery of the mystery, 2) The investigation and 3) The mystery is explained. I want to focus on the phase between 2) and 3): the moment that the mystery is solved by the detective. Mind you, I am not talking about the scene where the detective has gathered all the suspects in the parlor to accuse someone. That is after the detective solved the mystery, they only haven't explained it yet. I am talking about the exact moment when all the puzzle pieces fall in place, when all the hints and clues have been gathered and been identified for their role in the mystery. It's at this moment when all the random clues, hints and witnesses come together to form a Rube Goldberg machine or The Incredible Machine where everything interlocks in a meaningful manner to lead to one undeniable conclusion.


What is important for a good mystery story is that there should be a reason why the detective couldn't figure it out until that specific moment. Ideally, a mystery story should be plotted so each hint and clue presented in the story will bring the detective and reader closer to the truth, but there should also be one final, conclusive clue that allows them to make that last leap. Without that last clue, both the detective and reader should be stuck, unable to declare with full conviction that they solved it. Some years ago, I wrote a piece on clues in mystery fiction, especially as seen in Queen school mystery fiction, and it's especially in these type of stories where this is done well. Usually, the reader is able to identify multiple attributes of the murderer that allows them to strike off most names on the suspect list, but they need one final hint that allows them to eliminate one of the final remaining two names. When the story then reveals a clue that shows the murderer was right-handed and you know one of the remaining names was left-handed, you understand not only the importance of the clue, but also why the detective was not able to solve the mystery until that specific moment. It's like having already built most of The Incredible Machine, but still missing that bowling ball to drop on the cat to get the thing going.


A good Challenge to the Reader should of course included right after this liberating moment. It's a bit of self-promotion, but I find the Challenge to the Reader in Arisugawa's The Moai Island Puzzle an excellent example of how to do a Challenge. It's placed right after the scene where Egami learns of a certain fact that finally allows him identify the murderer, even though a lot of the facts surrounding the mystery could already be solved by them. It was really that last little bit that he needed to be truly able to figure out who the murderer was, and that is why it's immediately followed by the Challenge. Both the Ellery Queen and Furuhata Ninzaburou television shows usually do an excellent job here too, with the respective Challenge to the Viewers following right after (and actually within the same scene of) finding out the final, decisive clue. A good mystery story, with or without a Challenge, should really have this moment that justifies a mystery not being solved until that moment.

Stories with multiple (false) solutions also often perform well on this aspect (see also my article on false solutions and the foil detective). Usually, a false solution is presented because it's based on incomplete information, because there are still vital clues missing in the process. Mitsuda Shinzou's Toujou Genya series in particular uses this to great effect: Genya's method of deduction actually involves him simply coming up with fanciful deductions based on the facts he has at that moment. Often, they are shot down by new facts and clues presented by the people listening to him and dismissing his theories. But then Genya uses those new facts to build a new theory, etc. until he gets the final, conclusive clue that truly allows him to reveal the truth.


What I sometimes see in mystery fiction however is that a detective doesn't manage to figure the mystery out yet at a certan point of the story, even though seen from a story-structure point of view, all the relevant clues have already been presented to them. Usually, they brood on the clues for a while, and then they suddenly see it because the story wants it to be so, or they're given an extra, but not vital hint to push them towards the solution. Christie's Three Act Tragedy for example has Poirot only realizing what is going on due to a chance remark of one of the characters, but that remark is not a vital clue on its own. From a pure logical point of view, Poirot could've solved the mystery earlier without ever having heard that remark, because it was not a clue pertaining to the logical process of solving the mystery. To go back to The Incredible Machine analogy: Poirot was not missing a vital piece of the machine, he already had everything. He just needed someone to say "Hey, what if you put that thing here?' And as much as I adore the Detective Conan special Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau ("The Cursed Masks Laugh Coldly"), that too has Conan only realizing what was going on after seeing something that nudged him in the right direction, even though he already had possession of all the relevant clues before that moment. And I usually don't find this really satisfying in a mystery novel, because when you look at the story in an abstract way, like plotting every clue and hint in a flowchart, you'll see that the essential clues were already presented, and that the thing that finally helps the detective (if such a hint is given at all), is usually minor and not directly related to the mystery, meaning they could've solved it earlier and there's no direct reason to stall the "I figured it out!" moment until later.

So to come back to why I like Challenges to the Reader: I have the feeling they help mystery authors think more about plotting their story, how the logical process of solving their mystery should be structured and what the implications of each and every clue should be. Of course, most stories work perfectly fine without a Challenge to the Reader and the Challenge is not directly responsible for making a good "I figured it out!" moment. But I do feel more writers should really think about legitimizing why a mystery is solved at a certain point in a story from a logical point of view and a Challenge can be a helpful tool.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Vanishing Game

 「死体の入れ物といえば、これに勝るものはない」
『ここに死体を捨てないでください!」

"There was nothing better than that to put a dead body in."
"Don't Dump Your Bodies Here Please!"

Oh, wow, it's been this long since I last read a book in Higashigawa Tokuya's Ikagawashi series? Man, at one time I was reading at least one of these books a year....

Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! ("Don't Dump Your Bodies Here Please!" 2009) opens with a a phone call from Kaori's younger sister Haruka, which turned Kaori's day complete upside down. It was still early in the day when an unknown woman suddenly barged into Haruka's apartment, and in her sheer surprise and fear, Haruka accidently stabbed the woman with her fruit knife. Unwisely, Haruka fled her room, leaving the body behind. By the time she had come to her senses, she found herself in another prefecture and called to her sister for help. Figuring that the police isn't likely to believe her younger sister's story, especially as she fled the scene of the crime, Kaori declares she'll take care of everything for her younger sister. Kaori learns her sister did really tell her the truth, as the dead body is still lying in Haruka's kitchen. Going through the victim's wallet, she learns the victim was called Yamada Keiko, a woman who had no connections whatsover to Haruka. Kaori decides she needs to move the body away from Haruka's room, and dupes the young man Tetsuo into helping her. Tetsuo drives a truck collecting large recyclable trash, and they decide to use the old contrabass case he collected to hide Keiko's body in. They drive off in Keiko's car, and after wandering around the edges of town to find a place to dump the body, they decide to drive the car, with Keiko inside, into the allegedly bottomless Moon Crescent Lake on Bonkura Mountain outside Ikagawashi City. It's only after they've sunk the car the two realize they're now stuck on the mountain without a car and after a long, long time of being lost, they find refuge in an inn with hot springs on the mountain. What should've been the end of a long night however is just the beginning, as it just so happens a certain private detective, his asssistant and their landlord have also arrived at the same inn, as they are looking for a client who never showed up for her appointment: a certain Yamada Keiko.

Like I said, I read a lot of the Ikagawashi series in the earlier days of this blog, but my last review related to this series dates from 2014, when I reviewed the TV drama Watashi no Kirai na Tantei ("The Detective I Don't Like"), based on the books of this series. Like most of Higashigawa Tokuya's series, the Ikagawashi series is a humorous detective series, which combines snappy dialogues and slapstick comedy with proper puzzle mystery plots. This series is particularly unique in that it basically has no fixed main detective character, and the series is therefore titled after the city where these cases take place. The overly self-confident private detective Ukai Morio, his slow-witted assistant Ryuuhei and their landlord Akemi (who doesn't like poking around as a detective, but simply needs to make sure Ukai pays his rent) are often at the center of things, but usually Inspectors Sunagawa and Shiki also end up as focus characters, and any of these characters is able to solve (part of) the mystery at hand.

Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! too has three perspectives for the reader. First we have Kaori and Tetsuo, who dumped the body and are then treated to several surprises at the inn. First they find that a weird middle-aged man (Ukai Morio) is asking around about Yamada Keiko, and with time, Kaori and Tetsuo even start to suspect Ukai, Ryuuhei and Akemi killed the woman in Haruka's room, not knowing that at the exact same time Ukai and Akemi arrive at the conclusion that Kaori and Tetsuo must've done killed their client who never showed up! And then there's the police, who have their own suspicions too. A lot of the comedy is derived from seeing the same situation from various perspectives, but that's of course also the way the reader will eventually solve the puzzle. Several other incidents occur in this novel besides the mysterous death of Yamada Keiko: the following day, the owner of the inn they're all staying is found dead, ostenstibly drowned after he fell into the river during a midnight fishing session. There are also suspicions of foul play, but it seems that most of the viable suspects have a perfect alibi, as they were watching a live soccer game of the national team together, making it impossible for most of them to go all the way to the man's fishing spot and back in time. Kaori and Tetsuo are also confronted with another surprise: they happen to come to Moon Crescent Lake the following day again, but not only learn it isn't even remotely 'bottomless', they are unable to find the car they dumped despite the super clean and clear water of the lake! But why did somebody remove the car with Keiko's body from the lake and how?

Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! keeps the reader from start to finish entertained by juggling between these various characters and showing everything from various perspectives, and this structure definitely helps out the underlying mystery plot, as it'd be a bit simple if left on its own. Some of the elements are somewhat easy to guess, for example the matter what Yamada Keiko was doing in Haruka's apartment anyway, though the death of the owner of the inn, and the disappearance of the dumped car are linked in an interesting manner with a somewhat original solution, though I do have trouble imagining how practical this trick would actually be. There are some neat, but obvious clues left here and there and overall, this is a very fair mystery novel that isn't too hard and can be quite satisyfying to read.

Oh, and a small note, but don't you just hate it when they suddenly change the style of covers suddenly? The earlier pocket releases of this series featured a very different style, but at some point they changed it to have these comic characters, and republished the older novels too with the new covers. The thing is: I think these new covers are really fun. So now I have the four older pockets in the old style, and only this novel in the new but better style...

Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! is also the last novel in the series for the moment by the way. It is followed by three short story collections, but I am not sure when I'm going to read those books. Parts of them were already used for the drama adaptation, so I am already familiar with almost half of them. Koko ni Shitai wo Sutenaide Kudasai! for me however was a safe, familiar return to a place I know well. It's perhaps not the best novel in this series (it isn't), but it's a consistent and funny mystery novel that does everything you'd expect from a novel in this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉 『ここに死体を捨てないでください!』

Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Clocks

Last year, I wrote an article on glasses in mystery fiction, looking at the various ways in which spectacles could be used in a mystery plot. I ended the article with a note that "I doubt this post will turn into a series about all kinds of objects (...)" but now one year later, I think it's about time to write about another object often seen in mystery fiction: clocks, watches and other timepieces.

To first quote myself from the glasses article:

Objects are often important to a mystery story. If a murder is committed, the culprit is likely to utilize an object, that is, a murder weapon, to accomplish their goal. A button left at the crime scene could prove as evidence to the identity of the murderer. Or perhaps the disappearance of an object that should be there will become the focus of an investigation, leading the question of why a certain object was so important it had to be removed. An object is thus usually a clue, something that links it to the solution of the mystery (which could be a murder, but it could be any enigmatic happening).  An object might tell you who committed a certain crime, or how it was done, or perhaps why it was done.

Objects and items are usually created with a certain purpose in mind: sometimes it's for decorative purposes, more often it's for more practical needs, and sometimes it's a bit of both. The primary purpose of clocks, wristwatches and similar objects is of course to tell, or measure time. And time is oh-so-important in mystery fiction. When the investigator is looking for the person whodunnit, they always look at means, motive and opportunity, and opportunity is related to time: who was physically capable of committing the crime, being at a certain spot at a certain time? The alibi in mystery fiction is a concept of time: the proof of being present at certain location at a certain time. But also think of locked room mysteries: it's no coincidence that many of the locked room lectures include categorizations/possible solutions that say that the real time the murder occured is either earlier or later than assumed. Time is an integral part of mystery fiction, and you need clocks to tell time.


The first time you think of when I say clocks in mystery fiction, is probably the image of a damaged wrist or pocket watch, the time stopped at the exact time the time-keeper was broken. The watch of the victim has stopped at 22:00, so he must have been struggling with his murderer then, and broke his watch when he fell on the floor, meaning the murder happened at ten! Of course, no reader of mystery fiction is going to believe this as is. Nowadays, in-universe characters and readers alike are savvy enough to know that the "broken watch" can be easily faked by the murderer to make it seem like the crime was commited at a different time. The notion that clocks indicate the time, but don't actually measure time as independent element is of course the crux of the dilemma. You can measure the outside temperature, and then convert it to different measurement units. Time itself isn't measured by a watch, it does not measure "time" first to convert it to a second/minute/hour scale. A clock just runs at a certain rhythm, allowing us to create a time unit for us to use. So clocks are often used to fake alibis, and often the mystery of course shifts away from "clocks" to "how was the trickery with time" done. That said, clocks can still be an important part of such a mystery story. Let's say a witness saw a certain act happening at a certain time, having checked on their own watch. A trick could be that the murderer managed to changed the time on that watch, making the witness think they saw the act happening then. An excellent example of this idea is Ayukawa Tetsuya's short story Itsutsu no Tokei (The Five Clocks, 1957) where the alibi of a suspect seems iron-clad, as a witness spent the whole evening with the suspect and having checked the time on five different clocks over the course of that evening.

To give another example of clocks fulfilling a role as indicators of time in mystery fiction: the fifth novel in Ayatsuji Yukito's series on Houses is about the Clock House, which includes a wing with a collection of 108 watches. A group of people is locked inside this wing and of course murders happen. Considering the setting of the Clock House, you can safely guess that time has something to do with how the murders were committed, but the trick done here is brilliant, in your sight but oh-so-easy to miss. And it makes great use of the notion of clocks as indicators of time. Norizuki Rintarou's short story Shiramitsubushi no Tokei (Leave No Clock Unturned) goes even further: the protagonist of the story finds themselves in a windowless room with 1440 different running clocks, each indicating a different time down to the minute (12:00, 12:01, 12:02 etc.).  Their task: to find the one single clock in the room that is indicating the current time (as they are running!) It seems an impossible task, but Norizuki shows how this puzzle can be solved by pure logic and dedication.

In the above examples, I'm talking about mostly analog clocks, but man, if I were to go into the topic of digital clocks (especially those on security camera footage), I could be here writing all day. I guess that if I were to mention one single example, it'd be Ooyama Seiichirou's Tokeiya Tantei to Download no Alibi, a short story about an alibi of the main suspect being built around the fact he downloaded a certain song that was only available for download for one day, with digital time-stamps and a receipt proving his alibi.


Talking this much about time almost makes you forget that a clock or timepiece is on its own a physical object too. And yep, that also means that you can use a clock in other ways than just read time. A clock can of course be used as a murder weapon for example, though people who have played the videogame Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo - Hoshimitou - Kanashimi no Fukushuuki (The Case Files of Young Kindaichi - Stargazing Isle - The Sad Monsters of Revenge, 1998) will know to be careful with this. In this game, you play the murderer and have to avoid making mistakes or Hajime is instantly on your trail and if you choose to kill that one victim by bashing his head in, it's wiser to use the ornamental duck than the clock which will break and indicate the time of death... Grandfather clocks might be easier to crush a victim under. But there are other uses for clocks as physical objects in mystery fiction. In Yokomizo Seishi's Inugamike no Ichizoku (The Inugami Clan, 1951), some people doubt whether the war-injured Sukekiyo is really Sukekiyo, as his face is covered completely in bandages. One of the characters cleverly has Sukekiyo pick up her pocket watch: his fingerprints are preserved nicely on the glass inside the pocket watch. More 'general' uses for watches in mystery fiction are for example watches as personal items: the scene where Sherlock Holmes deduces about the owner of a certain pocket watch is quite famous. But a culprit for example might have dropped their own watch on the crime scene, or broken it there, leaving pieces of glasses on the floor which they must hide (similar to what I mentioned in the glasses article).


More unique uses of a clock as something else but a time indicator are to be found in for example Detective Conan (where Conan's wearing a stun-gun wristwatch which allows him to shoot a small needle with a strong sedative to knock someone out) or in Death Note, where a watch is revealed to be hiding a certain other object in one of the better known scenes of the series. In these instances, the watch is a disguise for something else. Clocks featured in some Christie novels like, obviously, The Clocks and The Seven Dials Mystery, but I thought they were more props there than actually related to the core plot.

One of the more memorable uses of a clock in mystery fiction is probably the clock as a location. Edogawa Rampo's Yuureitou (The Phantom Tower, 1937) was based on Kuroiwa Ruikou's same-titled Yuureitou (1899-1900), in turn based on A Woman in Grey, a 1898 novel by Alice Muriel Williamson. Part of Rampo's story is set in a creepy clock tower with secret passages etc. This would later inspire a young Miyazaki Hayao (of Studio Ghibli fame) to have the climax of his first animated theatrical feature, Lupin III: The Castle of Caglistro (1979) also set at a clock tower. His climax scene also formed an inspiration for the final scene in Disney's 1989 animated feature The Great Mouse Detective (and in turn also the climax in the Batman: The Animated Series episode The Clock King). While a location might not always be directly connected with the core mystery plot, the clock tower as a setting for a treasure hunt-type story works quite well in my mind.

Anyway, I have written more than enough about clocks in mystery fiction today. I didn't really think too much about the topic, so it's not really going in-depth on all the ways clocks could be used in mystery fiction, but the article should work as an introduction to the topic. My glasses article was more interesting, I personally think, so take a look at that time if you hadn't yet. Anyway, always happy to hear about the examples you might think of regarding the theme of clocks in mystery fiction.