Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Lie, Lie, Lie

"The truth is out there"
"The X-Files"

Hey, have you heard about Steel Lady Nanase? The stories of a ghost who carries a steel beam and attacks people around Makurazaka City? They say she's the ghost of the idol Nanase Karin. Never heard of her? Well, she wasn't a household name yet, but she was getting there. She was smart, calculating and that chest of hers! Anyway, she was doing fine until her father died. The two of them, they didn't get along, and there were even rumors he hadn't fallen off the stairs, but that she pushed him. The press was all over her, so she took a break from work to get away from those pesky journalists. Stayed in one city for a few days, then to another, etcetera. Until she arrived in Makaruzaka. One evening, she had snuck into a construction site, when a pile of steel beams fell on her, crushing her face and killing her instantly! And after a while, people started talking. That her ghost still lingered around to avenge her death. That her death was not natural, as she didn't even try to protect herself from the falling beams. She's supposed to be dressed like in her idol days, wearing a mini skirt and a ribbon in her hair, but also swinging a heavy steel beam around at anyone she sees...

Rookie cop Saki of course didn't really believe the rumors of Steel Lady Nanase, but when she heard from a fellow detective that lately, more and more incidents occured in town where people seem to refer to a being that might be Steel Lady Nanase, her interests were piqued, and she agreed to help him out in his investigation. In most of these incidents, like a horrible car accident, the involved eventually gave other excuses for what happened, but strangely enough, it seems their initial, and perhaps most honest reactions were to say they were attacked by Steel Lady Nanase. One night however, Saki herself is confronted with Steel Lady Nanase, and to her shock, she learns that Steel Lady Nanase is really a ghost. And a terrifyingly strong one too, who is growing more powerful by the night. The only ones who can stop Steel Lady Nanase from causing more destruction and eventually perhaps even kill somebody, turn out to be Saki's ex, Sakuragawa Kurou and Kurou's current girlfriend Iwanaga Kotoko, a young girl with a baret and a walking stick. Both Kurou and Kotoko are more than mere humans, falling right in the gap between normal humans and the supernatural. Despite's Kotoko petty and arrogant attitude at times, she is respected and worshipped as the Diety of Knowledge by the various supernatural beings that exist, who count on her wisdom to help her out. Usually, their requests are pretty minor, but now the local ghosts, monsters and other youkai need Kotoko's help to defeat Steel Lady Nanase, who is completely out of control and attacking everyone, humans and other supernatural beings alike. Saki learns from Kotoko that Steel Lady Nanase is an actual product of people's imagination: it's the belief in the urban legend of Steel Lady Nanase that created her and gave her this tremendous power, so the only way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase is to create an even more elaborate urban legend, an even fancier lie that disproves Steel Lady's Nanase's existence for people to believe in, even if she does really exist now. This seemingly contradictional problem lies at the heart of Shirodaira Kyou's 2011 novel Kyokou Suiri, which also carries the English title Invented Inference.

You ever decide to quickly read something because you knew an adaptation was coming? The original novel first caught my eye when in 2012, I was a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club and one of the scheduled bookclub sessions was about this book (I didn't participate then). The title seemed so weird, yet alluring. Later I learned there was also a manga adaptation, which is being published in the United States with the title In/Spectre and then I heard last year that in January 2020, an anime series based on this novel would start. So I decided to quickly read the novel before the anime adaptation would start. Shirodaira Kyou, whom I knew from the manga mystery series Spiral ~ Suiri no Kizuna, was quite busy preparing for the upcoming hype of the anime series it seems, as both a short story collection and a second novel were published late 2018 and 2019.

Anyway, this is obviously a supernatural mystery: both Kotoko and Kurou have extraordinary powers and can even communicate with supernatural beings like the ghost of the dead, and in fact, early on Kotoko reveals to Saki that Nanase Karin really did just die in an accident and that she wasn't murdered or anything like that, and she can prove that because she has an actual witness to Karin's death: a ghost of a construction worker who had died at that site. So much for a mystery story, you might think, if ghosts can tell you who did or did not kill someone, but that's of course a rather small-minded way to think of a mystery story. Invented Inference is really fun to read, because it's built on a supernatural theme, leading to a type of mystery that is actually quite familiar to veteran mystery readers.

The genius angle with which this novel is written is that Steel Lady Nanase is a ghost that is powered by the belief in her urban legend: because of the internet, modern urban myths can spread with abnormal speed, diffusing a consistent image across the country shared by all readers. This has made Steel Lady Nanase a very powerful ghost in a short time, while in the old days, this process would've taken decades, and it was likely the urban myth would already be forgotten in the meantime. One way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase would be to disprove the urban legend, but as we all know, people like to believe in ghost stories, urban muths and conspiracy theories. Thus Kotoko explains the only way to defeat Steel Lady Nanase, to weaken the belief in her, is to create a new story, which proves there's no such thing as Steel Lady Nanase. But it has to be a story that people want to believe over the story of Steel Lady Nanase, it has to be wackier, more alluring, more worthwhile believing, while at the same time this new story has to be believable and logical. Coming up with a story based completely on lies is easy, but if holes are poked in your new story, then nobody is going to believe it, so it has to be a plausible story too. And thus we have the title: Kotoko has to come up with a completely fictional deduction, an invented inference, that will explain all the incidents that happened across Makurazaka City the last few weeks, including the sightings of Steel Lady Nanase and the enigmatic death of the idol Nanase Karin, an explanation is not only plausible and based on the real facts of the case, but also one that will not create an even worse monster.

The concept of having to come up with what is basically an elaborate lie is really fantastic and touches upon the fundamentals of mystery fiction. For do we really read mystery fiction to find out the truth? No, we read mystery fiction because we like fiction, because we want to hear a story that is plausible and logically based on the facts presented, but also a story that is entertaining, a story you want to believe in, something to amuse you. That is exactly what Kotoko has to do here, and the way she builds up her fake, but plausible deduction is really a sight to see as she skilfully mixes up all kinds of small elements from the urban myth to create her own new (completely fabricated) urban myth. The device of fake solutions of course reminds of writers like Christianna Brand and Anthony Berkeley, who often had the characters in their novels propose false solutions. But the difference is that in Invented Inference, the false solution is not a concept meant to divert you from the truth: the false solution is the goal. In this story, you already have the story of a poor idol who died tragically and is now haunting the city as a ghost swinging a steel beam around, and now the reader and Kotoko have to think of an explanation that is acceptable, based on the facts as far as they are publicly known and most importantly, one that is more entertaining than an actual vengeful ghost story. It's the last condition which makes Invented Inference so original because it's easy coming up with evidence or explanations that there are no ghosts, but people are more willing to believe the more interesting story. Truth is sometimes weirder than fiction, but in this novel, fiction needs to be more entertaining than the truth. The existence of supernatural beings in the world of the novel also doesn't interfere with the fair play element of the mystery, as the story's about creating a new urban myth based on the facts: people's beliefs in Steel Lady Nanase are strengthened by the real incidents she causes, but talking about other supernatural beings in a potential new urban myth is less likely to be accepted unless it has facts to back it up.

I already mentioned this first novel already saw two sequels this last year or so. It was no surprise sequels would follow, as these first novel is also clearly set in a much larger world, with more characters that will be explored more indepth in other stories. Invented Inference is a standalone story, but there's still plenty of questions left unanswered about the characters at the end of the tale.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Kyokou Suiri/Invented Inference, as it took a very original, and seemingly contradictionary approach to telling a mystery plot. The unconventional story setting and disinterest in truth makes this an entertaining read, while at the same time it does make you think, what is it really that makes you want to read a mystery novel. It's pretty light-hearted novel actually, and with the comedic bickering between the characters, surprisingly action-packed narrative and all the supernatural themes going, one might be inclined to think this is also a very light mystery, but at the core it actually addresses a core theme of the whole mystery genre in a way few dare. I might try the anime in January too.

Original Japanese title(s):  城平京『虚構推理』


  1. Do you know if nikaidou Reito's novels have been adapted into manga ?

    1. I believe one or two of the Ranko short stories had manga adaptations, don't believe any of his full-length novels had them.