Wednesday, November 27, 2019

The Clue in the Antique Trunk

We are all rowing the boat of fate
The waves keep on comin' and we can't escape
"Life is Like a Boat" (Rie Fu)

To be honest, if I were to fish something out of the canals of Amsterdam, I wouldn't be expecting anything good in the first place...

It was a late August day in 1965, when a child noticed a suitcase floating in the canal of the Jacob van Lennepkade in Amsterdam. The men around lift the suitcase out of the water, but to the great shock of them, the smell and color from the suitcase immediately them it's no treasure they found, and they immediately notify the police. The contents of the suitcase are determined to be the torso of a man: the hands and legs are missing, as is the victim's head. It's obviously a murder and Inspector van Berkum is put on the case. While the hands and face of the corpse are missing, clues like clothing and the brand name of the suitcase suggest a Japanese link, leading to a search for a missing Japanese male. This man is eventually found in Belgium, where a businessman Sakazaki, who recently arrived in Brussels as his trading company's European local man, hasn't been seen since a while by his landlord and other acquaintances. The joint investigation between the Dutch and Belgian police forces isn't going smoothly however, and when the prime suspect dies in a car accident, it seems the case is destined to go unsolved forever. That is until several years later, a Japanese journalist and Dr. Kuma Ukichi make their way to the Netherlands to see if they can clear the name of the prime suspect in Matsumoto Seichou's novella Amsterdam Unga Satsujin Jiken (1969) which was released in Dutch as De Amsterdamse Koffermoord (1979).

This novelette by Matsumoto Seichou, father of the shakaiha movement of realistic, socially aware mystery fiction in Japan, is based on an actual murder case that happened in Amsterdam in 1965, where indeed the body of a Japanese man was discovered, assumed to be the missing Kameda Yutaka. The case was never solved, but the sensational details of the case were of course too good to forget. This novellette by Matsumoto Seichou was written a few years after the case (and he apparently even did fieldwork), but there have been other Japanese mystery writers who found a bloody muse in the case of a Japanese man being cut-up in pieces fished out of the canals of Amsterdam: Arisugawa Alice (Gensou Unga) and Tsumura Shuusuke (Gisou Unga Satsujin Jiken) for example have drawn inspiration from this case too.

Matsumoto's story is clearly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe's The Mystery of Marie Rogêt, which it also references. The first half of the story is a relatively dry account of how the body was found, and uses news articles and other sources to explain the efforts of the police investigation. I gather that Matsumoto was sticking relatively close to the actual case here, even if he did change the names of the people mentioned. Like with Marie Roget, the idea is that while the 'appearances' of the case may have been changed for the story (small details, names etc.), the important details of the tale are left as they are and that the story is thus like a thought experiment. In the second half, the duo of the narrator (a business journalist) and Dr. Kuma Ukichi are introduced, who travel to the Netherlands and Belgium on behalf of the deceased suspect, hoping to bring a new light to the case.

Which, unsurprisingly, they do (it wouldn't be much of a detective story, right?). Don't expect a mindblowing reveal based on long chains of deduction with a labyrinthine puzzle plot, because that's precisely what Matsumoto didn't like, but the story does a good job of presenting a story that can, more or less, be deduced beforehand. Most of the important information is presented in the dry accounts of the first half, and while the narrator and Dr. Kuma ask around a bit after their arrival in Europe, the attentive reader can definitely make an educated guess as to the truth behind the Japanese torso. Matsumoto makes clever use of contradicting news reports here to string the reader along, while it gives an interesting answer to one of the biggest hurdles of the investigation: why was the body decapitated and were both hands cut off, while the at the other hand, the murderer didn't seem very occupied with the idea of really hiding the victim's identity considering the suitcase and clothes. The answer Matsumoto provides is believable, but has just enough of the romanticism a mystery story should have.

The Dutch volume De Amsterdamse Koffermoord features three other short stories by Matsumoto by the way (one of them Kao, Matsumoto's debut story), while in Japan, this story was bundled together with Saint Andrews no Jiken ("The Incident at St. Andrews").

I do confess that my own interest in Amsterdam Unga Satsujin Jiken derives for 90% from the fact it's a story by a famous Japanese mystery author, about a case that happened here in the Netherlands. The case happened long before I was born and I have never ever heard anyone talk about it in any other context, so I guess I'd never even have known about the real case if not for this story, so it's interesting read in that aspect. It has a novelty aspect to it, and the story, while nothing phenomenal, is interesting enough if you happen to have an hour go read.

Original Japanese title(s): 松本清張『アムステルダム運河殺人事件』

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Mary, Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells, and cockle shells,
And pretty maids all in a row
(English nursery rhyme)

Meanwhile, the upcoming Detective Conan volume is scheduled for a late December release, so it's likely I won't discuss that one until somewhere in January...

At age 17, Kindaichi Hajime was already used to visiting all the corners of Japan, usually because of some part-time job or a school club excursion, and unfortunately for him, these visits to remote islands, abandoned houses in the middle of nowhere or mansions in the mountains usually turned into bloody crime scenes. Travel is still part of his life now he's 37, because nowadays, he's being sent here and there across Japan for his work developing and managing guided tours. While Hajime and the reader, have seen a lot of Japan throughout the course of this series, I believe that The Beautiful Kyoto Flower Arrangement Practioners Murder Case is the first time we have a case set in the ancient capital of Kyoto. This is the third story in Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37") and spans volume 4 and 5. Hajime and his assistant Marin are sent to Kyoto to develop a new package tour. The idea is that the tourists will also attend an introduction course on ikebana practictioners, the traditional art of Japanese flower arrangement, and who better to learn from than the famous Kyougoku family, head of the ancient Akaike-style of ikebana? Like his firm had feared though, Hajime learns that the current head of the family, Ganryuu, is a very difficult person to work with. Ganryuu is actually not an expert on ikebana: his brother was, until he died. Ganryuu's twin nieces Kaoruko and Sakurako are the talents in the family, though Sakurako left the house to become a modern flower artist rather than a traditional ikebana practitioner Hajime and Marin are invited to stay one night at the manor of the Kyougokus, which includes a splendid traditional rock garden, considered to be a National Treasure. During the night however, Hajime discovers the body of Sakurako lying on a rock in the rock garden. It is assumed she committed suicide: she had a reason to do so because a few weeks earlier, revenge porn pictures of her were posted on social media and the gravel of the rock garden only has Sakurako's own footprints and nothing to indicate the presence of a third party. The carefully raked wave patterns in the gravel take up to six hours to do, so if there had been a murderer, they wouldn't have enough time to redo all of the gravel before Hajime found the body. But soon circumstances change, when the following night Kaoruko's murdered too, and she's even decapitated! The search for her missing head continues as the murderer prepares for more deaths, and Hajime has to work fast to find the murderer before his firm calls him back!

Like I mentioned in my preview of this story, the use of the traditional rock garden as a variant on the familiar footprints-in-the-snow trope is pretty neat. In terms of imagery, it might not be very different from the footprints-in-the-snow pattern or other popular variants like footprints-in-the-mud, but of course, they all have different properties, and tricks that work for one variant do not work for others. The rock garden, or karesanzui is of course strongly connected with Kyoto, with the rock garden in Ryoanji being a very popular tourist destination in particular. The patterns raked in the gravel (representing the waves of the sea) take hours to do, because all the lines are done in one continuous stroke and if you step on even one of the lines, you basically have to do everything (as you have to step in the garden to redo them, ruining even more lines). The trick behind how the murder (yes, it was a murder) was done is neat, but not farfetched, so an attentive reader could definitely think of it. I do have to say that while the trick also has a nice visual flair to it, I do really wonder whether the murderer really needed to pull it off in that exact manner, or whether they couldn't have just done it in a more straightforward manner which perhaps wouldn't have looked so good on the page. I guess in a visual medium, it's also necessary to think of the visual impact...

This story basically revolves around two major problems: if Sakurako's death is a murder, then how did the murderer escape the rock garden without leaving footprints in the gravel and with Kaoruko's death, it's the missing head that poses the second problem, as it can be found nowhere in the house (and obviously, it was determined nobody left the manor). The problem of the missing head too is nicely connected to the theme of traditional Japanese culture, though it's kinda weird nobody thought of searching that place, as yes, it's a blind spot, but I can't imagine not even trying that thing when genuinely searching for a head. I like the idea behind it though.

My 'problem' overall with this story however is that while the two tricks are fairly well thought off the way the story has Hajime solve the murders is rather crude. At two distinct points, Hajime is unbelievably lucky to stumble upon vital hints that help him solve the case. Especially the first time, it's hard to swallow he'd end up in that exact spot of all places he could be in Kyoto. This happens late again, when Hajime visits a restaurant and is offered no less than two (!) vital clues by accident. It's also somewhat unfair that we, as the reader, don't even hear the exact things Hajime learns at that restaurant: the moment Hajime asks for details about the thing that bothers him, the story cuts away to a different scene, and we only hear exactly what he was told when Hajime explains the murders to everyone. But it's quite unfair as a mystery story: Hajime is told something that basically explains the whole footprints-in-the-gravel trick to him, but we don't hear that for ourselves. Sure,  we can make an educated guess due to the set-up, but why should we have to deduce the thing for ourselves if Hajime is basically told the answer? While something similar happens to the trick behind the hidden head, at least that still involves Hajime having to put one and one together himself.

The way the murderer is exposed is also rather... uninspired. We have seen this kind of visual clue far too often with this series now, where some minor visual detail like a sock being pulled up higher in one panel and lower in a different panel shows that person was the murderer. I do like visual clues in general, as it make use of the visual medium and this series has made pretty good use of it in various stories, but sometimes, they feel a bit too nitpicky, where the story requires you to pick the differences between two panels, but without saying which one, so you have to compare thousands of panels with those same thousands of panels. I have the feeling I have seen this kind of clue far too often with Kindaichi the last few years, and often, this makes the whole clue feel like some afterthought, like they suddenly remembered they had to have a clue that points to the murderer too so they quickly changed two panels.

Volume 5 ended with the first chapter of the next story by the way, and it's another return to a familiar place from the classic series! The first story in this series on a 37-old Hajime started with his return to that accursed island Utashima, but this time, he'll be returning to a hotel that err, should've caused some trauma with him, as it was the place where he had to battle the Red-Bearded Santa Claus. Especially readers of the manga will know why this place should hold a special place in our memories, though the event was changed in both the anime and live-action adaptation. Am interested to see how this case will develop though, as we're also introduced to a new rival police detective for Hajime in the set-up. Speaking of the classic stories, I'm still reading the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo Gaiden - Hannintachi no Jikenbo ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files Side Story: The Case Files of the Culprits") spin-off parody series, which retells the old stories from the POV of the murderer as a gag manga. The series started about two years ago, but probably won't continue for long as it's basically done all of the old stories (until the series hiatus in 2000), but I'm still having fun with them. I don't discuss them here because they're not mystery comics on their own (and they are full of spoilers for each of the stories), but if you're a fan of this series, you really should read them as they're hilarious.

Anyway, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo's The Beautiful Kyoto Flower Arrangement Practioners Murder Case (volumes 4 & 5) is a pretty classic case in terms of structure, with an impossible crime, decapitations and even the overused 'super minor detail clue' often see in this series. I quite like the basic tricks behind the various murders this time, but the overall story seems rather... uninspired, with luck and coincidence helping Hajime a lot this time and some of the story developments/characters too seem just like they 'were there' rather than truly thought out. It's not a bad story per se, but after the more original angle the previous story took, I have to admit this story felt a bit too by-the-numbers. I'm looking forward to the next story though. Volume 6 is scheduled for a February release, but it's very unlikely the new story will wrap up in that volume, so it is likely I will only review the next case when volume 7 is released (probably somewhere in the summer of 2020).

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第4&5巻

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Whispering Statue

Three little Soldier Boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
"And Then There Were None"

I learned a lot on the development of mystery and detective manga after reading the seminal work Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar last year, and unsurprisingly, it resulted in me reading more mystery manga. My own interest was especially drawn to the period of 70-80s, when female artists would start with the earliest original puzzle plot mystery manga (not adaptations of existing stories), pre-dating by a decade or two the watershed moment for mystery manga of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. in the early to mid nineties. Yamada Mineko's Alice series and Maya Mineo's Patalliro! are some of the titles I talked about, but the first 70s mystery manga I read directly as a result of Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar, was Takashina Ryouko's Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken ("The Piano Sonata Murder Case", 1979) last year. It is probably one of the earliest original mystery manga series, though the half a dozen stories of the original run have no direct connection to each other in terms of characters/setting: they are all standalone stories, but all feature "Something Something Murder Case" title convention. Takashina would write more of these stories starting 2002 by the way.

Rikashitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Science Room Murder Case", 1985) collects two stories from the original classic series. The titular Rikashitsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Science Room Murder Case") was originally serialized in the July and August issues of the girls comic magazine Nakayoshi Deluxe. The handsome Arimoto Kouji is a new transfer student and while all the girls seem be interested in him, it's Ooshima Mayo who's told by the teacher to show Arimoto around school. When they arrive at the science room, Arimoto is surprised at the enormous number of stuffed animals in the room, some of them even of very rare animals. These stuffed animals are a whim of the chairman of the school board, who's completely obsessed with them. And to Mayo's great shame, the man's also her father. Rumors have it that he's even arranging for a panda to be shot and stuffed, which is of course not really legal. One day after school, the students going home are shocked by a huge explosion in the science room. Arimoto finds Mayo standing outside the science room, and inside lies the body of Mayo's father beneath a stuffed hawk. Police investigation leads to the conclusion that he died because of a blow to the head, and that the explosion was probably caused when victim and assailant were fighting and knocked over some chemicals in the science room. While Mayo's still suffering from her loss, the careless manner in which her young stepmother deals with her husband's death and the incessant calls about unpaid debts by the woman who arranged for all the stuffed animals for her father, rumors also start floating around that suggest Mayo herself killed her father.

Huh, I only realized now that the stories of this series are all about the same length as the stories in Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, which is about a hundred pages. Well, technically these stories are two times fifty pages.

Like with Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken, this story's roots are firmly set in the romantic drama genre (a popular genre for girls manga magazines back then), combined with a capable, if simple, mystery plot. While the page count is about the same as a Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou story, much of the story is focused on the drama that is caused by the murder: Mayo's situation at home, her growing closer to Arimoto, the gossipping at school whether she murdered her father: there's a lot of melodrama here. It's not as focused on the mystery plot as you'd expect from a series like Detective Conan, but the story doesn't bore at least, even if it's a bit standard high school drama shenanigans. When we come to the core mystery plot, it's a fairly simple whodunnit problem that also leads to a howdunnit, but it's servicable enough, something you'd expect from for example an early Conan story. Takanashi has an interesting hook regarding misdirection which she talks about early in this story, which forms a nice thematic base for the story. It's not a classic story perhaps, but we're definitely presented with a puzzle plot here, thus laying the ground for later mystery titles.

The second story included in this volume is En no Naka no Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case Inside the Circle"), which was originally serialized in the November and December 1984 issues of Nakayoshi Deluxe. Kyou is a freshman student who one day is looking across town through the school's Birdwatching Club's telescope, when she suddenly sees somebody being stabbed in a room with a peculiar painting. She knocks the telescope over in her surprise, making it impossible to find the house back. The event is so incredible, not even the art teacher Sugimura seems to believe her story. Kyou tries to forget about it and becomes an official member of the Birdwatcher's Club, which also brings her under the attention of Matsuura, the handsome president of the club and Nagase Yayoi, the gorgeous madonna of the school. Nagase in particular seems to have become fond of Kyou, to the frustration of Tanigawa, Yayoi's former "favorite". But just as Kyou was starting to forget about the murder she saw, she spots her teacher Sugimura apparently burning the picture she saw at the crime scene. Unbeknown to her, things are happening around Kyou and death is closer than she might suspect.

The mystery plot takes a back seat in this story, I'd say. Most of the story revolves around the high school melodrama of Kyou becoming the new favorite of Yayoi, and Kyou trying to figure out how to become friends with the beautiful senior student she so looks up to. Things start moving from the second half on, but the subsequent murders/other incidents that occur, don't really do anything to set-up any real puzzle plot: there's no proper clewing to the solution and the story is more told in a thriller-mode than a true detective story with a neat trick (like the first story). A bit disappointing, as I remembered that Gakuensai Satsujin Jiken also utilized a thriller mode, but also good visual clewing to set-up the conclusion. It's a lot more passive experience in this story

Similar to Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken, I wouldn't say Rikashitsu Satsujin Jiken is required reading, but the stories do form an interesting step in the development of the puzzle plot mystery manga. It's clear that the main pillar for these comics are the popular genres for shojo manga back in those time, with romance and drama at the center. It was in the seventies that female authors then started fanning out, incorporating other genres like fantasy, science-fiction, horror and mystery into the classic mold. Takashina's mystery manga are a good example of how these shojo comics developed, incorporating puzzle plots. I'd say the volume Piano Sonata Satsujin Jiken has a better selection of stories overall, though I think that the opening story (the titular The Science Room Murder Case) has a simple, but nicely executed idea. For the manga historians among us, checking a few of Takashina's stories certainly won't hurt.

Original Japanese title(s): 高階良子『理科室殺人事件』

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Riddle in the Rare Book


"The ideology of putting common sense into practice, is a dangerous ideology."
"Words of a Dwarf"

And it's only after writing this whole review I realized it was also six years ago when I first read this book, just like what happened to Hajime...

It's the summer holiday, and Hajime has to clean up the house. He comes across a cup wrapped in an old newspaper and his attention is drawn to one of the small news articles in the corner of the page. It is dated six years ago, and talks about a man who died of starvation in Mt. Asama. When he learns the name of the deceased is "Dejima", his memories throw him back six years ago, back when he was still in elementary school: Hajime had spent his summer holiday six years ago near Mt. Asama, where he had become friends with four children who lived in the Heretic House of Professor Ema. The expert on bacteria was not only the biological father of Junya, but he had also adopted three orphans. All four of them were experts in their own fields despite being as young as Hajime: Junya was a prodigy artist, Kentarou was a brilliant programmer, Ruriko a gifted violinist and Hiro an award-winning writer. Hajime recalled how one night, they had played a game and visited the creepy ruins of a mansion in the mountains. They all fled when they heard spooky moaning coming from a locked cellar room, and on their way out, Hajime tumbled across a backpack. But now six years later, he still vividly remembers the Akutagawa Ryuunosuke book Jashuumon (Heretics) inside the backpack, as well as the name "DEJIMA" in the backpack, which makes him realize that perhaps the 'moaning' he heard back then didn't come from a ghost, but from a man being held there against his will. Wanting to know the truth behind this, Hajime takes the old newspaper article with him go back to Mt. Asama, back to his friends to learn more about the death of Dejima. But after Hajime's arrival at the Heretic House where he's reunited with his old friends, a threatening note is delivered, telling him to scram, signed by "The Heretic". When Hajime doesn't, one of his friends is murdered and that's of course the moment you know Hajime will do everything to catch the murderer in Amagi Seimaru's novel Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken ("The Young Kindaichi Case Files: The Heretic House Murder Case" 2001).

During the original run of the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo manga between 1994-2000, writer Amagi Seimaru also wrote novels for the series, accompanied by art by Satou Fumiya. These were not novelizations of the comic stories, but original stories that were proper part of the series mythos. The second case that occurs in the Opera House is from the novels for example, and several semi regular characters like the young Chinese acrobat Xiaolong originate from the novel series. Eight novels were released during the original run, though recently, two new children's novels were also released (reviews here and here). Seven of the original novels were adapted for the anime TV series and the animated theatrical releases, while three of them also acted as the source material for episodes in the various drama series. 2001's Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken however is an outlier: it was never adapted for the anime, nor for the drama series, making it only available as a novel. Which is pretty rare for this series, I mean, even the audio dramas on cassette tapes were adapted for the anime!

By the way, I originally read this novel in 2013, when the re-release was published (the original release was kinda hard to find by then), but I somehow never wrote a review of it. Weird actually, because I usually do Kindaichi Shounen reviews whenever I read a story for the first time.

Anyway, the story set-up of Hajime revisiting old friends might sound familiar. Indeed, in my review of the live-action adaptation of The Yukikage Village Murder Case, I also referred to this novel, as the two stories do share the same minimalistic set-up and the focus on the human drama, with Hajime confronting old friends who have all grown up in the last six years. One difference however is that Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken is even more minimalistic in set-up. We don't even have an impossible situation in this story, and that's kinda a cornerstone of the series! The Yukikage Village Murder Case had a no-footprints-in-the-snow problem, but this story has a very trick pulled by the murderer concerning their alibi, but it's really, really meagre compared to what you're used to in this series.

Instead, the story revolves around on the why: why was Dejima killed, why was Hajime's friend killed and how is Hajime able to deduce that? I think the main clue that points in the direction of the murderer might be a bit crude (and Hajime has a really lucky break coming across that other important article), but I do like how the story is built around misdirection: there are several instances in this story where utterances by multiple characters can be interpreted in multiple manners, which leads to the creation of the mystery. These are not lies or intentionally cryptic statements, but sometimes, some conversations can be interpreted in multiple ways, unbeknownst to both the speaker and listener. This story builds on that idea by having a few characters misunderstanding other people, or assuming certain things only from their point of view, which results in a mystery plot that is at the core not really complex, but where the confusion between some characters create a nice cloud of misdirection. It's a type of misdirection that is sometimes utilized in this series, but seldom as the main concept, so it does make Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken feel very different from what you'd expect of the series.

I guess that I didn't review Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo: Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken the first time I read it, because it's so... minimalistic compared to the other novels. It's not bad per se, but it's not exactly what I'd expect from a Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo novel. The novel is more character-focused than other stories in the series, which works well with the 'misdirection built around interpretation' theme of this story, compared to the more grand impossible situations that we usually see. So it has an interesting angle in that regard. And for fans of the series: one character introduced in Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken also returns in Kuromajutsu Satsujin Jiken ("The Black Magic Murder Case") from the manga (also adapted as an OVA). I was probably not the only one who had no idea who that person was when they first read that manga story, only to learn he came from the novels. Anyway, Jashuukan Satsujin Jiken is not the best of the novels out there, but fans should try it if they have the opportunity.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸、さとうふみや(絵)『金田一少年の事件簿 邪宗館殺人事件』

Friday, November 8, 2019

Murders On-Line


"Arrested for Youtuber crimes"
"Pop Team Epic"

In an article I wrote earlier this year, I noted how I think many contemporary mystery authors still seem to struggle with implementing modern technology in mystery stories, let alone supernatural elements. For some reason, modern technology seems to frighten a lot of writers, as if their mere existence render a puzzle plot mystery impossible (spoilers: that's not true). It's really weird if you think about it, as smartphones and everything are a normal part of our lives now, and I bet a lot of the readers of this article now are reading from either smartphone or tablet, but few mystery authors seem to be able to incorporate these essential parts of our lives in puzzle plot mystery stories in a consistent, regular manner. Both Detective Conan and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo can be seen as the rare occassions, with both series following the development of consumer technology during their serialized run fairl closely. Conan's usage of technology in particular is very noticable, with one of the first stories ending with Conan calling Ran on a public payphone, while nowadays the series often features mystery stories where smartphones and apps are used.

This is definitely a reason why Yukashina Miho's short story Nimannin no Mokugekisha ("Twenty Thousand Witnesses", 2019) was a surprisingly pleasant read, as it's so clearly set in today's society, without relying solely on that notion to present a capable mystery plot. Yukashina debuted this year as a professional mystery author with this story by winning the 16th Mysteries! Newcomer Award. This is basically the sister award to the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award: both are organized by the same publisher and both awards includes a publishing contract for the newcomer for their work, with the Mysteries! Newcomer Award meant for short stories, and the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award for novels. In the case of the Mysteries! Newcomer Award, publication means being published on paper in the literary magazine Mysteries! and as an individual e-book release. Nimannin no Mokugekisha was originally submitted with the title Tsumabiraka ~ Hokenshitsu no Fushigi na Sensei ("The Full Details -The Curious Teacher in the Infirmary"), but it got a title change after it won the award. And to be honest, I like the current title much better.

The story starts with Yuuko visiting the infirmary of the high school of her best friend Junna. Junna had died on the evening of the first of March, falling from the Shin Yodogawa Oobashi Bridge in Osaka and drowning the Yodo River. Junna had been pregnant, and both her mother and the police reached the conclusion she had become desperate and committed suicide. Yuuko however knows this is not true. The day before her death, Junna had visited Yuuko, saying she was going to elope with the father of her baby, but on the night of her death, minutes before her fall, she called Yuuko, saying something was wrong with her boyfriend and that she was afraid and needed help. Nobody believes Yuuko's story however, so she decides to visit Junna's school, as Junna had told Yuuko that their school nurse was someone she could trust if she ever needed any help. While at first Yuuko's surprised to learn that the school nurse Amagai is a man (even if only a temp just filling in for the regular nurse for a period), she soon learns he's indeed more than meets the eye. Yuuko confides to Amagai that Junna's boyfriend and father of her baby is a person known as  "Shiiga", a Youtuber fairly popular with people their age. Junna was supposed to elope with him, but he betrayed her and threw her off the bridge. While Yuuko has also voiced her accusations to the police, there's one problem: Shiiga has an alibi, an alibi which is vouched for by twenty thousand witnesses! For on the night of Junna's death, he was doing a live Youtube broadcast from his room between nine and ten, exactly the period when Junna fell of the bridge. He had twenty thousand viewers during the live stream, with whom he interacted, meaning he could not have killed Junna, even if Yuuko's convinced he did it. So how's Amagai going to crack this alibi?

Youtubers, live streams and chat boxes, it's all a part of the modern life now, so indeed, why not a story where a live stream is the alibi? In essence, it's really no different from the impossible alibi stories where the murderer is on stage while committing a murder, or if you want a more modern counterpart, where the murder is committed while the killer is chatting with someone on the internet. What makes Yukashina's story enjoyable however is that is not relying solely on this story element. While the idea of twenty thousand witnesses is really great, she treats live streams as a matter of fact, and nothing more special than any other part of modern media. Amagai for example uses the internet to google all the facts he needs to know, because, well, that's what all of us do. He's not even technology-savvy, but he can do basic Google searches like any other person. While I think the basic gist of this alibi was created can be guessed fairly easily, I think Yukashina did a good job at not bettng everything on one card: in order to conclusively prove the alibi is false, you need to attack the problem from multiple angles, which are quite nicely clewed in the story. The story does not require any special knowledge about social media or technology that the average person wouldn't know nowadays, but also does not pretend like we live in a world where all of that is strange: it's a matter of fact that they are part of the modern society now, so it simply uses everything that is available. One could definitely point out that the seperate lines of reasoning that Amagai proposes to prove the thing's fake aren't particularly surprising, but Yukashina combines all these ideas in a coherent form, resulting in a compact, but surprisingly dense story that is satisfying from start to finish.

After reading Nimannin no Mokugekisha, I decided to dig up another story which won the Mysteries! Newcomer Award which I had lying around. Ibuki Amon debuted in 2015 with the short story Kangokusha no Satsujin ("Murder in Prison" 2015), which is ironically the complete opposite of Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's set in the past, to be exact, the early days of the Meiji period (1868-1912). Hirabari Rokugo was a warrior during the revolution that brought forth the Meiji rule, and while he originally fought on the side of the imperial forces, he eventually turned against them due to their treatment of those who fought during the revolution. It took a lot of trouble to capture Hirabari, who was transferred to Rokkaku Prison in Kyoto. Political motives had led to his incarceration in the former capital of Japan: figures in positions of power feared what Hirabari could reveal about their (dirty) roles during the revolution and wanted him executed as once, while the Ministry of Justice of course wanted to get as much information as they could get out of Hirabari. However, Hirabari's execution was decided upon surprisingly early, so the justice officials Shikano Moromitsu and his superior Etou Shinpei travel to Kyoto to bring Hirabari the bad news he's going to be executed that very day. Hirabari is eating his congee breakfast while Shikano tells him this, but he suddenly keels over. The man's dead almost immediately, as his food had been spiked with poison. This leads to a problem, for everyone in the prison who had the opportunity to poison the food, also knew Hirabari was going to be executed that day, so who would go the trouble of poisoning the man?

A very different kind of story than Nimannin no Mokugekisha, as it's purely a whydunnit. Why poison a man who was going to be executed and decapitated in a few hours? While there are a few people who seem more likely to have done it than others, there's still the question of why it was done in such a conspicious manner, as suspicion was bound to fall upon only a very limited circle of suspects.  The surprising truth is wonderfully fitting to the time period and singularly unique. While it may be a bit difficult to guess on your own, I'd say Ibuki also did a good job at setting the reveal up with proper hinting to the reader, meaning they too have a fair chance at guessing what that motive could possibly be, even if it's really a motive that only exists in very specific context. But definitely a memorable story.

Anyway, both these stories were entertaining and offered unique situations that makes them stand out in your mind. Ibuki Amon kept on building on the world of his debut story by the way: his first standalone book release Katana to Kasa ("The Sword and the Umbrella") was released last year and is a short story collection featuring further adventures of Shikano. It's definitely a book that's on the radar now. Yukashina Miho only debuted officially last month, as her story was featured in the October 2019 issue of Mysteries!, but I'm definitely keep an eye on her future work too if she chooses to continue writing.

Original Japanese title(s): 床品美帆「二万人の目撃者」

Tuesday, November 5, 2019


an + bn = cn
(Fermat's last theorem)

I'm horrible at the exact sciences.. I imagine that if Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou did its unique style of mystery telling not with mathematics or similar fields of science, but with literature or a field like that, I'd be a lot more enthusiastic.

After reading a couple of volumes of Katou Motohiro's Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou series and the sequel series Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou iff the last year, I realized that I don't have any interest in reading all the adventures of the brilliant, MIT-graduated prodigy Touma Sou and his classmate Kana. There are definitely some interesting stories in this series, especially when the stories involve mathematics and other special fields of interest of author Katou himself, but few stories are truly memorable as mystery stories, so I have decided I am just going to pick my stories now, instead of going through all fifty volumes of the original series, and another dozen or so for the still running sequel iff, as that's just too pricey. Fortunately for me, special anthology volumes were released earlier this year, with the three mystery authors Tanaka Yoshiki, Tsuji Masaki and Arisugawa Alice each editing their own volume. These volumes seemed interesting enough, and when I asked for story recommendations a while back, I noticed a number of the recommendations I got happened to have been selected for Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Arisugawa Alice Selection (2019), which made it the most logical next step in my reading of this series.

The volume starts with Jacob's Ladder though, which I already reviewed earlier, so I'll be skipping that story. The second story is Infinite Moon (originally in volume 20) and starts with the arrival of an email from Touma's Chinese friend Hu. Which is a bit strange, Hu was presumed dead, due to a heart disease he had been suffering of his whole life. The email to Touma also prompts a visit by the Shanghai Police, who tell Touma that Hu is known to them as a member of Xi Xing She, a crime syndicate in Shanghai led by four men: the two Liang brothers and the two friends Huang and Wu. While the gang was basically divided in two factions (the Liang brothers, and the two friends), the four bosses carefully kept everything in balance, until three weeks ago, when Huang was fished dead out of the river. While the police had trouble getting information out of the lower-ranked members of the Xi Xing She, it appeared Huang's murder was retaliation by the younger Liang, as Huang had killed the elder Liang brother earlier. The police hope that Touma's friend Hu can tell them more about the power struggle going on, but time is ticking as the remaining Xi Xing She bosses kill each other off, while Touma has to figure out Hu's mysterious message: Come to ϕ. I have read several stories with a series of murders, where the murderer becomes the next victim and then the second murderer becomes the next victim etc., so Infinite Moon was not really surprising to me. I like how Katou links the story with mathematical theories in infinity and 0, but the core mystery plot is not really surprising: a lot of pages are used to simply explain the basic setting, but after that, you don't really need much explanation/clue-hunting to figure out what's going on.

The Kurogane Manor Murder Case (volume 36) reunites Touma with Karasuma Renji, a cocky assistant-professor in Physics who has a soft spot for Touma. Karasuma is a "person of interest" to the police in the investigation into the suspicious death (apparent suicide) of Professor Kurogane of K University in Kyoto. It was Kurogane who had sent Karasuma away from K University all the way to A University and even then, Kurogane kept the brilliant Karasuma shackled: he arranged so Karasuma's research at A University would become a joint project with K University under the supervision of Kurogane's own pupil Shida, which would mean Karasuma's name would end up below both Shida and Kurogane's names on his own research paper when published. Kurogane however was found hanging in his study in his manor one day ago, precisely when Karasuma returned to Kyoto. Kurogane had no reason to commit suicide, but murder also seems impossible as there were no footprints in the snow around Kurogane's study, nor did the help see anyone come or leave the study that day. The police can't really pin anything on Karasuma, but at the wake in Kurogane's manor, a more obvious murder happens: an arrow is shot right in Shida's neck during the night, but due to the long, covered galleries of the traditional Japanese house, none of the suspects could have shot Shida with a bow and arrow from their respective positions, due to the distance and most importantly the low ceilings of the hallways.

The death of Kurogane in his study itself is rather simple, though I do like how it makes clever use of the way a traditional Japanese manor is built (Katou studied Architecture in college). One important hint to the whereabouts of the culprit at this crime site is rather brilliant though, being a reference to Zeno's arrow paradox, though it does expect the reader to guess a certain's character behavior for it to work. Shida's murder is... original, but kinda hard to swallow. The way the building is used to create an impossible situation is great: it makes references to a special archery competition that challenged people to hit a target from one end of a covered gallery to another, the low ceiling making it difficult to shoot an arrow far enough (as an arrow needs to get high to be able to fly further). Karasuma for example had a clean shot on the victim from his position for example, but he'd need to be the strongest person around to have made that shot straight across the gallery. The trick behind the murder however requires you to kinda roll with it: it's original and it definitely works better due to the visual format of the story, but it kinda expects you to a) to know that's possible in the first place and b) that it would actually succeed in one try (even if with some practice), for the arrow was just as likely to hit a non-vital part or simply miss the target. In fact, an acquaintance with experience with archery basically rolled her eyes in disbelief when she saw the solution.

Locked Room No. 4 (volume 40) brings Touma, Kana and Himeko as members of the Sakisaka High School Mystery Club to the classic mystery setting: a mansion on a remote island. Sparrow Tours is a small tour operator/planner specialized in unique experiences, and now they're planning to do a mystery tour on this island, where the participants have to solve a mystery (locked room murders) during their stay. The story for this tour is written by the mystery author Yoimiya Sodehara, and the three kids have come along to act as a test panel. Another 'outsider' is Komaki, the head of Accounting of the parent company World Tours, who says Sparrow Tours' expenses are way too much and that he needs to take care of it right away. Once the group arrives on the island, Komaki goes off on his own, while Toum, Kana and Himeko are presented with the three locked room murder situations of the tour (the victims being played by the various employees of Sparrow Tours who have come along). The three kids quickly solve the three locked rooms (to the frustration to the author Yoimiya), but when they go to the dining room to rest, they find it locked. When they unlock it, they discover the body of Komaki sitting at the dining table, with lit candles illuminating the knife in his chest. With the door locked and the window looking down a cliff, it seems the gang is being presented a fourth, unplanned locked room in their tour. The first three locked rooms are pretty much child's play, and the gang manages to solve them almost instantly. The fourth, main locked room is of course more interesting: it's not super complex, but makes clever use of all that has presented before (like always Q.E.D. stories usually take a long time to set the story up). It's pretty obvious who the murderer is once you see through the main piece of misdirection, but I think this was a nicely plotted tale within the usual 100 pages.

In Question! (volume 44), Touma, Kana and Loki arrive at a mountain lodge house after Touma receives a mysterious letter that says "Question!", featuring Fermat's theorem inside. Included were also directions to the mountain lodge, and curious as to the meaning of this letter, the trio decide to go there. There they find two other groups, who happen to know each other from the local family court: both an elderly couple and a younger couple with a daughter who are living seperately now and busy working out a divorce. At first, the two groups figured this was some kind of last effort by the family court to have the two couples talk things over, but Touma's presence obviously proves that idea wrong. All of them have received the same mysterious letter, though with different riddles. The story unfolds as a kind of treasure hunt, with the solution of each riddle pointing towards another riddle and all coming back to Touma's Fermat's theorem. Don't expect to do much mystery solving yourself as the reader, as that's pretty much impossible and a lot of the story is also devoted to Touma's lecture on Fermat's theorem. It's pretty easy to guess what the story is really about though. Detective Conan also often features stories like these, but I find them more enjoyable there, as they work better as standalone mystery stories with a riddle that can be solved by the reader themselves, whereas even with knowledge on Fermat etc., Question! is mostly just guessing.

Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou The Best - Arisugawa Alice Selection is on its own a fairly entertaining volume. Not a big fan of the opening and ending story of this selection, but the middle part is good Q.E.D. stuff and include some of my favorite stories I have read until now of this series. Arisugawa also obviously selected stories that showcase Katou's interest in mathematics and other academic fields: those topics are often mentioned in the Q.E.D. series, but they play an especially important thematic role in most of the stories included in this volume. I might also pick up one of the other The Best volumes in the future, as I think this approach (picking my stories to read) is probably the best way to enjoy this series for me.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩(原) 有栖川有栖(編)『Q.E.D. -証明終了- The Best 有栖川有栖Selection』

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Crooked House

About a year ago, I wrote a short piece about how I love dramatis personae, name lists and those 'floating name signs' you see visual mystery fiction, because in general, I'm horrible at remembering names, so any assistance that helps me connect the right name to the right face, to the right location in the character relation chart is always very welcome. Lists are especially helpful, because I have the bad habit of sometimes reading several novels at the same time, or start in a novel, put it away for a month or so only to return to it not quite sure who was who again.

At the end of the piece, I joked about musing about family trees in mystery fiction, but lately, I was reminded again of my love-hate relationship with them. So I figured, why not really muse shortly about it?

The direct cause for this post is Houjou Kie's (fantastic!) debut novel Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019) which I recently read. Due to scheduling shenanigans, you can expect the review as the first one of the new year. I can already reveal I loved the novel, but one point I did have a lot of trouble with at the start was the insanely complex family relations described in this novel. The novel is about time travel, which of course naturally leads to a long family tree, but the focus luckily lies mostly on the living members of the Ryuuzen family in 1960. At the time there were four generations of Ryuuzen, with Ryuuzen Taiga as the head of the family and young great-granddaughter Fumika as the youngest. But with each generation having siblings who may or may have not died in World War II or after, you still end up with a pretty sizeable cast, who are all family. The family tree diagram included helps a lot at the start of the story, as I doubt I would've fully grasped it without it even at the end of the story, but man, sometimes you feel like you're struggling more with just figuring out who's who to whom, rather than the murders!

Family trees are particularly complex and important in the more famous novels of Yokomizo Seishi, where every other adventure of Kindaichi Kousuke seems to revolve around family feuds with main and branch family lines that go on for several generations. One of the more memorable to me is the one in Byouinzaka no Kubikukuri no Ie ("The House of Hanging on Hospital Hill" 1978), which involves 'just' two families, but as most of the plot revolves around what the members of the Hougen and Igarashi have to do with each other, it's deceivingly complex. In fact, when the book was adaptated to into a movie, they left out an entire generation to simplify things and it was still quite complex, as Kindaichi and his assistant Mokutarou commented while they were drawing out the family tree for themselves.

The family tree in Yokomizo's The Inugami Clan is quite complex too, and here too the whole plot revolves around the exact relations between the people, as it is clear the murders that occur in this novel have to do with the inheritance of Inugami Sahei and the insane last will he made. Minor note: this version is slightly easier than the Japanese version, in the sense that the names have been simplified in the English translation to avoid confusion for the reader. The (great) 1976 movie adaptation too has a scene where Kindaichi draws out the family tree for himself (and the viewer).

I wonder whether these kind of complex family trees are considered easier to handle in Asian cultures though, and therefore more likely to appear as an element in fiction (and therefore also mystery fiction). Ancestor worship is often an essential part of Asian religions, leading to a very solid grasp on family relations in general. And this is also reflected in the sociolinguistics: I know that for example that the  Chinese and Korean languages differentiate very detailed when using words that describe family relations: an uncle is not just an uncle, but the younger brother of your father is addressed with a different word than the older brother of your mother, even if in English they're both an 'uncle'. These specific words immediately clarify where they are in the family tree relative to you, so that also helps people contextualize family relations on a regular basis. In Japanese, the distinctions don't go as far (no different words for family on father/mother side, but for example there are different words for older/younger siblings, and also whether your uncle/aunt is the older or younger sibling of your parent), but still, in Japan there's definitely a strong conciousness of family line.

Of course, I'm not saying to keep mystery stories with complex family trees away with me. If an interesting story can be made revolving nine generations of a family, go for it! But at the very least, give me a diagram, because I'm really not going to remember just from text who's what to whom in what degree. Anyway, any stories you remember where you thought the usage of complex family relations/family tree diagrams was memorable, in a good or perhaps bad manner?