Thursday, December 12, 2019


"A detective story must have as its main interest the unravelling of a mystery; a mystery whose elements are clearly presented to the reader at an early stage in the proceedings, and whose nature is such as to arouse curiosity, a curiosity which is gratified at the end."
"The Ten Commandments for Detective Fiction"

I'll be doing my impression of a broken record here, but I am of the opinion one can do a lot within the mystery fiction genre, and that for example, supernatural or fantasy elements do not, by default, threaten the internal integrity of the genre, in the same sense that realism does not automatically mean a mystery story is actually good or fair.  So what if there is an experimental drug that can turn a sixteen year old boy into a child? Detective Conan's core premise may be based on something out of a fantasy novel, but there have also been various stories within the series that present a completely fair and expertly written mystery plot that utilize the whole fact such a drug exists. A story about actual ghosts that can attack real-life people? Invented Inference (In/Spectre) is easily one of the more entertaining and exciting mystery novels I've read this year, one that at least dares to focus on what makes a mystery plot interesting and build a story around that core idea, rather than just using the familiar set forms of locked rooms murders or anything like that. Actual prophecies destined to come true, magic watches that show you to the exact moment of death of any person, a murder mystery set in Alice's Wonderland, robotic cats with technology from the future and a 5000 light year road trip through space: this year alone I've gone through heaps of great mystery stories that utilize the supernatural in one way or another, and all of them were interesting puzzle plot mysteries that played the game square and fair. What's important for a good puzzle plot mystery story is having a consistent internal logic, not boring realism!

Anyway, this got me thinking about what a "mystery" in a mystery/detective story means to me. Because to be completely honest: most of the 'conventional' mystery stories don't even try to something truly original with what a mystery could be, and keep to the familiar murders and other crimes. We have the familiar whodunnits, howdunnits, whydunnits, howcatchems and the occasional whatthehell (where what appears to be a normal story is revealed to much more, putting previous events in a different context). They may provide an original take on for example the locked room mystery, but they don't attempt at taking one single step back, at examining what a mystery could also entail. To me, a mystery or detective story is not about murders or crime. Like Knox said, it's about a mystery: an unanswered event. The question of who murdered Roger Ackroyd may be such a mystery, just like all the familiar tropes like locked room murders, perfect alibis, whodunnits and whatever comes to mind right away, but the rather mundane question of who someone managed to make hot cocoa with only three mugs and one teaspoon is also a valid mystery. I am not a particular fan of the everyday life mystery subgenre, but I'll be the first to admit I've seen some great stories involving mysteries about seemingly mundane, but still curious and alluring problems, like the problem of the food stalls at a summer festival all returning change in 50 yen coins instead of 100 yen coins.

What can a mystery also be? Some months ago, I read Astra Lost in Space and the first half of that science fiction mystery series involved a type of mystery you never see in 'conventional' mystery stories. A group of space-stranded students try to make their way back to their home planet with their spaceship the Astra. They have to make pitstops at several unknown planets due to the length of their trip and some of these planets house threats which only manifest when it's almost too late. Astra Lost in Space really shines during these moments, as these 'creeping' dangers on the various planets are always well-hinted and foreshadowed before they are actually shown to the reader. On the second planet they encounter for example, the assumption that everything is the same as back home almost leads to fatal conclusions, but both the team, and the reader, could've foreseen the reveal, as it's properly hinted in the narrative from the moment they land on the planet. Whether it's the question of how Lt. Fukuie is going to uncover the ingenious murderer even though the reader already knows what the murderer did in detail, the discovery of a 50.000 year old corpse on the moon, or just the question of why someone decided to litter and not bring their food tray back inside the canteen: a mystery (in a mystery/detective story) can involve anything, as long it's presented as a genuine curious problem and the solution is based on properly presented clues and internally consistent logic.

By the way, I keep saying I'll write a review of Liar Game one day, which too is a fantastic mystery series that uses a completely original premise, revolving around a series of gamble games like Minority Rule (where you want to be voting for the minority) or the Contraband Game (where two teams have to smuggle money to from one room to another, and each team has to play border patrol) that appear to be games of pure chance, but which can be 'rigged' by both pure logic and psychological warfare. It's a great example of what the mystery genre can also offer. One day, I'll really write the review. But not this year.

Earlier this week, the first trailer for the 2020 Detective Conan film The Scarlet Bullet was released, and not surprisingly, it seems to continue the trend of the last few years to be somewhat action-focused. These films have always been more action-focused than the original comics for obvious reasons, but looking back, I have to admit there have also been some great action scenes in these films that are also properly build on a mystery story model. Usually, these scenes involve Conan having to escape some imminent danger, and he eventually manages so by cleverly using the tools available to him. So you have the mystery (how is he going to escape?) and the solution (earlier shots of what's available to Conan as hints, and there's of course internal logic). 2002's The Phantom of Baker Street has a grand climax scene for example where Conan has to survive a very imminent crash of the steam train he's riding into the station. Conan's given verbal and visual clues, and in the end, he comes up with a clever way to not get crushed into a pulp. I'll be the first to admit that the viewer is given very little time to consider the problem themselves, but it's without a doubt a fair puzzle plot. But let's take for example 2008's Iron Man, the movie that properly kicked off Marvel's Cinematic Universe. In the final act, Tony Stark is having quite some trouble fighting off Iron Monger in his own Iron Man suit, until a certain event that helps give Tony an edge over the larger/more powerful Iron Monger suit. This too follows the cycle of having a problem (how's Tony going to win?) presented, and proper build-up/hinting (that one thing happening to Tony earlier himself too) and internal logic. Now I'm not going to say Iron Man's a detective movie because of that one scene, but I do think a mystery story can be much more varied than a lot of people seem to think, because the core values of the genre can be applied in so many ways. While it does need proper set-up to be considered a mystery/detective story, I do think anything can be a mystery.

Anyway, I'd be interested to hear some thoughts about how others look at the concept of "mystery" in the genre and perhaps hear about some personal favorites of examples of not-so-likely mystery fiction.


  1. Yes, I agree completely that supernatural and fantasy elements can be incorporated successfully into mystery stories. It can introduce new elements that mystery readers have not experienced before, and that creates an entertaining and novel experience. I think as long as it presented the rules upfront and plays fair, it counts as a proper mystery stories. I think 'The Murder in the Villa of the Dead'is an excellent example.

    One genre I am very fond of is the logic game genre. I also loved 'Liar Game' and hoped to see your review in the future. I think anybody who loved Liar Game should also check out 'the Genius', which is in my opinion one of the best reality TV show of all time and is directly inspired by Liar Game. Other excellent examples of this genre include Spiral, Kaiji, Death Note, Friends Game, Real Account, and more recently The Promised Neverland. I think the 'Logic Game' genre deserved a separate discussion in the future.

    1. I haven't seen Kaiji yet, though I have seen the live-action series of Akagi. Didn't understand *a thing* of mahjong, but it was really tense and captivating, seeing the four players trying to out-think each other using the game rules.

      That's a nice idea, actually, doing a more general post on the subgenre, and including Liar Game etc. there. Will give it some thought!

  2. I wanted to give some examples of slice of life mysteries via Aosaki Yuugo's works, but you beat me again!

    Okay, I enjoy seeing “weird” situations that seem to contradict common sense in my mysteries. Why did the killer perform action A when action B would be so much easier in comparison? Action C seems completely unnecessary, what was the point of Person X doing that? While Rube Goldberg machines that let you perform remote murders without leaving footprints in the snow are great and all, here are some memorable moments of “odd situations” that I ended up liking:

    Jonathan Creek “The Tailor’s Dummy” - Why did a famous designer throw his prized parrot out of the top window of his home before committing suicide?

    Ellery Queen TV series’s "The Adventure of the Comic Book Crusader" - Figure out the meaning behind a comic book creator’s baffling dying message.

    Takagi Akimitsu’s “Ningyou wa Naze Korosareru” and Norizuki Rintarou's “Nakakubi ni Kiite Miro” - Why would anyone behead a toy doll? Why decapitate a plaster statue in an artist workshop?

    Maya Yutaka short story “Adventure of the Man with Makeup” - Why put makeup on a dead man? (He definitely wrote this as a parallel to another famous Ellery Queen story)

    And some of the short stories written by Yonezawa Honobu, both Hyouka and short story collection 満願 often deal with figuring out unconventional motives.

    1. Ah, I get what you mean. Often, the 'odd' situation is camouflaged in a mystery by making it seem something else (as often seen in the nursery rhyme murder trope), but it's indeed nice when something is presented as the weird situation it genuinely is and have the plot emphasize that.

  3. "What's important for a good puzzle plot mystery story is having a consistent internal logic, not boring realism!"

    You perfectly summed up my long, rambling comment posted on JJ's blog about the supernatural in detective stories. You can have ghosts in a detective story or a science-fiction setting, but the story/plot needs to have consistent internal logic and the integrity of the detective story elements have to be protected. Such as Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel, which works as a science-fiction novel and a detective story. The same rule applies to unlikely detective stories.

    My favorite unlikely mystery is probably James Hogan's Inherit the Stars (an ancient corpse on the Moon), but you also have admire the clever, sometimes overly ambitious, plotting of Death Note or how it handled a supernatural intrusion into the normal, everyday world. The internal logic of the series has a few hiccups towards the end, but, otherwise, it was impressive how it used logic in the face of a supernatural treat (such as how L figured out Kira was in Japan).

    1. Considering your love for Death Note, I really have to repeat my recommendation for Liar Game (the live-action drama, which is arguably even better than the manga is available on Crunchyroll). It's built around a series of seperate games with a rotating cast of participants, so each time, other strategies have to be forged around the rules of the new game. Excellent example of using the Prisoner's Dilemma in a mystery story.

  4. Big time fan of Liar Game (I'm partial towards the manga though they did a great job with the adaptations in both Japanese and Korean), so I will be waiting for the (promised?) review :D

    On the topic of mystery stories with elements from other genre, have you read The 7 deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle released last year? It is a murder mystery featuring a time loop with the added twist that the protagonist wakes up in different bodies rather than the same person in a time loop. There are two distinct mysteries: the main murder mystery & the sci-fi mystery of the time loop. I thought the premise was genius and nothing like what I've read/heard of.

    1. Wasn't really a fan of the art style of the Liar Game manga (I think I read the first four volumes?), but perhaps me starting with the Japanese drama influenced how I visualize Liar Game in the first place.

      Oh, I've heard about that book, haven't read it though. Think I first heard about it when it was reviewed over at The Invisible Event? The videogame-esque premise sounded interesting definitely.