Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Secret Lost at Sea

You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know.
"Oh, The Places You'll Go!"

Ashibe Taku loves his classic mystery fiction and often writes pastiches of classic detectives and other stories strongly inspired by them. His two-volume series The Exhibition of Great Detectives for example was a collection of entertaining pastiches which had familiar fictional detectives like Lupin and Holmes, or Charlie Chan and Sam Spade team up in criminal crossovers. What Ashibe also showcased in these stories is not only his immense knowledge of the fictional characters and their respective universes, but also of the real-life publication history. A major characteristic of Ashibe's writing is the never-ending stream of literary references and references to all kinds of trivia regarding how these stories were actually created, sometimes even to a fault as occasionally when there's a bit too much trivia.

The famous fictional detectives Akechi Kogorou (by Edogawa Rampo) and Kindaichi Kousuke (by Yokomizo Seishi) have of course also been used multiple times by Ashibe in his pastiches and he even had them team-up more than once. In those stories, the two famous detectives met while working on the same case, but Ashibe Taku has a more interesting concept prepared in Kindaichi Kousuke, Panorama-tou he Iku ("Kindaichi Kousuke Goes To Panorama Island", 2016). This book collects two novellas in which the two detectives visit locales where the other detective famously solved one of their iconic cases: one of Edogawa Rampo's more imaginative novellas is Panorama-tou Kitan ("The Strange Tale of Panorama Island"), while Gokumontou ("Prison Gate/Gokumon Island") is one of the best-known Kindaichi Kousuke novels. In this book, the always shabbily-clad Kindaichi visits Panorama Island many years after the incident that made it famous, while in the meantime, the gentleman-detective Akechi Kogorou, his wife Fumiyo and the boy detective Kobayashi Yoshio travel to the once horrifying island of Gokumon.

Let me start with saying right away that this is a book for the fans. If you haven't read the original stories and preferably even more adventures starring the respective two detectives, there's probably too little to genuinely enjoy within the pages of these two stories. Ashibe goes full-out fanboy with his references to both series, and sometimes (or even often), the trivia will only appeal to the knowledgable fan. We're talking about references about the release years of stories, or how certain stories were only serialized and never released as books and talk about the appearances of characters that only appeared on one single novel. I was familiar with both the original stories and many other sotires in both fictional universes, but some of these references are really nitpicky (in a good way, I guess). A fan will surely grin while reading this, but for someone who has never touched any of these stories,  Kindaichi Kousuke, Panorama-tou he Iku will be hard to follow, especially as the core mystery plot of both stories do touch upon the details of the original work. Of course, pastiches always rely on references, but I think in this case the core mystery plots aren't really entertaining if you go in completely blank.

The first story is the titular Kindaichi Kousuke, Panorama-tou he Iku ("Kindaichi Kousuke Goes To Panorama Island"), which has Kindaichi's old friend Kazama buy up the now defunct Panorama Island. In the original story, this island was rebuilt to be a (fake) paradise on Earth, being a gigantic, island-sized panorama rotunda that not only showed the wonders of the world as a panorama, it also offered all the pleasures of the human world to its king. After the conclusion of the original story, the island was abandoned and allowed to fall apart, until Kazama (a contractor) decided to buy the island and turn it into an entertainment park. Kazama invites Kindaichi along to view the place, knowing his professional interest in the location. After their visit, they return to the mainland and stay in an inn in a bay across the island. That night, Kindaichi is haunted by a nightmare, which seems to have come true: workers of Kazama had gone to the island that morning and discovered a corpse there, whose face had been destroyed completely. The man had been murdered in the night and been left on top of some minature buildings (a panorama works with perspective, so objects in the back are made as scale miniatures). The island is hardly accessible though, and Kazama and Kindaichi had not seen the body during their inspection the day before, so how did that body end up on Panorama Island and why in the first place? It's interesting to see how Ashibe imagined the aftermath of the original story (loads of references to the characters of the original story) and ultimately, the core mystery is actually neatly connected to the original Panorama Island story. The core mystery plot isn't really that complex and the story could easily have been half the length if it wasn't imbedded in this pastiche form, but on the other hand, this trick is one that worked because it was set in such a unique place. It's a funny story for people that know the original tale, though I think it is arguable whether this story needed Kindaichi to be the detective (though there is a reason).

This story is followed time-wise immediately by Akechi Kogorou, Gokumontou he Iku ("Akechi Kogorou Goes To Gokumon Island"), where Akechi Kogorou, his wife and the boy detective Kobayashi visit Gokumon Island, one of the first big cases Kindaichi solved right after he returned from fighting in World War II. Akechi is quite interested in seeing the small island community some years after Kindaichi famously solved the "Gorgon Sisters Murder Case" and meets with a lot of people he already knew from the novel by Y (Yokomizo Seishi) based on the events. As the famous detective and his entourage are being led around the island though, the reader is made aware not all is as it seems though, and it seems Akechi is planning to pull something off on this island, but what? Similar to the Rampo stories, we follow an Akechi who is aware of a lot more facts than the reader, and it's seeing the mysterious events work towards a finale orchestrated by Akechi that makes up most of the fun of this story. It's not really fair because Akechi basically already knows what's up from the early stages of the story on, and the reader is just left wondering why this or that is happening. This story too builds on the aftermath of the original story as imagined by Ashibe, but both the scale and the type of mystery is so different from the original story that it kinda misses the mark: the first story was much better in really feeling like the mystery plot built on specific details of the original story. The real-world references are also incredibly detailed and nitpicky here (and even somewhat confusing as it mixes real and in-universe chronology) and in the end, this story really feels like one for the fans.

Obviously, Kindaichi Kousuke, Panorama-tou he Iku is not going to be an universal recommendation. It's playing up to a very specific target group and there's little to appeal to people outside of that group, as the two stories here don't work well as standalone mystery stories. As someone who does know both stories, and the extended series of both Akechi Kogorou and Kindaichi Kousuke, I did have fun seeing familiar locales and characters, but seen from the point of view of another great detective. The concept is pretty fun, with these characters visiting the places from the stories of the other character, but the result is really only reserved for a small group of readers. You will know of yourself whether you're interested in this story collection or not.

Original Japanese title(s): 芦辺拓『金田一、パノラマ島へ行く』:「金田一、パノラマ島へ行く」/「明智小五郎、獄門島へ行く」

Friday, January 24, 2020

Question! Answer!

Detective fiction is all about questions. Whodunit? Howdunit? Whydunit? Why-is-this-considered-detective-fiction-it's-nothing-like-oooooooh-now-I-get-it. There has to be some kind of mystery, an alluring question waiting to be answered, an answer which the tale should provide at the end of the story. Like I wrote in a post a few weeks ago, a mystery can take on many forms: from the conventional murder to the question of how an impossible crime was committed, to the more mundane question of why some person is always changing coins into money bills at the store. But to me, the genre will ultimately always revolve around the underlying mystery of a story and its solution, as well as the process from said question to answer.

I've been writing my messy thoughts about the mystery fiction I consume for about ten years at this spot, and I think that on the whole, I've remained fairly consistent in terms of what I like to focus on in my posts when discussing a work. What I personally enjoy best about detective fiction, is the core mystery plot, and the logical processes that lead to its solution, so obviously, I tend to write about how I experienced the work from that point of view. Of course, it's not like I therefore refuse to write about other subjects: depending on the work, I also enjoy writing about publication history (like in my review of Rampo's Yuureitou) or about the socio-economic and/or cultural elements in a certain work, like the role of modern consumer technology in my review of Nimannin no Mokugekisha or folklorism themes in the Toujou Genya series. But in the end, I only talk about those topics because they relate back to the core mystery plot, and my final thoughts about a certain work will rely far more on what I thought of the presentation of the mystery, the path towards the solution and the execution of the whole puzzle, than how the specific work incorporated the theme of say the rise of streaming services in the mid 2010s in its plot, or how well the characters were portrayed. Some people will for example be looking for believable portrayals of characters and immersive atmosphere in their mystery fiction, and obviously, those would be topics of interest to them which they'd want to see addressed in a review, but yeah, this wouldn't be the place. A detective novel could have the most utterly unbelievable characters ever and I wouldn't even make one note of it, if said portrayal was also helping a core puzzle plot rise to amazing heights.

A review should be a coherent body of text that lays out the author's thoughts on a certain work and at least for me, I try to do that by putting the work in context. With context, I mean my own personal experience up until that point: all the other works I've read/seen/listened to/etc. up until that point, all the things I know about the various topics addressed in said work etc. It's basically comparing a work to everything I have seen before, not in a 'which is better' way, but to see how the various works do things the same or differently, and trying to identify what common themes work or don't work, and why. Some people might prefer to view a work standalone, without actively comparing it with other works, but I find that hard to do, especially in a genre that is explicitly built upon the shoulders of those before. It's the same with videogames for me, where for example you can easily compare game mechanics and perhaps say the idea of using one single A button as the Jump button like in Super Mario Bros. is better than having to push seven buttons in a very specific order before a character will jump. In a genre where we see the same tropes over and over again, it'd be weird not to compare them, and see what works (and to go a step further, to identify the underlying factor that indeed makes it so enjoyable).

But to finally come to my main point for this post: it's actually such a contradiction that while I do try to contextualize a work in a review and point out what works and what doesn't, I also go lengths to not spoil anything to the reader and thus not explicitly contextualizing the work. For yes, I wanted to write something about the topic of spoilers. Given that detective fiction is about questions, giving the answers beforehand would obviously be spoiling the game. Therefore, I do try to avoid spoiling anything in my reviews, as I certainly don't want to ruin the reading experience of anyone. I certainly wouldn't want to know who the murderer was or how it was done before I start reading a story, so I'm not spoiling it for someone else either. But that does making the contextualization process difficult at times. At one hand, I want to compare the main trick of novel A to similar ideas seen in novel B, C and D, and note how they compare and differ, but I also want to avoid spoilers, so I end up writing very vaguely about the tricks and solutions of a novel, and make non-specific allusions to other works, because obviously, explicitly stating that novel A has the same trick as novel B would be spoiling both works.

But as everyone knows, spoilers are never a clear-cut case. What I consider a spoiler, someone else may not and vice-versa. Would saying there are more murders than one in a certain novel be a spoiler or not? Would mentioning the fact that the topic of snail breeding is addressed in the story be a spoiler? Would noting that a novel contains multiple false solutions be a spoiler? It's never a definite yes/no answer, and there are also times where I myself am not sure whether I should mention something or not. I wrote a review of a very well-received novel for example, where I explictly mention and talk in-depth about a story element that the publisher and many others do seem to be avoiding, but I thought, and I still think, that it's necessary to discuss that story element because a) it's too important to not too and b) I think more people would become interested in the novel knowing this story element beforehand, rather than not being informed of it, which adds the risk of someone ignoring the novel even though they would've liked it if they had known about the "secret" story element.

Last year, I reviewed the manga Astro Lost in Space on the blog, which I really enjoyed as a mystery science-fiction series. Recently, a colleague reviewed the series too for a different kind of publication (not mystery-related), and it's written from an angle I would never have even considered. Mind you, I am certainly not saying it's a bad review: by addressing story points I myself would consider spoilers, she's also able to dive deeper in the work and discuss themes of the work I personally also find interesting (themes I could also relate to the mystery genre), but don't dare write about in fear of spoiling the reading experience of someone else. Obviously, she did not think that discussing those story elements would interfere with the enjoyment of the work. Everyone has different ideas about spoilers, but you can't 'undo' spoiling a suprise for someone, so in the end, I try to err on the safe side, because I don't like to be spoiled myself either. It's one thing to give someone a clear warning and choice if they want to be spoiled about something (spoiler warnings, writing the spoiler in code), but even here on this blog, I've seen commentators just throw spoilers about random stories in the comments without any warning. Which probably is a more extreme example of how everyone sees spoilers differently. But yeah, I'd really appreciate it if everyone would try to err on the safe side of the line.

I will just go on approaching spoilers the same way I've always done here, with short summaries that barely make it to the first murder/crime/mystery and vague allusions about similar concepts and tricks used etc. I guess that if I could do a review once in a while where I write openly about spoilers, but the problem there is that I'd probably be making references to a lot of other stories, so those would be spoiled too ("Novel A utilizes a trick that can also be seen in Novel B, but it's significant to note that in Novel A, the string was red, and not blue like in Novel B, for...."). So that would still be somewhat troublesome. There's no one solution to this, and ten years into writing about mystery fiction, I'm still not sure what goes and what doesn't.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

A Fairy in the Flat


Like a ghost, gone up in smoke
She disappeared
"Fairy (The Perfect Crime)" (Kai Band)

Last year, I discussed several female manga authors who were especially active in the 70s and who helped shape the format of mystery manga. One of the biggest names mentioned was Hagio Moto: she may not have been strongly connected to the mystery manga genre in general, but in the history of Japanese comics, especially those geared towards female readers, there are none her equal. Hagio is considered one of the most influential female manga artists ever, being a pioneer in shojo (girls) manga, the Boys' Love genre and science-fiction manga in the 70s and 80s (see also post on 11-nin Iru!). It's no exaggeration to state that modern manga as an art form would've been different if not for Hagio's work. While it's especially her early works that created gigantic waves in the world of comics, she's still a force to be reckoned with. The last few years, she's been working on sequels to her quintessential work The Poe Clan, while she also lectures on manga both in Japan and abroad.

And the manga to be discussed today is of course also by her hand. I'll start right away with saying Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- ("The Perfect Crime -- Fairy--") is unlike any other comic I have read before and that while its merits as a mystery story are fairly modest, I do think it's a story worth mentioning at least. For this is the first time, and probably the last time, I'll read a murder mystery musical manga. I had no idea of this story's origins until after I had finished the main story (it was followed by interviews that put things in perspective), but being the experimental artist Hagio is, she decided late in the eighties to write a comic based on the music of rock artist Kai Yoshihiro and his Kai Band. She felt inspired by the lyric texts and the ambience of the music and asked for, and was granted permission for use of the lyrics for a comic directly inspired by her experience of Kai's music. The result is a musical manga: a comic where scenes are accompanied by the rock music of Kai in the form of lyrics, with dialogues and story development derived directly from the sung text. The title Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- in fact was also derived from the Kai Band, which has a number titled Fairy (Kanzen Hanzai), a song of course also featured in the story.

The story starts with a phone call by Kayako, the female star in the upcoming musical GOLD, to Kousuke's home, her co-player and rumored lover. Kousuke's not present, but Rui, a young talented dancer who's living with Kousuke temporarily answers the phone, only to hear Kayako declaring she's committing suicide and that she's cut her wrists. Familiar with her hysterics, Rui informs the authorities and rushes to Kayako's apartment himself, only to discover he's too late: Kayako's lying dead on the floor. Kazuto, a manager of the musical too arrives at the scene at the same time, as Kayako missed an important meeting. As they look shocked at Kayako's body, Rui realizes another person is in the apartment, but that person manages to escape. Kayako's suicide results in a small scandal involving Kousuke, who had been away from town for unknown reasons, and Kousuke is taken off GOLD, with Rui now becoming the new, upcoming debut star together with another actress. While Rui tries to focus on his new role, he can feel the police seems quite suspicious of his story about Kayako's phone call and the intruder whom only Rui saw (Kazuto didn't), and the fact Rui now got the lead role in the musical isn't helping impressions either. Meanwhile Rui is also getting close to a young dancer called Youko, but she too seems to be involved with Kayako's death in some way, and as the first night of GOLD approaches, Rui becomes more obsessed with learning the truth behind Kayako's demise.

This isn't the first time I've discussed mystery musicals on this blog: I have reviewed a few of the Takarazuka musicals based on the Gyakuten Saiban/Ace Attorney videogames. This is the first time I've discussed a piece of fiction which was conceived from the very start as a musical work however. In a medium lacking sound, ironically. As a comic work Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- is quite unique. While the characters within Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- don't actually sing the songs of Kai and the Kai Band, the lyrics of those tracks are definitely what forms the core of this comic. As an artist who pushed the comic format towards comics with literary qualities, Hagio shows how music and lyrics (poetry) can also serve as a source of direct inspiration for a tale and certain scenes. Naturally, the story focuses a lot on character interactions, putting a spotlight on Rui, Youko, Kazuto and Kousuke as they all deal with Kayako's death and their own relations in different ways, with the lyrics of Kai's music serving as the 'background music' for these scenes. Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- definitely feels like a musical, and it kinda puts some of her work in perspective for me: I recently read her 2016 comic The Poe Clan - Frühlingslied for example, which too was strongly inspired by a musical piece (the titular Frühlingslied by Shubert).

But this blog is mainly about mystery fiction, so how does Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- fare seen as such? As mentioned above, the focus of the story lies more on character interaction inspired by the lyrics of the many songs of Kai utilized, and as a result, there are long parts in the story where the mystery is pushed into the background. If you look at the core mystery plot itself, it's nothing particularly outstanding, something you'd imagine in one of Agatha Christie's minor short stories, where everybody is revealed to be hiding about something for some minor personal reason, and when all that's cleared up and you finally have possession of all the facts without the lies, it becomes clear who the real murderer must be. Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- can perhaps best be read as a thriller-type of story in that regards, as it does not attempt to present itself as a story where you as the reader can make an educated guess who the murderer is based on properly introduced clues. Unlike other mystery stories with music as a main theme, the actual music and lyrics from Kai Yoshihiro and the Kai Band aren't connected to the core mystery plot, so no fancy murders that are modeled after the lyrics or something like that!

So Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- is not a comic I would recommend for fans of mystery, even if it's interesting as a proper musical murder mystery. As an experiment in comicbook storytelling, Kanzen Hanzai -- Fairy -- might be worth a read. It's a fairly thrilling silent musical that, due to Hagio's characters and storytelling, is surprisingly captivating despite its weird concept. If only the comic itself came with the music, or even better, the whole thing was performed as a musical (animated or live-action). Anyway, this was more a 'hey, it might be funny to know this exists' type of story, but I'm always willing to see how the broader genre of mystery fiction can work in different kinds of medium.

Original Japanese title(s): 萩尾望都『完全犯罪 フェアリー』

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Shiver and Shake, That Demon's a Snake

Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind
"Colors of the Wind" (from: Pocahontas)

The current (January 2020) opening sequence of the Detective Conan anime with WAND's Makka na Lip has some sweet animation, but why the dance? I thought we promised twenty years ago we wouldn't do openings of Conan dancing anymore... The episodes of today's review coincidentally feature the previous opening sequence with dancing: Conan doing parapara on Aiuchi Rina's Koi wa Thrill, Shock Suspense.

Sonoko's father of the Suzuki Financial Group isn't able to make it to a tea ceremony session of Aonogi Ryuuzou, so he asked Kogorou, Ran and Conan to go in his stead. Aonogi lives in a splendid traditional Japanese manor with a very large pond in the garden. In the middle of the pond stands a pavilion especially built for tea ceremonies. It is said that the shining sun will color the pond in five different brilliant colors throughout the day, which is why the tea room is given the name of the Five Colors. While chatting with the tea masters' disciples and son, Conan also learns of the legend of the Five Color Pond: in ancient times, a beautiful woman lived near the pond whose flute music could change the color of the pond. A merchant wished to marry her, and she agreed on one condition: the pond was to be hers, and nobody was to ever trespass. The merchant however immediately broke his promise, and had their bedroom built in the middle of the pond. When the couple argued, the merchant killed the woman, who turned out to be a demon snake living in the pond. The snake attacked the merchant, who fled inside the bedroom, which was protected by talismans. With the snake outsider however, he had no way of escape and eventually, he committed suicide.

History seems to be repeating itself however, as tea master Aonogi's wife was vehemently against building the tea pavilion in the pond, and she died soon after it was finished. Because of her death, Aonogi lives in fear inside the tea room, afraid that the legend of the demon snake may be real. Of course, it seems all of the people in the house seem to have some beef with the man, like his son who does not want to succeed his father but is basically forced too. In the end, it seems master Aonogi's fears are warranted, for at the end of the day, he is found hanging inside the tea room. As the tea room was locked from the inside, and Kogorou had been looking out at the connecting bridge from the main building all the time, it appears it could only have been suicide, but that's of course not the case in the Detective Conan anime original story Gosai Densetsu no Mizugoten ("The Water Palace of the Legend of the Five Colors").

Episodes 210-211 were originally broadcast on the 23rd and 30th of October 2000 and features a screenplay by Mochizuki Takeshi, who passed away in 2015. Mochizuki wrote a few episodes for Conan which all features murders in curious places (aboard a loop line train, during an underwater show and one inside a retro hotel room). This time, we have a locked room murder inside a tea room in the middle of a pond, a fairly alluring premise which perhaps also explains why this story also serves as Mochizuki's only two-parter, as it does need quite some time to set-up the backstory of the legend of the pond, showing how the tea pavilion, pond and main building lie relative to each other and of course have all the suspects act as suspiciously as possible.

The locked room problem is basically a double-layered conundrum. The master was hanged inside the tea room, but the small sliding door of the tea room was locked from the inside, making it a 'conventional' locked room. Secondly, Kogorou had been watching the pond for some time, and swears he saw nobody cross the one single connecting bridge from the garden to the tea pavilion, meaning the crime site itself acted like a locked room. Both sides of the problem can be solved relatively easily, though that is partially also because the clewing is done thoroughly. The way the murderer managed to evade being observed by Kogorou is incredibly simple (though easy to miss perhaps), but the way the chosen method also ties to the identity of the murderer is good. The solution to the problem of the locked tea room itself can be guessed pretty easily too, or at least I think many viewers will have a vague idea of what happened once a certain prop is introduced in the story. It's a prop that is quite strongly associated with a certain, famous Japanese mystery novel (not dropping the title here as it would spoil everything) and it is used in a similar manner here, but of course adapted for this specific scenario. But once you see the prop, you'll probably have some idea of what happened here, even if the specifics elude you. The exact manner in which the locked tea room is constructed may be a bit difficult to guess solely based on what you see on screen because man, there's a lot of little things the murderer did (putting things juuuust right) and it's a bit silly that an important piece of evidence is left intact at a certain spot, but overall, it's an okay locked room trick, though it feels a bit predictable, in the sense that it is exactly how most people will imagine a locked room murder mystery is.

Gosai Densetsu no Mizugoten may not be a must-see Detective Conan anime original like most of screenplay writer Ochi's output, but these two episodes do provide the type of story in terms of quality and depth like you'd usually expect from the original manga, so it's a pretty save watch if you're looking for some Detective Conan material you haven't watched yet.

Original Japanese title(s): 『名探偵コナン』210-211話「五彩伝説の水御殿」

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Secret of the Old Mill

‘We were thirteen. Some fellow failed at the last minute. We never noticed till just the end of dinner.’ 
"Lord Edgware Dies"

Thinking of tridecagons, I realized I can't even count anymore in (classical) Greek. Man, I studied the language for five years, and now it's mostly gone from my head... 

Ibaragi Kanki may seem like your regular elderly drunk roaming the red light district, but he's in fact a doctor who not only helps the women there with his medical knowledge, his keen mind is also appreciated by the local police force, as Kanki has solved many murder cases as an amateur detective. Kanki is enjoying an early evening with drinks, when the establishment is visited by a female high school student who obviously should not be roaming the red light district. Young Keiko's looking for the brothel Koiguruma, which is run by her mother's friend Kuramado Hatae. Keiko's mother, who is residing in a mental institution at the moment, asked her daughter to deliver a package to Hatae. As he knows where Koiguruma is, Kanki decides to escort the girl safely to her destination. Kurumada Hatae is a well-known figure in these parts, who is not only admired because of her looks, but also because of her sense for business and her heart for the women who work for her: Hatae runs several brothels in town, but she's adamant her girls never use drugs and is always happy whenever one of them manages to get married and escape this hopeless life. When Kanki and Keiko arrive at Koiguruma, they however make a gruesome discovery: body parts have been tied to the blades of the big neon-lighted windmill set to the front wall of the building! With the head as one of the parts, it's clear to all that the victim is indeed Kurumado Hatae. From the investigation it becomes clear that Hatae had gone though her usual daily routine today: each day she swung by all of her brothels to do accounting, with Koiguruma as her last stop. She arrived at Koiguruma early in the evening, and had seven visitors come to her room upstairs that night, some of them known by name and face, like her own husband and a narcotics detective, but also a few unknown visitors who hid their faces. The mystery in Yamada Fuutarou's Juusankaku Kankei ("Thirteen-Sided Connections", 1956) revolves around who of these seven visitors killed and cut-up a woman who was loved by all?

The volume I read included not only the novel Juusankaku Kankei, but also other short stories of which most, or perhaps all, star Ibaragi Kanki as the detective. This particular book is titled Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Kessakusen 2 - Juusankaku Kankei (Meitanteihen) ("Yamada Fuutarou Mystery Masterpieces 2 - Thirteen-Sided Connections - The Great Detective", 2001), but I am only reviewing the titular novel here, not the whole volume with the short stories.

Yamada Fuutarou was a prolific post-war writer, who nowadays is best known to the wider public for his many historical fantasy novels on ninja like Kouga Ninpou Chou ("The Kouga Ninja Scrolls"). His ninja stories where everyone had the most fanciful powers with technique names had a huge influence on not only the popular image of the ninja, but also popular culture in general. Series like Naruto and Bleach are basically direct descendants of Yamada's work. Yamada however started out as a mystery writer and was written some really enjoyable stories: Meiji Dantoudai ("The Meiji Guillotine") and  Youi Kinpeibai ("The Bewitching Plum in the Vase") for example were fantastic examples of the linked short story collection. I was looking forward to reading Juusankaku Kankei therefore, as it's one of his better known mystery novels.

But man, I had trouble getting through this novel! This book has been in my possession for some years now, and I had actually started reading Juusankaku Kankei already. But for some reason or another, it dropped back into the backlog pile, so when I picked it up again earlier this week (*at time of writing), I decided to start from the beginning again. As I read, I kinda recalled the parts I had read already of course, but it turned out I was already beyond the halfway point when I stopped reading this book the first time. Which usually isn't a good sign.

The biggest problem is of Juusankaku Kankei is that the first half of this novel is really boring. After a very good first chapter where Kanki and Keiko discover the cut-up body of Hatae, you're presented with like five chapters of interviews with witnesses and suspects about what happened that night, and about the seven visitors of Hatae. It becomes immensely repetitive very fast, as each person just states this and that about who came at what time for what reason and and what they thought of the victim and all of this takes up half of the length of the novel! In hindsight, I can also hardly say Yamada did something truly clever with looking at the chain of events of the evening from different angles, so this is a really difficult part to get through as it just goes on and on.

But what do you get if you do make it through? Well, the core mystery plot at first seems to focus on the problem of how the killer could've killed, cut-up Hatae and attached her body parts to the blades of the windmill outside the window given the time schedule of the seven visitors, but that part is surprisingly easy to guess. There is another murder later in the book, but too that's resolved by Kanki even before the reader gets any chance to think about the event. In the end, the focus of the story falls upon the very complex relations between the many characters of this novel. As the title of the book already suggests, a triangle relation is nothing to the lines and arrows you can draw between the characters in this novel. Each plot development seems to shake up the relational chart a bit, giving new motives to the suspects, and in that sense, I do like the way the murderer is slowly revealed to be at the center of things as you uncover new angles to the diagram. A character who at first is in the background, but comes closer and closer as the book nears the end. At the same time, because Juusankaku Kankei is so much about thinking about motives and the relationships between the characters, the puzzle element is slightly weak: Kanki's deduction at the end is little more than vague guesses about the who and why, and never do you get the feeling of 'Oh yeah, now that clue mentioned in that chapter makes sense' as there are few 'real' clues. I guess that other Yamada novels have that too in a sense: Taiyou Kokuten actually reads as a normal youth novel about a young student's love life until the very end when suddenly everything is turned around and you're told you were reading a mystery novel. But Juusankaku Kankei is about a murder investigation from the very start, and because of that, I'd have wanted a bit more tangible or satisfying clewing.

And now I mentioned Taiyou Kokuten, I can definitely recommend Yamada's mystery stories if you like the post-war Japan setting: most stories I read by him are set in the fifties, just as Japan recovered from the war and started to transit into the period of high economic growth. His focus is always on the less fortunate side of society, from poor students who have to do awful jobs to earn a living to the people in the red light districts and the like. No posh country houses here!

But no, Juusankaku Kankei is hardly my favorite Yamada mystery story. I guess the novel earned his reputation as one of Yamada's best works due to the characterisation and the complex way with which he positions the characters in regards to each other and how this relational twister is used to unveil the murderer, but it didn't really work for me personally, though I guess this is a Your Mileage May Vary thing.

Original Japanese title(s): 山田風太郎『十三角関係』

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Headless Lady

『異世界の名探偵 1 首なし姫殺人事件』

"Isn't that exactly what a detective is though? A detective is someone who can convince the majority of the people and bring an end to a case"
 "The Great Detective of the Other World 1: The Case of the Headless Princess"

If you have been following anime these last few years, there's no way you could've avoided the word isekai. Literally, isekai means "a different world" but it is commonly used to refer to a certain subgenre in Japanese popular fiction. In an isekai series, the protagonist is usually a person from Earth who ends up in a different world (usually a fantasy world) by means of transportation, reincarnation or some other manner. The genre often involves some kind of power fantasy, with the very ordinary human using their memories/knowledge from Earth to their advantage in their new situation/the other world to become the legendary hero/evil overlord/whatever the story is about.The genre has parallels with classic literature like Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia of course, but it's been especially popular in Japan the last couple of years, with an unbelievable amount of light novels, manga and anime released based on this concept, but all with slightly different takes and also far too literal titles that explain the whole premise like In Another World With My Smartphone or That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime.

And of course, it isn't strange that there's also an isekai mystery novel. Katazato Kamome's Isekai no Meitantei 1 - Kubinashi Hime Satsujin Jiken ("The Great Detective of the Other World 1: The Case of the Headless Princess", 2019) was originally published with the title Fantasy ni Okeru Meitantei no Hitsuyousei  ("The Necessity of a Great Detective in Fantasy") on the website Shousetsuka ni Narou, where users can upload their own fiction and have other users read them. The story starts in a very, very familiar manner when it comes to isekai works. Our protagonist is an ex-cop who had always dreamt of being like the detective from the novels, but it was only in his dying moments, stabbed for some insignificant reason, that he realized that the great detective is not of this world anymore. To his great surprise though, his dying moments are followed by his own birth scene. While completely confused at first, our protagonist realizes he has been reincarnated as a baby now, but still in possession of his old memories. What's equally surprising is that he is not in Kansas anymore, or even Earth. He finds himself reincarnated in Pangea, best described as the world from fantasy novels, with magic, elves, dragons and more. Our baby protagonist is given the name Van and he grows up as the eldest son of a peasant farmer family. Van turns out to be a rather talented student, especially of magic: magic is a skill most people master in this world up to a certain degree, but usually at a rather limited scale. Van's memories of Earth science give him an edge in his studies however, and realizing how talented their son is, his parents decide to send him to the Royal Academy of the kingdom of Sherck. While normally only reserved for children of nobility, the commoner Van is chosen as this year's scholarship student because of his enormous skill in magic, and he soon becomes friends with two other 'outsiders': Leo Bahl is the brash, but clever young head of one of the most important families of nobility of Sherck, while Kirio Lafla is the only daughter of an impoverished family of nobility who was raised as a boy. Eventually, all three friends manage to graduate from the academy, and the joint thesis of Leo and Van on a complete restructuring of the justice system in Sherk, emphasizing the need for scientific investigation, attracted attention from the whole country.

Each year, the top graduating students are commemorated in a Commendation Ceremony, but this year's ceremony is exceptional, as it will be attended by the king and queen of Sherck, as well as their daugther Princess Victi, who is considered to be the living reincarnation of Saint Phata, protector of the whole world of Pangea. Victi hardly appears before others, as the royal family and the church fight a political war over her, so the fact that Victi herself will speak to each of the four students individually is singularly unique. The private ceremony is held at the former Royal Academy, a small building with no windows originally built as a fort (because the students are usually of nobility). Princess Victi is to receive each of the students one after another in the chapel as part of the ceremony: her two security guards (one of the Royals, of the church) guide the students from the main building to the chapel and once the princess has spoken with the student, the guards bring the student back to their room. Each time the Mythril doors of the chapel are locked by the two special keys held by the two guards, meaning Princess Victi is always safe inside the chapel even when they are transporting the student to and from the chapel. After the last student's done, the guards walk the princess back to her room in the main building, when suddenly part of a wall is blown up, and in the confusion, the princess disappears. One of the chapel keys is stolen too, and when they blow open the Mythril doors of the chapel, they stumble upon a horrid sight: the decapitated body of Princess Victi, reincarnation of Saint Phata herself, lying on the floor! But how could her murderer have opened the chapel with only one key, and where did they escape to considering the whole forest surrounding the former Royal Academy is swarming with soldiers? The Royal Detective Geralt the Silent is soon called to explain the situation, butLeo and Van protest to his farfetched 'solution' and say they can really solve this mystery based on proper forensic investigation and logical reasoning.

Okay, so a detective novel in a fantasy setting, one where magic is possible. Like I mentioned in a short piece last year, I love mystery stories that make use of supernatural settings. As long as the 'unusual' elements are properly introduced and explained, science fiction and fantasy elements work perfectly fine in mystery novels (in fact, the best examples authors do their best to actually be more fair than most other mystery novels). Magic is fairly well defined in Isekai no Meitantei 1 with clear limitations: line of sight is for example essential to cast magic in this world (you can't cast magic in some remote place on the other side of the world), casting takes time and while a skilled magician can easily create a block of ice the size of a fist, no magician can conjure up a whole snowman out of nowhere (to people who know Fullmetal Alchemist, magic here kinda works like alchemy in FMA, in the sense that a scientific understanding of all elements help the magician cast their magic). The Challenge to the Reader too helps define some more limitations, and with a fair amount of text that help define what magic can and more importantly can't do in this world, I'd say that Isekai no Meitantei 1 is still a fair mystery novel, that can be solved by logic and reasoning, and definitely no less fair than something by Carr for example.

It does take a long while to get to the mystery plot though. The first half of the novel is really just set-up of the world, with Van adaptating to this new environment and explaining everything about Pangea to the reader. It's fairly standard isekai fantasy stuff, which also makes this part quite boring, as so much is just exposition. On the other hand, it's also necessary, as both Van and the reader need to learn what is exactly possible in this world in order to present a fair mystery plot. You also have the usual power fantasy tropes, with Van turning out to be a brilliant student due to his Earth memories, and even co-authoring an epoch-making thesis. In the early parts of the novel you might think you'll be getting some kind of Harry Potter story, but then it jumps a few years in time, and suddenly we have Van being some kind of brilliant philosopher who wishes to change the whole criminal justice system. By the way, there are official detectives in this world, but because here the natural sciences have not developed and due to the presence of magic, investigation work in Pangea is more like 'guesswork' and there's no need for gathering evidence, proving a hypothesis or even having someone check the detective's solution: usually people just accept whatever the detective says happened (and sometimes, the 'solution' is just "perhaps there's this obscure magic spell that could..."). It's Van's history as a cop and as a fan of Earth's mystery novels, that drives him to conduct investigation in the same manner as his beloved detectives. In a sense, this reminds of the 3DS game Professor Layton vs. Gyakuten Saiban, where medieval fantasy witch trials are shaken up by the introduction of.... logic in the trials.

When you make it to the main mystery plot, you get a well-executed, but perhaps also surprisingly unsurprising detective story involving magic. As mentioned, the effectiveness of magic in this world is fairly limited. For example, at a limited distance, throwing a knife is both more effective and faster than trying to cast an explosion spell at the target. In this mystery plot, magic is therefore used for smaller scale events, but it's definitely a plot that only works because of the existence of magic. What makes this novel 'unsuprising' is exactly the fact magic is mainly used for rather smaller parts of the crime, rather than something large-scale. Of course, that's also what makes Isekai no Meitantei 1 a fairly-clewed mystery in the first place, because magic is kept at a scale that is still comprehensible to the reader, and Katazato is sure to mention all the practical uses of magic as utilized in the actual crime, have already been properly mentioned long before the solution. Magic is simply a tool like a string or a needle, not the solution to everything. Whereas Geralt the Silent first proposes a solution that is quite ridiculous for a mystery novel ("and then the murderer used some unknown magic spell that..."), the solution Van arrives at is one the reader can deduce themselves based on the clues, based on a logical examination of everything presented to them. I do think it's kinda easy to guess who the murderer is, because so much of the plot depends on a certain fact, but overall, it's a competently clewed mystery that uses magic at the right places.

Considering the current release now has a "1" in its title, I assume sequels to Isekai no Meitantei 1 - Kubinashi Hime Satsujin Jiken will follow. And yes, I'd be interested in more adventures of Van in Pangea. I do think the question of whether this really needed to be an isekai story is a fair one. At this point, Van having memories of his Earth life is mostly manifested in the fact that he's a quick learner, and the fact he knows about scientific investigation and mystery novels in general, but to be honest, this could've been a pure fantasy novel too, with Van simply being a bright kid who noticed the shortcomings of the investigative methods in this world. At the moment, there's little that really necessitates Van being from our world, besides being a vehicle for the reader to help introduce the world and provide for a framework for a fair mystery story, but Van being an Earthling isn't really interfering either, and perhaps we'll see more of that part of his Earth past in future volumes. As a first step in the world of Pangea, I'd say this first novel does a perfectly fine job.

Original Japanese title(s): 片里鴎『異世界の名探偵 1 首なし姫殺人事件』

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Teeny Tiny Murder

So when in tears 
The love of years
Is wasted like the snow
"The Forest Reverie" (Edgar Allan Poe)

Oh man, I really only reviewed only one volume of Detective Conan last year! Let's hope this year the comic will have more regular releases...  Really excited to see how the current four-part anime original story will turn out though!

Volume 97 of Detective Conan was released in the second half of December 2019 and opens with the final chapter of The Deadly TV Drama Shooting. The previous volume ended with Kyougoku Makoto (boyfriend of Sonoko and unbeaten karate champion) considered a suspect in the murder of Tokuzono Saiya, lead actor of the TV drama Detective 48. Earlier in the day, Kyougoku had mistaken one of the stunt actors for a real robber and knocked the poor sap out. Kyougoku was asked to fill in as the stunt actor, which he did surprisingly well, earning the praise of everyone, except for Tokuzono himself. Tokuzono dies after he falls off the fourth floor of the abondoned school building where they were shooting, but the only other person on that floor was Kyougoku, as he was preparing for his next scene (and everyone else was outside on the ground as the camera would be shooting from there). There seems to be no reason why Tokuzono would've jumped off the building himself, so suspicion falls on Kyougoku, but later, the assistant-director dies of poisoning. As it doesn't seem like anyone had poisoned his drink (no traces of poison in either the drink or on the straw), it's suspected the man may have taken the poison on his own will, which would make him the more likely suspect for the murder on Tokuzono. Of course, neither Conan nor Sera believe that's the case, but after the events in the Scarlet School Trip, Sera is quite convinced Conan is in fact Shinichi and tries to find evidence to support her suspicions.

Plotwise, this is a fairly minor story. The two deaths are basically discrete situations, with the tricks behind both murders having no direct connection to each other whatsoever. Both ideas are also very simple: the Tokuzono murder is perhaps clewed too obviously, as it shouldn't be hard to guess what the murderer did to trick Tokuzono into falling to his death. It's an idea you also often see in Conan anime original episodes and we've seen countless of variations of this, so it's nothing that'll make an impression. The second murder is more original in terms of whether we've see in it in the series before, but it's almost disappointingly simple. I did like the way the method eventually tied back to the evidence that'd prove the murderer's guilt. But on the whole, this is a very minor story, obviously one conceived to coincide with The Fist of Blue Sapphire, which also featured Kyougoku.

Minor stories is in a way the keyword for this volume, as Deathly Intent Hidden Within The Coded Message is also mostly built around minor ideas to bring a rather classical type of story, but things do happen in the background related to the main story arc. Kogorou has been sent a letter by a client who wants to meet with him at an abandoned church in the Nagano Prefecture to investigate the death of a friend who committed suicide there and the mysterious note left at the scene. Kogorou is asked to take along three other people and his client will drive them to the hotel after meeting at the church. Initially, Conan, Ran and Sonoko were supposed to come along, but Sonoko's ill and Ran decides to stay with her best friend, but two unlikely replacements are quickly found. The ever-enigmatic Amuro decided to join his "teacher", as well as the sushi chef Wakita, one of the persons Conan suspects might be RUM in disguise, the right hand to the boss of the Black Organization. At the church, the gang runs into a group of old school friends, who all have been called here under false premises. Their friend had committed suicide here, and it's then that Kogorou learns that his "client" used the name of that deceased person too. After realizing they have all been gathered in this church for a reason, the situation quickly turns into a closed circle one: the parking lot was rigged to break down, toppling all cars there off a cliff, and a snowslide also blocked the one tunnel on the road to the church. While the police has been notified of their plight, the group also tries to figure out why they have been gathered here and what the meaning is of the coded message they all received, but while they explore the church, they're targeted one after another...

Wait, a closed circle situation in some remote mountain church with Conan on the scene? I have the feeling we haven't seen one of these stories in ages in this series! Most of the stories lately have been far more urban, and the few times they do get out, it's not really a closed circle situation. In a way, a refreshing story. The core mystery plot is really simple though. The murderer uses a few tricks to guide their victims to the place they want them to be, but it's rather obvious who the murderer is and the tricks used are basically simple stage magic staples. The code is also not particularly interesting: it's a 'ok, it makes sense in hindsight' but don't ever expect me to solve that before the reveal. The story is more interesting as part of the big picture, as Wakita is acting as suspicious as ever, and at the end of the story, Aoyama is sure to pick up on the revelation of the last volume, which showed that unbeknownst to Amuro, he had a connection to an unlikely person.

My Darling is a Corpse is one of the rare short two-chapter stories in this series and features yet another one of the persons Conan suspects is more than she appears to be: his teacher Wakasa. The Detective Boys join their teachers Kobayashi and Wakasa as a test panel for a planned class outing to the nature found in the mountains of the Gunma prefecture. Their guide is Maika, a colleague teacher from Gunma. What they don't know however is that she's the victim of a marriage swindler, and that she has just killed the man because she found out. She plans to use the children and the teachers as her witnesses and indeed, the plan seems succesful at first. The body of the man is found lying against a tree next to where they parked their car in the forest. Maika wasn't away long enough to have committed the murder and dragged the body all the way to the car, nor could she have hidden the body in the forest in advance and moved the car to make it seem like the body wasn't there when they first parked first (the car would've made quite some noise in a silent forest). The solution is, again, a practical, but simple trick, but fairly competently clewed. Part of the story is to reveal a bit more about Wakasa's real intentions though, so once again, it's more a story that functions as a device to set-up future storylines.

The volume ends with the first chapter of The Antique Appraiser Murder Case, which starts with a surprising call-back to a very early Conan story, when the Detective Boys visited the house of Dr. Agasa's deceased uncle. He found an antique plate there, which he had appraised by the famous antique appraiser Nishitsu. Conan and Haibara join Dr. Agasa on his visit to the appraiser, as do Okita and Sera, who not only has suspicions about Conan's identity, but also about Haibara's true age and who has been trying to get something out of Haibara. Meanwhile Nishitsu has been approached by three different clients, who all brought him the same antique Chinese decorative Phoenix plate. Obviously, only one of them is real, making the other forgeries. Nishitsu is first fatally wounded by the owner of one of forgeries, just as Dr. Agasa arrives at the house. On the verge of death, Nishitsu tells Agasa which of the plates is real, but not knowing the murderer was still hiding in the room, Dr. Agasa ran off to call for help. Nishitsu is then finished off for good, and all the plates are returned to their containers, making it impossible for Dr. Agasa to tell which one of the plates is the genuine one. For the moment though, the character interaction that plays in the background seems to be like a minor set-up for the 2020 Detective Conan film The Scarlet Bullet, as it also focuses on several of the key characters of that movie.

Detective Conan 97 was not an outstanding volume on its own, but I did enjoy it better than the previous volume. The stories here were very simple in comparison to the usual standard, but it's also clear Aoyama is trying to push the overall storyline a bit forward by having these simple stories act as the backdrop during which other developments occur. Of course, this is something that works with Conan especially because it always uses the episodic story structure to also tell a larger mystery story. Lately, Aoyama hasn't been able to find the perfect balance between the episodic mysteries and the larger story, partially because of the irregular publishing schedule now meaning he's just not outputting as much as he used, but the trend of the last few volumes is definitely you can feel something big is coming. And I hope it's sooner than later!

Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第97巻

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

No Time To Die

"Time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart” 

And it's right back to business at the start of the new year!

Rena had been confronted with the reality of the "Ryuuzen Curse" all her life, as most of her family had died due to unnatural causes like traffic accidents. When what should've been a normal cold suddenly turned out to be a far more dangerous disease, she knew she wouldn't have much time left on this world. Her loving husband Kamo Touma, once a sleazy gossip writer who first fell in love with Rena while he was researching the Ryuuzen Curse, however could hardly accept something as a "family curse" as the reason why his wife's terminally ill at such a young age. While lamenting their fate in the hospital parking lot, Kamo is suddenly addressed by a mysterious voice who introduces themselves as Meister Hora. The voice assures Kamo that Rena's current condition is a direct cause of the Ryuuzen Curse and that the only way to save her is to travel 58 years back in time to the origin of the curse. In August 1960, practically all of the Ryuuzen Clan had gathered in the holiday villa in Shino. Head of the family in 1960 was Ryuuzen Taiga, great-great-great-grandfather of Rena. While there had also been family losses during and after World War II, four generations of Ryuuzen had gathered in the holiday villa that year to celebrate Taiga's birthday, with the youngest being Fumika, Rena's grandaunt, who was only thirteen at the time. Fumino, Rena's grandmother, had not been present in the villa at the time, which made her the only living Ryuuzen after the so-called Deadly Tragedy of Shino. A landslide had covered and destroyed the whole villa, leaving no survivors, but when the police investigated the building after the disaster, they learned some of the deaths had not been caused by a force of nature. The remains of Fumika's diary revealed that in the days leading up the landslide, several murders had occured inside the villa. The landslide had killed off the rest of the Ryuuzens, and the identity of the murderer remained unknown forever.

Meister Hora tells Kamo that in order to save Rena, he needs to stop the murderer in 1960. To Kamo's great surprise, he finds Meister Hora is capable of sending him through time and space, and he finds himself transported to the villa in August of 1960. Unfortunately, time-travel can be a wibbly-wobbly affair and Kamo finds that he arrives after the first two murders have already occured, but thanks to Fumika, who overhears Kamo and Meister Hora arguing and believes their time travel story, Kamo is quickly invited inside the house as 'a detective from the city' and asked to investigate the murders and capture the culprit. While Kamo's a pretty intelligent man and has the power of sixty years of hindsight, having once investigated this series of deaths himself in his journalist days, he finds that the case is far harder to solve than he had expected. Not only have the first two murders occured under impossible circumstances, as whole body parts were smuggled out of the villa even though the only exit had been watched all evening, he must also try to prevent further murders from happening, but things don't always go as he had learned from his history lessons. It's a race against the clock with the landslide about to happen in Houjou Kie's Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei ("The Hourglass of the Time-Space Traveller", 2019).

Houjou Kie is a former member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club (like Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou and more), who made her debut as a professional writer in October 2019 by winning the 29th Ayukawa Tetsuya Award with this novel. She had been working hard on her debut, as she had already reached the final round of the 28th Ayukawa Tetsuya Award in 2018 with a different novel. In fact, she was also an active writer during her time as a student member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club (more about that later), but now she's made her professional debut, and man, I hope to see more of her work soon!

For Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is brimming with everything I like about mystery novels. It's a very dense story, almost insanely so, but it holds together, somehow. Still, it's a mystery novel that involves closed circle situations, impossible murders, disappearances from locked houses, alibi tricks, a family curse and overly complicated family feuds, a creepy country house in the middle of nowhere, a Challenge to the Reader and on top of that there's also the science fiction element of time travel. Houjou is very ambitious to say the least, and it's almost a wonder the novel doesn't collapse on itself by its weight, for not only does it work, I'd say Houjou does a great job at keeping it all very understandable because she knows and understands how to plot a mystery story and more specifically, because she knows how clewing and foreshadowing has to be done for a fair-play mystery story.

To put it simply, Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is very much like a novel-length version of the traditional Guess-the-Culprit/Whodunit stories of the Kyoto University Mystery Club. These are short mystery stories with a Challenge to the Reader written by members for members. Readers have about an hour to read the story and figure out who the culprit is in the story, but their accusation should always be based on the clues presented in the story. There are a few unwritten rules for these stories, like 'there is only one culprit', 'nobody besides the culprit lies intentionally' and 'all the hints necessary to solve the crime are in the story' (therefore, nothing/no person outside the world described in the story exists) and most of these stories are solved through a Queen-esque elimination method: identify the characteristics the culprit must have (i.e. must have known about the key in the closet, or must be left-handed) and see who fits (or does not fit) the profile. One thing that is very important for these stories that they must be fairly clewed. Anyone can write an unsolvable mystery story: writing a mystery story that is fair and solvable, but still challenging is difficult. Especially with the Guess-the-Culprit format, which are held in a classroom setting, it's not a good sign if after 30 minutes nobody even tries to guess who the culprit is based on the hints in the story.

Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is like a novel-length version of these stories, and the result is that the novel is insanely densily clewed. Few stories will try to be as fair as this one, and even fewer will manage to be still as satisfying as this novel. Houjou has gone great lengths to properly hint every aspect of her plot and what's impressive is that she's always trying to do it as fairly as possible. The last set of murders for example, most writers would've left one single hint at what had happened, and in the conclusion mocked the reader for not guessing what the solution was based on that one thing. Houjou has a whole series of clues that together point towards the solution and she does that pretty cunningly too, as the hints are all found in different aspects of the story. But she does this for everything in the novel: every mystery in the novel, be it a murder or about the identity of the murderer, is accompanied by quite a few clues from various angles. It makes the conclusion a very satisfying read, as you'll see she has left clues everywhere in the novel that eventually all point towards the solution. It does make the writing  a bit unnatural occasionally, as they are times where you know she's just writing about something because it's so coming back in the conclusion as an important point and it's obvious you need to make a mental note now, but as a keenly plotted mystery novel that really hopes that its readers will try to solve it, I think Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is one of the best novels I've read in the last few years. You can really tell the writer wants the reader to solve the mystery based on the hints, and not with a condescending "I gave you this and you still didn't get it?' attitude, but a genuine, playful manner that sees the mystery story as a logical game of entertainment. I think what will stick to me the most about this novel, is how wonderfully nice and kind-hearted the clewing is, without making the mystery too easy (as it really isn't).

After a short prologue, the science fiction element of time travelling seems to take a backseat, as most of the first half seems to unfold like a "regular" mystery story with all the impossible crimes and more, but the time travel aspect of the story returns more prominently in the second half, making this truly a mystery story that cleverly includes time travelling. I mused a bit about mystery stories that cleverly use supernatural/fantasy/sicence fiction elements to create more unique situations last year, and Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is one to add to the list of succesful examples. The most important thing it does right is clearly declaring the rules and limits of time travel at an early stage, and you can use those rules to figure out if and how time travel could be used in this story. That said, what Houjou does well is not write a mystery story that only revolves around time travel. Many parts of the story are "normal", but the way it at least forces you to consider the possibility of time travel makes it a very different experience. Houjou's rules luckily limit the ways in which time travel could be used, and when it's used it's quite clever. In fact, I'm kinda disappointed one fake solution proposed for one of the murders wasn't the real one, as that would've been an absolutely original murder method. That said, you certainly mustn't think everything in the novel can be answered by crying "time travel!" and you have to carefully consider where it would work and where it wouldn't work, and in the latter case, still figure out how those impossible crimes were pulled off!

Personally, I loved this novel, but I can imagine some people might think it feels too much like a puzzle. As mentioned, it's a densely clewed novel with a lot of things going on, and that's even without including the time travel aspect of the story, which of course makes things even more complex. At the end of the story, everything comes together deliciously, but some readers could think this novel feels too much like a puzzle. As someone who reads mystery fiction exactly because I like cleverly plotted puzzle plots however, I can only say I wish more novels were like Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei!

After reading this story, I remembered I still had a short Guess-the Culprit story by Houjou from her amateur days, which I dug up. The Guess-the Culprit stories of the Kyoto University Mystery Club are for club members only, as they're usually scheduled as part of the weekly meeting, but once in a few years, the best of them will be selected to appear in the anthology Whodunit Best, which is sold by the Kyoto University Mystery Club at university fairs and other occassions. The most recent volume is 2014's Whodunit Best Vol. 5 (I'm in there too with a short essay!), which features Houjou's Obakeeeee! ("Ghooooosts!"), originally presented in 2006 as the 359th Guess-the-Culprit in the history of the club. It was pretty funny reading this story right after Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei, because you can definitely sense a common theme. The protagonists of this story is the college student Kouichirou, who can see and communicate with ghosts. He has a guardian ghost in Shinonome, a samurai-esque ghost who likes solving mysteries. Kouichirou is spending a few days up in the montains, to help out his uncle, who has bought a nice lodge there to serve as a B&B. One of the guests is murdered on the first night however, and it's up to Kouichirou and Shinonome to figure out whodunit.

And the common theme with Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei is of course the supernatural theme. It's a short story, but the clewing is quite diverse, some quite 'ordinary' for these kinds of Guess-the-Culprit stories (the culprit knowing or not knowing a certain fact), some more original. But then there's also the element of ghosts, and that's used pretty interestingly. In this story, ghosts adher to three basic rules like ghosts having no mass or having the ability to touch/carry things in the mortal world for thirty seconds, twice every twenty-four hours. And in order to solve the story, you really need to use those rules to figure out whether a ghost could or could not have committed the murder. It's a really interesting concept, and quite similar to how time travel is used in Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei, with it being an important concept to keep in mind, but not the answer to everything.

Anyway, Jikuu Ryokousha no Sunadokei was a great debut novel. It's brimming with everything I like about the genre, and executed in very capable, and perhaps most importantly, very inviting manner, as you really feel like the writer wants you to solve the mystery yourself. I sure hope more of Houjou will be released soon: I mean, there's the novel with which she reached the final round of the 2018 Ayukawa Tetsuya Award....

Original Japanese title(s): 方丈貴恵『時空旅行者の砂時計』