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』


  1. Oh my gosh, the first 2020 entry on my mental list of "Mysteries I'd Devour if They Appeared in English" and it's still 2019 in my time zone. ...Or am I actually time-traveling in order to solve a mystery? ^_^ The one key point of the plot that oddly appeals to me is the landslide locking the truth away forever. It's like something Ryukishi07 would do in one of his games.

    1. Right! The whole family (except one survivor) being murdered in a villa definitely gave Umineko vibes!
      Can only hope that this gets translated or is adapted into dorama/movie.

    2. Umineko Saku is coming to Switch this year, meaning I can finally play it!

      *looks at back-log of games built up over the last decade*

      Can't promise I'll actually review it this year though...

  2. Snatched for myself a couple of Whodunit Best volumes on the aftermarket. Interesting reads... though many of the stories are a bit too barebone on the 'literature' side for my taste. Still a fun read.

    1. Yeah, these stories are generally concise as logic puzzles because all these stories are originally meant to be read as part of the weekly club meeting. People have to be able to go through them quickly. The earliest installments were actually read out loud by the writer themselves (because obviously, no cheap/easy printing back in the 70s-80s), so it was also necessary to write to the point back then.

      The more "regular" stories you'll find in the annual Souanoshiro publications, as members write "normal" stories for it.

  3. If I wanted to be able to solve fair play puzzle plots before its detectives did, would this be a good book to get?

    Also, any other novels that you've read that you remember as being particularly excellent at clewing?

    1. Yes, this is a very 'doable' mystery, despite the science-fiction setting. Heck, it's probably still the most fairly written novel I've read this year and six crazy months have already gone by!

      The Student Alice novels are all great obviously, and all feature a formal Challenge to the Reader. Ayatsuji's two Satsujin Houteishiki novels are also closer to that format. Ooyama's ABC Puzzlers and Misshutsu Shuushuuka too feature the Queenian format, focusing a lot on clues/deriving chains of reasoning from those clues.

  4. I. Stump / HeartfeltOctober 23, 2022 at 1:28 PM

    Thanks for writing about this novelist, Ho-Ling! As always, the inverted mystery is my chief interest in shin-honkaku, so Houjou Kie seems like another name for me to bookmark!

    1. l. Stump / HeartfeltOctober 23, 2022 at 1:29 PM

      Hybrid mystery* not inverted... Blah, sorry.

    2. Oh, yeah, her stuff is must-read material if you're into that. Even her Amulet Hotel series, that isn't about *supernatural* mysteries, have a unique enough setting to present a type of mystery you aren't likely to find elsewhere.

    3. l. Stump / HeartfeltOctober 24, 2022 at 5:36 PM

      Yes, I mentioned your review of Amulet Hotel on my blog post about 12 Honkaku Mysteries I'd Kill To Be Able to Read! She simply sounds fantastic! I wish your blog had a "hybrid mystery" tag so I could find more stuff like this...

    4. I never bothered to use such a tag because I figured a locked room mystery is still a a locked room mystery (or any other familiar mystery trope), whether it involves supernatural/fantasy elements or not, and at this point it's just too much a bother to retroactively apply it to all old posts :P