Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Law and Disorder

"A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason."
G.K. Chesterton

And still I can't help but imagine Kidd and Pink looking the way they were portrayed in the videogame Cat the Ripper (based on the novel The 13th Detective), even though the game's artstyle is err.... really "unique."

The mohawk-bearing punk Kidd Pistols and his assistant Pink Belladonna are back in Yamaguchi Masaya's short story collection Kidd Pistols no Mousou ("The Delusion of Kidd Pistols", 1993). While these two like lawless members of a punk rock band, they are in fact the two police detectives that make up Scotland Yard's National Unbelievable Troubles Section (NUTS). The exploits of famous detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Gideon Fell led to the creation of Edward's Law in the world of Parallel Britain: members of the Masters of Detectives Assocation have the authority to command any official investigation the very first 72 hours, which also means that Scotland Yard has been delegated to a small supporting role. NUTS is responsible for the really kooky cases that happen in Parallel Britain and in the past, Kidd and Pink have worked with famous MDs like Sherlock Holmes Jr. (one of many who claim to be the son of the great detective), Dr. Bull (disciple of Dr. Fell) and others. In this second short story collection, Kidd and Pink come across three Mother Goose-inspired cases which are totally nuts, and Kidd once again proves he's actually much more than just a punk with a unique hairdo.

I really love these type of covers for short story collections, incorporating the key elements from each story. So yep, this volume is about a tower, an ark and a garden. I say short stories by the way, but the first and last story are quite long, closer to short novels than a long short stories.

Kami naki Tou also carries the English title Tower without God and starts with Dr. Bull, accompanied by Kidd and Pink, visiting Lord Spedding. For some reason, someone has been causing all the apples in his apple garden to drop on the ground. Spedding suspects it's the work of his neighbor Dr. Dumpley, who bought part of Spedding's land for his research lab. Dr. Dumpley's dream is to create an anti-gravity device, but it seems things aren't going well and his lab might close soon. This afternoon, Dumpley is to be interviewed by the Albion Journal by the journalist Clark on the thirty years spent on Dumpley's research, joined by the science fiction writer Soars as one of the interviewers. Dr. Bull is also interested, so they too join Soars, with Clark running late. They find Dr. Dumpley at a high tower, which used to be part of the Spedding estate. Dr. Dumpley lectures the group on gravity, but when confronted by Soars about whether he has actually accomplished anything these thirty years, Dr. Dumpley replies he'll show them he has found the way to escape gravity. He tells them to wait outside the tower, while he prepares his experiment at the top of the tower. While "Ride of the Valkyries" plays loudly, Clark arrives and when they talk things over, they suddenly become scared that the doctor might commit suicide because of thirty years of failure, and run inside the tower. The group find the doctor fleeing inside a room at the top of the tower. They hear something horrible break, and when they break inside the room, they find it empty, with an open window. Below the open window they see the glass dome down there was broken. They quickly go back downstairs, fearing to find the doctor dead, but they see no body, only some blood. They look around to see if he could've crawled somewhere after that horrible fall, but then Clark falls off the tower right in front of Kidd. Once they go to the top of the tower, they find the dead Dr. Dumpley on the roof, his head broken like Humpty Dumpty. But how could the dead doctor have jumped out of the window on the top floor, broken the glass dome below, and then ended up on the roof of the tower?

Kidd always manages to solve the case before the real Masters of Detectives do, and that's, according to himself, because he's punk: he doesn't confirm to the assumed and presumed 'normal' and is willing to bend to see what lies behind the normal. And that's definitely what you must do here. Part of the mystery relies on the psychology of the characters, especially that of Dr. Dumpley, and it's pretty crazy to follow that. Like Chesterton said, "A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason" and some of the weird happenings to occur during this story can only be explained if you venture to understand the sane logic behind the insane behavior of Dr. Dumpley, and that can be difficult. Yamaguchi does set most of the idea up fairly well, but it still requires the reader to 'anticipate' how the madness works. That said, if you look at the core parts of the mystery of how Dr. Dumpley and Clark died, I have to say you can definitely just solve that by 'normal' logic. Parts of the impossible crime are somewhat standard and predictable, but I think there's one nice piece of misdirection regarding how the murderer managed to get inside the tower that works really well.

In Noah no Saigo no Koukai (Noah's Last Voyage), we have another mind with rather unique ideas. John "Noah" Claypole is a dying, but wealthy man who has become obsessed with the idea of the Great Flood and the Ark of Noah. He has built his own Ark in Scotland, and he wants his family (prodigal son Sidney, his soon-to-be wife Martha and eight cousins) to live on the ark. He even changed his will, demanding all of his eight cousins, no exceptions, to spend at least one month on the ark if they hope to inherit. His cousin Ronald, a scientist, is Noah's biggest opponent, saying the whole idea of the Great Flood is nuts. On the stormy night before Noah and Martha's wedding, some of the family have already gathered on the ark: Ronald and his twin brother James, Sidney (who has had a sex change), the family butler Bunter and also Dr. Bull, Kidd and Pink, who were invited by Ronald to see how he would persuade Noah. The ark is already loaded with countless pairs of animals, and because the house staff and food too has already moved to the ark, dinner is also to be held on board of the ship. But before dinner is served, a gun shot rings and when they barge into Noah's room all the way on top of the ark, they find Noah dead of a heart attack, and Ronald dead of a gunshot in his chest. No weapon can be found inside the room however and the window is locked. The door had been under observation, so no other person could've entered the room, so what did happen here?

Again, I'd say the mystery can be divided by two parts. It really helps if you can follow some of the insane, but sane logic of some of the characters, but it is not absolutely necessary if you want to solve the mystery. The main clue that points to the identity of the murderer is fairly straightforward and comes relatively late in the story, but it does involve a good piece of misdirection and can be missed quite easily. But like with other Kidd Pistols stories, part of the fun, and also the frustration, lies in comprehending the thought processes some of the characters entertain. The focal characters in these stories are always crazy in a certain way, though they do follow a kind of own logic due to their fanatical belief in something. In the first story, it was Dr. Dumpley's obsession with gravity, and in this story, it's Noah's obsession with surviving the Great Flood, versus Ronald's mission to prove Noah wrong. These characters often hold lectures on their pet peeve for several pages long, so unless you happen to be interested in the topic, these segments can become a bit boring, but these parts always come back to explain part of the mystery.  Here too, you'll not understand the actions some characters take unless you follow their logic, which are definitely clewed, but usually only make sense after the fact.

Eigou no Niwa also has the English title The Eternal Garden - The European Garden's Mystery, and has Kidd and Pink join the Belgian detective Mercule Boirot, who has been invited to the annual garden treasure hunt of Lord Radford. The gang however learns that Lord Radford has not been seen since yesterday and that the last time he was seen, he had apparently been shot in the garden ruin (a building in ruins as a garden piece). One of the gardeners heard a shot and saw him lying inside, but when he returned with help, there was nobody there and not a trace of any crime having taken place. Radford however is still missing today, even though his guests have arrived. Thinking it may be some prank that has to do with the treasure hunt, they decide to read the first clue and follow the trail Radford laid. After solving several riddles, the group arrives at a grotto with a tomb, and inside they do not find a treasure, but the decapitated body of Lord Radford.

The first half of the story consists of riddles for the treasure hunt, but don't expect to solve them yourselves: they all have to do with elements that exist in the garden, but you as the reader only learn of their existence after the characters have solved the riddles. It should be no surprise that once again, this story requires the reader to at least attempt to dive into Lord Radford's mind, but I'd say that this is by far the most difficult in this story: we never see Radford alive, so we don't really hear much from himself. Even based on his riddles, I'd say it's really difficult to guess what the plot wants the reader to guess. The identity of the murderer is plotted better: some of the clues are really nicely hidden and I like the reason given for the decapitated body. However, I'd say this story is faaar too difficult to solve unless you understand what was going in Lord Radford's mind compared to the previous two stories. In all three stories in the collection, it's the seemingly insane actions that make up a part of the mystery, but it's especially crucial in The Eternal Garden - The European Garden's Mystery, whereas in the other two stories, you can still figure out a good deal of the mystery without understanding the 'insane' part of the story.

Kidd Pistols no Mousou is definitely an interesting mystery story collection. The way the stories delve into 'insane' characters and the obsessions they have regarding certain topics is unique: it showcases an almost encyclopedic knowledge of seemingly random topics and makes great use of those topics to create larger-than-life characters who end up setting up murder mysteries which you're unlikely to find in any other series. What does make this collection a bit disappointing is that all three stories feature similar characters and one certain plot point which is repeated throughout all three stories: they definitely feel a bit similar at the core. Had they not been collected in the same volume, this might've been obscured a bit, but it's really noticable when read one after another.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也『キッド・ピストルズの妄想』: 「神なき塔」/「ノアの最後の航海」/「永劫の庭」

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Slip at Sea

Under the sea 
Darling it's better
Down where it's wetter 
Take it from me
"The Little Mermaid"

The last year or so, I've been trying out the anime original episodes of Detective Conan, so the episodes that were not based on the original comic, but written especially for the animated series. There have been some fine gems there, but a lot of them are pretty forgettable. But when I was writing my review of the PlayStation 2 game of Tantei Gakuen Q, I recalled the animated adaptation of the adventures of Q Class of the prestigious Dan Detective School also featured a couple of anime original episodes. I couldn't recall what those episodes were about though, and as there were only a few of them, I decided to skim through them again.

Most of them turned out to be very forgettable, of course. I had completely forgotten that the animated series had a whole series of four anime original episodes at the very start of the series, but they are all very simple (revolving around one single trick) and these episodes mostly serve as character-focused introductions for the various members of the main cast, giving the viewer an early glance at what makes them tick and how the members of Q Class learn to work together. The animated series only adapts the first half of the manga, so it features an original two-parter ending to end the story, but that story is nothing special either. Strangely enough though, no less than two anime original episodes were about a bomb terrorist.

In the end, I think that only one anime original episode left an impression on me. Suishin 30m - Kaitei Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken ("Depth: 30m - The Case Of The Locked Room Murder At The Bottom of the Sea") was originally broadcast on July 22, 2003 and features a surprisingly densily plotted mystery considering the relatively short runtime of one single episode  about twenty minutes). During the summer holiday, the five members of Q Class decide to go scuba diving together. When Kyuu, Ryuu, Megu, Kinta and Kazuma arrive at the shop however, they find a group of distressed doctors and nurses who are on holiday together. One of the members of the group, Doctor Ikezoe, had a bit too much to drink last night, and he hasn't been seen since. Ikezoe had been talking about wanting to take a night dive, and when the people from the shop notice one set of scuba gear is missing, they fear Ikezoe may have gone out diving in the middle of the night on his own, and gotten in some trouble. They suspect Ikezoe went diving near a sunken shipwreck resting on the sea bed (a popular diving spot), so they decide to go diving near the ship to see if they can find him. Kinta reveals that they are students of Dan Detective School and are taken along too.

The divers of the search party scatter around beneath the sea surface and eventually locate a deceased Ikezoe behind the locked door of one of the cabins of the sunken ship. They force the door open, and bring his body back up. The doctors determine that Ikezoe died of a head fracture and that he had alcohol in his blood, so it's assumed that he must've been diving while drunk last night, locked himself up by accident in the cabin and then hit his head against one of the walls. An attack on Megu while under water and more curious facts however suggest to Q Class that this was no accident, but foul play and they quickly determine how the murderer managed to create a locked room inside a sunken wreck.

Whereas the other anime original episodes revolved around one single idea (like one dying message), this episode is a lot trickier, with far more elements to consider. There are clues why it wasn't a murder, clues that point to how it was done, clues that point to the identity of the murderer and taken together, the plot of this episode is really quite decent. While the murderer makes one really lame mistake (the clue that allows you to identify that character postively as the culprit), the other elements are far more promising. The actual explanation behind how the room was locked from the inside isn't that original, but it makes really good use of the setting of this episode and the highlight of the episode is of course the whole matter of how the murderer managed to kill Ikezoe and leave his body safely inside a locked cabin while they were under water. The trick used here is really good, because it is so much more convincing in the visual format compared to if you had been reading about this in a novel, and the trick also works because actually solving the trick also requires the special abilities of one of the main characters. Tantei Gakuen Q is at its best when it provides a story where the individual skills of the various members of Q Class are integrated naturally into the mystery plot (for example when the plot relies on Megu's photographic memory, while the reader can simply turn back a few pages). Count in the fact the story does a great job at setting thist last part up in a convincing manner, and you've got the best anime original episode of this series.

And as a side-note: it had been a while since I last saw the anime, but it's such a shame this series never got a soundtrack release! There are some really great BGM tracks, like the fantastic main theme. The live-action drama had a soundtrack release, so why didn't this one get a release?!

In general, I did enjoy the anime adaptation of Tantei Gakuen Q, but as for the anime original content, I think Suishin 30m - Kaitei Misshitsu Satsujin Jiken is the only episode really worth mentioning. While not a classic like Conan's Noroi no Kamen wa Tsumetaku Warau, this episode's a surprisingly well-plotted story considering its limited runtime and worth the twenty minutes investment, also if you have already read the manga of Tantei Gakuen Q, but haven't seen the animated series.

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵学園Q』第15話「水深30m・海底密室殺人事件」

Friday, March 20, 2020

The House of Haunts


"There's one answer!"
"Detective Academy Q"

Are we all playing Animal Crossing New Horizons?

Despite the sequel hook in the final episode in 2007's Tantei Gakuen Q Premium, readers were sadly enough never treated to more Tantei Gakuen Q ("Detective Academy Q") after that volume. I don't know whether the creative duo of Amagi Seimaru and Satou Fumiya really planned to continue the series at one point, but given that they have been working on various Kindaichi Shounen series since, I assume I shouldn't expect new adventures of Q Class soon. Which is a shame, because I really like Tantei Gakuen Q. In my mind, it strikes a perfect balance between the story types of Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo or Detective Conan, featuring both longer, relatively technical impossible murder stories like in Kindaichi Shounen, but also offering an overall storyline like in Conan, as well as having interesting short stories (the short stories in Kindaichi Shounen are usually not really interesting). And of course, it had a lot of unique elements on its own, most importantly having a team of young detectives as the protagonists, all specializing in different fields.

As I have already gone over each and every case in the manga in the past, I don't mention the series often anymore here. I guess I could still do the handful of anime original episodes, but I hardly remember them and I don't think they were particularly outstanding (and that's ignoring the fact the anime series has a completely different ending). But fortunately, there are still the videogames to discuss! I've already reviewed the GameBoy Advance title Tantei Gakuen Q: Meitantei wa Kimi da! ("Detective Academy Q: You're the Great Detective!") many years ago, which unfortunately I didn't like that much. But I can already tell you that the PlayStation 2 videogame Tantei Gakuen Q: ~ Kioukan no Satsui ~ ("Detective Academy Q ~ Malice in the Houses of the Eccentric Elder ~, 2003) is muuuuch better, offering an experience that truly makes you feel like you're going through another true adventure with Q Class, featuring a story that could've easily fitted with the original series. The game starts in a familiar manner, with the five students of Q (Qualified) Class attending a lecture at the prestigious Dan Detective School of the legendary detective Dan Morihiko. Kyuu is late for school like always, but he has an excuse: he received an odd letter from a childhood friend by special delivery. The letter by Urushizaka Haruka, who used to live in Tokyo but moved with her family back to the family estate in a remote mountain hamlet, seems to be a completely normal letter, but that's exactly what bothers Kyuu about it, for why would Haruka send him a letter like that by special delivery? The five Q Class students discover a hidden message in the letter where Haruka asks for help, and Dan Morihiko reveals to his pupils that a few days ago, Haruka's mother had died in what was determined by the police to be an accident. Dan suspects that Haruka's letter has to do with her mother's death, and he decides to send three members of Q Class to Okumiyama to poke around, with the other remaining in Tokyo as support.

Located in a snowy region surrounded by mountains, Okumiya is a very small hamlet with only one single general store. While the Urishizaka family fortune has dwindled in the last two generations, the family is still considered the 'lords' of this area, which is also apparent from the grand mansions Haruka's grandfather had built in the past in this otherwise very, very remote village. These houses are referred to collectively as the Houses of the Eccentric Elder (a nickname for Haruka's grandfather) and include the Clock House, the Lake House, the Incense Burner House, the Cherry Blossom Corridor House and the Elder and Younger Brother House. The kids pretend like they are just visiting Haruka as they secretly investigate her mother's death, who had apparently been crushed by the tower bell in the Clock House. While the local police determined it was an accident, Q Class soon finds evidence that the clock bell had been tampered with. Dan Morihiko orders his pupils to investigate the matter further, but they could not have expected that more murders would follow during their stay and to their great surprise, they realize these murders may have to do with the Mountain Spirit of an old local ball song (something like a nursery rhyme) and tales of a gold treasure protected by the Spirit.

Wa-wait, so we have a case where Q Class is split up in teams, about multiple murders (many with an impossible angle), murders patterned after a nursery rhyme, and we have ancient family secrets, hidden treasures, creepy , themed houses and talk about a vengeful Mountain Spirit? Yep, this is exactly the type of story you'd expect from Tantei Gakuen Q. In fact, I was surprised to learn that the scenario of this game was credited to a team of scenario writers, as the way this was written, I was almost expecting Amagi himself to be credited in one way or another for the story outline, because it was so much like the real deal. So if you're looking for more Tantei Gakuen Q, this particular game is definitely one to try out. The game features the voice cast of the anime series by the way, even though the artwork seems more inspired by the manga.

So while this definitely feels like Tantei Gakuen Q, I can also tell you this game can be difficult! While at the core a conventional mystery adventure game where you go around the hamlet questioning suspects and examining all nooks and crannies for evidence or other relevant pieces of information that allow you to answer questions that help you solve the case, Tantei Gakuen Q: Kioukan no Satsui also tries to make it a much more engaging videogame experience. For example, there's the notion of time in this game, with each action you take in the game consuming a certain amount of time. Each day, you have a time limit (usually at the end of the day to report back to Dan Morihiko) and it's important to have gathered all the relevant clues by that time in order to present a case to the teacher, so it's crucial not to waste time examining the same things or repeating your questions all the time. This ties in with the character affinity stats: some of the dialogue choices will either raise or decrease a character's friendliness towards you, which can affect how cooperative they are (and if they're uncooperative, you might not obtain the information you need to proceed in the game). And to receive some pieces of information, you even have to do well in the various minigames they throw at you at the oddest times (like a snowball fight with two twin girls, or learning to juggle), and that taken together can make this a tricky game to play, as gathering all the necessary data to solve the case isn't just a matter of clicking on "Yes" all the time.

And one warning: at the start of the game, you're asked to take two Q Class members along with Kyuu to Okumiyama, with the other two members remaining in Tokyo as support. While all members will help in their own way if they're brought along to Okumiyama, there is actually one specific character you absolutely must bring along if you want the best ending. That's really frustrating, because there is no way you could ever guess at the very beginning of the game that you absolutely need that character in the future, and even if you'd pick your two mates at random, there's still a good chance you wouldn't pick the correct one. Considering this series is all about showing how these characters all bring something unique to the team (Kyuu and Ryuu as geniuses in reasoning, Megu has photographic memory, Kinta boasts extraordinary physical skills and Kazuma is the resident whizzkid/data gatherer), it's a bit weird that the best ending of the game is written around the notion that one specific character must be present.

Anyway, the story features multiple murders with impossible features to them: Haruka's mother for example was crushed under the tower bell and her death was initially determined to be a suicide because nobody could've dropped that bell on her head and then gotten away from the tower before other people arrived, while another murder involves a body being hung from a tree, even though there were no footprints of the murderer in the snow around the tree. Most of the tricks behind these murders are perhaps not mindblowingly amazing or original, but they work well in the context of the game, making good use of the unique setting and also of the presentation in the game (while nothing impressive in comparison to AAA game titles, this game seems to boast better production values than most mystery adventure games of the era usually had, and they definitely help visualizing the mystery plot). There is one rather audacious reveal about the Houses about midway in the story which I really liked though and the presentation (clewing) there was pretty clever. It's an idea that invokes a rather famous moment in the series, but in a very different manner, and it leaves an impression here too. Also note that this game has multiple endings: each day, the members of Q Class solve part of the murders, but depending on how well you do on explaining the murders and other choices you make, you can actually identify the murderer early and prevent some of the later deaths from happening. Which is part of what makes this game really interesting, but also really difficult, for if you missed some clue, you might be forced to start all over again to get the best ending.

Tantei Gakuen Q: ~ Kioukan no Satsui ~ can be a tad tricky to play with its multiple endings, buddy system and time limit system, but this game undeniably feels like Tantei Gakuen Q. It's almost as if you're playing through a lost episode. While in terms of story, this game doesn't make any specific references to the main story of the original series, it's the type of tale that could've easily fitted in early to middle part of the manga, both in terms of atmosphere as well as the type of mysteries solved here. So for people who are still looking for more Tantei Gakuen Q after reading the manga or watching the anime and/or drama: this is as close as you can get. Probably. Perhaps I should try the second GameBoy Advance game too...

Original Japanese title(s): 『探偵学園Q ~奇翁館の殺意~』

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

"Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be late!"
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a great film by the way.

On a not so normal day in Kyoto, the young burglars Masaya and Juri sneak into the apartment of Asami, a simple employee at a clothing store. The two chat as they steal some ice cream from Asami's refrigerator and go through her stuff, when the phone rings. Listening to the voice mails, the two burglars learn that Asami has not been to work today, which both troubles and worries her co-workers. It turns out that Asami has been abducted by an underground human trafficking organization and that their men were actually watching Asami's apartment while Masaya and Juri were there, as the organization's MO involves leaving fake traces to make it seem like Asami had gone off somewhere on her own. What the organization doesn't know is that the two young burglars can take care of themselves quite well, and they decide to think of a plan to save Asami and destroy the organization, with the help of Shinohara, a new member of the organization whose girlfriend had become a victim of the organization too. Meanwhile, the reader is also introduced to events that occured one year earlier in Shanghai. A prodigy gambler calling himself Robber Rabbit made off with a fortune stolen from the mafia, who in turn sought revenge by hiring a group of assassins to kill the Rabbit. What happened to the Robber Rabbit one year ago and what do his adventures have to do with the antics of Masaya and Yuri in the present? That is the story of Tachibana Yuma's Usagi Goutou ni wa Shinde Morau, which also has the English title of Robber Rabbit Gets Dead (2016).

I guess I'll have to start with disclosing that I know the author Tachibana Yuma, though he wasn't using this pen name then. He was in fact one of the active members of the Kyoto University Mystery Club when I was there too, and an active contributor to the various club publications. There's a tradition that the stories that are published in the annual club magazine sold at the university's November Festival are 'peer-reviewed' by fellow members in the weekly meetings, and I was actually the person who did Tachibana's story of that year. Anyway, he obviously kept on writing (in fact, I remember he was the one who did most of the heavy lifting for the jigsaw puzzle + story Kagami no Kuni no Juunintachi.)  In 2016, he started publishing stories on the website Kakuyomu, where members can upload their fiction and have other people read and rate them. Robber Rabbit Gets Dead was originally published on Kakuyomu, and eventually even won the first Kakuyomu Web Novel Contest in the Mystery category, which resulted in his professional debut as an author when his story was published in the Kadokawa Sneaker label, with some nice artwork by Yoneyama Mai. Obviously, I was interested to see how this book would turn out.

Though I guess I wasn't the main target audience here. Robber Rabbit Gets Dead is, put very simply, a light novel with themes that are quite familiar. The story is told from multiple perspectives, set both in the present and past, and the characters are all somewhat grander-than-life. Prodigy gamblers, young assassins who can have witty banter while fighting each other, seemingly normal household objects used as weapons, secret evil organizations, conversations scenes where every line sounds either like a one-liner or just sentences strewn together to sound cool: I perhaps sound very negative here, but I think the story, while not abnormally original, follows a familiar and popular formula, as seen by popular light novel series like Baccano! and Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens. Rule of cool is what is the most important here, with characters being able to have stylish fights and stylish banter, while killing, stealing or preparing for some kind of heist. The story follows a multitude of characters, from the enigmatic Robber Rabbit and the clingy Juri, to the is-he-really-out-for-revenge? Shinohara and the assassins who fought Robber Rabbit in Shanghai and have now appeared in Kyoto too. As an action-adventure story, Robber Rabbit Gets Dead is a familiar sight.

But Robber Rabbit Gets Dead won in the mystery category right? I mean, I wouldn't have purchased this novel if it had won in some other category. It's here where the novel stumbles. Given that there are two storylines that are told criss-cross (Kyoto in the present and Shanghai in the past) and that the characters in the Shanghai narrative all go by fanciful code names, most readers are likely to guess that there's some connection between the two narratives and that some characters from the past, are now appearing in the present storyline with a different name. Obviously, the mystery plot revolves around surprise reveals about who turns out to be who and how the past and present narratives intertwine. The problem here is that in his attempt to lure the reader in making wrong assumptions about who's who, Tachibana's writing is very likely to simply confuse the reader because a lot is described vaguely on purpose. Some characters share the same descriptions in the narration or it's kept unclear who's talking to who about whom in the narration, but the result is that especially in the first half of the story, it is far more difficult to keep track on who is who than it ever should be. In fact, in the opening scenes of the story, one character is killed, but it was really difficult to make out who actually died. Part of it may be intentional, but at a certain point, it's hard to have a satisfying 'Tadah! gotcha!' if the set-up was hard to follow and you don't even really know what happened in the first place. The confusing narration and the fact there's a lot of information for the reader to swallow in the first half because of the dual narrative makes the beginning of the novel a bottleneck which some might not make it through.

The stories does feature some minor reveals throughout between the fights, that are reasonably well set-up in terms of clewing or foreshadowing (for example when Masaya and Yuri first deduce something's wrong with Asami not appearing at her work and Shinohara's scheme in present day Kyoto), but purely seen as a mystery novel (even if it isn't), Robber Rabbit Gets Dead seems kinda undermine its own surprises by the confusing manner in which it tries to set them up.

Usagi Goutou ni wa Shinde Morau/Robber Rabbit Gets Dead is thus not exactly what I'm looking for in a mystery story. The main focus of the novel lies on the adventures of the charismatic characters with intertwining storylines where everybody looks and acts cool, but when it comes to the mystery elements of the tale, there's just too many parts where the readability suffers because of what Tachibana is trying to do. People who like the earlier mentioned series like Baccano! and Hakata Tonkotsu Ramens will probably get more mileage out of this.

Original Japanese title(s): 橘ユマ『うさぎ強盗には死んでもらう』

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Case of the Perfect Maid

アレコレ深く考えるのは mystery 

Turn the roulette of fate
It's a mystery thinking deeply about this or that
"Turn the Roulette of Fate" (Zard)

When I reviewed Return of the Obra Dinn last year, I mentioned the hardware obstacle when playing mystery videogames: obviously, you need to have access to a piece of gaming hardware that can actually play the game, and depending on where the game was produced and when, it may be very difficult to play certain mystery videogames, whereas with books, it's usually only a question of getting the book in question, even if it's rare/expensive. But sometimes, it's not just about whether you have compatible hardware or not. Sometimes, you simply prefer to play a certain title on hardware X rather than on hardware Y, even if the game's not actually released on X.

That was the case for me with Gothic Murder - Unmei wo Kaeru Adventure ("Gothic Murder - A Fate-Changing Adventure"), a game which was originally released in 2019 for iOS and Android. The title caught my attention because it was developed by Orange, a small developer specializing in adventure games and strongly involved with my beloved Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series: Orange had been responsible for the more recent entries like Ghost of the Dusk, Prism of Eyes and New Order: Giwaku no Ace (on a sidenote: Orange's also the developer behind the Detective Conan match 3 game Detective Conan: Banjou no Crosschain). Given that Gothic Murder was an original IP of Orange itself (not the case with the Jinguuji games), I was really interested to see what kind of mystery adventure game it would be, but I am also not a very big fan of playing story-based videogames on my phone, so I had been wavering about whether I should get it or not for some while now. And then last week they announced they'd release the game on Switch in March 2020, and everything was solved for me. I love it when a plan comes together.

Gothic Murder is set in Great Britain in the year of 1920. Elly, who lost her father in the war and soon after her mother too, has been hired as the new maid to serve in Count Lokiford's household. The previous head of the family has recently passed away, and now his son Irwing, the new count, is set to inherit the estate and the family fortune. Oddly enough, Irwing's father didn't leave a will, but had arranged for a spirit medium to come. Other family members and guests have been invited too to the seance, where the spirit medium is to ask the spirit of Irwing's father directly about who will inherit how much. It's a busy first day for Elly, but when Elly first meets her new master, she's shocked to learn that Irwing looks exactly like the dead man she saw in her dreams last night. Elly had similar dreams before her parents died, so now she fears that Irwing is going to die very soon too. And the problem is that Irwing didn't die a natural death in her dreams. Being on her guard, she indeed manages to foil one attempt on her master's life, but the following day she has another dream of Irwing being killed. Who is the lurking murderer who keeps making attempts on Elly's master?

Huh. I'm still not exactly sure how I feel about this game, even as I'm writing this. In a way, it's exactly what I had expected from Orange based on their other games. Gothic Murder is very small in scale, rather easy and practically never truly surprising. Yet, I have to admit I had fun playing the game, even if it was very short. Gameplay-wise, Gothic Murder is hardly epoch-making, being a mix of traditional adventure games (with segments where you solve inventory puzzles and have to confront people with evidence) and novel videogames (with story-changing choices that either proceed the story or lead to a Bad Ending). The whole experience is very streamlined and never difficult, but I did enjoy playing Elly while solving minor puzzles here and unmasking murderers there. But in terms of gameplay, expect a very sober experience with few challenges. By the time you have gathered all the information and evidence needed, you should know exactly what was planned and how to prove it. So challenging, this game is not. I guess this is what would be called a funiki gee (lit: "atmospheric game"), which I described in another videogame review as:

In Japan, the term funiki gee (lit: "atmospheric game") is used to describe games that may not be impressive from a gameplay point of view per se, but which present the player with a unique, enjoyable atmosphere that manages to pull in the player. Usually, it's a mixture of the art, the music and the underlying world that helps create this ambiance, providing a whole package that is at least enjoyable due to how the game feels despite minor or more major flaws regarding how the game actually plays.

The game is divided in several chapters, and each chapter starts with Elly dreaming of Irwing's death. From there she starts poking around, gathering evidence and talking with the guests and other servants in the house, until she manages to prevent Irwing's death that day, and then you proceed to the next day. Obviously, the repeated attempts on Irwing's life do raise suspicions even with him and as the story progresses, so you not only 'solve' the daily murder, but also learn more about the background of the Lokiford family as the story progresses, slowly building to the finale. And yes, I think there's a pretty interesting story to be found here with fun characters. I was actually surprised the cast was so large for a game that seemed so limited in scale and with a story revolving around old family secrets, spirit mediums, people plotting to steal the inheritance and more, you know there's potential for a good mystery story. The "daily murder attempts" on Irving are pretty easy to solve, but it's interesting to see how the scenario writer Kaneko Mitsue did manage to write a story that is cleverly set in the specific time period and place, with murder plots that fit in the setting of a British manor in the 1920s. It's not mind-blowing original or anything like that, but all the props she uses for the mystery plots feel completely natural given the setting, using very normal objects and customs to create simple, but convincing murder plots.

I do have to admit the whole experience did feel a bit... shallow? I guess this is because Gothic Murder was developed as a game for smartphones, so scenes and dialogues are kept relatively short. I think it still reads well as it is now, but I do think fleshing out the story and the characters just a little bit more, say with more flavor dialogues and just more set-up for the story and plot developments would've made Gothic Murder even better.

I liked the music by the way, especially the fantastic investigation theme. So I looked the composer up, and I have to admit I was really surprised it was Hamada Seiichi (AKA Haseda "ACE" Daichi), the composer of the Tantei Jinguuji Saburou series. I only knew of him of his brilliant jazz and blues tracks he did for that series, so I was surprised to hear a very different kind of soundtrack for Gothic Murder, but this one has some nice tracks too.

Gothic Murder - Unmei wo Kaeru Adventure is on the whole not a game that is particularly remarkable. It's both short and very simple, but I enjoyed both the story it told, as well as the whole atmosphere of the game. I think the core mystery story is entertaining with even a few surprising twists, even if it could've been fleshed out a bit more. And you know, not everything has to be a epoch-making epic that turns the whole discourse around. Ultimately, I will gladly admit I had fun with Gothic Murder as a short, but entertaining piece of mystery fiction. Another adventure game by Orange will release soon on Switch too, so expect more games here in the near future.

At least, that's assuming Animal Crossing: New Horizons next week won't consume my whole life. Which is also a very likely probability.

Original Japanese title(s):『ゴシックマーダー-運命を変えるアドベンチャー』

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Ringmaster's Secret

 『C.M.B. 森羅博物館の事件目録』

"Welcome to the Wunderkammer
"C.M.B. The Case Catalog of the Shinra Museum"

With Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou Katou Motohiro created a mystery series that was perhaps never as big a commercial success as Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo or Detective Conan, but it was, and still is, a fairly consistent mystery series that can boast of having a loyal fanbase that has kept the series running for over twenty years now, which is an impressive feat no matter what way you look at it. In 2005, Katou started a spin-off series titled C.M.B. Shinra Hakubutsukan no Jiken Mokuroku ("C.M.B. The Case Catalog of the Shinra Museum"), which is also still a running series. The titular C.M.B. stands for Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, the three Magi who brought gifts to baby Jesus. In the hopes of safeguarding the neverending search for knowledge for all generations, Queen Consort Charlotte in the eighteen century decided to appoint Three Magi through the British Museum, who were given the task of protecting knowledge. Each of these persons were given a ring, with the initial C, M. or B. With these rings, the Three Magi were given extreme authority to conduct research in all and every fields of science and to pursue knowledge, and the wearers of the rings are highly regarded throughout the academic world. The protagonist of this series is Sakaki Shinra, a fourteen year old boy who is the younger cousin of Q.E.D.'s Touma Sou (on Shinra's mother's side). Shinra has inherited all three C M B rings, and has thus become the sole protector of knowledge. Shinra has an own cabinet of curiosities he manages in Tokyo, where he also goes to school, but he also travels across the world to conduct research or to help people out who need his knowledge. Usually accompanying him is his schoolmate Tatsuki, who like Q.E.D.'s Kana is an athletic girl who is a lot better to handle at brawn and action than Shinra.

A few years ago I read the first one or two volumes of the series, but like with my early encounters with Q.E.D. Shoumei Shuuryou, I found the stories not bad, but also not interesting enough to keep on reading. But I've been reading more of Q.E.D. lately by picking out my stories, which works a lot better, and I figured I might as well try that method with C.M.B. too. And right around the time I was considering how to best start with this series, two special anthologies were released. Both volumes were edited by current members of university mystery fiction clubs, and while the one by Tokyo University's New Moon Tea Party (the Mystery Club there) sounded interesting too, I was of course first drawn to C.M.B. Shinra Hakubutsukan no Jiken Mokuroku The Best Kyouto Daigaku Suiri Shousetsu Kenkyuukai Selection ("C.M.B. The Case Catalog of the Shinra Museum The Best - Kyoto University Mystery Club Selection", 2019), as it was edited by the Kyoto University Mystery Club. Given that I was a member too, I figured this was the best place to start. Each of the stories is also accompanied by a short introduction written by different club members in which they explain why they picked that particular story for this anthology.

Lacework was originally collected in volume 24 and starts with a request by Hilda Beauford, together with her younger sister Alba the last in a British family line of nobles. Their father Oswell died one year ago, due to a heart attack while alone at sea near the coast of the Greek island of Santorini. However, before he died, Oswell tried to burn his yacht down, presumably to destroy a piece of antique lacework. Ironically, the lacework survived the fire after it fell in the sea and was retrieved. A drop of blood has stained the lacework: the blood of Oswell's younger Pat, who was killed one night when he had snuck into Oswell's Santorini home and the guard shot him, thinking Pat was a dangerous robber. Hilda however thinks her father had her uncle shot on purpose, knowing very well it was Pat and believes the lacework can prove that. She asks Shinra to investigate the case, as she wants to know the truth before she gets married. Not a story that stands out much, but a fairly focused plot that gives a pretty good twist to the mystery of why the piece of lacework was so important to Oswell. A lot of these C.M.B. stories seem to revolve around the backstory/history of the characters involved in general, I noticed after reading this volume. In this story, I'd say the jump from the clues to the motive is a bit too large to feel natural, but the road from there to the significance of the lacework is done well, and as a standalone, short story, Lacework is a solid entry, even if rather tame.

World's End (volume 14) is two chapters long and starts with the discovery of a photograph of a Colias ponteni, a legendary butterfly species thought not to exists anymore, and of which it is unknown where the butterfly originated from. The only specimens are kept at the British Museum, but after comparing those specimens with the photographs, Shinra is convinced it's the real deal, so he decides to track the original photographer, together with Sho Bentley, chief researcher at the British Museum. They travel to Argentina and visit the woman who put the photograph on the market, who says it was an old photograph made by her husband. He died thirty years ago, but she only knows the photograph was taken "at the World's End." When the group starts poking around asking about the picture and the photographer however, they learn there are people both friendly and not so friendly who watch their movements closely. This story involves larger, real-world history (specifically the period of military dictatorship in Argentina) to sketch a mystery plot that follows a thriller mode mostly (as we see people who help out Shinra being abducted by a mysterious group), but there's a fairly neat whodunnit plot hidden within the excitement: the misdirection aimed at both the reader and the group works pretty well, and blends in well with the historical background of the story.

One Hundred and Thirty Million Victims (volume 8) is a deliciously ironic story that really shouldn't be spoiled. It's very irregular as a mystery story, but heck, the motive for this crime is really original. The story starts with Chief Inspector Kujirazaki being sent a mysterious photograph of flying antlions and a threatening letter that says that on the sixth of November, at 18:00, one hundred and thirty million persons in Japan will fall victim. Soon after, the inspector is visited by Takaaki, who suspects his father might be planning something: his father was accused and sentenced for a robbery in which a baby-cart was kicked over, throwing the baby on the street. Naturally, the media were all over the heinous crime and condemned the man at every opportunity, but five years later, it was discovered that he had in fact been innocent. He wa released from prison, but this time, the media remained silent about the false sentencing and their own role in the public shaming of him. Lately however, Takaaki's father's been behaving strangely, and it seems he was the one who sent that threatening note to the police. The conclusion is something you'd hardly suspect and the kind of story you seldom see in a mystery series, and that alone makes it a memorable read.

The Bag Story (volume 25) is a very strange story to be selected, and that's actually also mentioned in the introduction. It's not really a mystery story anyway. Shinra is in Florence, where he hopes a master craftsman will finally sell him a particular splendidly crafted handbag. The man has been refusing Shinra's offer for a long time now and is still not willing to part with it. A Japanese salesman who's desperate to find the perfect imported goods to sell overhears Shinra crying about the bag, and decides to make an offer to the craftsman too. The craftsman then decides that to pose a little riddle to the two potential buyers, saying he'll give the bag to whoever can answer the question: "What is the Thinker thinking of?" The story is mostly a historical introduction to Rodin and his life in Florence, and challenges the reader to imagine what must've been on Rodin's mind when working on the Thinker, but it's not a truly fair mystery story.

Phra Kurang (volume 29) is a story of the type I like to call 'whatthehell". Whereas whodunnit, whydunnits and howdunnits have clearly defined mysteries, the 'whatthehell' often does not feature an obvious mystery plot, and it's only at the end when things suddenly come together, revealing it had been setting up something all the time. In this story, Shinra is hired by Priscilla, granddaughter of the "Oil King" Cybil Rubin, who recently died. Among his art collection, they found a Buddhist pendant, but it was obviously cheaply made and even misses a part. They hope Shinra can shine more light on the question of what it is and why Cybil would have such a thing in his collection. Shinra recognizes it as an object made in Thailand and travels there and eventually manages to trace it to a little village to a man called Shida, who as a boy was given the broken pendant. Shinra, Priscilla and Tatsuki find Shida's home, but he too has recently died. When the party has learned all they can about Shida, Shinra reveals a shocking truth behind the relation between Shida and Cybil. The set-up could've been more extensive, but man, the truth is really creepy and terrifying, making this one of the better stories in this volume even if you wouldn't recognize it as a mystery plot right away.

Shinra and his classmates are fooling around when they find themselves wandering into a little piece of nature in the city in The Grass in Summer (volume 13). The little piece of vacant land is surrounded by high-rise buildings on all sides, save for a little passage, so it's not visible from the street. They find various flowers blooming here, which is quite surprising. When they visit the place once again, they find a woman crying there. Her father recently died and left her this piece of ground, but she does not understand what this vacant lot is: after her mother died, her father simply disappeared, until she was notified of his death and learned she had inherited this piece of ground. She had hoped to find answers as to why he left all of a sudden, but the shock of learning there was nothing here caused her to cry. Shinra however is able to tell her what her father must've been doing here until his death based on the few clues left on the vacant ground. This is actually one of the more 'conventional' mystery stories in this volume, as it features proper hinting and physical clues, which allow the reader and Shinra to deduce the existence of a certain object. I think it's fairly impossible to deduce the exact reasons for the father to have done that simply based on what we're told in the story, but it works good enough for a human drama based mystery story.

The Natural History of G. Plinius Secundus (volume 17) deals with the Berlin Wall: sometime in the 1980s the Mandel family tried to cross the border to West-Germany, using their anitiquarian copy of The Natural History to pay the smuggler. The two parents hid in a special compartment beneath the truck, while the son pretended to be the little brother of the smuggler Jan Backer, who could cross the border as an engineer. At the border however, things went wrong: just as they thought they were allowed to pass, they were halted again. From inside the compartment, the parents heard how the driver suddenly cried "Everything I told you was a lie!", the boy Erik running away from the truck and a rifle shot. Both parents were knocked out when they hit their heads against the compartment walls as the truck sped off, and when they came too, they found themselves in West Germany, but the driver had disappeared and their son Erik was nowhere to be found. Later, they were sent a newspaper article about the discovery of a boy in the river near the border who had been shot. And now Shinra is presented with the copy of The Natural History and asked to find out what happened that day at the border. The mystery revolves around what the parents heard the driver cry: why had he betrayed Erik by telling the guards he had been lying to them? The solution requires the reader to simply imagine things, as it's not a problem of putting the clues together, but more one of 'how could one also interpret this line' but I do like the true meaning of the line, even if it's a bit hard to imagine that Erik would really have acted like that.

I have read next to nothing of this series, so it's hard to tell to what extent C.M.B. Shinra Hakubutsukan no Jiken Mokuroku The Best Kyouto Daigaku Suiri Shousetsu Kenkyuukai Selection can be considered a representative selection, but I thought on average, I did enjoy this volume better than the single volumes I've read of C.M.B. In form, C.M.B. does resemble Q.E.D., though it has a focus on liberal arts (history, literature, art etc.) rather than the hard sciences of Q.E.D., but I do like Q.E.D.'s better focus on a clearer mystery plot better, I think. I might still pick up the other volume edited by Tokyo University's New Moon Tea Party at some later date.

Original Japanese title(s): 加藤元浩(原)、京都大学推理小説研究会(編)『C.M.B. 森羅博物館の事件目録 The Best 京都大学 Selection』

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Portrait in Crime

It's been quite some many years since I wrote a short post on covers of mystery novels I liked. While I seldom let cover art dictate what books I buy, I can sure tell you that I'm definitely more inclined to buy a book (especially physically) if it also has some great art on the cover. Of course, everyone's preferences will differ, but overall, I can say that I'm a sucker for original drawn illustrations, so art that is made especially for that release. I can say that personally, I am not that big a fan of covers with photographs, nor 'generic' art (by which I don't mean the art style, but whether a piece of art can be clearly seen as having been drawn for that specific book). Many publishers and authors in Japan still have their book covers illustrated with specifically ordered art, so I usually still come across some really nice covers that leave an impression. And so, to pick a few covers that have left an impression on me:

Yuureitou ("The Phantom Tower") by Edogawa Rampo.
Art by: Miyazaki Hayao.

This 2015 edition of Rampo's 1937 novel featured gorgeous artwork by Miyazaki Hayao, the legendary Academy Award-winning animator and manga artist of Studio Ghibli fame. Miyazaki himself was a fan of this novel, and he had organized his own exhibition on the book in the Ghibli Museum in 2015, featuring a scale model of the titular tower designed by him, storyboards for if he would ever animate the book and original essay comics. The 2015 edition of the book included this material, and this specially drawn cover in Miyazaki's distinct 'scribbling' style.

Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service") by Ooyama Seiichirou.
Art by: Yuuko.

Considering this excellent series is about a clockmaker who specializes in cracking perfect alibis, I have to admit the concept behind this cover isn't particularly original, but I do like the warm, almost children's illustration book-esque art style, with the warped clocks and the warm colors. It really fits the atmosphere of the stories, being quite relaxed and laid-back.

Toujou Genya series by Mitsuda Shinzou.
Art by: Murata Osamu.

The Toujou Genya novels are brilliantly complex mystery novels that mix horror, folklore, legend with astonishing tightly-written plots and these covers do a great job at conveying the creepy part of the series. There's something distinctly unsettling about these covers, with these pale women who seem so otherworldly. Are they even alive? Are they ghosts? These covers are not jump scare frightening, but they do manage to feel really unnerving even though the composition is fairly 'normal'. To me, the style has an Edgar Allan Poe-esque touch to it and it really fits the atmosphere of these novels.

Kyoto Nazotoki Shikihou ("The Kyoto Mystery Solving Seasonal Report") series by Van Madoy.
Art by: TOBI

Besides the fact that the art itself is gorgeous here both in style and composition, with warm colors that fit oh-so-well with the bitter-sweet atmosphere of the college romance also depicted in these stories, I also love that you can clearly see that these covers were designed especially for this book, as the artwork incorporates elements from the various short stories in each book. The first volume features the taxi from the first story there for example, while the second one has the titular "Galaxy Railway" in the upper left corner. I love these kind of covers for short story collections, when they draw little elements from each individual story in the cover art (Higashigawa's Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de covers do the same).

Isekai no Meitantei series by Katazato Kamome.
Art by: Munashichi.

Isekai no Meitantei is about a big fan of mystery fiction who is reincarnated into a fantasy world and becomes a detective there, and the art really invokes the fantasy feeling of the series. The Dungeons and Dragons kind of fantasy, with dangerous forests, hidden dungeons and never-ending mazes. It's the type of cover you seldom see with detective novels, which make these books stand out and I think the artwork itself is also quite alluring, invoking that old fantasy vibe.

The Murder of Alice series by Kobayashi Yasumi.
Art by: Youko Tanji.

The Murder of Alice series reimagines famous children's literature featuring girl protagonists as creepy and maddening mystery novels. At the moment, we have Alice in Wonderland, Klara from Heidi and Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (the latter isn't in pocket form yet), but I love the artwork for this series. The subject matter may not be very original (obviously, the covers feature the titular characters), but these covers make these famous characters both recognizable, and yet somewhat disquieting, as if there's something wrong (of course there's something wrong). Like the Toujou Genya covers mentioned above, there's just something unsettling about them, which is strenghened by the fact that they do feature characters you know, only you instinctively know there's something not right about them.

Urazome Tenma series by Aosaki Yuugo.
Art by: Tanaka Hirotaka.

Color! I love the bold colorwork in the covers Tanaka made for the Urazome Tenma series. Obviously, these covers are pretty predictable in terms of subject, as they all feature one of the protagonists in the titular location (gymnasium, aquarium and library), but it's the use of colors which really stands out here. Yellow is a theme obviously, which is really eye-catching, but I love how they books all have a different primary color theme (yellow, blue and red) and how the various parts of the illustration flow into each other (like the gymnasium in the umbrellas).

Anyway, these were just the first covers that came to mind. Any covers that you particularly like that deserve a mention?

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Cat Who Wasn't There

"With my aversion to this cat, however, its partiality for myself seemed to increase."
"The Black Cat"

Cats? Or dogs?

Marriage is one of the prime reasons why Japanese women quit their job, and that's also the reason why Kaori is offered her friend's job, as she's leaving as the sole employee of the Tanuma Law Office. Tanuma Seikichi is an elderly veteran lawyer who is more-or-less retired: most of his clients have been referred to other lawyers already, and the remaining few on the list are only the people who have employed his services since his earliest days. Kaori's daily activity at the office therefore has nothing to do with regular office work. The main reason Kaori's employed is to take care of a cat. Hyouta is the cat of Tanuma's wife, who died a few years ago. While Tanuma doesn't want to take care of the cat himself, he does want to keep his wife's cat, so the cat has been living in the office since. Kaori and her predecessor's job is thus to look after the cat at the office, including in the weekends. But when Kaori first met Hyouta, she could feel that Hyouta couldn't be the real name of such a beautiful Scottish Fold. When Kaori inadvertently guessed the name "Scottie" correctly, the cat decided to reveal her secret to Kaori: Scottie can speak! Since then, the two have been best friends, chatting about their common hobby: mystery fiction. Scottie is a great lover of detective fiction, and comes up with ideas like "a locked room by cats, about cats, for cats." When Kaori manages to solve this locked room mystery, Scottie wants to get even with an even more fanciful story: a murder mystery based on the people they know. The story about the horrible of her master Tanuma in the office features Tanuma's colorful clients as the main suspects. But while Kaori and Scottie enjoy this fiction-based-on-fact, a real crime is committed in the Tanuma Law Office in Miki Akiko's Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau ("Deductions Suit Cats Well", 2016).

What a pleasant surprise! I basically bought this novel on a whim. I was checking the discounted books, when this book caught my attention: the cover was cute, and the description of a talking cat acting as a detective sounded interesting. I hadn't expected that this novel would prove to be quite a tricky mystery novel, one that is definitely more than just a book with a gimmick. The plot device of Scottie is used quite well to create unique plots, and while the whole stoy is set within the confines of the law office, Miki manages to create quite a complex plot with interesting characters and deceivingly deep chains of deductions.

The novel is divided in two distinct halves, and the first half is definitely the most entertaining one. In this part, we follow Scottie and Kaori's funny banter while we are also introduced to the various clients of Tanuma who visit him in his office, who all have their own problems and quirks. A cheating wife who wants to divorce from Tanuma's client, the plotting family of an elderly man who is planning to leave the family fortune not to his next of kin, a family with a bad'un as son: Scottie and Kaori see all kinds of people walk in and out the office. After Kaori manages to solve Scottie's creation "a locked room by cats, about cats, for cats", Scottie decides to think of a new mystery story about the law office. In Scottie's latest creation, Tanuma is killed in the office on Saturday, and the suspects are the suspicious people Kaori and Scottie saw this week at the office: was it the bad'un who snuck into the office to steal something from the office safe and accidently killed Tanuma? Was it the cheating wife who was looking for the evidence of her infidelity? It's quite amazing how deeply plotted this section is. At first, Kaori comes up with pretty simple, but plausible solutions to the Tanuma Murder, but it's at this point Scottie (and author Miki) reveal how much of the fun banter between Scottie and Kaori was actually careful hinting. Minor comments and funny dialogues turn out to be cleverly hidden clues, clues that mercilessly deny all the possibilities Kaori can think off to explain the murder. The plot here reminds of mystery stories with false solutions like The Poisoned Chocolate Case and Kyoumu he no Kumotsu, which is quite good company. Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau is not a meta-mystery like those novels, but the way the same basic setting gives way too many interpretations is definitely similar.

The second half of the novel brings a totally different game. At the end of Scottie and Kaori's deduction battle, Kaori is attacked in the the office by a real assaillant. While she recovers, Tanuma decides to hire a criminal lawyer who started her career at his office in order to solve the attack on his employee. The tone of the tale changes drastically, as we don't follow Kaori and Scottie anymore (we don't even hear Scottie talk anymore), while we're now investigating a real crime instead of the fictional crimes of Scottie and Kaori's intellectual game. Yet Miki shows off that this is indeed a well-planned novel, and even the deduction battles between Scottie and Kaori turn out to be important clues to solving the real crime. With fantasy and reality crossing each other, Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau might sound like a tricky novel, but it's really readable and easy to follow, even if as a mystery novel, it's a great example of how even a very simple setting can turn into a great mystery story with good plotting and clewing.

Neko ni wa Suiri ga yoku Niau is a really pleasant novel to read. Don't be deceived by the minor fantasy angle of a talking cat: Scottie's love for mystery fiction is real, and the many, many false solutions, and their refuttals are based on cleverly hidden hints in the funny banter between Scottie and Kaori and will entertain anyone with a love for mystery fiction. Recommendation to the cat lovers among us!

Original Japanese title(s): 深木章子『猫には推理がよく似合う』