Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Strange Message in the Parchment

Caveat lector

Oh man, that Lost Winner mentioned two weeks ago in the comments sounds amazing...

Last year, I discussed Murder Off Miami (1934), the first in the Crime Dossier series by Dennis Wheatley and J.G. Link. These Crime Dossiers were not ordinary mystery novels, but instead presented the reader with a folder containing all the relevant documents and physical pieces of evidence regarding a crime that "really" happened. The story was solely told through hand-written letters, typed telegrams, newspaper clippings etc., while further clues were also provided in the form of photographs, pieces of hair and broken matches, all included physically inside the folder (so seperately printed telegrams, matches kept in little pockets etc.) At the end of the book, the reader would find a sealed section, in which the true solution to the crime was revealed. While one could argue that this was more gimmick than truly a game-changer for mystery fiction, I have to say I did like "playing" the first Crime Dossier. It reminded me of Escape Room games, where a story is told minimalistically through objects with which the player/reader can interact and that coupled with a Challenge to the Reader, made Murder Off Miami a unique experience, even if the fundamental mystery plot was fairly simple.

As these Crime Dossiers can be relatively expensive even on the used market, I wasn't planning to go after them, but a while back, I came across the second and third volumes in this series at a local used book store for a neat price, so I picked them up. Who Killed Robert Prentice? was released in 1937, followed by The Malinsay Massacre in 1938. In terms of presentation, both booklets don't differ too much from Murder Off Miami. The first book presented a rather classic closed circle situation, with a murder on a yacht out on sea, but Who Killed Robert Prentice? has a rather mundane crime in return. The titular Robert Prentice is a succesful businessman, who never had much luck with women until he met and fell in love with Cicely, a single mother with one boy. After their marriage, Cicely tried to get Robert into high society, but that also gave him more confidence, and to Cicely's great shock, he fell in love with his beautiful new secretary Suzanne L'Estrange. Hoping it would just be a whim, Cicely agreed to close her eyes for the affair for a short while so Robert could get it out of his system, but he was murdered before it was all over. One morning, Robert's body is found in a little cottage house he rented for his numerous rendezvous' with Miss L'Estrange. But it was not only Cicely who may have had a motive to kill her cheating husband: Cicely's son was also in love with Miss L'Estrange, so that love triangle could also be a motive. Cicely decides to write to Lieutenant Schwab, who is visiting the UK from the US and hopes he can solve the murder on Robert Prentice.

The core mystery plot is fairly simple, and follows a similar design to the first book. You'll be looking for contradictions between the narrative as you learn them from the various documents like personal letters (which may contain lies or not), newspaper articles and the physical evidence you also have, like photographs. Sometimes things said, don't comply with what you see in the photographs, and that's the starting point for your deductions, though as I said, the core plot is ultimately quite simple, so after you pick up on a few discrepencies, you'll quickly have an idea of what really happened. This second volume has some interesting pieces of evidence: there's a torn-up photograph, a train ticket stub and even a complete newspaper, which includes updates on the police investigation and the coroner's court. Going through all these things as you try to solve the mystery is still fun, and like Murder Off Miami, Who Killed Robert Prentice? can provide for an evening of detecting fun. Personally, I liked Murder Off Miami better as a story though.

The Malinsay Massacre has a promising title, but the reader will also quickly notice that this volume is less intricately designed compared to the first two Crime Dossiers. I assume there's a financial reason for this, but the change can also be detected in the narrative. The Malinsay Massacre refers to a series of murders that occured in 1899 and is not a case where Lieutenant Schwab has personally worked on as a police officer. The murders started with the death of the fifth Earl of Malinsay, Malinsay being a small island in Scotland housing Malinsay Castle, a small village of fishermen and some cottage that can be rented. George Malinsay's death had been odd, but further examination proved he had indeed been murdered. He had inhaled a poisonous gas, but strangely enough, it seems impossible anyone could've gone in his bedroom to make him inhale the gas that night, making it a locked room mystery. After George's death, his brother Henry became the next Earl, who is determined to find out who killed George. He not only has his own son come to the island, but he also writes to his nephew Colin, the brains of the family, hoping he might act as their armchair detective. For death seems to be lurking still on the island. Soon after Henry settles on the island, more of his family is murdered, resulting in a massacre of the Malinsay family. The case would remain unsolved, but when Schwab gains access to the old documents of the Malinsay family, he realizes that the murderer had been hiding in plain sight all along.

The Malinsay Massacre has less 'gimmicky stuff' than the previous two volumes. Most of the files includes are just type-written letters, accompanied by 'paper-based' evidence like the Malinsay family tree, a floorplan and a few photographs of the suspects. The only physical piece of evidence is a tablet laced with arsenic, with the helpful note Note to readers: The poison has been extracted from this tablet, in case you were planning to use the poison tablet you got with a book to murder someone. I liked how we got a completely different type of story this time, with a whole family being killed off on some remote island, but focusing solely on the core plot, it does disappoint at times. The locked room murder is not really clever, as there's basically no evidence to what happened and the story is basically just saying "what if you imagine this or that was there, then the murder would've been possible!" Yes, of course, but it's not a proper detective story if you don't properly hint or foreshadow that. The clewing to the solution of a mystery story should never be a digital manner of 1) Either you think of The One Solution or 2) You don't think of the One Solution. It should be clewed, there should be build-up, there should be hinting. I also didn't like how some of the hints to the identity of the murderer were supposed to be visible on the photographs, only not really due to the resolution of said photographs. Obviously, I understand that it's also a matter of the technology at the time of publishing and the previous books had similar issues too, but I think it's a bit more troublesome in this case, as The Malinsay Massacre's hinting is both not as extensive, as well as not as good as the other two books, so it really hurts the narrative when a clue turns out to be barely discernable.

On the whole, I'd say these two volumes share the same basic issues I also had with Murder Off Miami, being that the story can be really dry as there's no narrative voice, no characterization or quotable prose. The cheap paper and enigmatic way in which these books are bound are understandable, considering the contents, but when asked the question of whether these stories couldn't have been written as normal prose stories, I'd say it wouldn't be too hard to change a few clues to make that possible. So the necessity of these Crime Dossiers is definitely a possible topic of discussion. They are fun, gimmicky forms of mystery fiction, but not much more than that. In case you hadn't read the review of Murder Off Miami yet, please do. The three volumes are quite similar, so most of what I wrote there will apply here.

There is a fourth volume titled Herewith the Clues, but again, I am not actively chasing after it unless I happen to find one cheap. While funny anecdotes in the annals of mystery fiction, mystery games and interactive fiction, I don't think these Crime Dossiers are something you should pursue at all costs. If you can find them cheap though, try one out, as they provide an entertaining experience that shows off the possibilities of mystery fiction. If I had to choose one, I still think the first, Murder Off Miami, is the best. Who Killed Robert Prentice? is fairly similar to Murder Off Miami, so if you want to choose two, I'd say The Malinsay Massacre would prove to be the more interesting companion pick, as it's quite different in atmosphere due to the setting.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Light in the Darkness

「追いつきたい 突き止めたい その真相 最高機密」

"The truth / I want to catch up to it / I want to figure it out / Top secret"
"The Scarlet Alibi" (Tokyo Incidents)

Ever since the 1997 film Detective Conan: The Time-Bombed Skyscraper, Detective Conan has seen a new theatrical release each year, which always releases mid-April, just in time to draw in viewers during Japan's Golden Week. The release schedule of the Detective Conan comics is also synchronized to the annual film, with a new volume releasing in the same week as the film's premiere. But that only works if everything goes as planned. In 2018, Detective Conan: Zero the Enforcer was not accompanied by a new volume in the long-running series, as series creator Aoyama had been having health issues, which disrupted the schedule of the comic serialization, and volume 95 wouldn't be released until October. This year we have the reverse, as Detective Conan 98 (2020) was released in April as scheduled, but the release of the 2020 film Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet has been postponed for the moment due to COVID-19 and at this moment, there's still no new release date set. I always wait for the home video release around October/November, but I guess that the discs will be delayed too this year...

The sad thing is that volume 98 is one of the best examples of how good the timing process of the multimedia franchise that is Conan has been for the last decade or so. The main three stories in this volume all focus in one way or another on the four characters who form the focal point in the upcoming Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet, so it's clearly meant to push the film. I am happy to say that after a very disappointing volume 96, and a rather average volume 97, this volume was far more entertaining. The volume opens with the remaining chapters of The Antique Appraiser Murder Case. Previously, Dr. Agasa had brought an antique bowl he inherited from his uncle to the famous antique appraiser Nishitsu. Meanwhile Nishitsu had also been approached by three different clients, who all brought him the same antique Chinese decorative Phoenix plate. Only one of these three plates is the real thing of course. Nishitsu is fatally wounded by the owner of one of the forgeries, just as Dr. Agasa arrives at the house to get his own bowl back. In his dying moments, Nishitsu tells Agasa which of the plates is real, marking it with a smear of his own blood, but not knowing the murderer was still hiding inside the room, Dr. Agasa ran off to call for help. Nishitsu was then finished off for good by the culprit, who also made sure to replicate the smear on all three plates and to place the real plate in the container with their own name, with the intent of taking the plate back as their own of course.

The puzzle of figuring out which plate was real based on what Dr. Agasa saw isn't that difficult: the thing he overlooked was very elementary, though I like the follow-up better: after they figure out who did it, they still have to figure out who was the actual owner of the genuine plate, and the clewing there was both simple, yet cleverly hidden in the illustrations. The story however also acts as a set-up for future story developments, as Dr. Agasa, Conan and Haibara had extra company in the persons of Sera and Dr. Agasa's neighbor Okita. Sera has had her suspicions of both Conan and Haibara's real identities for some time now, so she's eager to get the truth out either of them, while Okita, in their first real interactions in this series, attempts to temper Sera's efforts. And even Conan seems to come to a surprising conclusion regarding Sera and her "sister from beyond the territory," a plotline which have been running for some time now.

The second story, The Deduction Race Between the High School Student Detectives, sees the return of Momiji, who is still intent on winning Hattori over. She organizes a kind of detective competition between Hattori and... Kudou Shinichi and if Hattori loses, he has to do whatever Momiji wants. Momiji has been approached by an acquaintance looking for help. The housekeeper of that family recently died, and she had sent four different coded messages to her four sons, whom had all been adopted by other families when they were young due to the father's death, which caused severe financial problems. The four brothers had not seen each other since, though the mother and the oldest brother Benzou did keep in touch with the others through e-mail. The mother had been bequested a treasure by her wealthy employer before her death, so it is assumed her coded messages, when put together by all four sons, will reveal where this treasure is. The brothers had been discussing the code over e-mail, but then the mails from oldest brother Benzou stopped. Fearing he might've gotten into some trouble while hunting for the treasure, Momiji wants Hattori to solve the code and figure out the location of the treasure. When they finally arrive at the location indicated however, they find a dead Benzou, surrounded by three men who claim to the other brothers, but as none of them had seen each other since childhood, nobody knows for sure whether these men are really the people they claim to be.

Interesting story! I think this is a good example of what makes a Conan story a typical, but good Conan story, mixing the rom-com drama featuring the regular characters with a story that has a few plot twists and good clewing that makes use of the visual format. It seems unlikely anyone is going to figure out the coded messages themselves, even if it's strangely similar in idea to the code featured in the Scarlet School Trip storyline. Once we get to the murder, we get a slim, but capably plotted who-of-three type of mystery story, where Aoyama shows how even with concepts that aren't that surprising taken on their own, he can still craft an enjoyable mystery story through good clewing. The story is also funny to read because in the background, you also have the plot of having a deduction battle between Hattori and Shinichi, as well as the romantic intriges plotted by Momiji to win Hattori's heart, so all in all a good Detective Conan story. The way the tale ties back into the current overarching plot is also interesting.

In The Shogi Player Serial Murder Case, Conan bumps into Shuukichi, boyfriend of patrol officer Yumi and expert shogi (Japanese chess) player as the current holder of the prestigious title Taikou Meijin. Shuukichi has been heading a small shogi study group for some time now, and Yumi and Conan are invited along to take a look (because Yumi assumed Shuukichi was cheating on her). The group always meet at an apartment room they rent together, but on the way, Shuukichi, Yumi and Conan bump into three of the four members outside: the four members had first come to the apartment together, and then three of them went out to buy snacks and drinks for the study group. The fourth member, Genda, is waiting in the apartment already, preparing some other snacks there. When the party arrives at the apartment however, they find the door unlocked, and a strangled Genda lying on the floor. Besides him lies a shogi table with two of the feet knocked off, tying this murder to the recently murdered shogi player Nishikido, who suddenly disappeared after suspicions of matchfixing rose, and who was later found murdered together with a shogi board with one of the feet removed.

Conan suspects one of the three members of the study group is the murderer, and that they only pretended to go out to buy their designated snacks/drinks, to kill Genda in that time period. The problem is that all three of them brought their food and drinks either warm (bread and coffee) or cold (ice cream), while the kitchen in the apartment didn't have gas nor a microwave, and the refrigerator was empty too when they left. So if their alibi is fake, how did they prepare their food to make it appear they just got it from the store? Strangely enough, Conan doesn't seem to really give any good reason why the murderer couldn't be some third party who planned to kill Genda while the others were out, making his suspicions a bit weird, as they only make sense for us, the reader, as we can safely guess that the murderer is, of course, one-of-the-three. I think that the trick the murderer used to fake their alibi is interesting in the sense that it's obvious from this story, but also many of these which-of-the-three type of stories, that Aoyama, his assistants and editors collect loads of ideas, factoids and trivia that can be used for a murder mystery in one way or another. While I hate mystery stories that rely on very specific pieces of knowledge that only experts know, many of these Conan stories are based on something practical you see and use in everyday life, like kitchen appliances, stationary and writing utensils, even the way cupboards are built. These ideas usually revolve around something very mundane, so I seldom feel cheated. Here too, I think the trick is a clever way to use what's there to create the fake alibi without feeling like it's based on something obscure, but with these stories, I always think, "Man, you guys really just write down everything you come across in the hopes of using it in this series at one time or another. And you actually succeed in that too!"

I like how this story focuses on Shuukichi though. He's been pushed to the main stage these last few volumes, but I never felt his stories were really... memorable? he always seemed like a minor secondary character, as he was always shown through his relation to Yumi (who has of course been part of the series universe for much longer). In this story he solves the murder basically instantly, with Conan trailing far behind him, and the story also does a better job at showing him as a character on his own, . And the action scene at the end... is nuts!

The volume ends with the first chapter of The Truth Of Poison and Medicine, where Ran, Sonoko, Sera and Conan attend the birthday party of their classmate Remi and her older sister Yumi, who is a famous actress now. Murder ensues (of course) at the party, while Sera's still trying to get the information she wants from Conan. I guess this will be build-up to the approaching climax to the current storylines.

Oh, I also read the sixth volume of  Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), which features most of the chapters of The New Murders At The Foreigners Hotel. Hajime has already started his explanation of the case by the last chapter of this volume, so I already know part of the solution, but I'd better wait with my review until I've read the full conclusion in volume 7. I do want to note already that this story is an interesting blast to the past. Hajime and his subordinate Marin are sent to the one place Hajime really didn't want to return to: the Foreigners Hotel in Hakodate. When he was seventeen, he solved the infamous murder case involving the Red-Bearded Santa here, but painful losses were also made. Now Hajime's boss has sent him here to supervise the premiere of the fantasy musical "Hakodate Wars", starring several popular male idol stars, two from the former group Skywalker and the three men in Desperado. Hajime runs into familiar faces like Saki (a professional photographer now) and Itsuki (still the freelance writer), but he crosses paths with Superintendent Yukimura for the first time, who has been investigating the death of an ex-member of Desperado. This subordinate of Akechi has gotten into his head that Hajime's probably some kind of serial killer who was active when he was seventeen, and who has now returned to his deadly games as a 37-old man. I guess we have a new rival character! We have some deadly incidents during the premiere and of course the ol' 'everyone has an alibi, so this is an impossible murder' angle, but I'll wait until the next volume to organize my thoughts about this story.

Anyway, Detective Conan 98 proved to be one of the volumes I enjoyed best overall these last two, maybe even three years. The mystery plots aren't that impressive, but Aoyama manages to cover for that with good writing/clewing and by tying these stories to the overall storyline. He has done this in the previous volumes too, but not as consistently as with the stories in this volume, I think. It's clear the chess pieces are moving towards a certain point, not only to provide the foundation for the 2020 film Detective Conan: The Scarlet Bullet, but also in the comic storyline. Volume 99 is scheduled for a Winter 2020 release, meaning volume 100 will probably follow in 2021: I think it's safe to say we may expect something big then. I might write a post reminiscing about how I first started with this series then... Update on the 37-old Kindaichi Hajime will follow when volume 7 releases in July!

Original Japanese title(s):  Original Japanese title(s): 青山剛昌 『名探偵コナン』第98巻

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Picture-Perfect Mystery

Natura Artis Magistra

Nature is the teacher of the arts

I think it was around this period last year I went to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, to visit the All The Rembrandts exhibition. It was certainly something that played in my mind when I picked today's book.

Takano Fumio's Yokuryuukan no Housekishounin (2018), which also carries the English title of The Jewelry Dealer of the Winged Lizard House, takes us to the summer of 1662 when a spooky rumor spread across the international metropolis Amsterdam. Many believed that the ghost of the one-eyed Claudius Civilis roamed the City Hall (currently the Royal Palace of Amsterdam) and all were convinced the ghost had stepped out of the Dutch master Rembrandt's painting The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis hanging in City Hall. These rumors about Rembrandt's work were especially a source of worry for Titus van Rijn, owner of an art shop and son of Rembrandt. One evening, Rembrandt is summoned to the house of the famous jewelry dealer Nicolaes Hoogeveen, who lives in the Winged Lizard House, named after the gables which were designed after a legendary winged lizard (dragon) protecting diamonds in the Far East. Titus has no intention of sending his father there, so he decides to visit Hoogeveen himself. The man seems to be in a highly neurotic and paranoid state, as he has sent almost all of his servants out of the house for the night. Titus' meeting with the man doesn't last long however, and he too is sent away, but on his way out, Titus meets and greets Dr. Calkoen and another doctor as they enter the home. The following day, new rumors reach Titus: in the earliest hours of the day, someone who died of the plague was apparently buried outside the city walls, and to his great surprise, word is that it was Hoogeveen who died. Apparently, Dr. Calkoen's companion had been a plague doctor, who was was not able to save Hoogeveen. Puzzled by last night's events, but also worried about whether he himself isn't infected, Titus decides to pay the widow of Hoogeveen a visit, with the help of a new friend Fernando Russo, a sailor who has lost his memory. During his visit to the Winged Lizard House Titus hears something strange coming from the safe room of the deceased jeweler. As the only key to the safe was buried together with Hoogeveen, it takes quite some time to break the secured room open, but no amount of time could've prepared them for what they found inside: a weakly Hoogeveen lying unconscious in the room. Besides Hoogeveen lies a painting, seemingly a Rembrandt, but while people remember it was supposed to be a portrait, no human is present on the painting now. Has Hoogeveen too come back alive through one of Rembrandt's painting like Claudius Civilis?

Sometimes the premise of a novel can sound both incredibly alluring, and puzzling. Mysteries about art are not particularly rare, especially if you approach it from a historical angle, and focus often on questions on how a piece of art was made, the meaning (folkloristic purpose) of a piece of art or the topic of a painting. The idea of a mystery novel that wasn't about the works of Rembrandt, but one that featured himself and Titus as characters in a seventeenth century Amsterdam, therefore sounded quite interesting. The idea of people coming back to life through the paintings of Rembrandt, that was a pretty unexpected angle (I don't believe it's a 'real' anecdote from Rembrandt's life), so that did raise some questions with me as these kind of novels usually focus on a more fact-based history of the person, but I was willing to roll with it. The decision to make Titus the protagonist of the story worked out pretty well, focusing on the famous topic of many of Rembrandt's sketches. The young boy is a somewhat nervous, but dedicated lover of art and it's interesting to see Rembrandt the father, Rembrandt the artist and Rembrandt the employee all through Titus' eyes.

As a mystery about Rembrandt, The Jewelry Dealer of the Winged Lizard House does a captivating job intertwining Rembrandt's personal and professional life with the narrative. Some characters are taken from Rembrandt's work, though usually, with quite a lot of imagination added. The Doctor Calkoen in this story is for example supposed to the Dr. Calkoen seen in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deijman, but also not really him as character-wise, it's obvious the author Takano went completely her own way with portraying this man. The novel features lots of references to Rembrandt's works, as well as to seventeenth century Amsterdam, which is pretty unique for a mystery novel.

And indeed, the core mystery plot is one that builds on the fact that this is in fact a historical mystery. The mystery of Hoogeveen's apparent resurrection is portrayed in a fairly chaotic way, mostly because of Titus' personality. His investigation is somewhat unfocused, and the reader is presented information in what is occasionally a pretty tiring manner, but at the core, the mystery is actually fairly simple. Most of Titus and Nando's investigation revolve around the question whether the person who died of the plague was Hoogeveen or not, and if not, whose corpse it was then (and how was it introduced into the house in the first place). Solving this mystery isn't that difficult, though the motive for the deed is fairly well-done: both the motive and the 'props' used to accomplish the mystery of the resurrection of Hoogeveen make perfect sense in the specific time period of this novel and make good use of the 'common sense' back then. None of the trickery would ever work in this time and age, but seventeenth century Amsterdam? Sure, I'll believe it and yep, I also thinks it works well, even if isn't epoch-making.

There is a secondary plotline about Nando trying to learn his past, and to be honest, I didn't like it that much. It does connect back to the main mystery of Hoogeveen's return to the living through the painting, but it's far, far too convenient for the plot. The Jewelry Dealer of the Winged Lizard House also has a minor, supernatural touch revealed at the end of the tale, which I am somewhat torn about. I think it does fit the mood of Rembrandt's work, but in this particular novel, allowing for that specific instance of the supernatural, does undermine the core mystery plot. If say, it had been a completely different type of the supernatural which does not infringe upon the integrity of the core mystery plot, I'd have been more open to its introduction.

Yokuryuukan no Housekishounin is perhaps no mystery masterpiece which will be remembered for centuries, but it is definitely an interesting story for those who have an interest in the famous Dutch painter. It tells a captivating tale set in a --for mystery novels-- highly original setting and the way the book plays with the 'real' life of Rembrandt to bring the mystery of the resurrected plague patient is also entertaining. If you like Rembrandt's paintings, this is a fun one to try out.

Original Japanese title(s): 高野史緒『翼竜館の宝石商人』

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Blueprint for Murder

Like many of us now, I'm having a blast with the new Animal Crossing. While the game has always been about simulating life in a way, and given you a lot of furniture, clothes and other customization options to build whatever you want, it wasn't until Happy Home Designer (3DS), with its more robust interior options and the fact you could use whatever furniture you want, that I really got into recreating scenes in the game. With the new options to terraform in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I've got loads of plans to turn my island into a wonderful place, but I also still like to recreate well-known small locations or scenes within the game, like from the original film adaptation of Yokomizo Seishi's Inugamike no Ichizoku (The Inugami Clan).

Recreating these settings from well-known mystery stories do force you to really think about the layout of a certain location. With mystery stories in visual media, like films or comics, this is of course not really a problem, but unless your novel has some nifty diagrams or floorplans, you probably will have to read the descriptions in the text very carefully to get a good idea of the place, and even then you have to hope that the descriptions are detailed enough. Two years ago, I wrote a short article on some of the diagrams/floorplans in mystery novels I like, but stories featuring such diagrams are definitely the exception. There's a limit to how much a text can really convey the vision an author has of the setting, and sometimes the description only touches upon the minimum needed for the story. And sometimes, it can simply by a bit confusing. To stick with Yokomizo: Honjin Satsujin Jiken was recently released in English as The Honjin Murders. The story goes that  it was only when the first visual adaptations appeared, like the 1975 film adaption, that people truly understood how the locked room murder there had been done, because it's pretty complex, and it was only in the film people got a real sense of space, and where everything and everyone was located. It's a reason why Arisugawa Alice's An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998 was so cool: it featured beautifully drawn diagrams for all the locked room mysteries discussed in this guide, even those originally don't have any floorplans/diagrams. It really helped convey how these rooms and other locations must look like, showing the relative locations of every significant object/person.

But going back to videogames, recreating that scene from Inugamike no Ichizoku made me think of two things. One: wouldn't it be great to have some sort of videogame where you could walk around yourself in recreations of locked room murder crime scenes and other iconic locations from famous mystery stories in a videogame? Like being to roam around on the island of the Decagon House? Or get lost in the corridors of the Labyrinth House? Witness the awe-inspiring Werewolf Castle yourself? See how the hotel in Shijinsou no Satsujin changes by the hour as they come closer and closer? Or just imagine being able to move the camera into that object in the Crooked Mansion and see the house from a completely different point of view! I had actually expected more reaction to my review of Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Ghosts") earlier this week, but wouldn't it be fun to go through that haunted classroom yourself? Of course, there are games like Minecraft where you can could do that yourself, and even in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I think something like The Honjin Murders should be doable, but it would be great to have an official game built around this, for example with an overarching plot of new murders being committed there or something like that. By the way, yes, I know there's a RPG based on Ayatsuji's House series. Has some fancy music too.

The other realization was that I had never really considered how mystery videogames have been so great at presenting floorplans and diagrams, and convey a sense of how every location relates to each other. Of course, this isn't some universal truth for all mystery videogames out there, but when it's utilized well, videogames can definitely go a bit further than novels in terms of making use of space in their mystery plots. In many games, you control the character directly yourself, or you at least choose the locations to go to via a map, which automatically means the developers have to think of how each room, or each location is connected to each other and this really gives the player a great awareness of space. A map is often used to navigate between the locations, so a player usually remembers the exact floorplan of a location much better than in a novel, which can just jump between scenes instantly, whereas in the game, you are usually doing some specific action to move between locations. And with that, you often get a better understanding of how each room in a mansion is connected for example, or how it lies in relation to another room on another floor. Or for example height differences! One of the fan-favorite cutscenes in Gyakuten Saiban 5 (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Dual Destinies) is sometimes discussed because of its comedic value, but what it really did was convey exactly where one location was relative to another location, including angle and height.

Of course, novels can also utilize ingenious murder tricks that use a three-dimensional space, but they are seldom as clear as in videogames. Mystery videogames can convey such spaces much more directly, and clearer to the player and by extension, also present more complex variants that make use of a three-dimensional space in a more natural manner. The Danganronpa videogames for example have several episodes that feature interesting murders that utilize space and location three-dimensionally, and these concepts work better because the player has been controlling the protagonist character themselves, walking between the various locations and learning how everything is connected. I won't spoil the exact episodes, but one episode in Super Danganronpa 2 for example does something fantastic with the player's sense of three-dimensional space, while New Danganronpa V3 has several episodes with murder plots that are good at showing how various locations are interlinked, and another episode that makes use of two-dimensional space in a way no novel can do. The recently reviewed PlayStation 2 game of Tantei Gakuen Q ("Detective Academy Q") too features one chapter that makes more sense if you can visualize everything three-dimensionally. Videogames can convey space in a perfectly natural manner to a player, so it's really satisfying when a plot makes use of that.

Anyway, that was enough rambling from me for today. Any mystery novels you know where you think a three-dimensional presentation of the crime scene/location would've done wonders? Stories that made an impresssion because of they utilized space? Or is there one particular location you'd love to explore yourself in a videogame?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Stop the Clock

"Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP , clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?"

One recurring motif I mostly know from anime and manga is the school festival. If I am to believe all the fiction I read, many high schools and universities have an annual festival where classes and clubs organize all kind of activities for both fellow students, and visitors from outside. Popular activities are running food stalls and cafeterias in classrooms, while clubs often organize events to show off their own activities, like music clubs performing on stage. I myself have only been to university festivals both as visitor and participant, but my experiences there were similar to how high school festivals are often depicted in fiction. I participated with Kyoto University's November Festival as a member of the Kyoto University Mystery Club for example, so we all worked on the annual booklet that is sold at the festival, and had to man a booth for several shifts etc., but you also have time to wander around yourself to see what the other clubs have done.

As a recurring event in everyone's school life, the school festival is also often featured in Japanese mystery fiction. For example, Detective Conan (volume 72: The Operation Room of Screams for example) and Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo (several short stories like about a stolen Holmes collection and another one about a murdered cross-dressing maid) have all featured stories that were set during a school or campus festival. I think I remember the Q.E.D. live action drama also featured an episode about a school festival mystery (presumably based on the original manga). Meanwhile, the school festival is also seen in prose stories: the first three novels of the Classic Literature Club actually feature a whole story arc where the adventures all revolve around preparing for the school festival, while the second volume of Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni also features a story arc with several of the short stories included revolving around Ryou encountering mysteries as the school prepares for their festival. Heck, even Jinguuji Saburou has been called to solve a crime at a school festival in a bonus episode of the 3DS game Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Ghost of the Dusk.

Obviously, you can guess by now that today's book is also about a school festival, the one of Youmou High School to be exact. This school, which for some reason has significantly more female than male students, always schedules its festival in a weekend in late September and this year, the students of Class 2-2 decided to turn their classroom in a haunted house. Inside the pitch-dark classroom, a zig-zagging pathway is created through the use of black curtains, which leads from the back entrance of the classroom to the front entrance. The children have of course prepared all kinds of scares for the visitors along the way, like a decapitated head, disappearing ghosts, zombies who suddenly close in on you and a dead body hanging from the ceiling which suddenly attacks any passerby. The attraction is a great succes and people, both students from the school as well as people from outside the school, are still lining up by the dozens on the Sunday (the last day of the festival) to get a good scare. The success also means everyone in Class 2-2 has to do their part: most of the students have to help out both with their class activity as well as their club activity, and obviously you want some time for yourself too, so the cast of ghouls work in shifts of about two hours. It's near the end of the day, when one of the "zombies" notices that the last few visitors have not reacted to one of the greatest scares in the haunted house: the dead girl hanging from the ceiling who attacks the visitors. He decides to take a quick look between visitors to see what's wrong with Ashitaba, the girl playing the body. To his surprise, he discovers that Ashitaba has been turned into a real corpse, as the poor girl's been strangled.

Narrator Kantera Nao, and Koumori Riruko, the gloomy, negatively-thinking girl of the class, decide to work together to solve this case: Nao because he was in love with Ashitaba, while Riruko hopes she'll finally attract praise and attention from her fellow students if she solves this case. But that's easier said than done, because in a way, this murder was impossible! For how could anyone strangle Ashitaba while she was an active part of the attraction? There was a constant stream of visitors inside the haunted house, her fellow cast members were also inside the room (though all holding their own spots along the route) and nobody could've just simply gotten inside the classroom without either the people outside the classroom, or those inside, noticing. In order to solve this mystery, it will become necessary to examine not only whodunit, but more importantly, whendunit in Tomonaga Rito's Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei ("The Alibis of the Ghosts", 2020).

Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei is the winner of the Excellence Award of the 18th Kono Mystery ga Sugoi! Award (2019) and was published in March 2020, marking the official debut of Tomonaga Rito, who has been very close to winning one of the annual mystery fiction awards in Japan for some time now. He made it to the last stage of the Ayukawa Tetsuya Award in both 2016 and 2017 for example (with other novels). Those awards were ultimately won by respectively Ichikawa Yuuto's The Jellyfish Doesn't Freeze (reviewed last week) and Imamura Masahiro's Shijinsou no Satsujin, which are prime examples of the genre, so it's no shame to lose against them. Yet, Tomonaga perservered, and now he's finally here too. His debut novel may not be perfect, but it's one I really like nonetheless.

Readers will have to be patient with this novel though, as it's really slow at the start. After a prologue where the discovery of the body is described, we jump back a few hours in time as we follow Nao in the last few minutes of his shift at the frontside of the haunted house, and are gradually introduced to all the characters as we see everyone slip in and out of the classroom to take over for the final shift. You go through a lot of descriptive passages (with repeated writing!), including a lengthy one where Nao and his energetic classmate Zakuroko go through the haunted house themselves. Obviously, the inside layout of the haunted house and how all of the scares inside work will become important later on, but be prepared for a lot of exposition. That also includes exposition about Nao's classmates, who are mostly girls (and for some reason, the few boys that do appear in the novel are basically thrown onto one heap and treated as one homogeneous entity). Like with Arisugawa Alice's debut novel Gekkou Game though, you're confronted with just too many schoolgirls who are, well, they are differentiated through their various backgrounds (different clubs etc.), but there are simply too many to remember. Some of them barely say something over the course of the story and each time you come across a name, you wonder whether it's someone you had already encountered before or not. What doesn't help at all is that Tomonaga came up with all kinds of odd names for the characters (these are not normal Japanese names). If only one of them had a special name, they'd be easy to remember, but everyone has a weird name and after a while it just becomes one big mess in your head.

Things go a lot faster after the murder though, and I have to repeat that I do like this book despite the mentioned points. The idea of the murder inside a very small, home-made haunted house is really neat, as obviously, a normal classroom is in reality a 'cozy' place, but it still has enough dead angles to make it seem plausible. It works really well with the semi-impossible angle of the tale, as it seems really difficult to figure out who could've committed this murder. Ultimately, the book revolves around one simple question: when was this murder committed? By focusing on this question, Riruko manages to identify the one person who could've killed Ashitaba. It's a fairly unique approach to the mystery story, as it's not a whodunnit, howdunnit or anything like that, but the whendunnit is done fairly well here. We start off with a very wide-ranging period in which the murder could've been committed (based on the medical examination), but Riruko then slowly shortens that period little by little by logically combining both known and newly deduced facts. The type of reasoning here belongs the logic school like featured in Queen, Arisugawa and Imamura's work and with each step, the reader is brought closer to the exact time in which the murder was committed. The final chapter in which Riruko explains all is really lengthy, like ninety pages long (a fifth of the whole), which shows how meticulous the reasoning is in this novel. Some may not like this, but I love this kind of mystery stories, where each logical step is explained and strung together to a long journey of reasoning. Granted, some parts of the mystery are fairly obvious to the reader: the many important clues and hints within the events that Nao experiences before and after the murder are barely hidden and the attentive reader will certainly be able to guess parts of the truth. Especially at the start of Riruko's trip of logic, you'll probably think "Oh, I know where this is going, that thing meant that in reality, X was actually this or that..." Yet, I doubt anyone will be able to combine all the facts together. It's only by getting a clear view of the whole picture that you'll be able to solve the mystery. And even then it'll be hard for the reader to repeat Riruko's greatest feat in this story: while we start with a possible period of death spanning several hours, she manages to pinpoint the exact time of the murder down to the very minute simply by following the trail of logical bread crumbs. The exact minute. It's a feat I've never seen in a mystery story before, and I absolutely love this idea.

Of course, I have read many mystery novels about perfect alibis or things like that do focus on time schedules a lot, and often a few minutes here or there do make a difference there. My to-go titles when mentioning very precise time schedules would be Ayukawa Tetsuya's Kuroi Trunk, Aosaki Yuugo's Suizokukan no Satsujin and C. Daly King's Obelists Fly High, which are all mystery novels where the fixation on the exact time any action is made can be a bit overbearing even if the novels are fun, but I felt it was less... tiring? in Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei. Though I would've appreciated it if the book would've featured a time schedule for the characters going in and out the classroom (there are no time schedules whatsoever in this book, so if you want one you have to make one yourself). With all the confusing characters and all, something like that would've been very helpful, without given the game away, as you need a lot more to work out the trick of when it was done (and by extension, who).

The motive for the murder is very much 'afterthought' material though and it's a bit of a shame, as it does tie in with one important factor of how the murder was committed, so that's again probably that will turn off some readers. Ultimately though, I think that Tomonaga's book works despite these obvious flaws.

As I am writing this, I have a feeling that at the end of the year, I will remember Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei as one of my best reads of this year. And that's despite some obvious flaws which some will even find fatal. Yep, I can easily imagine that contrary to myself, some readers will dislike this book because of those flaws. But if you ask me yes or no about this book, it's a very definite yes. The logical reasoning shown in the conclusion (and the Challenge to the Reader!), the setting of the haunted house inside a classroom, the chatter between the students: this is the kind of mystery fiction I love to read and Yuureitachi no Fuzai Shoumei works for me. I hope more adventures of Riruko will follow!

Original Japanese title(s): 朝永理人『幽霊たちの不在証明』

Sunday, April 12, 2020


"It is what it is."

The start of the academic year in Japan is in April, which is also when new students are likely to be ambushed here and there on campus by... all kinds of clubs and circles hoping to entice you into becoming their newest member. I still remember that first Friday afternoon in Kyoto University: I had just arrived as an international student in Kyoto and had already made up my mind of joining the Kyoto University Mystery Club as their activities pertained to my academic studies too. As the all-preparing student I was, I had already checked their website of course, and learned they'd have introduction meetings for people considering to become a member, where they'd explain the club activities and give a glimpse of what they do. So that first Friday, I went back to my room after finishing my business at campus in the morning and returned in the afternoon for the Mystery Club's introduction meeting. I hadn't expected that the campus would be crawling with countless of clubs trying to lure you to them. The moment people sensed you were new on campus, they'd try handing you their flyers and invite you to come along to the numerous introduction parties (where the existing members pay for your food and drinks!) scheduled for held that night. The next few weekends were the same, with all clubs hoping to get a new dose of fresh blood at the academic year to make sure the club would live on.

One of the main activities of the Mystery Club is writing short whodunnit stories for other members to read during meetings. These stories consist of a "Problem" and "Answer" part, and people usually get about thirty minutes to read the story and figure out who the murderer is. If you think you got it, you can go check with the writer by telling who the murderer is and more importantly, what the clues are, or if you don't get it, the answer is handed it at the end of the session, and then the members discuss what was good or not about the tale. In the introduction meetings at the start of the academic year, prospective members are usually handed gems from the previous years. I myself vividly remember the one I got back then, and it was really good, exactly the type of mystery story I like in terms of how the clewing worked. These stories are part of the DNA of the club, and have helped shaped writers like Ayatsuji Yukito, Abiko Takemaru, Norizuki Rintarou, Maya Yutaka, Van Madoy and more during their time at the club. I think there have been around 500 whodunnit sessions since the club started, and each of them (title/writer) have been written on the wall of the club room. I'm actually somewhere on that wall too...

With the current health situation around the world however, it's obviously not advised to find new members by surrounding them in a crowd and taking them to restaurants etc. But still, as a club you still want to make sure you have enough new members this year to at least offset the number of graduating students. So this year, the Kyoto University Mystery Club tried something new: they have published a whodunnit story temporarily online for everyone to read, to give you an idea of the activities of the club. It's been years since I last read one of these stories, so I jumped on the occassion to get back to good old puzzle solving. For those interested, you can find the links via the Twitter account of the Kyoto University Mystery Club, and the story'll be available until the first week of May 2020.

Ansatsu Genei Nanaban Shoubu ("The Seven-Game Match of the "Mirage" Assassins") was written by Kamiya Takayuki (I'm not at all sure about the reading of that name by the way) and originally unveiled at the May 17th 2019 meeting of the Mystery Club. We are introduced to Shino, a young woman travelling with the young man Yuunosuke. It turns out that Shino is in fact an assassin who once belonged to the Mirage Assassins, an organization consisting of... assassins. We learn that the Mirage Assassins are now after the traitor "Phantom", but with a twist: if Phantom is able to defeat all seven assassins this time, the Mirage Assassins will give up. Crimson, Enforcer, Fear, Inferno, Depths, Darkest and Silence all have different specialities, which make them very difficult enemies to handle. Shino and Yuunosuke find themselves ambushed, and after getting seperated, Shino ends up chased into an abandoned lab facing a cliff together with Hitomi, a lost ruins explorer caught up in the battle. The building is one giant trap, with the assassins waiting for Shino, but after Shino manages to either shake off or defeat a number of them, Shino, Hitomi and a Fear who has given up on the mission come across the dead body of Darkest in one of the hallways of the building. But with the lab facing a cliff and all the other the Mirage Assassins stuck on the other side of the cliff or gone, who could've killed Darkest?

Interesting and original story setting, an assassin being killed during a confrontation between all kinds of assassins! I have to admit I had no idea how to tackle this story, and most of it flew over my head. Usually, you have some idea about what is probably a clue and what isn't, and what segments probably warrant a second reading, but I had nothing but very vague suspicions. I thought the diagram of the lab was a bit confusing though and the circumstances of the room of the crime scene a bit unclear: usually you can go and ask the writer themselves questions about parts you think are written unclearly, though this time not, obviously. But ultimately, it's just part of the mystery of course. Like always, these stories revolve around the process of identifying the murderer, which you usually do by crossing off suspects. Character A was here when the murder was committed, so that's one of the list, etc. The process as seen in this story is pretty good, forcing you to first figure out when Darkest was killed and then trying to find out which of the names on the list have an alibi/was physically possible to murder Darkest in that room. The biggest leap expected from the reader was fun: the kind of writing you expect from people in this particular Mystery Club (I'm not talking about quality, but the type of idea often seen in the stories written in this club). Perhaps the culprit could've been obscured a bit more (I think a lot of people may guess who it is, even without the proper reasoning), but it's definitely a story that makes good use of its premise. Anyway, it would've been interesting to have done this story real-time and hear everyone's reactions to it.

Oh, and in case you're wondering about the names: I don't know the author personally, but it's obvious they got their inspiration from Detective Conan. The Phantom of Baker Street, The Crimson Love LetterZero the Enforcer, Full Score of Fear, Sunflowers of Inferno, Strategy Above the Depths, The Darkest Nightmare and Quarter of Silence. Requiem would've been an awesome assassin name too by the way, Lost Ship not so.

Anyway, if you're in Kyoto (you don't need to be enrolled in Kyoto University) and thinking about joining, or if you're simply interested to see for yourself what kind of stories are written in the Kyoto University Mystery Club, be sure to check the Twitter account of the Kyoto University Mystery Club for the links to this story. Usually, these stories are meant only for members of the club, but there have been five "Whodunit Best" anthologies published by the Mystery Club for sale at the university festival, with a selection of the best stories written by the members (I discussed Houjou Kie's story included in Whodunit Best Vol. 5 earlier this year).

Original Japanese title(s): 神谷貴至『暗殺幻影七番勝負』

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Into Thin Air

「君という光」(Garnet Crow)

I love looking at the jellyfish floating on the waves
"The Light That Is You" (Garnet Crow)

Jellyfish as a dish (Asian cuisine) is actually quite nice!

The publication of Professor Philip Phifer's thesis on the "vacuum airsac" in 1973 changed the history of airships. The invention of Professor Phifer and his team led to their creation of the Jellyfish, a zeppelin-like airship that was not only much smaller and lighter than previous airships due to the vacuum airsac that provided for the machine's buoyancy, it was also much more silent and safer than for example zeppelins, helicopters or planes. The airship derived its name from its appearance, resembling a jellyfish floating in the sky and in the ten years since, (former) Professor Phifer and his students set-up a venture and were bought by UFA, the leading aircraft manufacturer in the country of U (totally not the United States). Early February 1983, Phifer and his five team members set out on the final test flight on their experimental version of a new and improved Jellyfish, a small vehicle with three bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. They were to fly for several days through several states and return to UFA, but something goes horribly wrong during the test flight. First Phifer dies in his room due to what appears to be poison in his drink, immediately followed by a renegade automatic pilot program which for cedthe team and their Jellyfish to land and strand on an enclosed part on a snowy mountain. Surrounding by steep rock walls and no mountain climbing equipment packed, it'd be suicidal to even attempt escape on their own, but as time passes by, it appears one of them might have killed Phifer and lured them to this isolated place on purpose. Some days later, the Jellyfish and the six passengers are found by the police, but it's too late: everyone is dead. But the curious thing is that they were all murdered. At first the strong-headed police detective Maria and her subordinate Ren think they might've killed each other off during some sort of hysteric attack and that the last one committed suicide, but forensic shows all of the victims were murdered. But how could this be possible, as no signs of a seventh person was found at the crash site in the mountain? Was it the work of spies from the country R (totally not Russia)? The two detectives start digging in the past of the Jellyfish and uncover a surprising conspiracy in Ichikawa Yuuto's debut novel Jellyfish wa Kooranai (2016), which also carries the English title of The Jellyfish Never Freezes.

Some novels are quite eager to show where their inspiration came from and yet few do it as obvious as The Jellyfish Never Freezes. With two simultaneously developing narratives in alternating chapters, telling a story about a closed circle murder mystery where eventually everyone is found dead, and an investigation that is conducted on the mainland, it's more than obvious that Ichikawa was inspired by Ayatsuji Yukito's The Decagon House Murders/Jukkakukan no Satsujin, and in extension, Christie's And Then There Were None (disclosure: I translated Ayatsuji's The Decagon House Murders). It is quite daring to model one's novel so strongly after another (well-known) story down to the story structure, though it has to be noted that in The Decagon House Murders, the narratives ran simultaneously (you followed the events on the island and the mainland of the same day), while in The Jellyfish Never Freezes, we alternate between the Jellyfish chapters which are set a few days before the police investigation chapters, and you jump back and forth in time. The effect is different of course: we learn in the first chapter of the police investigation that everyone aboard the Jellyfish died, while in the corresponding Jellyfish narrative, things haven't gotten nearly as desperate as that.

The main problem is thus a familiar one: how do you explain a situation where everyone was murdered by another person, but in a closed circle situation which prevents any third person from either entering or exiting the place? This particular novel uses the Jellyfish, a new type of aircraft as a unique way to first create a floating closed circle situation in the sky, and after the forced landing another closed circle situation which no normal vehicles can reach (high up in the mountains, in a spot that is enclosed by high rock walls). Nobody could've escaped this place or even entered this place, so at one hand the conclusion is that the murderer must've been one of the persons in the Jellyfish, but on the other hand, no person could've left that place either (impossible to climb without proper equipment) and none of the victims had committed suicide. Jellyfish are still relatively new airships that have been becoming popular recently, but still with a relatively limited number of private owners, and it's also quickly determined that no other Jellyfish could've gone there on the day of the incident. The result is an interesting closed circle situation. The narrative that follow the crew members of the Jellyfish is of course the one most concerned with the stress that arises from these circumstances, and once the first two men are dead, it soon becomes a familiar story in which people start to distrust each other and ugly pasts start to pop up again. Meanwhile, the police investigation is busy trying to explain how the Jellyfish could've gotten off course and whether this was a 'private' murder, or some machination of the rival country R, which must've been interested in the new Jellyfish too.

Ultimately, the mystery revolves around two questions: who is the murderer, and how did they manage to make the crime scene look the way it did (did they physically escape from that site, or did they do something else, etc.)? The whodunnit part of the mystery is telegraphed a bit too early due to the multi-angle narrative, but also a bit unfair: one part very early in the book especially is basically lying directly to the reader (not even to the characters in-universe). Making the reader erronously assume some fact is a trick I find perfectly acceptable in a mystery novel, but blatantly telling falsehoods is another thing. It is addressed at the end, but the excuse is rather weak. The book adds in short interval chapters between the Jellyfish and police investigation chapters, which are told from the viewpoint of the unnamed murderer who tells about their motive, but I think a lot of readers are going to suspect a certain person already due to the facts addressed there and in a way, it gives too much information away regarding who you should suspect.

The howdunnit part of the story however is far more impressive. The way the murderer managed to create the crime scene the way it was is daring and basically an impossible situation (how to escape a locked "room"), and at first read you might even think it's unfair, but once you go over the clews and foreshadowing, it's clear this part is far better plotted than the whodunnit part. Like The Decagon House Murders and And Then There Were None, it's a solution that is soooo simple that you can literally summarize it in one sentence and someone who's reading the book will instantly understand what the trick is, but of course, you're not going to think of it yourself while you're reading the book yourself. Like I mentioned it before, a good mystery story doesn't tell blatant lies, but makes you assume something while there's another, perfectly fine alternative that you simply oversee. That's what happens here, and the solution is a memorable one because of that. Mind you, at times the plot still feels a bit forced: the murderer had a lot of luck that circumstances and the actions of the people around them worked out the way they did and it evens feels like the the culprit managed to manipulate the people around them a bit too easily.

But on the whole, I think The Jellyfish Never Freezes is a satisfying take on the And Then There Were None-motif, which uses it original idea of the Jellyfish aircrafts to create an interesting story setting which mixes the more conventional mystery thriller mode of And Then There Were None with a slight touch of the spy thriller and science-fiction stories. It's definitely not perfect, but I found this to be a more than capable debut novel and I'm sure I'll try more of Ichikawa's novels.

Original Japanese title(s): 市川憂人 『ジェリーフィッシュは凍らない』

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Treasure in the Royal Tower


"I sat down in my sofa at home and opened a book. The title on the cover said The End of Sakurano Mimiko.
"The End of the Great Detective Sakurano Mimiko"

Earlier this year, I reviewed two novels which were originally published on websites where (amateur) writers can post their stories for everyone to read, but which were later picked up by major publishers. Robber Rabbit Gets Dead was originally published on Kakuyomu, while Isekai no Meitantei 1 originated from Shousetsuka ni Narou. Rinno Mei's Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo ("The End of the Great Detective Sakurano Mimiko", 2015) is also published on Shousetsuka ni Narou and can be read for free there (see the link), but has not been picked up by a major publisher yet.

While she's still fairly young, Sakurano Mimiko is already a well-known detective, not in the least thanks to the literary efforts of her childhood friend, occasional assistant and chronicler Tsukaba Souta, who has turned all of their adventures into best-selling novels. Mimiko is also a great fan of mystery fiction, so she was very happy when she received an invitation by the famous mystery writer Shishitani Keizou. Many knew about the curious tower Shishitani had built in the mountains, as it was like one of the odd buildings from his novels: a gigantic cylindrical tower stood in the middle of nowhere, and oddly enough, the building featured no windows whatsoever. An elevator and spiral staircase at the exact center of the tower connected all the floors, but there was no way to even take a look at the outside world except for the front entrance. Mimiko and Tsukaba weren't the only ones to be invited to this tower, as four other detectives (and their "plus one") were also invited. The detectives are quite a colorful lot, ranging from a girl who seems barely in her teens to a bombastic man who might or might not be a relative of Napoleon Bonaparte. Everyone expects Shishitani to have a surprise for them, and he doesn't disappoint his guests. He declares he has a mystery for them to solve, and soon after, Shishitani disappears from his locked study at the top floor, even though only he and one of the maids have the key to the room. At first, everybody thinks this is just a game by Shishitani, a challenge to see whether these real detectives can figure out how he disappeared from a locked room, but the following morning, one of the maids is found dead in the main hall, and strangely enough, she seems to have fallen from a great height, even though there's no such place to fall from in this tower. When one of the detectives is later found decapitated, the group starts to suspect that the serial killer Jack the Head Cutter has found his way to the tower, but with the single entrance locked from the outside, can the detectives survive long enough to solve the mystery?

Oh, and to be precise: I haven't actually read the story. For Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo was adapted by the group Seien Bunko as an audio drama in 2018, which you can find on their Youtube channel. It's quite lengthy, clocking in at several hours, but it's quite nice to listen to, and a perfectly fine way to experience this story.

Anyway, the story starts off in a very familiar, And Then There Were None-like manner with people who don't know each other gathered at an isolated location (the curious tower). Shishitani first speaks with his guests during dinner over a video connection, which again invokes the early chapters of Christie's masterpiece. Soon after the chaos starts, and man, a lot happens. A mysterious murder (the maid who fell from an impossible height), decapitated bodies, the people being locked up in the tower from the outside in a closed circle situation, a disappearance from a locked room, a dying message and the list goes on. All the popular tropes of mystery fiction can be found within this tale, and considering we have multiple detectives on scene, you can also expect a few deduction battles between the detectives, as each of them tries to solve the case before the others can. It's an incredibly dense story, perhaps to a fault, as you are barely given any time for consideration, with events following each other in a very rapid way.

It's therefore slightly disappointing that most of the murders in this tale don't leave any impression on their own. A fair number of the murders are 'oh, multiple suspects had the opportunity to commit them' and 'we don't have enough data to point at one single person for sure.' Elements like the locked room disappearance, the decapitations and the dying message feature very familiar tropes as their solutions, so it's difficult to feel truly impressed. A lot of the happenings also seem very dependent on luck, with people acting like they do in the novel more to make the mystery more complex, rather than because it makes any sense to do so at that moment. That said, I liked the one major idea of this novel. It's a neatly hidden, but also fairly audacious trick, and Rinno smartly used this idea not only once, but multiple times with very different results. It's by realizing that two seemingly seperate events are actually connected by the one and same underlying concept that you can arrive at the solution, and this part was quite smartly planned. This idea alone would've made for a really interesting mystery story, if it had focused solely on it.

I think most people will agree that Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo is far more memorable as a mystery story about detecive fiction, as it actively addresses detective fiction as a genre from a post-modern point of view. Mimiko discusses her views on detective fiction and their limitations throughout the story, and these themes come back in a haunting way at the conclusion of the story. One literary-philosophical problem in mystery fiction in particular is of essence, one which I have mentioned a few times in other reviews but won't explicitly name here. If you're looking for a sincere/honest/pure mystery story, this one is not for you, as it really tries to show the meta-limitations of the literary detective and can leave a very nasty aftertaste. I think that the execution is not completely fair to the reader, and especially the epilogue tries to hard to throw one plot twist after another at the reader, but I think that Rinno did an interesting job writing a full mystery novel based on what is actually a philosophical approach to the detective story.

In the end, I don't think Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo is a mystery story for everyone. If you expect a Christie or Carr homage, you're at the wrong place. Queen.... you're a bit closer. Most of the individual murders won't leave much of an impression, though it definitely has a memorable main trick. What Meitantei Sakurano Mimiko no Saigo makes an interesting experience, even if not perfect, is the way in which it addresses fundamental, philosophical approaches to the mystery fiction genre, and uses those ideas as the basis of a mystery plot itself. It's not completely convicing as a whole, but definitely a story that gives you food for thought.

Original Japanese title(s): 凛野冥(原)セイエン文庫『名探偵・桜野美海子の最期』