Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Murder, She Wrote

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, 
Moves on 
Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Verse 51, Edward FitzGerald translation)

Oh man, this cover is gorgeous! Definitely a contender for the best cover of the year.

Higashigawa Tokuya's short story collection Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda ("I Have A Mystery I Want You To Read", 2020) brings us back to Koigakubo Academy: a quaint private high school in Kokubunji-shi, Tokyo which offers both a curriculum for 'normal' students as well as a special curriculum for students in the entertainment industry like idol singers. It's April and our unnamed narrator has just started his new life as a high school student. Hoping to join the Literature Club, the boy finds himself in front of a prefab container building hidden in the shadows behind one of the school buildings. Knocking on the door with the sign LITERATURE CLUB, he's promptly ushered inside by a beautiful third year student with long straight black hair, who introduces herself as Mizusaki Anna, club president of the Second Literature Club. It turns out there are two literature clubs at Koigakubo Academy and that the sign outside does say "Second" in very, very small print. The 'normal' Literature Club is where they talk about literature, while the Second Literature Club has a more prestigious goal, as the amateur writers here all focus on making a professional debut themselves as an author. Another shocking realization is that Mizusaki Anna is actually the only member of this club. But things were already set in motion the moment our narrator knocked on the door and stated he wanted to become a member of this Literature Club. Anna locks herself up with the narrator inside the club room and kindly allows the newest member of the Second Literature Club to read her works of fiction: a series of short detective stories starring Mizusaki Anna, a beautiful, talented, brilliant yet kind high school student of Koigakubo Academy who solves all kinds of murders and other impossible crimes set around the school...

Higashigawa Tokuya is best known as a writer of humorous detective series, which combine snappy dialogues and slapstick comedy with cartoonish characters with surprisingly well-plotted puzzle mysteries that brilliantly use comedy as misdirection. I've enjoyed all the series I've read by him a lot, like Nazotoki wa Dinner no Ato de ("Mystery Solving Is After Dinner") which was a multimedia hit about the female police detective Houshou Reiko, who was in fact the stinkin' rich heiress of the Houshou Group. Her sharp-tongued butler Kageyama always manages to solve her cases (while totally belittling his mistress), but he waits until after dinner to explain the mystery. And then there's the series set in the fictional town of Ikagawa-shi, about the (mis-)adventures of the private detective Ukai and his assistant Ryuuhei who always end up involved with impossible murders despite... well, perhaps because their best 'efforts' to stay out of trouble. But my personal favorite series has always been the stories set around Koigakubo Academy. Up until now, Higashigawa had two connected series both set at this school: the two Koigakubo Academy Detective Club novels were about Tamagawa, Yatsuhashi and Akasaka of the titular Detective Club, a club for people who want to become detectives (not to be confused with the Mystery Club of the same school, where they write mystery novels). The three are 'talented' in getting involved with murders set around the school. The Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni (After School, Together With Mystery) books on the other hand focused on the adventures of Kirigamine Ryou, the vice-president of the same Detective Club, who not only has the talent to miraculously avoid running into the characters of the main series, but she also gets involved in a lot of comedic, non-murder related mysteries set around the campus, like theft cases at the school or students getting knocked out at school by unknown figures. Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda introduces a new angle to the Koigakubo Academy setting, with the two members of the Second Literature Club as its focus. While we don't see the main characters from the Detective Club in this book, we do see a few familiar faces (like teachers) and other names dropped throughout the short story collection, so for fans of the Koigakubo Academy books, Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda is a must-read! I myself wasn't even aware this book was going to be published until two, three days before the release, but I knew instantly I needed this book as soon as possible.

Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda is a short story collection, where each story features a story-within-a-story. The narrator runs into Anna every two, three months at which point she makes him read one of her mystery stories featuring the sliiiiightly fictionalized "Mizusaki Anna", the best-thing-since-slice-bread club president of the wonderful Second Literature Club who in all her modest glory manages to solve murder after murder at Koigakubo Academy. The name of the fictional "Mizusaki Anna" is written differently from the real Mizusaki Anna in Japanese by the way. The thing is: Anna's stories have room for a lot of improvement. Anna's always waiting for neverending praise whenever the narrator's done reading, but he usually showers her with tons of comments about how messy the story is: from the lack of explanation for the motives to incorrect details, unfounded character motivation or even questions about the viability of the murder schemes. The weak excuses Anna spouts during these sessions seldom convince the narrator, but as the year passes by, he becomes more and more interested in reading Anna's farfetched mystery stories, even if they are as ridiculous as ever.

The opening story, Bungeibuchou to "Ongakushitsu no Satsujin" ("The Literature Club President and The Murder in the Music Room"), introduces the reader and the narrator to Anna, who offers the narrator "The Murder in the Music Room" to read from her Koigakubo Academy Case Files 20XX (Tentative Title) series. One Spring afternoon long after school hours, "Mizusaki Anna" decides to return a book she borrowed from her Literature teacher and visits him in his classroom in Main Building A. She's told that that he had borrowed it from the music teacher and peeking outside the window across the inner court, they see the light in the music room in Main Building B is still on. Anna's asked to return the book straight to the music teacher, so our beautiful and kind protagonist makes her way across the inner court to the music room, where she's promptly tackled by a dark figure fleeing the room. Inside the music room, Anna finds the strangled, lifeless body of the music teacher. Anna quickly notifies her Lit teacher and they also get a hold on everyone hanging around in the inner court, which includes some suspicious figures. But how did the assailant disappear from the school grounds without being noticed by anyone in the inner court?

This is a weeeird story to rate, and that holds for all the stories in this collection. For this story-within-a-story is deliberately written by Higashigawa to be full of little mistakes, unexplained parts and leaps in logic. Anna's story has to feature all kinds of things that allow the narrator to comment upon later on, so "The Murder in the Music Room" is by design a mystery story that feels sloppy. That said, the core idea of how the culprit managed to escape the inner court is fun, and well-clewed too, but you definitely have to roll with it, because like the narrator at the end points out, there are plenty of unaddressed plotholes. And that's usually the case with this series: the core ideas of each story can be used for interesting mystery stories, it's Anna who can't make the best use of them.

It was already the rainy season by the time the narrator crosses paths with Anna again in Bungeibuchou to "Nerawareta Soukyuu Buin" ("The Literature Club President and The Targeted Handbal Club Member"). Anna's "kind" enough to lend an umbrella to the narrator, but not before they swing by the club room first, where the narrator is forced to read The Targeted Handbal Club Member. In this story, the ever-wonderful "Mizusaki Anna" leaves the club room late, only to find a student lying unconscious on the ground near a tree on the school grounds. The handbal club member had been waiting for the rain to stop all this time inside the handbal club room, but when the rain finally stopped and got out to leave for home, he was knocked out from behind by an unknown figure. He did manage to grab a button from the assailant's shirt though before he fell, and miraculously, the two people still at school at this hour (a student and a teacher) both miss a button from their shirts. The problem soon focuses on which of these two could've attacked the victim: the victim left the club room soon after the rain stopped, but at that time, both suspects were busy with club activities, with other people as their witnesses. Anna however is convinced that one of the two is the assailant.

Interestingly enough, this second story already feels more fleshed-out than the first one in terms of writing, as if Anna took the earlier criticism to heart. Anyway, both the reader and the narrator's comments on The Targeted Handbal Club Member are more than justified (Anna for example didn't realize that it's very unlikely both the teacher and the student had the same shirts with the same button, so a simple comparison of the buttons should suffice), but as for the core ideas, I do really like the mystery presented here. Both suspects seem to have a perfect alibi for the time of the crime, so how did they manage to attack the victim? The idea itself is pretty simple, but it's fleshed out adequately to give a reason for why the trick was used and ultimately how it connects to the attack on the victim. The funny thing is that Higashigawa obviously could've used the same idea to write a more robust, tighter mystery story, but he purposely choose to have Anna write an imperfect mystery story. Like I said, this book is a weird experience, as all the stories are intended to attract criticism.

Bungeibuchou to "Kieta Seifuku Joshi no Nazo" ("The Literature Club President and The Mystery of the Vanishing Girl in Uniform") is set during the summer holiday, when the narrator notices Anna is making use of the school pool all by her own. While she's off swimming, he's handed her tablet with the story The Mystery of the Vanishing Girl in Uniform. On a summer day, "Mizusaki Anna" runs into a few acquaintances at campus: the Theater Club president Narushima and the (First) Literature Club president Tanada. They're having a chat at the rest area, when they notice the figure of Kurihara Yuka, a member of the swimming club, walk into the pool dressing room across the rest area. This is soon followed by a scream, which attracts the attention of the three club presidents. They see a girl in an unknown school uniform flee the dressing room, and inside they find Yuka as well as the dead body of the club captain. Realizing the girl who has just escaped must be the murderer, Anna darts out out together with Narujima, and finally spot the girl in the unknown school uniform running inside the shared club building. They're just a few seconds behind, but inside, they can find no trace of the mysterious girl: while there were a few people in their own club rooms inside this building, including girls, they were either dressed in the Koigakubo Academy school uniforms, or not girls at all. And considering how close Anna and Narujima were, none of the girls could've gotten dressed in another uniform anyway. So where did the murderer disappear to?

One of the better-written tales of this collection, even if you consider the fact that Anna's stories are meant to be full of little mistakes. The story does remind me a bit of one of my favorites from the first Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni volume and like the narrator points out in the story, the reason behind the disappearing act of the girl is a bit farfetched, but I like the trick: while it's fairly complex in terms of what is done by the culprit, the necessary puzzle pieces to put you on the right path are presented without too much smoke and mirrors to the reader and to be honest, I always have a weakness for school/university-based mystery stories set in club rooms/buildings. Again, this is a story that could've made for a tighter, more convicing mystery story with some minor re-writing, but it's not written in that way on purpose. I personally love the whimsical tone of these stories, but I can't deny that these stories are full of things that make you wonder: "Hey, but this was written here, and now you say that... That doesn't make any sense!" Some might find it distracting, though having something to bug Anna about is part of the charm.

The Koigakubo Academy fall school festival is ongoing in Bungeibuchou to "Hougannage no Kyoufu" ("The Literature Club President and The Terror of Shot Put"), and an unlucky fall brings the narrator to the nurse's room, which is now occupied by... Anna, who is assisting the school nurse, who is now out on the field treating someone's injury. In the meantime, Anna decides to give the narrator something to read: The Terror of Shot Put is set not at Koigakubo Academy, but at nearby Ryuugasaki High: the beautiful, unfallible, beloved "Mizusaki Anna" had brought the members of the Second Literature Club to Ryuugasaki High to mingle with their Literature Club. The meeting was  a huge success and now Anna was still hanging around in the school library with Kitahara Shiori, Ryuugasaki High's Literature Club president and Anna's bestie. Outside on the wet sports ground, they notice Ichikawa, a not very well-beloved member of the Track & Field Club, crossing the pitch, when suddenly, from behind the sports equipment storage, a black round projectile flying through the air. It hits Ichikawa right on the head, who falls to the ground. It takes a few seconds before people outside notice Ichikawa lying on the ground, but they find he has been knocked unconscious. The projectile turns out to be a put (the ball from shot put). Anna soon gathers her witnesses, but is stumped: she and Shiori saw the projectile coming from behind the equipment storage, but the people who came from that direction lack the strength to be able to throw a put 10 metres through the sky and hit Ichikawa that hard. Meanwhile, the person who could've thrown the put so far was nowhere near the place from where it was thrown, so who did throw the put at Ichikawa?

Funny little references to the greater Koigakubo Academy setting here, with Ichikawa very obviously being Ryuugasaki High's counterpart to Koigakubo's Adachi Shunsuke, the not very popular track & field member. The Terror of Shot Put also reminded me of the second Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni volume, which had two stories focusing on similar concepts. Anyway, I think this is one of the best examples of why this collection works: the idea behind how the put was thrown is pretty ridiculous and it would not have worked in a serious mystery story. Any reader will be able to raise dozens of objections regarding the workability of the trick as it's really just not doable. But, it works here because of the story-in-story-structure, with Anna always writing stories that leave a lot of room for improvement. She always has some basic idea that can work in a mystery plot, but which is also a bit silly, but by making these tales stories-within-stories and having the narrator and Anna argue about the 'little details', Higashigawa is able to use such an idea despite its sillyness.

His first year at Koigakubo Academy is almost over and he hadn't seen Anna for some months now, so while the narrator won't admit it, he's quite happy when he spots Anna before she graduates in the final story: Bungeibuchou to "Ekkusuyama no Alibi" ("The Literature Club President and The Alibi on Mt. X"). Anna tells him she's going to show what she's been working on for these last months and shows him The Alibi on Mt. X, the last story in Koigakubo Academy Case Files 20XX (Tentative Title). This story starts with "Mizusaki Anna" returning home late one evening. There's a shortcut through a thickly overgrown hill which locals call Mt. X (Ekkusu) and while it's dark, Anna has a flashlight in her bag, so she decides to take this path anyway. However, Anna finds a woman lying on the ground and when she tries to help the woman get up, she realizes the woman's been stabbed with a knife. The woman utters the name "Ogiwara Yuuji" before her consciousness fades. After calling for an ambulance and the police, Anna learns that the woman's called Miho and that she had been on a movie date with Masaki Toshihiko, whom she met at the restaurant where she works. After the date, she got off the train at West-Kokubunji Station alone, which is just a ten-minute walk away from the place where she's found. It turns out that her boss at the restaurant is called Ogiwara Yuuji, and that this man had been interested in Miho too. However, Ogiwara has an alibi for the stabbing: he was in his regular pachinko parlor at the time Miho got off the train and walked into Mt. X. Anna however is convinced Ogiwara did it despite his perfect alibi.

The core trick behind the perfect alibi of Ogiwara (yes, he did it, Anna explicitly tells the narrator he's really the one) is one that should sound familiar, as it's usually seen as a 'not-viable' solution or just a joke solution. In any other mystery story, you would dismiss it as being either cheap or unfair, but it works here in this volume due to the presentation: this final story has an extra surprise in store for the reader and the narrator that works in conjunction with the alibi trick, and I have to say: I like the big surprise! It's really well-hidden and the misdirection planned by Anna and Higashigawa is truly devious. The stories in this volume were released seperately first before being bundled, but due to the references to past stories in this tale, it's definitely recommended to read these five stories in one go and in order. If it was just the story-within-the-story, this would've been a rather mediocre mystery, but it's the overarching story with the narrator and Anna arguing about the stories and life outside the stories that really make this a memorable end to the volume.

I still have trouble identifying what makes Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda such a fun read though. Anna is definitely a great character, who starts out as a mysterious, but hilarious character and whose fictional counterpart is even funnier to follow because of her portrayal in the stories is incredibly positive. These slightly larger-than-life characters are of course Higashigawa's bread and butter, but Anna's certainly a character I'd love to see more. The stories-within-stories are quite odd to read, because they're full of plotholes and wouldn't have worked if they had been presented as is, but with the narrator constantly pointing out those plotholes and commenting on how the stories don't work logically in each subsequent story, I have to admit I slowly moved to Anna's side of the discussion. So what if there are minor plotholes? So what if it's not realistic? Ultimately, mystery fiction is just fiction, it's supposed to be plain entertainment and yes, Maximus, I am entertained! The core concepts and plots of Anna's fictional works are fun even if not realistic, and they do make for some highly amusing and captivating mystery fiction. In a way, Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda is a secret love letter to the mystery genre, showing how ultimately, mystery fiction may be about deductions and logical reasoning and puzzles, but that it also has to be entertainment. The way these stories do make you want to read the next one even though you already know you'll be nitpicking every plothole is a weird sensation. Unlike anti-mystery novels like the infamous trio Oguri Mushitarou's Kokushikan Satsujin Jiken (1934), Yumeno Kyuusaku's Dogura Magura (1935) and  Nakai Hideo's Kyomu he no Kumotsu (1964), Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda has a very positive outlook on the mystery genre while it also clearly shows that a mystery story will never be perfect in all its details.

So yep, Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda is definitely one of my favorite reads of this year. It has such a unique angle to the mystery story, and I absolutely love the protagonist Anna: both the "real" Anna who appears out of nowhere in front of our narrator as well as the highly fictionalized Anna who appears in The Koigakubo Academy Case Files 20XX (Tentative Title). The individual stories can be quite silly and like the narrator, the reader is likely to be noticing one plothole after another, but Kimi ni Yomasetai Mystery ga Arunda's greatest accomplishment is that in the end, you won't care about that, because man, this volume is fun!

Original Japanese title(s): 東川篤哉『君に読ませたいミステリがあるんだ』:「文芸部長と『音楽室の殺人』」/「文芸部長と『狙われた送球部員』」/「文芸部長と『消えた制服女子の謎』」/「文芸部長と『砲丸投げの恐怖』」/「文芸部長と『エックス山のアリバイ』」

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Angel of Death


"Are you... perhaps from Akeldama...?"
"The Murder Case in the Glory Manor"

I haven't spent much time in Nagasaki, but it was funny I could instantly recognize the town in today's volume, even though it's only decribed as "N." The trams especially gave it away.

On the outskirts of the city of N(agasaki) lies the Glory Manor: it was only a few centuries ago that kakure kirishitan (underground Roman Catholics) lived in secret on these grounds and later, a person in the Tokoyoda clan bought the manor as well as the countless of religious art pieces and relics of the members of the church. The spacious garden is riddled with stone statues of religious figures, and the interior of the house is also full of crosses, Maria-Kannon figures and other valuable pieces of religious art. As their parents are no more, the sisters Manami and Ritsuko live here together with their grandfather and clan patriarch Kousuke, as well as their uncle Kensuke and his family. Manami is trying to get out of the dreary house as soon as possible: life at the Glory Manor is neigh insufferable, not just because of her good-for-nothing uncle, but especially because of her controlling grandfather, who is about to ruin older sister Ritsuko's life for good. Ritsuko is only twenty, but Kousuke has arranged for Ritsuko to be married into a powerful family right away, robbing her of any chance to live a life of her own, and that same fate awaits Manami in a few years. A special gathering is scheduled for the twenty-eigth of December, where Ritsuko and her fiancé are to exchange their engagement rings to seal the deal. Among the invitees are the family friend and doctor, as well as the young Roman-Catholic priest Sakura Souichirou, who is here to convey blessings to the engaged couple, as his religious mentor has close ties with the Tokoyoda clan. Despite the joyous occasion, grandfather Kousuke seems to have trouble getting out of bed that morning, but the maid can do much about it: while she has a spare key, her master's bedroom is also bolted from inside. After noon however, everybody becomes worried and they break the door down, only to find Kousuke lying dead on his bed, his head bashed in with an art piece of Jesus on the Cross. But curiously, they also find the windows facing the garden bolted from the inside (even covered in spider webs), meaning the man was killed inside a locked room! The police finds the house has more than enough suspects: from Manami and Ritsuko whose lives were being controlled by their grandfather to uncle Kensuke, who was about to be thrown out the house together with his family. Even Father Sakura is suspected, but he is the only one who can see through all the mist and bring forth the truth in Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken ("The Murder Case in the Glory Manor" 1997).

2018's Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar was a highly informative work on the history of mystery manga and it has helped me identify a lot of interesting titles. My attention was especially drawn to the period of 70-80s, with the works of female artists like Hagio Moto, Yamada Mineko, Maya Mineo and Takashina Ryouko writing the earliest original puzzle plot mystery manga which would pave the way for Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. in the early to mid nineties. But there are of course also plenty of mystery manga created after the great turning point, and one of the titles mentioned in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar stood out in my eyes. The Case Notes of Father Sakura was a short series created by Aoki Gorou (writer) and Ogawa Koushin (artist). The limited series that first introduced the reader to the silent priest Sakura was serialized between 1996-1997 in the comic magazine Afternoon with the title Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken as a single story, but Father Sakura would return again later in 1997 for a serialized sequel, which completed the two-volume series.

What caught my attention however was not the promises of locked room murders or anything like that. What made the description in Honkaku Mystery Comics Seminar stand was the mention that this comic featured a formal Challenge to the Reader. Series like Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo, Detective Conan and Q.E.D. do have faux Challenges as the protagonists have key catchphrases that indicate when they have solved the crime (meaning the reader can do so too at that point) or they make use of the division in chapters to convey when all the clues are there, but I am a big fan of the formal Challenge to the Reader, where the author speaks directly to the reader to indicate that now all the necessary clues are available and you can logically deduce who the killer is. Having a Challenge to the Reader creates expectations of a mystery story that is written and structured in a particular way, so I was quite excited to try this short series out. In this series, the Challenge to the Reader is framed as the writer of the manga, Aoki Gorou, addressing the reader, as he recounts a tale he has been told by Father Sakura himself.

In general, Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken is a good mystery story, that however perhaps could've been tweaked to make for a better challenge. Story-wise, the volume follows a familiar formula: a hated family patriarch who is killed in a creepy house, everyone in the family has a reason to want to kill the man, etc. The volume is about 250 pages long, so similar to a regular serial in the Kindaichi Shounen no Jikenbo series, but that's actually quite lengthy for a mystery manga, as single stories are seldom this long. It works great for Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken though, as it takes its time to set the scene and work in all kinds of clues over the whole length of the story, without the tale ever feeling too dragged out. Some of the visual clewing is really clever too: some hints are shown very early in the story, before anything has even happened, but it's definitely fair to show it to the reader at this point already (it's shown a few more times later on too) and it shows that Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken is a tightly plotted story from start to finish.

It's therefore such a shame the second murder in the story gives so much away! Just before the reader is presented with the Challenge to the Reader, a second killing occurs, where someone is stabbed in the back and thrown off a balcony, but the presentation here is so obvious any reader can instantly guess who the murderer is! Some of the clues are well hidden in the visuals, but you don't even really need to identify those clues because the whole thing is telegraphed so obviously to the reader, and once you guess who the murderer is in this second killing, it isn't hard to work out the way this character fits in with the first murder. Which is a shame, because I really like how the reasoning process surrounding the  first locked room murder ultimately leads to the identity of the killer, and this alone (so without the second killing) would've been pretty good too. The solution to how the locked room was achieved is not super complex, but I like how it's set-up so the attentive reader can figure it out without expecting the reader to be some kind of genius who miraculously thinks fo the solution by combining obscure hint A and obscure hint B. But what makes Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken an interesting story is how it builds on that solution and some other facts uncovered during the investigation and how a logical trail is laid out for the reader to follow. Even if you manage to solve the locked room conundrum, you'll still find a few crafty contradictions blocking your path. We see the bread and butter of the Queen school of detective fiction here, as you have to consider the logical implications of those contradictions, the actions or inactions of the killer that could've caused those contradictions and the underlying reasons for that, and only by considering all of that, you can make a logical argument against the killer. So it's such a shame the second killing makes the identity of the murderer so painfully obvious, as the way the story was built around the first killing is quite good and perfect for a mystery story with a Challenge to the Reader.

The way Roman-Catholic motifs are incorporated in the story is kinda weeeeeird by the way. Father Sakura's first appearance involves him talking randomly about Akeldama and the Glory Manor is supposed to hold all kinds of art objects involved with Roman-Catholics but we also have a stone statue of Abaddon in the garden for some reason. Abadddon! It's almost like they want to take the occult angle, but the themes are not going nearly far enough to really be about occultism, so it just comes across as really weird Catholicism in this story.

But for what it's worth, I think Eikoukan Satsujin Jiken was an entertaining, and at times very well plotted mystery story which did suffer from a less thought-out second half. While the characters themselves and the storytelling can be a bit on the dry side, I think the volume is a good example of a carefully plotted mystery story that also makes use of its inherent visual properties. I think that people who like the Kindaichi Shounen series because it features longer stories, will also appreciate this series as it also has a similar tone. I have the second volume with Father Sakura waiting for me too, so I'll be sure to check that one out soon too.

Original Japanese title(s): 青木吾郎 (原), 小川 幸辰(画)『桜神父の事件ノート (1) 栄光館殺人事件』

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Beautiful Ruin

『サイコロジカル 兎吊木垓輔の戯言殺し』

"After all, the end of the beginning is not the beginning of the end. Ultimately it's nothing more but the end of the beginning. Whether the end will begin afterwards, is just something we won't know until the end begins.'
"Psycho Logical - The Killing Joke of Utsurugi Gaisuke"

Ha, I knew the cover for this volume would connect to the previous one!

Sixteen-year-old Samidare Yui and thirteen-year-old Kirigiri Kyouko may appear to be normal students of a Girls Missionary Academy at first sight, but they are also both officially registered detectives who have solved many crimes. A curious murder case at the Sirius Observatory first brought these two girls together and in the few months that have passed since, the two have become best of friends. But the two are also united in their fight against the Crime Victim Salvation Committee, a secret organization that sells perfect murder plans and the means to commit them to crime victims, their family and/or loved ones looking for revenge. However, while the Committee draws up these intricate murder schemes, they will also invite a detective on the scene who will attempt to solve the murder and catch the culprit. This game of wits where the Committee arranges for both a criminal and a detective to be present and forearmed is dubbed the Duel Noir and this clash is broadcast to the Committee's financial sponsors as a form of entertainment. The last few months, Yui and Kirigiri have managed to inflict heavy blows to the organization and their sickening games by defeating the executive members of the organization and with that, the Crime Victim Salvation Committee is near destruction.

Kirigiri receives one final Duel Noir challenge: in the next 168 hours, a locked room murder will occur in the Sirius Observatory, where her battle against Crime Victim Salvation Committee started. Kirigiri and Yui travel back to the cold, snowy place there they first met, but they find they are not the only visitors. Three other "0" Class detectives (the highest class) are also present. The three detectives are all after the immense fortune managed by the Committee, as they have received information that the Crime Victim Salvation Committee is about to fall and that the Committee's financial resources are hidden within the Sirius Observatory. Kirigiri and Yui notice the Sirius Observatory has undergone quite some renovation since their last visit, one of the changes being a special door that only opens if five different persons register their biometric data in the system. The five enter the renewed Sirius Observatory, which is shaped like a five-pointed star, with five triangle-shaped rooms surrounding a main hall. The five detectives learn they have to chain themselves to each other in order to start the system inside the observatory: each chain is twenty meters long and connects to the right hand of a person at one end, and to the left hand of another person at the other end. Everyone is thus connected to the person next to them, and the chains themselves are also connected to the doors of the guest rooms in the building, meaning everyone is chained tight to the building itself too. Putting the chains on reveals a two-meter-wide pillar of ice is standing right in the middle of the main hall, holding a little black box in the centre: presumably the box will hold both the key to unlock these chains and the whereabouts to the Committee's fortune. The other three detectives are desperate to get their hands on the box, but the pillar of ice forms a formidable obstacle, as there are no tools to be found inside the observatory, and most of the furniture either burns badly, or is bolted down to the floor.

Little is achieved the first day and when the night falls, the five detectives learn that they all have to sleep in seperate rooms, which are all locked automatically until the morning. Not complying with these rules results in the detonation of a bomb, so they have little choice. The following morning, the doors are unlocked again, but they find one of them has been murdered in their room during their sleep! But how is this possible? All the guest rooms were locked automatically, there were no footprints in the frost on the floor of the main hall, the windows were locked from the inside, there were no footprints in the snow outside and the twenty-meter-long chains on each person's arm only allow little freedom of movement outside the observatory itself, so none of them could've sneaked out through the windows anyway. Chained to each other and with little food and water left for the following days, Kirigiri and Yui have to work fast to identify the murderer and escape this icy observatory in Kitayama Takekuni's highly anticipated Danganronpa Kirigiri 7 (2020).

For this volume is the long-awaited finale to the spin-off prequel series of the videogame series Danganronpa. The references to the main series are fairly lite by the way and knowledge of the games is not really necessary to read this novel series which focuses on the past of the popular character Kirigiri Kyouko. Kitayama Takekuni started in 2013 with this series, but the release schedule was rather irregular: sometimes we had two volumes within a year, sometimes nothing in over two years, so you never knew when the series would continue. He finally managed to finish this series now, on the tenth anniversary of the Danganronpa franchise, and I'm happy he did, because I do like the series, but the long wait between certain volumes was really frustrating.

This volume makes it clear right away that this is really the grand finale to the series: the story goes full circle by returning to the place where the series first started, we go more in-depth in the past of the novel-exclusive character Yui which was mostly alluded to in the first volume and even the core mystery plot feels like a grand finale, as it cleverly incorporates elements from previous stories. Five detectives locked and tied up in the Sirius Observatory, every detective being given a stash of cash money and the existence of rules governing their movements during the night, other elements originating from the obstacles faced during the trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples (volumes 3, 4 and 5): nothing is spoiled from these earlier volumes, but the faithful reader will definitely notice the little references here and there to the whole Danganronpa Kirigiri series, with certain ideas and concepts from earlier murder plots making a reappearance, making this specific case really feel like the end point of the story. It's an interesting way to a finale in a mystery series: thinking about it, I don't think I have ever read a final story in a detective series that so cleverly incorporated elements mystery plots from earlier stories in a meaningful manner: Kitayama obviously isn't doing these references just because he's out of ideas and rehashing old material, he's intentionally making you recall earlier events and tricks to give you the "grand finale feeling," but also to play tricks on the reader, daring them to guess how he'll cook those ingredients this time to fool them.

The mystery plot itself is the kind we've come to expect from Kitayama: we have all these grand gimmicks like all the people being changed to each other and carefully thought-out settings that limit the movement/possible actions of all the actors in the tale (the dimensions of the observatory and the available furniture) and of course there's the Kitayama Special: the very silly, but highly entertaining locked room murder that depends on some mechanical trick that involves the layout of the setting. Interesting is how it uses the Sirius Observatory from the first volume in such a different manner: while the building is slightly renovated, it's still the same basic place, so I wonder whether Kitayama had already planned to use this place as the finale and knew he'd use this spot for two different stories, or that he came up with the trick for this novel at a later stage. For the idea is really fanciful and almost cartoony, but I really love the impossible locked room murder in this story, as it's just the type of ridiculousness I want from my mystery fiction and it fits perfect with the location. One thing I always like about Kitayama's locked room murders is how you often the trick can always be explained visually. Most of the books I've read of him, including this series, feature a lot of diagrams, and often there's that one diagram that explains all the magic in just one simple figure, even if the concept and execution is fairly complex. The same here, where all the little things and hints suddenly fall in their right place the moment you see the corresponding diagram. The idea also works wonderful with all the side-elements Kitayama introduces for this story and it even allows for some really nice deduction scenes that are less about "somehow guessing how that ridiculous trick was done", but more about layered logical reasoning based on the evidence we see before us and the logical implications of the actions taken by the characters. This volume and volume 2 were the longest volumes in this series, and they were also by far the best parts of this series.

This volume even finds room to add in false solutions and actually tell a genuine story, which some of the previous volumes really struggled with: volumes 3 until 5 especially were far too short and often felt like lengthy summaries of a mystery tale, rather than actual stories that could stand on their own. It didn't help that they were also written in a way that certain cases weren't solved within the same volume, but would carry over to the next one, but even if you'd ignore that, it can't be denied that most of the locked room murders we see during the Trial of the Twelve Locked Room Temples lacked depth because it had to handle a lot of locked room murder cases within limited page numbers, while something with the length of Danganronpa Kirigiri 7 really shows what this series could have done. Danganronpa Kirigiri 7 takes the time it needs to properly end its tale of how Kirigiri and Yui bonded over the course of this series and to set things up for the events of the first Danganronpa videogame. Oh, and for Kirigiri fans: ever wanted to know the backstory of why Kirigiri wears gloves? It's here!

Danganronpa Kirigiri has been a series that did not always live up to its potential. While the core impossible murder plots were always interesting, the hasty middle part lacked depth, making the series feel more like a work-in-progress at times. Danganronpa Kirigiri 7 however brings the series back to form in its long-awaited finale, and it was worth it! A great conclusion with much-appreciated references to past events/murder plots and a genuinely well-built up ending to the tale of the besties Yui and Kirigiri. At one hand, I'm happy this series has ended now, especially in this form, but I have to admit I'm sad we won't see the duo of Yui and Kirigiri anymore, as the whole franchise has moved on already, and it's unlikely we'll ever even hear references to Yui, as she's a character exclusive to this novel series and Kirigiri's story in the other media (games/anime) is now over. Danganronpa Kirigiri might not always do what you want it to do, but in the end, I'm glad I decided to read this series, and that's not even said only as a Danganronpa fan.

Original Japanese title(s): 北山猛邦 『ダンガンロンパ 霧切り7』

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Overlooked Tick Tock

I'm late! I'm late! I'm late! 
And, when I wave I lose the time I save
"I'm Late" (Alice in Wonderland)

Which reminds me, I still have to finish reading that short story collection where all the stories feature unreliable narrators. And yep, they still manage to fool you despite the warning...

Earlier this year, I reviewed two short stories that are set to appear in the second volume of Ooyama Seiichirou's Alibi Kuzushi Uketamawarimasu ("Alibi Cracking, At Your Service"). I loved the first volume about the visits of the unnamed narrator (a rookie police detective) to Mitani Tokino of Mitani Clockmakers, a young woman in her twenties who not only sells and repairs clocks, but also offers a special alibi cracking service. The focus of one single series on cracking alibis was not only fairly unique, but the quality of the stories was also rather high and the television drama broadcast earlier this year was an entertaining adaptation of the source material. Ooyama started working on the "second season" of this series last year, and you can read the review for the first two stories of the second volume here.

At the end of that review, I said I wasn't sure whether I'd do more seperate reviews of these stories, as I suspect the standalone book release will feature an originally written story exclusive to the volume, so I'll be purchasing it anyway, but when the third story was released three weeks ago, I just had to read it and I figured I might as well write the review. While the whole series is built around cracking perfect alibis, Tokeiya Tantei to Ichizoku no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and a Family's Alibi") manages to feel fresh due to its original story structure. It's almost like the previous story, Tokeiya Tantei to Oosugiru Shounin no Alibi ("The Clockmaker Detective and the Alibi with Too Many Witnesses"), was an experiment or trial, as that too featured a two-act structure, though it's worked out in more detail this time. The narrator has an interesting problem for Tokino. Usually they have a good idea who the murderer is, but can't prove it because of a perfect alibi, but this time, the police investigation has led to three suspects with perfect alibis and they don't know which of these three did it. The elderly Fuzai Kenichi was found stabbed to death in his living room after the weekend when the housekeeper came for work. The victim had retired early and accumulated a nice fortune through daytrading. As he had no family of his own and his siblings had already passed away, suspicion soon falls on his next of kin: his niece and two nephews. The famous actress Ukawa Makie, Asakura Shouhei (a former French cook) and Ida Yasuaki (basketball coach) were all summoned to the police station and asked about their alibis for the time of the murder, but all three of them could account for their movements. Ukawa Makie had been in her second home with her manager and while she had gone on a stroll on her own, she couldn't have made it  from her second home to her uncle's home and back in the time she was gone. Asakura Shouhei had received a parcel and signed for it during the estimated period, and he too lived too far to have made it to and back either before or after signing for the parcel. The same holds for Ida Yasuaki, who had been videochatting with a friend-colleague to talk about basketball teaching methods.

This first part already proves to be an original take on the formula, as this time, Tokino and the reader don't even know who the murderer is likely to be, making this an alibi-based whodunnit. Tokino has to determine which of the three offered alibis could've been fabricated, and more importantly, how. Ooyama makes this an interesting problem by not just pointing at one alibi and claiming that this was the only one that could've been faked, but also considering the other alibis in detail: he offers plausible hypotheses about the other alibis first, but also shows how they couldn't have worked in this situation. The tricks here used are basic, but well-implemented and the way they are discarded works convincingly enough. This helps set up Tokino's line where she says she knows which alibi she could crack, meaning that's the only alibi that could've been fabricated in her eyes. The trick used here is, as often in this series, very simple in concept, but always worked out in a very practical manner. It doesn't feel farfetched and the attentive reader can definitely guess what happened once Tokino's given the first few clues to the narrator/reader.

The story however takes a completely different turn when in the second act, the person accused by Tokino manages to prove they could not have committed the murder and soon after, this person ends up dead themselves too. Suicide is suspected at first, but then the police starts to suspect the real murderer committed this act too, and interestingly enough, the two remaining suspects have no alibi this time (as the death occurred in the middle of the night). The narrator doesn't feel much for visiting Mitani Clockmakers again to ask Tokino to solve the same case again, but Tokino is determined to finger the correct person this time after her earlier mistake. The second half is a tad unbelievable as the murderer's plot only makes sense by assuming the police will make a certain discovery and in reality, the police only made that discovery only because of Tokino, so what would've happened if there was no Mitani Clockmakers? I do like the two-act plot though, as it's pretty devious and the trap of the murderer is well-thought off, only it does require the presence of a person like Tokino to point the police in a certain direction, and that makes this story a bit too meta.

Overall though, I think Tokeiya Tantei to Ichizoku no Alibi is another entertaining and well-plotted addition to the second season of The Clockmaker Detective series and it's interesting to see how Ooyama's also experimenting with the story structure formula to bring a bit more diversity in a series which is ultimately just about one single thing. Reminds me though, I really hope he returns to The Locked Room Collector one day....

Original Japanese title(s): 大山誠一郎「時計屋探偵と一族のアリバイ」

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Dangerous Relations

"This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace!"
"Dead Parrot"  (Monty Python sketch)

This is probably the most 'recent' English-language novel I've ever read for the blog, as in closest to the original year of release...

Anthony Horowitz is the writer of the succesful YA novel series Alex Rider and screenwriter for television dramas like Foyle's War and Agatha Christie's Poirot, but this time, Anthony is working on something new. He has a contract to write three books based on the real cases of Daniel Hawthorne, a private investigator who is also occasionally hired by the authorities when the case seems too difficult for the 'normal' detectives. The idea is that Anthony sticks with Hawthorne as he investigates a case and then writes a novel based on what happened. But Anthony's already having regrets after their first case together. Hawthorne is indeed a very talented investigator, but he also happens to be absolutely insuffurable, rude and manipulative. But Anthony's already signed for three cases, so he could hardly say no when Hawthorne told Anthony he was now working on a new case and that he should come along. This time Hawthorne and Anthony are after the murderer of Richard Pryce, a famed divorce lawyer who was found dead in his home, his head bashed in with a wine bottle and his neck stabbed with the shards of said wine bottle. And to finish it off, the number 182 was painted on the wall besides the body. The main suspect is the poet/writer Akira Anno, who was the counter-party in Pryce's most recent divorce case: making death threats with a wine bottle in a restaurant a week before the man is actually killed by a wine bottle is of course a valid reason to be suspected. But as Hawthorne and Anthony poke around, they find that more people may have wanted Richard Pryce out of the way in Anthony Horowitz' The Sentence is Death (2018).

In case you're confused: Anthony Horowitz is indeed using himself as the narrator/Watson in the Daniel Hawthorne series, and it is filled with semi-autobiographical elements. This book for example opens with Horowitz on a location shooting for Foyle's War and talking about all the things that could go wrong (and do go wrong) when writing scenes to shoot and how hard it is to get anything filmed in London. I guess your mileage may vary on this plot device. I myself don't know Horowitz' work very well (just from his screenplays for Agatha Christie's Poirot), but I guess that for fans it's interesting to see the autobiographical elements weaven into the story, while others might be bothered by this writer who keeps going on about himself and all the books he has written and all the success he has garnered. Thinking about it, I don't think I have read many mystery stories that involve the actual writer. Writers like Ellery Queen, Arisugawa Alice and Norizuki Rintarou do use characters with the same name, but they are not really the same people as the actual authors. I remember Ayatsuji Yukito's short story collection Dondonbashi ga Ochita had segments connecting the various stories about Ayatsuji being visited and challenged by a younger self (including references to Ayatsuji's career until then), but those segments were just there to act as a bridge.

The Sentence is Death is the second novel in the Daniel Hawthorne series, after The Word is Murder. And for some reason, I started with The Sentence is Death first, even though I actually have The Word is Murder lying around. I always seem to be reading series out of order. Anyway, I found The Sentence is Death to be a mystery novel that is pleasant to read, even if the core mystery plot is a tad simpler than I personally had wanted to see. In that sense, I think it does feel like a story that'd work better for a television drama episode, which has a more limited runtime and where it's usually harder to involve a really complex plot. The build-up of the story is basically The Standard Mystery Formula: everyone Hawthorne and Anthony meet will have some suspicious points to them, and when they dig around a bit the two find out everyone had a motive for wanting the victim out of the way and ultimately the least suspicious person (but not really) turns out to be the surprising murderer. I may sound quite negative here, but what I want to say is that The Sentence is Death will certainly not surprise you in general with what happens, but that the writing style (the narration of Anthony) is definitely pleasant enough to never make it feel like a chore. Scenes follow each other in rapid succession, and while you can tell ahead that you'll be going through everyone's secrets which ultimately will have absolutely nothing to do with the case, it's at least pleasant to read through. It could've been a much more tedious-feeling novel very easily.

Once you cut through the smokescreen, the core mystery plot of The Sentence is Death is fairly lean, even if it has a few fun surprises. There are a couple of false solutions that may surprise the uninitated reader, though I think more experienced readers will quickly realize how weak the foundations for those false solutions are. The clewing that points to the true murderer is okay-ish, I guess? I have never been a fan of the type of clue that shows you something, and then at the conclusion say ''well, it was obvious that X was actually Y and that of course points to character Z." In this case, the sighting of a person with a torch near the crime site functions as such a clue among aothers, and the story then basically tells you "well, anyone would've guessed that the person with a torch was actually OOO", but no, that's not what truly good clewing is, even if OOO is mentioned. There are some other clues I liked a lot better, like something mentioned in a stream-of-thought piece of dialogue that turns out to widen the number of suspects who could've committed the murder. Also the true meaning of the number 182 on the wall for example is ridiculous, and not even in a good way. It feels like nothing but a decorative plot point, which ultimately has no good in-universe reason to exist, just a clue that sounds and looks good because it's a murder case and everything, but it doesn't really add to the core plot and doesn't feel natural at all.

Over the course of the novel, Anthony will also try to learn more about Hawthorne and his private life. I guess this is the overall storyline of the series and that more will be revealed in the third/probably final book of the series, but it wasn't really a plotpoint that really interested me. Perhaps if I had read things in order first, but Hawthorne himself isn't really a character interesting enough to make me want to know more about him, and this hinting at 'there's more to him than meets the eye' still doesn't do much for me.

In general, I found The Sentence is Death to be harmless, if I had to choose a word. It is a pleasant read, but the general going-ons will feel very familiar in and despite some neat clues here and there, I found the core mystery plot to be competent, but nothing particularly outstanding or memorable. Mind you, I don't think The Sentence is Death to be a bad mystery novel by any means. I have seen a lot of very positive review of the book that make it a point that this is a classic puzzle plot mystery. It is, and it's a competently written one, but as you may have noticed, puzzle plot mysteries are basically all I read here, and within that context, The Sentence is Death is simply not a novel that manages to stand out in terms of the core plot. I do have The Word is Murder still lying around here, so I'll read that one too at some time.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Said with Flowers

"What do they signify?"
 "Hmm. I dont' want to give her the wrong idea about me..."
"Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars"

With newer series, I still manage to read things in the correct order, simply because I'm genuinely following each new release as they come out, but with older series, I often just try whatever crosses my path. For example, I have read a few of Yamamura Misa's Catherine series in the past (only reviewed one novel before, it seems) and even taken a glance at the surprisingly numerous videogames based on this series, but all these entries were completely random pulls from the long-running series. Yamamura herself is of course an institution in Japan, often strongly associated with television drama adaptations of her creations. When you think Yamamura Misa, you think the two-hour suspense television drama set in Kyoto or perhaps some other touristic destination and of a dramatic finale with the detective confronting the murderer at a cliffside looking down at the sea. My own experience with Yamamura's work has been... nondescript? None of her stories really made any lasting impression on me, some of the short stories I tried seemed to have okay-ish ideas, but never anything that really excited me.

Anyway, so I was already familiar with the Catherine series, but for some reason, I decided it was time to try out the first novel in this series, which also happened to be an impossible murder mystery. I also believe it's been translated in the past in French? Anyway, Hana no Hitsugi ("A Casket of Flowers", 1975) begins with the arrival of the vice-president of the United States arriving in Japan, but it's actually his daughter who attracts more attention from the press. The beautiful Catherine has an interest in Asian culture and plans to remain in Japan for a longer time to study Japanese culture, especially flower arrangement (ikebana), an art she fell in love with after viewing an exhibition in New York. Given Catherine's VIP status, the Minister of Foreign Affairs decides to appoints his nephew Hamaguchi Ichirou to be her guide and interpreter during her stay in Japan, figuring that it'd be better to have some close in age to be her guide (though he warns Ichirou that romance is out of the question). Immediately after her arrival in Japan, the masters of the three major flower arrangement styles try to win Catherine over to their own style: Tougou Ryuufuu of the Higashi School, Nishikawa Hou of the Kyou School and Yamano Hanako of the Shin School all figure that having the daughter of the vice-president of the US (and possible future president) as one of their members will bring a significant prestige boost to their own style. Catherine however says she wants to learn flower arrangement from Ogawa Maiko, who held the exhibition in New York. While Maiko is a high-ranking disciple in the Higashi School, she has openly criticized the outdated system of membership and promotion of 'her' school, making her not a popular figure within the establishment of the Higashi School But even though the news reported on Catherine looking for Maiko, it seems she's avoiding Catherine and the next time they find Maiko, she has died of poison near a temple in Kyoto. While at first it seems her death may be a suicide, more incidents happen in Kyoto following her death. Some are relatively harmless, but the murder on Nishikawa Hou of the Kyou School is definitely a heinous deed, especially as he was murdered in a double locked room: he was found inside the tea house annex in the garden, but the annex was locked from the inside and there were no footprints in the snow-covered garden leading from the main building to the annex. And his death is still not the end of the case...

Huh. For the first novel starring Catherine, it's interesting to see how she's not the focal point of the narrative. The novel kinda jumps between the main police detective investigating the case and Ichirou as the main protagonists, with Catherine almost a member of the secondary cast. Later novels focus much more on her as the protagonist. Uchida Yasuo and his Asami Mitsuhiko series are also strongly associated with touristic-oriented mystery fiction for television and I remember the first novel starring Mitsuhiko (Gotoba Densetsu Satsujin Jiken) was also very light on Mitsuhiko himself: he hardly makes any appearances early on, but then reveals himself as the great detective at the end of the novel. It's somewhat similar here: one part of the mystery is actually solved by Ichirou and the police detective is fairly competent himself too. Catherine only solves part of the mystery.

However, Catherine is presented as the best thing since sliced bread, which is really weird. I mean, we have the three heads of influential flower arrangement styles (with considerable political power!) who are fighting over Catherine, only because she's the daughter of the vice-president of the US. I mean, sure, things might be different if we were talking about the vice-president themselves, but she's just his daughter, who doesn't even have any political ambitions! The official schedule of her father in Japan is even changed at one point, because Catherine wants to visit someone. The oddest part is when Ichirou asks Maiko why she didn't immediately contact Catherine when the newspapers reported on Catherine looking for Maiko, as if the whole world revolves around Catherine. Catherine as a character is not annoying on her own by the way, but the writing seems to put her on a pedestal reason at all. Which can be really taxing.

Anyway, if I had to describe this novel with one word, it'd be Kyoto. While the story starts in Tokyo, most of the action occurs in the ancient capital, with all the crime scenes set in or near famous places in Kyoto, and the story itself of course revolves around a traditional Japanese art (flower arrangement) that is often associated with the refined image of Kyoto. The double locked room murder in the tea house annex is another example of this. The set-up reminds a bit of Honjin Satsujin Jiken, given we have a locked room murder in 1) a traditional Japanese annex house made with wood and fusuma doors and a 2) no footprints in the snow situation outside the annex. The second part of this mystery is nothing worth mentioning and kinda cheap: characters just happen to forget about something that explains the whole footprints thing immediately, so the moment it's brought up, that part of the mystery is solved for you. The locked tea house itself is a bit more interesting. Like in Edogawa Rampo's D-Zaka no Satsujin Jiken, much ado is made about how this is a locked room murder, even though the room itself is just made of 'soft' material like wood and paper. I do think the solution is clever, making good use of a blind spot of the witnesses as well as fitting perfectly with the setting, but it's dragged out a bit for this novel. It would've been better in a short story on its own, I think.

There's another impossible-esque situation later in the novel, concerning the murder of an abducted person. The man was found inside a trailer parked near a temple in Kyoto, but it's determined that trailer was sill parked in a camping car parking park last evening and that it had disappeared from that park at one point. But nobody knows how it could've left the park, because every trailer is registered when they leave the park (to determine the parking fee), and nobody at the three exits of the park actually saw the trailer leave. Traces of the victim's blood is found in the park, so the murderer must've brought the victim here, killed him in the trailer and then gotten the trailer out of the park unseen, but how? The solution for this conundrum is a bit easy to guess when the actions of a certain character are revealed, while the set-up for the trick is rather convoluted. I think the basic idea of using the trailer park as an impossible situation mystery is pretty interesting and the solution is workable, but ultimately, the reason why the murderer went through all this trouble is not really convincing.  I mean, sure, they have a point, but was there really nothing easier they could do to accomplish that? This trick should have been low on the priority list.

Was Hana no Hitsugi significantly different from what I have come to expect of this series? Nah. Mind you, I do think this novel is more tightly plotted, and more puzzle-focused than any other adventure of Catherine I've read and for those seeking a very "Japanese" experience in terms of atmosphere, I think Hana no Hitsugi can be very entertaining. And some people really like the book, as Arisugawa Alice even put a spotlight on this novel in his An Illustrated Guide to the Locked Room 1891-1998. But some parts feel undeveloped, while other parts dragged out, and taken as a whole, I do think Hana no Hitsugi is definitely by far the best Catherine novel I've read until now, but it's not like I feel impelled to read more of this series as swiftly as possible. Though I wouldn't say no to other Yamamura novels of this calibre. It is a very long series though, so it'll take some time figuring what entries are worth it. Perhaps I should try one of the videogames...

Original Japanese title(s): 山村美紗『花の棺』

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Diamonds Are a Ghoul's Best Friend

"Curious, how everyone who touches those diamonds seems to... die."
"Diamonds are Forever"

Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura ("Sharaku Homura: Detective of the Uncanny") was easily one of my most surprising reads two years ago. This doujin comic (self-published comic) by professional comic artist Nemoto Shou (who uses the doujin circle name Sapporo no Rokujou Hitoma) was an excellent mystery comic focusing on impossible crimes and a great example of how to do fair-play visual mystery fiction in general. Heck, the stories even feature formal Challenges to the Reader! Nemoto has been doing annual releases for about a decade now, but like most doujin comics, they can be tricky to find if you're not located in Japan because self-published materials are usually sold at events like conventions or through mail order. The last few years, we have also seen doujin circles selling their products digitally themselves, but Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura went a completely different direction: major publisher Bungeishunju decided to put this fantastic comic on digital storefronts in Japan, compiling the first fourteen issues into three volumes (reviews of the first, second and third volume here). Last year, I also reviewed the wonderful sixteenth issue: Hagoromo no Kijo ("The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers") was another great entry in the series about an impossible stabbing in a snow-covered field without any footprints of the murderer, and the solution was highly original yet very well set-up.

Our detective duo from Shimoyama Middle School returns in the eighteenth issue of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura titled Kourei Yashiki ("The House of Necromancy" 2020), a story submitted to the Hokkaido Mystery Cross Match Award competition and which can be read here. The clever girl detective Sharaku Homura and her assistant Yamazaki "Karate Kid" Yousuke are out in the mountains looking for materials to use in science experiments when they are surprised by the rain. Looking for shelter, they stumble upon a old, decrepit old inn which is now the property of the spirit medium Maruyama Kamazu. They meet the high school student Akagawa Hasuko there, who explains to the duo that she and her father are here for a seance, because her father wants to speak with her mother again, who died recently. She also confides to them that she suspects her father is more interested in learning where her mother left her secret savings. Hasuko arranges so Homura and Karate Kid can stay in the house until the rain stops and inside they meet the creepy spirit medium Kamazu, Hasuko's father and two acquaintances of the family: the surgeon who owns the hospital where Hasuko's mother was treated and a jewelry dealer with whom Hasuko's mother often did business. Hasuko explains she also brought her mother's beloved taaffeite with her, as the valuable gem will be used as a medium to channel her mother's spirit.

Late at night, everyone in the house is summoned to the annex for the seance session. The annex is a small building with only one entrance and one barred window, while the upper attic floor can't be reached because the ladder has been removed.  The gem is set in the middle of the table, with everyone seated around it. To make sure there are no shenigans going on, everybody is chained to the legs of their chairs and they have to put on handcuffs too. Even the medium Kamazu undergoes the same treatment, placing the key in front of him on the table. At first, the seance seems to be going well, but then the lights in the building suddenly go out for a second, and the next moment, they discover the gem has disappeared from the table! Any one of them may have reached out to the middle of the table to grab the gem, but because they are all still tied to their chairs, Homura orders everyone to stay put as she calls the police, figuring the thief must still be carrying the gem. But when the police arrive, they learn that nobody is hiding the gem on their person, and a search of the empty annex doesn't lead to any results either, meaning the gem has somehow disappeared completely. Given that no person could've stolen the gem, does that mean the ghost of the dead wife took the gem with her to the other side?

Stories that don't focus on an impossible murder are in the minority in this series, but we still have an impossible disappearance here. The problem is fairly simple: where did the gem disappear to? Given that the annex is very small, with the only entrance locked from the inside, a barred window preventing the thief to throw the gem far away outside and everyone having been tied up to their chairs during the seance, it doesn't seem the thief could've done much with the gem, and yet the police can't find it. Homura of course does figure out where the gem is, and I think it's here where Nemoto really shows off his gift for plotting a mystery story. Just taken on its own, the hiding place of the gem is quite clever, if somewhat simple. But it's what Nemoto does on top of this idea that makes Kourei Yashiki a better story than it could have been. For the story doesn't only revolve around the disappearance of the gem, the author also made sure it's actually possible for the reader to deduce on their own what happend to the gem, and who did it, based on clever visual clues. Many authors would've just called it a day with only the disappearance trick, but Nemoto also prepared two distinct lines of reasoning for the reader to pick up: one that gives a valuable hint as to the whereabouts of the gem, and one line that points to the identity of the thief. It's because of these clues that the Challenge to the Reader actually feels fair: Nemoto made sure you didn't have to *miraculously* think of the hiding spot, but expects the reader to deduce where the gem is hidden and by whom based on the clues he left.

The clues that point to the hiding spot of the gem are really good too. It makes brilliant use of the visual medium of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura: the clue is set-up across several scenes throughout the story, but it's very easy to miss, yet one can't even claim it was too obscure, as the story does really place a lot of attention to this part at one point, but it is likely the reader will overlook the importance of that scene, which is exactly what you want from mystery fiction. It's a clue that could also work in normal prose fiction, but I think I would find it not as fair there, as the visual medium really adds a lot, without making it too obvious. The other line of reasoning that points to the identity of the thief is also in essence simple, but it too feels really fair, yet subtle thanks to the visual medium: it sorta feels like it makes use of comic grammar and the shortcuts used there to fool the reader, but the attentive reader should feel something's up here. The story ends with some other minor mysteries that Homura manages to solve too, though part of that is already revealed beforehand to the reader and only kept hidden from the characters in the story, so the reader has the advantage over her there (though one could argue that that knowledge could function as a red herring for the impossible disappearance).

By the way, there are of course more stories about crimes/mysteries that occur during a seance like Lovesey's A Case of Spirits but personally, one of the early cases from Tantei Gakuen Q is always the first one I think of when it comes to seance mysteries. They do make for interesting impossible crime situations, as people are often required to hold hands etc. during a seance, making it seemingly impossible for one single person to act without others noticing.

Kourei Yashiki, the eighteenth issue of Kaiki Tantei Sharaku Homura, may not revolve around murder this time, but it's still a very enjoyable entry in the series. It might lack the surprise factor of Hagoromo no Kijo ("The Ogress With the Robe of Feathers"), but this is definitely a very well-written mystery story, that shows that even with ostensibly simple elements, you can come up with a satisfying mystery story through good plotting. And with four uncollected issues out now, I do think it's about time for that fourth volume...

Original Japanese title(s): 根本尚(札幌の六畳一間)「怪奇探偵 降霊屋敷」

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Case of the Rising Stars

唄え 踊れ 無数のライトが闇を照らす

Sing! Dance! Numerous lights shall illuminate the darkness
All the world's a stage
"All the World's a Stage" (marina)

Huh, the previous Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37") was released not that long ago. I wish Detective Conan would return to this release schedule... And in case you missed it: seventeen-year old Hajime recently made a return in a special webdrama...

Kindaichi Hajime, age 37, has seen a lot of deaths in his lifetime, but he is likely to remember some of them better than others. One of the murders he has always regretted the most occured in the Foreigners Hotel in Hakodate, where as a teen, he solved a serial murder case involving the "Red-Bearded Santa." Hajime however was too late, as one of the victims had been a personal acquaintance and Hajime would literally be haunted by the victim's ghost in later stories. Obviously, Hajime never wanted to return to the place again, but sometimes, you don't really have a choice when you're employed by a promotion agency and your boss sends you back to that painful memory. In The New Murders At The Foreigners Hotel, collected in volumes 5, 6 and 7 of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo ("The Case Files of Kindaichi, Age 37"), Hajime and his subordinate Marin's new assignment is 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. "Hakodate Wars" will be performed in the special theater of the Foreigners Hotel. In Hakodate, Hajime runs into familiar faces like Saki (a professional photographer) and Itsuki (still the freelance writer), but he also finds a less friendly face on his path: Superintendent Yukimura of the Metropolitan Police Department has been investigating the death of an ex-member of Desperado and this subordinate of Akechi has gotten into his head that Hajime is 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. Yukimura suspects Hajime has something to do with the death of the former idol and that something will occur at the premiere, and indeed, the premiere is horribly interrupted when it turns out that one of the pistols used in the play was the real deal and that the actors shot by that pistol on stage were really shot fatally. The investigation first focuses on who could've swapped the prop pistol with a real one, but soon after the "murderer" commits suicide by suspending themselves high above the stage and cutting their own wrists. Hajime however isn't convinced that this was a suicide, but forensic investigation of the blood stains shows that the victim's wrists were definitely cut several meters above the stage, so how did the murderer manage to fly up there?

With references to the Red-Bearded Santa case and appearances of several familiar faces (including a surprise appearance of a special someone at the very end of the story!), The New Murders At The Foreigners Hotel was obviously written as a throw-back episode. If you're only familiar with the anime or the live-action drama by the way, you might not quite remember who the person is Hajime lost in the Red-Bearded Santa case, because those adaptations changed the details of the case and the "replacement" character for that deceased friend doesn't even exist in those media, even though he's been a part of the main cast since forever in the manga... Is it even a spoiler anymore to mention his name? It's almost like Aeris' position... We also have a new rival character, and I quite like him! Superintendent Yukimura reminds of the old Akechi, being in the same position in the police, but he's a bit funnier because we (the readers) know Hajime wasn't a serial killer in his teenage years, while on the other hand, it's not completely odd that Yukimura would find Hajime to be suspicious based on the police files which have Hajime's name appear in all those gruesome murder cases! Like Akechi, Yukimura is fairly intelligent, instantly figuring out how the locked room where the ex-member of Desperado was found was constructed and while obviously, he's destined to lose against Hajime forever, it'll be interesting to see if his character development will differ from Akechi's.

The case itself is fairly compact, and personally, I don't think there were moments that stood out as memorable, but it's an okay story that might be a tad too long: it's basically two full volumes long, but a fair amount of those pages aren't even specifically about the murder case, but just about Hajime and the reader reuniting with old friends. The plot revolves around two core mysteries: when was the prop pistol swapped for a real one, and how did the murderer manage to slit the "suicide" victim's wrists while the victim was suspended four meters above the ground and there were no ladders or other tools around? The latter one is fairly easy to solve considering the setting and indeed, Hajime basically solves the mystery immediately. The swap of the pistols is also a bit easy to guess: once Hajime accidentally stumbles upon a certain clue, it becomes clear what must have happened. More interesting are the clues that eventually point to the identity of the murderer. I can't say they are perfect: some actions are taken by the murderer in an attempt to evade suspicion, but these actions kinda stand out, which is what makes them look suspicious in the first place! I do like the more physical clues that point to the murderer: one element makes good use of the  visual medium (and the presence of Saki, of course) and the whole idea the story is about a fantasy musical. The other significant clue is perhaps less original, but I love clues in general that revolve around whether the murderer could or could not have known certain facts and how that knowledge (or absence of knowledge) influences their behavior.

The backstory that led to the crime was really dark by the way. It's still Revenge with a capital R (because why else?), but the details of this definitely wouldn't have flown in the magazines the older series were serialized in and you can definitely understand why the murderer would've been so set on killing their targets. It's basically going one step further than The Inspector Kenmochi Murder Case, which was already really pushing it. The novels do occasionally go that way, but I believe the adaptations of the novels in the anime series did tone down the darker side of the motives. This case also ties back to the very loose overall storyline of Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo, but it's done in such an off-hand manner, I have a feeling series writer Amagi doesn't really have anything concrete thought out yet and just winging it as he goes. There's some hinting again at the cause why Hajime stopped his amateur sleuthing, but I assume it'll take a while before we'll learn the details.

Volume 7 ends with the first two chapters of The Poltergeist Manor Murder Case, in which Hajime and Marin are to monitor a test panel: there are plans to renovate a Scottish manor which was moved to Japan brick by brick and recently turned into a pension, but there are also rumors it's haunted by poltergeists. You know, at this point of the story, I was genuinely thinking, hey, perhaps this case won't be about a murder, but simply about Hajime figuring out what the poltergeists really are, until I noticed the friggin' title of the case in the table of contents just now. Alas, poor guests, you're probably going to die horribly in a creepy manor.

Anyway, Kindaichi 37-sai no Jikenbo's The New Murders At The Foreigners Hotel (volumes 5 - 7) storyline is probably a story many long-time fans have been waiting for, as we see a lot of the old gang come together again to solve a case, even if the 37-old Hajime's still claiming he doesn't want to solve any mysteries anymore. I didn't find the case itself very memorable: it's stretched a bit too thin, and the case misses the impact of something like the Japanese rock garden with no footprints setting in the previous story, or the always falling chandeliers in the (former) Opera House. It will be interesting to see how the story will move on from here though: with old faces returning as part of the gang, as well as a new rival and Marin finally learning about Hajime's history in more detail, future cases might give us a nice mix of the old and the new.

Original Japanese title(s): 天樹征丸(原)、さとうふみや(画)『金田一37歳の事件簿』第5, 6, 7巻