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』」


  1. Sounds really interesting. I think the main idea of the story is really clever, as it justified the use of 'far-fetched' tricks that might be shunned if it appeared in standard novels. It sort of reminded me of a case in 'Detective School Q', which is made to be intentionally flawed. Perhaps the stories within this novel can serve as a guide of 'how to write a detective story'. But I also agree with the point that ingenuity is more important than reality in mystery stories. I hope the stories can be translated in the future, perhaps when somebody decides to make an anime of it.

    On a completely unrelated note, there is actually a case involving 'Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám' in C.M.B. manga vol 38.

    1. Don't think any of Higashigawa's work has been made into an anime yet, but there have been many TV drama, including one of Houkago wa Mystery to Tomo ni, so perhaps we'll see a live-action adaptation.

      My 'experience' with Rubáiyát was weird. One character from The Moai island Puzzle quotes from it (Japanese translation). I then decided to see what the FitzGerald translation did with those verses, but interestingly enough, they did come across quite differently compared to the Japanese translation. Well, that happens, poems and stuff, I thought, so I decided to compare with a Dutch translation. And that come up with a very different interpretation too XD So in the end I just translated the Japanese translation for Moai...