Sunday, August 30, 2020

Maze of Mysteries

And now for something completely different.
"Monty Python's Flying Circus"

It's no secret that I mainly focus on puzzle plot mystery fiction on this blog. Note the emphasis on plot: in a mystery story, the plot usually has to become the puzzle, challenging the reader to solve whatever the main problem is, ranging from whodunnit, howdunnit to whatthehell. Puzzles on their own are different story,  though I have discussed mystery fiction that include puzzles before: earlier this year I reviewed the puzzle-filled comic Clue: Candlestick for example, based on the famous boardgame Cluedo/Clue. The Professor Layton franchise too is of course all about puzzles popping up everywhere and I once also discussed a jigsaw puzzle that came with a mystery story, or a mystery story that came with a jigsaw puzzle, depending on your point of view. But in general, 'normal' puzzles aren't discussed here often.

But I wanted to do a short write-up on the wonderful illustrated book Pierre the Maze Detective - The Mystery of the Empire Maze Tower (2017) created by Japan-based Hiro Kamigaki & IC4DESIGN anyway. The title doesn't do much to hide the fact that this large hardcover volume is filled with brilliantly drawn mazes to get lost in, similar to the Where's Wally/Waldo books. While this is the second book in this series of maze books, it shouldn't surprise you that they all follow the same format. The Mystery of the Empire Maze Tower starts with the news that the Phantom Thief Mr. X is going to steal the energy source of New Maze City, located all the way on the top of the Empire Maze Tower. Pierre the Maze Detective, his girlfriend Carmen, her dog and a whole party of other famous detectives start chasing after Mr. X as he makes his way towards the Empire Maze Tower. Each illustration of this book is set at a fabulously looking location, like a cruiseship, or the entertainment park or museum inside the Empire Maze Tower and the reader not only has to find a way through the mazes that these locations provide in pursuit of Mr. X, but are also challenged to find other important objects hidden in these beautifully drawn mazes that are filled with little details.

The book offers a memorable journey through absolutely breathtaking illustrations that are immensely lively and great fun to look at. There's a lot of variety too in the mazes: the chase after Mr. X will bring you to places like a harbor, the park in front of the Empire Maze Tower, the hotel rooms and the theater of the Tower and even all the way up in the penthouse pool. These locations serve as fantastic-looking and intricately-designed mazes that bring you across the whole illustration.

And even after solving the initial maze, you can just spend ages looking at all the details here. Each illustration has its own set of unique challenges (usually to find certain characters or objects hidden in the maze), but there are also many running gags, like a polar bear who's also chilling somewhere or a ninja appearing at the oddest places. There's no 'background' here: everything is a joy to look at. The atmoshere in these illustrations is really nice: it reminds me a bit of the cozy, anachronistic vibe of the Professor Layton series.

There's no mystery plot in this book though, so all that's getting tested here is your eye for detail and how good you are at mazes. Okay, the book is made for children, so adults shouldn't have too much trouble with the mazes and the challenges here, but it's definitely a book adults can also enjoy because the book is just so full of personality (for those worrying about their eyesight: the actual book is pretty big).

As this is a pure puzzle book and not really the kind of book I usually discuss here, I'll just keep it short, but I really enjoyed Pierre the Maze Detective - The Mystery of the Empire Maze Tower as a detective-themed maze book, and if you're looking for a fun puzzle illustrated book similar to Where's Wally for kids and adults, I can recommend this wholeheartedly. The book has been published in many countries and I believe a third volume is to be published soon worldwide too.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The Dutch Shoe Mystery

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed

I have these cloth book covers I use whenever I read Japanese bunko-format pockets: it keeps the books clean and these cloth covers are more pleasant to hold in your hands while reading. While bunko pockets should have the exact same dimensions, meaning you can use the covers for all bunko pockets, the bunko pockets from Kobunsha tend to be like one single millimeter too high for my cloth covers, so I can't use them. Which is really annoying.

We return to Parallel Britain in Yamaguchi Masaya's 1995 short story collection Kidd Pistols no Manshin ("The Self-Conceit of Kidd Pistols", 1995). The introduction of Edward's Law in Parallel Britain changed the history of criminal investigation: the right to investigation was given to the members of the Master of Detective Assocation, which in change turned Scotland Yard into mere errand boys for these detectives, the main reason why Scotland Yard is now mainly manned by young punk hooligans just trying to earn an easy pay check. Kidd Pistols and his girlfriend Pink Belladonna too appear more like members of a punk band than police officers, but these two form Scotland Yard's National Unbelievable Troubles Section (NUTS), which is usually assigned to the detectives who have to handle the kooky cases like locked room murders or other odd incidents. While Kidd and Pink get to work with the best detectives in Britain, like Dr. Bull (disciple of Dr. Fell) and the famous Swiss detective Mercule Boirot, it turns out that Kidd isn't just a punk: being able to think out of the box, not being constrained by the rules allows him to solve the cases that baffle even the best detectives. In the third short story collection, we follow Kidd and Pink in several cases patterned after Mother Goose rhymes set both in the present as well as the duo's past.

All the stories in this series feature an official English title, so the title page of Kidd Pistols no Manshin - Kidd Saisho no Jiken also says The Self-Conceit of Kidd Pistols - The Kidd Pistols' First Case. This is a fairly short story, that is more about fleshing out the characters than really providing an interesting mystery plot. In the first part, we have Kidd Pistols himself narrate the story, telling us how he grew up in the slums of London as the son of a good-for-nothing Irishman and a somewhat too enthusiastic London housekeeper. By seventeen, Kidd has already left his home and was working part-time at the punk/B&D fashion shop Monde, where he also met Pink (whom he first described as looking like "a Dutch wife"). It was a bad neighborhood, but it was home to both of them, so the fact that there had been a mysterious series of suicides around here bothered them. Curiously enough, the people who died followed the pattern of the nursery rhyme tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man. But when Kidd's own father too dies under circumstances that seem to suggest suicide, he's not convinced this is just a coincidental series of suicides and he starts to harbor suspicion towards the people from the World Church of Absolute Truth which has been active around this neighborhood lately. Buuuut, like I said, this is not really a mystery story. There is some kind of locked room mystery here, but Kidd's theory is never confirmed in any way, and the punchline of this tale basically makes this cynical modern horror story that explores the background of Kidd, rather than the puzzlers we usually see in this series.

This story forms a set with the last story of the volume, Pink Belladonna no KaishinBondage Satsujin Jiken or The Reform of Pink Belladonna - The Bondage Murder Case, but this one is like a much better version of the first. The first half is once again mostly monologue where Pink tells her background story, which isn't directly related to the mystery plot of the second half. Though for people who have read Yamaguchi's excellent Death of the Living Dead, there's an interesting revelation here about Pink that explains why I was always mixing up those two characters. Anyway, this story also explains why the PlayStation videogame Cat the Ripper, based on the Kidd Pistols novel The 13th Detective, had a hilariously confusing bad ending scene where the nameless protagonist is tortured by Pink in a SM mistress outfit: this story explains that Pink was being trained in Germany to become a high-class bondage mistress for a short period. After that, she ended up in the north of London in the punk/B&D shop Monde, where she became best friends not only with Kidd, but also the young prostitute Demi. Demi recently got a new client who was into SM and tonight she was going to meet with this client again. Pink would be going to a concert with Demi after Demi was done, but when Demi doesn't appear, Pink decides to go to Demi's work room where she stumbles upon a horrible sight: Demi's pimp was knocked out lying on the floor, but Demi herself had been tied up, her face horribly beaten up and her genital organs cut from her body. A bloody message on the walls by "Jack" invokes images of Jack the Ripper of course. Pink vowes to avenge her friend and find the 'client' who killed Demi. Guessing who did it is rather easy due to the limited number of suspects, but the story does a good job at tying the underlying plot to the Mother Goose song in question in terms of theme. It also makes use of the theme of bondage in a clever way to create a mystery plot that is not only well-clewed, but also gives a good reason why it was Pink who figures the case out. You don't need to have expert knowledge on bondage, but it does make sense that Pink would be the first to realize why that item was used like that.

Sarawareta Yuurei or The Kidnaped Ghost, and Shitsuji no Chi or The Blood of the Butler are both very short stories that seem to invoke Agatha Christie's short stories. In the first story, Dr. Bull is asked by his old friend Brandon to help Ann Peebles, for whom he has acted as a loyal manservant for decades. Ann was a famous actress, whose infant son Jimmy was kidnapped twenty years ago. Even though she paid the ransom money, Jimmy was never returned and with that, she lost the only child she'd ever have. Jimmy remained on her mind since, and recently, a fraud spirit medium has been trying to close to Ann, which obviously worries Brandon. Dr. Bull swiftly sees through the medium's tricks, but then Ann gets a phone call by a voice who says they're Jimmy, singing a song only Jimmy and Ann would know. This is followed by a ransom note telling Ann to pay ransom money for Jimmy, exactly like the letter twenty years ago. But why would someone pretend to have kidnapped the ghost of Jimmy? In The Blood of the Butler, Mercule Boirot, Kidd and Pink run into car troubles in the middle of nowhere on the way back from solving a case, but they are offered a lift by Marshe, a journalist on his way to the manor of Henry Tarbot, Earl of Workshire. Marsche is writing a series of articles on that old British tradition, the butler, and he has it from good sources that Tarbot's faithful Langdon is the quintessential butler. Arriving at Tarbot Manor however, they find that Langdon is not all the butler they had expected him to be, and other minor incidents seem to bug both the detectives and Marsche. Ultimately, both The Kidnaped Ghost and The Blood of the Butler revolve around one major piece of misdirection, making the reader assume one thing while it's actually the opposite. Once you notice what that is, it's pretty easy to figure out what's really going on. So very like Christie's short stories.

Kutsu no Naka no Shitai - Christmas no Misshitsu or The Body in the Shoe - The Locked-Room at Christmas is by the far best story in the collection and and starts with a Christmas invitation for Dr. Bull, Kidd and Pink to the house of Tania Shoemaker, the wealthy old woman in charge of the famous shoe manufacturing company. The four prodigal sons of Tania have also returned for Christmas (to badger her for money), but last night, she noticed some of her jewelry had been stolen. She has called Dr. Bull here to scare the thief into confessing to the theft and says she'll be waiting for the thief to come clean and return her jewelry that night. Tania does not sleep in the main building of the house, but in the annex: the building in the shape of a shoe was once the very first shoe shop she ran in East End, but has been moved brick by brick to its new location as a reminder to Tania where it all started. That evening, snow falls and when everyone wakes up on Christmas Day, the detectives notice there's only one single trail of footsteps in the snow that walk from the main building towards the large shoe building outside: the footsteps of Tania when she retreated to the annex last night. The detectives and the secretary go to the annex to bring her breakfast, but they open the door only to find Tania hanging from the ceiling. At first, they think it's suicide, but the fact that Tania was stripped naked and whipped after death makes it clear it's murder. When they find youngest son George in the room next door, having died of an overdosis of sleeping medicine, they think that he killed his mother and then committed suicide, but the medical examination shows he died before his mother. But how did the murderer of Tania escape the shoe-house without leaving their footprints in the snow?

Interestingly, this story was adapted as an episode for the interactive television drama Tantei X Kara no Chousenjou! ("A Challenge from Detective X!"), which ran for three seasons between 2009 and 2011. Similar to programmes like Anraku Isu Tantei and Nazotoki Live, viewers were encouraged to participate and solve the mysteries themselves. Viewers could register to receive a new part of a mystery story daily via e-mail, which always ended with a Challenge to the Reader. Participants could then submit on a form who they thought the murderer was and why. Later the corresponding episode would air with a live-action drama enactment of said story, which would include the actual solution. The adaptation of The Body in the Shoe aired on May 20 2009 as the final episode of the first season, but interestingly, this was the only episode in the whole series to not feature a live-action adaptation, but an animated adaptation. It's pretty short, but it tells the story pretty well and I guess larger-than-life characters like Kidd and Pink work better in animation (with a distinct, American indie comic style) than with real-life actors. Anyway, like I said, this is the best story in the volume, and I think it's an excellent example to explain why I am more a fan of mystery stories that focus on the logical process of determining who it was, rather than the more howdunnit-focused approach you often see with locked room mysteries. While this story revolves around the no-footprints-in-the-snow variant of impossible crimes, the trick the murderer used is incredibly basic and not even remotely original. If you'd focus on this howdunnit part alone, this would've made for a very disappointing story, but what Yamaguchi does really well here is plot out the path that shows whodunnit. The plotting has some great plotting to show why the murderer acted like they did. By focusing on all the actions the murderer took, including the very basic no-footprints-in-the-snow trick, you can guess what the circumstances were that made the murderer act like they did, and by determining the motive/cause behind each and every action taken, you can determine the identity of the murderer, because all thoses causes/motives only hold for them. It's a great way to mix up the impossible crime trope (which often focus on howdunnit) with the reasoning-focused mystery stories as seen in Queen's work (and in more modern times, authors like Arisugawa, Ooyama, Aosaki and more). This is also why I think it works great for an interactive mystery show like Tantei X Kara no Chousenjou!, as ultimately, the story focuses more on the actual 1+1=2 logical processes behind explaining the crime, which works a lot better if you want people to write in (as it's easier to 'grade' the submissions).

While the previous volume seemed to focus a lot on one single theme, the stories in Kidd Pistols no Manshin are more varied. While the first volume has definitely been the most consistent volume until now, the third volume has been interesting offering stories that explore the protagonists' backgrounds more or some shorter tales (whereas those in the second volume were all really long). That said though, I think the "conventional" The Body in the Shoe is definitely the stand-out story of the volume and the only one in this book that really matches the line of quality set in the first volume and partially the second. While definitely not a bad mystery collection, Kidd Pistols no Manshin should not be considered the entry volume for this series, as a lot of it works because there have been two earlier volumes that featured different kind of stories/stories of different lengths. Then again, most people do tend to read things in order unlike me. Anyway, only two other collections left, and I'm definitely going to stick around to see what other kooky adventures Kidd and Pink will have.

Original Japanese title(s): 山口雅也『キッド・ピストルズの慢心』:「キッド・ピストルズの慢心 -キッド最初の事件-」/「靴の中の死体 -クリスマスの密室-」/ 「さらわれた幽霊」/ 「執事の血」/ 「ピンク・ベラドンナの改心 -ボンデージ殺人事件-」

Sunday, August 23, 2020

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution

"Our chief weapon is surprise... surprise and fear... fear and surprise.... Our two weapons are fear and surprise... and ruthless efficiency.... Our three weapons are fear, and surprise, and ruthless efficiency...and an almost fanatical devotion to the Pope..."
"The Spanish Inquisition" (Monty Python sketch)

Several Japanese publishers and organizations publish an annual list of the best-rated mystery novels published that year. Each of these rankings do have their own focus and format. Most major rankings follow a Top 10 format, while the Honkaku Mystery Award for example has a shortlist of nominees wit and one single winner. In general, I find the titles (nominees and winners) picked for the Honkaku Mystery Award to be the closest to my own personal taste, focusing more on puzzle plot mysteries. Even so, none of these rankings really influence my to-be-read list in any significant manner: I sometimes glance at them whenever they are first announced and might take note of some titles, but it's not like I make it a habit of always reading the titles that rank in number one.

But sometimes, these lists do help pique my interest. I don't remember when it started exactly, but last year, I noticed a lot of people from Japan on my Twitter timeline mention Liu Cixin's science-fiction novel 2008 San Ti, available in English translation as The Three-Body Problem. Given the overlap between mystery and science-fiction readers in my timeline, it wasn't completely strange to see many people rejoice over the fact that novel finally got published in Japan, but then I noticed that a lot of people also talked about it as a mystery novel. Comments abouw how the novel, despite its hard science-fiction setting, could appeal to readers of the mystery genre too. And then earlier this year, I noticed that The Three-Body Problem had ranked in fourth place in the Bunshun Mystery Best 10 Ranking for 2019 in the Translated section. Of course, I know "Mystery" is used in the broad sense of the term like the "crime" genre, but still, I couldn't help but think of that hidden hard science-fiction mystery gem James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars, a book I only tried because of such rankings. So I decided to dive in.

The Three-Body Problem, the first novel of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, introduces the reader to to the nanomaterials researcher Wang Miao, who is asked by the military to help investigate a series of mysterious suicides committed by several scientists across the world. It appears most of these scientists had a link to the Frontiers of Science, a group of scientists who seek new innovative approaches to science: Wang Miao has been invited several times to join the group but had always declined. Wang Miao realizes that the world's governments are all working together to investigate these deaths and that they seem to be hiding something from him, but he eventually agrees to team up with the sleazy, but street-smart police detective Shi Qiang to see what he can find out. With some hints from Ye Wenjie, an astrophysics professor known for the hardships she had to endure during the Cultural Revolution, Wang Miao starts to suspect that the laws of physics as assumed by humankind might not be correct and that that may have driven those scientists to suicide. Meanwhile, Wang Miao also discovers that several of these scientists have been playing a VR game called 3Body, which depicts a strange world where the sun seems to follow no set pattern, resulting in Stable and Chaotic Eras: in Chaotic Eras, the sun can appear and disappear at random times, sometimes scorching the earth until everything is rendered to ashes or staying away for years until everything is frozen. The people of the world of 3Body can 'dehydrate' themselves and lie dormant during Chaotic Eras, and it's only during the rare Stable Eras can the people can develop as a civilization, but nobody knows how long these Stable Eras last, and the players of the game all try to work out a model to predict the sun's movements. At first, Wang's sessions always end with the civilization destroyed by the sun's whimsical actions, but as he slowly progresses in the game, he uncovers a plot that ties back to the suicide of the scientists.

Okay, let me start right away with saying that if you're not interested in (hard) science-fiction at all and only want to read a mystery novel, The Thee-Body Problem is not for you. While the story does make use of mystery-related tropes to tell its story (the investigation into the mysterious suicides), the focus lies on the science-fiction plot, and if you expect something close to Asimov's The Caves of Steel, or even something like Hogan's Inherit The Stars, you'll be disappointed as the focus definitely does not lie on a puzzle that needs to be solved based on clues and deduction. Seen as a crime thriller, The Three-Body Problem will definitely appeal to many readers despite its hard science-fiction background: this is basically a conspiracy science-fiction thriller. As Wang's investigations proceed, he learns that there are people he can trust, people he can't trust and that nothing is what it seems and at the very least, the mysterious events that cross his path do make you want to read on.

Seen solely as a mystery novel though, which is what I usually do here, The Three-Body Problem is fairy weak. A lot of the conspiracy is revealed 'just as is' to Wang/the reader without any real puzzle-solving element and let's face it: the "big reveal" isn't that surprising for a science-fiction novel, and the plot ultimately only serves as a set-up for the following two novels in the trilogy. The book can be fun, science-fiction entertainment (though definitely more "hard science-fiction" than just "regular" entertainment science-fiction), but a lot of the elements feel very, very familiar. The most interesting part of the novel when seen as a mystery novel is definitely the VR game 3Body. When Wang first wanders around this weird world, he learns that the people there are trying to learn the pattern governing the movements of the sun, because civilization can't develop if everything keeps on burning or freezing for years on. The mystery of what causes the unpredictability of the sun is on its own a pretty alluring science-fiction mystery: over the course of several playthroughs, Wang finally realizes what the cause is, based on the visual clues he saw in the game. Ultimately, this ties back to an actual scientific problem, so I assume physicists will have no trouble recognizing the problem and for the regular reader it'd be pretty hard to deduce what is going on based solely on what is shown inside the 3Body scenes, but personally, I do like these kinds of puzzles in my science-fiction and fantasy mystery, where the reader has to figure out the common link or the governing rules of the unique setting. Astra Lost in Space is in a way a very accessible variant of a similar approach to science-fiction mystery, where the crew has to learn what the unique properties are of the flora and fauna of each planet they visit.

I wasn't even sure whether I was going to discuss The Three-Body Problem here or not. While the novel definitely has mystery-elements to it, I think it's juuust beyond the scope of what I usually discuss here. There have been borderline cases on this blog before, but if there's a Venn diagram of people who like science-fiction and people who like mystery fiction and the overlapping part signifies people who will like The Three-Body Problem, I think I'm just outside the overlapping part, sitting safely in my mystery bubble. In the end, I decided to write this post because other people keeping an eye on the Japanese mystery community may have noticed the numerous mentions of The Three-Body Problem. I am content with the knowledge that this just isn't the book for me, and I don't plan to read the other two books in the trilogy.

Original Chinese title(s): 刘慈欣 "三体"

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bury Me Deep

『異世界の名探偵 2 帰らずの地下迷宮』

"No, you see, a detective isn't an occupation where you solve mysteries. It's more about convincing people you have solved the mystery."
"The Great Detective of the Other World 2: The Underground Maze of No Return"

Man, this would make for a cool type of mystery videogame, now I think of it. There aren't really many detective games with fantasy settings. Professor Layton vs. Gyakuten Saiban is an obvious expection and even then, it doesn't really go deep into classic fantasy videogame tropes.

Early this year, I reviewed the first volume of Isekai no Meitantei, which combined the classic puzzle plot detective story with isekai, the highly influential trope currently found in Japanese popular fiction like anime and light novels. It literally means "a different world" and refers to a sub-genre with parallels to works like Alice in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia, usually featuring stories featuring protagonists from Earth who end up in a different world (commonly a fantasy world) by means of teleportation, reincarnation or some other manner. The genre often involves some kind of power fantasy, with the very ordinary human using their memories/knowledge from Earth to their advantage in their new situation/the other world to eventually become the legendary hero/evil overlord/whatever the story is about. The first volume of Katazato Kamome's Isekai no Meitantei didn't stray far from the template when it first showed us the death of an ex-cop with a love for mystery fiction, who then reincarnates as a baby in the fantasy world of Pangea, a world where magic exist. The memories of his life on Earth are retained by Van, who grows up to be a talented magician with a dream of becoming a State Detective. After solving the impossible decapitation case in the first volume, the newly graduated Van became nobility, was bestowed the family name Holmes and appointed to Vice-Captain of the Royal Detective Squad of the Kingdom of Sherck.

Isekai no Meitantei 2 - Kaerazu no Chika Meikyuu ("The Great Detective of the Other World 2: The Underground Maze of No Return") was released early 2020 and is set not too long after the first novel. While Van Holmes is now Vice-Captain of the Royal Detective Squad, his position is still somewhat ambiguous because of his lack of experience, so his captain Geralt the Silent decides to send Van on a special mission to allow him to make a name for himself. Vent Treasure is a self-made noble who made a fortune by providing services and trading with adventurers all around the world of Pangea. Now Vent is gathering a special party of highly skilled adventurers to accomplish a secret task involving a special dungeon. The world of Pangea is riddled with dungeons, mysterious massive structures that have been on the world as long as anyone can remember. Dungeons come in all sizes and forms and feature magic that nobody knows: nobody on Pangea is for example even capable of scratching the walls of any dungeon and most dungeons feature a special Stone of Return at the entrance, which allow people who are synchronized to them to instantly teleport back to the entrance just by thinking of the action (usually used when in danger). The deepest regions of these dungeons often hold great treasures or fabulous divine items with magic nobody in Pangea can replicate, but they are also filled with horrible monsters who attack anyone who dares to enter the dungeon.

Vent has recently become the owner of a dungeon with quite the reputation: it is said that no person has ever reached the deepest chambers of the Underground Maze of No Return, a dungeon which lies deep in the ground. The fact that even the entrance floor features high-level monsters suggests there's something great hidden at the end (monsters become stronger the closer they are to the end of the dungeon), but because the Stone of Return of this dungeon is broken, people can't simply escape if things go wrong several floors down. All people who have tried to clear the dungeon have failed, most of the challengers had to pay with their lives for it. Rumors even have it that there's a special monster in the dungeon called Shadow, who can even kill people inside locked rooms. The mission of the special party Vent has formed is to reach the deepest regions of the dungeon to show it is indeed beatable. The party forms a motley crew, with people like the berserker-type Blood, who once made it to the tenth floor, but couldn't figure out how to proceed, the fire magician Eni, Hunt Treasure (son of Vent) and of course Van, who is added because of his detecting skills. At first, the party seems to make good process, but things start go wrong when they get past the seventh underground floor. First Blood is killed inside his metal sleeping box (he's so paranoid, even of his party members, he sleeps inside a box to protect himself) and later, two other members are assaulted and spirited away even though they sealed themselves in a room for protection by erecting a magic wall. And as these impossible murders continue in the dungeon, the remaining party members start to distrust each other...

I love the premise of this book. The first novel of course established to the reader that the world of Pangea has real magic (and it also put limitations on what magic can do in Pangea) and in order to solve the locked room murder in the first book, you definitely needed to understand how magic worked there. Katazato could've easily written a second book again about a murder that utilizes magic in some clever manner, but he decided to go with a completely different setting that still fits perfectly with the world we have seen before. The dungeons as presented in this book are of course the dungeons we know from table-top RPGs as well as videogames, those magic-filled maze-like structures consisting of multiple floors with countless of monsters awaiting the player, where you solve puzzles and go deeper and deeper until you reach the last room which usually houses the boss of the dungeon as well as some great treasure (and optionally the long cut-scene to push the story forward). They even kill monsters in this novel for loot, which is as game-like as you can get. The dungeons also have gimmicks we know from games. Many videogames feature some object with similar functions like the Stone of Return (Escape ropes etc.) and one of the more interesting gimmicks in this novel are the one-direction-walls: these walls are transparent on one side and a person can pass through the transparent side to get to the other side of the wall, but it is a normal wall on the other side, meaning you can't go back. All of this results in a setting that is insanely unique for mystery fiction, and had me all giddy with delight.

Whereas the first novel focused on one single murder, the second novel features multiple killings (some of them under impossible circumstances), but I have to admit that not all of them are as good as the others. The first murder, of the highly suspicious Blood inside his own mini metal panic room, for example is pretty disappointing in terms of how it was done and the clewing is a bit crude. The murders that happen inside a sealed-off section of the dungeon when two members tried to protect themselves is far more interesting. The idea of a locked room murder, inside a monster-ridden dungeon is highly memorable and the trick behind it is original, making good use of the unique setting of this novel, and while the clewing is a bit shaky at times (the explanation why *that object* was *there* is a bit forced), I do really like how the misdirection was handled, making great use of the characters' understandable oversight. It's definitely an idea that I really can't imagine seeing in any 'conventional' mystery novel, set in the real world. Some later parts of the novel on the other hand feel a bit clichéd and almost unfair, making this overall an uneven experience. I do like the book as a whole, but there are some parts I really don't care for at all.

By the way, I do have to mention the fact that the author Katazato seems to have forgotten this second novel is also supposed to be part of an isekai series. In the first novel, the plot device that Van originated from 'our' world was at least used to ease the reader into the world of Pangea, explaining the rules and limitations of the magic used there and things like that. This ensured that the mystery plot was fair to the reader, as they, together with Van, learned how Pangea worked. Katazato does none of that in this novel. There are maybe two or three stray references when Van compares some object with something from our Earth, but this could easily have been a "normal" fantasy detective, without the backstory of Van being an reincarnation originating from Earth. The fact Van has memories of our world is of no consequence at all in this story, not even as character motivation like the first novel, where Van's love for puzzle plot mystery fiction drove him to become a detective in a world where detectives weren't really necessary and everybody just blamed magic spells that possibly didn't even exist.

Like the first volume of this series, Isekai no Meitantei 2 - Kaerazu no Chika Meikyuu has a very slow start, but when it finally gets to the murders, you're presented with a plot that cleverly mixes the puzzle plot detective with the fantasy genre. I do think the second volume is less consistent than the first volume: less effort is poured into fleshing out the world and its rules to the reader (I recommend starting with the first volume), not all of the murders are as cleverly plotted as the main one and some of the details of the crime seem glossed over and appear only to have introduced to make the crimes more alluring. But I can't deny I absolutely love the idea of a murder mystery set in a classic videogame dungeon setting, and I do think the main surprise sprung on the reader works. I do hope that for the next volume, whenever that will be, will make more use of the isekai plot device, giving purpose to the fact Van originates from our world. Because this second volume might as well be just a fantasy-detective novel with no ties at all to our Earth.

Original Japanese title(s): 片里鴎『異世界の名探偵 2 帰らずの地下迷宮』

Friday, August 14, 2020

The Elusive Heiress

"The family is truly desperate. And when people get desperate, the knives come out."
"Knives Out"

I haven't seen any mystery films in 4DX theatres yet, but you could do fun things with detective films produced with 4DX in mind. Think clues like rain or wind, or perhaps conveying the 'feel' of something through the haptic feedback from the seats... I did see Dragon Ball Super: Broly in 4DX, and experienced how it was being beaten to a pulp by a monstrous force of power, so you'd imagine someone could apply that to a murder mystery film...

Highly succesful mystery writer Harlan Thrombey is found dead, with his throat slit in his stately country house the morning after his 85th birthday. The police initially believe Harlan committed suicide, even if it's not exactly clear why he would have done such a deed. However, the famous private detective Benoit Blanc receives an anonymous letter hiring him to look into the death of Harlan more closely. Harlan was a loving father and grandfather who looked after his family, and his family loved him back. At least, that's what seems at first sight, but as Benoit starts poking around, he learns that on that fateful night, at his birthday party, Harlan had antagonized more than a few members of the family: he was going to expose son-in-law Richard's affair to his daughter, daughter-in-law Joni would be cut-off from her allowance because she stole money from Harlan, youngest son Walt would be removed from Harlan's publishing company and he even got enough of the senseless spending of his grandson Ransom. In order to learn more about the family dynamics, Benoit decides to use Harlan's nurse Marta as his Watson: not only does she know the family well, she also has an odd physical condition that causes her to vomit if she tells a lie, allowing him to pump her for information rather easily. However, it turns out Marta does have something to hide from Benoit, so she desperately tries to keep her secret a secret from Benoit (without lying) while helping him in the investigation in the 2019 film Knives Out.

I usually simply assume the most interesting mystery movies of any year will be released in Japan nowadays. At the very least, there's always a new Detective Conan film each year (save for this year, due to special circumstances), which I look forward to every year. So in 2019, Detective Conan: The Fist of Blue Sapphire was already long on my to-watch schedule last year, and I also knew I had to watch the live-action adaptation of Shijinsou no Satsujin ("The Murders in the Villa of the Dead") the moment it was announced, but that was basically the whole list for me in terms of new mystery films on my 2019 radar. So I have to admit I completely missed the news surrounding the initial release of Knives Out, which was probably the biggest mystery film release of 2019 worldwide. By the time I first heard of it, it had already been running for some time in the theaters here and ultimately, I decided I would catch it later. While I didn't read any of the reviews in detail, I did gather the story was about a classic, Agatha Christie-inspired mystery plot and that many viewers thought it as a very entertaining film too, so it was always a matter of when I was going to see it, not if.

Anyway, Knives Out sure doesn't pretend it's anything but a homage to the classical mystery story with all its tropes. The gorgeous Thrombey manor functions as the background location for most of the movie and is filled with characters who of course all have a motive for wanting Harlan dead. The first part of the movie is filmed pretty good: not only does it give you a good sense of the important parts of the layout of the manor, but the scenes where the police and Benoit question the family members are surprisingly amusing to watch. In mystery fiction, whether it's a movie or a book, you often have flashback scenes where suspects have to talk about their alibi and what went on in the time leading up to the murder, but the presentation here is quite smooth, giving the viewer an informative, but also funny view at the discrepancies between what the suspects tell the police and what actually went on that night. As the film goes on, we'll see how all these short fragments told from various points of view eventually come together, and it's here where the film feels a lot like a Christie story, with characters overhearing muffled fragments of conversations and fights and other people trying to interpret the meaning of those lines. Some of this even comes back in the conclusion, when Benoit explains his interpretations of said lines and how it ultimately ties back to the identity of the culprit and these moments are far from rare in Christie's work.

And while the film is set in current times and we see people use smartphones and grandchildren fighting with each other because one is an 'alt-right troll' and the other a 'feminist SJW' (and to be honest some of the characters here are hardly fleshed out and little more than labels), the workings of the plot of Knives Out feel distinctly... old-fashioned? I mean, you could just transport this plot to a 1930s setting and change some minor clues like the usage of e-mails or SNS to regular letters, and the plot would still work as is. I would have believed it if someone told me this was originally written in 1930 and that it was only slightly altered for a modern film adaptation in a contemporary setting. It's all of this that makes Knives Out feel like a mystery story from the period of Christie, while it's definitely filmed in the present: the film looks really good visually in terms of presentation and camerawork.

Early on the film starts to focus on Marta as our protagonist instead of Benoit: the viewer learns Marta has a secret regarding Harlan's death which she is desperate to hide, but because of her physical condition she can't lie to Benoit without throwing up. Well, she can of course still deceive him without actually telling lies, but that isn't easy, and from this point on, Knives Out changes into something that feels more like a inverted mystery with a slight comedic tone, somewhat reminiscent of Columbo: we follow Marta as she's 'helping' Benoit in his investigation, while in truth she's constantly trying to hide or destroy any clue that could lead him to uncovering her secret. It's an interesting change in tone, but it works pretty well to make for a more 'thrilling' viewing experience, rather than just following Benoit constantly walking around and asking questions. There's that small comedic connection that occurs between the viewer and Marta like we know from Columbo, where "we" are in it together because know more than the detective and have fun seeing him being deceived. The last third of the movie actually throws more thriller-elements into the plot, until we arrive at the denouement where Benoit reveals he's not just been posing and been as clueless as he sometimes appeared to be and where he manages to connect all the clues together to show the truth behind Harlan's death.

This core mystery plot is... okay? It does nothing wrong, and there's some subtle clewing going too, but Knives Out is perhaps too much of a send-up to classic mystery fiction in this regard, as there's very, very little that stands out in terms of plot, and a seasoned fan of the mystery genre will recognize a lot. Early on in the film, it becomes pretty clear that there are certain circumstances regarding Harlan's death, and I was soooooo afraid it was supposed to be the surprise twist at the end of the movie: I was more than relieved when the film revealed these events to the viewer early on instead of sitting on it until the climax, and I had hopes that Knives Out would do more of these trope inversions, but surprisingly, the rest of the film just runs its course in the way you'd expect. Again, Knives Out does do its job as a classic, fair-play mystery story with proper clewing/foreshadowing in a competent manner, but the film follows the classic tropes and tricks/twists to a T, and if you have read a few Agatha Christie novels or anything from that period, it's likely that you'll quickly catch on the truth.

So what is Knives Out ultimately? It's definitely an entertaining mystery film to watch. While it does take on thriller tropes to present its story at times, Knives Out is firmly settled within the structures of the classic mystery plot, at times even too much so: if you are not very familiar with the mystery genre, the film will have some nice surprising twists for you and the path to that answer is nicely paved with proper clewing like you'd expect from a proper detective plot, but for those who are more comfortable with the genre, most elements will come across as rather familiar, even if the execution is done competently. Knives Out is not remarkable in terms of its core plot, but the whole package is a fun watch and I'm glad I finally got to see it. In a way, it's a nice contrast to 2017's adaption of Murder on the Orient Express: both feature an all-star ensemble cast, but Knives Out features an original plot, rather than being a straight adaptation of an existing classic detective novel, and I'd love to see more original mystery movies in the same spirit. I believe a new film with Benoit Blanc as the detective is planned and I'll make sure that this time, the sequel won't go unnoticed on my radar.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Adventure of the Lover's Leap

I'll be there for you
(When the rains stars to pour)
"I'll be there for you" (The Rembrandts)
I do like travelling by train! Love just sitting in a train and see the scenery slide by while you do whatever you want to do.

A while back, I reviewed Shimada Souji's Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin, the second novel in his series starring the police detective Yoshiki Takeshi. The series was initially conceived as a so-called travel mystery, a subgenre that focuses on, obviously, travel. Most strongly associated with trains and brilliantly fabricated alibis that make full use of complex railway schedules, other characteristics of the subgenre include the stories often being set in popular tourist destination/region outside the capital Tokyo and involving references to local habits, folklore and legends. The third novel in the series, Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin ("The Northern Yuzuru 2/3 Murder", 1985), however, changes things a bit. The story starts with a phone call to Yoshiki by his divorced wife Michiko in the final days of December. They went their seperate ways five years ago, and Michiko had moved to the city of Kushiro in the northern island of Hokkaido. Michiko seems to regret having made the call, though she's glad she got to hear Yoshiki's voice once again. She explains she's in Tokyo now, but leaving right away on the Yuzuru Sleeper Express that evening. Yoshiki manages to reach the station in time to catch a glimpse of Michiko as the train leaves to the north. The following day however, the body of a dead woman is found in a sleeping compartment in the Yuzuru. Another day passes, when on the final day of the year Yoshiki hears the description of the victim and her belongings, and instantly realizes it must be Michiko. He races to the Aomori Police Station, but while some of the belongings do belong to Michiko, the murdered woman turns out to be someone else completely.

Yoshiki is glad his ex-wife is not dead, but also realizes this puts Michiko in a very dangerous spot, for what is her connection to that murder? He decides to look for her and travels to Kushiro, but he is shocked to learn that Michiko's been wanted by the police there for over a week now. Two bodies were discovered in Michiko's apartment in the Mitsuya Residential Area and as Michiko herself has not been seen since (save for her phone call to Yoshiki in Tokyo), it's no wonder the police suspects she killed those two women. The victims were also living in the Mitsuya Residential Area, but strangely enough, the murder seems to have impossible traits. While Michiko lives on the top floor of Tower 1, nobody had seen the women (who live in the other two towers) enter Tower 1 that night, with the caretaker and other witnesses having been next to the single front door all night and swearing nobody having entered the building. No unaccounted footprints were found in the snow covering the whole premise either. Also, it appears strange things have been happening here for some time now. Earlier that year, a young resident was suddenly slugged to death by an unknown assaillant in the fog, but despite several witnesses surrounding the crime site, no killer was found. On the night of the murders in Michiko's apartment odd happenings occured too: ghostly cries could be heard coming from the Night-Crying Rock on the premises, where in an ancient past two women committed suicide, and a student even made a photograph of a ghostly suit of armor that night. Yoshiki knows his ex-wife is innocent of the crime and that the only way to save her is to figure out who did kill the women and more importantly how, but how do all these ghostly stories tie in to the solution?

Okay, so we don't really have a travel mystery story this time, at least not one that focuses strongly on trains (like Izumo Densetsu 7/8 no Satsujin), though we do see a lot of Hokkaido in this novel. But the main mystery revolves of course around the impossible murder in Michiko's apartment: the statements of the witnesses make it impossible for the victims to have entered the crime site in the first place, and yet the murders happened. By the way, like in the previous novel, Yoshiki basically guesses who the real murderer is fairly early on in the novel (mostly based on instinct rather than facts), but of course, the murderer is completely protected by the impossibility of the crime (as well as Michiko's disappearance, which makes her the perfect scapegoat for the police), so for Yoshiki, the challenge lies in figuring out how the murder was committed. Though I have to point out that this novel sure takes it time to tell its story. Some readers will definitely enjoy how this novel explores Yoshiki's inner thoughts as he reminisces on his previous, married life and how he and Michiko eventually grew apart even though they never did, but things can get a bit melodramatic here. Yoshiki is desperate to save his ex-wife this time and is willing to put his work and everything at stake to get her out of this mess, but it does make some segments feel more like filler than actually necessary.

So while Yoshiki has set his eyes on the murderer very early on based on nothing but instinct, prejudice and hopeful wishing, he still has to solve the problem of how the two women managed to get inside Michiko's apartment unseen. Tower 1 has only one front entrance, and the caretaker's room is immediately next to the door. That evening, he had a group of students over to play mahjong, and none of them saw the victims enter the building (and both victims had been seen earlier that day near their own homes). Yoshiki's suspects were also seen in their respective apartments in the Mitsuya Residential Area around the time of the murder. So how did murderer and victims all get inside Michiko's room, at the top floor of the building? And how do all the ghost stories tie in to the case, about a crying rock and a ghostly suit of armor? The solution would probably have made more of an impression on me if err, Shimada hadn't already spoiled it to me earlier: the problem of the apartment room in Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin basically features the exact same fundamental idea as a different short story by Shimada which I had read already, so it was very easy for me to guess how the trick was pulled off.

I guess that is also partially the reason why I thought this book felt lengthy, as I pretty much knew what the solution would be and had already seen it in (far) shorter form from the same author. Sure, the details are different, but there's no denying that both stories are simply variants of the same idea. The way it's expanded upon with the ghost stories is pretty entertaining though, as it sure adds to the atmosphere. In general, I'd say that this type of idea works much beter in Shimada's Mitarai Kiyoshi series, as Mitarai's more used to handling these kinds of utterly ridiculous, yet highly entertaining tricks, but I assume Shimada decided to allow the "realism" parameters of the Yoshiki Takeshi series to go down a bit with this novel. I do like the basic idea though, even if it's completely nuts. But that's Shimada at his best. I didn't like the way Shimada wrote the bridge from Yoshiki being utterly puzzled to suddenly figuring the whole thing out though. Because he basically got a free hint in the form of a dream. Which, to be fair, was partially based on what he had (unconsciously) seen (and the reader had unconsciously read about), but the most important nudge was coming from the author Shimada, not from Yoshiki's own thinking. Like I wrote earlier in a piece, I think there should always be a logical reason why a detective can't solve a crime until a certain point in a story (for example, because an important fact hasn't been uncovered yet at that point in time), but this novel is an example of what I don't like to see.

So I am a bit divided on Kita no Yuuzuru 2/3 no Satsujin. Not a big fan of the very melodramatic tone with the story focusing on Yoshiki coping with the way he broke up with his ex-wife Michiko, while I have to admit I'm also disappointed the main idea of this novel is basically the same as a different short story by Shimada (and it's not camouflaged enough to be considered a clever variant). I guess the novel is a good 'bridge' between the more fantastical Mitarai Kiyoshi series and the more realistic Yoshiki Takeshi series. At least, I have only read one other Yoshiki novel, but I am going to assume that Shimada decided to play the game more bombastically after this third novel, following the more realistic first two novels. I will probably read the first Yoshiki Takeshi novel first before I decide whether I'll read more of this series.

Original Japanese title(s): 島田荘司『北の夕鶴2/3の殺人』

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Dream

この世界が きみを消し去ろうとしても Resist!

ぼくが光 追い越して きみを守るよ 
「 虹ノ矢ハ折レナイ」(A-set)

Resist! Even if this world attempts to erase you
I will overtake the light and protect you
"The Rainbow Arrow Won't Break" (A-set)

And in the series "What, you haven't played that game!?":  I'm still waiting for that Switch port of Umineko no Naku Koro ni so I can finally learn what Red Truths and things like that are...

ABIS (Advanced Brain Investigation Squad) is a top-secret unit within the Metropolitan Police Department which has access to an unconventional method of crime investigation. Using the Psync Machine, ABIS detectives (so-called Psyncers) can hook up their minds with those of suspects and others persons of interest and enter their subconscious dreams. While within these dreamscape worlds called Somnia, the Psyncer can observe the subject's dreams and memories and thus find clues and secrets that the subject may be hiding or not consciously be aware of. However, a Psyncer can only remain for a maximum of six minutes in a person's Somnium due to safety concerns, so it's imperative that a Psyncer can quickly extract the necessary information from these dream worlds. Date is one of the Psyncers of ABIS, and he has access to another technological marvel courtesy of ABIS: Date's prosthetic left eye is imbedded with the AI-Ball, nickname Aibou ("Partner"), a highly advanced artificial intelligence who can communicate with Date directly and provide him with special tools like X-ray and thermal vision, as well as several hacking and network utilities. Aibou also functions as Date's avatar while in a Somnium.

One evening, the horrible mutilated corpse of Nadami Shouko is discovered on one of the horses of the Merry-Go-Round of an abandoned amusement park. Shouko had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, and her left eye had been removed. Date is put on the case because he himself was acquainted with Shouko: she's the ex-wife of Date's good friend Okiura Renju, as well the mother of Renju's daughter Mizuki, who due to circumstances has been living with Date for the last few years instead of with her own parents. Date promptly starts investigating the murder with the help of Aibou and the Psync Machine, but stumbles upon many trails: what has Shouko's murder to do with the Cyclops Serial Killings, a series of murders committed six years ago in which all the victims had one of their eyes removed too? Is Shouko's death related to her connection to the organized crime gang Kumakura Group and the powerful politician Sejima? Where has Renju disappeared too, and what does the net idol Iris AKA A-set from Renju's entertainment agency have to do with all of this? As Date delves deeper into the suspects' dreamscapes, he realizes that there's something much bigger going on than he could have ever dreamed of in the 2019 videogame AI: The Somnium Files for PS4, Switch and Steam.

AI: The Somnium Files was probably the biggest Japanese mystery videogame released last year, so some readers may be surprised it took me until now to play it. My excuse is that the release was too close to that of Dragon Quest XI S! One of the reasons many looked forward to this game was of course because it as the newest work by Uchikoshi Koutarou, best known for his science-fiction mystery videogames like the Zero Escape series. I'll be completely honest here and admit I never actually completed any of his games, so I didn't mind postponing my playthrough of AI: The Somnium Files. A few months ago, I wanted to play Kodaka's Death Come True as soon as possible, awhich was because I had played all of Kodaka's mystery output until then, but I know a lot of people have the same with Uchikoshi's videogames. He is a very popular developer when it comes to mystery videogames, so I wasn't surprised I saw a lot of people talking about AI: The Somnium Files when it was released, while I of course was still playing Dragon Quest XI S and trying to avoid spoilers!

Anyway, so I finally got around to the game, and it's been an interesting ride! Definitely not flawless, but ultimately, I think AI: The Somnium Files does present an entertaining mystery story with a science-fiction angle. Some flaws I experienced are system-specific by the way: the Switch version for some reason has severe difficulties loading assets during conversatoins during the second half of the game, which slows down like almost all scenes considerably and at times even prevents you from proceeding in the game, but I gather that this is not the matter on other systems. But setting that aside, AI: The Somnium Files is a good example of a mystery game (and story) that has some great ideas, but the execution isn't always consistent. As an adventure videogame, AI: The Somnium Files plays most of the time in a very familiar manner: you control Date as you move around various locations to talk with suspects, witnesses and other persons of interests to gain information and leads, while occassionally you also have to investigate crime scenes yourself too (with the help of Aibou's special functions) to find physical clues, all in order to move the plot. At set times however, you will also have to use the Psync Machine to enter the dreamscapes of suspects and witnesses to gain additional clues, and it's here where the game can become quite frustrating.

The Somnia are basically dreams, and the visual presentation is pretty awesome: each Somnia you visit is distinctly different and show you the weirdest happenings, like a fight with a gigantic polar bear or a Merry-Go-Round turning around at ludicrous speed in a creepy amusement park. Each Somnium also harbors so-called Mental Locks: by solving puzzles and breaking these locks down, Date can go even deeper in the subconsciousness of the subject to find the leads he wants. In these Somnium segments, you control Aibou directly as you walk around in the dream world to solve puzzles and break Mental Locks, but what makes these segments irritating is that the puzzles rely on 'dream-logic'. There's often no real logic to the puzzles in the Somnia (at best there's after-the-fact-logic) . The excuse is that it's all a dream, but that means that the player is just walking around in the Somnium, trying things out at random in the hopes that you'll solve a puzzle by being lucky. What makes this a frustrating experience however is that any action taken in the Somnium costs variating amounts of time, and you only have six minutes in total to break down all the Mental Locks. In the end, these Somnium segments just turn into tedious experiments of trial & error, where you learn to memorize that throwing a skull away will for some reason break down a Mental Lock and where you also learn that some single-use items have to be used at very specific times or else you can start all over again. It's such a shame that as a gameplay segment, these Somnium segments are so vexing, because the visuals are imaginative and they do an interesting job at setting up a mystery, as you're shown vague hints and clues everywhere, but you can't really say for certain what they mean at first sight because it's all presented as randomly connected threads in a person's dream.

The 3DS videogame Tantei Jinguuji Saburou: Fukushuu no Rondo ("Detective Jinguuji Saburou: Rondo of Revenge") also had these Escape Room segments with a timer on any action taken by the way and I hated them there too. But least there, the puzzles made sense (find a key, use on locked door), whereas in AI: The Somnium Files, the puzzles were only annoying, from start to finish. I don't think there was any puzzle in any of the Somnium segments that felt truly clever, at best just 'Oh, okay, interacting with this thing here in this way for some reason made that thing over there explode which will break a Mental Lock, lucky guess there.'

In general, I think the best mystery stories excel in information management, by which I mean it's important to control what information is available to what person at what time. A mystery plot that provides all the necessary clues to solve the crime at the very start of the novel, but then proceeds to meander for 600 pages makes for a bad mystery story, as it didn't feed the information to the reader in a manner to faciliate the plot as a whole. It's what I talked about in my article on the Challenge to the Reader: what clues are available to the reader at what point, and at what point can the reader or the detective deduce the solution to the mystery? Information management is also important to the characters within the fictional world, as knowledge dictates their possible actions, and if a character never learns a certain fact, they certainly can't act in a way that implies they know said fact. AI: The Somnium Files makes for an interesting case when it comes to this topic.

The story of AI: The Somnium Files will branch off in various routes depending on certain decisions you make during the Somnium segments. These routes are treated as basically parallel/alternate worlds and each of these routes will focus on different aspects of the crime and also feature completely different plot developments. The events on the same day may be completely different depending on the route, and some people who die in one route may live and be completely fine in another route. Obviously, none of the initial routes will provide for a satisfying answer to all the questions and you will need to explore all the routes in order to gain access to the final route with the complete solution to the mystery. It's while you're exploring the various routes that AI: The Somnium Files handles information management the best. All the routes will end up in completely different places and usually leave a lot of questions unanswered, but the answers to many of those mysteries can be found in other routes. The reason why person A betrayed you may never be explained in one route, but will be explained in another route for example. Or in the case of the brancing storylines, sometimes you understand why things happen in a different way after the branching point once you play through both branches and realize what the decisive difference was between those routes. The information fed to the player is thus spread across the various routes in the game, and that results in very satisfying development of the mystery plot. It's not linear in the sense that the player can choose to do most of the routes in any order they like and you can also choose to pause in a certain route to go to another, so it's likely I will have seen certain scenes/clues in a different order than someone else playing this game. AI: The Somnium Files shows how a videogame format can do interesting things with information management in a mystery story, showing clues and foreshadowing events in a non-linear manner to the consumer, creating a mystery experience that you can't get with a conventional novel. The various routes are also written in a way that each of them will reveal very different aspects about the murder(s) while also providing new mysteries, so you're constantly tempted to keep on playing.

But there are also times where AI: The Somnium Files does really weird things with how it handles information given to the player and the characters, which does hurt the mystery tale a bit. The mystery plot overall is quite amusing by the way and the way the story uses the branching "what if that happened instead" routes to show the player all kinds of clues is pretty ingenious. But most of the information that set-up to the major story reveal regarding the New Cyclops Serial Killings is shown relatively early on in the game and I think the attentive reader will be able to make an educated guess about what direction the story will eventually take due to the early telegraphing, even if the game tries to mystify you by throwing all kinds of related, but less important mysteries at you in the various routes. That said, once you realize what is going on, it's still interesting to see how all the various scenes from the different routes fall in place and make sense in the context of the grander mystery. But AI: The Somnium Files also strangely does some clumsy things with information management: at certain points, the game simply stops the player from proceeding, prompting you to try out other routes first. The reason being that allowing the player to proceed then would provide them with very vital information that would explain too much, so it's designed to prevent you from learning that information too soon. The problem is that such blockades only makes sense from a meta point of view, with the developer trying to shield the player, but in-universe, it doesn't make any sense to have the story stop there with the characters all frozen in place because the player isn't allowed to move on yet. It's a very awkward way to control information flow, allowing a player access to a route initially, but then forcefully stopping them midway because they aren't allowed to know something yet! Even weirder is when at one point Date seems to know things only the player should know: the player did go through all the alternate routes and saw the clues/information offered there, but Date the character did not, as from all the character's POV, they will always only experience one single, linear route. In some games that utilize stories with branching storylines, this is explained through plot devices like time travel, allowing a character to travel back in time with the knowledge from other timelines), but in the case of AI: The Somnium Files, it's just careless information management. Control about what characters know what when is a pet peeve of mine in mystery fiction, so it was rather disappointing to see AI: The Somnium Files mess up there, as I found it really distracting.

Oh, and setting the topic of information management aside, I have to repeat I really like the core concept of the plot of AI: The Somnium Files, but some of the details in the story do seem really... rushed. Some mysteries shown in the various routes are only there to show the player some kind of cliffhanger, even if it doesn't really make sense for those events to happen story-wise. Even worse is when some characters have to act like complete idiots at certain points in the backstory to even make the plot work. The core idea of the story is great, but some parts of the tale are kept barely hanging together and require some characters to act really weird at certain points in the story or even go against what is mentioned only a few moments earlier!  Like with that one character being portrayed as some kind of insane, but calculating mastermind, but then we learn they also took certain life-changing decisions on nothing more than a whim without any real justification for why they'd act like so careless.

There are also some parts of the game where everyone's mileage will vary. I liked most of the characters, though some of them have awfully little screentime. There were a few action-focused scenes with Quick Time Events which felt a bit useless and I also felt the City Hunter-esque sex jokes fell flat, as they usually came out of nowhere and felt horribly out of place. These jokes were also mostly used during the action scenes, making these whole sequences stand out in the bad sense. I loved the many references to other mystery videogames and popular culture though! References to Machi will always earn a game bonus points, but that reference to Murder on the Mississippi totally caught me off guard (ha!).

I found AI: The Somnium Files to be an entertaining science-fiction mystery game that on one hand shows how the format of a videogame can present a unique mystery tale in a manner a novel can never match, but on the other hand the game also shows at time how frustrating a videogame can be, both technically as well as in terms of oddly designed segments. The core mystery plot is interesting, though some details are sloppily handled, making AI: The Somnium Files a game I do want to recommend to people interested in a science-fiction mystery, but it's not a game I would recommend to 'general' mystery fans who have never played a videogame.

Original Japanese title(s): 『AI: ソムニウムファイル』

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Queens Full

"Off with his head!"
"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

Repeating myself here, but I love this type of cover for short story collections, where each of the stories included is represented properly on the cover, instead of only the cover story.

Tsukatou Hajime's short story collection Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery", 2019) is the latest entry in the series starring Minami Mikikaze, a professional photographer with a knack for solving crimes. And fans of the mystery genre can probably guess the theme of the stories collected in this volume based on the title. For yep, all of the four problems Mikikaze encounters in these tales are of course inspired by Ellery Queen's novels, to be exact, the Nationality novels. This is the first time I've properly read anything by Tsukatou by the way (read a random short story once) and it's my first time with Mikikaze too, but apparently, the Mikikaze stories do follow a kind of chronology. This volume makes a few references to past cases for example, and other events in Mikikaze's personal life that may or may not have been discussed in more detail in previous books, but in general, I think most readers won't have any problems starting with this book, especially as the four stories here do form a set on their own. In the first story, we are told that Minami Mikikaze has been playing guide for Elizabeth Kittridge in Japan. This forty-or-so woman who speaks a kind of Japanese is not only a prominent forensic investigator in the United States, but also the daughter of Ronald Kittridge, the surgeon who successfully conducted Mikikaze's heart transplantant. Beth is now in Japan to attend an international symposium and workshop program on criminal forensic investigation. Part of the program involves having international investigators attending criminal investigations of the Japanese police so both sides can learn from each other, and Beth has chosen Mikikaze as her assistant, because Mikikaze has made a reputation for himself as an amateur detective.

Beth and Mikikaze are first sent to a self storage facility in Aru Roma Boushi no Nazo ("A Roman Hat Mystery"), as a body was found in one of the storage units. The many fancy hats, hat stands and magazines on hats suggest that the person who rented this unit, a "Shirai Yoshihisa", was simply a hat lover, but the police were already aware that "Shirai Yoshihisa" was involved with a drug smuggling ring, which was smuggling cocaine into Japan inside fancy brand hats and hat stands. There's much at stake with this investigation, but there are many little things that bother the investigators. For example, there's camera footage of Shirai entering this unit and him being followed by another person who later fled the scene, but who was this person? While the police is convinced this has to do with cocaine, they can't find any drugs inside the unit, and another mystery is the fact that (missing) bloodstains suggest something was taken away from this unit, but the police has no idea what that was or why they didn't see the object in the security footage of the culprit fleeing.

This story obviously takes some minor cues from Queen's The Roman Hat Mystery, but is in general a completely original story (the Roman Hat in this story is actually a hat from Rome for example, while in The Roman Hat Mystery, the Roman comes from the Roman Theatre). While the story itself has little to do with Queen's novel, the underlying plot does feel very Queen-esque, in the sense that the investigation focuses a lot on objects, and what you can deduce based on the state of the objects found at the crime scene. For example, Mikikaze and the police detectives hold discussions about what the object could be that was taken away from the crime scene, and why they didn't see the culprit carrying it with them as they fled the scene on the security footage. The plot involves several of these moments, where the detectives let their thoughts loose on the physical circumstances of the crime scene and the logical implications, which is of course the modus operandi of especially the early Queen novels. This story, as well as the following three stories, are less about whodunnit or howdunnit, but about explaining the mysterious circumstances of each crime scene, and the actions the murderer took (based on the crime scene). However, unlike Queen and for example Arisugawa's work, I'd say that the stories in this volume are less about chains of deduction, at least, they're not about strongly connected chains of reasoning. There are some ideas about this story I absolutely love (for example, why the murderer went as far as to hit the victim multiple times in the head or why the scissors on the work bench were left there) that really belong the Queen school of mystery, while other parts of the mystery (like the missing object) are less interesting. The various elements of the story sometimes feel a bit... not disconnected perhaps, but not as connected as I'd have wanted them to be. The result is I'm not sure how I feel about the story, because some parts are so meh, while other parts are absolutely great.

A problem shared by all the stories in this volume is the writing style though. It's hard to explain what it is, but Tsukatou often jumps a few minutes ahead and has the characters discuss all kinds of things that seem slightly vague to the reader and after that section, the narration catches up and explains how they got to that point (which explains the vague allusions in the earlier dialogue). It's a story device you often see in detectives, especially in the conclusion when the detective suddenly unveils the identity of the murderer, and only after that, the narrative explains how the detective laid their trap, but these stories, it happens too often: Tsukatou does this 'jump a bit forward, have some dialogues that include facts the reader hadn't heard about yet and then explain afterwards' thing few times per story. It's like you're being driven around in a car, but the car speeds up for no reason, only to turn around and do the same part slowly once again. It's jerking you around all the time, which makes enjoying the stories a bit difficult. At first, I thought it was just me needing to adapt to Tsukatou's writing style with the first story, but it happens in all four stories.

Which is more-or-less the theme of this volume for me, for each story definitely has some fantastic ideas that revolve around deductions based on objects, but there are almost always elements that seem underdeveloped, as if there's no synergy between the various ideas in each story. Aru France Oshiroi no Nazo ("A French Powder Mystery") is set right after the previous story, as Elizabeth and Mikikaze are called as observers to the murder scene of Yata Sonoe, an eighty-year old lady who moved in the upper circles of society, but of whom the police knew was a ranking member of the same drug smuggling circle of the previous story, together with her deceased husband. Sonoe was found this morning by her nephew's wife, who did Sonoe's housekeeping each day. The strangled Sonoe was found in one of her drawing rooms, lying on the couch. The floor around the couches however was covered by white powder: during her futile struggle with the murderer, Sonoe hit a container of powder foundation (from France, not the French Department Store), which covered the whole floor. While the room also has some interesting evidence for the police waiting on a table further down the room in the form of actual cocaine, they have to wait until forensics is done with the room. Meanwhile, Mikikaze and the police detectives try to figure out what the murderer did in the room, based on the (vague) traces left on the powdered floor. I love the main idea behind what the murderer did after the murder in order to elude the police, and makes great use of the titular noun, but the build-up to the reveal feels a bit underwhelming. You have parts where the detectives discuss their ideas but they ultimately don't go anywhere, while the most important fact you should know if you want to have any chance of solving this story, isn't revealed to the reader until Mikikaze's already explaining everything, leaving you with the feeling like you've been cheated. Great premise that also gives meaning to having this story be a direct continuation of the previous, but the execution is slow and at times even tiring.

At this point, you think, neat, the whole collection is connected and about this cocaine smuggling ring, right? Well, wrong. Only the first two stories are connected like that. The other two stories do feature Elizabeth again during her stay in Japan, but are in no manner connected to the cocaine storyline. Which was really weird, for each time, I was totally expecting someone to be uncovered as being involved with drugs in the last two stories. Sorry to all the characters I suspected!

The Dutch Shoe Mystery was about the Dutch Hospital, but Aru Holland-Gutsu no Nazo ("A Dutch Shoe Mystery") is actually about Dutch shoes, that is, wooden shoes. Elizabeth and Mikikaze are the guests of Ootsuki Mikako and her husband Tadashi. Tadashi is the head of the South Shinano General Hospital, and the hospital, and the Ootsuki's personally, are involved with an NPO that focuses on international organ transplants. A child at the South Shinano General Hospital is awaiting such an operation, and they're filming a short movie at the Ootsuki residence to encourage the boy, but also to use as a PR movie. Elizabeth is here because of her father's reputation, while Mikikaze was also invited as he himself had a weak heart as a child, and he has fully recovered now he himself has undergone such an operation. Other guests include the head of the NPO as well as the Ootsuki's nephew and his girlfriend. Everyone is invited to stay that night, some of them sleeping in the main building, some in the annex. Early in the morning however, Mikikaze has a visit by Mikako, who found her dead husband downstairs. He was wearing one wooden shoe from Mikako's clog collection kept in the annex, while the other clog was used to hit Tadashi on the head to kill him. The only footprints in the garden that connects the main building and the annex are those of the wooden shoes leaving the annex, meaning Tadashi must've been in the annex in the night and that he left the building with a pair of his wife's clog, but why? He never wore clogs unlike his wife, and what was he doing in the other building in the first place? And is the murderer someone in the main building, or from the annex? A lot of deductions revolving around the clogs footprints, how Tadashi must've gotten his hands on the clogs and how he crossed the garden. For those into object-focused, reasoning-focused mysteries, this is arguably the best story in the collection, and I really did enjoy this one, but there are a few points in the story where you, as the reader, have to guess what happened, because you are unlikely to see through the whole deal solely based on the physical evidence left. Funnily enough though, I like one of the theories mentioned halfway through the story even better than the actual solution: while it's pointed out that it wouldn't have been practical, it's a solution that could've been salvaged pretty easily (the introduction of one simple tool alone would've been enough). The 'punchline' of the story is Queenian, I agree, though I don't really like how it was used here.

In Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo ("An Egyptian Cross Mystery") is set at a small forest camp site, where Mikikaze is joined by five Art students from his alma mater. These students belong to Professor Yamashita's class, who will join this study camp later, but on the first day, Mikikaze is to teach the students the finer points of making photographs of raw nature. After the workshop, the group have dinner and drinks together, and eventually everyone leaves for their cottages. The following morning however, Mikikaze is awakened by one of his students, who has made a horrifying discovery: a decapitated body was hanging from the T-shaped signpost near the entrance of the camp site (just like in The Egyptian Cross Mystery). While there's no head, the students seem to recognize the victim as one of their fellow Art students based on his clothes and characteristic fingers and limbs. What's surprising is that the head is found not that far away from the camp, so it was not cut off to hide the victim's identity. While a confession from one of the students soon clears up why the victim was here near the camp in the first place, Mikikaze is still bedazzled by the case, and while the police, accompanied by Elizabeth, soon arrive, they stumble upon the same problems as Mikikaze: why was the body hung from the signpost, why was the head cut off if not to hide the victim's identity and why was the decapitation done in a place relatively close to the camp site and not somewhere deeper in the forest? Again, I think the main concept, the decapitated corpse, involves some really good ideas that also give way to interesting chains of deductions (for example, the direct reason for hanging the body from the signpost and why the murderer didn't find a better place to cut the head off), but other parts seem almost disappointing in comparison (the direct cause for wanting to hang the body from the signpost is bloody brilliant, the underlying cause why the murderer came into the situation to need to do that was silly. And the motive for the murder....).

I still find it hard to say what I really think of Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo. Each of the stories has outright fantastic ideas and interesting chains of deductions, but the writing style is something you need to get used to, and far too often, the stories don't feel entirely cohesive and evenly thought out, with some ideas/parts of the story coming across as afterthoughts, while in other cases, the other elements that should be supporting the main concept, feel like side-branches that go other directions. Considering the ideas I found here, this volume would've definitely made it into my top ten reads for this year had they been worked out a bit better. It's still a very good story collection, especially if you like these Queen School-style stories that focus on chains of deductions based on the physical state of the crime scene/evidence, but as it is now, whether Aru Egypt Juujika no Nazo's will end up in my end-of-year list is very dependent on what I'll come across the following months.

Original Japanese title(s): 柄刀一『或るエジプト十字架の謎』: 「或るローマ帽子の謎」 / 「或るフランス白粉の謎」 / 「或るオランダ靴の謎」/ 「或るエジプト十字架の謎」